Dec 312010
 

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

Jay Feaster, Calgary Flames

Photo credit: Calgary Herald

So just how big a project is rebuilding the Calgary Flames?

Countless articles and endless minutes of media coverage in Canada over the holidays talked about how Darryl Sutter left this team without the young or tradeable assets necessary to build hope for a better future.

The bar is being set incredibly low for Jay Feaster. Basically, if he makes a couple of trades for draft picks at the deadline, columnists will award him a Bronze Star for valour.

The thing is, the Flames situation is desperate only if you believe they should be competitive right now. In short, if you drank from the Sutter kool-aid, you’re a very unhappy person right now.

Yet most Flames fans stopped drinking this Kool-Aid long ago. Similar to up the road in Edmonton, Flames fans are just hungry for a period of sustained success. They are tired of mediocrity. And mediocrity is all that Darryl Sutter has been able to muster since the lockout.

Which is why it was most alarming to hear Jay Feaster say in his first press conference how the playoffs were a goal for the team.

Perhaps it was an empty promise. However, the post-lockout NHL has proven itself to be an incredibly difficult place to remain competitive and rebuild at the same time.

These days, the best talent is locked in contract-wise, which means there aren’t the same rebuilding options as there used to be on the UFA market each summer. Similarily, good young talent is also the cheapest, and therefore greatest, asset a team can have in the NHL. So you see less of it on the trade market. Finally, with the league’s salary cap structure, and most teams either maxed out or at their own internal budget, you just don’t see big contracts moved very often.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are one team that have tried to have it both ways – rebuild and remain competitive. And while they’ve been successful acquiring a few strong young pieces (Phaneuf, Kessel in particular), their efforts have neither been good enough to turn the franchise into a playoff team, nor bad enough to give the team a collection of top-end draft picks. It’s a tweener franchise, and looks like it could be that way for years to come.

No, if you have a strong front office (and let’s not forget Jay Feaster’s won a Cup already), the best way to build a Cup contender in the post-lockout NHL is to, basically, tank it for a couple of years. It let’s you accumulate assets, cap space and build hope amongst the fan base.

The best thing Jay Feaster and the Calgary Flames can do is copy a move from Toronto Blue Jays’ GM Alex Anthopoulos – communicate that 2013-14 is the year you plan to be ready for a Cup run, and build everything the organization does towards that goal.

Anything else is short-sighted.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • For whatever reason, whether it’s Gord Miller going crazy over goals against Norway, or Pierre Maguire’s usual blind homerism, or the fact that Canada has dominated the tournament for so long, the TSN broadcast of the World Juniors this year seems rather smug and self-congratulatory. Then again, there are a lot of folks who’d say that’s TSN’s approach in a nutshell.
  • One wish for the Flames rebuild: bring back the puck pursuit, offensive hockey the team was known for in its glory years.
  • One team that’s always pointed to as a team that’s “rebuilt” and stayed competitive is the Detroit Red Wings. Well, no team has scouted Europe better, particularly from 1989-2000. Remember, even in the early 1990s there were NHL teams that weren’t interested in drafting Europeans. However, since the hey-day of drafting players like Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Franzen, it’s been a long time since the Red Wings hit the bulls-eye at the draft. Jonathan Ericsson was supposed to be that player, and he just hasn’t performed up to expectations. The Red Wings are the oldest team in the NHL this season, and have been one of the older teams for years now. It’s hard to believe sure, but the sun has started to set on this dynasty.
  • Remember Jason Smith, the former Oilers captain? If you look closely enough, there’s a lot of Jason Smith in Theo Peckham’s evolving game.
  • Daniel Winnick and Ian Laperriere look like twins.
  • One more Calgary note, it would make sense for Pierre Gauthier to at least kick the tires on bringing Jarome Iginla to Montreal. He’s exactly what that team is missing in a lot of ways, and has played enough defensive-first hockey to fit well into Jacques Martin’s system.
  • Puzzling way to treat Nazem Kadri by the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ron Wilson. Bench him for three games. Tell him he added too much muscle in the off-season and has lost a step. Then, send him down to the AHL and, while the door hits him on the way out, hold a media scrum where you mention he needs to get stronger. The best place for Kadri is definitely in the AHL – at least it gets him away from the mixed-messages of Ron Wilson.
  • So Bryan Murray this week complains that there are two-tiers of justice in the NHL. How is this news to an NHL GM?
  • Since Derek Roy’s injury effectively kills the Sabres chances this year of making the playoffs, does this mean we’re watching Lindy Ruff coach out the string? Or does the injury buy him another season?
  • Speaking of injuries, the Oilers’ loss of Ryan Whitney assures that team of a top-5 draft pick at the very least. He was enjoying a breakout, All-Star calibre season before his ankle injury.
  • The development of Logan Couture probably means another disappointing playoff performance could make one of Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton or Joe Pavelski available.
  • Michael Farber has five theories on what’s wrong with Alex Ovechkin. Here’s another – that OV has always played on instinct – from the heart, not the head. When other teams figured out how to defend against him, it’s forced him to think and analyze – to go against his instincts – which has slowed his explosiveness right down.
Nov 052010
 

