Sunday, July 01, 2007

2006-07 Year In Review

Well, with the Free Agent Silly Season fast approaching- and the monumental change in rosters it brings- it’s time to take a look back at the year that was.

Stanley Cup Final Review

After three straight Finals that went seven, the Anaheim Ducks disposed of the Ottawa Senators in five games without breaking much of a sweat. The Ducks’ tenacious checking game- led by Samuel Pahlsson- easily took care of the surprisingly one-dimensional Senators, who possess more skill on offence but only had one line- Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza- click for them. The series was in direct contrast to the relative ease at which Ottawa qualified for the Finals, dusting off the Pittsburgh Penguins, New Jersey Devils and President’s Trophy winners Buffalo Sabres in five games- each time never trailing in a series. The Final never featured a single overtime game despite its defensive nature and was indicative of the playoffs as a whole- lacking drama and compelling hockey.

However, the biggest story out of the Cup Final came off the ice. Perhaps predicting the usual bickering that goes on north of the 49th parallel after an American team beats a Canadian team for the Cup (Anaheim’s victory was a deserved one, especially after their own heartbreaking failure in 2003), the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Don Cherry decided to go on a rather offensive pro-Canadian rant. Not only did Cherry point things out like how the Ducks were majority Canadian (and were built that way when Bryan Murray, the Senators’ coach, was in charge) and the fact that “all MVP’s and top players are Canadian, he had the audacity to claim that teams would be unable to win if they drafted Europeans. On top of being blatantly wrong- American Brian Leetch won the 1994 Conn Smythe Trophy (as playoff MVP) for the New York Rangers, and two of the Ducks’ key players are Scandinavians Teemu Selanne and Pahlsson (who’s probably just as gritty as Chris Neil)- it is, frankly, racist.

You might be surprised I used “racist” there, but think of it this way: no black general manager has won the Super Bowl. Would it mean that teams would be remiss to have a black general manager? No- being black has nothing to do with the ability to manage a football team. Furthermore, if anyone were to even suggest that a black general manager could not win the Super Bowl they would be grilled in an instant. Yet anti-Europeanism is allowed to proliferate in hockey culture, despite the fact that “being European” is no different than “being black”, as Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson can’t control the fact he’s of Swedish descent in much the same way that Baltimore Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome can’t control the colour of his skin. I’m aware that Cherry is far from the only anti-European in hockey circles (and he was far from the first), but it still doesn’t make his rant right- in a society that embraces multiculturalism, this kind of discrimination shouldn’t be acceptable, and Cherry should be held accountable for using Canadian taxpayer money (as that is what funds the CBC) as a forum to espouse views that run counter to the values of this country. It’s also time that anti-Europeanism- hockey’s biggest undetected problem- gets taken down, because it’s a stain that can only hold back hockey.

The 2006-07 Season: The Highlights and Lowlights

With the Stanley Cup Final review out of the way, it’s time to take a look back at the year that was in 2006-07:

The Highlights:

-The City of Buffalo wins its first major championship after the Buffalo Sabres’ 2-0 victory over the Washington Capitals in Buffalo’s penultimate game seals the Sabres’ first President’s Trophy title. The Sabres were led all year by their potent offence- the NHL’s highest scoring machine at 308 goals for, the only team to break 300 this year- as well as an underrated team defence that’s built primarily on sound position and smart coaching. Buffalo would add a good playoff run to their regular season title by advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals for the second straight year, losing in five games to the Ottawa Senators.

-Sidney Crosby becomes the youngest athlete in North American sports history to win his league’s scoring title by amassing a 120-point season at just 19 years of age.

-Staying in Pittsburgh, the Penguins- led by Crosby and his fellow young guns Jordan Staal and Evgeni Malkin, as well as grizzled veterans Mark Recchi and Sergei Gonchar- qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 2001 with a 105 point season. The Penguins would subsequently get dusted four games to one by playoff-experienced Ottawa in the opening round, but the Penguins- 2007’s feel-good story- have shown they’re further along the learning curve than most people might think.

