Thursday, December 28, 2006

A Melting Igloo In The Winter

There are few arenas as storied and old as that of Mellon Arena, nicknamed in the Igloo in Pittsburgh, PA. Scratch that, it is in fact the OLDEST arena in the NHL, pushing at least 40 years by now. It has certainly become a hazard and one of the least pleasureable places to play a hockey game, and that's not just because of the rabid fanbase. Lately, the blue collar town has become synonymous with something it's not known for: money and lots of it. They don't have it, they need it, real bad.

The Penguins, their fan base, and owner and hall of famer Mario Lemieux have been struggling in Steeltown for sometime now. The issue stems from before the lockout, money had always been tight for the hard luck Pens. The salary cap and new CBA helped some of that, but only the luck of being able to draft the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal has really been putting butts back in the seats. But revenue from TV ratings and attendance isn't the issue here, it's the arena. Pittsburgh is not a town that can easily afford something like this and Lemieux has shelled out so much already that it's the last thing he can afford. We're talking about a team that sent down Marc-Andre Fleury last year to avoid paying him bonuses for playing too many games.

What the Pens really needed was someone new to buy the team and take the hassle away. But it wasn't all that easy. Not only did they need a prospective buyer with the cash to put up, but that buyer would also have to provide the funds necessary to build a new arena in Pittsburgh AND promise to not move the team. After going through many options, it had been thought early this season that Jim Balsille had come to their rescue. Made rich off of his sales of the Blackberry device, Balsille had the money to back it up. But when the NHL stepped in, rather late at that, and stated that Balsille had to promise that he would NOT move the team, Balsille backed out. He's expressed interest in still buying the team, but this move irked Lemieux and the fans, essentially showing that Balsille was likely intent on having the team play anywhere but Pittsburgh.

However, this move was bad in both ways. Balsille looked a little foolish when he left, making those involved despise him for wanting to move the team. Yet the NHL dropped the ball, too. Waiting until nearly the deal was to be signed to basically sneak in and say "Oh by the way, you aren't planning to move the Penguins, are you? Cause if so, deal's off." Doing this handcuffed the Pens even more and leaving them with even less time to work something out.

During this time though, the real Plan A was established through the Isle of Capri gambling company. Pittsburgh was prepared to be awarded a gambling license and Isle of Capri made it known, that if the Pens would have them and they won the license, they would shell out of just about ALL of the money needed for a brand new arena and promised to not move the team. This is one of those too-good-to-be-true kind of things and sadly it was. Though IoC was clearly determined to save the franchise, they were not awarded the license. Pennsylvania was well aware of how this would affect a sports franchise but still made the other decision.

Where does this leave the Penguins now? The group that won the gambling license is still willing to put up some money, but the rest has to come from the state/taxpayers and the team, something Lemieux's group know is virtually impossible to afford. This is a town that already helped pay for the new stadiums of the Pirates and Steelers, they can ill afford another. So Lemieux had no choice but, for the time being, to take the team off the market.

Bottom line, the Penguins are now perusing the possibility of moving the team. Kansas City, Las Vegas, Houston, Winnipeg, Toronto(2nd team), Portland, who knows where the team will end up. Gary Bettman claims he wants the team stay and on top of that says that the possibilty of any contraction or movement is not desired by the NHL. Well Gary, you should have thought of that before you waited until the last second to intervene.

For the loyal fans of this storied franchise, home to Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, and countless other past stars, and now to future studs Crosby and Malkin among others, the story of the Pittsburgh Penguins may about to hit its end. The team could be moved as early as this offseason and if so, another chapter will begin, but the Pitt Pens could all be lost. And if there is any town that loves its team enough and doesn't deserve to lose them, it is Pittsburgh. When the crowds won't come out for Washington, Atlanta, St. Louis, Chicago, the New York Islanders or New Jersey Devils, it's a true shame that a team that is so on the rise as the Penguins may lose it all to money.

One way or another, the lease with Mellon Arena ends after this season and they will never return to that arena. I hope the Penguins can salvage their stay in their city that has embraced them, but I can say this for a fact: Good riddance to the Igloo.

See you at the red line, Penguins fans.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

What You Didn't See Coming

Today's entry is all about the teams and players that most, including myself, projected to do one thing but have totally shocked us the other way. Let's begin, shall we?

