Tuesday, December 28, 2010

hockey holidays

Ok, back to my numerical list of cool hockey experiences over the Christmas Break.  It's not necessarily in chronological order, and since I'm in a rush I'll do the shortest one...

3- Standing in the Shoes of NHLers

No, not at the Hockey Hall of Fame Archives but just around town.  Through some strange mix-up one of my brother in-laws ended up with a duffle bag full of LA Kings forward Richard Clune's shoes.  He's got an eclectic taste in earth pads I must say.  White Nike Sneaks, designer dress shoes, bright Bieber style high-tops.  They were a bit small but I only brough one pair of sneaks for the whole week, and wearing them to and from the pond every day wasn't doing me any favours so I used Richie's.  So much more hockey stories though to come...and what a big news day in the NHL...I think Calgary is about to meet the Grim Feester; this guy has gotta blow it up

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Too much turkey....not enough hockey

This year was my first white Christmas.  Hailing from the soggy Sunshine Coast we haven't had a lot of snow fall on the 25th of December, infact, we're lucky to get any all winter, but there was briefly a light dusting in Southern Ontario on Christmas 'Morn, but the entire region had retained nearly a foot of the white fluffy stuff from a heavy fall the prior week, and it was magical.

I've just invented the Josh Hattrick...3 turkey dinners in 3 days! Can you top that?  Now it's time to digest, I mean reflect because I had a hockey holiday like none other.

1 - Yes, it was a white Christmas, but I played pond hockey to my heart (and knee's) content

2 - The morning after touching down on the Toronto tarmac I accompanied my brother for a delivery with the fam business which took us right past the Hockey Hall of Fame Archives at the Leafs practice facility.  Paul (my bro) knows a guy who knows a guy who delivered poinsettias once to Phil Pritchard, who if you didn't know is the Vice President of the H.H.O.F., AKA, the guy with the Mickey Mouse gloves that takes care of the Cup: The Keeper of the Cup.  We mosied in and tried to act like we belonged until we encounter the locked door to the archives directly adjacent the Leafs' ice sheet.  We thought were foiled but a quick synopsis of the inter-com system revealed a company phonebook. 

"Paul Who?"

The voice on the other end crackled.

Mr. Pritchard was all to happy to give us the tour of 7,600 items and counting, at any time 40% of which will be on display at the Hall, while the rest is stored here in 18,000 square feet of sliding shelf space organized alphabetically by team name, the highlights included Harold Ballard's Brew by Molson and a pair of skates from the 60's that looked like they'd fit an Avatar.  4,500 sticks draped on racks, including the funny curved one from that Molson Canadian commercial where the guy opens the fridge and grabs a bear without getting up.  1.5 Million negatives which they are in the process of digitizing.  8mm tape of oringinal CBC Hockey Night in Canada Broadcasts.  Phil toured us by the coffee room, which had two large deep freezes.  He explained that memorabilia that is donated or movd back from the hall is frozen in the deep freeze for five days, thawed, and then frozen again to ensure no moths or parasites survive to spoil.  We passed a hallway full of trunks, one flipped open with the newest addition to hockey hardware, the Ted Lindsay trophy.  I suggested they etch "Terrible" above Ted's name on the plaque; Phil didn't disagree necessarily, he said it weighs a tonne.

Next we passed a table covered with memorabilia for the Winter Classic and World Juniors.  Phil was headed out Boxing Day for the first game, then on for a five day exhibit at this year's Winter Classic; we both agreed it's dasterdly how no one gives any recognition to the orginal Winter Classic in Edmonton.  What a job this guy has.

Then we saw the cubicles all lined with gear, the most interesting of which included two cases of beer, one from Stephen Harper, a cube of Molson's, and another 24 of a nice looking brew from Maine from American President Barrack Obama, each one signed to the other, apparently for their bet.  Phile worked hard to track these down.  He said they have to empty them before they put them in storagea...we of course volunteered our services.

Next, the highlight, was a wall of Gretzky sticks, or as some were spelled, "Gretsky".  Fifty or more lined in a V shape along the wall, as Phil explained the size discrepancy: Apparently the Great One got much more flexible as the season went on and filed down his sticks.  There was over a foot of difference from season's start to end.  Most of the sticks were the trademark red and white TITAN from the 80's when Wayne set most of his records, some were the familiar and frustrating aluminum shaft Easton, and there were a couple Hespelers, none with the stupid off set blade thankfully.  A roll of Titan's was still bundled up. 

"Walter doesn't know what those were from."  Phil informed.

Walter had marked many of these sticks with masking tape along the shaft and hand written the date and accomplishment in pencil along the side; it was neat cursive but barely ledgible after years of withering in the basement of the world's greatest hockey dad.

We got some lovely SWAG at the end and were on our merry way, walking on air the whole way.

3...I'll have to get on with more later, Turkey bunwich is calling me

Sunday, December 19, 2010

sleeper picks

We all know the Usual Suspects, but there are some teams flying under the radar right now that could do some serious damage come playoff time and they aren't getting the revere they perhaps deserve, and that's probably fine by them.

In the West...

With only one regulation loss in their last ten games, and missing top-tier power forward Christ Stewart and leas year's coveted pick-up Petr Mueller the Avalance have made a couple moves, notably acquiring Tomas Fleischmann who has been lights out for the West's top scoring team...when fully healthy these guys are really going to give the Nux a run for the Northwest, and should be considered a real cup threat.

Currently in the final playoff spot but with games in hand the Kings have the third best goals for/against differential in the west.  This team is solid top to bottom in all aspects of the game, especially team-d, as they lead the west in goals against: that makes them a serious contender, one that many have forgotten about since they fell from the top of the heap after an early hot start.  They only have to hold on to that eighth spot to have a shot at the cup.

Although not necessarily a sleeper as they have been a high profile team for many years the Sharks haven't performed up to expectations this season and find themselves in sixth in the West, but there top nine forwards are as good as any in the league, and when they hit stride lookout.  They need to add a d-man and seem to be in the goalie market. Shoring up either of these departments will remind everybody why they have been favourites for years and still should be.

In the East...

