Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Will Ovechkin Ever Learn?

As I described at length in my NHL's Big Three post over the summer, Alexander Ovechkin is the most exciting player in the sport of hockey and the league's biggest draw. So far in '09 he's scored 30 points in 21 games played while the Capitals are tied with Pittsburgh for tops in the Eastern Conference.

But I also wrote in July that Ovie has earned a reputation for dirty play, which first manifested itself on a grand stage with his knee-on-knee hit against Sergei Gonchar in the Eastern Conference Semifinal.

Now, following perhaps the single-dirtiest incident of his career, the league office is finally sending Ovechkin to bed without any dinner to hopefully think about what he's done.

Ovechkin has been suspended two games as a result of this knee-on-knee collision with Carolina's Tim Gleason early in Monday night's game. While Ovechkin might have missed the remainder of the game anyway, he was given a game misconduct for the hit. This happened to be his second game misconduct in three games, as he was booted from last Friday's contest with Buffalo for this boarding major against Patrick Kaleta.

There was no fine or suspension for knocking Kaleta, but Ovie was fined $2,500 for slew-footing Rich Peverley in October. There's no doubt those two events contributed to the decision to ultimately suspend Ovechkin for the hit on Gleason.

I think Ovechkin got off pretty easy, and it's probably because he's Alexander Ovechkin. So much has been made about the NHL's Wheel of Justice, with Colin Campbell's process for handing out discipline making little to no tangible sense. One pattern has emerged; the more famous the player, the less likely they are to face major discipline, like how Evgeni Malkin escaped an automatic suspension for instigating that fight in Stanley Cup Final Game 2.

This hit on Gleason is completely detestable and one that could have garnered a longer suspension based on some recent incidents, like Georges Laraque's similar knee-on-knee on Nicklas Kronwall that earned him five games. Laraque has a longer track record of dirtiness than Ovie, but I personally think Ovie's indiscretion was worse. Laraque's hit was an accident while it's debatable what Ovechkin's intention was on his play.

Since the game yesterday, Ovechkin's been defiant, saying before word of the suspension that he wouldn't be changing his high-flying, often-dangerous style of play anytime soon. His coach, Bruce Boudreau, called his star's style "reckless" and "risky."

Two games is two games, and every one is important especially with how close things figure to be for home ice advantage in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Losing Ovechkin, the league's best scorer and most dynamic presence, for any period of time hurts the Capitals. But it doesn't seem like Ovechkin is remorseful for this hit on Gleason, nor does he care what people think about the way he plays the game.

This is a problem.

Ovechkin needs to know that his presence in games is vital not just for his team but for his sport. He needs to know that if he decides to tone down his physicality, and leaves these kinds of dangerous plays out of his game, nobody would fault him for it. In fact, if he replaces this brute intensity with a renewed interest in playing actual defense to help his team, he'll be lauded throughout the league.

But like I said before, he doesn't seem to care right now. And I doubt two games in the press box will make him care more about changing his style. Unfortunately for Ovechkin, the Capitals, their fans and the league as a whole, it's probably going to take a significant injury for Ovechkin to change his style. That injury could completely destroy any fun from Ovechkin's game at all and effectively turn him into the next Eric Lindros.

I don't know about you, but I think one Lindros was enough for this lifetime. Wise up, Alex.

Around Hockey Bullet Points time!
  • The much-discussed, much-theorized, much-anticipated Marc Savard extension was finalized Tuesday, with the Bruins' top playmaker now signed up for another seven years after this one. Savard will be in Boston through the '16-'17 season with an average cap hit of $4.2 million, which is $800K less than his current cap hit. As Joe Haggerty writes on CSNNE.com, this is a rare win-win for both team and athlete in today's sport. The team gets to retain the services of its best offensive player for seven years through the remainder of his prime, and at a very, very manageable price. For Savard, he has long-term security in Boston, which is where he's stated he wants to play the rest of his career. As you can imagine, I'm pretty psyched about this. Savard's return from his long injury has made a huge difference especially on the power play. How he gets to feed guys the puck in Boston for another seven years. Awesome.
  • Umm...yeah. So you may have heard about this unbelievably bizarre incident during Monday night's Panthers-Thrashers contest, when Keith Ballard, upset over allowing a soft Ilya Kovalchuk goal to be scored, inadvertently turned his goalie Tomas Vokoun's head into a pinata. Ballard didn't seem too shaken up about the whole thing, maybe because he was so shocked at his own dumbassery. I'm not sure if this warrants a suspension, but it'd be sad if Vokoun were forced to miss significant time because of this.
  • Seems like every time I write about a player or a team as the focus of one of my posts, bad things happen. The Bruins were playing well when I wrote about them, then they immediately started playing poorly. The same thing happened to the Avalanche, who were sitting atop the Western Conference when I extolled their virtues, and then they began to drop off. For the month of November, the Avs went 5-6-3, and all but two of those losses were in the Northwest Division. They're still fourth in the West, but Calgary has overtaken them for the division lead and perhaps their age and inexperience is catching up to them. Maybe that injury for Ovechkin will come sooner than later...
  • So Phil Kessel has eight goals in 11 games for Toronto since returning from his shoulder injury. That's more than the team-leading seven goals for Michael Ryder, Blake Wheeler and Patrice Bergeron in more than twice as many games for each. Do the B's miss his offense? Sure. They've played an absurd number of close games and it's starting to get a little maddening for literally every contest to go to a shootout. But here's what makes me happy: the Leafs, once again, suck. They're the second-worst team in hockey so far this year and hopefully that means their pick will be a top-three selection at worst. That player could be better than Kessel. That's what I'm going to keep telling myself, anyway.
  • Finally, this hysterical link was first posted on Twitter by Tyler from the Triple Deke, and I found it via Cam. This is so funny and clever that I'll forgiven the blasphemy about Neil Young being anything other than incredibly awesome. Random fact: Young's dad, Scott, was one of Canada's most famous sportswriters and for a time was host of "Hockey Night in Canada." Neil actually had to shed the moniker of "Scott Young's son" in his home country. This also gives me an excuse to post a video of Neil engaging in some serious ass-kicking.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Avalanche, WTF?

You may recall in my Useless Predictions preview that my most used word in describing the Colorado Avalanche was "suck." There were big questions in goal, too many young players expected to fill the huge shoes of Joe Sakic and Ryan Smyth, and lots of concern about rookie coach Joe Sacco in the wake of Tony Granato's turbulent tenure.

We're now through five weeks of the regular season, and the Colorado Avalanche are 12-4-2. They sit atop the Western Conference standings, tied with the San Jose Sharks for most points in the NHL.

I don't think this is going to last, but the Avs have proven myself and many other prognosticators wrong about whether or not this is a quality team. They will almost assuredly make the playoffs, and since I had them pegged to finish no higher than 14th in the West, they're the most pleasant surprise in the league this year.

Craig Anderson has been flat-out fantastic in goal, going into Sunday night's contest against Edmonton with a .930 save percentage, a 2.15 GAA and two shutouts, rendering incumbent starter Peter Budaj irrelevant. Anderson's efforts earned No. 1 Star honors for October, edging out some guy named Ovechkin. He played well backing up Tomas Vokoun last season yet I highly doubt Colorado was expecting this kind of output from Anderson upon signing him.

From an offensive perspective, the Avs are seventh in the NHL in goals scored, and they've been led by a finally-healthy Paul Stastny (18 points) and veteran snipers Wojtek Wolski (15) and Milan Hejduk (14). While rookie center Matt Duchene had all the hype coming into this season, it's another rookie center that's stolen the spotlight. Ryan O'Reilly was the Avs' second pick behind Duchene this year, and he's dazzled, currently tied with Hejduk for third on the team in points.

O'Reilly and Duchene are both 18, giving the Avs two excellent (very) young centers along with Stastny (a dinosaur at 23) to build around. Duchene has cooled after a strong start, which is to be expected from a teenage playmaker.

Defense has also been a hallmark for these Avs in front of Anderson, with Kyle Quincey, John-Michael Liles, Scott Hannan and Kyle Cuminskey thriving for a team that's allowed the third-fewest goals in the NHL going into Sunday. Colorado's penalty kill was also second in the league to the New York Rangers before giving up four PP markers to Edmonton.

So like I said above, the Avalanche probably won't finish with the best record in the NHL and aren't guaranteed to win their strong division. But through one-fifth of the season, the Avs have made a statement. They won't be doormats, they're playing sound hockey, they've got a hot goalie, and they're going to make life difficult for the Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames the rest of the way.

Last season was the first bad one for this franchise since its move to Denver. We should have known they wouldn't stay down for very long.

