Sunday, February 28, 2010

Some Post-Olympic Thoughts

I'm pretty tired, so this is going to be short., that was awesome, wasn't it?

Yeah, the U.S. men's Olympic hockey team lost the gold medal game to the Canadians in heartbreaking fashion. It doesn't matter. I know the U.S. players are having difficulty coping with the silver swinging from their necks tonight, but they've got nothing to be ashamed of, not after blowing through the tournament and playing well enough to win every contest, and not when most observers expected them to go home without a medal of any sort.

For two weeks, the men in red, white and blue played out of their minds. They twice beat a Swiss team with Jonas Hiller, one of the world's best goaltenders. They positively destroyed an experienced Finnish team and may have done permanent damage to Miikka Kiprusoff's career. They defeated the Canadians in one of the most exciting and memorable games in tournament history. And they came within one goal of beating that same Canadian team (likely to be remembered as the greatest Olympic hockey team ever) for the gold.

Patrick Kane got off to a slow start, but came up big when needed in the later games, especially against the Fins. Zach Parise showed his all-around prowess from the minute he showed up, and his game-tying goal today with 24 ticks left is a moment will not soon to be forgotten. Brian Rafalski was shockingly the tournament leader in goals at one point, and his leadership on defense trickled down to the rest of the blue line corps. Ranger teammates Ryan Callahan and Chris Drury gave everything they had on their checking unit, sacrificing their legs to so many opposing slap-shots and one-timers.

But then there's Ryan Miller. His tournament MVP honor was so deserving despite losing out on gold. No player meant more to his team's success during these Olympics than Miller. He was so rock solid from the first game against Switzerland until Sidney Crosby slipped in the game-winner today. His performance in the win against Canada alone was enough to justify the level of praise being heaped on him now. He was the key reason why the Americans had a chance to win every game they played. Miller will always be a legend for that.

Ron Wilson did a bang-up job coaching this crew. He knew all their strengths and weaknesses, and in a short period of time got them to play the aggressive, fore-checking style needed for success. Their terrific job against the incredibly stacked Canadian team speaks to that.

One underrated image I took away from the post-game ceremonies was the look and general demeanor of one Brian Burke, the man responsible for assembling this overachieving team.

While the rest of the U.S. hockey executives were looking dapper in suit and tie behind the team as they lined up to receive their medals, there was Burke, hair slightly askew, loosened tie, top button unfastened, no sport coat, and face slightly redder than usual. Burke had clearly spent the entire game in a suite at Hockey Place pacing around, banging his fist against tables, dropping F-bombs left and right.

No matter your opinion on Burke, the man has passion. He wanted to win this so badly, to prove to the world America was back on top as an international hockey superpower. They got close, yet didn't quite reach the summit. But Burke's passion was manifested in this team. They responded to his intensity with a performance for the ages.

Quickly, I'd like to say that while I'm reviled by many members of the Canadian team, they certainly deserved to win gold and I'll be shocked if we ever see another Olympic group like this again. I was also bitterly disappointed by the Russians, who laid down against Canada in embarrassing fashion. Based on his conduct after the loss, Alex Ovechkin has a lot to answer for as he heads back to Washington. It was great to see the Slovaks play well deep in the tournament, and we may have seen the end of Sweden's long run of recent international greatness.

I'm sad these Olympics are over, and we'll never again get to see this particular group of Americans play together. It's going to be damn near impossible to root against anyone that played for the U.S. in this tournament, regardless of where they wind up in the future (yes, that includes Phil Kessel). They'll always be near and dear to my heart for the joy they gave me these past two weeks.

Check back later this week for a roundup of the NHL's trade deadline activity. Until then.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Some Pre-Olympic Thoughts

The NHL is officially on break, and the Olympic Men's Hockey Tournament is set to start. There's several excellent contenders for the gold, and plenty of teams with a realistic shot at a medal. NHL superstars, KHL vets and potential upstarts litter the rosters of hockey's elite.

With all that in mind, I'll offer some thoughts on each of the contenders heading into the tournament, as well as some predictions.