The competition isn't as tight in the East so it's hard to say many teams are even sleepers for cup contention but one team has made themselves one by uterrly and completely bombing, losing eight straight games, the Washington Capitals.  They are in such bad shape Bruce Boudreau is rumored to be on the hot seat: who saw that coming?  I think people are forgetting that this team is too good, and maybe too young, so I think their young d-corps and youthful goaltending tandem will come around and this team will go on a late tear...don't count out the Great Eight.

Depth Scoring Key to success

Look at the teams that are true contenders this season, of them I think the biggest trend is scoring depth.

Philledelphia - nine players with five or more goals, all between 7 and 16, all forwards
Detroit - leading the West have ten players with five or more goals - all between 5 and 14
Vancouver - leading the northwest have ten players with 5 or more goals - all between 5 and 16
Boston - have nine players five 5 or more goals - all forwards between 5 and 16
Pittsburgh - you would think the east leading Penguins with Captain Crosby at the helm would buck the trend, even without Evgeny Malkin for large parts of the season, noted for their lack of scoring depth, but to my surprise they also have ten players with 5 or more goals, however Crosby does have a league leading 26.

Ovi's Caps mired in an unthinkable eight game losing streak have fallen from grace and only have six players with five ore more goals, one of those d-man mike green.

It's not really an exact science but it's a telling sign; if you have depth players that can pick up the slack when your top line guys are having an off game you're a more dangerous team, whether you're a noted high offense team or a Boston, with stingy defense, you still have to score to win and balanced scoring helps.  The biggest reason I believe is it's cumulitive, if your depth are an offensive threat than who do you roll your top checking line out against?  Can really wreak havoc on opposition.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Votto Vs. Toews

And the Lou Marsh award winner is.... Joey Votto.

It's controversial yes, and ballplayers from Canada have gotten a raw deal in the past, but this year's race to be named Canada's top athlete has been tighter than ever; so close in fact it forced the general public to collectively google" What is the Lou Marsh Award".

I'm a huge baseball fan.  If you had to ask me which I would rather have a lengthy professional career in, hockey or baseball, it would honestly be a tough call.  I more than most hockey analysts will argue Votto's case.  Let's take a look at the numbers, shall we?

Votto finished five home runs, five RBI and .012 batting average off being the National League Triple Crown Winner, the first triple crown season in the MLB since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. Not bad for a 27 year old kid from Toronto. Unfortunately not worthy of being named Canada's top athlete. 

Bilodeau won the first Gold Medal for Canada in Canada. The Joanie Rochette story could not have been better written by Hollywood.  Jonathan Toews had arguably the greatest year in the history of hockey and although it was Sidney Crosby who scored the Golden Goal it was Toews who was named Best Forward of the Best Hockey Tournament Ever.  Toews captained his team to a Stanley Cup, where he was also named the best individual player of the post season taking Conn Smythe honours. 

The Case:

Minnesota Twins first baseman and Maple Ridge, BC native won the American League MVP.
Morneau 2006 Stats: Batting Average .321, Home Runs 34, RBI 130
Votto  2010 Stats    : Batting Average .324, Home Runs 37, RBI 113

Morneaus 2006 season wasn't enough to take home the Lou Marsh.  The honour that year fell on Canadian Speed Skater Cindy Klassen who's five medal haul at the 2006 Winter Olympic Games in Turin, Italy included One Gold, Two Silver and Two Bronze.  She deserved to win in 2006 given her performance on the worlds biggest stage, and if so then surely this comparable proves Toews' 2010 was worthy of the award as well.

The logic isn't that Toews' accomplishments happened within the confines of a Canadian sport and that makes him the best Canadian Athlete of the year, the logic is he was Canada's best athlete, period.  If Votto had actually won the Triple Crown and his Cincinnati Reds had won the World Series that would be tough to beat, but to be named MVP and have a very good offensive season does not top Toews' 2010, not by a long shot. Toews probably wins this award without the Conn Smythe even.  How could Canadas Best Athelte of 2010 not have participated in Canada's biggest sporting event ever?  How can an award that bares a national title be decided by a handful of people?  It doesn't seem very democratic.  Unfortunately in the minds of the 11 meida  members who vote the winner of this award Votto's very good season beat Toews best ever.  Fortunately it doesn't really matter if you don't win the Lou Marsh Award from a small group of media members when your trophy closet is already too full of real trophies.

brain dump

Ok, not my intent to touch this topic tonight but I've got OTR muted in the background and I just caught this headline on screen: "Do you think Linus Omark's shootout move was disrespectful?"

There's got to be more to talk about than that...seriously.  Cheeky, creative, risky, sure, but disrespectful?  Does someone scoring a goal make them disrespectful?  What a ridiculous concept.  Even if he had muffed this never-before-seen shootout move it's still not a matter of respect.  If I'm Tom Renney and I put Omark in the shootout whether he gets creative and scores or misses I have to expect it, so you can't even say Omark pushing the boundaries of his amazing skill when a point is on the line is a bad thing, it's what he is supposed to do and it's Renney's job to decide to go with him or not. This time it worked but next time it might not.  It's pretty tough to leave this guy on the bench during a shootout, especially when you know everyone wants to see what he'll do next.  You put him in and see what happens.  Is it disrespectful to the other team?  Why don't we just give everybody a point so no one has to lose?  I guess that's why the TV is on mute though.

I came on here to complain about even more vile a transgression to the sport of hockey: Cheerleaders.  It was a novelty and a joke when it happened in the Southern U.S. markets but for the once proud Oilers franchise to be the first Canadian team to have cheerleaders at home ice is a slap in the face to any self respecting Oiler fan from any generation.  The league should have a say on this and it should be no cheerleaders, league wide, whether you're operating a team in a hockey market that needed an official to explain the symbol for tripping through the load speakers or in the City of Champions.

There were a lot of story lines in this game besides the further degredation of the NHL.  Taylor Hall has something to say, and I love it.  To paraphrase he feels if the Oilers work hard then two points are there for them against the Leafs.  Now is this disrespectful?   No.  Here's an athlete finally taking a stand and saying what he feels and the media make it some big controversy.  He's an athlete and he's showing already that he's a leader and he's telling it how it is.  Unfortunately they lost brutally to the Leafs.  How good did McCarthur and Grabovski look?  I think the Leafs have potential but they need to work on getting the puck to their forwards and they need a couple real centres.  Bozak has potential but this team is probably one of the bottom three weakest as a whole in the league.  If GM Brian Burke's plan was to win now then he needs to do that by going out and getting a centre now, and add another puck moving blueliner.