Onto my Around Hockey Bullet Points:
  • I should have known I'd jinx the Bruins with my overly optimistic post. The B's lost three straight games this week, and went 192 minutes without scoring a goal during that stretch. Saturday night's 4-2, total team victory over Northeast-leading Buffalo last night was a great sign, and they scored more goals in that one game than in their previous four combined. Most promising was that they finally succeeded on the power play not once but twice, ending a truly embarrassing 0-for-20 streak that prompted this tweet while I was at work during the Montreal loss.
  • Boston will need to duplicate their Saturday effort on Tuesday when the Penguins invade TD Garden. Pittsburgh is tied with Washington for tops in the Eastern Conference. While the West has been fairly jumbled through the early stages of '09-'10, the East is playing out in a much more expected fashion, although I'll be shocked if the Lightning and Islanders remain seventh and eighth the rest of the way.
  • Last year's Western Conference champions, the Detroit Red Wings, came in with high expectations and haven't exactly lived up to them. Like the Bruins, they've had to deal with inconsistent play from their goaltenders and various injuries. The injury issues for Detroit run a bit deeper than what the Bruins have faced, however. They started the year without Darren "His Tears Cure Cancer" Helm. Johan Franzen tore his ACL in the third game of the season and he'll be out until February. Valtteri Filppula was poised for a career season before breaking his wrist and won't return until the end of December. Jason Williams broke his leg Saturday night against Toronto and is gone for two months (not to mention that they actually lost to Toronto and gave up five goals). Wings blog The Triple Deke came up with a possible lineup going forward (love the last name on there). Is Detroit in trouble? Not yet. But they will be if anyone named Datsyuk, Zetterberg or Lidstrom goes down.
  • We've seen some truly epic injuries in the NHL this year, along with different variations of the flu (David Krejci will hopefully be allowed to leave his H1N1 quarantine soon). One of the worst came Saturday night when Cam Ward's thigh was sliced open by Rick Nash's skate early in their contest in Columbus. Ward is expected to miss extended time. The Hurricanes have been a complete debacle this year, and while I'm pleased about that, I certainly wish the best for Ward. It'd be a shame if this injury kept him out of the Olympics.
  • Shawn Thornton is a beast. In Saturday's tilt with Buffalo, Thorty dropped the gloves with Steve Montador and issued a sound beatdown. I think he was channeling the rage of thousands of Bruins fans who hate Montador for his indescribably lousy play at the end of last year. But Thornton was just getting started. As the game was winding down, Thorty threw down with Paul Gaustad, and he fared worse than Montador. In short: don't fuck with Shawn Thornton. With Milan Lucic not likely to fight much upon his return, Thornton proved he can handle the fighting load.
That's all for now. Tune in next time for a very special post of Puckin' Right. (It probably won't be that special. I just wanted to make a very thin reference to the most underrated cartoon of all time, Clone High).

Monday, October 26, 2009

New-look Bruins standing tall

I should be posting here more often, since we're already 10 games into the season for most teams and this will mark the first ever Puckin' Right post to go up during regular season play. I'd like to get into a regular posting format groove where I try to post three or four days a week. The posts will have a central focus at first, followed by a series of bullet points to discuss things from around the hockey universe. We'll see how it goes, and following the World Series I definitely expect to be posting here with more regularity.

The Bruins are coming off a whirlwind week of activity. I couldn't imagine feeling much worse about the team's uneven start after losing 4-1 to the Phoenix Coyotes. Sitting at 3-4-1, showing no real signs of consistency anywhere on the ice and no cap space to inject new blood, I honestly began to wonder if the Bruins were the team I thought they were. I had no idea how many things would change in so short a period of time.

In the blink of an eye, Chuck Kobasew was dealt to Minnesota, Milan Lucic and Marc Savard were placed on IR, Brad Marchand and Vladimir Sobotka were recalled from Providence, and Daniel Paille was picked up from Buffalo in the first-ever Bruins-Sabers trade. Talk about a shakeup, and Claude Julien's new-look bunch has responded.

They battled Nashville at home to a 3-2 victory Wednesday. On Thursday they played the dynamic Phildelphia crew to a 4-3 SO loss, and earned their best win of the season Saturday at Ottawa, scoring two goals in the final 1:32 and later winning on a Patrice Bergeron beaut in the shootout.

As you can imagine, I'm feeling a lot better. The infusion of Marchand and Sobotka (two young, well-rounded forwards that should have made this team out of training camp if not for the cap situation at the time) have provided a tremendous amount of energy. I can tell Marchand is here to stay after watching his great puck-handling and speed through three games, not to mention some already-evident chemistry with Bergeron and Michael Ryder.

The penalty kill has already improved, and defensive banger Paille has been part of that improvement. Going into the Predators game, the Bruins were killing at just a 69 percent clip, but they haven't allowed power play goal in eight opportunities since.

Both goaltenders were also strong in all three contests. I could not have been more proud with Tuukka Rask's performance in Philly, stopping 39 shots in a hostile environment against one of the most stacked offenses in the NHL. Tim Thomas was superb against both Nashville and Ottawa, coming up with this insane stop on Daniel Alfredsson on Saturday. Remember in my preview how I was glad the Bruins' goaltending was one area I didn't have to worry? Well, I was definitely worried there for a while. It doesn't look like Thomas is going to be the same guy he was last year, and Rask is very much a rookie. But hopefully the good will come more often than the bad.

Through all the struggles so far, I've kept telling myself that I don't want a repeat of last year. The Bruins on '08-'09 got off to a torrid start before slowing down in the second half, and didn't have enough in the tank to beat an inferior team in the playoffs. If the B's are going to have issues, it's best to get them out of the way now.

I've mentioned here before that Pittsburgh didn't look like a playoff team as late as February last season and were skating with the Cup a few months later. It's such a long season that it scarcely matters how well (Colorado, Los Angeles) or how poorly (Detroit, Anaheim, Carolina) teams are playing in the last week in October.

Lucic and Savard are going to be missed, but the Bruins just have to tread water until they return. The indication I've seen from these last three games is that these Bruins are motivated, resilient, and are just now rounding into form as the Eastern Conference powerhouse they should be.

Onto the first edition of Puckin' Right's Around Hockey Bullet Points:
  • A lot is being made on the hockey blogosphere about five vicious hits that came out of last weekend's games. I'm not going to link to Tuomo Ruutu's astoundingly dirty, totally illegal hit on Darcy Tucker because Ruutu a) plays for Carolina and doesn't deserve to be glorified and b) has the last name Ruutu and probably shouldn't be allowed to play in the league anyway. Steve Ott, same thing, but I'll link to his anyway. There were, however, a couple of shocking culprits dishing out the pain. I agree with most that Mike Richards' check on David Booth was an unfortunate accident. We're talking about Mike Richards here, folks. But Rob Scuderi's truly despicable hit came out of left field. He literally tried to separate Jason Chimera's lower half from his upper half. This would be like Jon Lester throwing at a someone's head. I'm not sure what to make of it.
  • The best player in the league has been...Anze Kopitar? Really? Indeed. I mentioned above the improbable start for the Kings, and Kopitar's scalding-hot scoring touch is a big reason why L.A. is 8-4-0 thus far. He's been held pointless in just one game so far with five goals and three assists in just the last three games. Can he, and the Kings, keep it up? Nope. But it'll be fun while it lasts.
  • Marian Gaborik has 15 points with the Rangers and looks completely comfortable playing in New York with his new team. Because I've written that, I'm sure his hamstring will explode before you're done reading this sentence.
  • Finally, a proud moment for all UNH hockey fans as James van Riemsdyk, the highest draft choice in school history, potted his first career NHL goal in the waning moments of Philadelphia's 4-1 victory over Florida Saturday night. Congrats to JVR, and as one of the video commenters said, it's just one if many to come.
Until next time...

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Boston Bruins Preview 2009-2010

May 11, 1972.

The Boston Bruins, with a 3-2 lead over the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup Final, sojourned to Madison Square Garden to clinch their second championship in three seasons. Bobby Orr, the greatest defenseman to ever put on a uniform, scored a goal and added an assist. Franchise legend Gerry Cheevers shut out the Rangers, and the Big Bad Bruins won 3-0, capturing the Stanley Cup.

That's the last time the Bruins touched Lord Stanley’s Cup. This was the same year Richard Nixon was elected president for a second time, tragedy marred the Munich Olympics, and the Rolling Stones released Exile on Main St. If it feels like a long time ago, that’s because, well, it was a long time ago.

The Bruins have lost in the Stanley Cup Final five times since 1972, once to the Broad Street Bullies, twice to the dynastic Canadiens and twice to the dynastic Oilers. They’ve finished the regular season with over 100 points three times this decade, but last season’s second round defeat at the hands of Carolina marked their furthest advancement of the decade as well.

It’ll be 38 Cup-less years come this May. But, for the first time since Cam Neely and Raymond Bourque made Causeway Street buzz, there’s something different in the air surrounding this franchise. It’s the feeling of hope, the feeling of having a chance, and the feeling that the Stanley Cup drought won’t live to be 39.