From Rags To Riches
There were a few teams in the offseason that blatantly looked primed to bottom feed, whether they had before or not. These were teams like the New York Islanders and the Washington Capitals. The Islanders were the very picture of a horribly run franchise. I should know, I wrote an entire topic on it. Having made crazy moves like making the backup goalie GM and signing their #1 goalie to a 15 year contract (even though they could have just kept Luongo way back when), it's all been about the coach, not the front office. Ted Nolan has turned this team around from mediocrity to Atlantic division hopeful winner. They've even been on top of that division during the season so far and are currently housing the 7th playoff spot in the East. Nolan has gotten amazing play out of Alexei Yashin, the holdout from Ottawa who got a 10 year contract and has yet to produce anything worthy, until now. Even Viktor Kozlov, who has underperformed everywhere including Florida (except for the Bure explosion in 99-00) and New Jersey, now has the scoring prowess seemingly back.

And further south, the Capitals are really surprising a lot of teams. Obviously last year they missed the playoffs by quite a bit, essentially being the Alex Ovechkin show featuring Olaf Kolzig in goal. Now, the youth has matured a year, Alexander Semin (or the other Alex) has taken a little load off of the Gr8 and both Chris Clark and Zubrus have really pushed the limit. New defensive addition Brian Pothier shows he's no slouch and this team is without a doubt the hardest working in the NHL. They may not win all the games, but they rarely ever take a night off, they just love to play the game and it shows. They also currently house the 8th spot in the East, where with the Islanders they are giving past playoff hopefuls Toronto and Ottawa serious runs for their money.

Major Downfalls
Then there are the teams that were really progressing or taking playoff spots and have completely fallen apart. We can't discuss this section without the Philadelphia Flyers. There hasn't been a bigger collapse all year. They had been to the playoffs for many years in a row, including Eastern Conference finals appearances and a shot at the cup against the Wings. But the wheels came right off this year, as Bobby Clarke's mismanagement hit full steam behind and the horrible decisions were shown for what they were. Beyond the top line, it was a mess. Guys like Petr Nedved and youngsters Mike Richards and Jeff Carter could not find the net for the life of them. The defense was incredibly atrocious, as Derian Hatcher became the poster boy for how to act like a pylon 101. And the goaltending, don't even get me started. Neither Esche nor Niittymaki have shown any reason to make them a #1 goalie. It was an achilles heel that the Flyers hadn't addressed since Hextall retired and now it's got a spear wedged firmly into its side. They sit last in the East and 2nd to worst in the league, with little light ahead for them (or as we call it in Pantherland, gearing up early for the NHL Draft).

Player Resurgences
There were a few players so far that previously were considered to be out of the running, but now have made themselves known that it's not over until it's over. Again, case in point Alexei Yashin has returned to form years after he had a great season in Ottawa. Kudos for this really does again go out to Ted Nolan. How about Ruslan Salei in Florida, whose previous career high in points came last year with 19. As of 31 games in, he has broken that record and is on pace for about 52 points. Guess a change of scenery really does have an effect sometimes. Also Glen Murray in Boston is now 27th in NHL goal scoring where previously he had trouble being a supporting player in Beantown. Darcy Tucker began his upward trend last year, but now has 13 powerplay goals to show for so far, tied for 1st in the NHL. Goons becoming goal scorers? Now I've seen it all.

Career Spirals
And not the upward kind, the downward kind. So who's play has left them in the dust? If it wasn't obvious already, Derian Hatcher is incredibly done; he can barely skate back to his zone before a Sabre dismantles what little defensive ability he has left. John Leclair also seems poised to be at an end. He's been waived up and down and refuses to go to the minors. John, if Alexander Mogilny can take it then so can you, that is after all what you get when you injure Evgeni Malkin in his first NHL game. And of course finally, we come to Dan Cloutier. So he wasn't looking very good at all last year with the Nucks, though he was injured for a long time. This one time playoff performer has made LA look way worse than they should, poor Mathieu Garon losing his job to this clown. To prove this point, Cloutier's numbers are a GAA of 3.74 and a SV% of .868. In case you were wondering, he has zero shutouts, which is likely because he allows just about 4 goals a game. You aren't going to be winning many hockey games with that kind of goaltending. Unfortunately the same can also be said of once great Curtis Joseph, now languishing in exile in Phoenix. The team's been bad, he's been worse. CuJo is in danger of losing his job to Toronto 3rd stringer Mikael Tellqvist, not exactly the way to go out.

If the NHL is anything, it's unpredictable, and the games thus far have shown that. But there's more than half of the season still left to play and these teams and players have a long way to go. It's up to them which direction that happens to be.