If you're a fan of the NHL, even if a team is a conference rival you have to respect when a GM is a good judge of talent and makes great trades under the radar to improve his team.  Look at Colorado and how they robbed Washington...was Scott Hannan really the best they could get for Thomas Fleischmann....really?

Fleischmann had 51 points last year and is a versatile young forward who is continuing to improve.  Hannan has a ton of upside but he's not the answer in Washington. 

Who wins this trade?

Since being acquired by Colorado Fleischmann has 7 points in 6 games and the Avalanche are on a three game winning streak.  Hannan is -7 in 6 games with the Caps with no points; the Caps have lost six straight games.  There's an issue in Washington, it's not like this is Hannan's fault, infact I'm shocked he hasn't been able to make some sort of positive impact, but Av's GM Greg Sherman picked up a 26 year old UFA making 2.6 mil this season for a 31 year old UFA making 4.5 mil this season.  Sherman lowers his cap hit and brings in a top level offensive talent to add to his Western Conference goals for leading team .  Of course he's able to do this because he can rely on his patchwork group of D headlined by a resurgent JM Liles and the Avs great drafting record which has produced stud D-man Kevin Shattenkirk.

This remind you of the Petr Mueller deal? He put up 20 points in 15 games after joining the Avs last season after only 17 points in 50+ games for Phoenix.  The Avs gave up a great talent in Wojtek Wolski who signed a 7.6 mil deal with the Desert Dogs.  Mueller is out with a serious head injury, but barring that unforseen injury what a steal!  Wolski has only produced 14 points this season and the Avs are, as I mentioned, the highest scoring team in the west this year without him or Mueller.  Even if Fleischmann is gone next year the impact he will have being acquired this early in the year is massive, and gives the team an extra 2 mil to use at the deadline should they need it.  They are locked atop with North West standings with the Canucks and if you don't think the Avs can best this year's consensus cup win pick in Vancouver you should learn not to doubt a smart GM with a high scoring team.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

All Star Left Wing Pics

Just on nhl.com and the poll question is "which left winger will be selected first for the all star team?"

Alexander Semin
Patrick Sharp
Daniel Sedin
Henrik Zetterberg
Patrick Marleau
Milan Lucic

My first thoughts are where are Ladd, Eriksson, Neal and Clowe in this converstation?

And, even though he has fewer points than those mentioned in the nhl.com pole and my honourable mention segment Milan Lucic is the obvious choice because the guy who passes him up is going to have a much more difficult all star game than he anticipated.

Is there a more prototypical Bruin available in the league today?  Maybe his linemate Nathan Horton. 

Love how teams with history keep the identity of their dynasties in tact by continuing to build in the tradition of their predecessors, i mean, that's what your market wants, isn't it?  Look at Philly, Boston; still that same brash physical flair, and lets not forget the leafs who have held the proud tradition of sucking for over 43 seasons now!  Keep it up Burkie.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

GM and Coach: Who picks 'em

I have to think that Brian Burke, the man that assembled the famous West Coast Express in Vancouver and went on to win a cup in Anaheim would be able to build a decent team even if it is in Toronto, but the job done thus far is far from acceptable to Leafs Nation, or anybody with a basic understanding of the game.

By all rights the Kessel trade was debatable.  Who knew the Leafs would fail miserably last season and the first of two first round pics Burke surrendered to Boston would be the second over all selection...besides everybody else outside of Toronto that is.  Even if it was the 30th pick in the first round it doesn't matter.  Kessels play has since settled that argument, it wasn't worth it, at the time it's is excusable.

What isn't is the string of other moves Burke has made and you have to wonder how much he is involving his coach Ron Wilson in the selection process because either Wilson can't get this team to compete and he needs to go, or Burke can't pick a player (or six) and he needs to go.  In my opinion they both do.

Burke built a great defense, that has underperformed, largely because only one of them is sufficiently capable of headmanning the puck. He brought in a Conn Smythe winner and a promising prospect in net.  Giguere is oft injured and showing his age while The Monster, who is actually a very average sized goaltender, is not getting the job done.  Funny, Toronto has a history of bad trades with Boston; I wonder how much Peter Chiarelli would ask from Burke to give hime back Tuukka Rask?  Burke overpaid for for a grinding winger in Colby Armstrong, and Kris Versteeg is a good player when he plays with good players, not the type to make a mark on his teammates, positively at least. And, he gave up a promising prospect in Viktor Stalberg to get it. Some of the moves haven't panned out, some were just bad, but even if it did work Burke did it all backward.  He's got good depth forwards, great physical D and potentially NHL calibre goaltending, however, he has no centre, and great teams have centres:

Chicago: Toews, Sharp and Bolland
Vancouver: Henrik Sedin, Kessler and Malhotra
Pittsburgh: Crosby, Malkin, Staal
Boston: Take your pick

Of course the measuring stick for success for Toronto GM's isn't much.  All you have to do to be better than the last guy is not pay a former healthy scratch 4 million/season, sounds easy right?  Arguably Burke inerited great teams in Vancouver and Anaheim and it's looking now like that he shoplifted a cup ring in California. But Burke's plan to build a winner now has set the Leafs back farther than they ever were.  They are two centres away from a potential playoff contender, but they've been two seasons trying to find the lynch pin to the whole team, and it isn't showing up.  Clock is ticking Brian.

Head Shots and 4 on 4

Ok, I was hesitant about the 4 on 4 OT when it was implemented. In no other sport do you drop a player in extra time.  But, I would love to see extra innings in baseball where each team drops an infielder.

But I digress, I was just re-watching the December 4th Blues/Oilers high-lights and at the risk of sounding like just another thick-skulled Canadian can somebody tell me when the supposed Andy McDonald concussion ocurred?  Bumping in to Whitney's knee?  Seriously?  Not a chance.  This unearths another issue I hate, the head-shot rule.  I agree, protect the players, concussions are very serious, but some of these collisions you look at and you think "when did he suffer brain trauma?"  He did get hit in the head but it wasn't much.  You hear NHL execs talk about how a hit three years ago was ok but now it's not.  Great, take physical play out of the game to protect the players.  Why not enforce safety equipment first, like making mouth guards mandatory, ear protection mandatory and get these guys to properly fit their helmets.  There's an alarming number of skate lacerations these days, why not make it illegal to sharpen your skates? NHL logic of course.  If you're an NHLer why wouldn't you wear a kevlar sock rather than the status quo.  Again, change the protection not the rules before skates are illegalized.