-The Penguins might have been the NHL’s surprise outfit if it weren’t for the Detroit Red Wings. A year after losing Steve Yzerman to retirement, Detroit was pegged to be a mid-level playoff team in 2007, but the Wings stunned observers by upsetting the Nashville Predators for the Central Division and Western Conference crowns as well as advancing to the Western Conference Final where they lost in six to the Anaheim Ducks. The Wings were led by Yzerman’s successor as captain in defenseman Niklas Lidstrom, who dispelled any notion that he couldn’t be a captain, as well as coach Mike Babcock, who had the Wings play an entertaining, structurally-aggressive style that greatly utilized their team speed. Detroit hasn’t missed the playoffs since 1990, the longest such streak in the NHL, and are proving to be the model outfit for other clubs to follow.

-Yutaka Fukufuji became the first Japanese-born player to appear in a NHL game when he played the third period of the Los Angeles Kings’ 6-5 loss to the St. Louis Blues on January 13. He would also become the first Japanese goaltender to have a goaltending decision in the NHL, as he allowed the Blues’ game-winning goal- his only one of that game- as well as the first Japanese goaltender to have a start, playing the first 21 minutes and allowing three goals against the Atlanta Thrashers on January 16. Fukufuji would appear in two other games, going 0-3 while allowing seven goals on 43 shots.

-Mats Sundin would become the first Swedish player to record 500 goals after scoring a hat trick against the Calgary Flames- including the game-winner shorthanded in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 5-4 overtime victory- on October 14. Sundin would add 23 others to hit 523 goals at the end of the season.

-The Ducks win their first-ever Stanley Cup after a second-place finish in the Western Conference behind the superb checking of Samuel Pahlsson, Rob Niedermayer and Travis Moen as well as its “Big Three” defence of Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger and Francois Beauchemin. Anaheim may not have had the greatest offensive depth, but they showed that they were expertly coached by Randy Carlyle, whose sound, defensive-positioning game took care of opponents one by one.

-The Ottawa Senators may be better remembered for their flat showing against Anaheim in the Finals, but the Senators exorcised their playoff demons by qualifying for their first Cup Final after winning their first Prince of Wales Trophy in five against Buffalo in the Eastern Conference Championship. The Senators were led by Daniel Alfredsson, who scored the series-deciding goal against the Sabres a season after he was burned by Jason Pominville on Buffalo’s Eastern Conference Semi-final deciding overtime winner in Game 5. On top of beating Buffalo for the first time in franchise history, Ottawa also defeated the New Jersey Devils en route to the Final, marking the first time the Senators defeated teams in the playoffs that had beaten them before. The only thing missing is a playoff victory against the Toronto Maple Leafs, but they’ll work on that in 2008.

-The All-Star Game returned with the 55th edition in Dallas on January 24, with the Western Conference winning 12-9. Daniel Briérè was named MVP with a five-point, four-assist performance, and also saw Briérè’s coach in both the All-Star Game and in Buffalo, Lindy Ruff, use his children to come up with the line combinations. The game featured new, “streamlined” jerseys that would be in use next season, getting positive reviews from the players who wore them.

-The Vancouver Canucks’ Henrik Sedin would end the sixth-longest game in NHL history by scoring after 78:06 of overtime (and 138:06 of game time) in Game 1 against the Dallas Stars. The Canucks’ 5-4 victory eventually paced Vancouver’s seven-game victory over Dallas, their first playoff round victory since 2001, when they defeated the St. Louis Blues, also in seven games, and marked the Canucks’ first playoff appearance (and division title) since 2004, when they were eliminated in seven games by the eventual Cup Finalist Calgary Flames.