See you at the red line.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Center Ice: What You've Been Missing

I won't lie to you and say that hockey is a highly watched sport in this country. To face facts, it's well known that Football, Baseball, Basketball, College Football and Basketball, and sadly Nascar all have better ratings than Hockey in America. So why is that? Oh we could debate that all day long. There's little tv coverage as it is, ESPN having dropped the sport by around the lockout time. This was both good and bad. Bad in the sense that ESPN is the largest sports market in the country, maybe the world, and the exposure they had would help any sport...except Magic: The Gathering, what the heck is that doing on there? Then again look what ESPN has done for poker.

More to the point though, it was good that ESPN dropped it for this reason: ESPN doesn't know jack about hockey. If Barry Melrose is your idea of ESPN's Don Cherry, then it was doomed from the start. I'm not saying all the analysts were bad, but you can't kid yourself in thinking their thoughts on the sport had much merit. Picking the Rangers to win the cup each year should have been embarassing enough as before the lockout, the Rangers were basically like the Yankees in buying their teams up full of supposedly great or at least once great players...except unlike the Yankees they couldn't even sniff the playoffs, not until the lockout ended and they were forced to budget some rookies.

Most of the games now are broadcast in 3 ways. The first is the local broadcast of your home town team. That includes stations like multiple FSNs, MSG in New York, and some sort of very strange My35 or CW hybrid that the Stars have unleashed (it's not pretty, that logo is harsh to stare at). The second is of course the national broadcast. No longer done by ESPN or ABC in America, that's now fallen to Versus (VS.), formerally OLN the Outdoor Life Network. Yes, much like TNN became SpikeTV when they realized the wonders of "ratings" from wrestling, OLN changed its image to follow suit and become more real sports oriented and less outdoorsy. The result? Well the broadcast is better than last year's was and the name is actually better (you will typically see the team names during a game on the top screen with the VS symbol between them, subtle but effective). Of course the channel itself has changed very little; they're clearly doing their best to become a hockey marketed station since that's all they have going for them when no one would dare watch a bull riding matchup (or god help us, a BBQ championship? Starting to make ESPN look good). But it's refreshing to see a channel that actually cares about the sport because it drives their network as opposed to being 5th tier on the Bottom Line. ABC left the party but NBC picked it up, pretty seemless in that (as long as FOX is out the picture that's all that matters). NBC only plays games pretty much on Saturday afternoons where the NHL makes sure there are 3 or so 2pm games that day for them to show, starting in January on. NBC also gets the last two rounds of the playoffs so anyone with a tv and basic cable can catch the glory of the Stanley Cup finals, the true showcase of the game (not to mention the All-Star game).

I could also mention the national broadcasts in Canada like TSN (the Canadian ESPN), CBC, Sportsnet and the like, but in America that really falls in the 3rd category: Center Ice. If you are a hockey fanatic, you owe yourself one in getting this package. Unlike NFL Sunday ticket, this can be ordered through either digital cable or satellite, not just DirecTV. The typical cost for this is about $170 or so, with a $20 discount if you do it just before or during the early part of the season. So for about $150, what do you get? Approximately 40 hockey games a week, and 1,000 games a season, sometimes including stuff like a World Junior Tournament or the AHL All-Star game, as well as the first 2 rounds of the playoffs since VS. won't be able to get all of them. Alright, so it sounds like I'm shilling for this thing, though it's not like I'm being paid to say this, but hear me out.

Center Ice is for the following people: If you are a big fan of a team, but you do not live in that market area where they are broadcast, this is totally perfect for you. See they broadcast all those team's games on Center Ice. But I'm sure you're asking, aren't there blacked out games? This is true, your home team will likely blackout some games during the season. But here's the wonderful catch: If for any game that a team blacks out the opposing team's broadcast is still showing it locally, Center Ice will pick up that feed instead! Meaning that even if those back home watching your favorite team can't see it, you likely can with Center Ice. CI will usually choose to broadcast the home team's showing of the game, unless there is a blackout and the away team's broadcast can be chosen instead (by the provider, not by you).

CI is also great if you play fantasy hockey and you want to keep track of your players. Moreover, it will allow you to see players and teams you might normally never get a chance to watch. Being an Eastern Conference fan, I basically never got to see Western Conference teams and players. With CI, I can catch all those 9 and 10pm games and some of them are incredibly entertaining. Not to mention all the other games you're missing by only seeing your local team's broadcast. Of course if you don't care about this (though you may not know about some of the great hockey that you're missing out on) and/or you live in your local team's broadcast area, then this might not be for you. As I mentioned above about not missing blacked out games, all games by the team in your local area will be blacked out on Center Ice regardless of if it's being shown locally or by another team. That's just the harsh rules of the local broadcaster. Of course as long as your local team is showing it on their channel you can watch it on there anyway.

