Sunday, January 06, 2013

So we have a deal…

Well, hockey fans…months and months of pointless posturing, lost revenues and who knows just how much lost respect later…and we finally…maybe…have a deal to salvage what’s left of the 2012-13 National Hockey League season.

Okay, let’s make one thing clear- the NHL and NHL Player’s Association have reached a tentative deal, meaning it still needs to be ratified by the PA and the owners in a vote of their constituents…and, given all the stupidity we’ve seen in this whole process, a “no” vote surely doesn’t seem out of the question.

I digress, though, and hold out hope that the fact that we have a tentative agreement is an indication that the stupidity is done. Of course, the question now is- what’s next?

Like I did with the lockout, examining who won and who lost with this agreement would be pointless, because we all know who the real losers are- the fans. You know, the ones who actually generate the revenues for the sport and the ones who the players and the owners will ultimately have to answer to for their absolutely abhorrent behaviour.

So what do we, as the fans, do? Getting pouty and angry won’t mean much if there’s no action in the end- if we come back in droves and take in the game like we did before then it sends the league no message. Nor will it send them any kind of message if we protest for merely weeks or even just the rest of the year- no, the actions have to continue for years to come.

Oh sure, the league is going to try to woo us all back. They’ll pull all the tricks. However, we cannot be fooled- unless the league shows us some actual change and not some fancy façade, it doesn’t deserve any of us back. So, hockey fans, don’t let the league pull the wool over your eyes- be skeptical, be critical and, most importantly of all, do something. Don’t just mouth a few words in anger and then splurge on the NHL like you did before- vote with your feet, visibly protest and continue doing so until the league has really changed, no matter how long that takes.

I have a forum, and I’ll be far less conciliatory. The time for complacency is done- it’s time for all of us to show the league that we won’t be taken for granted again.


Sunday, November 04, 2012

A word on the NHL Lockout

Okay, so I’ve been silent on the NHL lockout to this point. Although I would rather remain silent on the topic, I feel it wouldn’t do any justice for my readers not to know why I haven’t weighed in on it.

See, I could go into the issues. Analyze the numbers. Discuss about which side is more correct than the other, if one side really is more correct. However, doing that would lend credence to this fight, of which I can find no rational justification for.

You see, back in 2004, a lot of fans thought the game was in trouble. The divide between the “rich” and the “poor” teams had started to engulf hockey, and while much of that divide was fuelled by the owners’ own incompetence regarding the rules of the Collective Bargaining Agreement at the time, the lack of a salary cap did seem to really affect competitive balance. Back then, when the NHL said they needed to institute a salary cap and would do whatever it took to do it, we believed them, and we, as fans, thought that even though the prospect of a lost season was upsetting, we understood that the game was in a serious malaise and if we had to sacrifice a season for the long term gain of hockey, we’d be prepared to do it.

For the first few seasons, it seemed to work. Canadian teams not named “Toronto Maple Leafs” were profitable again. The “small market” Carolina Hurricanes won the 2006 Stanley Cup and other “small market” teams like the Phoenix Coyotes and Florida Panthers experienced successful seasons. Revenues nearly doubled since 2003-04, the last full season played before the new CBA took effect. Hockey now even had the Winter Classic as an added revenue generator, and stars like Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin appeared to make hockey more visible in the United States, where the league had been fighting for visibility for decades. When the Los Angeles Kings romped their way to the Stanley Cup this past spring, hockey seemed to have a heartwarming story of a Cinderella beating the odds to win the Cup, with the added bonus of playing in a city guaranteed to generate hockey its visibility. Everything was looking up.

Now…this. It defies explanation.

Does hockey have its issues? Yes. The divide between the rich and the poor, though not as pronounced as in years past, was still present. We have teams sign absolutely insane contracts for its players as a way to circumvent the salary cap. Player movement, and subsequently, team improvement was stagnant if not existent. Problems, yes, but they weren’t issues that, with a little bit of discussion couldn’t be resolved- all hockey needed was greater revenue sharing, a better split of the revenues between the players and the owners and a cap on contract lengths. Nothing Earth-shattering or as radical as introducing the salary cap in 2004, which would have meant changing the entire economic framework of the game, unlike now where the framework just needs a few tweaks.

Yet, what are we stuck with? A long, entrenched war between the players and the owners that has featured more than its fair share of bickering, backstabbing and emotional outbursts, and very little in the way of actual discussion. These are people who are supposed to work together?

Perhaps Gary Bettman is afraid of Donald Fehr, who steered the Major League Baseball Players’ Association to what was a major victory for the players when they successfully went on strike to avoid a salary cap. The strike back then was so destructive for the game that MLB, despite the fact its economic framework is in serious need of repair to restore competitive balance, has steadfastly refused to take any sort of labour action to correct the issue, which has led to the steady erosion of baseball’s disillusioned fanbase. This past World Series between the Detroit Tigers and the San Francisco Giants, was the worst rated Series of all time, and Series ratings since 1996 have yet to come close to pre-strike levels. Baseball’s fanbase has also gotten older (the average age of a baseball fan is 43), as younger fans turn to basketball and football for their entertainment. So driving a stake into Fehr and the NHL Players’ Association’s proverbial hearts might just be in Bettman’s long term interests.