Files these guys under "dark horse." It's a pretty top-heavy unit for the Slovaks this time around, with Marians Hossa and Gaborik providing the scoring touch up front and Zdeno Chara anchoring the blue line. Ziggy Palffy, 37, returns to the North American subconscious for the first time since leaving the NHL four years ago. In goal will be Jaroslav Halak, the Montreal netminder whose play this season has made many a Canadiens fan forget about Carey Price.

The Slovaks sport some other notables (Miro Satan, Pavol Demitra, Richard Zednik and Lubomir Visnovsky among them), they're mostly over-the-hill and the overall roster doesn't match up well against the more elite teams in the tournament. But, if they can catch lightning in a bottle (especially with Halak), the Slovaks will surprise some people.

Another solid group with plenty of NHL names to pore over. Led by the Koivus, Teemu Selanne and Kimo Timonen, the Fins have the Ruutus, Olli Jokinen, Sami Salo, Niklas Hagman and Valtteri Filppula among others. But the biggest strength for Finland is between the pipes. Miikka Kiprusoff should get the lion's share of time in goal, but if he falters, Nicklas Backstrom and Antero Niittymaki will be right there to pick up the slack.

The Fins earned Silver in Torino, but to get back they're going to need their offense to step up in a big way. Their goaltending will be great, but against opposing goaltenders they don't present too many big threats outside of Selanne. I don't think they'll medal this time around, but a hot performance in net could prove me wrong.

No question Jaromir Jagr's been waiting for this one. No former NHL player in this tournament wants to prove his worth more than Jagr, who wore his abundant confidence on his face while carrying in the Czech flag during last Friday's opening ceremonies. But he's 38, and the fate of the Czechs more likely rests with scorers Martin Havlat and Patrik Elias, playmakers Tomas Plekanec and David Krejci, blueliners Tomas Kaberle and Pavel Kubina, and goalie Thomas Vokoun.

It was Vokoun who dazzled in Torino, driving the Czechs to a 3-0 victory in the bronze medal game over Russia. They're going to need that kind of consistency out of Vokoun again if they want any kind of chance at a medal again, and playing in the same group with Russia and Slovakia won't be easy. I say no medal this time for the Czechs, but they'll be fun to watch.

It's possible 2010 will be a transition Olympics for the Swedes, or they could be the first country in over two decades to win back-to-back gold medals. It's hard to tell right now. No question the Swedes are stacked: the Sedins have been on fire all season, Nicklas Backstrom and Henrik Zetterberg are likely to be teamed up with Johan Franzen, the venerable Peter Forsberg is back for one last hurrah, and Nicklas Lidstrom and Mattias Ohlund head up the defensive core in front of Henrik Lundqvist, the breakout star of the Torino games.

But there's lots of questions, too. The defenders beyond Lidstrom and Ohlund are largely untested internationally, while health or age concern surround many other players on the roster (Forsberg, Franzen, Daniel Alfredsson among them). The firepower is undoubtedly there for the Swedes. But I have them coming up just short for a medal this time, mostly because I'm a homer for...

...these guys. I love 'em. The transition from the '02 silver medal team to now is complete, and youth reigns supreme for the U.S. team. I've already gushed about Zach Parise at length, but there's so much more to this team. Parise's going to appear with playmaker Paul Stastny and scoring machine Patrick Kane, forming one of the most potent lines in the tournament. Phil Kessel will play with captain Jamie Langenbrunner and Ryan Kesler, while Dustin Brown and Chris Drury help fill out an excellent forward group for coach Ron Wilson.

The biggest problem America faces is on the blue line. Mike Komisarek and Paul Martin are both out, leaving Brian Rafalski the hugely important job of anchoring a defensive group that is fairly green on the international stage. Brooks Orpik, Jack Johnson, Ryan Suter and Ryan Whitney will hopefully be up to the job.

Ryan Miller is expected to play every game for the Americans, with Tim Thomas and Jon Quick backing up in case of injury. Miller's cooled off recently after a wildly successful start this season, while Thomas has disappointed at times and hasn't played much at all this month. They'll need Miller to carry them and play up to his highest possible level to medal.

It's my optimism talking, but I think everything's going to break right for the Americans, and they're going to beat the Swedes for the bronze. Brian Burke has put together this group in this fashion for no other reason. It's going to be an exceedingly fun team to watch, and maybe this won't be the last time they medal in the near future.

