1. Joe – a Retrospective
With the announcement this Thursday of his retirement from the game he has dominated for so long, Joe Sakic has reduced next year’s potential representatives from the great Entry Draft class of 1987 to a maximum of two: Brendan Shanahan and Mathieu Schneider. Playing larger than his size, after his exemplary first full season in the WHL, which saw him post just under 1 PPG and a ratio of just under 1 in goals per assist, Sakic lasted until the 15th overall selection in the draft, where the Quebec Nordiques selected the player who would be the face of their franchise both in the PQ and in the Rockies. Scouts at that time, as today, were prone to very mixed reviews on a player who was practically peerless on the ice, but not physically imposing. As one scout told The Hockey News about Sakic prior to the draft, “He is the kind of guy we scouts like to make excuses for why he won’t be a high pick. We say he’s too small, he’s too weak and then he goes out on the ice and dominates.” Even as a seventeen year old, he drew comparisons to Hall of Famers, including Dave Keon and Dale Hawerchuk. Without denigrating the skills and accomplishments of those players, Burnaby Joe put them both to shame.
From his first season in the NHL (1988-89), Sakic proved that he belonged at the game’s highest level, scoring 23 goals and adding 39 assists in 70 games as a 19-year old for the last place Nordiques squad. Although he missed out on that year’s Calder Trophy given to the League’s best rookie (behind new Hall of Famer Brian Leetch), his accomplishments stick out even more given the fact that the Nordiques scored roughly 10% less than the average NHL team that year. He exploded in his second season, breaking the 100 point barrier, 40 points more than the runner-up on the sad-sack Nords of the time. If anyone wants to focus on his miserable plus/minus totals from his first three seasons, they should also remember that Sakic’s Nordiques were without equal at the bottom of the standings, including finishes of 31 points (seriously – it was a full season, too!) in 1989-90 – less than half of what the second worst team compiled, and a meager 46 points the following season.
Sakic persevered and by 1992-93, the team had added a solid goaltender in Ron Hextall, a quarterback in Steve Duchesne and a solid checking forward in the young Mike Ricci, helping them improve in the standings by a whopping 52 points. Over the next 15 seasons, between Quebec City and Denver, Joe Sakic and the Nord-alanche made it to the Second Season 12 times, winning two Stanley Cups (1995-96 and 2000-01).
Joe Sakic wound down his career with an impressive tally of 625 goals (14th all-time), and 1016 assists (11th) for 1641 points (8th). His accumulated total GVT of 364.5 is 16th all-time (in comparison, Hawerchuk is 84th and Keon 131st). Sakic was named to 12 All Star teams, and his Stanley Cup rings are supplemented by the 1995-96 Conn Smythe Trophy (Stanley Cup MVP), the 2000-01 Hart Memorial Trophy (MVP), Lady Byng Memorial Trophy (Gentlemanly Conduct) and Lester B. Pearson Award (Most Outstanding Player as selected by his peers). Sakic was also accomplished on the international stage, winning the most valuable player award of the 2002 Winter Olympics, leading Team Canada to the Gold Medal (their first in 50 years). With a cracking voice and tearing eyes, Sakic delivered a heartfelt speech in Englewood , Colorado on Thursday, telling the hockey world that it is time to move on. “I've decided,” he read, “that for myself after having the privilege of playing for 20 years, I'm leaving the game of hockey with nothing but great memories and a sense of accomplishment.''
What made Sakic the great player that he was? According to former coach Joel Quenneville , it was “for his shot, his quickness, and his 1-on-1 skills... He came in and was a good player and just kept getting better. I think he worked his way into being a better player – in how he trained, how he conditioned himself. The pride he took at being at the top level on a regular basis is what makes him a great player. He always looks to get to that standard on a game-to-game basis.” Personally, I have to think that one of the deadliest wrist shots seen over the last twenty-plus years must have at least partially come from his massive trapezius.
2. Jonas - A Monster in the Leaf Net
Over the last few weeks of the scramble to secure the services of unrestricted Swedish free agent netminder Jonas Gustavsson, common knowledge stated that it was a contest between Dallas, Colorado, San Jose and Toronto. All four teams (as well as any other potential dark horse candidates), were bound by NHL rules stipulating the length and weight of entry level contracts, meaning the goalie could simply choose to sign where he felt most comfortable, without having to consider the financial structure of the deal. In signing Craig Anderson, the Avalanche removed themselves from the running on July 1, giving them a pair of experienced goalies signed to reasonable contracts.
On Tuesday, Gustavsson, called “The Monster” in his native Sweden, chose Toronto . With last year’s primary starter, Vesa Toskala, coming off season-ending surgery to his hip and groin, and preceding his visit to the anaesthesiologist with a level of play that sent Leaf fans scrambling for their own forms of anaesthesia, the Blue-and-White were able to offer the Swedish sensation an opportunity to win a job that may not have been available behind a more established performer like Evgeni Nabokov in San Jose. The chance to work with renowned goalie coach Francoise Allaire, may have been the deciding factor. "When I finally relaxed,” Gustavsson said, “took it easy for a couple of days and digested everything, Toronto seemed like the best opportunity for me... They're getting some new good players and they've got a good coach and a good goalie coach.”
