1. Hoist By His Own Petard, Delaying The Inevitable
On May 26, Jim Balsillie’s legal team announced a deadline for the submitted offer for the sale of the Phoenix Coyotes to the Blackberry magnate of the end of June. Among reasons given by his team were the expected time and resources needed to set up the new franchise in Hamilton as well as the need to adequately prepare the front office for the upcoming draft (which would fall just before the deadline) and the start of the NHL free agency period. Others saw this declaration as a brash move by Balsillie, pressuring Judge Baum to push through the bankruptcy proceedings while his offer remains the highest and firmest on the table.
If this was Balsillie’s legal version of a power play, the decision laid down by Judge Baum Monday evening must be the equivalent of giving up a shorthanded goal. The denial of the sale under the present terms notwithstanding, there were a number of critical takeaway points in Judge Baum’s ruling that may have left the door open for continued negotiations. To start off the “Analysis and Discussion” section of the ruling, it was asserted that the NHL cannot prevent the purchase of the Coyotes by the PSE Sports and Entertainment group headed by Balsillie. As it is written, “Absent some showing by the NHL that there have been material changes in PSE’s circumstances since 2006 (when the NHL originally approved Balsillie’s group of NHL ownership), it appears to the court that the NHL can not object or withhold its consent to PSE becoming controlling owner of the Phoenix Coyotes.” The takeaway here is that Baum has reserved the right to grant the franchise to the Balsillie group barring other, external issues, and the NHL cannot object to that decision. Baum also left open the possible objection (subject to remuneration) of the NHL regarding the eventual movement of the franchise.
More to today’s point, however, is the Court’s decision that the Balsillie group’s claim that restriction of the franchise’s movement would be a violation of antitrust laws to be false, as the NHL would still be entitled to a fee for the right. This point was directly tied in with Baum’s statement about the timing of the PSE imposed deadline. The deadline was shot down on two primary grounds; First, that the deadline comes at a critical juncture of the NHL season, the proof of that being that Commissioner Gary Bettman had to leave one of the court proceedings to catch a flight to Pittsburgh so as to attend Game Six of the Stanley Cup Finals. Above and beyond that, however, is the simple fact that the PSE-imposed deadline would not allow the court enough time to adequately consider the case. As hockey fans, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that the court must do its due diligence and ensure that volatile precedents are not set by a rash decision. Judge Baum opens his analysis section by stating that “Because this appears to be the first case under the Bankruptcy Code... where a professional sports team seeks to use the rights contained in the Code to force a sale and relocation of a team...The legal issues trigger not only bankruptcy law but antitrust law and commercial law.” As the case rests in his hands, Judge Redfield T. Baum plans on making sure the best legal decision is made.
As large a setback as this may appear to be for Balsillie and PSE, the decision may only serve as a pause in the proceedings. Perhaps even enough of a pause to keep the team in Phoenix for another season, but not enough to completely dissuade Jim Balsillie’s bid to bring another hockey team to Canada. According to his spokesman, Bill Walker, as reported in the Toronto Star, “His commitment remains completely unchanged...He’s committed to Hamilton...He’s just sees (sic) this as another day at the office. He’s moving forward. He’s completely unfazed.” The plight of the Phoenix Coyotes will likely take a backseat to the upcoming NHL Entry Draft and the early goings of the Free Agency period, but it will be revisited, if not on the September 10 auction date, perhaps much sooner.
2. Anatomy Of A New Coach - Analyzing The Career Of New Wild Coach Todd Richards
Three weeks ago in this space, it was noted that new Wild GM Chuck Fletcher wanted to find a coach who could help “dictate the pace of play against our opponent.” On Tuesday afternoon, Fletcher unveiled his choice of coach with the hire of Minnesota native Todd Richards to the head coaching position. Although Richards does not have a long track record, he has experienced success at every step of his career. In his four years as an assistant coach of the Milwaukee Admirals of the AHL, Richards played a key role in two division titles, two trips to the Calder Cup finals (the AHL championships) and one AHL championship (2003-04). After his stint in Milwaukee, the Penguins hired Richards to run their own AHL team, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, a position he held during the 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons. The second of those two teams was under the stewardship of Chuck Fletcher. That team allowed Richards to return to the Calder Cup Finals, where they were beaten by the Chicago Wolves in six games.
Without much say over the available personnel, we may be able to glean a little bit about Richards’ affect in his charges by looking at the difference in play of the WSB Penguins before, during and after his run as head coach. In 2005-06, the season before Richards’ arrival, the WSB Penguins managed a total of 244 goals on the season. The following season, now under Richards, they improved their output to a more robust 276 goals. The WSB Penguins’ output dipped back to 244 goals in the seasonal of their run to the Finals. Richards’ minor league success was rewarded prior to last season, when he was hired by the San Jose Sharks to act as Todd McLellan’s assistant behind the bench. Specifically, the Sharks expected Richards to take charge of the team’s power play, forward lines and matchups. Focusing for a moment of the power play aspect of his role, we can see that the Sharks went from 9th in the league in power play efficiency at 18.8% in 2007-08 up to 3rd in the league last year with a success rate of 24.2%. Using the more advanced GVT metric, we can see that the Sharks total power play GVT, combining their own power play success, with their ability to draw penalties and prevent the opposition from scoring shorthanded goals, was 2nd in the league, behind only the Stanley Cup finalist Detroit Red Wings. Even strength offense for the Sharks was also 2nd in the NHL last season, indicating to some extent the success Richards achieved in ensuring the right group of guys was on the ice at the right times.
