Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Preparation for any raucous event usually involves some kind of inebriating warm-up whether its downing a 30-pack in the parking lot, or taking bong hits and shots of Jaeger at the house before you head out to get really banged up. Well tonight has the same kind of feel around the league, and even at the Junior level as well. After Canada's 15-0 drubbing of Kazakhstan at the World Juniors, the US had a victory well in hand over the Kazakhs' with an 8-0 lead heading into the third, before the head to head match-up of the two. The Bruins faced the Pens in the first of a home-and-home series, working over the home team with a 5-2 victory in Pittsburgh in what very well could be a playoff series down the road in April. And of course the big buildup is the tune-up game between the Blackhawks and the Wings for the Winter Classic at Wrigley. Lets hope we see more of a game on New Years Day than the 4-0 dismantling of the young Chicago team by the wily veterans of Detroit that we saw tonight.

Pre-game... Pre-season... Pre-... paration. Is that what the first half of the season really is? The '08 portion of the '08-'09 season? The time when sought-after, Hall of Fame free agents decide to return to the game they "love" after a half-year hiatus?

Well if it is, than its time to take a look at how the teams look heading into the latter part of the season. Not yet are the teams at the 40, 41 game mark signifying the half-pole mark of the schedule, most are still about three to four games back, (except of course for the Rangers at 39 games). But now is the time for teams to get serious, either strategize for the post, or plan for the draft.

Looking at Ross McKeon's 'Power Rankings: New Years Resolutions...' on Yahoo! Sports you get an idea of what teams should be looking to do better this year, than they did the season before leading up to April. Some of these I agree with, some, to me, are flat out wrong. And while I won't disagree with the rankings so much as what these teams need heading into '09. I'll just do the top 15 for the whole brevity thing.

First off...

Boston Bruins - McKeon's right in that the B's are rolling, this team is playing like they see the game differently than the rest of the league, they are just hitting on all cylinders. But as far as making noise at the deadline, I think that could be a mistake tampering with the chemistry of this team. Barring injury, and the need to fill some holes, the only trade bait is Manny Fernandez but I think keeping the tandem of Manny and Tim Thomas may pay dividens.

San Jose Sharks - I'll have a live account of what this team is capable of when I visit the 'Tank' on Saturday night against the pushover Isles. For right now, this is the team to beat in West, even though Detroit whooped them two weeks ago. Detroit will be the main competition for this team, and they know it, but do they know that Claude Lemieux is not the answer.

Detroit Red Wings - Do these guys have enough left in the tank for another run? Sure they'll make it interesting, and will be hard for any team to beat, but goaltending is suspect, and this is probably the last year for a few cast members.

Montreal Canadiens - Gambled on Carey Price putting the team on his back just like McKeon says, but was a little wobbly when the pressure's on. No question the pressure is on for the 100th Anniversary of the franchise, but I believe the best shot for the Canadiens was last year.

Washington Capitals - I'm actually surprised they are as high as they are in the standings, 9 points back from Conference leader Boston, and two ahead of the Rangers. Goaltending and defense are the Caps' problems McKeon states, and I agree, more so goaltending. Losing Huet was big, even though he hasn't played the greatest for the Hawks, much better recently, he is still a much better alternative than career underachiever Jose Theodore.

Chicago Blackhawks - Ah, the great white hope of the NHL and little Gary. They are the new Penguins of the league, top draft picks, skilled role players, this team will have to suffer a hard loss in the postseason this year, to have that fire for next year.

New York Rangers - Still reeling from the heartbreak of Sundin's traderous walk to Vancouver. I don't know if this organization will ever learn that high priced free agents alone will not get you to May. Defense is miserable, Lundqvist can only do so much.

Calgary Flames - Their best shot is long behind them, and that series between Tampa could have gone either way. Kiprusoff is on a decline, and Iginla and Phaneuf cannot do it alone.

Philadelphia Flyers - I actually figured the Flyers to make a good run last year, even though it surprised the rest of the hockey world for them to beat the powerful Canadiens. This team has all the right elements but the injury bug keeps biting them in the ass. But there is something else that's keeping this team from getting over the hump. No chalice, but another good run.

New Jersey Devils - Its funny how everyone thought the sky had fallen when Brodeur went down, but the Devils have kept it together. But nothing will help this team get past the first round this year, even with Brodeur back.

Pittsburgh Penguins - The fire should be brighter than ever for this team, after that scalding loss to Detroit in Game 7, not to mention Hossa's departure for the red and white. I believe Marian would have a better shot this year with the Pens than with the Wings. Shero will probably make another big move for another "winger for Crosby," unless he's learned his lesson.