-The Atlanta Thrashers, led by star sniper Ilya Kovalchuk, forward Slava Kozlov and defenseman Andy Sutton, qualified for the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, claiming the Southeast Division title in the process. The Rangers promptly swept them, but, like the Penguins, the experience can only be one to build from.

-Phil Kessel became this year’s model of perseverance by overcoming testicular cancer to record 11 goals and 29 points in his 70-game rookie campaign, giving the Boston Bruins a bright spot in what was a difficult season.

-The International Ice Hockey Federation announced plans to create a Champions’ League tournament in the style of soccer’s own competition of the same name. The winner of the IIHF tournament would then compete for the Victoria Cup, a trophy that would be contested between the winner of the IIHF Champions’ League and a NHL team (currently undefined). The tournament begins in 2008-09.

-Perhaps banking on the idea of NHL players derisively described as being “too normal”, the NHL launched its best advertising campaign to date, featuring NHL players in a variety of spots that highlight just how “normal” they are. The spots featured Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier arguing over a video game, Joe Thornton having problems making toast, and- the best one- Alexander Ovechkin fighting with a vending machine that won’t dispense the Doritos he ordered. The tagline? “NHL players are just like you and me- plus they’re really good at hockey”. Priceless.

-Brendan Shanahan and Jaromir Jagr become the first teammates to record 600 goals in the same season when Shanahan scored twice in his New York Rangers’ debut on October 5 against the Washington Capitals, with Jagr tallying his 600th a month and a half later against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Jagr would hit other milestones during the season by hitting the 1500-point plateau and passing Jarri Kurri for the most points by a European-born player, as well as tying long-time Ranger Mike Gartner’s record for most consecutive 30-goal seasons at 15 by scoring in his penultimate regular season game against the Montreal Canadiens. Shanahan, meanwhile, would record 22 goals in his first 29 games for the Rangers before finishing with 29 in 67 games.

-Teppo Numminen broke the record for appearances by a European-born player on November 13 against the Carolina Hurricanes by appearing in his 1252nd career game. He would appear in 79 games for Buffalo this season, the most amount of games he has played since 1999-2000, when he played 79 games for the Phoenix Coyotes.

-Mike Modano would break the record for goals by an American with his 503rd goal on March 17 against the Nashville Predators. The previous record went to Joe Mullen, who once modestly suggested that players “better than him” would eventually break his records, a list of players he might have put Modano on.

-Martin Brodeur set a NHL record for wins in a season with 48, passing Bernie Parent’s 47-win season of 1973-74, on April 5 against the Philadelphia Flyers. Brodeur also tied Grant Fuhr’s appearance record at 75 games in the same game.

-Other milestones: Joe Sakic’s 600th goal and 1500th career point on February 11, Teemu Selanne’s 500th goal on November 23 and Peter Bondra’s and Recchi’s 500th goals on January 26.

-Numbers retired: Mario Lemieux’s #66 on October 5 (Pittsburgh), Serge Savard’s #18 (Montreal) on November 18, Brett Hull’s #16 (St. Louis) on December 5, Steve Yzerman’s #19 (Detroit) on January 2, Luc Robitaille’s #20 (Los Angeles) on January 20, Ken Dryden’s #29 on January 29, Mike Vernon’s #30 (Calgary) on February 6 and Mark Messier’s #11 (Edmonton) on February 27.

The Lowlights:

-The Chicago Blackhawks’ David Koci set the wrong kind of record by debuting with 42 penalty minutes in his first game. Koci’s record includes three fighting majors and two game misconducts, as well as a roughing penalty. Incidentally, there was a game also played, with the Blackhawks defeated the Phoenix Coyotes 7-5 on March 10, 2007.

-Staying with the wrong kind of history, the Edmonton Oilers and Carolina Hurricanes set a new NHL mark by both missing the playoffs after competing in the previous year’s Cup Final. The Hurricanes also became the first defending Cup champion since the 1996 New Jersey Devils to miss the post-season, continuing the Carolina franchise’s up-and-down ways, as the Hurricanes have yet to make the playoffs for three straight seasons since their previous incarnation, the Hartford Whalers, did so from 1986 to 1992.

