Closing out the hockey season…

With the draft happening over the weekend, now’s a good time to close out last season and take a final look at hockey for a while. At least until free agency, which will happen at the end of this week.

To close out my playoff predictions, I picked the Canucks, so I missed on the final round. Still, I was 11-4 in picking the playoffs, which is pretty good if you ask me. I’ll take it.

I don’t talk much about the draft, because I don’t get a chance to see the prospects and I therefore think critiquing the choices is a silly thing to do. I’ll leave it to the experts.

The Sharks highlight during the draft wasn’t their drafting — a few days before the draft, Setoguchi signs a three year deal at about $3m a year, which I thought was a fair deal for both sides. And then suddenly finds himself a Minnesota Wild when Wilson trades him (and a prospect and a draft pick) for Brent Burns. At first glance this looks like a sign and trade, but Wilson has said that wasn’t true, and he’s typically a straight shooter. I believe him when he says the deal didn’t happen until after the signing — but that ignores the reality that the deal Setoguchi signed was an easy deal to build into a trade, and Wilson clearly was willing to trade him; once Seto was signed, I’m not surprised there were phone calls inquiring about him.

Without actually saying “I called it”, I did speculate on the Sharks deciding to shake up the forward lines, and that I felt Setoguchi was the player most likely not to be a Shark from the top six forwards come camp:

If there’s a top 6 shakeup on the sharks, I would be picking him as the player to shake up, if I could. I certainly would be trying to sign him for a shorter deal for not so much money with incentives.

And as it turns out, that’s what happened. Brent Burns? Very nice pickup. Physical, and he’s the kind of player Wilson finds that makes you go “how did he do that?” — in one transaction, he brings in depth to fill out our blueline, replaces Pavelski on the power play point to allow him to play forward, gets Pavelski off the third line and back in the top six forwards, and adds some nice physical play. And he does it with a player that has one year left on his contract, but seems very signable by the Sharks, not someone likely to jump to free agency.

When pavelski is a third liner, you have forward depth to spare, so using it makes sense. I really like this deal on all levels, even though we lose a good prospect n it. It’ll be good for Setoguchi as well, I think.

So, Wallin, Nichols, Mayers and Setoguchi out, and it’s not July 1. Burns in on the blueline. Desjardins filling in Nicholl’s role. Pavelski slipping into the top six forwards, so there are a couple of 3/4 line forward spots at grabs, and a lot of good talent that played part time last season taht can fill it in,  like Mike Moore. Still some work to do on blueline depth, but the team could open camp tomorrow and I think it’s a better team.

Elsewhere in the league?

It’s great to see Winnipeg back, and that they’re the Jets again. Now the hard part starts, which is making money in Winnipeg. I feel pretty good about that happening, though.

And while it won’t happen this season, Atlanta -> Winnipeg means realignment. The rumors have the league looking at a four division, two conference format, with Columbus and Detroit going east and divisions organized around timezones. I’ve been a strong critic of Detroit going back to the east (because it makes the west look even more like a poor cousin to the eastern conference), but I like this rumored realignment a lot, because th schedule gets re-aligned as well, and the plan is to have everyone play a home and home against every team outside their division. I’ve wanted that for a long time, and if they bring that in instead of the current schedule, they have my support.

The realignment rumors also indicate they’re looking at doing first round playoffs in-division, then reseed within the conference for later rounds. I like that as well, so here’s hoping it all comes through.

Drew Remenda gives his view of re-alignment on the Sharks blog. I like it with one exception. That is that he has two 8 team divisions in the east and two 7 team divisions in the west, and I’d prefer the conferences to be 15-15, which means one team needs to move west. And that means either detroit or columbus, but that admittedly screws that team a bit, so it probably shouldn’t happen. But I’d rather the conferences be balanced if possible (and if the league eventually does expand to 32 teams, which I don’t expect for at least five years, it reduces the probability of needing major realignment again. So maybe we go with drew’s idea, but I’d still like to find one team to move west… although I can see why neither of the logical suspects would like that idea much.

One last item I had flagged to mention: the league is tweaking rule 48, the hit to the head rule. I thought it was a good first try at controlling this problem, but also didn’t go far enough — but how to handle this without removing the physicality from the game is a complex dance and not easily resolved (blanket bans to hits to the head won’t work, not at the NHL level). The previous rule made it illegal to hit to the head on a lateral or blind side hit; that restriction is deleted, and so now any hit where the head is targetted and the principal point of contact is now going to be illegal. You NHL players that roll around the ice with your elbows up, get ready to sit.  At first thought, I think this is an appropriate change, but until we see how it’s enforced and whether the players pay attention, I need to reserve judgement.

Also changed for next year is rule 41, the boarding rule, making it clear that players need to protect a defenseless player and avoid or minimize a hit against one. That’s true both along the boards and in an icing situation, and makes illegal a few hits from last season that weren’t illegal (but should have been), so I like this cahnge as well.

So barring a major free agency surprise by the Sharks or a big trade, that’s probably about it until camp opens. The Sharks seem well down the path I wanted to see towards being a bit different and a bit better going into next season; the Jets are back in town (san jose arena music folks, haul out that dusty copy of West Side Story!), and the league is grappling with the hits to the head and pushing the rule forward since it clearly didn’t fully protect players last year. And we’ll see how that goes.

So, when does the puck drop? Can’t wait!