David Legwand and What It Says About Detroit

Note: I wrote this before I read this article.  It doesn’t really change the premise, but to avoid confusion I figured I should include it.

Detroit trading for David Legwand still bothers me.  Not because I think he’s a bad player or won’t help the Wings survive the onslaught of injuries to every center making over a million dollars on the roster.  From a strictly “does this help the Red Wings” standpoint, acquiring Legwand is a good trade.  My issue with the trade is what it says about the organization.  Specifically, is Detroit’s approach to developing prospects becoming a problem.

Calle Jarnkrok was widely viewed as a top-5 prospect for Detroit.  Holland and the Red Wings viewed him as expendable enough to be used as a throw-in because there was a belief he would return to Sweden in the near future.  Admittedly, I tend to overvalue prospects and undervalue draft picks, but this seems like a significant difference in valuation because a player was, maybe, unhappy with how he was handled by the organization.

Detroit’s preferred method for handling prospects and young players is to bring them along slowly and let them experience all the luxuries Grand Rapids has to offer.  Which is fine, especially if that extra time is used to develop a player’s overall game so he isn’t a liability on the penalty kill or is comfortable on either wing.  Moving a player up the ladder this slowly requires requires a lot of communication to prevent frustration, something the Islanders saw happen with Nino Niederreiter last season.  If a player doesn’t see a clear path for promotion, like any other employee at a normal job, it’s easy to see why he may begin to consider his options outside the organization.  Given how Detroit handled Tatar and Nyquist at the beginning of this season and the importance they place on signing and keeping veterans, it’s understandable why Jarnkrok would question his place in the organization and consider returning to Sweden when his current contract expired.

Painting Jarnkrok’s situation as a young player who is simply homesick ignores what could become a significant problem for Detroit moving forward.  If players in the Red Wings farm system continue to see their paths to the NHL blocked by a slow-to-promote organization and veterans on short term deals to fill roster holes, more prospects may be hesitant to tolerate the developmental process used by Detroit.

In a salary cap system, the teams with a farm system full of players that can be used on the 3rd and 4th lines have an advantage.  ELCs free up even more dollars to spend on elite level players without hurting roster flexibility.  If Detroit continues to commit extra dollars to veterans for these roles it could limit cap space and scare even more prospects away from the organization.  Considering the age of many key players on the roster, this could lead to a troubling future.

Detroit’s Bottom Six

It’s August and I’m bored so I’ve been playing around with the Red Wings’ roster, trying to figure out 1) what 2 players they’ll be moving and 2) what the lines will most likely look like.  As far as the first issue is concerned, Winging It In Motown has already taken an in depth look at the issue.  My guess is Emmerton and Tootoo end up waived or traded, since I doubt Samuelsson is interested in waiving his NTC.  Assuming that is the case, I imagine the lines will look something like this:

Abdelkader, Datsyuk, Zetterberg

Franzen, Weiss, Alfredsson

Tatar, Helm, Nyquist

Eaves, Andersson, Miller

Bertuzzi & Samuelsson as the regular scratches

While it would be nice to see Nyquist or Tatar get significant top-6 minutes, Babcock’s preferred line construction doesn’t lend itself to playing three perimeter oriented forwards together.  He likes having a player like Franzen or Abdelkader who can park himself in front of the net and give the other forwards room to move and create shots.  Babcock will tinker as needed and I’m sure Nyquist and Tatar will see time with Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Alfredsson, and Weiss but it won’t be a regular combination.

The more interesting possibilities, to me at least, are in the bottom six.  Babcock has indicated the 3C job is Helm’s (assuming he’s healthy) but I wonder if he will stick to that once he gets to training camp.  While his preference as always appeared to be depth and balance whenever possible, the current roster offers the option to split the bottom six up based on which end of the ice the face-off will take place.

Andersson showed good chemistry with both Nyquist and Tatar at different points of the season last year and all three show signs of being capable offensive contributors.  Helm, Eaves, and Miller have all been solid defensive forwards with extensive PK work in the past.  Would utilizing these groupings and deploying them based on where the face-off is create an advantage for Detroit?

Given Babcock’s willingness to use Datsyuk & Zetterberg against an opposing team’s top line and the potential offensive skill (even if it is in name only at this point) of the second line, it seems likely to assume the 3rd and 4th line will regularly see weaker competition.  If Helm stays healthy, and Nyquist and Tatar both meet or exceed expectations it seems reasonable to think Detroit could have an advantage in quite a few games with that 3rd line.  The downside is it creates limited opportunities to use the 4th line and considering the age of Detroit’s top 6 players I think they will need their 4th liners to play in the 12-14 minutes a night range rather than 10-12 minutes.

Swapping Helm and Andersson may unbalance each individual line’s abilities, but it could improve the team as a whole.  Datsyuk & Zetterberg will still face an opponent’s top offensive players, but could an Eaves/Helm/Miller line be used against a 2nd or 3rd line and not be outplayed?  I think against most teams, they would be able to hold their own.  Teams like Chicago or Pittsburgh, with two very good lines,  would be poor situations for this strategy but those teams are considered playoff teams already for a reason.