-Shane Doan became the target of one of Canada’s worst cases of political grandstanding when the separatist Bloc Quebecois called for Hockey Canada officials to defend their selection of Doan as the national team captain for the IIHF World Championships that April. Doan was accused of uttering an anti-francophone epithet at a linesman in a December 2005 game against the Montreal Canadiens but was cleared of the allegations by the NHL. Hockey Canada appeared before a Parliamentary committee, and Doan responded by scoring a hat trick against Belarus in six minutes and 25 seconds the following day, silencing his captaincy critics.

-Scoring went down slightly in the NHL, dropping from a shade over six per game in 2005-06 to 5.9 in 2006-07. The Buffalo Sabres were the only team to break 300 goals, and only two players- Tampa Bay’s Vincent Lecavalier and Ottawa’s Dany Heatley- broke the 50-goal barrier, after five did a year ago. Seven players broke the 100-point barrier, the same as a year before. It’s not much to panic about- goals per game in 2003-04, the last season before the lockout, was 5.1- but it’s still an indication that hockey is still not at the same level as it was when Gary Bettman first took over in 1992-93. That year, we had 14 50-goal scorers and 21 100-point scorers, both NHL records, as well as 15 teams out of 24 scoring at least 300 goals. While 1992-93 may be a high-water mark that will be difficult to achieve, the fact that the NHL is still not even close to those totals despite the “new rules” has to ring alarm bells.

-The Columbus Blue Jackets miss the playoffs for the sixth straight season, meaning they have failed to qualify for the playoffs in their entire existence. The team- deservedly- fired General Manager Doug MacLean, their only GM following the season, as, despite landing future NHL stars in Rick Nash and Nikolai Zherdev, MacLean accomplished little else.

-The title for the most disappointing team in 2006-07 is the Boston Bruins. After signing Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard in the off-season, Boston was pegged to at least be a playoff team. Instead, the Bruins bottomed out to a 76-point campaign, two more than 2005-06 but well off their 104-point 2003-04 season. Despite a 96-point season from Savard, 70 points from Patrice Bergeron, an impressive rookie campaign from Phil Kessel and rock-solid goaltending from Tim Thomas, the Bruins were done in by injuries (Glen Murray missed 23 games) and a lack of depth, as no player after Bergeron totalled 50 points. They may have been long shots for the Cup anyway, but after showing so much early promise, the Bruins still managed to fall into the lower echelon for the second straight season. Frankly, this isn’t the way one of the NHL’s most storied franchises should operate, and their fans deserve so much more.

-Once again, the NHL was marred by senseless violence on the ice- from the punished (Chris Simon’s hit on Ryan Hollweg, Brad May’s sucker-punch of Kim Jonsson, Cam Janssen’s hit on Tomas Kaberle) to the unpunished (Chris Neil’s hit on Chris Drury, Colby Armstrong’s hit on Saku Koivu, Maxim Lapierre’s butt-end of Sidney Crosby). None of the hits- save, maybe, for Simon’s hit- were close to Marty McSorley’s machete-chop to Donald Brashear’s head or Todd Bertuzzi’s pile-drive on Steve Moore of years before but they did little to alter the perception of the NHL as a “barbaric” league. In response, league officials chose to suspend the individual players yet avoided to address the issue generally, while hockey commentators were universally divided except to say, “fighting should stay in the game” (which is inaccurate- fighting is a penalty, after all). The issue of fighting did come to a head after Todd Fedoruk was knocked out following a late-season fight, but bringing in the “instigator rule” and fighting in general are mischaracterizations of hockey’s real malice, and that’s the mentality of vigilantism. Reducing the issue to a matter of “fighting” sidesteps the concern, and until it’s tackled head-on, we will never encounter a “true” solution to the problem.