Edmonton Oilers - Not sure about this spot in the rankings but whatever. Right now they're sitting just outside the playoff bubble with a lot of good teams inside, and a few they're competing with outside the Top 8. Big moves would have to be made in Edmonton for Oil Country to even have a shot, and I don't think they have the personnel to offer, aside from goalies.

Vancouver Canucks - Its Sundin madness in BC and his entry into the lineup is going to put a lot of electricity into that team, not to mention the fan base. But still Gillis has a lot of room to work with, and is still attempting to prove himself to the rest of the GM's around the league. As McKeon states the signing of the Sedins' is critical, but that will have a lot to do with Sundin returning for another year.

Anaheim Ducks - 2007 was an exciting time for hockey fans in Southern California, but that ship has sailed. General decline, and the exodus of Brian Burke will have this team yearning for another Championship for years to come.

Carolina Hurricanes - Another team that's been on the decline since their Stanley Cup skate-around. Brind'Amour is not the Selke representative he once was, and the goaltending that was lucky that year has now shown its true colors. They'll miss the playoffs, but it won't be nearly as dramatic as last year's late charge by the Caps.

More to follow...

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Litmus Test

As stated by several hockey writers throughout the start of this season, the Detroit Red Wings are the measuring stick that all other teams in the league compare themselves to. Being the reigning Stanley Cup champions helps a team to earn that title, but the true reason behind their success is their consistency created by the people behind the scenes. From GM Ken Holland right on down to head coach Mike Babcock on the bench, this franchise is saavy in all areas of management. Their business model is what all other NHL franchises aspire to one day become.

Now don't get me wrong, I hate the Red Wings, they're like the New York Yankees of the NHL. But you have to admit that this team is consistently in contention for the biggest prize in all of hockey, and that's no easy feat.

When teams play the Red Wings, they gear themselves for one of the biggest games of the year, for that same reason. Detroit fans, bandwagon or otherwise, come out in all parts of the country to support their team, making them one of the biggest, if not the biggest draw of visiting teams in the entire league. But that's not the main reason for the draw, its the fans knowing that they are going to see a hell of a game when the Wings come to their rink. Even if the local team isn't much of a challenge, fans know they are going to see some world class talent on the ice with the likes of Zetterberg, Datsyuk, and Lidstrom.

If you beat the Wings, that's something to be proud of. But like my old hockey coach used to say, "they're human, they put their pants on one leg at a time, just like you," in an 82 game season they can't win them all, and are bound to have a few bad nights just like everyone else in the league. But how you beat the Wings is what really tells you if your team has the stuff to pull off 16 wins in the post.

The Boston Bruins, the hottest team in the East right now, played the Red Wings a little over two weeks ago, and beat them by a score of 4 to 1. Four to one sounds like a pretty normal hockey score, but the way the Bruins beat the Wings was another matter completely. The B's controlled the tempo, played the Detroit-style, or Babcock-style puck possession game to perfection, and had a 3 goal lead just before the halfway mark. Detroit scored on the Power Play late in the second, to crack the perfect game of Manny Fernandez, preventing the game from being a sound thrashing.

And now the San Jose Sharks, the hottest team in the West, will face the Wings on Thursday night after a tune-up game against the Blue Jackets tonight. If the Sharks are as good as they look, and as good as they are on paper, then Thursday night will have to be undeniable proof that they are the team to beat. The Sharks are notorious for their shortcomings in the playoffs, with big expectations and little playoff success. The expectation could not be any bigger this year with the start that the Sharks are having. Everyone in the San Jose area, and all avid hockey fans have to believe that this is the year the Sharks go all the way.

If not now, when?

...A couple of things to note, in the comparison of the Bruins playing the Wings, and the upcoming Sharks game. The Bruins played at home in Boston against Detroit, and that will be the only time they face the perennial powerhouse this year. The Sharks are playing in Detroit on Thursday night, and have already beaten the Wings in San Jose by a score of 4 to 2. The Sharks will face Detroit twice more, one home, one away before the regular season ends. All tests. The Sharks are playing tonight, which will certainly affect their jump, and their game tomorrow night. But with that said, Columbus is a push-over with no playoff record to speak of, and should be a nice warm up to the real showdown on Thursday. However this scheduling is no different from the Bruins schedule in late November, when they faced another bottom-feeder, the New York Islanders, and steamrolled them by a score of 7 to 2, before the faced the Red Wings the next night.

This game should show the Sharks what they are made of, on unfriendly ice, against a strong team that they may certainly see in the post. It sets up to be a good one, second only to a Sharks team visiting TD Banknorth Garden on February 10th. Let's hope both teams are still this good then...

