May 292012
 

Everything that has a beginning has an end.

It seems fitting the New Jersey Devils are facing the Los Angeles Kings in this year’s Stanley Cup. There are several parallels to the Edmonton Oilers – Carolina Hurricanes final that ended the first post-lockout season (2005-06). Both series feature:

  • a team Wayne Gretzky played for (Kings now; Oilers then)
  • an over-the-hill goaltender taking his team on an improbable run (40-year old Martin Brodeur now; 36-year old Dwayne Roloson* then)
  • a team trying to buck the traditional formula and win the Cup without a legitimate number #1 defenseman (Devils now; Hurricanes then)
  • surprising contributions from 21-year old rookies (Adam Henrique now; Carolina goalie Cam Ward then)
  • one team reaching the final thanks to Collective Bargaining Agreement-related roster moves (thanks to the new salary cap and floor system, the Oilers went out and acquired Chris Pronger; thanks to a loophole in the CBA, the Devils offered and retained Ilya Kovalchuk’s services for the next 983248932498 years)

Perhaps the most striking difference between the two series is what they represent. The Oilers/Hurricanes final was the riveting first chapter on a post-lockout era of exciting hockey and parity, where any team could afford a contender and a winner. It was a Stanley Cup Final representing hope. Meanwhile, with another lockout staring the NHL in the face, this year’s Devils/Kings final serves as a referendum on the game since 2004-05. It’s a Stanley Cup Final representing reality.

The question is, are we in a better place with the game today then we were in 2005/06?

Financially yes – the NHL is more successful now as a business than ever before. It will be even more successful once it eliminates (unlikely), finds deep-pocketed owners for (unlikely), or moves franchises (Phoenix, Florida, potentially New Jersey, Columbus) to locations (Canada) where off-ice success is easier to achieve. (Remember, the most profitable franchises in the league are all located in Canada, and prop up to varying degrees the 23 teams south of the border. If the Canadian dollar ever falls below US$0.80 again, league financial health will become a very different story.)

As for the on-ice product, the answer is no. Advances in goal-scoring and flow to the game have largely been negated by smart coaches. As the salary cap has gone up, we’ve seen the big spending = big winning formula return, which was allegedly the reason for the salary cap to begin with. It’s a faster game than it was, but also more intense – just like the NFL, injuries are now a common determining factor in the success or failure of an NHL team’s season.

Unlike the last lockout, and despite on-ice evidence to the contrary, there isn’t a sense around league circles that the product is in trouble. So while the NHL is about to go through big CBA changes –  whether it’s no salary cap floor, a cap on the length of player contracts or eliminating the loophole that allows teams to bury contracts in the minors – real innovations to improve the game are years away.

This means the style of hockey that’s been showcased around the league in 2012 – fast but structured, nasty, defensively-disciplined, tactical and expected to be played mistake-free by its players – is here for awhile.

And its a style of hockey that seems miles away from the promise of the game showcased in the 2005-06 Stanley Cup Final.

Both the Devils and the Kings play the current style of hockey very, very well. Part 2 of this preview will break down both teams, and offer a Stanley Cup prediction.

Postscript:

* – On behalf of Oiler fans I’m obligated to note that if Dwayne Roloson doesn’t get injured the Oilers probably win the Stanley Cup. A healthy Roloson means a rusty Ty Conklin doesn’t come in cold during the third period and give the puck away behind the net to lose Game 1. It also means a rusty Jussi Markkanen (remember, Edmonton ridiculously rotated backups all playoff, with Conklin and Markkanen splitting practice time) doesn’t let the Oilers get blown out in Game 2. Edmonton won three of the remaining 5 games of the series anyways, so it’s no stretch to think a healthy Roloson gives them a split in the first two games, rather than an 0-2 deficit. Having been reminded of all this, Oiler fans have permission to throw up in their mouths a bit.

Dec 192010
 

[Every weekend, Canucks Hockey Blog goes out of town as Tom Wakefield (@tomwakefield88) posts his thoughts on what's happening around the NHL.]

Oilers Octane Cheerleaders

Photo credit: oilers.nhl.com

I never knew Santa was a hockey fan.

And yet, when I sat on his lap at the mall this week, and asked him who he thought had been naughty and nice this year, he was quick to hand me the following list.

Surprisingly, I agree with everything he wrote.