-The Nashville Predators contend for the Western Conference title, finish with 110 points and draw 12,000 fans a game, 5,000 less that capacity. Not even the acquisition of Peter Forsberg changed attendance fortunes, causing owner Craig Leipold to look for potential buyers. At first, he looked to sell to Kitchener-based Jim Balsille- CEO of the Blackberry manufacturers Reaserch-In-Motion- but then William Del Biaggio, a San Jose businessman, emerged as the front-runner. Balsille was rumoured to plan on moving the club to Hamilton, while Del Biaggio intends on moving it to Kansas City. In the meantime, the Predators said goodbye to key players like Kimmo Timmonen, Paul Karyia, Forsberg and Tomas Voukoun, a clear indication that Leipold intends to gut the franchise to allow it to move. Meanwhile, the fiasco means it is likely that Nashville might not even be a playoff team in 2007-08, turning a team that once held so much promise into a laughingstock whose own management is working against it. Predators fans simply deserve better.

-Speaking of Balsille, he was involved earlier in the year in a proposed purchase of the Pittsburgh Penguins that would have seen the team moved to southern Ontario. The deal fell through after the NHL blocked Balsille from moving the team, in much the same machinations that may be at work in the Nashville scenario. Now, the move to Kitchener- or Hamilton, for that matter- is fraught with its own problems (namely, the market isn’t big enough with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Buffalo Sabres and Detroit Red Wings dominating the area, and a more sensible location is Winnipeg), and the Penguins didn’t deserve to be moved, but Nashville is a case that clearly deserves a relocation- the fan support simply isn’t there for a very successful franchise- and it should go to a market that deserves a team, like Winnipeg. If the NHL failed in Nashville, what makes them think it’ll succeed in Kansas City, where it already failed once? For a supposed marketing genius in Bettman, he surely doesn’t have a clue in being able to work his markets right.

-The Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens both miss the playoffs, marking the first time that happened since 1969-70. The Leafs’ miss wasn’t unexpected, since they were picked to be marginal playoff combatants anyway, but Montreal’s miss was more shocking- this was a team that acquired the talented Sergei Samsonov in the off-season and basically lost no one off the 7th-placed team in the Eastern Conference in 2005-06. Of course, Guy Carbonneau couldn’t have predicted that both Samsonov and Alexei Kovalev would have off years, both on and off the ice (Samsonov repeatedly stated that signing with Montreal “was a mistake” and Kovalev later reportedly lashed out at the Canadiens and the French media in the Russian media, although the reporter later rescinded her quotes). For a team that held a lot of promise, 2006-07 could only go down as a missed opportunity for Montreal- and it’s up to them to show that they won’t rue this miss.

-Once again, the league had abysmal TV ratings and attendance figures, as both were down from a year ago. While one would be quick to point out that the spike in attendance probably has to do with the NHL’s return from the lockout, the inability of the league to escape its invisibility- especially in the U.S. (another reason why Kansas City won’t work)- is troubling. Maybe it’s time the NHL expands to Europe, because, clearly, Americans aren’t watching.

-Finally, the playoffs lacked the same kind of intensity and drama that one saw in 2005-06. Only one series went seven games (Vancouver-Dallas), and no games featured more than a two-goal comeback. This contrasted greatly with 2005-06, which saw two Game 7’s (Calgary-Anaheim and Carolina-Edmonton) an eight-goal period (Edmonton-Anaheim), a 7-6 classic (Buffalo-Ottawa), two last-second goals (New Jersey-Carolina) and a three-goal comeback (Carolina-Montreal and Carolina-Edmonton). It also saw a highly defensive game that rarely featured much pace and rhythm, capped off by a low-drama, five-game Cup Final where Anaheim completely dominated Ottawa. Clearly a sign that the entertainment value of the NHL has also yet to improve, as the playoffs should be its showcase- not its greatest bore.

Tomorrow: what should change in the NHL for 2007-08.


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