Gross Misconduct Hockey Thoughts from a drifter on the hockey landscape

09/27/2008

Thanks For Playing – Part 2: Florida

Filed under: Florida Panthers,Jay Bouwmeester,terrible — Joe Yerdon @ 7:56 PM

As bad as Atlanta will seem this year, there’s another team in the Southeast Division that is going to make life easier a few times a year for them and for everyone else in the NHL. Behind every positive you might be able to find for the Florida Panthers, there’s a large and ominous negative lurking behind it – even at its most basic level.

You’d have to think that playing in Miami, Florida in the middle of winter and making a home there wouldn’t be all that bad and that it would serve to motivate players to want to go there. Instead, the Panthers have been irrelevant to the NHL since 2000 when Pavel Bure was single-handedly lifting the Panthers on his back.

The Panthers being in Miami (or Sunrise, FL to be totally exact) play in a market where fans root for the Dolphins 365 days out of the year. Everything takes a backseat to the Fins. Miami has been a blessed market for professional sports having had a normally successful NFL team each year, a recent NBA championship with the Heat and a two-time World Series winner in the Marlins.

The Panthers, however, are the Rodney Dangerfield’s of Miami. No respect at all – not that they’ve done anything to deserve it of late. They got their Stanley Cup Finals appearance in 1996 and got swept out by Colorado and then had only two more playoff appearances to show for it after that in 1997 and 2000.

Now? Hopeful youth has turned sour. Players like Nathan Horton, Stephen Weiss and Jay Bouwmeester have either not followed through fully on expectations or are just playing out the string until it’s time to leave. For a stretch, the Panthers actually drafted decently with their top picks. Horton and Weiss are both useful players and Bouwmeester, despite what that THN column above says is a very good defenseman – it’s just very difficult to gauge how good they are playing in a hockey vacuum.

For the longest time, or so it seemed, Olli Jokinen was the face of the Panthers, taking the job from John Vanbiesbrouck and Scott Mellanby before him. During the NHL Draft this off-season, he was shipped off to the desert to find more old folks in retirement homes in Phoenix.

While you’d never know nor ever heard it, word came out after the deal that Jokinen was dogging it in Florida and wasn’t a leader nor did he have any guts. We shall see how this pans out for both teams as Florida was able to bolster their defense in the deal getting Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton from the Coyotes, but having seen Jokinen play in Olympic competition for a team that was very successful in Team Finland, I can’t help but think that Florida is going to get shown up again here, especially with Phoenix being very close to becoming quite good in the Western Conference. If Jokinen is the clubhouse cancer that these gutsy, anonymous NHL executives claim to be, Phoenix is in a world of hurt and Florida’s rebound from mediocrity starts now.

That ain’t going to happen because the Panthers are awful.

Take a look at this roster and tell me who on this team is going to become an offensive force to carry this team.

Take a look at the team scoring statistics from last year and tell me who is going to step up.

All signs point to Nathan Horton, it appears, but who is going to work with him?

Stephen Weiss? David Booth? Rostislav Olesz?

These guys are all very young. Look at Horton who is the presumtive leader of this team. He’s 22 years-old and is going into his fourth full year with the Panthers, fifth overall.

Stephen Weiss is two years older than Horton and has yet to really show if he’s worth it. Weiss was the #4 overall selection in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft and his best point season came two years ago (20-28-48).

David Booth is a name to get acquainted with because he’ll probably be suiting up in 2010 for Team USA. That said, him playing in Florida is a good way to keep him a secret. Booth is 23 years-old and finally broke out last year scoring 22 goals finishing with 40 points. I know that seems poor, but with the Panthers, he was certainly one of the guys the coach was telling you to keep an eye on.

They signed Cory Stillman away from Ottawa this offseason, but he’s a guy that comes in on the backside of his career and, while solid, isn’t much of a scorer anymore. That said, he will likely be Horton’s left wing and go-to guy. Yup, welcome to Florida.

Yes, that’s how bad it’s going to be this year. If any team gets lit up by the Panthers this year, I’m demanding that that team’s coach work them out immediately after the game Herb Brooks style. You know what I’m talking about…

Yes, the Panthers are that bad. They are the Team Norway of 1980. And yes, they will make someone feel really bad about themselves later on when they manage to steal a win or two.