So I leave it up to you if you want to take part in Center Ice. Sure this seems like a sales pitch, but believe me when I say if you're a hockey nut or are missing your favorite team play live (not to mention some of the amazing Canadian broadcasts, you just can't miss Don Cherry on CBC or a French-broadcast Montreal game) you shouldn't miss out on this. It is likely the cheapest sports package out there because of the low popularity of the sport here and that's to your advantage. $150 or so for over 1,000 games? Now that's a present for the Holidays that any Puckhead would love to have. I know I've been loving it since I started it last season.

See you at the red line, somewhere in the 500 channel area.

P.S. As a digital cable subscriber, since you need that to get Center Ice (not familiar with satellite), the basic package will usually come with VS. if you don't already have it.

Monday, November 27, 2006

The South Shall Rise

It's stated before by the old hats of the NHL, the northern fans especially, that hockey does not belong in the south. After back to back Stanley Cups from the Southeast division, one hopes that tone is finally changing. It's going to take a lot to get longtime fans of classic teams to appreciate hockey down here and even longer for the true fan bases to develop for these teams. Sure, some have some pretty good showings night in and out, but how many of them bandwagon and how many of them don't even live here?

Case in point, the Florida Panthers' attendance often goes up in the winter months due to the snowbirds coming down and taking in a hockey game. Now they might often root for opposing teams like Montreal or Toronto, but they still fill up the arena.

But now that Tampa Bay and Carolina have respectively won the Stanley Cup, the division and southern hockey in general has a real growing interest. Some teams like Atlanta still have a long way to go to building that fanbase, even though they have been playing some great hockey this year. Others like St. Louis out west and LA have fallen into disrepair and need to rebuild what little loyalty they had after miserable seasons.

The old adage that hockey has to be played where it's cold has some merit. One notices that the ice is often not as crisp and tends to melt quicker in the southern climates. But some of the nicer buildings in the NHL exist down here, where up north you might find atrocities like Mellon Arena, Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, and the dreadful Continental Airlines Center to name a few.

But a team is more than a building or ice, the players coming out of some of these teams are incredibly dynamic. The Southeast division alone houses talent like Ilya Kovalchuk, Alex Ovechkin, Martin St. Louis, Olli Jokinen, and Eric Staal. Having that much young but powerful talent in one division is impressive enough. Out west, Anaheim, another team struggling to make it big with fans but playing great hockey, has forged the ultimate defensive tandem in Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger, while developing a strong youth core as well.

In fact, of the 5 teams in the Southeast division, only Atlanta has not been all the way to the Stanley Cup finals, meaning 4 of them have been Eastern Conference champions in the short history of the division. I think that says a lot about what these teams can do.

Others will argue that more northern teams should be demanded, like giving back to Hartford or Winnipeg or some such. These are areas that the NHL had to move on from because the teams failed, the fan base failed, whatever it may have been. In fact, Atlanta was the only team to ever leave the south and head north for a Canadian team, the Calgary Flames. That kind of situation is not likely to ever happen again. Some teams like the Phoenix Coyotes are in trouble but I don't see any of them folding anytime soon.

The truth though, is that the south should not have to defend itself from the north. The sometimes civil war between the fans is unnecessary. Hockey can be justified anywhere a rink and a sheet of ice can be erected and fans can be drawn. There may be a little more hospitality down here than up north, but they all play the same game and it's great to have them all.

See you at the red line.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Quarter Report

So, it's been way too long since this was updated. Simply been too busy to even think about this but I'll give it a whirl for now.

We've pretty much gotten about a quarter of a way through the season and the progress compared to projections as always has been stunning. We begin with our assessment of the Good, The Bad, and the Downright Ugly.

The Good:
Buffalo Sabres/Anaheim Ducks/Atlanta Thrashers - these three teams have come out guns ablazing. Buffalo tied the record for longest winning streak to start the season at 10. Anaheim didn't lose in regulation until about their 15th game. The Thrashers have three of the top scorers in the NHL with Marian Hossa finding his way to the top just over Jaromir Jagr, back to his old form.

The Sabres did it with an amazing depth that few can rival. 4 lines of dangerous players, from Chris Drury, Daniel Briere and Maxim Afinogenov to Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy and Jason Pominville, they have built on their Eastern Conference showing to outdo just about everyone in the league.