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Backup Starters and Tango-ing with Tandems, the Goaltending Issues of the NHL

Well as people care less and less about the Avery debacle, and even less about where Sundin ends up, it seems the new issue among the hockey media is goaltending controversies, and the rewards from cheap free agent signings. I'll gladly take the league minimum and provide some quality "door-opening and supportive butt-slapping" in the NHL, all homo-erotic tendencies asside. [ESPN]

It doesn't feel all that long ago, but I still remember the days of getting Score and Upper Deck hockey cards, and finding those duds within the pack of the season's awards winners. One I distinctly remember was the William Jennings Trophy, and the lock that Patrick Roy and Brian Hayward had on the hardware in the late 80's. The Jennings was created in order to reward "the goalkeeper(s) having played a minimum of 25 games for the team with the fewest goals scored against it." Obviously, Patty was pulling the majority of the weight for that Canadien tandem, but at that time in my young, idealistic mind it made sense to me that two is better than one. Nowadays, all we talk about is your #1 goaltender, and his typically overinflated salary, and his counterpart, the poor, pennyless backup, relegated to "door-opening and supportive butt-slapping."

But as we've been discovering, #1's are vulnerable, and their backups are playing like they've got nothing to lose, because in all reality they don't. Its like that brutal Keanu Reeves/Gene Hackman football movie The Replacements, "they've underestimated you, you're playing like there's no tomorrow, because there is no tomorrow, and that makes you all very dangerous people! (sic)" They've been through it all, been told they'd never make it, they don't have the tools, then work their way through the minors, paying their dues, only to finally make it, get waived, or traded for a bag of pucks, they've seen it all. Craig Anderson turned heads last year with two back-to-back shutouts for the Panthers, and now you're seeing him get more playing time than multi-millionaire Tomas Vokoun. You look at Vokoun's old digs in Nashville, as Scott Burnside points out, he was replaced by Chris Mason, who was replaced by Dan Ellis, who is in the process of being replaced by Pekka Rinne. Chris Mason who state-hopped over to St. Louis was supposed to be Manny Legace's backup, or his tandem partner? He's now playing just as much as the Olympic goaltender.

And that brings us to the issue, is it better to have a #1 goaltender to play 60 odd or more games through the season, or to have two capable goaltenders that each have equal amounts of trust from the head coach and brass?

Due to the cap, and these ridiculous contracts lately, the tandem occurence is more of an accident, than the actual modus operandi of a GM. Take the Boston combination at the moment right now. You've got Tim Thomas, the definition of a journeyman backup goaltender who has taken what may have been his final opportunity to make a career out of it, and become a big reason the Bruins are having the success they have had this year. And then you've got Manny Fernandez, who was injured all of last year, which gave Thomas his shot, and had played poorly before that, has now re-invented his game and is splitting time in the net, and coming up with some solid wins. Fernandez too, has an interesting history, he was once part of the accidental goaltending tandem with Dwayne Rolosson back in Minnesota. Rolosson was eventually supplanted, shipped to Edmonton, where Nik Backstrom popped up, played great, and pushed Manny out of Minnie, (after collaborating to take the Jennings). And now, there's a lot of talk of Fernandez being shopped at the deadline for whatever the Bruins might need for the push. Personally, I would rather take two solid goaltenders into the post than one, barring injuries to any key players.

Is it ego, or accounting that has destroyed the notion of using two goaltenders to win it all? Goaltending is always the bottom line when it comes down to the playoffs, so why have two capables. Pittsburgh felt pretty comfortable last year all the way to the SC Finals. After losing Fleury for a good part of the year, Conklin stepped up and played great. If Therrien had to pull Marc-Andy would the Pens had any less faith in Ty? And look at the Champion Red Wings, who was their #1? Dominic Hasek who watched from the Zamboni doors, while Chris Osgood won them a Cup. And now in a bit of irony, Conklin signs with Detroit, and is now pushing Osgood out of Detroit.

We've seen star goaltenders like Brodeur, Luongo, and Kiprusoff just completely fizzle out in the post because there's nothing left in the tank, they're exhausted. And we don't trust their peanut-earning backups to play more than 10 or 12 games throughout the regular season, and probably only expect them to win two or three anyway.

Now I realize that there is a short of quality goaltending on the planet, (in our beer league we haven't had the same goaltender play more than two games, if we even get one for the night), and most teams can't land two equally competent goaltenders. And I understand that all players have cold streaks, bad seasons, and go down to injury. But is paying one #1 boatloads of money, whose frailty, both mentally and physically holds the weight of an entire franchise, and fan base?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Jump Onto the Media Bandwagon...