These guys won’t be 1974-1975 Washington Capitals bad, but they’ll make you wish for a cyanide soda if you’re stuck watching them too often.

The strength of this team is on the blueline and in goal. The two guys they got back for Olli Jokinen are decent and they’ll be used to playing defense on a bad offensive team having already played in Phoenix. They added Toronto’s headache and whipping boy Bryan McCabe which this year will look really good, but let’s face facts, McCabe was brought in as Jay Bouwmeester insurance once he’s traded away.

Bouwmeester will again be the best player back there but this is where the good gets wiped out by the bad. Bouwmeester is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year and while he’s said all the right things about waiting to see if the Panthers get it turned around as to whether or not he’ll want to come back, don’t get lost with it – dude wants to get out of town and get paid.

General Manager Jacques Martin is going to have to know when, exactly, will be the time to pull the trigger on a deal for their best player. If the Panthers want to get anything at all for Bouwmeester, the trading deadline should prove to be a great time to pinpoint when the Panthers actually get their stuff together to turn around the franchise or if they can start gathering their things to move to Las Vegas or Kansas City and call it a day in South Florida.

If the Panthers don’t/can’t get a premium package for Jay Bouwmeester, it will prove to be a devastating turn of events for this franchise. Martin and the rest of the front office cannot buy the lip service being served up from Bouwmeester. He’s leaving Florida regardless of what magic you think you can pull. Trade him, get lots of fun pieces to add to the team and for God’s sake, get your head screwed on straight for the draft – if you end up with the #1 pick, you’re all set.

If not – start scouting.

Oddly enough, whether injur occurs in goal or not, the Panthers are very much set. Tomas Vokoun and Craig Anderson are both more than capable and with Anderson’s success last year while Vokoun was injured, I’m shocked we didn’t get any stories out of Florida about looking to deal Vokoun to get cheaper. Since that didn’t occur, Vokoun and Anderson will provide some of the lone stability you’ll find on the Panthers this year, problem is, will they get any support for their efforts. All signs point to ABSOLUTELY FREAKING NOT.

The Panthers might keep the Thrashers out of last place in the Southeast, but they should prove to be cozy roommates at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings (and they’ll be joined by one other team down at the very bottom of the pile in the East) but Florida is shaping up to perhaps be the very worst of the bunch. They’ll need Vokoun and Anderson to be Jennings Trophy winners to be in the race for the playoffs and they’ll need all of their youth to have breakout years so they can at least trot out two solid scoring lines.

Every goal scored this year for new head coach Peter DeBoer, fresh off of a championship season with Kitchener in the OHL, is going to have to be worked for even harder than what you’d see from better teams in the NHL. It’s clear why DeBoer was brought into this situation in Florida, he’s got experience coaching the team enigma Stephen Weiss as well as a couple of other players. They’re hoping that his new blood as well as experience with some of these guys will light a fire.

There won’t be any fire here though. There won’t even be any smoke, sparks, tinder, lighter fluid, gasoline… you get the point.

See you next season Panthers – thanks for not showing up.

09/25/2008

Thanks For Playing – Part 1: Atlanta

I’m convinced that there’s no better a way to bore you, the mostly anonymous Internet audience, than by doing the same old schtick this time of year: Season previews. Sure, it’s a nice, cheap way to get a few blurbs in either praising your favorite people on a team you think is going to rock everyone’s face off or pile on the cheap shots.