The offseason of tumult is over. The Walker goal and Tim Thomas’ sprint off the ice are distant memories. None of that matters now. After a strong preseason, the Bruins will open up Thursday night in front of a sold out TD Bank Garden against one of the league’s best squads, the Washington Capitals.

The Bruins of 2009-2010 will be deep. They’ll be well-rounded. They’ll be out for revenge. They’ll play smart. They’ll play tough. They’ll be well-coached. They’ll prey on weaker teams. They’ll give the best teams fits. They’ll not be rolling over for anyone.

The Bruins of 2009-2010 will be the best team in the NHL. Better than Pittsburgh. Better than Washington. Better than Detroit. Better than San Jose. They will win the Eastern Conference. They will win the Stanley Cup for the first time in 38 years.

I’m going to tell you why.


(LW) - 17 Milan Lucic (C) - 91 Marc Savard (RW) - 16 Marco Sturm

(LW) - 26 Blake Wheeler (C) - 46 David Krejci (RW) - 73 Michael Ryder

The only difference here is Sturm taking the place of Phil Kessel on the top line. I know I’ve used a lot of negative words here on Sturm, as recently as last week. But I want to believe that he can still contribute at a high level. Is he going to score 36 goals just as a result of playing with Savard? It’s doubtful. But he did score 27 goals in each of his last two full seasons. He doesn’t have to replace Kessel’s production. He just has to be part of the replacement, and stay healthy.

Savard is about to enter his walk year, and I’m ready to watch him explode for a career season. He scored 88 points last year, and the century mark is definitely within reach. Savard feels slighted after not being invited to participate in Team Canada’s Olympic training camp. Every time he takes the ice this year, Savard will want to prove to Steve Yzerman and Mike Babcock that they made a terrible mistake. Between that and his contract year, Savard will be one of the best centers in the East.

And if you decide to mess with either Savard or Sturm, you’ll have to face the wrath of Milan Lucic. Just ask Chris Neil. The Legend of Looch grows by the second. At 21, he’s now the seminal young star of the Bruins with Kessel off to Toronto. He’ll look to improve on his 42 points from last year, and continue his development as one of the truly dynamic power forwards in today’s NHL. Bruins fans love Lucic. By the end of this year, the entire town will love him. He’ll be paid handsomely as an RFA next summer. ’09-’10 will be remembered as the season the Boston Bruins became Milan Lucic’s team.

David Krejci appears ready to play in Thursday’s opener, which is more than welcome news following offseason hip surgery and no participation in preseason games. It speaks volumes that Krejci was the first player the B’s worked to keep in a tough offseason. It also speaks volumes about Krejci that he was willing to take less to stay. The best thing about Krejci is that his finest years are still to come.

The beneficiaries of Krejci’s playmaking talents will once again be Wheeler and Ryder. There was a stretch in November and December where this line was simply unstoppable. Both Krejci and Wheeler declined a bit in production down the stretch, in particular Wheeler. The young, sizable winger added 15 pounds of bulk, and he expects to be able to keep a high level of play all year. Like Lucic, he’ll be looking to improve from the 40-point range. Oh, and adding a little toughness might not be such a bad idea, either.

Michael Ryder must be in love with Claude Julien. Something about Julien’s style brings out the very best in Ryder. A year after potting just 14 goals during his last year with Montreal, he returned to his former junior and Canadiens coach and scored 27 goals including 10 on the power play. He’s a true veteran sniper, a fantastic character guy in the room, and someone that really grew on me last year.

These top two lines should be amongst the best and most productive in the league. In the Eastern Conference, they’ll only be rivaled by Washington and Philadelphia. What’s impressive about these six forwards is that they’re all complete players, as evidenced by their plus/minus numbers from last season.



David Krejci

37 (1st in NHL)

Blake Wheeler

36 (2nd in NHL)

Michael Ryder


Marc Savard


Milan Lucic


Marco Sturm (19 games)



(LW) - 28 Mark Recchi (C) - 37 Patrice Bergeron (RW) -12 Chuck Kobasew

(LW) - 61 Byron Bitz (C) - 27 Steve Begin (RW) - 22 Shawn Thornton

Fact: The Bruins’ third line is better than the second line of 80 percent of NHL teams. Fact: The Bruins’ third line is going to be even better this year.

That’s because they’ll be getting full years out of both Recchi and Bergeron. Recchi is 41, and enjoyed his time with the B’s last year enough that he took a pay cut to return. A few days ago NESN was showing a classic Bruins/Penguins game from the 1991 Wales Conference Final and there was a young Recchi, scoring a key goal for the Pens in the old Garden. (That goal comes about three minutes into this video, but check out the whole thing. There’s some great goals by Neely, Bourque, Mario Lemieux, some horrendous hairdos, and, of course, the glory of Mike Milbury). Recchi has much less hair, much less speed, but still has the desire to win a third Stanley Cup.

As for Bergeron, it finally appears the concussion issues are behind him, and he’s ready to go back to the player he was from 2005 to 2007 (143 points in 158 games). With Krejci not expected to miss any time because of his hip surgery, the pressure on Bergeron will not be as significant as a result. It’s hard to believe Bergeron is only 24, and still hopefully has many great years ahead.

You have to have players like Chuck Kobasew if you want to win the Cup. At different times during the second half last year, the grit and guile of this team was questioned, but Kobasew was the one guy that gave 110 percent effort on every shift. I’ve made a lot about Kobasew’s ability to play in the postseason through two broken ribs, but that’s really all you need to know about him. If you want to see the living personification of what a hockey player should be, look no further than No. 12.

Byron Bitz, a Cornell man, is pretty close to Kobasew in terms of effort, and this will be his first full year in the NHL. Bitz has terrific hands and some fine moves around the net. Steve Begin comes over from Montreal to provide some fight along with Garden favorite Shawn Thornton, who proved last year that he’s a lot more than a goon. The B’s are also going to carry Vladimir Sobotka and he could start Thursday night if Begin’s groin is acting up. This fourth line will be tough, provide energy and might surprise teams with some scoring touch. I predict Bitzy scores 15 goals this year.


33 Zdeno Chara – 53 Derek Morris

6 Dennis Wideman – 21 Andrew Ference

45 Mark Stuart – 48 Matt Hunwick

Anyone who said Mike Green deserved to win the Norris Trophy last year over Chara because he scored 31 goals had to be kidding. Chara was the most indispensible player on the East’s best team. There was nothing he didn’t do well last year, whether it was getting the puck to his best forwards on the power play, shutting down the best scorers in the league, killing off five-on-threes all by himself, shooting the daylights out of the puck, or destroying opposing goons with his ridiculous fighting style. Can he repeat his performance this year? The odds are stacked against him. But he has more help this time around.

Gone is Aaron Ward, a great veteran with a stay-at-home style, replaced by a more mobile veteran in Derek Morris. It’s a different style for Chara to get used to, but Morris creates many more opportunities from an offensive perspective. He’s a leader that’s been around the league for a long time, and he’s been a perfect with Boston so far.

I hate to put too much pressure on these guys, but the success of the Bruins’ defense this year is mostly dependent on how Wideman and Ference play. Wideman scored 50 points last year and was a phenomenal plus-32, but his production faded in the second half. Ference had surgery on his pesky groin, and it’s expected he should be good to go for a full season. When he’s not busy pissing off old Bruins, Ference is a talented guy, but I’m not sure he’s a top-four defenseman on a Cup-caliber team. These guys have an awful lot to prove in my opinion, but they’re both young and both up to the task.

Mark Stuart played well in the postseason this past spring, and progressed significantly during the year. It appears he’ll be paired with Matt Hunwick, the spleen-less wonder with a newly-minted contract. His 27 points last year were actually amongst the best for NHL rookie defensemen, so he should be even better and will see time on the power play. He was also pretty versatile last year, playing some games at forward.

Johnny Boychuk, a 25-year-old scoring specialist, will open the year as the seventh guy. From top to bottom, I’m confident the B’s will have great defense once again. Switching out Ward for the younger, dynamic Morris won’t hurt a blue line crew that allowed the fewest goals in the NHL just a year ago.


35 Tim Thomas - 40 Tuukka Rask

The Tim Thomas story is one that you’ll likely hear a lot more about come Olympic time, when hopefully Timmy will be the starter leading the Red, White and Blue to a medal of some hue. Four years as a starter at UVM, several minor league stints all across North America, professional stints in Finland and Sweden, finally making his NHL debut with the B’s at age 28, then year after year of inconsistency and shuttling back and forth to Providence. Hell, even last year it seemed he’d have to share time with Manny Fernandez.