For their part, it’s possible that Fehr and the players see this as an opportunity to rid themselves of the cap. There have been a few noises in that regard, and the players have been very vocal about the owners’ stupidity regarding contracts. So taking a philosophical stand against the cap just may make sense, especially if the players can call attention to their employers’ own incompetence without much fear of retribution.

Is this really all worth it though? The players and the league may have their reasons for engaging in their fight, but it’s not productive for hockey as a whole. CBA negotiations shouldn’t be about “who is right” and “who is wrong”- it should be about getting the best deal possible for the industry. If we are going to have a long term fight, it should be about correcting what ills hockey as a whole, not to assuage the petty egos of both sides of the conflict.

We all know there’s a deal to be done and that it should have been done a long time ago. The fact that it hasn’t means that neither side cares about the industry- and by extension, the fans- and cares only about themselves. Now, even if a deal is done next week, the damage might already be done: we’ve had games needlessly canceled and the fanbase again disillusioned, convinced that the league and the players are nothing but childish, coddled, millionaires. At least in 2004 this all made sense. Now, in 2012, none of it does- and who knows if the fans will ever come back.


P.S. For those of you wondering what I'm up to, I have another blog I'm updating more frequently. It's the East Cup Blog, which is about a fictitious hockey world I've created. It's meant as a commentary about what I believe the hockey world should look like. It's still a work in progress and won't give you any real hockey, but I hope it will provide some enjoyment.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Into The Crystal Ball: 2012 Conference Final Edition

What a second round. Though only one series went past five games- the topsy-turvy New York Rangers’ seven game victory over the Washington Capitals- it was still filled with surprises, as the upstart Phoenix Coyotes and New Jersey Devils found ways to improbably win their way to the third round against seemingly better opposition. Phoenix faces the Los Angeles Kings, another upstart, while the Rangers and Devils continue the Rivalry of the Hudson in a rematch of the epic 1994 Conference Final.

Western Conference Final

#3 Phoenix Coyotes vs. #8 Los Angeles Kings. The story for the Coyotes has been Mike Smith. Constantly outshot game after game, Phoenix has gotten past the Chicago Blackhawks and the Nashville Predators on the back of Smith, who has been echoing the work of Jean-Sebastien Giguere when he went on his amazing run for the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in their 2003 Cinderella run. The problem is, the Coyotes are *just* Smith and they’re giving up way too many scoring chances and have yet to play against a team that can bury those chances. The Kings, unfortunately for Phoenix, are one of those teams, whose forward depth is anything unlike the Coyotes have faced so far in these playoffs. The ‘Yotes may be a feel good story, but unfortunately for them, the story will end quickly in the third round. Kings 4, Coyotes 0

Eastern Conference Final

#1 New York Rangers vs. #6 New Jersey Devils. The Hudson River Showdown, the first since 2008 and the first time in the Conference Final since the memorable 1994 showdown that was decided in double overtime by Stephane Matteau. The particulars are different here- though Martin Brodeur is still in the New Jersey net, the Devils are the offensive team this time and the Rangers are the defensive one. New Jersey is this far due to the emergence of Ilya Kovalchuk into a playoff threat after years of being solely a regular season player as well as the resurgence of Brodeur, who is looking more like the 31-year-old who last led the Devils to their third Cup in 2003 than the 40-year-old who has had to dog chatter that he’s over the hill. Still, the Devils face a team that’s better defensively than any other they’ve faced this post-season, as the Ranger shot blocking machines- led by Dan Girardi and Marc Staal- and the game’s best two-way player in Brad Richards, will make the Devils’ offence- which doesn’t get much production from the point to begin with- very hard to come by. This will still be a competitive series, but the Rangers’ defence should win the day. Rangers 4, Devils 2

Stanley Cup Final

E#1 New York Rangers vs. W#8 Los Angeles Kings. The two epicentres of the United States, this is the dream Final for the NHL. It may not have the sex appeal that it should, since both the Rangers and Kings have somewhat flown under the radar, but it should still create a buzz. The series will be strength versus strength, as the Rangers’ stoic defence squares off against the flashy Kings offence, mirroring their respective cities. Thus, whoever wins this series will be the one that can counter the other team’s strengths the best, and the Kings- whose defence has proven capable whereas the Rangers have yet to provide consistent offence- are the best bet to do that against New York. Kings 4, Rangers 2


Friday, April 27, 2012

Into The Crystal Ball: 2012 Conference Semi-final Edition

Question: How do you top a first round with three Game 7’s, each a one goal game and two going to overtime, with three upsets (Kings, Capitals, Coyotes) and a Western Conference situation that guarantees a Sun Belt franchise will be in the Cup Final? By turning the clock to May and seeing what surprises lie ahead.