Don’t get me wrong here, I’m all for cutting analysis and cheap shots just the same, but I’d rather do something that you’re probably not going to get too bored with reading here.
Everywhere you go you’re going to get praise about the Detroit Red Wings. Why not? They picked up one of the nastiest scorers in the league and added him to a team that already won the Stanley Cup last season with virtually the same roster. It just makes sense.
You’ll get a lot of fun talk about the Penguins and Capitals because of their array of talent as well as having their own versions of the new Hockey Jesus on their rosters. Big superstars mean lots of press.
It’s science.
What’s more fun here is to tell those of you out there that you can just give it up right now and not even bother to watch any games this year because it’s only going to go poorly.
Starting today, I’m ending five seasons before they’ve even started.
The next week will be littered with descriptions of these teams and today, where better to start than the city where they once had a team that did so poorly that they moved to Canada to be successful!
Imagine that sort of world where retreating to Canada is made acceptable! Things sure were different in the early ’80s! We go to Ted Turner Land – the city of Atlanta where professional sports go to die an unknown and unrecognizable death.
Atlanta Thrashers
Of all the teams here whose season ends with the start of training camp, the one I feel the worst for are the Thrashers. Bob Hartley did the best he could with this team last year before getting axed by GM Don Waddell in favor of… Don Waddell. The team traded away Marian Hossa for a pile of young guys and draft picks in Pittsburgh and the Thrashers quickly went from the playoffs in 2006-2007 to being one of the worst teams in the NHL in 2007-2008, even in the Southeast Division.
This year, the Thrashers are going the Major League 3 route to “success” – they’re going Back to the Minors. It seems fitting to compare this year’s Thrashers with a terrible, should-never-have-been-made sequel of a series that should’ve ended after the first success. If you will, indulge me while I compare the roster of the Thrashers with that of the Salt Lake City Buzz/Minnesota Twins. Yes, I’ve seen Major League: Back to the Minors and can, indeed, pull this off. Watch the horror unfold.
The most talented guy on Atlanta is, by far, Ilya Kovalchuk and he’s been named captain of the team, a dubious naming since Kovalchuk hasn’t always been known as a strong guy in the locker room nor on the ice. In fact, he’s probably a more cocky and selfish incarnation of Sergei Fedorov, except without the defensive skill set. That said, he’s easily the best player on the team and the only guy on the roster you have to worry about leaving alone on the ice. He’s got the track record of danger, has a punishing shot and even on this brutal team he can and will score 50 goals.
I give to you, the Ilya Kovalchuk of Major League: Back to the Minors:

Much like in the movie, the rest of Ilya’s teammates aren’t much to talk about. Most of them are incredibly young or they’ve got innocuous histories. On the youth side, you’ve got guys like defenseman Tobias Enstrom, recently signed to a four-year extension that packs on the dollars and expectations. Enstrom would’ve been a nice partner with Braydon Coburn if he hadn’t been foolishly traded to Philadelphia in February 2007 for Alexei Zhitnik. That’s the same Alexei Zhitnik the Thrashers bought out this off-season to clear him off their records.

Ouch.

Instead, the Thrashers were bad enough to earn a nice, high draft pick to take defenseman Zach Bogosian, a player who ought to make the opening night roster and unless the Thrashers are being run by morons, should stick there for some time to come. The downside with Bogosian is that he’s terribly young (he’s 18) and learning on the job in the NHL comes with plenty of mistakes in waiting and playing alongside Enstrom, who is 23, means that while the talent level is high…it’s very green. Patience will have to be a virtue for the handfuls of fans in Atlanta. Veteran players like Niclas Havelid and newly acquired Mathieu Schneider will have to be steady with the guiding defensive hands for these guys and big free agent pick up Ron Hainsey is going to have to be very good for the Thrashers to not look like a circus on the blueline.

The signing of Hainsey drew a lot of questions and I’m sure now that Hainsey sees what he’s gotten into in Atlanta he’s probably wondering if the five-year $22.5 million contract he signed in the off-season will be worth it. I can tell Ron this: It certainly won’t feel like it this year – but things will get better.

The strength of this team, oddly enough, is in goal. Problem is, who is going to get the most starts? You’ve got Kari Lehtonen as the default starter and Johan Hedberg as the much beloved crowd favorite backup. Lehtonen’s ability to get hurt and give up soft goals seems to irk Thrashers fans a bit. Thankfully for them there’s a player eagerly waiting for his turn to take over the job for good in Ondrej Pavelec.
In an ideal Thrashers world, they would deal Lehtonen to a goaltending-desperate team for a couple of instant impact players and then make a run at the Southeast Division title with Pavelec as the top guy and Hedberg as the ever-capable insurance policy. While Lehtonen is slowly entering albatross status (something another groin injury might cement) he’s still a very good goaltender and the best thing for him would be a coach that can get his head screwed on straight so that he doesn’t get too shaken by a bad goal. He’s going to feel the pressure this year and being on a team that is going to be very defensively poor he’s going to have his hands full.
Picture if you will Kari Lehtonen as Rube Baker, the lovable yet colossally dumb catcher of the Salt Lake City Buzz. Rube had a mental block that wouldn’t allow him to throw the ball back to the pitcher. Much like Rube, Kari Lehtonen has a mental block that won’t allow him to shake off giving up a bad goal and he gets all down on himself.