The Ducks impressed with the resurgance of goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who awoke from his slumber by only being defeated in regulation this past week for the first time. Pronger and Niedermayer's dangerous combo coupled with some strong youth make them a destined team and favorite to win the Pacific division.

The Thrashers are masters of the comeback offense, no lead is safe against them and even with star young goalie Kari Lehtonen fails, backup Johan Hedberg saves the day. When even Slava Kozlov is top 5 in scoring, you know this team has something special up its sleeve, making captain Scott Mellanby do a return to great play as their captain.

The Bad:
The Chicago Blackhawks were riding high, playing their hearts out with Martin Havlat leading the NHL point race and Michael Handzus showing what he was made of, until they both got injured along with countless others. Now the Hawks are falling to pieces again, Brian Boucher proving he's barely capable of backup duty let alone temp #1, and their shot at returning to the postseason may have dried up.

The Downright Ugly:
When you think of a team that has never achieved much of anything, you're amazed the Coyotes have done that for 10 years straight. Not that they've never been to the playoffs, but they aren't going there anytime soon. Gretzky's team has fallen into the West cellar, Nagy, Doan, and Cujo can't save a team from destroying itself, where chemistry doesn't exist, and old fogies like Owen Nolan and Jeremy Roenick long to not be as terrible as they are now.

Of course, that situation is a cakewalk compared to the nightmare in Philly. It was years in coming, and now it has arrived. The Flyers are now in the race for the #1 pick in 2007, because their team has completely and utterly collapsed from within. Bob Clarke, GM, and Ken Hitchcock, coach, were canned within the first few weeks, after suffering a 9-1 defeat by Buffalo and other subsequent demolitions. Peter Forsberg and Simon Gagne are not enough to supplant non-existent goaltending and the worst defense money can buy. Derian Hatcher, officially the worst defenseman in the NHL (sorry Mathieu Biron but the Sharks haven't been dumb enough to play you, yet).

And now it's Quarter Awards Time:

Best Forward: Marian Hossa - No one has been more dynamic or unstoppable than the man traded for Dany Heatley last year. Working with Slava Kozlov, he's made a living on placing timely, unbeatable goals from every angle. Starting to outshine Kovalchuk, as if that's possible.

Best Defenseman: Niklas Lidstrom - I give him the nod here, even though he doesn't always outscore some other dmen. Why? His team has the fewest shots against in the league and they don't even play the trap. As a captain and multiple Norris trophy winner, he is as good as ever.

Best Goalie: Jean-Sebastien Giguere - Sure he plays with a great defense, but considering he has 2 shutouts and just lost his first game in regulation while racking up 10 wins, I think we can let that slide. He's refound his form from the Stanley Cup run, good thing too because his team may be headed back there.

Best Coach: Paul Maurice - You have gotta hand it to a guy who can get the most out of the Leafs, a team projected as dead last in the Northeast. They are second only to Buffalo, and still doing it without the now injured Mats Sundin. Raycroft has come back hungry and young studs like Wellwood and Ponikarovsky have complemented a high paid defense with Kubina, McCabe, and Kaberle. Still, the lack of experience makes this team impressive for what they've accomplished.

Here's hoping we see you again at the red line.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Insanity On The Island: How NOT To Run Your Team

Greetings friends, no this is not a post about everyone's favorite TV castaways, there's only island crazy enough to have a man named Mad Mike and that's Long Island, or as the residents call it, Longisland (that's one word for you out of towners). It seems that some owners will go pretty far to get what they want. Case in point, Mr. Bob Clarke did just that when producing the first offer sheet of the 21st century to Ryan Kesler, attempting to steal him away from the Canucks for unnecessarily large $1.9 million, more than double what the Canucks were going to pay him if signed. Naturally GM Dave Nonis had no choice but to match the offer begrudgingly, ticking off many GMs who wouldn't want to pay a 10 goal scorer that much money. It's the danger of precedents that set people off, arbitrators, GMs, and agents look to other contracts to say why a certain player should garner so much. It's a big deal because it's one of the things that caused the lockout in the first place. Time will tell if the CBA can stand up to this nonsense once again.