Eastern Conference


#1 New York Rangers vs. #7 Washington Capitals: Prevailing opinion in this series is that the Capitals would be no match against a defensive team with a great goaltender, but it was against the Bruins too and we know what happened. The Rangers have more speed, but not the guns to keep up with the upstart Capitals. Capitals 4, Rangers 2

#5 Philadelphia Flyers vs. #6 New Jersey Devils: These aren’t your father’s Devils, as New Jersey is more of a fun-and-gun, freewheeling kind of team than the staid defenders of years past. Then again, these aren’t your father’s Flyers, who are also more of a fun-and-gun, freewheeling kind of team than the brute attackers of years past. Only difference is that the Flyers actually have blueliners, whereas the Devils don’t, though this should be a fun, close series. Flyers 4, Devils 3


#5 Philadelphia Flyers vs. #7 Washington Capitals: Is this where the Capitals’ magic runs out? Yes. After two rounds where the Caps’ defence wasn’t tested, the Flyers will come at them with wave after wave. If it isn’t Claude Giroux hurting them it’s Scott Hartnell or Daniel Briere or Jaromir Jagr or super rookies Sean Couturier or Matt Read or Brayden Scheen or the rugged Wayne Simmonds. This won’t be close at all. Flyers 4, Capitals 0

Western Conference


#2 St. Louis Blues vs. #8 Los Angeles Kings: Let’s make something abundantly clear: yes, the Kings’ victory over the Canucks is an upset, but it’s not as big as many think. Los Angeles is a good team, with a deep forward cast and a great goaltender, who are only now finding their stride. They should be where the Blues are and would be if the first half of their season wasn’t garbage. St. Louis was full marks for beating a San Jose Sharks team that, despite the Sharks’ superior offence, just couldn’t break through the Blues’ stout defence and superior goaltending, though the Blues are going to have their hands full against a Kings team that can score just as well as San Jose can- only this time, they can stop the puck just as well as the Blues can. St. Louis will make this close but the Kings are too deep. Kings 4, Blues 2

#3 Phoenix Coyotes vs. #4 Nashville Predators: This series is billed as “system vs. system”, with two teams that play the same way playing each other. Truth is, we’ve got two teams who are more workmanlike than star-studded that play responsible hockey but with a lot of speed. It’s going to be a fun series but Nashville has the edge since they have the better goaltender and the better defence- no one seems to be a match for the Predators’ super duo Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, with Kevin Klein emerging as a force. Predators 4, Coyotes 2


#4 Nashville Predators vs. #8 Los Angeles Kings: This series will pit the Kings’ offence against the Predators’ defence, since those are each team’s relative strengths. This series is so close, it’s like splitting hairs and whoever wins the matchup battles- Shea Weber/Ryan Suter/Kevin Klein vs. Anze Kopitar/Mike Richards/Jeff Carter/Dustin Brown, Pekka Rinne vs. Jonathan Quick- wins the series. Since I have to pick, I have to pick the Kings- they have the size to match up with the Predators, and they’re responsible enough defensively that their depth on offence should break them through, though this series will be extremely close. Kings 4, Predators 3

Stanley Cup Finals

E#5 Philadelphia Flyers vs. W#8 Los Angeles Kings: If you look at both teams and think you’re looking in the mirror, it’s because you are. They’re the exact same team. They both play an abrasive, exciting brand of hockey with lots of skill, the Flyers doing it with speed and the Kings with size, with two quality goaltenders. The advantage goes to Philadelphia, who, despite having slightly inferior goaltending to the Kings, have the superior blueline, which will be enough to make up the gap in net. Flyers 4, Kings 2


Monday, April 09, 2012

Into The Crystal Ball: 2012 Playoff Edition

When the clock turns to April, there’s only thing left to do: turn to everyone’s favourite orb to tell you just how the Stanley Cup Playoffs will work itself out.

Eastern Conference


#1 New York Rangers vs. #8 Ottawa Senators: The Senators rediscovered themselves with speed and defence but the problem is so too did the Rangers, who not only possess the better goaltender but better overall personnel. This should be quick. Rangers 4, Senators 0

#2 Boston Bruins vs. #7 Washington Capitals: About the only thing going in Washington’s favour is that Nicklas Backstrom is back in the lineup. Unfortunately, that’s all they have going for them. The Bruins won their Cup last year wearing down skilled teams like the Capitals, and, considering Washington’s goaltending woes and Boston’s prowess in net, there’s hardly any reason to think Boston won’t make quick work of the Caps. Bruins 4, Capitals 0

#3 Florida Panthers vs. #6 New Jersey Devils: The Devils re-enter the playoffs after a one year hiatus, the Panthers after eleven years, so guess who will be rustier. The good news is that these ain’t your father’s Devils, so the Panthers should be able to put up quite a fight, and you have to ask questions about Ilya Kovalchuck’s mental toughness on the Devils’ side. Still, the Devils have enough playoff moxie- and greater depth- to see them past the Panthers, though it will be tough. Devils 4, Panthers 3

#4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #5 Philadelphia Flyers: You know times are different when it’s the Penguins- not the Flyers- being accused of dirty play (with one of those accusations coming from the Flyers), but such are the times we live in. It’s no secret that the Pens haven’t been the greatest of sportsmen in recent weeks, and you have to wonder if they can bury the antics long enough to let their skill shine through. Pittsburgh has made gains this season- no longer are they just Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and some spare parts, there’s some genuine depth in the form of James Neal (40 goals), Chris Kunitz (26), Pascal Dupuis (25), Jordan Staal (25), Matt Cooke (19) and Steve Sullivan (17). The Flyers, though, can match Pittsburgh’s depth, with Claude Giroux (28 goals and 93 points), Scott Hartnell (37 goals), Jaromir Jagr (19), Wayne Simmonds (28) and super rookie Matt Read (24). Philadelphia has also received better rearguard play (slightly) and ostensibly has the better goaltender in Ilya Bryzgalov, but Bryzgalov has been up and down whereas Marc-Andre Fleury is a proven playoff goaltender. I lean Pittsburgh’s way because of it, but this will be very close. Penguins 4, Flyers 3


