Thursday, August 18, 2011

DG’s Hat Trick- 2011 Midsummer Edition

THE CANUCKS’ LOSS: THE UNEXPLAINABLE EXPLAINED: It’s still hard to digest, British Columbia, isn’t it? The Vancouver Canucks, the NHL’s team of destiny this season, coming up one win short of the Stanley Cup, bowing meekly in Game 7 against the unheralded Boston Bruins to the tune of 4-0. “Shock” and “disbelief” pervade amongst much of Canucks Nation, many of whom were still likely wondering when Game 8 would be played.

(By the way, I know I’m very late getting to this...but I figure it’s about this time Canucks fans would realize that the game actually did happen, just like the unfortunate rioting that marred the city in its aftermath)

So how did a team that just couldn’t lose find a way to lose The Big One? For starters, you have to ask if this really was a different Canucks team than the one that choked in years past- aside from a slow start that culminated in a 7-1 thrashing at the hands of their arch nemesis Chicago Blackhawks, things this season went extremely well for Vancouver, right until about Game 3 of the Cup Final. It wasn’t until that Cup Final where the Canucks had less than three victories after four games in a playoff series, and it wasn’t until they lost the fateful Game 7 that Vancouver had even trailed in a series. Sure, they almost blew a 3-0 series lead to Chicago, but that’s a different kind of adversity than the one you’d face with a series deficit. Against Chicago, the Canucks already had the series “won”, they just let their guard down. A series deficit is different, since that means you’ve got to find a way to win a series you might not even think you’re supposed to win. To keep things in perspective, Vancouver has won just two series (out of 15) since 2001 when they faced a series deficit after four games- the 2003 Round 1 matchup with the St. Louis Blues when they were down 3-1 and the 2010 Round 1 matchup with the Los Angeles Kings, when they were down 2-1. By contrast, Boston won three series in 2011 when they faced a series deficit after four games, including in the Cup Final. Resiliency, therefore, is still lacking in Canada’s third largest city.

Leadership is also an issue. Despite Boston having the reputation for rough, physical play (which they used effectively in the series), it was Vancouver that resorted to cheap shots and theatrics during the series, from Aaron Rome’s hit on Nathan Horton to Jannik Hansen celebrating a goal he clearly did not score (nor was allowed to stand). Certainly Boston’s physical pressure and defensive alignment- a big part of the Bruins’ successful game plan- took away the space the Canucks were accustomed to and that would lead to frustrated antics, but it was also an indication there was no one in the dressing room to stand up and tell the team to play to their strengths instead of allowing Boston to get underneath their skin. By contrast, players like Mark Recchi, Tim Thomas and Zdeno Chara- all veteran leaders- found a way to get the Bruins to stay the course even when things went fluey, such as when Horton, one of the team’s few pure goal scoring threats, got decked by Rome.

Lastly, the Canucks really missed their goaltending. Yes, Roberto Luongo doesn’t deserve all of the blame for Vancouver’s loss- the choke was a team effort, not just him- but Louie does deserve to have his own part of the blame. There’s simply no excuse for him to allow three goals within the first eight minutes of Game 6 with Vancouver a win away from total victory, or for his ordinary performance in Game 7 or his downright pathetic performances in Games 3 and 4. Luongo seems to go as the team goes- when the going gets tough, he gets going, and the pattern repeated itself. What makes it more irritating is that Louie’s talent level is at the elite level, and he’ll frequently put on elite performances throughout the season. He just can’t seem to do it when the lights shine their brightest, which is whenever he faces adversity. In every playoff year, Luongo’s statistics have been markedly worse in each series he’s lost, being at least a goal above his average each time. Such play is unacceptable, and it makes you wonder if Louie can even continue being a Canuck with such regular choke jobs.