Fernandez got hurt, and Timmy took advantage. The numbers speak for themselves: 36-11-7, 2.10 GAA, .933 SV% and 5 SHO. He took home the Vezina Trophy and a $20 million contract for his efforts. Sure, the Walker goal looms large for Timmy more than anyone else. There’s plenty of questions about whether his wide-open, Brodeur-esque style is conducive to winning the Stanley Cup. I say yes. Umm, hasn’t Brodeur won three Cups? I don’t see it being a problem. Will Timmy be as good as he was last season? That’s an awful lot to ask. I’m doubtful he’ll be as good, but he doesn’t necessarily have to be. He can be close, and the B’s will be in just as solid of a position.

Behind him is Rask, the young phenom whose time to play in the NHL has come. I’d feel very confident going forward with the 22-year-old Finn should something happen to the 35-year-old Thomas. Rask was terrific in last year in preseason, in Providence, in his one NHL appearance shutting out the Rangers, and again this preseason. I’m stoked to see what kind of NHL goalie he’ll become. As an RFA after this year, he could be dangled as a trade chip.

Goaltending is the biggest gamble in this game. When you feel confident about your goaltending, that’s half the battle. I’m happy that goaltending is an area on the Bruins I scarcely have to worry about.


Julien was honored last season as the NHL’s best coach with the Jack Adams Award, an honor he certainly deserved. The Bruins, after finishing 8th and exiting following an epic first round tilt with the Dirty Habs in ’07-’08, weren’t expected to be one of the top teams in the East this past season. I remember just being excited about them potentially having home-ice in a first round series. Expectations were exceeded throughout the regular season.

The question now is whether Julien can guide his troops through a season where expectations are high. The target will be on their backs after so much success last year, and people like me believe they should be the league’s best team. Julien is a strong motivator who stresses defense and complete play, so I personally don’t expect a letdown from these guys. The way last season ended should be motivation enough for the many returning warriors.

Peter Chiarelli has minimal cap room but has five of the first 60 picks in next year’s draft, which is expected to be much deeper than this year’s draft. I mentioned Ilya Kovalchuk in my NHL preview last week. He’s likely to be the top name available at the deadline if he doesn’t come to an agreement with the Thrashers before then. It’s possible the B’s won’t need someone like Kovalchuk, and based on what I’ve gone over here, perhaps adding a big defenseman will be more important. It’s hard to predict that now.

OK, time to wrap this up. It’s been a tough summer, dealing with the hurt from how last season ended. I don’t think I’m crazy in believing the B’s can win the Cup this year with the complete, strong team they have. They just have to get it done. Thirty-eight years will not become 39. It starts Thursday.

Expect some live-tweeting action as the Bruins look to embarrass Alexander Ovechkin and the rest of the Capitals. See you then.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Useless Predictions: NHL '09-'10 Preview

With each passing day, with each meaningless preseason goal and fight, we near the dawn of a new NHL season. It'll be my first as a hockey blogger and full-fledged reborn puckhead, and after the Patriots' miserable performance on Sunday I couldn't be more excited for the Bruins and the rest of the NHL to return.

So allow me to offer some ill-advised, completely useless predictions for the upcoming season. Lots of things will happen between now and when the Stanley Cup is hoisted next June, so don't be surprised if I'm totally wrong on so much of what I'm about to say. It will at least be fun to look back and see how much of an idiot I am when that time comes. Here we go:


Atlantic Division:
1. Pittsburgh Penguins
These Penguins will be very similar to the team that won the Cup last spring, with some minor losses on defense. It may be forgotten now, but the Penguins were plagued by inconsistency during last season and it wasn't until a coaching change that things began to turn around. More consistency this year will be achieved if Marc-Andre Fleury can channel his SCF Game 6 and 7 supremacy into an entire season. I wouldn't bet on that, but Pittsburgh could be an even better team this year.

2. Philadelphia Flyers
I badly want to like this Flyers team: Jeff Carter and Mike Richards are two of the best all-around players in the league; Scott Hartnell mixing scoring and toughness; the potential of a Riley Cote-Ian Laperriere-Dan Carcillo "Let Me Hand You Your Own Ass" line (591 combined PIMs last year); young stars on the rise like Claude Giroux and former UNHer James van Riemsdyk; and the ballsy move to try Ray Emery at goal. But, alas, they have Chris Pronger. Can I root for them as long as he's not on the ice? Please?

3. New Jersey Devils
Was the re-hiring of Jacques Lemaire a cry for help or another genius stroke for Lou Lamoriello? We're going to find out this year, and it won't be easy. The Devils lost a lot and didn't really gain much, with Brian Gionta and several other vets jumping ship. Patrik Elias is already hurt, but steady production should again come from Zach Parise (45 goals last year) and Travis Zajac (42 assists). Martin Brodeur needs to prove at 37 that he can withstand a full season and take New Jersey deep in the playoffs (he hasn't done the latter in several years).

4. New York Rangers
I have the Rangers barely squeaking into the playoffs, but not because of anything they did special this offseason. They trade perennial albatross Scott Gomez to the Canadiens for some solid young pieces, but then immediately replace him with the brittle Marian Gaborik for a similarly huge cap hit. Win some, lose some. At least with John Tortorella and Sean Avery around, the Rangers won't be too far removed from the headlines. It'll probably be more interesting than anything actually happening on the ice.

5. New York Islanders
It's probably not a great sign for the Isles and Rick DiPietro that they had to sign both Dwayne Roloson and Martin Biron this offseason as insurance. Fifteen-year contracts should probably be avoided at all costs in this league. The #1 overall pick in this year's draft, John Tavares, ought to be relatively close to the NHL mid-season. Otherwise, there's no reason to care about this team.

Northeast Division:
1. Boston Bruins
My B's preview will be coming at some point before the Oct. 1 opener. Until then, I'll reserve extended comment on the team, but I'll break some suspense right now. I have the Bruins as the East's #1 seed, and yes, winning the Stanley Cup next spring. Shocking, I know.

2. Buffalo Sabres
Lindy Ruff's crew missed the playoffs for a second straight year in '08-'09, so I don't expect the third time to be a charm. It might be difficult with Ryan Miller expected to be a major part of Team USA's chances at the Olympics. Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville and Derek Roy are part of a group of excellent forwards that should lead the Sabres back into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. People in Buffalo need something to cheer about, right?

3. Montreal Canadiens
After the debacle that was the Canadiens' July 1, the Habs rounded out their extreme makeover with the likes of character forward Travis Moen and veteran defenseman Paul Mara, amongst others. But it's hard for me to believe that such wholesale changes will lead to success this year in Montreal. The stink from last season won't be going away anytime soon. I have the Habs missing the playoffs this year. Too much change, too much uncertainty, too much pressure, too much Bob Gainey.

4. Ottawa Senators
The Dany Heatley saga is over, and in his place will be Milan Michalek and someone I think is named Jonathan Cheechoo but may actually be this guy instead. They also added Alex Kovalev, and they need to hope he actually shows up all the time unlike last year during the putrid Montreal season. The Sens are banking a lot on Pascal Leclaire this year in a town known for ripping underachieving goalies to pieces. I'm not sure it's going to end well.

5. Toronto Maple Leafs
Adding Phil Kessel to the Truculent Bunch isn't going to make the Leafs good for this year. Kessel, who won't even play until November anyway, is the only scoring threat on the entire team and nobody on the roster jumps out as a potential center to feed him the puck like Marc Savard. Brian Burke added a lot of meat to this team's defense, so at the very least if they can't score goals they won't give up as many.

Southeast Division
1. Washington Capitals
Scoring will not be an issue with these Capitals, what with prolific scorers Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich, Mike Green and new additions Mike Knuble and Brendan Morrison. The presence between the pipes could become an issue, with Jose Theodore reclaiming the job he lost to Simeon Varlamov during the playoffs. Theodore is one of the most embattled goalies of his generation, and it's hard to believe he actually won a Hart Trophy once. If their goaltending rounds into form, the Caps will be hard to beat.

2. Carolina Hurricanes
Fuck off.

3. Florida Panthers
Sure, it's been rough for the Panthers through their relatively short history. For much of last year it seemed like they at least had a shot at getting in the postseason, and finished tied for the 8th spot but lost out on tiebreakers to the Canadiens. I'm personally grateful since beating the Panthers in the opening round wouldn't have been as sweet. I'm not sure what to expect this year for Florida, their first in several without Jay Bouwmeester. Scott Clemmensen should provide some stability in net.

4. Atlanta Thrashers
It's been pretty funny to watch the Thrashers try to convince Ilya Kovalchuk to stay through any move short of actually extending his contract. They sign his countryman Nik Antropov and ran very hard at another Russian Nikolai Zherdev. They added mobile defender Pavel Kubina to get him the puck. I'm not sure it's going to matter, and Kovalchuk could be available in a trade this season. Considering the pieces the Bruins acquired recently, I'd die to see Kovalchuk in Black and Gold. Make it happen, Chiarelli!