#1 New York Rangers vs. #6 New Jersey Devils: Their first meeting in the playoffs since Sean Avery’s buffoonery with Martin Brodeur should play out much like the last time- minus the antics. In 2008, the Rangers disposed of the Devils with their superior depth, and this time they have even more of it to call upon with the additions of Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik, not to mention the fact Broduer himself is a shadow of his former self. It adds up to the Rangers becoming the first team since the 1985 Edmonton Oilers to start a playoff year 8-0. Rangers 4, Devils 0

#2 Boston Bruins vs. #4 Pittsburgh Penguins: Skill vs. braun, antics vs….well, more antics; and two Conn Smythe goalies going head to head. Paper suggests that this should be a runaway for the Penguins, but so did it for the Canucks last year in the Cup Final and we all know what happened. The way this looks, it’s déjà-vu all over again- the Penguins come in skilled but ansty while the Bruins come in tough and stingy. Close series but again a Bruin win. Bruins 4, Penguins 3


#1 New York Rangers vs. #2 Boston Bruins: You have two great defensive teams with great goaltenders squaring off for the Eastern final, one that uses speed (Rangers) and one that uses braun (Bruins). In fact, it’ll be so stingy that the first team that gets to four goals gets to win the series. In this case, the Rangers should do it since they have the firepower (the series’ only forty goal man in Gaborik) the Bruins do not, but it will be very close. Rangers 4, Bruins 3

Western Conference

#1 Vancouver Canucks vs. #8 Los Angeles Kings: The Kings were supposed to be world-beaters this season with the addition of Mike Richards to the team while the Canucks have been world-beaters- with or without Daniel Sedin. On paper, this is an even matchup (which should count for something) but Los Angeles is far too inconsistent to take seriously. Canucks 4, Kings 2

#2 St. Louis Blues vs. #7 San Jose Sharks: There’s a saying: beware of the good team that had a bad year. There’s another saying too: beware of the bad team that had a good year. While the Blues don’t qualify as a bad team, there’s no doubt they’re overachievers, basing much of their success on the backs of goaltenders Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott and coach Ken Hitchcock’s defensive scheme than raw talent. The Sharks, meanwhile, return many of the same players that dominated the West for years, and, while they haven’t dominated like in years past, they still have plenty going for them in these playoffs. St. Louis has made a lot of strides, but the Sharks’ playoff savvy should see them past the green Blues. Sharks 4, Blues 2

#3 Phoenix Coyotes vs. #6 Chicago Blackhawks: Lost in the hoopla about the Coyotes’ imminent turn to Quebec City is the fact that this is the Coyotes franchise’s first division title in their history. Won’t mean much in this series since the ‘Yotes are outmatched against Chicago, but not by much. Phoenix finally has the skill to match their work ethic, but the ‘Hawks are a deeper bunch. If Jonathan Toews returns, this could be a quick series, otherwise it’ll be a long one. Blackhawks 4, Coyotes 2

#4 Nashville Predators vs. #5 Detroit Red Wings: Now that Alexander Radulov is back in a Predator uniform this series becomes much more interesting. The Predators come in much more structured and poised than previous incarnations and now they finally have the firepower to compete with Detroit, who are a fading bunch heading into the postseason. The Wings still have more skill, but they have questions in net whereas Nashville does not, and the Predators can now say they’ll win the blueline battle. It’ll be very close but this time the Predators have the upper hand. Predators 4, Red Wings 3


#1 Vancouver Canucks vs. #7 San Jose Sharks: Hard to believe that with virtually the same cast in both cases that this won’t go the same way that it did last year- in the Canucks’ way and quick. Might even be quicker considering the Sharks aren’t as good as they were last year and the Canucks are better. Canucks 4, Sharks 0

#4 Nashville Predators vs. #6 Chicago Blackhawks: This will be the year the Predators vanquish their playoff foes, as they’re the team on the rise and their foes will be the ones on the decline. This time, it’s the Blackhawks, who, while stronger than a year ago, still have a ways to go before they’re back as Cup contenders. Nashville, however, is already there, with a deeper blueline, a great goaltender and finally some forwards they can hang their hats on. Predators 4, Blackhawks 2


#1 Vancouver Canucks vs. #4 Nashville Predators: Amazingly, the Predators’ run will match them up against every team that defeated them in the playoffs, and the Canucks will be their last test. I know I said this would be the year they would vanquish their playoff foes, but it only came with the qualifier that the team be on the decline. Vancouver isn’t on the decline- far from it, actually. This is a better Canuck team than the one that Nashville played a year ago- they finally have size in their top six and have actually filled it out, combined with a talented bottom six- so while Nashville should provide a fight, they’ll see they still need a few pieces to really get over the hump. Canucks 4, Predators 2

Stanley Cup Finals

#W1 Vancouver Canucks vs. #E1 New York Rangers: 1994 rematch, with the Canucks this time with home ice, and prospects of a much more even series. The two teams are a clash of styles- the whirling dervishes of the Canucks against the workmanlike, stingy Rangers- and both play it so well that this series will go back and forth. In the end, though, the Canucks have been here before and will want to atone for last season’s mistake, and they can play the defensive game as well as the Rangers, whereas the Rangers can’t score with the Canucks. It’ll be a close series but this will be the ultimate revenge for 1994. Canucks 4, Rangers 3


Sunday, March 11, 2012

Time for Brian Burke’s swan song

At the end of November, the Toronto Maple Leafs were flying high, sitting third in the Eastern Conference, with Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul forming a formidable offensive duo that could rival the league’s best. At Christmas, the Leafs had fallen from the Northeast summit but were still comfortably in the playoff picture in sixth place, good enough to give then head coach Ron Wilson a contract extension.

