(Note: this column meanders a bit, so if you need the short version: drop Eddie Lack and Dustin Byfuglien, and for the love of all that’s holy, pick up Ilya Bryzgalov.)
I could be wrong here, but I get the feeling that being an NHL general manager is a lot like winning one of those classic staring contests between Andy Richter and Conan O’Brien.
Much like poor Andy, the game isn’t always fair. While Conan goes along a path that’s fairly standard (much like a GM who lucks into the right draft picks at the right time), Richter is subjected to these abject horrors that only seem to stack the deck further against him. (Dealing with personnel issues that spill out onto the front pages of the sports section must be a lot like trying to keep your cool when there’s a robot on a toilet.)
The test is to know when to keep looking on in horror and when to cut your losses, and some of the big stories of last night’s playoff bubble races show how important it is to react appropriately to these games of psychological chicken (even if there’s a robot on the toilet).
The Vancouver Canucks wilted in a big way on Monday night.
It wasn’t just that the Anaheim Ducks ended any pretense of a playoff push for the Canucks; instead, it’s as if they casually swatted them away like a fly by a score of 3-0. With its playoff hopes on the line, Vancouver only managed 18 shots on goal against debuting Ducks goalie John Gibson (including an astonishingly pathetic three-shot second period).
Much like the Washington Capitals after Jaroslav Halak and the Montreal Canadiens thwarted them in the 2010 playoffs, the Canucks extrapolated the wrong information from postseason disappointments and tried to keep up with the Joneses instead of maintaining their own property to the best of their abilities.
Sometimes it doesn’t pay to follow the pack.
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By trading coaches, both the Canucks and New York Rangers really dealt with some “square peg round hole” issues. Hindsight makes it easy to say that Alain Vigneault was better able to evolve at Madison Square Garden, but let there be no doubt that he struggled at first, too. There’s also little denying the notion that it’s quite a bit easier to be a flawed, dysfunctional team in the East than the West.
Still, I cannot help but feel that the Canucks shifted courses in all of the wrong ways. They traded away their two would-be franchise goalies at seemingly the worst times and now they’re missing the postseason for the first time since 2007-08 … and it doesn’t look like John Tortorella & Co. are any closer to figuring things out.
From a fantasy perspective, the most important thing to note is that Tortorella said the team is going with younger players in its final, meaningless games. Jacob Markstrom may very well start every game instead of Eddie Lack, for one, so it’s time to drop Lack for hopefully a solid option in net.
But from a team-building perspective, I think the Canucks need to make one of two bold choices:
1) Reload with what you have and hire a more creative offensive/aggressive coach, like Peter Laviolette or even Ron Wilson.
2) Clean house and furnish the team with the kind of grinders that Tortorella loves.
Really, the best option may just come down to what kind of market the Canucks witness this offseason. If people are willing to roll out deluxe packages for the likes of the Sedin twins, Vancouver’s talented defensemen and Ryan Kesler, then hit the big red button.
Still, if anything, it seems that Mike Gillis has a lot of trouble pulling the trigger during key moments. If that’s the case again, option No. 1 should be the best. Let’s just hope he brings the team back to its identity rather than trying to be like the many other teams that are content to dump-and-chase into browbeaten monotony.
PUTTING THE WIN IN WINNIPEG
While the Canucks might have gotten out of the staring contest at the wrong time, one could make the argument that the Winnipeg Jets have just sort of been staring off into the distance, never willing to make any changes.
Frankly, at this point, any talk of splashy moves makes me think that it’s already too late for the Jets to make any major renovations.
Generally speaking, when people are discussing a team moving their only All-Stars, it’s not a great idea. When you float those caliber of players, other teams might go into vulture mode and give you poor value.
Don’t get me wrong, I get the qualms with Dustin Byfuglien, one of those rare guys who seemingly carries extreme pros and extreme cons. As I mentioned on Twitter, it would be fantastic to see Byfuglien liberated from the Jets abyss, even if I’m not convinced moving him is a great idea. (Speaking of which, from a fantasy standpoint, Byfuglien has been shut down for the season so you should drop him if you can.)