But enough about the Flyers, Clarke's damage was minimal compared what Islanders owner Charles Wang just did to his fan base. Wang personally negotiated a deal with #1 goalie Rick Dipietro, the 2000 #1 pick, the first goalie to ever that high, for a 15 year, $67.5 million contract. I'll repeat that, 15 years, $67.5 million. The longest contract in NHL history, 2nd longest in all of the major sports. To say that such a move is bold, brash, and completely idiotic is to be cruel to such adjectives. Wang made it known that GM Garth Snow (some of the most hilarious words ever uttered) was not really involved in this, but that he made the negotiations. Wow, really, no kidding. Wang, give it up, we all know you're in control and Snow is nothing more than a puppet. Some suggest GM by committee, I suggest GM, President, Owner, and future Coach Charles Wang. A 15 year contract means that he'll be an Islander to 2022, to 40 years old, getting paid $4.5 million every year, a contract that can only be broken if he retires due to injury. Before this, Alexei Yashin with his 10 year contract on the island was the most untradeable player in the league, but Dipietro is now unthinkable. Yes in truth Dipietro is and will be a better player than Yashin is, because as good as Yashin could be, he just doesn't care anymore and doesn't have to; then again that's the danger of the 15 year contract, does Rick have enough drive to care after he may never have to sign another contract in his life at such a young age. He's an Islander for life because as unnamed GMs stated, no one will touch that contract and if Rick fails, Wang won't be able to trade him. Of course this was icing on the cake for the Isles.

Back when Mad Mike Milbury was the GM, things were terrible too, not quite THIS bad, but bad enough. When Milbury elected to take Dipietro #1 in the draft, there was a reason. They had a #1 goalie prospect in the name of Roberto Luongo, taken #3 in his draft. But Mad Mike got tired of Luongo for some reason, and sent him packing to Florida. The trade was Roberto Luongo and Olli Jokinen for Mark Parrish and Oleg Kvasha. Today that would be considered highway robbery by the Panthers and it still holds up now. While trading Roberto was foolish, Jokinen certainly had been a disappointment thus far, failing to reach his #4 overall status in both LA and Long Island. Parrish was becoming a fan favorite in Florida while Kvasha hadn't shown too much. In the end, Luongo left for Vancouver while proving to be a strong top goalie talent and Keenan turned Jokinen into the captain he is today. So now, the Isles have neither player they received in the deal and the Panthers have Jokinen, Bertuzzi, Auld, and Allen; to say it's one sided is understatement, even if it was just Jokinen for Parrish and Kvasha. But that was Mike, this is Charles and he makes Mad Mike look tame by comparison. After hiring Neil Smith as the new GM, he was fired 40 days later to make way for Garth Snow, the then backup goalie of the Islanders. Smith in his short time acquired Mike Sillinger, Chris Simon, Tom Poti, and Brendan Witt for the team and while none of them are serious impact players, aside from Poti they were fairly worthy additions to the team. But with the Dipietro signing, firing Neil for Snow, and even signing the incredibly underachieving Viktor Kozlov, Wang may have already outdone the damage that Milbury had crafted, and that's saying a lot.

But with all that, I'd like to tip my hat slightly to the Blackhawk organization. I know it sounds strange, since they are easily the worst run franchise in the league...that was until Wang showed his power. Now they're 2nd to worst and that's gotta be good for something. I will credit them for finally making a bold but not entirely stupid move in ridding themselves of Mark Bell and Kyle Calder. Mind you, both were pretty darn good players for the Hawks, but the return of having Martin Havlat could mean so much more while Smolinski, not a fave in Ottawa, could help them as well down the middle (considering I'll be surprised to see a healthy all season Tuomo Ruutu). Havlat gives them a potential superstar, if he can stay healthy, that they haven't had in a while. Their defense is very promising, both Seabrook and Barker (who unfortunately got injured recently) show light at the end of the tunnel along with other young defensemen. However, the team will continue to live and die by Khabibulin, the most highly paid goalie in the league outside of Luongo failed miserably last season, although not half as bad as his now backup Patrick Lalime did in St. Louis. In a stroke of luck for once for the Hawks, Lalime is out for 2-3 months, this is a good thing because 3rd stringer Sebastion Caron is in my books better than Lalime, especially if he pulled out wins for the Penguins. The Hawks may finally be on the rise, of course then again, they still don't broadcast their home games on TV due to cheap management that wants the entire city of Chicago to come out to the games. Of course, if they were broadcast, would anyone be watching? I guess it depends who you'd rather see lose, the Blackhawks or the Cubs.