Back to 4 on 4.  It's great!  I mean I hate it, but it's great.  All the other changes to make the game more offensive were cool but the fact is the bigger faster players of today need more space, so make the ice sheet bigger, which will never happen and can't work, but the effect that more ice has on OT hockey is astounding.  It's way better.  McDonald blows a tire on the other teams blue line,boom, the games over, five on five that goal never happens but with more ice the game has more flow, more scoring opportunites. 

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Part Deux...Exostential Change

Don't really know why I broke this up in to two parts, but, here's the sequel.

The commitment to bring the best players in the world to the biggest international platform for the game, the Winter Olympics, along with the immediate establishment for a World Cup of Hockey in 2012 will help grow the game to new heights.  The reform of the current professional system is also crucial for the popularity of the game to grow.
Currently the NHL is regarded as the highest level of hockey, despite a perceived failure to expand in to what are considered non-traditional hockey markets in American cities like Atlanta, Nashville and Phoenix. There is a growing demand in traditional North American markets for new or returning teams. The highest competing professional league since the World Hockey Association flame of the 1970’s has changed the dynamic. Now the Kontinental Hockey League headed by Aleksander Medvedev and a fistful of Russian Oil Money has given mid-level Unrestricted Free Agents a better alternative financially, and is retaining high-level Russian and European talent. As well, the Swedish Elite League, SM-Liiga in Finland, improving Swiss Elite League, Deutsch Eishockey Liga and numerous European Pro Leagues provide alternatives to the NHL.
When failed U.S. markets like Kansas are being considered for a second tour of duty, the current system of NHL expansion is obviously flawed. Rather than try to translate professional hockey to markets that view it as wrestling on ice, why not make it work in smaller markets that are hockey crazy.  Winnipeg and Quebec City lost teams in the 1990’s and deserve them back, the booming economy of Saskatchewan makes Saskatoon a viable option, the Maritimes are hockey mad and Ontario could support a team in Hamilton and perhaps a fourth even.  Struggling NHL teams like Phoenix, Nashville, Atlanta, Florida, Carolina and Tampa Bay could relocate to these locations and join the current six Canadian NHL franchises as the Canadian division of the NHL, leaving 18 teams in an American division. This would allow for expansion in to Canada, without destroying the NHL, and the NHLPA would be happy because no teams or jobs would be lost. Teams from the American and Canadian conference would face off for the Stanley Cup every year, which would guarantee a Canadian competitor in the final, something the current NHL CBA and Salary Cap era have made it near impossible to do. The two Stanley Cup Finalists could face off in an annual National championship against the KHL’s Gagarin Cup Winner, and the winner of a new European League Champion. Rather than expand to Europe, the impossible dream of the current NHL leadership, let Europe come to North America. This would also be a great boost for junior and development programs which have been depleted by the controversial allowance of Russian and European players in North American Jr. Hockey Leagues.
The creation of an international professional championship (no offense Spengler Cup), would give hockey yet another premier event to sell, and create new sponsorship and television in-roads.
It just makes sense.

A Great Read on Goals Vs. Cups

A quick look a the changes to our game brought on by the lockout and how the "New NHL" has successfully increased goals, but the formula to success, winning, is sitll unchanged.