The question becomes where Vancouver goes from here. Already this offseason there are question marks about where this team is headed, as the decision to resign Kevin Bieksa and say goodbye to Christian Erhoff seems based purely on the playoff run, and that’s a recipe for disaster. Sure, Bieksa is a “heart and soul” defenceman whose aggressiveness and energy is infectious, but Bieksa has had only two seasons north of 40 points whereas Erhoff has had three straight, including 50 this past season, not to mention the fact that Erhoff is typically one of the team’s better defenders. Offence and mobility from the point, one of the Canucks’ major weaknesses (one exploited by the Bruins in their victory), is now considerably weaker. Vancouver’s only hope is that Alexander Edler becomes that all-around defenceman he’s been primed to become, because otherwise that hole is going to sink the ship for another season. Then there’s the question about Luongo, whose meltdowns have been far too frequent to ignore- is this his final season in Vancouver? A sixth straight meltdown cannot be acceptable as patience is already wearing very thin in Canuck circles.

One thing is certain- after five seasons of being considered contenders and coming up short, the Canucks don’t have any more room for error. Their core is nearing the end of their primes and while it may not be “one more season and that’s it”, that point is becoming dangerously close, and they may only have this season to win the Cup, because, otherwise their pieces may run out of trade value if they do decide to clean house. Don’t get me wrong- this team should still be considered one of the favourites for the Cup in 2012, but seasons like last season don’t come around that often and Vancouver may have blown their best bid ever. If the team doesn’t break through in 2012 or even 2013, the questions of “what if” will get louder- and the pain that much worse.

STRANGE SPLASHES THIS FREE AGENCY PERIOD: Tell me you saw this coming- the Philadelphia Flyers, one of the league’s elite teams, a team only a year removed from a Cup Final appearance, decides its only choice for improvement is to trade its two top players- Mike Richards and Jeff Carter- and acquire only prospects in return.

Then you have the Buffalo Sabres, long one of the league’s least aggressive franchises, spend huge bucks in bringing in Christian Erhoff and Ville Leino to add some punch to a lacklustre offence. It’s the first time since “The Lockout” that Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier actually made significant free agent signings, suggesting that Buffalo and new owner Terry Pegula are ready to make noise in the hockey world.

Finally, there’s the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are still trying to figure out the formula to get them out of the team’s longest ever playoff drought, yet refusing to explore every option. GM Brian Burke wasted no time making a splash, signing Tim “Wrap Me In Bubble Wrap” Connolly and trading for John-Michael Liles, Matthew Lombardi and Cody Franson. However, there were also reports that Burke was in the running for the prize of the free agency period, Brad Richards, but didn’t land him because Burke didn’t want to give him a front-loaded contract, rightly suggesting they circumvent the salary cap. Despite his principle, Toronto Star columnist Damien Cox lambasted him, suggesting that Burke doesn’t want to follow his own team’s basic principle of doing whatever it took for them to win, since Burke isn’t doing that himself.

What to make of these strange developments? Philadelphia sold its moves as a clearing salary cap space to make room for Ilya Bryzgalov, whom they acquired at the Entry Draft for a song. Yes, the Flyers likely did need to trade one of Richards or Carter to make it work, and yes both players were MIA in the team’s lacklustre playoff run, but there was no need to trade for Bryzgalov- despite what many suggest, the team’s goaltending struggles were due to head coach Peter Laviolette not having any faith in Sergei Bobrovsky (pulled after just one horrible start against in the first round against Buffalo) and not because the team really didn’t have any goaltending to rely on. Bobrovsky, who shined as a rookie, should have had another season to work out his kinks. Furthermore, although the Flyers likely needed a shakeup after its disappointing run, trading both Carter and Richards still makes no sense, as much of the team’s primary offence is gone without much in the form of replacements. Simply put, the moves reek of a team that panicked, because moving your top two players is a move a rebuilding team does, not one that’s still a contender like Philadelphia is.

