Contenders have done all the stockpiling they can. Its time to critique the eastern deals that helped, who masked their problems cosmetically, and failed miserably to get their team over the top.
The top of the good list goes to the Montreal Canadians. The additions Bob Gainey made at the deadline have not only made the Habs more constant, but a more entertaining product as well. It is a real pleasure watching someone create their own offense in such splendid fashion as Alexei Kovalev. It took him a while to find his first points, but one could see immediately how he exploits defenses. He attacks seams. His game is mentally strong, and he handles the puck well under pressure. If he can refine his accuracy a little more, we could be looking at the Kovalev of old. Clearly, opposition teams respect his talents and don’t give him much room. One gets the impression it is just a matter of time before he is scoring big goals for us.
Kovalev is most dangerous on the powerplay. Although he has been playing the point, he is not scared to roam. This led to a particularly strange moment a few games ago. Kovalev left the point on the power-play to retrieve the puck, and stayed down low with it. The other forwards were not certain what to do, but the defense was clearly concerned. After about six seconds, the other attackers realized that Kovalev was not losing possession, and joined in the attack. Two good scoring chances were produced in about 15 seconds. Kovalev is the confident presence the Habs needed on their special teams.
On a team that has scored at least three goals on all but three occasions in the last 13 games, and at least four in 8 games within the same period, the offensive potential on this club is gelling. There is going to be plenty of offense on this club come playoff time. If Kovalev can stay healthy, he is going to be a key part of our offense in the playoffs.
The best part of this equation is watching other teams realize they won’t beat us often if they score 2 goals. They need to score more, and so they pressure more. The Habs have, in past years, been lucky to score more than 2 goals a game. What a change, although we should not give Kovalev too much credit for this.
In a surprise move Jim Dowd came here from Minnesota. Clearly excited to be here, his line with Ward and Begin, was very impressive vs. the Leafs. On must wonder if they have the size to do that for an entire series. They are a little slow of foot, and on the light-weight side. This move must signal that Joe Juneau’s role on the club is being reduced. He may still see some action as a fourth line center, but clearly the third line center position is Dowd’s to lose. Jan Bulis, upon his return, could make Juneau a more permanent cut from the line-up, as he might force Begin back to the fourth line. A line of Bulis – Dowd – Ward, would also be very useful.
Equally good in the last trading month was Boston. Andy Delmore might be a depth pick in some eyes, but the last two seasons he almost broke the 40 point margain. Look for him to QB the second power-play unit for the Bruins, playing third pairing minutes.
Gonchar and Nylander were not steals. Boston gave up a lot to get these guys, and it had better pay off, or they will have weakened themselves considerably. They lost two future top 4 defensemen in Jillson and Morrisson, not to mention their top two draft picks this year. However, Boston is much more dangerous than previously. Injured most of the season, Nylander can push Rolston harder for the second line center position. Rolston has been asked for more offence this year, but it is not where he is best suited. Acquiring Nylander will mean Rolston can see more time on the penalty kill, and still get enough rest to be productive afterwards. Nylander can fill in the 5 on 5 minutes Boston was having trouble with following power-plays, but that problem should be mostly alleviated now.
Gonchar, of course, needs no introduction. What more can be said about the best offensive defenseman in the league? How about, don’t give Boston a powerplay all series long? Gonchar and Thorton is going to be a scary combination to watch.
Top the bad list this year is one of my favorite whipping boys, Bobby Clarke. He continues to make moves both of impressive and confounding nature. This year was no exception, beginning with Sean Burke.
The question everyone is asking is: What can Burke do for the Flyers? The answer is, not much. His best days are clearly behind him. The Flyers are big and strong, but not healthy. Clarke lost Comrie to get the Burke deal done, which was far too much in my view. Many other teams did not have to give up a roster player to get their holes filled. Primeau is still hurting, Roenick could retire, and suddenly the flyers were weak at the center position. Getting back a RW with potential softened the blow somewhat. The Flyers are better with Burke than without him, but not by a significant degree.
However, their defense is less than stellar. There are three big holes on defense even when the Flyers are healthy. They just don’t have a defense to write home about, and it has hurt them in the past. It will continue to do so, even with Ken Hitchcock at the helm. In an attempt to shore up his blue-line, Clarke reached out for Vladimir Malakhov. Someone needs to tell Clarke that Malakhov is a shell of his former inconsistent self. Weinrich and Therrien departed for a total of three picks. Not bad for expensive slow players, although only one of those picks really has a shot at seeing NHL ice-time. Clarke still did not address this primary issue however, and if he wasn’t about to do it with Gonchar available, one has to wonder if he notices that weakness.