5. Tampa Bay Lightning
How the mighty fall. This franchise won the Cup five years ago? Really? No, I mean, really? When Barry Melrose can't save your team, no one can. Victor Hedman looks like a real #1 defenseman. If that's all Tampa has to look forward too, maybe it's time to think about rooting for the Rays...er...the Bucs...er...nevermind.


Central Division:
1. Detroit Red Wings
A lot has been made about Detroit's offseason losses, and because of the salary cap their relative inability to replace those losses with anyone of substance. A lot has been made about how they can't possibly go deep into the playoffs for a fourth straight year. A lot has been made about potential Team Canada distractions for Mike Babcock, and how so many key players have major Olympic commitments. But these are the Red Wings. Given how last season ended, I don't see a scenario under which this team isn't in it to the very end.

2. Columbus Blue Jackets
Yeah. That just happened. I don't expect the BJs to be too much better than Chicago, maybe only a point or two, but this preview is about taking chances. Why not take one here? Think of Steve Mason as a rock band; after a successful debut, the second album/season is always very tough. The success of Ken Hitchcock's young team will depend on that. Rick Nash is oh-so-close to breaking through as an NHL super-duper star, and I'm excited to see that happen if Columbus can also break through this year.

3. Chicago Blackhawks
Seems like most NHL observers are falling over themselves to anoint the Blackhawks as the NHL's next "it" team after getting to the WCF last year and adding Marian Hossa. Well, turns out Hossa was damaged goods and after All-American Boy Patrick Kane drunkenly punched out a cabbie in Buffalo things don't look so rosy for this crew. Brian Campbell might share that grave with Cheechoo and their goaltending situation is far from settled (or good). Sure, the Hawks will be a fine team. But let's not get too crazy here.

4. St. Louis Blues
I've got the Blues barely making it in the playoffs this year, continuing the good karma from last year's massive mid-season turnaround. Chris Mason came out of the doldrums to establish himself as a #1 goalie, but my man Ty Conklin is right behind should Mason not be up to the task. St. Louis dealt with a ton of injuries last year, so having Paul Kariya and Andy MacDonald fully healthy should make a huge difference this year. It's going to be a tough division race, as you can tell.

5. Nashville Predators
I'd think Nashville would make the playoffs, even in the tough Western Conference, if they were in another division. Pekka Rinne crushed Dan Ellis' soul last year and stole away the starting goaltender job and did not look back. Shea Weber is the most dynamic player on their roster, and it'd be interesting to see what kind of return he could yield on the trade market.

Northwest Division
1. Vancouver Canucks
Expectations will be running high in Vancouver this year after an offseason of high activity. The Canucks retained the services of the Sedins, gave Roberto Luongo a mega-extension, added Mikael Samuelsson for scoring depth and shored up the blue line with Christian Ehrhoff and Mathieu Schneider. With continued growth in production for the likes of Alex Burrows, Ryan Kesler, Kevin Bieksa and Willie Mitchell, this team can reasonably be expected to be a real Western Conference player until the end.

2. Calgary Flames
Jarome Iginla's crew crashed and burned late last season, losing the division race to the Canucks and getting blown out in the first round by Chicago. Mike Keenan was shown the door, and homeboy Brent Sutter took his place. They added Bouwmeester, who along with Dion Phaneuf should wreak havoc on the power play. Olli Jokinen will try to get on the same page as Iginla, something that did not happen last year. Some other forwards will have to step up in place of Michael Cammalleri.

3. Edmonton Oilers
It'll be a fresh start for Edmonton, who hired veteran bench boss Pat Quinn to reform a team that totally lost its way last year. The Oilers were all set to trade Andrew Cogliano, Dustin Penner and Ladislav Smid to Ottawa for Dany Heatley, but it literally took months for Heatley to finally say no and it pretty much screwed any other offseason plans they may have had. If being dangled as a trade chip doesn't finally motivate Penner, nothing will. The Oilers should benefit from adding Nikolai Khabibulin between the pipes.

4. Minnesota Wild
The Wild will also get a fresh start with a new GM and coach committed to move off the trapping style of longtime coach Lemaire. They replaced the brittle Gaborik with the similarly brittle Martin Havlat. Marty will probably team up with Mikko Koivu and when healthy should be a force to be reckoned with. Niklas Backstrom will be in net for the foreseeable future, but the change away from a defensive system might affect his final statistics this season.

5. Colorado Avalanche
It sucks to see the Avs suck. They've never sucked in their history, but now, they suck. At least they didn't hire Patrick Roy to be their head coach, that would have sucked. Their degree of suckitude will be lessened with a fully healthy Paul Stastny and the emergence of #3 overall pick Matt Duchene. But don't kid yourself, the Avs will suck again. And maybe for a while.

Pacific Division
1. San Jose Sharks
Once again, the Sharks will be the #1 seed in the Western Conference playoffs and win the President's Trophy. But once again, they won't win the Stanley Cup, or even get close to it. Until they break up this team, they never will. It doesn't matter that they've added Heatley, or that Evgeni Nabokov will be playing for a contract. Failure after failure, it doesn't seem like this team or its management gets it. Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Nabokov have the stink of fail all over them. No number of tomato paste baths will remove it.

2. Anaheim Ducks
They've rid themselves of Pronger, which is a good thing. But losing Francois Beauchemin leaves the Ducks pretty thin on the blue line, and they'll need James Wisniewski to play like he did in the postseason. Saku Koivu joins his countryman Teemu Selanne for one last run to the Cup, and new addition Joffrey Lupul will look to make an impact early. The goalie fight is one of the preseason's most intriguing storylines, with Jonas Hiller having the upper hand over proven vet and franchise icon J.S. Giguere.

3. Dallas Stars
So which Marty Turco shows up this year? The dominant force that led Dallas to the WCF in '08 or the horrible facsimile that sucked beyond comprehension for most of last year? If the former shows up, the Stars should contend for a playoff berth all year. If not, they have no chance, because they don't have anyone else on the club that can carry them. The Stars dealt with injuries and Sean Avery last year, but Mike Madano is ancient and I wouldn't trust anyone else to lead them to the promise land.

4. Los Angeles Kings
Beware the Kings. They have an excellent core with Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Justin Williams, and added the veteran presence of Ryan Smyth this summer. Jon Quick has potential to be a franchise goalie, and Rob Scuderi came over from the Penguins to provide depth on the blue line. While I still think they're about a year away from the playoffs, they could create a ruckus and mess up some team's chances, especially down the stretch. If you're not going to the playoffs, why not create a ruckus?

5. Phoenix Coyotes
To call what's going on with the Coyotes a "mess" wouldn't do it justice. The bankrupt franchise is in the process of being sold, with lots of lawyers and courts and businessmen and other crap involved. How it will affect the play on the ice, and attendance at home games, will be a major point of interest. News has just broken that Wayne Gretzky is out, which can only be a good thing. Shane Doan is the only player worth a crap on this team, and I feel pretty bad for him. He deserves a lot better.

Let's wrap up this preview with some useless playoff predictions. Here goes:

Eastern Conference
(1) Bruins beat (8) Rangers
(2) Penguins beat (7) Sabres
(3) Capitals beat (6) Devils
(4) Flyers beat (5) Hurricanes

(1) Bruins beat (4) Flyers
(3) Capitals beat (2) Penguins

(1) Bruins beat (3) Capitals

Western Conference
(1) Sharks beat (8) Blues
(2) Red Wings beat (7) Ducks
(3) Canucks beat (6) Blackhawks
(4) Flames beat (5) Blue Jackets

(4) Flames beat (1) Sharks
(2) Red Wings beat (3) Canucks

(2) Red Wings beat (4) Flames

Stanely Cup Final:
Bruins beat Red Wings in 7 games

I'm sure I've jinxed everyone in this process. Come back soon for my B's preview.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Farewell, Phil

In my last post, I talked about how the Bruins' situation with Phil Kessel was nearing a conclusion. That conclusion came Friday night, when Kessel was dealt to the Toronto Maple Leafs for first- and second-round picks in 2010 and a first-rounder in 2011. While the return wasn't shocking, the new contract given to the restricted free agent was: five years, $27 million, and a $5.4 million annual cap hit for the 21-year-old American sniper set to play out the prime of his career in Canada's hockey hotbed.

On a visceral level, the trade itself wasn't surprising; trade talks involving Kessel had been rumored ever since Scott Walker broke our hearts in May. The return is solid and the contract he received is cartoonish, with a cap hit the Bruins would not have touched. I'm happy all sides involved are satisfied, as the B's have eliminated a huge distraction and now have five early 2010 picks to move around next spring. We live in a salary cap era, and Kessel is a casualty. The Bruins truly did the best they could under the circumstances.