Once professional hockey emerged from the cocoon of the 2005-06 NHL player lockout it had evolved in to a faster, sexier version of its former self: the New NHL. Several marquee figure-heads of the “old-guard” were robbed of their final fare-wells. First-Ballot Hall of Fame names like Robitaille, Stevens and Francis faded in to front offices and broadcast booths, advisory rolls or positions in this new game; the old one went out with them. Long gone were the dynasty championship veteran laden teams, built from the back forward and seasoned with overpriced veterans, or so we thought. Ushered in were a group of fresh faced kids, cheaper talent to replace the long-time stewards of the NHL brand who’s grossly inflated salaries did not conform with the salary cap that broke them. While the NHL celebrated increased goalscoring this jump in offense hasn’t translated to better TV or gate revenues, and it certainly hasn’t helped anyone win a Stanley cup.
The game was opened up, and smaller, younger talent was served over crafty, clutch and grab elder statesmen, only the transition was hardly that at all. By definition the creation of the New NHL was more like the violent and quick yanking off of a band-aid. The pain, however, preceeded the transition, as fans were forced to lose a year of NHL hockey, the first professional North American league to suspend a championship due to a labour strike. It was ended with brief tug as the glue of the dying “Dead Puck” game clutched momentarily at the folacles of the hockey masses and was replaced with Crosby Vs. Ovechkin, a slew of new rule changes that increased goal scoring and along with it pugilism, higher impact open ice hits, an unfortunate and pathetic attempt to mimic the great NFL as referees were handed microphones to explain their very basic gestures, and a truly new game. The fans wanted goals. The owners wanted a cap. The players had all the cards and no one to play them, and now arenas are emptier than ever before, salaries are higher and the NHLPA is still a laughing stock. The lockout accomplished nothing, sad but true, but it did change the game greatly, or, a great deal; time will tell if these changes are truly great. But this fast new face of the game suggests that the success of creating a higher scoring league translates to successful high-scoring teams, and a quick look at the NHL regular season standings may just validate that point, but as we all know the second season, or third after both a gruesomely elongated pre-season, imbalanced regular season, and summer league, ahem, that is, playoffs. No, seat sales were supposedly sky rocketing with goal scoring rates, but one truth is that success – greatness – came from winning. Pittsburgh won, and they got a new arena. Chicago won, rejuvenated a once proud Original Six market, but still managed to lose money and dismantle their championship roster. Detroit won, but unfortunately that markets gate numbers are tied to GM’s stock, and no net full of government bail-out money is saving that. This only proves that success, not goals, sells, as it always has, so why the violent overhaul to the style of play? Did we need to see the record books re-written to attract new fans? Sean Avery can stop being a Caucasian Canadian version of Terrel Owens; his antics don’t sell this game the same as #81 sells NFL, although I would curiously watch a Sean Avery reality show.
Scan the regular season standings and we’ll find Washington, the most prolific offense in the league, tied for first in the East and overall NHL standings with last years’ runner-up, Philladelphia. Prior to the start of the 2009-10 Stanley Cup Playoffs the words of R.J. Umberger who prophesized the downfall of Alex Ovechkin’s Capitals only days before they became one of an embarrassed few teams ever ranked first entering the playoffs to be bounced in the opening round by the eighth seed were disregarded.
Umberger’s insite to the still relevant two-way game were disregarded as the jaded ramblings of a boastful American whose team had managed to miss the playoffs after much fan-fare heading in to a highly anticipated season fresh off the Blue Jacket’s first play-off appearance. He was ultimately vindicated.
The Chicago Blackhawks were the league’s third best offense last year during their championship run, but they were also the sixth best goals against per game, and they did so with a rookie cast-off goalkeeper from European leagues. How? A great forecheck, good depth forwards and arguably the best defense in the league, headlined by that year’s Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith, who along with teammate Brent Seabrook also won Olympic Gold Medals for their country, and let us not forget the Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Toews, who is a top-five two-way centre in the game and also a Gold Medalist. Ovechkin’s Capitals had averaged over 0.6 more goals/game than Chicago the eventual cup winner last year but were upset by the Canadiens, who were outscored by over 50% by the Caps that season, but the Canadiens, with their upstart rookie defenseman P.K. Subban, and stud puck-stopper Jaroslav Halak came within one win of a trip to the finals.
The year prior the Red Wings placed first in goals for per game during the regular season, but were defeated in six games by Sidney Crosby and the Penguins, who had a decidedly better penalty kill and fewer goals against per game, while managing to finish an uncharacteristic 20th in power play percentage. This was the sequel to the 2007-08 final where Sid the Kid’s penguins tasted defeat on home ice against a Wings team who finished first in goals against per game during the regular season, compared to a Penguins team that gave up nearly half a goal more per game than the Wings that season. In 2006-07 Chris Pronger, in his second consecutive trip to the finals, teamed up with team Canada cohort Scott Neidermyer, who had a pocketful of Cup rings and Norris trophies already, and a group of rugged, reliable veteran defenseman in front of former Conn Smythe winning goaltender J.S. Giguerre to physically beat their way to a cup championship over the high-flying Ottawa Senators. The Ducks finished 7th in goals against that season, and gave up on average three shots fewer per game than the Sens who finished the year behind only Buffalo in goals for per game. The Ducks also led the league in fighting majors dispelling the myth that Gary Bettman’s New NHL had significantly removed violence from the game. In the first Stanley Cup Final directly following the lock out a surprising Oilers club went from the eighth seed in the West to game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final on the heroic effort of Jussi Markanen, the team’s third string goaltender, who stood on his head after replacing Ty Conklin who replaced starting keeper Dwayne Roloson after an injury felled him in game 1 of the finals. At first glance this series seems to contradict the trend of championship teams built around strong team defense as the Oilers had a slightly better goals against average than the eventual Cup winning Hurricanes, however their defense boasted the likes of Brett Hedican, Aaron Ward and Mike Commodore, a strong 1-2 punch of Cam Ward and Martin Gerber in net, and an impressive collection of centremen: 100 point man Eric Staal, reliable veterans Matt Cullen and Kevyn Adams, and last but not least Rod Brind’Amour who won his first of back-to-back Frank J. Selke awards that year as best defensive forward in the league.
Washington is well on their way to winning a fourth consecutive South East Conference Championship – insert confetti and fireworks here – which guarantees them a favourable ranking of third or better and home ice advantage heading in to the playoffs. During this run they have placed in the top ten in goals for each season, and are primed to repeat as top scorers this year. In this stretch the Caps have improved from 19th, to 16th, to 14th this year in goals against per game, due largely to the graduation of top notch defense prospects John Carlson who is clipping along at nearly half a point per game pace with a plus-8 rating, and Karl Alzner who is an astounding plus-57 in over 100 career AHL games. Mike Green has developed another grade of grit to his sandpaper this season, and a new emphasis on two-way play. Calgary natives Tyler Sloan and Jeff Schultz have become reliable mainstays on the Caps blue line. Michael Neuvirth is making a serious case to dethrone Semyon Varlamov in the crease and the team seems to welcome healthy competition amongst its young star goaltenders. Realizing their window of opportunity to win it all is quite likely closing with the eventual departure of team goal scoring leader (and championship bongo-drummer) Alexander Semin look for the Caps to bolster their defense at the trade deadline at all costs. In poker terms this has got to be the year they realize they have to push all in on defense because everybody else in the league is calling their high-flying bluff.
Supposing the improvements to team defense are enough to get Washington through the East finals their conference is undeniably lax on that end of the game. Will they be able to compete against the traditionally more well-rounded teams of the West? Until they get the opportunity to prove it I would ask Mr. Umberger his thoughts; after all his Blue Jackets are off to a franchise best start, and have allowed a conference low 49 goals this season compared to a ranking of 20th in goals for, but that’s good for fourth in the West, two points from top spot.