This year would have seen Clarke in the Ugly box, if not for one key trade. To remedy his problems at center, Clarke got Alexei Zhamnov. Slick, skilled, and playing the best two-way hockey of his life in Chicago, Zhamnov is one of the fastest players on skates. If you don’t believe me, ask Pavel Bure. I haven’t seen many guys capable of beating out Bure in a foot-race, but Zhamnov could do it from 10 feet back. If he hadn’t played on such a terrible team in Chicago, I contend he would have long ago been a star in the league. Can he make the Flyers successful? Jeremy Roenick can’t, but I think Zhamnov might. Critics say he plays soft at times, but that shouldn’t worry the Flyers much. He is averaging more than a point a game since joining the Flyers – 15 points in 12 games.
Zhamnov is a more mature player than Comrie, and, in my opinion, has a more complete skill set than J.R. The Flyers need consistent skill, something Zhamnov can bring them every night. Along With Mark Recchi, the Flyers now have appropriate skill for their size up front. It also could reunite Zhamnov with Tony Amonte, a fact lost in this shuffle somehow. It is true that Zhamnov is totally untested in the playoffs – it is anyone’s guess what he can do there. He has seen playoff action twice in the last decade.
John Muckler firmly stated he would not replace Lalime. He couldn’t anyway. A franchise goalie does not get traded just because he has a bad year, and Roberto Luongo was not available. Instead, Muckler filled the holes he could. At his advanced age Bondra is still dangerous, although he will need to adjust his Sens of style. A line of Bondra-Bonk-Hossa could be quite potent, and it will need to be. The Senators made this trade early enough to acclimmate Bondra before the playoff run begins, but firepower was not the issue with this Sens team. They have dominated the goals for totals this season. To my mind, they would have been better off getting Chris Drury from the Sabres. Timely scoring is something they lack, and Drury also plays left wing. Ultimately, the acquisition Bondra is only of middling usefulness for the Senator franchise, except to say that Bondra can help them win a shoot-out style series, which they may have if they play Philadelphia or Toronto.
On the other hand, the move to get De Vries should pay off in spades. De Vries has one crucial thing other Senator players lack, playoff experience. He has a cup ring, and was a central part of the Avalanche victory several years past. Being a plus 13 on the pitiful NY Rangers also speaks volumes, considering their goaltenders. He has skills and heart. Muckler gave up too much to get him, but if they can keep De Vries, the Sens are a better club than with Karel Rachunek. Their defense now has a maturity it lacked last year during the playoffs. De Vries, the guy who has been there, can show his new team how to finally win it all. With Chara, Phillips, De Vries, and Redden, Jacques Martin must be very comfortable. His defense is deep, powerful, young, and they can all play a lot of reliable minutes. 25 minutes of Chara and Redden, followed by 20 minutes of Phillips and De Vries, would make the heart of many coaches sink, were it not for Lalime. This trade is going to make a more significant difference to the Sens playoff hopes, particularly if Phillips and De Vries can up their minutes per game by a few each.
Well, what can I say. John Ferguson Jr. clearly lost his deadline races this time. Getting Brian Leetch was a move that left me unimpressed. Leetch is not a take over kind of guy anymore, and Ferguson paid arguably more for Leetch than Boston did for Gonchar. The key to success is getting the guy you want, not settling for second. They could have given up just a little more for Gonchar. Leetch is clearly the second choice here, and Francis is, well, far off the scale. Toronto is the only eastern member of the ugly category this year. In fairness Fergie didn’t have much to trade, but Leetch is nearly retired. He is scoring lots of points currently, which is good. We shall have to see what real effect he makes in the playoffs. It was during this thought process that I heard the new of Chad Kilger leaving Montreal via waivers. This move confirmed Toronto as the truly ugly trading team of 2004.
As for the other teams in the east – who were too slow to be mentionned here, Lou Lamarillo couldn’t land Malakhov. That’s how slow it was for him this year. Also silent was Mad Mike. Did anyone miss him this year? Is anyone surprised that he did not trade Roman Hamrlik? And, finally, I suppose we can put those Olaf Kolzig rumors to bed. Those ideas were truly rediculous.