But, more than anything, my negative feelings towards this trade were of sadness. I heard so many awesome things about Kessel when he was drafted, that he'd be the sniper the Bruins so lacked since Cam Neely's heyday. The excitement he brought to the ice as a young star was part of my re-attraction to this team. My first B's shirt in years had his name and number on it.

So seeing him go to a division rival was hard, because I couldn't stop thinking about what may have been. This could have worked. At least that's what I want to believe.

The B's reportedly offered Kessel something similar to the four-year, $16 million Jordan Staal signed with the Penguins last year. They probably did not want to offer him more than the $3.75 million average David Krejci signed for, but it was closer to what Florida gave David Booth ($4.25 million average), an older player with a similar skill set.

Kessel wasn't interested. He wanted to be paid like the star he isn't yet. Kessel and his agent, Wade Arnott, were not willing to budge. Peter Chiarelli stuck to his guns in terms of Kessel's value to the Bruins. For that reason, I'm proud of the Bruins for not giving in.

But they could have offered Kessel something closer to his asking price if they'd been able to make one move: trade away 31-year-old winger Marco Sturm and his $3.5 million salary to a team in need of some veteran scoring. I'm not sure about you, but I'd rather have a 21-year-old potentially-elite scorer and hope he'd mature into a positive room presence than a guy 10 years older coming off major knee surgery.

But when Sturm was signed to a multi-year extension in February of 2007, Chiarelli awarded him no-trade protection for reasons beyond comprehension. With rumors raging this summer, Sturm made it very clear he would not waive his NTC. It's not known if Sturm was ever asked to waive his NTC, but apparently it didn't matter.

After improving their defense with Derek Morris and taking care of Matt Hunwick and Byron Bitz, there was $1.7 million remaining under the cap, and they weren't moving anyone else for fear of losing significant production or an important chemistry element. Without Strum's NTC, Kessel could have stayed for something close to $5 million a year. It could have worked.

The other part of his has to do with Kessel himself. Much has been made in recent days about Kessel's problems with Claude Julien and some teammates. But at nearly 22, Kessel could have overcome those problems, and in relatively short order. I refuse to believe his problems with Julien were so bad that they couldn't possibly co-exist.

Did Kessel really want out of Boston that bad? Why would he want to leave a team on the rise, with excellent players, and a burgeoning fanbase the certainly didn't dislike him? I wonder if his desire to leave has been overblown. If it's not, then I'd rather the B's have skaters that want to be there than not. We may never know for sure. I just have a hard time believing things couldn't have changed. It could have worked.

But it didn't. And maybe it's just in my mind that it could have. What I do know is the NHL must address restricted free agency in the next CBA. In a league with such a tight cap, where signing big UFAs is just as vital as bringing along young draftees, the salary structure is completely screwed up when the Bruins cannot afford to keep Kessel because he can command such an exorbitant salary. Just wait until you see what the Blackhawks will have to deal with next summer.

Kessel's $5.4 million cap hit next year will be equal to or greater than the likes of forwards Rick Nash, Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, Johan Franzen, Marian Hossa, Simon Gagne, Martin Havlat, Shane Doan, Olli Jokinen, Daniel Alfredsson, Martin St. Louis, Jason Pominville, Brian Rolston, and the man that fed Kessel the puck all last year, Marc Savard (FYI: All these players will be UFAs at the end of their current deals). That's quite a list, and should tell you something about the state of affairs in the NHL right now. Kessel's one-dimensional play means he shouldn't be in the same class as most of these guys, but the economics of the league allow him to make more than most of them.

It's not right that Kessel can get away from the team that drafted him with less than three years of total NHL experience and get a raise from $850,000 to $5.4 million from a team desperately in need of scoring. The NHL must change this if teams reliant on young talent want to keep their best players.

But for now, this is the reality. Whether or not the Phil Kessel trade will work out for the Bruins won't be known for years. The 2009-2010 Bruins will still contend for the Stanley Cup, and his 36 goals will be replace by the presence of Sturm and Mark Recchi and the continued growth and development of Milan Lucic and Blake Wheeler.

That question of what might have been will long linger with the name Kessel in Bruins' lore. In another time, this could have worked. Yet, it didn't. So we move on.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Hockey Inches Closer

It's been almost two months since my epic Crosby/Malkin/Ovechkin post that, thanks to Cam, was linked to by Puck Daddy and garnered the most exposure ever to something I've blogged. I appreciate all the feedback and I hope you'll stick around. I haven't written much here because I haven't had much to say about the NHL since July. Summer is a time for baseball and other things that don't involve sitting around and writing.

But the NHL is back, and the B's already have two preseason wins in the books. Two weeks from today, the Bruins will begin their season with an epic match-up in Boston against the Capitals on (sort of) national TV. It's hard to believe it's already time for our favorite ice heroes and villains to lace 'em up for another great year. I'm excited to share my thoughts with you for a full season.

There's been quite a bit of activity recently, none bigger than Dany Heatley finally getting traded to the Sharks in exchange for Milan Michalek, Jonathan Cheechoo's rotting, decomposing corpse and a second-round pick. Thus ended a long, arduous summer of back-and-forth between the player, the team and the media about where exactly Heatley wanted to go.

Heatley didn't exactly endear himself to either Ottawa or Edmonton when he refused a trade to the Oilers that probably would have netted the Senators more than what they got from the Sharks. Michalek is an up-and-comer, but Cheechoo is the deadest of dead weight. In fact, as I intimated above, he may actually be dead.

Regardless, the Sharks lost some depth but they couldn't pass up the opportunity to pair Heatley with Joe Thornton, and along with Devin Setoguchi, present one of the most fearsome first lines in the league. Does Heatley get them over the hump and eventually lead them to postseason success? Well, they still have Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Evgeni Nabokov, right? Then the answer is still "no."

There's also been plenty of Phil Kessel talk recently, and it appears the still-unsigned RFA has played his final game in a Bruins' uniform. The Maple Leafs want him, as do the Predators, Rangers, and some mystery teams out west, but there appears to be too much animosity between Kessel's camp and the Bruins' camp for him to appear in the Spoked B again.

I'll have much more to say on Kessel, and his soon-to-be former teammates, next week. I'm planning on doing a full-out Bruins preview early in the week, followed by a preview of the rest of the league later on. I'm not sure how I'm going to structure either of them, or how in-depth my preview of the rest of the league will be. I'll take the weekend to ponder it.

I'll leave you with the first fight video of the year, Byron Bitz taking on Jay Rosehill in last night's contest in Toronto. Sure, Bitzy got his ass beat, but I'm so pumped to see what he'll do in a full season as this team's workhorse fourth-line star. Enjoy. See you next week.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The NHL's Big 3: A blessing, or a headache?

The National Hockey League should be in a position of rejoice. It is on the precipice of regaining a place amongst the major North American professional sports due in part to its three elite stars all aged 23 and under: Pittsburgh Penguins centermen Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and Washington Capitals left winger Alexander Ovechkin.

Having not one, not two, but three megastars to build around should be a huge boon for the NHL. Neither the NFL, NBA nor MLB can claim to have that many transcendent stars all at such young ages. The NHL has indeed taken advantage, especially with Crosby, the 21-year-old dynamo who's already hoisted the Stanley Cup along with his Conn Smyth-winning teammate Malkin.

There was another era where the league could boast more than one transcendent talent, and that was during the late '80s and early '90s with Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. Across the spectrum of the sport, amongst other players, fans and the media alike, Gretzky and Lemieux were respected, even loved. Their play and conduct left little to be desired, they made their teammates better and were true ambassadors of the game. Even though Gretzky was never all that gritty and Lemieux was always hurt, they were held in unanimously high regard throughout their careers.

This is where the NHL of 2009 has a problem. Despite the undeniably prolific skills of the three big current stars, there is some aspect of their personalities or their game that causes a significant portion of the hockey-watching populous to dislike them. This goes beyond the intense rivalry between Penguins and Capitals aficionados, extending to puckheads all over the world. When it comes to how casual fans might view these stars during this key period for the NHL, perception is a harrowing reality.

With these issues in mind, let's take a look at the pros and cons of these three men, and what their shortcomings mean for the game.


For Malkin, it's likely he'll never rise above second-banana or second-fiddle or second-whatever to the other two stars. He was second in the '04 draft to his countryman Ovechkin, and he's always going to be considered the Scottie to Crosby's Michael. But the numbers, and the consistency of his play, do not lie.

PROS: With all the adulation his more famous teammate receives, Malkin has been better than Crosby each of the last two regular seasons. Crosby spent much of '07-'08 injured, but Malkin was clearly the superior of the two in '08-'09. He won the Art Ross Trophy this past year by scoring a league-leading 113 points, 10 better than Crosby and three better than Ovechkin.