See you at the red line.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Year Of The Defenseman

You've heard the phrase "defense wins championships" and of course in hockey hot goaltending. It's old phrase, you can tell, because last year in the birth of the new NHL as they love to call it, offense was king. I can recall many a game early on that ended 7-6, quite the offensive thriller. But if the rules and regulations allowed for great offense to make the game more interesting and popular, then why did everyone this offseason hunt defenseman like they were rarer than gold? The best explanation I can offer is this: teams were desperately looking for a way to counter that offensive juggernaut. We saw teams like Minnesota who prided on their defensive ways miss the playoffs and the powerful Hurricanes strong on offense won it all. What was Minnesota's response? Sure they acquired some new defensemen like Kim Jonsson to help them out, but they ran for offensive minded players like Pavol Demitra and Mark Parrish. So it still begs the question, if even Jacques Lemaire is willing to admit you need a better offense, then what's with all the D?

It was first evident on day one, the signing of Ed Jovanovski. The Florida Panthers were believed to be strong in the hunt, that guys like Bertuzzi, Allen and Auld having come over from Vancouver could persuade Jovo to return to his roots. But it wasn't loyalty or friendship that won him over. When the Coyotes decided to be on his doorstep at 12:01pm of Free Agency and offered the veteran $6.5 million a season, that was all it took. Ok so they also sweet talked the team and demonstrated how much he meaned to them but of course he did, Phoenix would do anything for a #1 defenseman like Jovo and so they did. So what's wrong with that? Is it wrong for a man to get the most out of his job? No, and he had no real loyalties to show to another team while certainly the Canucks were never going to afford him this year. But $6.5 million? It's the reason former GM Mike Keenan backed out of his and many subsequent #1 defenseman. Zdeno Chara is another excellent case. Easily the most prolific D on the market this year, Ottawa could not afford to keep both him and Redden on the team due to league parity (aka the salary cap). Chara eventually knew he wouldn't be returning so left the Senators to go as far as...the same exact division. The Boston Bruins, in a surprising move made the first attempt to rebuild their franchise after the devastating Thornton trade. Former Assistant GM to Ottawa Peter Chiarelli made his way over to Boston and with him came Chara for a whopping $7 million a season. Money on the level of Norris and future Hall of Famer Niklas Lidstrom, Chara commanded it after his continuous successful seasons and oh yeah, a 6'9" frame that dwarfs anyone else in the league. I've seen Zdeno up close in practice, and yes he really is that big even compared to the other players. Boston wasn't doing a typical rebuild though, this just before they signed center Marc Savard and with all the money thrown around, it seems teams are willing to spend more to get back to glory.

Some teams however, didn't make the right choices. Pavel Kubina is not a bad defenseman by any stretch, but if you think he's worth $5 million a season, then you're in Maple Leafs management. But seriously, John Ferguson, Jr. paid far too much while spending again on the far more useless Hal Gill. That was only the beginning though. The St. Louis threw $4 million per at Jay McKee, who while very useful for Buffalo and a good defenseman in his own right, won't even be the #1 on that team. In fact for a team that was the worst in the league, the Blues have one of the more promising defenses now in the league, with Brewer, Backman, Jackman, and now McKee leading the top 4 it's a wonder that the Blues really required the services of McKee but at that price, Jay wasn't going to flinch even for the Blues. The Lightning did not escape unscathed either, while not necessarily overpaying, the signing of Luke Richardson can only be considered foolish, much like Keenan's previous year signing of Karpovtsev, both are useless players in my mind. They did manage to snag Filip Kuba, a poor man's Pavel Kubina if you can call him that, so it will be interesting to see what their D can do, not that Marc Denis isn't used to a lesser defensive lineup.

Overpaying has become the name of the game, and in a league where overspending caused inevitable full year lockout, it's a dangerous game to play. However, the catch is that the GM's overspending will come out of the pockets of the NHLPA's members to compensate the revenue sharing. Ironically, the NHLPA is still paying for its mistakes after it already didn't want a salary cap. The owners will win out in the end because they are after all in control. Who do you blame for the overspending, the owners or the players? Don't blame either because the salary cap and revenue sharing will rebalance and take care of such problems, assuming that both are working properly. And in the NHL, as the Edmonton Oilers and Carolina Hurricanes taught us so well, don't ever assume anything.