I’m not even sold on trading “Buffy the Hamburger Slayer,” but the Jets would be outright daft to move Evander Kane, which is the raging rumor. Hopefully I don’t need to go into too much detail on the budding star power forward: not many players could hit 100 goals before their 23rd birthday (Kane needs three to do so) or their first 30-goal season at age 20. Combine that potential with the fact that the Jets would be selling low on Kane and I’m almost a little shocked it’s even up for discussion.
People love to focus on stars when a team is struggling, but this is becoming more and more a league where success and failure depends on your depth. The Jets need to surround their talent with more talent, which is easier said than done, but success doesn’t always come easy (just ask Andy as increasingly absurd things happen behind Conan).
THE POWER OF THE PROACTIVE
Despite being a notably dull evening (five goals in three games total, three shutouts … yuck), Monday’s games did provide interesting variations on this analogy.
The Ducks and Wild seem like they’ve “won” by being proactive when it comes to staring contests. I’d say Minnesota is the bigger winner despite its currently lower ceiling; the Wild bolstered their lineup during respective trade deadlines with Jason Pominville and Matt Moulson, yet nabbing Ilya Bryzgalov (already three shutouts with Minnesota) stands as the masterstroke. The Wild could give Andy lessons by shaking off a rather staggering degree of injuries; how many teams could survive so many goalie mishaps in the rugged West?
(By the way, Bryzgalov is only owned in 23 percent of Yahoo leagues right now. You should probably change that.)
While I believe the Ducks may rue trading Bobby Ryan long-term, at least they provided some lessons in “reloading.” They seemed to trade Ryan from a position of luxury. They added a perfect fit in head coach with Bruce Boudreau. The Jets must feel tormented that they were shut out by John Gibson, a symbolic glove slap to the face as Anaheim keeps producing/finding quality goalies (most people would take Jonas Hiller, Frederik Andersen, departed goalie Viktor Fasth and possibly also Gibson [already] over Ondrej Pavelec).
At least in recent years, the Wild and Ducks seem willing to acknowledge weaknesses and make aggressive - yet not reckless - moves to improve and they’re reaping the benefits of such approaches.
To me, the Devils are a team that have been locked in these staring contests for too long. Such a thought seems emboldened by the jarring age of the team and the general fatigue hanging over the franchise, even if this team has been better than its record might indicate for the last two seasons.
(It’s difficult to feel too much sympathy for the Devils when you consider how often they subverted hockey joy in their gravy years, though. Sorry.)
Sure, there are areas where the Devils have been too slow to react; their blind spot with Martin Brodeur is noticeable (though easy to understand).
For many years, they were the Conan in the situation, stoically watching Scott Niedermayer, Scott Stevens and Brodeur devour offenses and fun while expertly knowing when to let free agents walk. Eventually, when you’re a contender for so long, you can’t help but fall into Andy’s position, though; beyond the bad bounces, the Devils have seen Zach Parise walk, Ilya Kovalchuk get out of his contract* and younger players like Adam Larsson develop slowly to limit their high-end.
There are still signs of that old, spry Lou Lamoriello; grabbing Cory Schneider may still be a long-term boon and believing in Jaromir Jagr’s continued excellence nearly boosted them into the playoffs.
In summation, Monday’s notable teams either seem to botch the staring contest in opposite ways (Vancouver, Winnipeg), nail it based either on luck/skill/or both (Anaheim, Minnesota) and find themselves straddling the fence (New Jersey)**
Aside from those in keeper leagues, let me say this: the best part about fantasy is that you can start these staring contests anew each year. Even if that means sometimes you get to play Conan while other seasons might make you feel a lot more like Andy.
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* - Whether the Devils were on board with that idea long-term/money-wise, they leaned on Kovalchuk a ton during his time in New Jersey.
** - The Calgary Flames lost that staring contest like a more expensive Jets for years, but I’d say they’re just beginning their next staredown now, so it’s difficult to make judgements just yet. Although getting a second-rounder for Reto Berra made me provide Richter-like shocked expressions in their favor ...