Malkin followed up with a dominating run through the Stanley Cup Playoffs, scoring 36 points and earning Conn Smyth honors. It's possible Malkin would have won the Conn Smyth even if with a Game 7 loss. His scoring touch during the playoffs is exemplified by this ridiculous goal completing a hat trick against Cam Ward and the hapless Hurricanes in ECF Game 2. It's no surprise Malkin won the accuracy contest at last year's Skills Competition.

The Russian is a gifted passer who's made his hay while playing with second-line wingers. His 78 helpers last year were a career-high, and at 22 he'll only improve in that category. Malkin's defense has also improved during his time in the league, and while he won't win a Selke anytime soon, he's no liability on the other end of the ice.

Playing with Malkin is definitely a good thing for Crosby. Being paired with another star alleviates the pressure that come along with being one. To a certain extent, Crosby being there has the same effect for Malkin.

CONS: Going back to my earlier point, Malkin's sidekick status is unfortunate because a very legitimate case can be made that Malkin is the best player in the game and was the best player last season over Crosby and Ovechkin. You can't say Scottie was ever a better player than Michael during their primes.

But there's another significant reason why Malkin won't be bigger than his teammate or his countryman: the dude can barely speak English.

When he first came to Pittsburgh three years ago, he spoke Russian and nothing else. But with the help of Sergei Gonchar and plenty of time in North American locker rooms, Malkin can at least carry a conversation and do a short, cliché-ridden interview from time to time. This kills any marketing or entertainment potential from Malkin's phenomenal production, aside from the occasional brush with unintentional comedy.

What stands out about a player is how they perform under pressure, and those situations have not exactly brought out the best in Malkin. He infamously disappeared during the '08 SCF, appearing jittery and scoring only three points in the series. His '09 Conn Smyth run notwithstanding, Malkin managed eight points in the '09 SCF but his reputation took a hit by taking stupid penalties in seemingly every game and instigating the bizarre fight with Henrik Zetterberg that ended Game 2.

I lost a lot of respect for Malkin during the Final. I can't be the only one.


I would pay more to see Ovechkin than any other non-Bruins player in the NHL. That should stand for something. Entertainment value is awfully important in a league that will take anything for positive headlines. But Ovechkin's the most flawed player of these three, and his style makes the purists cringe.

PROS: Hockey puts a special premium on goals and those who can pot them, and Ovechkin is the NHL's best goal-scorer by far. The winner of the last two Hart Trophies scored 65 goals in '07-'08 and 56 this past season for a rapidly-improving Capitals squad. He's never scored fewer than 46 goals in any of his four NHL seasons. Of course, it's not just that he scores goals. He scores them like this. And like this.

Oh yeah, and like this. Almost forgot about that one.

The words "exciting" and "electrifying" don't really do Ovechkin's game justice. He has the ability to change a game all by himself in a way no other player in the league possesses, including Malkin or Crosby. As evidenced in the goal against the Habs, his ice vision is terrific and his skating and cutting prowess are second to none in the NHL. Simply put, nobody in hockey is more fun to watch than Ovechkin.

"Fun" is also the best way to describe Ovechkin's playful personality. He doesn't take himself too seriously, as this commercial attests. Unlike Malkin, this Russian speaks English with confidence and Bond-villain clarity, lending himself a chance to grow as a mainstream sports star. His flair on the ice makes him unique in hockey, and attracts people from the outside to see what the fuss is about.

And when they see what Ovechkin can do with his stick and his skates, it tends to make a lasting impression.

CONS: However entertaining Ovechkin's on-ice antics might be, it can rub hockey observers the wrong way. Hockey prides itself on tradition and class, and charades like his "hot stick" celebration following his 50th goal last season are not always well-received.

You may have heard of this guy Don Cherry. He's the patriarch of the hockey curmudgeons, and sure, this particular rant was xenophobic and borderline racist. But people often take stock in what he says. When he blasted Ovechkin last spring for his actions, fans and media took notice. It started a stretch of anti-Ovechkin sentiments across the hockey world, where many of his shortcomings as a player were exposed.

At different points last year I heard Ovechkin's effort on the backcheck and defense called "lazy," "listless," even "non-existent." As the season wore on, some clamored for Malkin to be awarded the Hart over Ovechkin because of Malkin's more complete play. After watching Ovechkin a few times myself, it was hard to disagree.

He appears bored sometimes on the ice, and takes shifts off on both ends. When he does try, it usually comes in the form of taking runs at opposing players and leaving his feet to smash them against the boards. There's no doubt he's the most physical and bruising of these three stars. But he doesn't always do it in a clean way. There's a perception around the league that Ovechkin will pay for the dangerous way he plays, and it could come sooner than later after his hit on Gonchar in the playoffs.

When you couple these tendencies with the fact that Ovechkin has not established himself as a leader and shoots the puck like Kobe Bryant shoots the ball (hint: too much), it's clear he's got plenty of work to do, and minds to change, before he can be considered the league's seminal star. With stigmas like "he's not a leader," "he doesn't care on defense," and "he plays dirty," it's hard to accept Ovechkin as anything more than an elite scorer that goofs around. With his talent, that's not a good thing for the NHL.


The Kid. The Next One. The Golden Child. Overrated. The Best Player in the NHL. The Biggest Whiner in the NHL. A Little Bitch. The man pictured above has undoubtedly been called all of these things at one time or another (or just by me personally). Crosby has once-in-a-generation talents, a Stanley Cup ring, the league's commissioner in his hip pocket, and a level of recognition few players in his sport have ever achieved–all before reaching the age of 22. Yet some cannot stand the sight of his face. The league can survive the mixed perceptions of Malkin and Ovechkin, but not Crosby.

PROS: After scoring a mind-boggling 217 points in Midgets at 14, Crosby's stage was set. Soon Gretzky was saying Crosby was the one player who could break his records, and the Penguins struck gold after winning the post-lockout draft lottery. The Steel City had a new icon to follow in Lemieux's footsteps, and thus far he's not disappointed, winning a Hart Trophy in '07 and a Stanley Cup in '09.

Crosby possesses every on-ice skill needed in a great hockey player. He has an uncanny nose for the goal, and can make the highlight reel with the best of them. He has peerless ice vision, and makes his teammates better with a fantastic passing touch (he has a 2:1 assist to goal ratio for his career). His effort on the ice can never be questioned. He plays strong defense, and shows grit when necessary. Pound for pound, he's the best player in hockey with few contemporaries in today's game.

It's an understatement to say Crosby was a godsend for the NHL following the lockout from a PR perspective. Here's a young, handsome, sure-thing Canadian center with comparisons to Gretzky playing in a city with a penchant for creating recent hockey demi-gods. Should we be surprised that Gary Bettman fell in love with the guy? From Day 1, Crosby has been the focus of the NHL's public reclamation project. In many ways it's been great thing, as Crosby is a household name and even non-fans know who him. In many ways it's been a bad thing, and I'll get to that soon.

Now that he's got a ring at such a young age, Crosby has not just the hockey world but the sports world at his feet. He holds a tremendous amount of power both on and off the ice, and he still has lots of time to further his legacy. The league has drawn its lot with Crosby, and he should be the face of the NHL for years to come.

CONS: To so many fans, it doesn't matter that Crosby is an uber-talent. They loath him. They derisively call him "Cindy Crosby," wear t-shirts that express their ultimate feelings and create hilarious photo illustrations in his honor. Crosby's haters don't root for only Philadelphia or Washington. They extend to the furthest reaches the league's fanbase. I don't believe the biggest star in any other professional sport is as disliked as Crosby. For the NHL, this is a nightmare in the making.

Part of the backlash against Crosby is the backlash against him being shoved in the faces of average fans. Some feel he was given too much an unworthy age. To be fair, this isn't really Crosby's fault. He didn't ask for this level of attention, it was pretty much thrust upon him because of his talent. In the end, however, that doesn't matter. It's Crosby himself that's everywhere, and he's the target.

I personally don't think Crosby is soft. But on the ice, he's mastered the art of complaining, and his peers agree. In a survey last season, Crosby was voted by his fellow players as the whiniest player in the league. Is it because he feels entitled to every call? Is it because he believes that's you show leadership? Or is it a case of immaturity that will dissipate with age, as his defenders claim? I'm not sure. But it's no good for both Crosby, and the league, if the biggest star is perceived to be the biggest whiner. Perception is reality, and that reality has trickled down to the fans.

There are so many more issues surrounding Crosby and his image (like how Malkin supporters belittle Crosby by asking, "How can the best player in the league not even be the best player on his own team?") that talking about them all would take up too much space. But his leadership skills, or lack thereof, are an omnipotent piece of discussion.

One questions the wisdom of a hockey team that names a then-19-year-old captain. He wasn't ready then, and based on his conduct and performance in big spots over the last few years, he's still not ready. The trials and tribulations of the '08-'09 season provided the truest test of Crosby's leadership. This might sound shocking, given that Pittsburgh won the Stanley Cup and all, but Crosby failed that test more than once.