Brian Burke, his new General Manager, raved about his numbers in Farjestads of the Swedish Elite League, which were simply phenomenal. His 1.96 GAA would have comfortably led the NHL, and his .932 Save % would have placed him in second, just behind Tim Thomas’ .933. Thanks to Gabriel Desjardins, we can look at past goalies who had gone directly from the SEL to the NHL and compare their stats, bearing in mind that with only ten examples since the 2005-06 season (many simply passing the strike season in Scandinavia) the sample size is small and the numbers cannot be seen as conclusive by any stretch. Nevertheless, those ten goalies, including luminaries such as Henrik Lundqvist, Manny Fernandez and Miikka Kiprusoff in addition to Johan Holmqvist, Fredrik Norrena and Erik Ersberg saw their collective save percentages drop by around 12 points, .919 to .907. Focusing on Lundqvist, whom Gustavsson is often compared to, in much the same way journalists often make comparisons that are based on background, perceived worth and genetics, instead of actual ability or style, we can see that during the strike season, Lundqvist allowed 79 SEL goals on 1145 SEL shots for an SEL save % of .935. In one sense at least, these number may be more comparable to Gustavsson’s situation, as at that point, Lundqvist had not yet crossed the Atlantic to play for the Rangers, who had drafted him in the 7th round of the 2000 Entry Draft. In his first four seasons playing in the NHL, Lundqvist has allowed 604 goals on 7242 shots, for a tidy .917 save %. A similar translation to Lundqvist’s would give Gustavsson a save percentage in the neighbourhood of .913. While that would have only placed him 21st in the NHL last season, it still would have been 22 places higher than Toskala.
The fallout from the Gustavsson signing will be felt around the league. The first secondary action was taken on Thursday by the Stars, who traded a 6th round pick in next year’s draft to Ottawa for veteran journeyman netminder Alex Auld, whose numbers last season would have compared reasonably well to Gustavsson’s translated stats. That trade, in turn, opens up the Sens backup job for Brian Elliott, who showed promise as a rookie last season. The next step will include finding homes for last year’s Flyer’s goalies, Martin Biron and Antero Niittymaki, both currently unrestricted free agents. Teams without stable goalie situations and cap room to spare include Tampa Bay, Los Angeles and Carolina.
3. Jeff - Under the Radar Signing
After the gold rush of July 1st, a number of talented and productive players remained available to prospective suitors. In last week’s column I mentioned the ten highest GVT scores among available UFAs. One of those players received very little mention outside of his name, either in that column or elsewhere nationally. In fact, the local papers of his former team gave only cursory notice when his former employer elected against tendering him a qualifying offer for the 2009-10 season. I am referring to new Stars defenseman Jeff Woywitka.
Originally drafted at the tail-end of the 2001 NHL Entry Draft’s first round by the Philadelphia Flyers, Woywitka received a solid report from The Hockey News in its Draft Preview edition. In an assessment of his two-way game, they wrote that, “He’s a good skater with good lateral movement. He doesn’t panic under pressure and makes sound decisions. He has a hard accurate shot with a quick release.” After dropping to 27th in the draft, he spent two more productive years playing for the Red Deer Rebels of the WHL before turning pro. After only 29 games for the Flyers’ AHL affiliate, Woywitka was traded, along with 1st and 3rd round picks in later drafts to the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for Mike Comrie. Woywitka spent another year and a half honing his game in the Oilers’s minor league system before he was traded again, this time as part of a package used by the Oilers to acquire Chris Pronger from the Blues. He spent the next three seasons split between St. Louis and their farm team in Peoria. He got into 87 NHL games, scoring 3 goals and adding 14 assist for 17 points, compiling a -6 and 49 PIM. In 2007-08, his third year on the St. Louis-Peoria shuttle, Woywitka finally topped 0.5 PPG in the AHL, having learned to put his hard shot to good use by scoring 10 goals. Last year, in his age 25 season, Jeff Woywitka was finally an NHL regular. He doubled his career goals and more than doubled his career assists. He also blocked over 1 shot per game averaging just over 15:00 TOI. According to the stats available on behindthenet.ca, he played with and against a fairly average group of players, with both ranking within 0.5 of even. His 5.6 defensive GVT was tied for second on the Blues, behind only veteran Jay McKee.
All that, and the Blues didn’t even think he was worth a 10% raise. New Stars GM, Joe Nieuwendyk, on the other hand, did, and gave Woywitka a contract worth $1.3 million over two years. Along with fellow newcomer, Karlis Skrastins, Woywitka will go a long way towards stabilizing the Stars blueline next year, exactly as Nieuwendyk planned . In light of the minimal downside of a contract only marginally above the league minimum, and the upside of top four defensive defensemen with pedigree and now entering his prime, this may be the most unrecognized value signing of the summer signing season.
- Special thanks to Alan Bass at The Hockey News for digging up the pre-draft scouting reports on Joe Sakic and Jeff Woywitka
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.