It's time for a change: Part 1

With the success of the 2010 Vancouver Games fresh in the memories of hockey fans, it’s time for the NHL to embrace changes to the format of the professional and international game for the betterment of the sport as a whole. Hockey never looked so good as it did in its glory, as Sidney Crosby, part thespian, part hockey-legend, acted out the final scene of what could be considered an Oscar winning script. In theory you can’t influence the outcomes of professional or international sports, but what the International Ice Hockey Federation and the National Hockey League can do is create further opportunities for this type of storied championship to be authored by re-vamping the current system.
As it currently stands hockey, a considerably more international game than other North American Sports, boasts at its professional level what is arguably the greatest championship format, but continues to be a lame duck internationally. While Baseball, a pre-dominantly North American sport recognized the importance of an international championship when they created the World Baseball Championship,  hockey has continued to let what would be its largest global marketing opportunity fizzle.
As it stands the NHL and IIHF are competing, not working together for the better good of the game. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman continues to call the bluff of the NHL Players Association, and holds NHLPA participation at the 2014 Games in Sochi as a cheap negotiating ploy to help break the NHLPA in upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement Talks. The system of adding players to the roster from NHL teams as they exit the Stanley Cup Playoffs lowers the quality of the play in this tournament to that of a shinny game, and the obscure television times don’t help. And, obviously, the World Championships are held in the spring, during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which not only robs the tournament of top talent but viewers as well.
It’s hard to give props to the IIHF when the only true crowning achievement has been the success of the World Junior Championships, however, it’s obvious that the tournament is only popular in North American hockey hotbeds, and its success is more attributed to TSN than any initiative of a governing board of hockey.
The NHL needs to participate in every Olympics, especially the upcoming Sochi games. They must capitalize on a crop of young Russian talent, and the first player of intrigue on a national and tabloid scale, Alex Ovechkin, who defiantly states he will be playing for Russia regardless of the outcome of the CBA negotiations. The NHL is also undeniably losing top-level talent to the Russia-based Kontinental Hockey League. Pressure to retain the games major stars, and to negotiate contracts with Unrestricted Free Agents whose price tag is driven up by competition to sign with KHL clubs. The NHL needs to remind Russia (and the world) that it is still the top league. It’s highly likely that the KHL, as mired in contract and safety scandal as you can imagine it to be, will ultimately fail, as the largest of its financial support comes from the rapidly altering fossil fuels industry. They continue to expand, adding a team in Kiev, Ukraine prior to this season.
The NHL undeniably is the highest level of hockey, and it’s not likely that will ever change. NHL players need to play in the Olympics and to do so they need to alter the NHL season, not just in Olympic years, but permanently, so that Stanley Cup Playoffs don’t run half way in to June every year. Now the league can add a second tournament that is close or equal to the level of the Winter Olympics by placing a true World Cup in rotation with the Olympics, so that every two years is a true major tournament. Like the new World Baseball Classic it could take place prior to the season starting so not to conflict with regular off-season training regimens, or exhaust players by coming at the end of a long playoff run.
This is the first change to both the international and professional games.  Part two poses drastic overhauling of the professional game for the betterment of hockey.

Remember the Code? Ya, neither do I.

The Good ‘Ol Code…fact or fiction?
The lament of Bobby Hull, the greatest goal-scorer of his time, was the effect that head protection, namely the helmet, had on the game. Regarded as arguably the best left winger ever, Hull played in a helmet-free era from 1957 to 1980, a time in which he was quite likely the most prolific scorer. In that time Hull, also known as ‘the Golden Jet’, amassed 610 goals over fifteen seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks, and another 303 with the Winnipeg Jets and Hartford Whalers of the upstart World Hockey Association, where he starred alongside ‘Mr. Hockey’ Gordie Howe, his sons Mark and Marty, and a band of other professional hockey players who defiantly thumbed their noses at the NHL, and struck a victory for players everywhere taking big money contracts in the twilights of their careers to help grow the new rebel WHA.
Hull had always been outspoken, and not just as a pitch man for elyptical trainers, but in all facets of the game. He was one of the first to embody the idea of business of sport. The 303 goals he scored in the WHA very well could have left him the highest scorer of all time had they come in the NHL, but he sold-out and made a business, not a hockey decision and joined the Jets, not far removed from the forgotten days of the exploited professional athlete, who truly risked life and limb because of a passion for the game, and to unjustly line the pockets of franchise owners who did not share a fair cut of the pie with the men putting the product on the ice.
After his playing days Hull took another stand, and although his many negative comments about the use of helmets in hockey were generally perceived as a further proponent for their being made mandatory if willing to see past the neandrotholic skin of his argument his point was brutally true: added physical protection equals weakened mutual respect for physical wellbeing of fellow hockey players, and athletes in general.
The institution of the helmet more or less took the muzzle off the dog and players began to feel its full bight. Body contact, once perceived by the forefathers of the game as a disadvantage as it took a player out of his position was now a tactical high-grounds for dynasties built on pugilism. Open ice hits and the goon side-show became a selling point for the game as it expanded in to non-traditional hockey markets; to the great detriment of the sport, it was reduced to a novelty act. Unfortunately for the pro game the hits just kept on coming. In an effort to protect its stars the evolution of the game made them increasingly vulnerable to cataclysmic impacts. Changes at the grassroots level have had a similar effect but we are only now beginning to see them as a generation of young athletes are coming up playing a game that is nary a shadow of its former self.
Chronologically the first major change to the game is the inception of the helmet. The next change was facial protection. It is near impossible to argue against a breakthrough in physical protection of athletes in a contact sport without coming off as a club wielding cave dweller. Don Cherry isn’t the greatest spokesperson (unless you’re talking cold medicine or mortgages), but his campaign against the visor was perhaps the thing that made him most susceptible to the slings and arrows of his many critics. Cherry’s blame for the visor crossed a line; it was one thing to consider European and French Canadian players as soft, but another to associate them with the popularization of the evil visor. At the same time visor use became prominent minor hockey in this country mandated the full face shield. Now every child that played minor hockey was taught that unsafe use of your stick never resulted in physical harm. The bad habit of uncontrolled stick use without the regard for your opponent was not stymied at the developmental stage as it had been engrained in the past. If an errant stick struck a masked youth hockey player they might not even flinch, and without the head-whip result of a high-stick the penalty is rarely called, and the infraction cannot leave any physical harm.
Again at the grass-roots level what may cost more player’s careers than fights, rocket-launched slapshots from composite sticks engineered by NASA scientists or stray skate blades to the jugular: physical contact removed from the game at the developmental level. Hitting is part of the game. Taking it out of minor hockey was an attempt to protect developing young athletes from the harms of physical contact, until they start to play the game the way its meant to be. There is no transition from non-contact to full-contact hockey, and years of bad habits and careless play along with the inability to properly take and deliver a body check will lead to more injuries than any other change to the game. To make matters worse the inability to hit and be hit is replaced by lacrosse-style stick swinging. The furthest measure of the non-contact minor hockey regime was the red, octagonal STOP sign on the back of the jersey which was intended to remind players attempting to check to let-up when they saw their opponents back. This did little to deter the split-second check from happening, and created a false sense of security for players along the boards who grew up thinking they were invisible when they’re back was turned. This has also led to an unfortunate increase in diving, as players embellish the boarding or hit-from-behind call by purposely turning in to it, even launching themselves in to the boards head long.
Now cue the instigator rule. This change had it happened earlier, would have turned ‘The Great One’ in to ‘The Pretty Good One’. Who would Wayne Gretzky be without Dave Semenko? How good could he and the Oilers dynasty have been without Semenko’s forcefield around Wayne? Whether he was on or off the ice Semenko impacted every player on the other team to give Gretzky a wide girth, or suffer the wrath of Semenko. Los Angeles Kings star Dave Taylor recounts a fight that Gretzky initiated with him. He begged Gretzky to stop because if he was hurt Semenko would kill him. How much did Gretzky appreciate it? In 1983 and 1989 Gretzky won NHL All Star Game MVP; he gave the award, a new car, to Semenko each time. Without the ability to physically impose the other team then the games brightest stars, who are also its biggest targets, are left without protection. Not long after this time we see superstar injuries sky-rocket; Mario Lemieux breaks his jaw in a fight, Cam Neely’s career ended by a knee-on-knee play with Ulf Samuelson, Paul Kariya and Eric Lindros are just two of the high-profile players to be left irreparably damaged by a Scott Stevens hit. These stars that could sell the game best were beaten the most brutally, hung out to dry by a league caught between public appeal and physical wellbeing. How much better would the game have sold if its best players were actually playing? Would Stevens and Samuelson make those hits if they knew a beating were coming every time?