As much as I hate to do it, I feel I must. As much as I hate to give any time even thinking, let alone writing about omnipresent pest, Sean Avery. I won't put nearly the time into it that some of my favorite fellow bloggers have, but I will get it out of my system. But just in case you can't get your fill, check out Puck Daddy's side of it, and for another side, and a take on all the other opinions, check out my B's compatriot, Here Come the Bruins. Or if somehow you've been living under a rock for the day, you can hear about it on every other mainstream media outlet from Rush Limbaugh to Kevin & Bean on KROC as I was riding home from work.

First off, I'll say I am not a fan of Sean Avery, or his antics, but like it or not he's a profesional hockey player who earns a couple of million per year to play in the National Hockey League. If you offered me that kind of money, I could be a real asshole too, if that's what you were paying me for, and a pretty good one at that. The Dallas Stars knew what they were getting when they offered him $15.5mil for four years, and even if Brett Hull pushed for the deal, Les Jackson can't claim that he's not at fault for allowing it to happen. I think the rest of the hockey world thought that Steve Ott was enough for Big D, and Brenden Morrow can definetely mix it up when the occasion calls for it.

But by Bettman showing his hand by ordering the suspension, he has not only ruined an otherwise sleeper of a game, but now he has his final decision on this whole spectacle in the media spotlight. Had Bettman called the Stars organization and demanded a suspension by the team, as Puck Daddy suggests, this would be a non-issue in terms of the precedence the mainstream media has given it. "You think that happens if the Stars handle this internally?" Wyshynski states. Definetely not, hockey resumes its regular spot in the corner. The Dallas brass issued their displeasure with the remark so quickly, that it wouldn't have taken much convincing from Little Gary. But now, the media is all over it, and Sean Avery wins again. He gets exactly what he wants, more time in the spotlight, not to mention a league mandated break from an awful season for the Stars. The real punishment would have been to let him play, but in the interest of safety, either Dion or Jarome would have done their best to punch Avery's ticket. It would have made an otherwise dull game interesting, but potentially could have led to a lot more fallout for the league. It was a good decision to keep Avery out of the game, bottom line. An indefinite suspension, ummmm, not so much. I guess it gives you enough time to figure out what to do with him, and have him issue his extremely politically friendly "apology." Avery's future in the league will be determined at a later date. Okay that's enough of that.

Saw something interesting, and a little confusing in the St. Louis Blues vs. Minnesota Wild game tonight. Coach Andy Murray, "one of hockey’s most respected coaches" as his team profile states, opted to pull his goaltender for an extra attacker in the waning minutes of the third with his team down by three goals. Hey Andy, there's nothing wrong with giving your team a chance, but lets not be delusional about an abysmal Blues team that couldn't score on Nik Backstrom for the first 58 minutes. Then, to pour salt on an open wound, Antti Miettinen catches a headman pass from Belanger and breaks towards the open net, flying past newly acquired Toronto defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo, whose last ditch effort to dive and knock the puck away with his stick, ends up in Miettinen's skates. Apparently a penalty shot awarded when the net is empty, is just credited as a goal. The Wild win 4-0.

Just a quick spot on coaching changes... Peter Laviolette has been axed as Carolina's head coach, and been replaced with former Carolina, (and even Hartford), head coach Paul Maurice. This makes shitcanning the Head Coach that led you to a Grail win a few years before the new "in" thing. John Tortorella, who steered the Lighting to the Cup in '03-'04, was given his walking papers before the season started in favor of the Mullet, Barry Melrose, who was sent home sobbing 16 games into the season. Interesting choice for Carolina, bringing back a previous head coach, but as the majority of the hockey world stated, that locker room needed a "shakeup." I personally like Maurice, who didn't have much to work with in his previous job in Toronto, but I'm not sure he's going to provide a real earth-shattering difference in that locker room. But this boss change made me think of another possible change in the near future, Craig MacTavish in Edmonton. MacT has been personally calling out players, most notably Dustin Penner, who, obvious to everyone else but Kevin Lowe, would not live up to the offer sheet he received. I think Mac is a good coach, and he's the perfect coach for Edmonton, where he spent the majority of his 14 helmetless seasons playing. But oh, rumble, rumble, the sluggish Oilers need a "shakeup," rumble, rumble. Does Laviolette fit in Edmonton? Maybe. Torts? Probably a better choice for a hard-nosed Canadian team like that. Think Darryl Sutter in Calgary. In summation, Laviolette, overachieving coach who got raw deal. Tortorella, think sandpaper on your bare ass. Maurice, good coach, but needs help in producing a winner. Melrose, stay in the booth, please. MacTavish, another good coach who's going to find another job quick, if he loses the one he's got.

Bye for now...