Everyone forgets this now, but the Penguins were mediocre through much of the regular season despite elite performances by Crosby and Malkin. It wasn't like the Penguins didn't have talent outside those two guys. They were lousy and were in significant danger of not even making the playoffs near mid-season. I remember watching the Bruins beat them up during this time and wondering what the hell was wrong. Then three things happened: Dan Bylsma was named head coach, Ryan Whitney was dealt for Chris Kunitz, and Billy Guerin came over at the deadline.

From there, the Penguins took off. This was not because of anything Crosby did. He played the same before and after these moves. The Penguins were better because of the new guys, not because of Crosby.

In the Stanley Cup Playoffs, while Malkin was setting the world on fire, Crosby was inconsistent. He was phenomenal against both Washington and Carolina, scoring 20 points in those 11 games. But in the Final against Detroit, he was a complete non-factor. Outside of a goal and an assist in Game 4, Crosby scored one other time in seven games. Henrik Zetterberg shut him down to the point that I began worrying for his personal safety.

Allow me to repeat myself, in caps this time: Crosby was a COMPLETE NON-FACTOR in the Final. Was Gretzky ever a non-factor when he was winning all those Cups? Or Lemieux, or Orr, or Howe, or Richard in all their Cup runs?

Fair or not, the image so many will take away from the Final is Crosby accepting the Cup and lifting it over his head, as if he actually had something to do with winning the series. The real leader of the Penguins through their Cup run was Guerin, a veteran with league-wide respect and one Cup already under his belt. The "C" on Crosby's chest was a formality. Then came the highly-publicized handshake line incident where Crosby failed to greet opposing captain Nick Lidstrom. I don't think Crosby went out of his way to not shake Lidstrom's hand, but this wasn't a good thing for Crosby's already-tenuous reputation as a leader.

There's still plenty of time for Crosby to outgrow the perception (or reality) that he's a crybaby non-leader. But he's been in the league four years now. If he doesn't start getting it soon, he'll lose an even greater portion of the hockey-caring populous. At that point, this little image problem will become one of the biggest issues facing the NHL.

* * * *

Who could the NHL turn to as its saving grace, with these three megastars carrying more baggage than European tourists? The most complete player in the NHL, including leadership, intangibles and the like, is Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk. But like Malkin, his grasp of English is incomplete despite moments of incredible hilarity, and with Detroit it's never about one guy. He'll never put up numbers like Crosby or Ovechkin because there's too many other guys that share the wealth.

Two young stars, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, play for a great market in Chicago. Kane, the All-American boy, is the prime target for superstardom. But neither are prolific scorers, and won't be with Marian Hossa signed up for the next 12 years.

In my mind, the perfect candidate to breakout as a transcendent star is Columbus' Rick Nash. He's 25, a solid all-around player, a good leader and by all accounts a terrific guy. The Blue Jackets are improving, and he's signed for a long time, but the team will need to get much better for him to enter the discussion with these other three stars.

So, is it true that the embarrasment of riches for the NHL is nothing more than an embarrasment? Not right now. But unless Crosby, Malkin and Ovechkin round out their games and public personas, they'll never acquire a stature commensurate with their talents. Thankfully for the NHL, time is a friend for everyone involved.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Recchi returns, Huds flees, and Sakic says goodbye

I haven't checked in during the past week, but I have some thoughts on a few matters that have surfaced recently. Here we go...

* On July 2, the Bruins re-signed 41-year-old scoring winger Mark Recchi to a one year, $1MM contract. Upon signing, he indicated that '09-'10 will be his final year in the league. According to the Globe: "I'm playing for one more ring. That's the most important thing to me," said Recchi. "The reason I like Boston is that 99 percent of the guys on that team, I felt, really want to win the Cup. It's the most important thing to everybody in that dressing room." That's got to be music to the ears of all Bruins fans.

I always respected Recchi, despite his status as a member of the late-'90s, early-'00s Flyers that completely owned the Bruins. Needing some toughness and leadership at the deadline, Peter Chiarelli shipped out a couple young guys to bring in Recchi. The results were terrific, with Recchi scoring 10 goals with 16 points in 18 games with the Black and Gold. He really clicked with Patrice Bergeron and Chuck Kobasew, and their persistent play lead to goals like this OT game-winner against the dirty Habs near season's end. Recchi then proceeded to play the entire Carolina series despite constant pain as a result of (gulp) kidney stones that required (shudder) surgery after Game Six (nearly faint).

From a chemistry and desire standpoint, bringing back Recchi was a terrific move. Unfortunately, the move didn't address the B's needs on defense or ease their cap crunch in any way. As it stands right now, the B's have slightly less than $3MM to spend on their two remaining restricted free agents, PhilKessel and Matt Hunwick. That's not even close to enough to sign both. Hunwick was one of 20 RFAs to file for arbitration, and I'm pretty confident he'll wind up signing for around $1MM per season on a two or three year deal. It's easy to forget that Hunwick, who was a healthy scratch most of the time after Steve Montador arrived, had six goals and 21 assists and was +15 in 53 games last year. I expect a big year, and plenty of time on the power play, for Hunwick in '09-'10.

As we've discussed here, it's going to take some interesting maneuvering for the Bruins to keep Kessel. If I had to guess, the B's would really like to trade Marco Sturm, but his $3.5MM cap hit for next year, no-trade clause and injury history make that pretty unlikely. More realistic would be Kobasew at $2.33MM moving. I wouldn't like to see that given how important Kobasew is to the identity of this Bruins team, and if the Penguins taught us anything it's that unheralded grinders often make a bigger difference come spring than the scorers (Kobasew came within one win of skating with the Cup in '04 with Calgary).

It's not going to be an easy summer for teams looking to dump salary because the cap is likely to drop significantly following this season. But something has to give here. There's still plenty of time to figure all this out.

* In my RFA preview, I said that if the Detroit Red Wings lost Marian Hossa to free agency, GM Ken Holland would do whatever it took to keep 25-year-old winger Jiri Hudler from leaving Hockeytown. I didn't count on a KHL team swooping in and signing him for two years and $5MM per, tax free. My first reaction: can I get in on this KHL thing, somehow? My next reaction: I can't really blame the guy.

The Wings never seemed to make bringing Hudler back a huge priority. When he was an RFA last year, Valteri "Val Filly" Filppula was given a five-year deal with an annual cap hit of $3MM. Hudler and Val Filly are the same age, but the Wings are running up against the cap, and the best they could do was between $2.5-$3MM for Hudler this year. So when the Czech was offered a boatload of rubles, how could he say no? He'll be a star on his team and be closer to his homeland. There would have been no guarantee with the Wings that he'd even be a top-six forward.

So any team that loses the likes of Hudler, Hossa, Ty Conklin, Tomas Kopecky and Mikael Samuelsson (gone to Vancouver where he'll join his fellow Swedes, the Sedins, on the Canucks' top line) all in the course of the week should panic, right? Amazingly, no, if you're the Red Wings. Any team with Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Nick Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski and Chris Osgood between the pipes is going to be no worse that top-three in the Western Conference next year.

I'm seriously worried about the KHL poaching European guys from the NHL over the course of the next few years. Why even bother coming over here if you can make that much close to home? But at least Don Cherry will be happy.

* Joe Sakic, a 20-year NHL susperstar who helped define the hockey of my youth, officially retired on Thursday. I was somewhat surprised by the announcement considering that his final season was the worst in Colorado Avalanche history and he was limited to only 15 games last year because of surgeries on his back and later his fingers because of a freak snow blower accident. But it's easy to understand why Sakic felt this was the time to step away. The Avs are in full-on rebuilding mode, as evidenced by the dumping of Ryan Smyth to the Kings. Sakic probably didn't want to be part of that.

There are few athletes left with Sakic's sense of loyalty, having played for the Quebec/Colorado franchise his entire career (although he did sign an offer sheet with the Rangers in 1997). He was a classy leader with a wrist shot from God. I was always indifferent about those amazing late-'90s Avs teams because they had so many disliked players (namely Claude Lemieux and Patrick Roy) but it was impossible to deny the talent of their two best and most dangerous players, Sakic and Peter Forsberg. You just always knew that Sakic was a great guy, a tremendous leader that never allowed egos to get in the way of winning.

His class was exemplified by the moment when, after winning the Cup in 2001, he immediately handed the holy challis to my one of my boyhood heroes, Raymond Bourque. Sakic didn't want any of the spotlight for himself, even though he certainly deserved it following his Hart Trophy campaign. More than any singular on ice moment, that's how I'll remember Joe Sakic.

It makes me feel older, watching guys who were in their prime when I was a kid retire. But that's part of life. I'm not sure we'll see the likes of Sakic ever again.