Speaking of Scott Stevens, arguably the most crushing open ice hitter the game has ever seen, if he were in his prime today then someone would be dead. The corolation between sinking revenues and television ratings, and rule changes culminated in the NHL becoming the only professional North American league to miss a championship because of a labour dispute. Greedy owners locked out the players and the fans were the victim. The salary cap was a negative blow as GM’s scrambled to find ways to retain players and resorted to front-loaded retirement contracts. NHL player’s careers were shortened even further as reliable journeymen lost jobs to cheaper entry-level players. But the rule changes on the ice coming out of the lockout, fueled by the growing pressure to sell the game after the ‘dead-puck’ era had created a low-scoring, boring league with no stars left who could count backwards from 10, let alone entertain the lay-person.
There would be a salary cap for the front office to battle, and the two line pass would go, as would no-touch icing. Kurtis Foster suffered a gruesome break to the femur in a race for puck what should have been blown dead in the no-touch icing system long before the largest bone in his body was snapped in half. The two line pass has claimed many more victims than the no-touch icing however, and it has led to immediate restructuring of the rule book. The recent debate on headshots on the vague definition of both what is a head shot, and, what is the penalty, is an embarrassment to the league. It is contradictory to the changes the league has implemented, and it is unfair to the players making the hit. The obstruction era of hockey never allowed the type of momentum that a muscled-up jock in a suit of armour traveling on slick ice can now attain without being interfered with, and now that he can receive a pass almost twice as far up the ice as he used to he has gotten a lot longer of a launch pad. This shielded warp-speed athlete grew up not learning how to make or take a hit, how to control his stick, how to keep his head up and now he is cast out in to a league where he is free to fly, and freely grounded with life long repercussions. The 6’5” goon who used to protect him and spent his whole life fighting for a handful of available jobs in the NHL is now out of work because his role is obsolete because it was deemed too violent. Tell that to 5’10” Mike Richards, a repeat offender of career altering hits.

Taylor Hall Approaching Nine Game Cut-Off

Will the Glass Slipper Fall for Edmonton's Hall?
Taylor Hall was dominating the OHL even before draft eligibility. In his draft year he repeated his stunning sophomore campaign, leading the Windsor Spitfires to a Memorial Cup Championship, and being named MVP in back-to-back seasons. We watched the ‘Fall for Hall’ turn in to ‘Taylor Vs. Tyler’ as Hall, once considered the clear-cut first overall selection in the 2010 NHL Draft was now rivaled by an upstart Tyler Seguin, who tied him for top scorer in the OHL last season, while scoring more goals. Despite Seguins attractive combination of two-way hockey and top-end talent, Edmonton did eventually take Taylor Hall with that coveted number one choice. A handful of games in to their NHL careers Seguin, taken by Boston second over all, has a respectable three points in six games, compared to Hall’s one assist in seven games. As NHL clubs approach the nine game mark which allows them to return Junior eligible players to their junior league teams, tough decisions must be made. Seguin seems to be ear-marked to stay with the big club all year, but Hall’s inability to score does make Steve Tambelini’s (Edmonton’s G.M.) decision much tougher.
Oilers coach Tom Renney said he doesn’t feel Hall will be returned to the spitfires for a chance at being named Memorial Cup MVP for a third straight season. But if Hall is returned to Windsor before he plays his ninth game then his entry-level NHL contract doesn’t kick in; tempting for an Oilers club in full rebuild mode. And it isn’t the current cap-hit that would be the issue for this year’s version of the Oil, as they are still 13 million below the salary cap ceiling as it stands, but when Hall does establish himself as one of the league’s premier players (when, not if) that first year in which he struggled would make him a year closer to free agency. Magnus Paajarvi (formerly known as Paajarvi-Svensson) and Real Canadian Hero Jordan Eberle are both in the first year of their entry level deals with Edmonton that would be a difficult trio to retain for any General Manager.
Hall and the Oilers have been a thrill to watch this season, despite their losing record. Hall was double shifted in the third period of a 4-2 loss to Minnesota and it was like watching him dominate the last two Memorial Cup tournaments. He was all over the place, and only credited for two shots but he had five or six scoring chances that just missed the net. He’s getting the chances and creating opportunity, and when he finally gets a bit of puck-luck he will amass point totals, which will also help his team worst -4 rating.
His piers, Eberle and Paajarvi, have posted five and four points respectively, but Eberle is a year older and Paajarvi has been playing against men in the Swedish Elite League for three seasons. Hall’s point totals aren’t there yet, but sending him down to the minors would be strictly a contract negotiation move, one that no G.M. in his right mind would ever make, wasting another year of Hall’s development. Edmonton won’t be forced to stall Hall’s development. They won’t balk in the face of the 9 game cut-off. They know the talent he possesses, and that he needs the challenge of adapting to NHL caliber hockey and for an entire season. It’s unfair that most rookies have to show NHL chops in their first 9 games or toil away another year at a level well below their abilities. This system adds unnecessary pressure to young athletes that are already overwhelmed with the unachievable expectations of their teams, the fans and media. This whole situation shows an immediate need for change to the entry level contract structure.  9 games does not a career make.