Fast forward to now, following a heartbreaking 2-0 loss to the Washington Capitals in a frustrating weekend that saw the Leafs not score a single goal. Since achieving such lofty heights early in the season, Toronto now sits a season high eight points out of the playoffs, being closer to the last place Montreal Canadiens (still hard to swallow) by being just four points up. The Leafs have won a league-worst five times since the All-Star break, with two of those victories coming against the hapless Edmonton Oilers, fired Wilson and have a team that looks nothing like the team everyone thought was supposed to take the ice at the start of the season.

What makes this season worse is that- should the Florida Panthers qualify for the playoffs (a likely scenario at this stage) the Leafs will remain the only club to have not qualified for the playoffs since The Lockout. Toronto’s streak of seven straight non-playoff years will be the longest active drought. Only five players currently play in the National Hockey League that have ever played a single playoff game for the Maple Leafs- Matt Stajan, Steve Sullivan, Tomas Kaberle, Nikolai Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky. Three others- Adam Mair, Karel Pilar and Danny Markov- are also still active but are not in the NHL, Mair being stuck in the American Hockey League, Pilar skates in Sweden and Markov skating in Russia.

There’s only one person to blame for this mess and that’s General Manager Brian Burke, whose quest to remake the team has turned one kind of mess into a different kind of mess. The team Burke inherited from John Ferguson Jr. was one of virtually unmovable veteran has-beens that had outlived their usefulness, and while Burke has done a great job moving those parts, instead of replacing them with something resembling a competitive hockey team, the result is another hodgepodge of parts who haven’t executed quite the way that it was planned.

Coming into the season, the Leafs’ primary strength- as is the case with all Burke teams- was supposed to be its blueline, and with players like Dion Phaneuf, Mike Komisarek, Calle Gunnarsson, Cody Franson, John-Michael Liles and promising youngsters Luke Schenn, Keith Aulie and Jake Gardiner, there was little to doubt that assessment. It has remained the team’s strongest component, but it still isn’t coming as advertised- Phaneuf has been dominant but is often stuck on an island with mismatched partners, Komisarek has been a defensive liability all season and has been in and out of the lineup, Aulie was inexplicably traded for a career minor leaguer, Gunnarsson has been effective enough to play but has regressed this season, Schenn has also regressed and Liles has been a relative disappointment. Only Franson has come as advertised and Gardnier has been a pleasant surprise, but that’s been it for the bright spots on the Leaf blueline.

The rest of the team has been much worse. Lupul was a pleasant surprise, and part of the blame for the Leafs’ recent struggles has been his absence, though the slump began while he was still with the team. Kessel has recorded another 30-goal season with 34 goals so far and could still hit 40 by season’s end, an impressive feat given that he doesn’t have much help up front. Tim Connolly was signed to be Kessel’s help, but all he’s done is prove why the Buffalo Sabres let him walk last year. Mikhail Grabovski has put together a solid season as a dependable second-line player but just got re-signed inexplicably at a first-line rate. Nikolai Kulemin has slumped badly this year after a career year last year. Clarke MacArthur has quietly put up 19 goals this season and Tyler Bozak has quietly put up 38 points but neither fill the role as solid top six threats. Joey Crabb and Matt Frattin have been pleasant, bottom six surprises but that’s been it for the bright spots on forward. In net, there doesn’t need much to be said- neither James Reimer or Jonas Gustavsson have been consistent, quality netminders all season long and, although Reimer looks more like a No. 1 goaltender than Gustavsson does, it’s debatable that Reimer is close to that status as the season winds down.

We could move from here and discuss what the Leafs need to do this summer- find a legitimate No. 1 centre, acquire a veteran goaltender that can fill in as a starter while Reimer develops, do something with Komisarek, etc.- but I’m here to suggest something else: it’s time for the Leafs to start seriously looking at other options at GM, and think outside the box.

I have a friend who is a Blue Jay fan. We were talking about the Leafs yesterday and he suggested that the Leafs follow the same path that the Jays did and hire a “nobody” as a GM, the reasoning being that in a big market, you “establish” your name. While it’s debatable whether or not it will work for the Jays (though the path looks nice), it did get me thinking- this did work in hockey; and one only needs to look at the league’s most successful franchise of the past twenty years to see how.

In 1997, the Detroit Red Wings decided that little known Ken Holland would replace their old GM tandem of former great Jim Devellano and Scotty Bowman. Coming off their first Stanley Cup since 1955 the move was risky, but the move paid off- Holland not only repeated the following year, but wound up winning again in 2002 and in 2008, proving his capabilities in a cap-less and a capped world. His teams have never missed the playoffs and have been a Cup contender in every season, including this one.

Now, Holland did have a long career with the Wings already and he did have some help in the front office with the great minds of Bowman and Devellano at first, but this is still unmistakably Holland’s team that he alone built. It speaks volumes that in a hockey fishbowl that is Detroit the team decided to pass the mantle to a relative unknown instead of hiring a “proven” commodity to lead the team, and not only has Holland managed in that environment, he’s thrived. An unknown has nothing to lose- if he fails, you chalk it up to a lack of experience and let him pursue other opportunities, while if he succeeds, it’ll be the greatest “little guy” story ever.