Then you move to Buffalo, whose moves suggest that they want to be a contender but it’s proof the team still has a lot of learning to do. Yes, Erhoff has been a steady beacon for the Canucks posting three straight 40-plus point seasons (including 50 last year), and, yes the cap hit is good, the term is horrible- the Sabres are giving ten years to a player who is already 28, someone whom they can’t expect to maintain his production for that long (this ain’t Nicklas Lidstrom we’re talking about). Leino, meanwhile, may have scored the overtime winner for the Flyers in Game 6 to prevent Buffalo from defeating them in the playoffs and may have had a 19-goal season in 2010-11, but in his previous two seasons- including the playoffs- Leino could only notch 18 goals, all in 94 games. Is a six-year commitment at $4.5 million per season all that justifiable in this case? He hasn’t proven himself as a consistent scorer, so this deal has the potential to blow up in Buffalo’s face. Yes, you like the moxie that Pegula is showing, but the jury’s still out on whether or not he knows how to spend his money wisely- just because Buffalo has the money doesn’t mean it has to be spent now, it could have waited until a piece Buffalo actually needed became available. The Sabres did need some depth on both sides of the blueline, but Leino and Erhoff represent some significant risks, and if they don’t work out, Pegula could hamper his ability to improve the team in later seasons- not the way he’ll want to be remembered.

Finally, there’s Toronto. This is a make or break season for the Maple Leafs, since, if you compare the Leafs to Burke’s tenure in Vancouver, need to make the playoffs in 2012. Burke’s Canucks needed four seasons to get back into the playoffs with the third season being the Canucks just barely missing. The Leafs followed that course, but it was because they found a surprise starter in James Reimer, and you have to wonder if he can maintain that pace over a whole season. Connolly, one of the league’s better playmakers when he actually does play, could be the first-line centre Phil Kessel needs to really be effective, but there’s a reason the Sabres let Connolly go and that was because the team didn’t think he had the heart to compete- just the kind of player the testosterone-laden, belligerent and truculent Maple Leafs really want. Lombardi, for his part, has been one of the league’s fastest players and oozed potential right from when he stepped into the league in 2003, but he’s never banked on it, scoring 20 goals just once (in 2006-07) and hitting the 50-point plateau just once (in 2009-10). He also played just two games last season for the Nashville Predators, so his health is now a major concern. This means that the Leafs’ hopes for offensive depth may just blow up in their face. The two defensive acquisitions- Liles and Franson- were solid pickups and should help Toronto, though their effectiveness could be moot if the forwards don’t convert the chances the defence will give them.

Lastly, is Cox’s criticism on the mark? In this case, it just might be- Richards is a make-or-break kind of player, the kind of superstar that can turn a team around in an instant. Furthermore, Richards is a coach’s dream, doing all the “hard work” that so few players are willing to perform, making a player like him, with all his skills, that much more valuable. The fact that Burke didn’t want to pull all the stops- including going against his own principle- to land him speaks volumes about his own effort level. When a Leaf gets lambasted for his own efforts this season, he can simply point to his own boss and say “hey, if he’s not willing to give 100%, why should I?” Just like his colleague Pegula, Burke is taking a major risk, only this time if his risk doesn’t pan out he just might be out of a job, something Pegula won’t have to worry about. Oh, if only Burke could be an owner.

All this points to what should be a season with a lot to watch out for- and that’s just on the ice.

THE THRASHERS FLY OFF TO WINNIPEG: It only took them 15 years and a lot of foot dragging, but the franchise relocation that never should have happened in the first place has finally been corrected: the Winnipeg Jets are flying back home.

Would have been funnier if the Phoenix Coyotes came back, but Winnipeg and Manitoba won’t care- they have their team back, after way too long.

It does come with a lot of caveats, however.

The team that is flying north are the old Atlanta Thrashers, marking the second time a team has failed in Dixieland’s largest city. The first time around was in 1980, when the Flames took off from Atlanta and moved to Calgary after dwindling attendance doomed the franchise. The same story applies to the Thrashers, who were a difficult sell for much of their tenure in Atlanta, but it comes with a slight twist.

The main difference between the Thrashers and the Flames is that the Thrashers never had any sustained success, whereas the Flames posted winning records in four of their final five seasons (including a 90-point effort in 1978-79 at a time when points were much harder to come by). They never did win a playoff series, winning just two playoff games in separate years, but the move was justifiable since the team’s success wasn’t being reflected at the gate.