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

They called it “the Gauntlet.”

I had first heard about it in my final days of Atom hockey in Ontario. It was whispered about in hushed, nervous tones, like people standing in the room with Mike Tyson during the ’80s.

Next year was the start of Peewee hockey (ages 11-12).

To play Peewee hockey meant running the Gauntlet.

What was the Gauntlet?

Near the start of the season a team would line up, single file, from the blueline to the goal-line, about six feet from the boards.

One player would start outside the blueline and skate down along the boards.

This player would get body-checked by every other player on the team.

Naturally, teammates at the time invariably included:

  • the grizzled 12-year old vets who hit puberty early, were already working on goatees and were easily a foot taller than the rest of us;
  • the crazy, fat kid who couldn’t handle the puck but now had a weight-advantage he could really use;
  • the bullies who saw this as an opportunity to take a seven-step skate and leap at a teammate.

This was my introduction to body-checking.

Thankfully I survived, and actually enjoyed the experience, although there were a few of my teammates who did get hurt, and others who’s interest in playing the game never quite recovered.

I often think about the Gauntlet when I hear the usual suspects’ debate concussions and hits to the head.

The term “debate” is used loosely here, since most of the influential voices in Canada (TSN, Sportsnet, NHL Network and Hockey Night in Canada personalities) are concerned mostly with the NHL, which, in the grand scheme of things, is the end-of-the-road for player development. These are generally conservative voices that want to primarily protect the status quo, for a variety of reasons (including business ones).

How nice would it be if one of these influential voices shifted the debate to how hitting and being hit is taught at the grassroots, and whether the culture of intimidation, nurtured from grassroots hockey into the NHL, is a good thing.

It’s these topics, at levels as early as Peewee hockey, which are the cause for what we’re seeing in the NHL.

Any solution applied at the NHL level is simply a band-aid – a short-term one until these other topics are fully explored.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY:

  • Mike Richards is the captain, and Chris Pronger has the reputation, but Claude Giroux’s leadership skills are earning raves from the Philadelphia Flyers.
  • Speaking of the Flyers, there’s a bit of a love affair starting between goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and fans, who chant Bob after saves at home games. Could it be shades of Pelle Lindbergh?
  • Ethan Moreau’s broken hand has opened the door for Columbus Derek Dorsett, who’s playing an inspired, gritty game for the Blue Jackets. It will be interesting to see what happens when Moreau returns to action, and if his role is reduced. His reaction to a reduced role was one of the things that poisoned the Oiler dressing room.
  • What’s more upsetting – that the average ticket price Leaf fans pay is almost twice the average ticket price of anywhere else in the league, or that fans in Tampa, Buffalo, St. Louis and Pittsburgh only pay $5 for beer?
  • Damien Cox argues that the Ilya Kovalchuk story in New Jersey all started with an “no off-wing” systems approach by Assistant Coach Adam Oates. I’m pretty sure other teams in the league believe in the same system, including the Edmonton Oilers.
  • It may be part of Guy Boucher’s infamous system, but it’s still a bit odd to see a team play so much with one defenseman back, pretty much playing “safety.”
  • If this is Lindy Ruff’s last year in Buffalo, and the Leafs don’t make the playoffs, look for Ruff’s name to be at the top of the list to replace Ron Wilson as coach.
  • Dear Kelly Hrudey: Thanks for going on the Team 1040 and reminding us that there is an element of NHL hockey that is not only completely out-of-touch with fans, but quite frankly couldn’t care less about us. I look forward to booing you at every future opportunity.
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