Obviously the first reaction for Leaf fans at this suggestion would be consternation- for a franchise that now has the longest Cup drought in NHL history, logic would dictate it’s better to have someone that “knows what they’re doing” than to give the reins to someone who, presumably, doesn’t. However, we’ve had four seasons of Burke, someone who should “know what they’re doing”, and all he’s shown is that he just seems to be making things up as he goes along, and isn’t giving the team much of a foundation for the future. What else explains the decision to trade two first round draft picks for Kessel? It might be true that was a miscalculation whereby the team did much worse than Burke expected, but the truth is this mistake is costing the Leafs big time, and the youngsters Burke has assembled on his team weren’t drafted by him- Gardiner was an Anaheim Duck pick, Kulemin came from Ferguson (as did Reimer), promising youngster Joe Colbourne was a Boston Bruin pick, and Schenn was a pick from the Cliff Fletcher interim days. Burke’s own picks, headlined by Nazem Kadri, have proven to be flops thus far in their careers- of the top 10 picks in the 2009 Draft (where Kadri came from) only Kadri and Dallas Stars pick Scott Glennie (who went eighth) are not NHL regulars. It may still be true that the Leaf picks can still pan out- Kadri is, after all, 21- but considering the Leafs could have selected Jared Cowan (a fixture on the Ottawa Senators’ blueline) or Marcus Johansson (a fixture on the Capitals’ forward corps), it’s hard not to think Burke could have done better with his pick.

Is it time to get rid of Burke if Toronto doesn’t make a surprising push to the playoffs this season? I’m thinking he may deserve one more year to see if he can right the ship, but I am thinking now’s the time to start the conversation about finding a replacement. Burke has now had four years for this team to start showing signs of life, and every year the team winds up performing the same- show some flashes of brilliance only to flounder to mediocrity by season’s end. Four years of this is unacceptable- five years is reprehensible. It’s time we start thinking of replacements, and instead of finding another Burke, let’s find another Holland- because a guy with nothing to lose is sure doing a lot better than someone who will find out he had everything to lose.


Sunday, October 23, 2011

DG's Hat Trick- October 23, 2011

THE CRYSTAL BALL, PREDICTIONS FOR 2011-12: I know I’m late with this, but I’ve been busy and it’s still early enough in the season to write it up.

Here’s how it will all shake down:

Regular Season

Eastern Conference

  1. Washington Capitals
  2. New York Rangers
  3. Buffalo Sabres
  4. Tampa Bay Lightning
  5. Montreal Canadiens
  6. Pittsburgh Penguins
  7. Boston Bruins
  8. Winnipeg Jets
  9. Toronto Maple Leafs
  10. Philadelphia Flyers
  11. Carolina Hurricanes
  12. New Jersey Devils
  13. Florida Panthers
  14. Ottawa Senators
  15. New York Islanders

Don’t be fooled by the Rangers’ ranking as a No. 2- the Eastern Conference is weak, with only two real contenders for the Cup in Washington and Tampa Bay. The rest of the teams are essentially competitive playoff teams right down to the tenth-ranked Flyers. The Leafs and the Flyers are the odd teams out in this equation because both have way too many question marks to guarantee a playoff berth, with Toronto banking on the perpetually fragile Tim Connolly to be Phil Kessel’s setup man and Philadelphia trading most of its offence for Ilya Bryzgalov, who has elite level talent but has a tendency to choke at the biggest moments. The Jets- the old Atlanta Thrashers- make a return to the playoffs in their first season in Winnipeg, as the Thrashers were on the rise last season. As for Pittsburgh, their position is fluid- since Sidney Crosby has no set return date and Evgeni Malkin is still feeling the effects of his knee injury, the Penguins’ performance depends on how much service they get out of both players. If neither are available for a lengthy amount of time, Pittsburgh could miss the playoffs entirely but if they are only ineffective for a short period of time, the Pens should be comfortably in the playoffs. Sixth, thus, is a reasonable compromise, since I believe the Penguins will have a healthy Crosby and Malkin sooner rather than later. The Sabres are the East’s darkhorse- the additions of Robyn Regehr and Christian Erhoff gives Buffalo a formidable top three on defence with super youngster Tyler Myers, meaning it will be even more difficult to score on Ryan Miller and the Sabres.

Western Conference

  1. San Jose Sharks (President’s Trophy Winner)
  2. Vancouver Canucks
  3. Detroit Red Wings
  4. Los Angeles Kings
  5. Anaheim Ducks
  6. Columbus Blue Jackets
  7. Nashville Predators
  8. St. Louis Blues
  9. Chicago Blackhawks
  10. Dallas Stars
  11. Edmonton Oilers
  12. Calgary Flames
  13. Phoenix Coyotes
  14. Colorado Avalanche
  15. Minnesota Wild

San Jose wins the West because the Martin Havlat trade gives them a dimension their top six hasn’t had in a while- speed. Before Havlat, this was a slow, plodding group, and with big bodies such as Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, he’ll have even more room to operate. He is fragile, though, but should play enough to be effective. The Canucks should also be in the thick of the Western crown chase, since only Christian Erhoff is gone from the team that dazzled the NHL last year, though Erhoff’s absence will be felt. Los Angeles also jumps into this mix with the addition of Mike Richards in the offseason, giving Anze Kopitar badly needed support and solidifying the Kings as the most physical team in the West. Detroit should win the weak Central in its sleep, but age has caught up to this group so don’t look for them to be serious Cup contenders. St. Louis jumps into the playoffs- barely- because they’re a young team that is on the rise, enough to push out a declining Chicago Blackhawks team. The Nashville Predators also sneak into the playoffs, since, although they suffered major losses in the offseason, Barry Trotz always seems to make it work, so I expect him to make it work this season. Finally, the Edmonton Oilers should make significant strides- their youth should start rounding into form and though it won’t pan out entirely this season, the Oilers should start to make some noise.


