NHL Betting: The Week's Biggest Stories
by Trevor Whenham - 11/17/2008
We're settling into the slow, steady rhythms of the middle of the NHL season when nothing happens too quickly. This is when we start to learn which teams are here to stay, and which ones are just killing time until golf season starts. To an outsider that may all sound a bit dull, but to hockey fans this is heaven. It's also pretty exciting when there are owners like Oren Koules in Tampa Bay that are committed to doing the ridiculous and bizarre. This week, let's take a look at how things are going in Tampa and Pittsburgh.
The Barry Melrose Era
This is one of the stranger stories the NHL has seen in a long time. After enjoying only moderate success as the coach of the L.A. Kings, Melrose spent 13 years as an analyst with ESPN. Neither his coaching record nor his insights made you think that this guy was a coaching genius. The Tampa Bay Lightning, though, decided that Melrose was the answer to all of their problems. It's not clear, though, that the Lightning were smart enough to know what their problems were. Part-owner Koules is a Hollywood producer who brought the world the Saw movies. Since taking over the team less than a year ago, his tenure has been marked by odd decisions and general chaos. The roster was completely overhauled in the offseason - 18 players on the roster weren't there in 2007. Ryan Malone was acquired, and his new contract redefined overpayment in the NHL. Guys like Mark Recchi and Gary Roberts were added even though they were old enough to remember when teams traveled by train. Steven Stamkos was drafted and put at the center of the team's marketing campaigns without concern for whether he was actually ready to join the team and contribute. The new ringmaster of this circus was Melrose.
Just 16 games later, Melrose was out on his ear. The team wasn't terrible - 5-7-4. More significantly, it didn't feel like they were particularly underachieving given their roster and the amount of change. Still, things were clearly not going well. It's probably not that surprising. Melrose was an old fashioned motivator - the scream and yell, hands-off type of coach. That worked okay in his first try at coaching (though not great - he was well below .500 in L.A.), but that doesn't fly anymore. Melrose Had a tough task - he had to quickly bring together a whole bunch of new players and get them to share a vision. From the outside, that wasn't going particularly smoothly. Inside, though, it must have been a disaster if this move was warranted.
There's another wrinkle. The new head coach is Rick Tocchet. Sports bettors will recognize him because he is one of us. Tocchet was suspended when he was an assistant with Phoenix for being intimately involved with an illegal bookie operation. Janet Gretzky, Wayne's wife, was famously one of his clients. Tocchet knows his hockey, but his past calls into question his ability to lead this team effectively. The first game under his leadership wasn't promising - Tampa opened up a two-goal lead, but then stalled, ultimately losing to Carolina in a shootout.
Melrose may have been a real problem with the team, but if so he was just one of many. It may be tempting to assume that getting rid of he coach will free this team to turn things around. After all, that's what happened in Chicago earlier this year. The difference, though, is that Chicago was a pretty solid team. Tampa Bay really isn't, and I'm not convinced that Scotty Bowman in his prime could fix this mess quickly. The man behind the bench may be different, but I don't trust them any more.
Pittsburgh subtracted a lot more than they added in the offseason, and it seemed like they could be destined for a step backwards after their Stanley Cup appearance last year. Their scoring ranks had been depleted, and defense was a real question. So far, though, the team is exceeding expectations. On Tuesday they came back from a 5-2 third period deficit to beat Detroit, the team that crushed them in the Stanley Cup final last year. That win was one of six straight. That streak has given them the second best point total in the East.
Despite the record, and the fact that they are clearly a public team, there is a very good chance that this team will continue to provide solid value. They have succeeded despite a relatively slow start or Sidney Crosby. He is still averaging more than a point a game, but he hasn't looked like the freak that we know he is. We can be reasonably certain that he is going to find his stride and get hot as he finds a line combination he is comfortable with. That may already be happening - he has six points in the last three games. When Crosby heats up, the team will follow suit.
The defense is also exceeding expectations. They are giving up too many shots, but their goals-against is in the top half of the league - a pleasant surprise. The best part, though, is that the defense is only going to get better. The team traded Darryl Sydor, defensive dead-weight at this point in his career, to Dallas for Philippe Boucher. That's an upgrade. The Pens are also going to get two boosts as the season advances. Sergei Gonchar is out with a shoulder injury, and Ryan Whitney had a foot problem. Both should be back by December. At the very least, Pittsburgh should continue to be defensively adequate. That should help to make them worth a bet.