Team Canada in 2011

2011 Team Canada
How much difference does a year makes?
When Team Canada’s roster for the Men’s 2010 Winter Olympic team was announced in some abandoned airplane hanger prior to puck-drop at the only international hockey event that holds a candle to the Olympics, the World Juniors, there were few surprises. This was perhaps the most anticipated announcement in the history of this country, and had it occurred this year as opposed to last it may have been vastly different. As we approach the time of year that Steve Yzerman and Co. were making the final difficult decisions to shape the greatest hockey roster in the history of the game let’s examine how things could’ve been in 2011.
On defense it could be argued that Drew Doughty’s play this season may have swayed Team Canada General Manager Steve Yzerman and staff to select Mike Green in his place, or perhaps a rejuvenated Ed Jovanovski for more experience. Despite lower than anticipated points totals Doughty remains one of the best players in the league, a threat in all zones, he had to be selected. The only difference on defense would be the obvious omission of the now retired Scott Neidermyer, who likely would not have retired if the Olympics were in 2011. Retirement notwithstanding, Kris Letang, the current leader in points by Canadian defenseman would have to be the logical replacement. With Neidermyer out its likely his old blue-line partner from the Stanley Cup winning Anaheim Ducks, Chris Pronger, would where the Captain’s ‘C’. With Pronger assuming the ‘C’ it’s likely Duncan Keith or Shea Weber would take a roll as assistant, as both forwards with ‘A’s, Sidney Crosby and Jerome Iginla are can’t miss selections.
Although Jerome Iginla’s play is quickly fading his experience and role of pure power-forward, goal-scoring winger would have to make him a lock, but it wouldn’t be unforeseeable for Chris Stewart to fill that role. Stewart has led his Avalance to the top of the Northwestern Conference standings, ahead of Cup favourites the Vancouver Canucks, and at the NHL season quarter-pole he sits fifth in league scoring. Last year Eric Staal was selected despite a poor start to the season, which included injury problems. This year his play has steadied, making him, along with Cory Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, Sidney Crosby, Martin St.Louis, the aforementioned Iginla and Mike Richards, the only clear-cut choices to make the team had the Games been this year.
Look at the top 30 scorers in the NHL and you won’t find any of the Sharks big name forwards: Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau. Heatley is Canada’s all-time international leading goal scorer, so he makes the grade, but with an abundance of centres, all with better two-way games, this makes Thornton expendable, and by extension, Marleau. These three were taken last year as a package deal based on the great chemistry they had developed with the Sharks, but if one is missing then only Heatley is in. Jonathan Toews has had a slow start, but he is third amongst NHL forwards in time on ice, and his stellar shoot-out skills and international experience, as well as formidable play in all zones makes him a lock.
Toews’ teammate Patrick Sharp is off to an electric start, sitting 11th in league scoring. A true winger, and the prototypical all-around Canadian player, Sharp makes the Olympic team in 2011. Just ahead of Sharp in league scoring, Derek Roy of Buffalo, is a small, speedy forward that can play in all situations. Hard to keep him off the roster but Sharp would edge Roy and replace Patrice Bergeron as the 13th forward. Steve Stamkos who is making a serious push to join the 50-50 club (50 goals in 50 games) this season wouldn’t just have a role on the team, he’d likely battle Crosby for most minutes, in fact, he could’ve been the “Golden Goal” scorer.
Team Canada selection isn’t just about picking the top 23 Canadian players and saying, “Go win Gold.” Team chemistry is the crux of the selection process, and Brenden Morrow of the Dallas Stars barely held on to his part on the team because of his great forecheck and physical presence on an energy line. He played a huge part on the Gold Medal winning team in 2010 but based on performance this season his checking role could have fallen on the versatile Jeff Carter, the Kings Jarret Stoll, who can play both wing and centre and has a cannon for a shot, or likely to a pair of Bruins noted for their ability to bang-bodies and crash the net, Milan Lucic or Nathan Horton. Since Lucic was invited to camp from the beginning, and is the player most like Morrow, he likely gets the nod in what was Morrow’s role.
That leaves Rick Nash, who has led Columbus to a franchise record start to this NHL season. He makes the team, but barely, since this year’s crop of high performing Canadian forwards has some new, unexpected names, and much more depth. Andrew Ladd is a point-per-game player thus far this season, and the newly minted Captain of the Atlanta Thrashers. His physical two-way game makes him hard to cut, along with the resurgent Brad Richards who sits fourth overall in league scoring. Phillie’s Claude Grioux has finally made the leap to NHL stardom after an extended AHL career. There are twenty other forwards not mentioned with a legitimate claim to a roster spot.
Goaltender could’ve been the area with the most turn-over, perhaps even a whole-sale change. Roberto Luongo usurped Martin Brodeur’s crown-thrown of starting goaltender part way through last years tournament after a disappointing start by Brodeur against team U.S.A. They are ranked 26th and 30th respectively in NHL Save Percentage. Marc-Andre Fleury was a good emergency option, coming off a cup win and with an impressive body of international hockey experience himself, but he is ranked 34th.
If you were picking team Canada’s goalies today you would have to take the league leader in wins, games played, save percentage and shut outs, Carey Price, and the man considered Canada’s fourth goalie last year, Cam Ward, who has an impressive .914 save percentage on a non-playoff bound Carolina Hurricanes team. Steve Mason has found his game again with an upstart Blue Jacket team, but Brodeur’s experience would probably win him the job as stop-gap should Price or Ward fall to injury during the tournament.
So the 2011 Team Canada is:
Stamkos    Crosby     St.Louis
Heatley     Getzlaf     Nash
Staal         Toews       Perry
Lucic    M. Richards  Sharp
Pronger  Letang
Keith       Seabrook
Weber    Doughty