Eastern Conference

(8) Winnipeg 4, (1) Washington 3- The Caps have had numerous problems with upstarts in recent years, and the Jets will be no exception.

(7) Boston 4, (2) NY Rangers 2- Boston is built for the playoffs, and the Rangers just won’t be able to handle their size.

(3) Buffalo 4, (6) Pittsburgh 2- The Pens have no offensive depth go up against a team with a stacked defence. Ain’t going to happen.

(4) Tampa Bay 4, (5) Montreal 2- Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis will show Montreal why they need real offensive depth and not has-beens whose best years are behind them.

(3) Buffalo 4, (8) Winnipeg 1- The Jets don’t have any gamebreakers, making them easy pickings for the Buffalo defence.

(4) Tampa Bay 4, (7) Boston 3- This will be another classic series because both teams are very evenly matched. The Lightning will have learned from their mistake last season and play more offensive, a game Boston can’t keep up with, and can now match them physically with Simon Gagne’s presence.

(4) Tampa Bay 4, (3) Buffalo 3- Another classic series, the Buffalo defence against the Tampa offence. The Lightning will advance since the Sabres can’t match their scoring depth and Tampa’s defence is at least competent enough to stay with Buffalo, but it will be close.

Western Conference

(1) San Jose 4, (8) St. Louis 0- Yeah, the Blues beat the Sharks in this same capacity in 2000 but this is a different Sharks team- they know how to win and should easily dispose of the upstart Blues.

(2) Vancouver 4, (7) Nashville 2- A replay of last year’s second round series and should play out exactly the same- Nashville will have the hunger but won’t have the horses to compete with the Canucks.

(6) Columbus 4, (3) Detroit 3- The upset pick of the West, since the old Wings will show the hockey world that they’re firmly in decline whereas Columbus is a team on the rise.

(4) Los Angeles 4, (5) Anaheim 3- The Battle of Los Angeles should be a lot of fun, since both are bruising outfits that love to score. The Kings should win the day since they’re deeper, but barely.

(1) San Jose 4, (6) Columbus 1- Years before, the Jackets’ speed would have won the day. Not anymore, because now San Jose can skate with them, and should all the way to the next round.

(4) Los Angeles 4, (2) Vancouver 2- Should be an evenly matched, close series which is doom for the Canucks, who always wilt under pressure. This time it should be no different, especially against the physical Kings who will hit them out of the playoffs.

(1) San Jose 4, (4) Los Angeles 3- Rematch of last year’s first round. Should be closer this time since the Kings have added horses, but it’ll still be San Jose’s day- the Sharks now have speed Los Angeles can’t match, though this could go into overtime of Game 7. It’s that close.

Stanley Cup Final

(W1) San Jose 4, (E4) Tampa Bay 2- This will be the first ever Cup Final where no combatant will be north of the 40th parallel, which should make hockey purists nuts. Once they get past their prejudices about hockey in warm weather climates they’ll realize these are two vibrant hockey markets with very good teams- this should be a competitive, offensive series, only going to San Jose- finally- because the Sharks have that much more depth.

SKEPTICISM ABOUT SHANAHAN: If there can be a complaint about Brendan Shanahan, the league’s new disciplinarian, it won’t be because he’s too shy to make a move- in the last ten days of the preseason, Shanahan issued nine suspensions totalling 60 games, with another two game suspension handed out on October 8 to bring the season total to 62 games. To put that in perspective, last season the league didn’t hand out its 62nd game in suspensions until February 9, which represents a refreshingly aggressive approach in a league that desperately needs it. Shanahan has buttressed his approach with flashy videos (okay, they’re not really flashy) explaining why the suspension is what it is, giving him an air of accountability his predecessor, Colin Campbell, did not have. Furthermore, Shanahan is expressive and eloquent enough that his explanation is persuasive, another quality Campbell lacked.

However, I have my doubts and it’s pretty obvious what they are. So far, none of the players Shanahan has suspended- aside, maybe, from Buffalo’s Brad Boyes- has been anyone of real impact, and undoubtedly a player of impact will do something silly that requires action. The main complaint against Campbell was that he was hesitant to do anything in these situations or “softened” the blow to ensure the team he plays for isn’t punished that much. What will Shanahan do if Tyler Myers, Chris Pronger, Alexander Ovechkin, Milan Lucic or any other impact player with a history of discipline problems do something that calls for action? Will Shanahan again waver, his explanation ringing hollow?