As Puck Daddy implored in a recent post, "look at this roster. No, seriously: look at it." Fully recovered from the embarrassing seventh-place finish during their transitional appearance in Torino, calling the 2010 Canadian team stacked doesn't really paint the full picture. Not when Jeff Carter, Mike Green, Jay Bouwmeester, Martin St. Louis, Steven Stamkos, Vinny Lecavalier, Shane Doan, Cam Ward and Marc Savard were all told "better luck next time" by Steve Yzerman and Mike Babcock.

I mean, this team's fourth line is probably going to be centered by Mike Richards. Mike Richards is only good enough to center Canada's FOURTH LINE. Not to mention that Stanley Cup Champion goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and all-world netminder Roberto Luongo will both be spectators for much of the tournament because Canada has this guy Brodeur who's only the best goalie of all time. Or that Shea Weber is likely to be in the press box the entire time as well.

So the biggest question about Canada is this: can they handle the pressure? It's no secret the nation of Canada's been going a bit berserk about this team and this tournament for a while now. With the games in Vancouver, all the attention's been placed squarely on the men's hockey team to bring home the bacon (or the ham, I suppose) in their national sport.

In the end, I don't think they'll do it. They'll get behind in the gold medal game and not be able to find the confidence to come back against...

...the most potent offensive team ever assembled for the Olympics. While watching the Russians practice on Monday, Puck Daddy reported on what's likely to be their top line (make sure you're sitting down): Alexander Ovechkin (the best player in the world), Pavel Datsyuk (the most complete center in the world) and Alexander Semin (Ovie's partner in crime). Of course, that likely means the second line's going to drop off precipitously: just Evgeni Malkin centering Ilya Kovalchuk and either Max Afinogenov or Viktor Kozlov. No big deal.

It's beyond those top two lines we find the heart and soul of the Russian team, with Sergei Fedorov and captain Aleksey Morozov providing the leadership. Sergei Gonchar and Andrei Markov lead a somewhat young defensive group, but there's plenty of NHL and/or KHL seasoning among them, with bruiser Anton Volchenkov ready to light up the opposition when needed.

Goaltending could be an issue for this team. This was an actual exchange I had with Cam around New Year's:

Me: Yeah, I like the Russians, but all they have for goalies is Bryzgalov.

Cam: No, they've got Nabokov, too.

Me: OK, then let me rephrase that. I like the Russians, but all they have for goalies is Nabokov.

I've been known to disparage Evgeni Nabokov at just about every opportunity, even giving him the nickname "The Lawn Chair" because he tends to fold like one in any big game. Having said that, Nabokov's been playing at an extremely high level in recent weeks and appears poised to go on a run through the Olympics. Maybe Nabokov will play well simply because it isn't spring yet.

Much has been made about the renewal of the relationship between Ovechkin and Malkin, as brokered by Kovalchuk, happening solely because these Russians are determined like crazy win gold. The love and admiration the Russians feel for each other is palpable every time they discuss each other. While the Canada crew reads like a glorified All-Star team, the Russians are an actual team, the way the '80 U.S. group was a team.

That's a really important factor for the Olympics. The Russians will defeat the Canadians, providing the clearest possible argument for continuing NHL participation in the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia. And we'll have to check the next morning to see if Canada is still actually there.

Enjoy the tournament.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Kovalchuk Fallout

When I found out Russian superwinger Ilya Kovalchuk had finally been cast out of Atlanta after a prolonged back-and-forth, I certainly wasn't surprised. Not after Thrashers GM Don Waddell announced his intentions to move Kovalchuk in advance of the upcoming Olympic break.

The shock came when I learned of his destination, New Jersey. And even more shock registered when I heard about the poo-poo platter Waddell accepted in return.

Johnny Oduya isn't the top-notch defensive prospect he once was, and his absolute ceiling would be as a number two defenseman on a solid team. That's the only thing the Thrashers got of any real substance in this trade. Rookie Niclas Bergfors might become a top-six forward, and prospect Patrice Cormier is currently best known for his vicious headhunting. His season-long suspension will almost certainly harm his development, and the Devils' 2010 first-rounder is just that; a first-rounder, not likely to be very high at that.