See you at the red line.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

From Russia, With Scorn

The summer's biggest hockey battle has not been over free agents, the ownership of the Penguins, or even which story has been the most embarassing (that one goes to Garth Snow as the new GM of the Islanders). Harken back to 1980, that legendary USA team that defeated the Russians which you might have caught at your local theater or video store, it was a time of unrest and the United States fought the Russians the best way they could, with a hockey puck. Flash forward 26 years later and things have changed quite a bit, now the battle is fought with legal loopholes and scathing remarks. It's been a trying time particularly for the Metallurg team in Russia, who happened to have the original rights to one Evgeni Malkin, drafted #2 overall in this year's 2006 NHL Entry Draft. He' s a powerful center with amazing promise who would only be second to Sidney Crosby on the Penguins. Things aren't so simple it seems, as Malkin and the Pens would love to be doing business together, but Metallurg wouldn't have it. So Malkin made what's become a popular trend all of a sudden, he gave his club 2 weeks notice that he was outta there. Yes a legal loophole in Russian law allows any worker there do that and after such time, they can be on their merry way. Turns out that Malkin wound up fleeing Eurasia entirely and wound up in...Los Angeles. It's a wonder he ever made it out of there alive, L.A., not Europe. If you think Russia is tough, try LAX. But the feeling is that Malkin wanted out and there's little Metallurg can do about it, especially now that Malkin signed a contract with the Penguins. But why?

Here's why, the IIHF Transfer Agreement. A little document that lets the NHL transfer players to their league from European counterparts and compensates those teams accordingly. Russia refused to sign it, the only country that backed out of it, so now the NHL may have no reason to covet any Russian laws or claims because there is no recognized agreement between them. What makes it all the stranger is that Alexei Mikhnov and a funny named kid called Taratukhin managed to get themselves over to Alberta, Canada with so much as a 2 weeks notice and have had zero backlash from Metallurg. In fact they are essentially free to go as they please and each has signed with their respective clubs in Edmonton and Calgary. So why all the fuss over Malkin? He's a stud center and the other two, while good in their own right, aren't nearly as important to Metallurg as Malkin is, and I wonder if the Alberta boys don't question their worth now. After all, Malkin is a great talent, but I'm sure they're glad to be in the NHL considering their Russian team isn't even going to fight for them. How does this story end? As far as I see it, Malkin having signed with Pittsburgh, is going to walk straight into Mellon Arena and not look back. Russia's hockey federation will have no real precedent or ability to enforce their laws here, especially with such a loophole, and won't be compensated for as much as they desire. Malkin's a Penguin and it's time to get used to that.

But the story doesn't get simpler from there. It only gets weirder, and by weird, I mean the one and only Nikolai Zherdev. He's a top wing prospect for the Columbus Blue Jackets, or at least he was until he rejected his contract offers from GM Doug Maclean and signed with a Russian team. Zherdev was drafted by Columbus while playing in Russia, but as then as it is now, Maclean had to fight and spend around $600,000 just to get him out of there. Zherdev had a pretty nice season last year, a bit of a puck hog and certainly and ego to match, but even without the injured Nash he excelled by the end of the season. Now he's seeking more than Maclean is willing to dish out, and as a second year player, it's hard to believe he could command several million dollars. But by bolting back to Russia, it makes things harder in the relationship between him and Maclean. It's insulting in fact, and now Zherdev has only until Oct 6th to sign a contract or he'll be wasting away in the real winter and Columbus will be down a huge talent. The same problem holds true for GM Jay Feaster in Tampa Bay, where second year talent Evgeny Artyukhin ran roughshod back to Russia rather than be a Lightning again. My personal hatred for the Lightning aside, Feaster was furious and has a right to be. They worked hard on having him on the team but as Feaster put it, "He spat in my/our face". I can see why he would with that club's attitude sometimes, but leaving the Lightning for Russia? That's a little more harsh than they deserve. Almost. See you at the red line.

Pre-Game Warmup

Welcome all ye hockey fans, another season dawns upon and I cannot wait. This blog is dedicated to the futility and insanity of hockey, the NHL, its players, fans, management, teams, arenas, and all that goes with it. I take a look inside some of the bigger stories making news in hockey, then rip them to shreds or praise them for not blaming the CBA. If you're not familiar enough with hockey, I'll do my best to bring some people along, but for those that really know the game, I hope to put my pompous opinion upon someone's failing eyes. Let me be most frank by saying I am at heart a Florida Panthers fan, and I know, most would find it hard to believe they exist, but they do much like the endangered species the team was named after. I won't get into my own team right now, but I will tell you they are my favorite and most well known. However as an avid viewer of the Center Ice Package and player of Fantasy Hockey, I vow to explore the depths of the league and its players outside my own team. It is with this statement that I welcome you to High And Mighty Sticking, because unlike the Ducks, we're keeping the Mighty. See you at the red line.