The Thrashers, on the other hand, were a losing outfit for most of their entire 10 season run in the NHL, drawing comparisons to the Vancouver Grizzlies (now in Memphis) of the National Basketball Association, who were also a losing outfit for their entire run. Just like the Grizzlies, the Thrashers never got their fair shake in the NHL, because no one could see if Atlantans were staying away because of a lack of on-ice success since there was no on-ice success.

Furthermore, the sports landscape has changed considerably since the 1970s. With the advent of cable and satellite TV, not to mention the Internet, sports is more accessible now than it was when the Flames were in Atlanta, where sports were essentially only available on radio broadcasts and were hard to find on television. This means that in the Flames’ time, the only sports fans were the ones who were really dedicated to it, as opposed to now where casual fans seem to outnumber the dedicated ones because of this accessibility. A team- especially a winning team- is easier to sell since more people are going to be aware of it, meaning a winning Thrashers team could have actually had a chance of success.

The other caveat is the market itself- Atlanta was the ninth largest market in the NHL, which is a significant loss to the NHL’s market reach. Yes, the Atlanta market itself failed, but the failure of teams in the South has more to do with market saturation than actual apathy for hockey in the South. The reason for this is simple- all you have to do is watch how teams like the Nashville Predators, Carolina Hurricanes, Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers all seem to oscillate between periods of success and periods of apathy, with those periods of success coming when the teams are successful. There just aren’t enough fans to sustain the teams during the lean years (like there are in Canada or the more established hockey markets in the U.S. like Boston or San Jose). It would have made more sense to move a team like Nashville or Carolina (which are considerably smaller markets) than it would have been to move the Thrashers, since Atlanta (by far the largest of those three cities) could have easily served both markets. The failure of the Thrashers is as much a failure of the team in the market as much as it is the failure of the NHL’s overanxious desire to put teams in the South, plopping too many teams too quickly. A more cautious approach might have spared the Thrashers this fate, since it may allow them to “expand their reach” to gain the fans they needed instead of bumping into another market like they did in the past.

The good part is that a relocation that never should have happened has been corrected. I’m not sure if the right city was selected to part from, but only time will tell.

ADDENDUM: We must end with a sombre note, as this summer marked the passing of Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien, both way too soon.

Boogaard, known as one of the league’s toughest enforcers during his time with the Minnesota Wild, passed away in May in what was ruled to be an accidental death, though there are suspicions. An autopsy revealed he ingested a lethal dose of alcohol and oxycodone, with Minneapolis Police suggesting that his brother, Aaron, provided him the oxycodone illegally. No foul play is suspected, though who knows what demons lurked in the situation- Aaron did provide Derek with the drugs only a day after Derek left drug rehabilitation.

Rypien, meanwhile, was found dead mysteriously in his home in Crowsnest Pass, Alberta (just west of Lethbridge). Police ruled it a suicide, but have released very little other details. Friends, including teammate Jason Jaffray, were stunned at the news, because although Rypien had been battling depression for quite some time, there were hints that he was overcoming it. Still, there were a lot of demons lurking below the surface there as well, since Jaffray noted that although Rypien was getting help, he hardly ever opened up about his struggles, so there’s still the chance a trouble popped up that no one saw coming.

The deaths serve as a reminder that hockey players go through struggles just like we do. We like to have this image of our favourite players as impervious to pains and other stresses because of our own need to project our ideal likeness upon our role models; and indeed, seeing the lives many NHLers lead- with great cars and homes and usually appearing jovial on the camera- make it appear like their lives are paradise. Events like the passing of Rypien and Derek Boogaard serve as a reminder of reality; that, despite the appearance of a paradise life, they are still humans, and all humans have struggles. Unfortunately, and sadly, not all of us can overcome those struggles.

Rest In Peace Rick Rypien and Derek Boogaard. You both will be missed.


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