The Blame Game: Ranking the NHL's first-half disappointments
By Dan Di Sciullo NHL Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The word "disappointment" is a relative term. Two people could look at the exact same situation and one could call it a success while the other deems it to be a failure.
This happens frequently in the world of sports where expectations mean just about everything.
For example, say you're an unfortunate soul like myself and your favorite NFL team is the Philadelphia Eagles. To the football fan outside of Philadelphia it may seem that the Eagles have done pretty well for themselves in recent years, after all, they've made the playoffs in nine out of 11 seasons and won the NFC East in six of those campaigns.
But, in the city of Brotherly Love -- where winning a Lombardi Trophy has become a local obsession -- anything less than the franchise's first Super Bowl title is scoffed at as failure.
Many of already know that Philadelphia rarely represents the norm in fan behavior, and thankfully, that is also true in the case of the above example.
And yet, there are those occasions in sports where fans from all over can agree that a team is an unqualified disappointment. At the halfway point of the 2010-11 NHL season we seem to have one of those instances in the New Jersey Devils.
Rather than using up all our time here to once again discuss the Devils' nightmare season-in-the-making, it seems appropriate to use the current situation in New Jersey to put this year's biggest NHL disappointments into perspective.
Of course, every disappointing team has their own favorite scapegoat so here's a list of the NHL teams who have fallen shortest of expectations and the players who, fairly or unfairly, have been made the poster boy for said disappointment.
Ilya Kovalchuk still has 14 more years to prove his worth.
1. ILYA KOVALCHUK, DEVILS - For a huge chunk of the offseason, the NHL headlines were dominated by the ongoing saga of the Devils and their intended free-agent target Ilya Kovalchuk. Of course, after a legal battle with the NHL over what constituted a circumvention of the collective bargaining agreement, the Russian sniper, his new team and the league finally made it official with a 15-year, $100 million deal.
Even though Kovalchuk played the last few months of the 2009-10 season with the Devils after coming over in a trade with Atlanta, it wasn't until the NHL approved the multi-year contract on September 4 that he became the face of New Jersey franchise. Fast forward to the present when the Devils are dead last in the NHL with 29 points after recording 100 or more in six of their previous seven seasons, and it doesn't take much to figure out that the player making the most money is going to take the fall.
In reality, of course, all of New Jersey's problems this year can't be pinned on Kovalchuk, but he certainly deserves a healthy portion of the blame. The Devils star winger has just 13 goals and 13 assists through 44 games this season, putting him on pace for just 24 goals and 24 helpers. In his eight NHL campaigns prior to this one, the 27-year-old has been held under 30 goals just once -- when he had 29 goals as a rookie in 2001-02 -- and he has never had less than 50 points.
THE BRIGHT SIDE
Even assuming this year is a lost season for the Devils, Kovalchuk will still have 14 more years to prove his worth. That may not sound like a promising situation for New Jersey fans at the present time, but Kovalchuk still has the ability to be on the of the world's premier goal-scorers.
However, it would be nice to see Kovalchuk pick up the pace down the stretch, even if the Devils won't be playing for the postseason. With three goals and five points in his last four games, Kovalchuk may finally be ready to break out of his slump and a strong finish help the Devils build some much-needed confidence heading into next year.
2. SERGEI GONCHAR, OTTAWA SENATORS - While Kovalchuk has been an easy target for critics, it's hard to make the case that he's this year's biggest free- agent bust. That unfortunate distinction belongs to Ottawa defenseman Sergei Gonchar, who has been less than impressive in the first season of a three- year, $16 million deal.
The Senators were a playoff team last year for the 12th time in 13 seasons, but Ottawa was knocked out in the first round by Pittsburgh. Ottawa has been ousted in the first round by the Penguins in each of its last two trips to the postseason and perhaps that's what led Sens general manager Bryan Murray to pursue Gonchar this summer. After all, the 36-year-old Russian defenseman was coming off a wildly successful five-year stint in Pittsburgh, and just weeks before Gonchar was signed by Ottawa he had torched the Sens for six points in the playoff series.
Murray's plan was for Gonchar to help fix Ottawa's struggling power play and give the Sens the top-end blueliner they needed to remain relevant in the Eastern Conference playoff mix. Instead, Gonchar has compiled 20 points (5 goals, 15 assists) for Ottawa and he is near the bottom of the league with a minus-16 rating in 47 games.