Poor Rube…er, Kari.

Up front, the Thrashers are a one-line squad. Slava Kozlov and Kovalchuk are the best scorers they have and from there, quality drops off hard and gets really young, really fast. Jason Williams was signed away from Chicago this summer to help bolster the team up the middle and he’ll have to be better than any of the stats he’s put up in his career to put Atlanta anywhere near a shot at a playoff spot. If Williams can put up numbers like he did in his final season in Detroit (21-37-58), that will go a long way.
From there, youth is king.
You have the pieces obtained in the Hossa deal with Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen and Angelo Esposito, the Penguins 2007 First Round pick and blue-chip piece obtained from Pittsburgh. Expect to see Esposito playing at least the first nine games for the Thrashers this year. He’s fast, he’s innovative, he’s very talented – he’s also going to make mistakes as well but he is going to be good. Eventually. If the Thrashers allow him to stay and don’t send him back to juniors, it’ll make the immediate future of the team hurt a little bit, but the pain will be worth the pleasure in future seasons.

Brett Sterling and Bryan Little are the other guys that will get involved in the scoring mix, but this team is one Kovalchuk injury away from being the Chicago Wolves, which might not be so bad since they’ve been dominating in the AHL the last couple of seasons.

You’re probably saying to yourself, “Who the hell are these guys?” Don’t worry, you’re not alone.
Meanwhile, the role players here are numerous both up front and in back. Chris Thorburn, Marty Reasoner, Eric Perrin and there’s even an oft-injured enigma in Todd White. If you want to eyeball anyone that will punch someone’s lights out you’ve got a nice sampler platter with appetizers like Chris Thorburn and Garnet Exelby, a main dish of Eric Boulton and a potential breakout super-goon in defenseman Boris Valabik. Boulton is a loose cannon and doesn’t think twice about making a questionable hit nor of fighting anyone. He reminds me of a certain guy from a certain movie I’m obsessing on here…

Worse yet, after all of this, the guy I really feel for here is the new Thrashers head coach John Anderson. Much like Bruce Boudreau in Washington, Anderson has paid his dues in the AHL and is finally getting his crack at the NHL after being promoted from Chicago to coach the big team in Atlanta. Anderson has twice won the Calder Cup as coach of the Wolves in 2002 and 2008. Winning a title with the minor league team ought to get you strong consideration when the big league team needs a new guy, I just don’t know that this is the sort of situation Anderson was hoping for.

He is getting a team that is surely more talented than his Wolves teams (at least, I think they are) and he ought to be familiar with plenty of these guys already so there’s an advantage. Given the amount of success and experience many of these guys have with Anderson, perhaps that will carry them through some of the early struggles you’d expect for this team. I just don’t see it happening. I just hope that Anderson can be more charming than say… Gus Cantrell was!

Yeah, the bar is set pretty low here for Atlanta, even with the addition of Schneider to the team, this team is going to be hopeless on defense and they’re indescribably thin on offense. Goaltending will have to carry this team and unfortunately that position is occupied by a guy who’s on shaky ground in his head and at home since they love the backup and minor league guy more than the starter. I feel for John Anderson, I do – but I wouldn’t even wish this team on Marc Crawford.
OK, maybe I would, but that’s just me being spiteful.
This team will finish last in the Southeast and damn near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. They’ll be front-runners in the John Tavares sweepstakes come next summer. They’ll be duking it out with a handful of other teams we’ll get to later on, but the only saving grace the Thrashers have and the only reason why they’ll put up some respectable numbers is because they’re in a putrid division and get most of their games against them. If this team were in just about any other division in the NHL, I’d have no doubts they would get crushed harder. That said, they’ll do better than what their talent would indicate but they’ll still be terrible.
Thanks for coming Atlanta, please proceed to the exit.

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