The other part- and I’ve been saying this for years- is that the NHL still doesn’t have a set standard for infractions. Yes, Shanahan is persuasive in his arguments and you generally believe the call he made is the right one, but even he is showing signs of erraticism. The suspensions for hits to the head have varied- Clarke MacArthur received three games, Boyes received two, Brendan Smith eight and James Wisniewski 12. In Wisniewski’s and Smith’s cases, the victims were injured whereas in MacArthur’s and Boyes’ cases they weren’t. Wisniewski is a repeat offender so his case is a special one, but Smith, MacArthur and Boyes can be compared. First of all, if MacArthur and Boyes committed the same offence, they should receive identical suspensions and they didn’t. Second of all, if the standard is that injuries add to a suspension, why did Smith get an extra five games and Pierre Marc-Bouchard, another player without a record, only received two games for his offence (which was different, granted, but it still had the same result)? If the theory goes that if Bouchard’s victim, Matt Calvert, wasn’t injured that Bouchard wouldn’t be suspended, then shouldn’t Smith’s suspension be five games at the very most (which is three games, MacArthur’s suspension, plus two)? Simply put, these questions shouldn’t be asked, because randomness is the antithesis of discipline- if no two offenses receive the same punishment (or any punishment at all) then it can’t be a deterrent since players won’t know if the action will receive any discipline. If they don’t know they won’t care- and it’s business as usual again.

(I feel like I’ve written that before…I hate sounding like a broken record but the league never seems to learn…sad really)

Yes, it’s still early and Shanahan is new to the job, but there are still reasons for scepticism. His approach is refreshing so he deserves a chance, but unless he proves otherwise, there’s no reason to believe anything, unfortunately, has changed.

6,306 SHOW UP IN DALLAS- ANOTHER TEAM IN TROUBLE?: The hawks always seem to be circling teams in the South, and no, we’re not talking about Jonathan Toews.

This time the target are the Dallas Stars, who on October 10 drew a paltry 6,306 fans to a home game against the Phoenix Coyotes. The game itself was pretty staid with a dramatic finish, with Sheldon Souray’s point shot in the final seconds redirected home by Loui Eriksson to knot the score at 1 with Mike Ribeiro netting the shootout winner later in the night. The initial story was how the win showed a resiliency in Dallas that was absent in the team’s collapse last season but the real story was the lack of fans in the stands.

It may be true that the Texas Rangers were down the I-20 walking off the Detroit Tigers in the American League Championship Series, but that’s small potatoes for a team in Dallas that has been unstable for years. Ever since Tom Hicks put the team up for sale in 2009, the Stars have joined the cavalcade of teams- mostly, but not all, in the South- that are having financial problems. Hicks blames it on being “south of Pennsylvania” whereas the fans blame Hicks’ penchant for overpaying for veteran free agents in the Stars’ heyday for the Stars’ financial problems.

There could be some truth to Hicks’ statements. In Dallas’ Stanley Cup year, their payroll was $36 million (all figures U.S.). A year later, the payroll jumped to $46 million, enough for another Cup final run. Three seasons later in 2002-03 the Stars’ payroll jumped to $69.5 million, with it gaining $13 million for a $78 million count by the time the lockout hit. That’s an astronomical rise in such a short period, a rise that may have proven to be unsustainable. It’s worth mentioning that before the lockout the Canadian dollar was nowhere close to parity which affected the Canadian teams’ ability to compete financially, so the Canadian dollar’s rise against the greenback is a factor in Dallas’ competitiveness- the moment parity happened was when the Southern teams started really getting into trouble, because now the Canadian teams regained their financial muscle. Having said that, Dallas is the fourth largest market in the United States, too big to lose, and the team’s lack of success may have something to do with the team’s poor form as of late at the gate- this was a team that essentially grew hockey in Texas, an impact not felt anywhere else in the South.

It will still restart the rumblings about the viability of teams in the South, and will ask whether or not the Stars join the conversation. We won’t need to get into that debate- it’s been hashed and rehashed one too many times- but it brings the salient point that something does need to be done concerning the viability of franchises as a whole across the league. The current economic model, while better than the haphazard one that preceded it, hasn’t produced the results it was supposed to; and, as The FAN 590’s Bob McCown noted on his radio show, the NHL doesn’t have a lot of places to stick these struggling franchises. You have Quebec City, Kansas City and a whole lot of “maybes” and that’s it. Is it time to talk contraction? It may be the only option left.

One thing is for sure- this summer, the current collective bargaining agreement expires. You can bet we’ll be in for another long fight as the Southern teams look for financial sanity in a league that has yet to produce it. The sad part is that I’m not sure the NHL can survive another long stoppage- can a struggling league handle another lost season when it already lost one six years ago? All this because the league didn’t get it right the first time- and could pay the price the second time.

BONUS HIT: A story out of Russia sees the Kontinental Hockey League potentially adding a team in Italy. The team, Milan’s Rossoblu (the “red-blues”), was told by the KHL that they have “the organization to join the league”. However, there’s already a lot of scepticism (as noted by Alessandro Seren Rosso) about the viability of a team in Italy, namely the lack of proper facilities (the Rossoblu have an arena that sits 4,500 and draws 1,000), regionalism (Italian hockey fans- and sports fans in general- tend to gravitate towards teams in their own country, not ones from distant lands that they do not know) and the lack of available talent that could compete at the KHL level. However, the KHL has said for years that it wishes to conquer Europe, and perhaps a team in Italy represents the kind of “outside of the box” thinking that could prove to give it a productive legacy. This will be a story to follow in the coming months.


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