Naughty – That Charles Wang continues to own and operate the New York Islanders franchise like it’s the Cleveland Indians from the film “Major League”. It’s a travesty a team with this kind of history, in the biggest media market in North America, seems doomed.

Nice – HBO’s 24/7 Penguins-Capitals series. So it’s aired one episode. So what? It’s the most interesting idea to come from the NHL since the shoot-out, and might be the best TV show ever produced about NHL hockey. It is the antithesis of bland, and would never come from Canada, where everyone wants to be an NHL players’ best pal. Right Pierre Maguire?

Naughty – Vancouver’s downtown bike lanes and City Hall in general. Let’s see. Winters on the West Coast feature roughly 700 days of cold, windy rainstorms and the Lower Mainland’s public transportation system is about as convenient as a gas station that’s only open during an eclipse. So naturally, it makes sense to punish people for driving by turning downtown car lanes into bike lanes. What’s next, passing a law that let’s us all keep chickens in our backyards? Wait a minute…

Nice – Colorado Avalanche hockey. Sure the names are no longer Sakic or Forsberg, but Avs hockey remains up-tempo, high-scoring and fun-to-watch. Pretty much exactly what Bruce Boudreau is trying to stop the Washington Capitals from playing these days.

Naughty – The Edmonton Oiler cheerleaders. Because it’s probably more fun than thinking they’re “nice.”

Nice – That the Steven Stamkos hype has quieted down. Is he an elite shooter? Yes. Is Martin St. Louis a better and more valuable player right now? Yes.

Naughty – That some games are still being decided by goals that result from plays involving a broken one-piece hockey stick.

Nice – The Rangers team Glen Sather’s put together this year.

Naughty – Lou Lamoriello’s fiddling while the Devils continue to burn. He’s either retiring at the end of the year, or choosing to tank the season to score a high draft pick. Either way, it’s not really John Maclean’s fault the team’s this bad.

Nice – The entire Larry Sanders Show has finally come to DVD. Hey now!

Naughty – Natalie Portman in The Black Swan. Go see it, if for no other reason than to watch her exorcize those crappy Star Wars prequels from her body.

Nice – Opposing teams on the Buffalo Sabres. They’ve faced 15 backup goalies so far this year. Their record in these match-ups? 10-3-2.

Naughty – Eugene Melnyk, for not facing up to reality, and seeing the door has closed on this core of Senators.

Nice – Ryan Whitney, who has become the best Edmonton Oilers defenceman since Chris Pronger left town.

Naughty – That “Little Fockers” even exists.

Nice – Ryan Clowe at even strength. Quietly he sits third in the league at 5-on-5 scoring, behind only Sidney Crosby and Pavel Datsyuk.

Naughty – Cam Neely, for blaming the Bruins struggles recently on Claude Julien’s defensive-first system. Way to stir up trouble Cam. That being said, it does seem like this has been a bit of a wasted year in Tyler Seguin’s development, doesn’t it?

Nice – That Al Pacino, Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro are teaming up for a crime flick called “The Irishman”.

Naughty – Steve Mason, whose play in goal for the Columbus Blue Jackets this year seems to confirm his Calder Trophy season was a fluke.

Nice – Chris Pronger’s foot surgery. It saves the Flyers from some cap issues in the short-term, and in the long-term should ensure Pronger’s rested for a long post-season run.

Naughty – VANOC, not for failing to host a carbon neutral 2010 Olympics, but for blaming this failure on “sponsors and suppliers”.

Nice – Linus Omark, for reminding us that playing hockey, even professional hockey, should involve a little imagination.

Naughty – The alleged “real ending” to Yogi Bear.

Nice – Canadians I guess, according to the Family Guy’s “Road to the North Pole” Christmas special.

Naughty – Sean Avery. Because you can’t call the league’s penalty minute leader “nice”.

Nice – Gotta love that the nickname “Neon Dion” Phaneuf found its way into the mainstream media this week. Sadly, it’s the flashiest thing about him these days.

Naughty – Only learning after the fact that a condition of marriage includes writing personal messages in a seemingly infinite number of Christmas Cards.

Nice – Secretariat. Because it’s the best laugh in Late Night television right now.

Naughty – Wives who cut back on their husbands’ Egg Nog intake to prevent seasonal weight gain. Is nothing sacred?

Happy Holidays!

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