Additionally, a Tatar/Andersson/Nyquist could see huge success constantly facing 3rd or 4th lines with a very favorable zone start split.  Again, getting a significant scoring contribution from the 3rd line lessens the need to overplay the top-6 during the regular season.  An added bonus from these combinations is that when Bertuzzi or Samuelsson need to play, they can be placed on any of the top 3 lines without requiring major strategy adjustments (unless the injury is Helm, in which case who the hell knows what happens).

I doubt Babcock will start the season doing this, if only because of what he has said about Helm’s spot on the team, but he’s never been shy about line changes.  If he sees a possible advantage in stacking each line for a specific zone, he’ll swap Helm and Andersson and see what happens.  If he tries it, I think he’ll like the results.

Buyouts Are Expensive (And Toronto & Detroit Should Take Advantage)

The Islanders are probably going to buyout Rick DiPietro.  They don’t have salary cap issues but he is no longer an NHL goaltender, at least on Long Island.  While in some cases, like Brad Richards or Marian Hossa, teams can wait until next summer to decide what to do with a large and/or frontloaded contract, the Islanders don’t have that luxury due to DiPietro’s propensity for injury.  This means the Islanders will be facing the prospect of paying $24 million to clear DiPietro off their books, which can’t be appealing to Charles Wang.  That said, how eager would the Islanders be to move the DiPietro buyout to a team with a little more cash to burn?  And are there any teams out there who might be willing to use a compliance buyout on another team’s contract problems?

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A Quick Thought On Realignment

I hate it.

Not that it wasn’t necessary, because it was, but because there is a wide variety of options that could have been chosen over the option that was chosen.  It comes across as a shortsighted move (more on that in a minute) and designed to help a select few teams (mostly good) without really improving the NHL overall.

The NHL currently has 30 teams.  This number is not divisible by 4.  Luckily, it’s widely believed the NHL will be adding 2 expansion teams in the near future.  Great, problem solved if the 2 expansion teams are in Seattle and Kansas City/Houston.  That doesn’t seem very plausible though.  I think it is a safe bet that the Greater Toronto Area will be adding a second team within the next 5-7 years.  Even if it ends up being Seattle and GTA, that’s manageable if you’re willing to place Markham/Hamilton/Whatever in the Mid West division.  Assuming Phoenix stays exactly where they are.

That’s where the shortsightedness shows up.  I realize the NHL doesn’t want to show its hand regarding the Coyotes and where, if it becomes necessary, they might relocate to.  That said, if the NHL’s preferred destination is a US market like Seattle in order to preserve Canadian markets for expansion teams (and the fees that go with it) then shouldn’t any realignment plan introduced now create some easy wiggle room for the future?  Personally, I’d rather not deal with arguments over what team should be in what division because their travel schedule isn’t ideal any more than I have to.  With that understanding, and working off the assumption that Phoenix will relocate to Seattle and Markham and Quebec City will get expansion teams, how could realignment have been accomplished now while providing an easy transition for future expansion teams (and solve the playoff imbalance that seemed to cause to many issues)?

Simple: Leave Detroit in the Western Conference.

15 teams in each conference, with one 7 team division and one 8 team division.  Sticking with the wild card format eliminates the concern of playoff inequity, since the final 2 playoff spots would be awarded based on points rather than divisional finish.  As it currently stands, the Western Conference teams must be thrilled they will only have to finish ahead of 6 teams instead of the 8 teams an Eastern Conference team would need to finish ahead of to qualify for the playoffs.  With the shootout point boosting point totals and increasing parity, having two fewer teams to compete against for playoff money spots is a huge advantage.  Are travel concerns really enough to warrant higher priority than better odds for making the playoffs?  I don’t see how that’s logical.

As for expansion, it will be easy enough to add one team to each conference.  Quebec City would be placed in the 7 team division (Central–I really hope they come up with better names) in the Eastern Conference with Toronto, Montreal, Boston, et al.  Colorado would be moved to the Pacific division to make room in the Mid West for Markham.  Then every division has 8 teams, the proposed wild card system can remain in place or be tweaked to add more teams to the playoffs if the NHL decides, and NBC lives in fear of an all-Canadian Stanley Cup Final.  Everybody wins!

As for why the NHL didn’t opt for the 15 team conference option now, I can only think of a few reasons:

1) They don’t want to suggest anything about expansion or relocation.

2) They know something about Phoenix that makes them think the Coyotes will be there for a long time.

3) Detroit threw a hissy fit about Columbus moving to the Eastern Conference before them.

4) The NHL and PA couldn’t agree on a schedule matrix that would be fair for teams and guaranteed home-and-home series for every team.

I think there’s some validity to Reason #4, although I doubt it would be significantly more complicated then the proposed schedule breakdown.  I think Reason #1 is 100% true, because the league offices like to operate in secrecy even when rumors are everywhere.  I’d be pleasantly surprised in Reason #2 was true, but I’m not optimistic.  Finally, I think Reason #3 is true to an extent.  Unless a schedule matrix for two 15 team conferences was absolutely impossible, I don’t see why any of the above reasons should have prevented the NHL avoiding the 14/16 mess we currently see.

Song of the Day: Everybody (Backstreet’s Back) by the Backstreet Boys

Because the NHL is back and it’s the only hockey league I really care about.

Via Elliotte Friedman, it looks like the NHL has a 48 game schedule drawn up.  Assuming nothing breaks down during the ratification process, I think it’s safe to start planning for hockey.

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