Ottawa, meanwhile, is tied for 12th in the East with just 41 points and has lost nine of its last 10 games. Oh yeah, and the power play is just as mediocre as it was last year.
THE BRIGHT SIDE
The fact that Gonchar was able to be so deadly in his years with the Pens and then become a bust in Ottawa says a great deal about where the Sens franchise is at right now. You can't blame Murray for wanting to recapture the magic that led his team to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2007, but the fact that Gonchar's presence hasn't improved the situation in Ottawa has made it obvious that it's time to rebuild the Sens. The quicker the rebuilding process begins, the faster Ottawa can get back to being one of the East's elite clubs.
3. PHIL KESSEL/DION PHANEUF, TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS - The Maple Leafs are not on the list because great things were expected of them this season. After completing its fifth straight season out of the playoffs last spring, expectations in Toronto could be at an all-time low and yet the Leafs have still found a way to disappoint.
Kessel and Phaneuf are both high-profile players brought to Toronto during GM Brian Burke's reclamation project and the duo is quickly becoming the face of failure in Toronto. Both players came at a huge cost, especially Kessel, who was acquired from the rival Boston Bruins a month before last season for a first and second-round pick in 2010 and another first-round selection this summer.
After the Kessel deal cost them the second overall pick (Tyler Seguin) in last year's draft, Toronto's main goal this season should have been preventing the Bruins from landing another high pick. The Leafs will have to pick up the pace considerably if they want to lessen the value of Boston's selection, however, as Toronto is currently tied for 26th in the NHL with Ottawa.
But, Kessel at least is leading the Leafs with 19 goals this year, while Phaneuf, a former Norris Trophy finalist with Calgary, is not even coming close to justifying his annual $6.5 million cap hit. After being announced as the 18th captain in Maple Leafs history this offseason, Phaneuf has just one goal and seven assists in 28 games this year, giving the defenseman 18 points in 54 games since being dealt by the Flames last season.
THE BRIGHT SIDE
At just 23 and 25 years old, respectively, Kessel and Phaneuf still have most of their careers ahead of them and presently the duo has a sad supporting cast to work with in Toronto. The roster is, of course, Burke's problem and it is one that he needs to correct at some point if he wants to keep his job.
At the present, the future does looks brighter for Kessel than it does for Phaneuf. The former is still a proven goal-scorer who can help a team contend, but Phaneuf has seemed to lose all the confidence that made him an All-Star selection in his first two NHL seasons.
4. DREW DOUGHTY/LOS ANGELES KINGS - In contrast to a thriving-hockey market like Toronto, where rebuilding is a dirty word, the Kings have been given free reign in Los Angeles to slowly work the franchise back to respectability.
Last season, the years of cashing in high draft picks finally paid off with LA's first playoff appearance since 2002. Even the fact that the Kings were bounced out in the opening round by Vancouver couldn't change the fact that Los Angeles was clearly a franchise on the ride.
The 2010-11 season was supposed to be a year where the Kings took another step forward towards an eventual climb to the top of the mountain, but at the present time, LA does not appear to be a team with a Cup title in its near future. The Kings were picked by some to win the Pacific this year, but instead are last in the division and 12th in the Western Conference.
Perhaps the biggest revelation for the Kings in 2009-10 was the play of defenseman Drew Doughty, who last season as a 20-year-old was named a finalist for the Norris Trophy. Doughty also turned in a terrific performance in his first NHL playoff series, as he notched seven points (3g, 4a) in six games and often appeared to be the best player on the ice.
Doughty has not had a bad campaign by any means, but he has failed so far this season to build upon his stellar 2009-10 performance. The question coming into this year was not if Doughty would win a Norris someday, but how many of those trophies he would own by the time his career was over.
But now, both Doughty and the Kings are back to proving they deserve the hype, something they thought they'd had already proved last spring.
THE BRIGHT SIDE
Doughty has three goals, 24 points and a plus-13 rating in 40 games this year and he has been much better since turning in a dreadful first two months of the season. He had just seven points in the first 21 games of the season and has recorded 17 points in 19 games since.
Doughty's performance last year was not a mirage and it certainly seems that the Kings have too much young talent to not contend for a title at some point in the next few years.