Oh, and New Jersey got depth defenseman Anssi Salmela back, too, because this wasn't enough of a hijacking already.

If Waddell is to be believed, it's not like the Thrashers didn't pull out all the stops to keep Kovalchuk. In the offseason, they added his Russian buddies Nik Antropov and Max Afinogenov, and tried like hell to sign Nikolai Zherdev, too. A young Thrashers core centered around winger Evander Kane and defenders Tobias Enstrom and Zach Bogosian started to emerge, representing promise for a future Kovalchuk could be legitimately excited for.

But Kovalchuk and his representatives were (and presumably still are) hellbent on making history. They insisted on the NHL's first-ever max contract, a deal with an astronomical $11.3 million cap hit, taking up 20 percent of Atlanta's cap space.

The Thrashers, rightly, refused. They countered with two proposals. One was for 12 years, $101 million, an $8.42 million cap hit, somewhat more flexibility for Atlanta, and the second-biggest contract in league history. The other was seven years and $70 million, which would allow Kovalchuk to earn the highest average salary in the league but over a shorter period of time.

When Kovalchuk rejected both proposals, the writing was on the half-wall. Just as they'd done with their two previous franchise talents (Dany Heatley and Marian Hossa), the Thrashers had to trade Kovalchuk, and this time before the Olympics so as to maximize their return. Although I'm not sure "maximize" belongs anywhere near the word "return" on this trade.

What kills me is that Waddell settled for such a mediocre assortment of hockey glitterati when his reported demands for others teams seemed totally unreasonable for a rental superstar. He reportedly asked for; either Dustin Brown or Jack Johnson from the Kings, Kris Versteeg from Chicago, some combination of Marc Staal, Michael Del Zotto, Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky or top prospect Chris Kreider from the Rangers, Scott Hartnell and Matt Carle (or possibly even Jeff Carter!!!!) from Philadelphia, and Tuukka Rask and Toronto's 2010 first rounder from the Bruins.

So that fact that he made a deal with Lou Lamoriello without getting, say, Travis Zajac back is pretty laughable. No matter. Their loss is New Jersey's infinite gain.

Devils fans are understandably ecstatic, as this move adds a top scoring threat to a Jacques Lemaire crew predicated on defense and goaltending. I'm excited about the possibility of Kovalchuk on the same power play with Zach Parise. Losing Oduya leaves NJ thin on the blue line, but after the Olympics they'll have Paul Martin back. Regardless, Kovalchuk will be the most talented offensive player to ever put on a Devils sweater and puts them right on par with Washington for the East's best team.

As for Atlanta, and all two dozen of their fans, it's hard to not feel heartbroken on their behalf. Like I mentioned above, the team's had three franchise stars in their 10-year history, and they've all been traded. If you're looking for the right franchise to relocate to a colder location, let's start with Atlanta.

On Twitter last night I declared that Thrashers fans now have every right to abandon their team if they feel so inclined. This opportunity is rare; basically, it only comes if a team makes it consistently clear they don't care about the fans, or if they refuse to improve their product over a number of years, or, if after that, the front office makes a series of baffling idiotic moves that will doom the franchise or psychologically disaffect all their fans.

The Thrashers definitely tried to keep Kovalchuk, and in all honesty, his contract demands are unreasonable. (Kovy is an elite NHL scoring winger, which is undoubtedly valuable. But he does not deserve more money per year than Ovechkin. Kovalchuk has never scored more than 98 points in a season, and he doesn't contribute on the defensive end. No team is going to pay him $11.3 million a year. I'll be surprised if he gets any offers this summer better than the two he left on the table with Atlanta.) But in the end, they traded him, and for not that much.

If you're a Thrashers fan, what do you do now, knowing that players like Bogosian and Kane are going to suffer the same fate as Heatley, Hossa and Kovalchuk? How do you root for players you're totally certain will be gone in the next few seasons? Isn't hard enough to keep any sense of faith when the team's made one playoff appearance in its entire history?

So to me, the Thrashers now belong in the same category as the Detroit Lions, Los Angeles Clippers, Pittsburgh Pirates and a scant few others. If you're a fan of any of these teams, you can stop being a fan, and nobody could blame you.

But if you do stick around, well, you're a better fan than me.