It is as yet unknown who will make up the Wild roster under Richards, but it may be time to expect breakthrough seasons from skilled Wild forwards such as Pierre-Marc Bouchard and James Sheppard, as well as Benoit Pouliot, assuming the restricted free agent is brought back. Another thread hidden in this story that might be followed over the next two seasons or so is the recent run of success for former coaches of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Richards’ replacement for last season was Dan Bylsma, who didn’t last long on the job before moving up to the parent club, where he helped galvanize the roster on their way to a Stanley Cup Championship run. The man Richards replaced, Hockey Hall of Famer Joe Mullen, currently serves as an assistant coach with the Philadelphia Flyers. Mullen was a midseason replacement for Michel Therrien, who was brought up to Pittsburgh and also made a behind-the-bench appearance at the Stanley Cup Finals. Replacing Bylsma last year and placing himself on the well-worn path to the NHL coaching ranks is former NHL journeyman defender Todd Reirden.
3. Mazeroski Talbot
Scoring the only two goals in Pittsburgh’s Game Seven Stanley Cup Finals clincher, Maxime Talbot has ascended to the rarefied heights reserved for those who shine on the highest stage. In winning the series despite being outscored by the Red Wings 17-14 over the course of the series, one might not be remiss in comparing their accomplishment to that of the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates, who defeated the New York Yankees in that fall’s World Series, despite being outscored by the Bombers by a cumulative 55-27. That series was famously decided on a game winning home run by Bill Mazeroski, a solid all-round player who was more known for his defensive acumen than for his prowess at bat. Talbot has also been noted for playoff success in the past, although he is generally known as a role player, being of more use in his own zone than that of the opposition and seeing alot of ice time on the penalty kill. Interestingly enough, Talbot’s stretch of taking his play to another level extends back to his days with the Hull/Gatineau Olympiques of the QMJHL when he earned back-to-back Guy Lafleur trophies as playoff MVP in 2002-03 and 2003-04.
These feats stand out all the more in the face of what had been a decidedly mediocre regular season for Talbot, ranking at or near the bottom among Penguin regulars (along with Eric Godard) in statistics such as relative +/- (-15.6) and total GVT (-0.7). Heroics aside, without drastically improving his regular season play, Talbot will not have the overall impact on hockey as Mazeroski did in baseball, earning enshrinement to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001.
By the way, the last time the Stanley Cup winner was outscored by the runner-up was the Tampa Bay Lighting of 2003-04, who were outscored by the runner-up Calgary Flames 14-13 in seven games.
4. GVT And The NHL Awards
The NHL handed out its hardware yesterday in Las Vegas marking a great opportunity for us to check on how well an advanced metric like GVT captures what is seen and felt by the voting populace.
Alexander Ovechkin took home the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s Most Valuable Player. Looking at the 2008-09 GVT leaderboards, the top three spots were filled by goalies, and given that the Hart was only awarded to goaltenders seven times since the award’s inception in 1923-24, it is safe to exclude them for consideration in this accolade. The three finalists, Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk and Evgeni Malkin ranked 2nd, 3rd and 5th among skaters. At this point, it may also be safe to assume that defensemen are also somewhat ineligible for the award, as since Bobby Orr took three straight in the early 70’s, the only blueliner to win the Hart was Chris Pronger in 1999-2000. Maybe that isn’t fair, and maybe the Hart should be stipulated as being for forwards only, but that is the way the voting has gone. If we accept that the goalies and defensemen have their own awards, then the GVT leaderboard nailed the Hart. At 25.6 Ovechkin compiled the best overall GVT score among NHL forwards last year, and his 22.3 offensive GVT is nearly 20% better than the runner up, Evgeni Malkin and his 18.9 offensive GVT score.
The Vezina Trophy, given to the NHL’s best goaltender was up for grabs between the two goalies ranked atop the GVT leaderboards in Tim Thomas and Niklas Backstrom and a third goalie in Steve Mason who finished 8th, but as a rookie had perhaps a more compelling story than the others higher up the list. With a GVT of 35.8, far and away the best in the league, GVT rightly named Tim Thomas as most deserving of the award, and Thomas did collect the hardware. It is safe to assume that he will appear on next year’s All Star Game ballot.
While there may have been a sort of agreement between GVT and the voters among forwards and goalies, it seems that vastly different criteria were used in selecting the best defenseman, as recognized with the Norris Trophy. Mike Green and Nicklas Lidstrom, ranked 1st and 2nd, respectively (26.8 and 20.7) among defensemen in GVT were among the three finalists for the award. However the actual winner, Zdeno Chara finished 13th, with 12.4. In fact, according to GVT, Chara was not even the top defenseman on his own team, bested by Dennis Wideman, with his 14.6 overall GVT. Perhaps the voters chose Chara in respect for his great career thus far, unrecognized with hardware due to the utter dominance shown by fellow finalist Lidstrom, who has won the award six of the last seven times it was awarded.
Finally, we will take a look at the Calder Trophy, awarded to the league’s best rookie. This year’s winner, the aforementioned Steve Mason, was the right choice, finishing significantly higher than his peers, fellow rookie netminders Pekka Rinne and Jonas Hiller. However, the other two finalists, Bobby Ryan and Kris Versteeg were only ranked 5th and 8th respectively among rookies. A good argument for Ryan could be made, as he got a late start to his season due to the Ducks’ salary cap issues. Versteeg, on the other hand, seems an odd choice, one that could have been improved upon with either of the goalies mentioned earlier in this paragraph, or with other first year players Patrik Berglund of St. Louis, Alexandre Burrows of Vancouver or the Bruins’ Blake Wheeler.
Ryan Wagman is an author of Puck Prospectus. You can contact Ryan by clicking here or click here to see Ryan's other articles.
Ryan Wagman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
You can contact Ryan by clicking here or click here to see Ryan's other articles.