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.

Jan 252012
 

Usually - you know, when the league’s marquee player isn’t in a snit and boycotting the All-Star game – the narrative surrounding the NHL’s mid-season classic (in this case classic is defined as ”tired tradition”) is as follows:

“How can we make this game suck less?”

Ironically, 2012 represents the 25th anniversary of the best hockey that’s ever been played during an NHL All-Star event.  Wayne Gretzky himself called it the fastest-paced hockey he had ever played in.

Rendez-Vous ’87 , which pitted a team of NHL All-Stars against a team from the Soviet Union, was the brainchild of then Quebec Nordiques owner Marcel Aubut. The teams split their two games (4-3 NHL, 5-3 U.S.S.R.), and although Russia outscored the NHL 8-7, the series is considered a tie. At the time, legendary Russian coach Viktor Tikhonov noted:

 ”The NHL didn’t win and neither did we. The person that won was hockey itself. Both games were like holidays, like festivals, two of the greatest hockey games you’ll ever see.”

More than a two-game series however, Rendez-Vous ’87 was a celebration of North American and Russian culture held within the backdrop of Quebec City’s famous Winter Carnival.  Aubut spent $10-14 million ($20-30 million in today’s money) to bring Soviet chefs, dancers and singers to Canada. Gala gourmet dinners feted international businessmen, politicians and athletes. In short, it was much like the cultural Olympiad that surrounds today’s Olympic Games.  To some, Rendez-Vous ’87 was the first time the NHL truly operated like a professional big league sport.

Rendez-Vous ’87 was also not without controversy. For starters, costs associated with the event were astronomical for the times. A plate at the gala dinner cost $350 per person ($694 in today’s dollars). Only 5% of tickets for the two games at Le Colisee were open to the public. Some local media were critical that the hockey event was ursurping deserved attention away from the traditional Winter Carnival.

Alan Eagleson, head of the NHL Players Association at the time, was also against the event, worried Aubut would be successful and challenge his own place as the official kingpin of international hockey. Eagleson used the cost of local hotel rooms ($146-a-night) as a rallying point, threatening to pull players from the game. 

And yet, Rendez-Vous ’87 is barely remembered in hockey circles. Marcel Aubut’s goal of creating an “important date in hockey history” fell far short.

The question is: why?

Well it doesn’t help that not a single U.S. TV network carried the series. Sure, ESPN broadcast the games, but that was back in the days of America’s Cup and dog show programming for the future broadcasting behemoth. At the time, ESPN was just another SportsChannel America.

The legacy of Rendez-Vous ’87 hasn’t been helped by the Montreal-Quebec City rivalry either. At the time, there was an element of jealousy on the part of Montrealers – a jealousy they would naturally be loathe to admit. Nonetheless, the disappearence of NHL hockey from Quebec City less than ten years later has made forgetting all the more easy in Quebec.

Perhaps the greatest  reason that Rendez-Vous ’87 is but a footnote in history is what came immediately after it. The 1987 Canada Cup was one of the defining moments in Canadian hockey history. Despite the fact that Rendez-Vous ’87 was my first experience watching the Soviets, the 1987 Canada Cup was the pinnacle of the Canada-U.S.S.R. rivalry for my generation. And while Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky had first played together during Rendez-Vous ’87, it was at the Canada Cup that their chemistry bore fruit, leading to the greatest goal by the two greatest players of my childhood.

Less than three years later, Russians were playing in the NHL. The Cold War was coming to a close. Soon there would be a Russian players hoisting the cup; Russian players winning scoring titles and league trophies. The mystique and mystery of hockey from behind the Iron Curtain was gone.

This week, while the NHL trots out its latest gimmick – a fantasy draft - to put some life into the All-Star game, I’ll think back to Quebec City and Rendez-Vous ’87. To a time when the mid-season exhibition meant something more than appeasing corporate sponsors and players trying not to get hurt.

ONE THOUGHT ON THE FLY

Alex Ovechkin’s decision to not play in the NHL All-Star game is another example of why, at the end of his career, we may look at him as Pavel Bure 2.0 (an insanely-talented, but otherwise selfish, non-winner whose career did not live up to the hype). Rumours that he’s been out-of-shape this year don’t help the cause either. Meanwhile, everything about Evgeni Malkin these days screams “heart and soul” or  champion. The career journey of these two Russian superstars (who were once considered “bitter enemies“) shall be fascinating to watch.

Nov 182011
 

Sometimes in life you gotta play hurt. While fighting the flu bug, here now are this week’s thoughts on the fly:

  • Just in case Canucks fans have been living under a rock, here’s what Mark Recchi said about the most arrogant team he’s ever played against.
  • The great Terry Jones articulates what the current Edmonton Oilers freefall feels like.
  • If a goalie is going to roam outside the crease, they make themselves vulnerable to contact. Ryan Miller wasn’t trying to make a save in traffic at the edges of his crease – he was skating 10-15 feet away from the net. The only thing wrong with what Boston’s Milan Lucic did by bodychecking Miller was giving the contact a “little extra” with his arms/shoulders. Let’s protect goalies from the contact they can’t avoid, and remind them they’re fair game otherwise.
  • Grantland’s Katie Baker with her weekly round-up – some great links this week.
  • With the Washington Capitals visiting Winnipeg and Toronto, coverage of Alex Ovechkin’s pedestrian season has ramped up. With Sidney Crosby still out and Ovechkin less-than-dominant, the best player in the league right now just might be Jonathan Toews.
  • Meanwhile, Jaromir Jagr thinks Claude Giroux is knocking-on-the-door of the league’s best.
  • One reason why the Pittsburgh Penguins are amongst the best teams in the league? They control the neutral zone with speed, pressuring puck carriers so well defensively that opponents are forced to dump the puck in before they would like to. The Penguins then have an easy time recovering the puck and breaking out of their own zone.
  • If there’s one thing Mike Milbury knows, it’s how to kill a franchise. Not surprising then he thinks the Columbus Blue Jackets should trade Rick Nash.
  • All good teams have winning streaks. Championship teams find ways to win despite their poorest efforts. So goes the Boston Bruins, who have now won 7 straight games, and played what was arguably their worst game of the year against Columbus on Thursday.
  • Credit where credit is due – Matt Cooke’s transformation as a player is pretty impressive.
  • The demise of Ilya Bryzgalov has been greatly exaggerated. Since getting shelled and having a bit of a media meltdown against the Winnipeg Jets back on October 27th, Bryzgalov is 5-0-1, with a 1.65 goals against average and a .944 save percentage.
  • Meanwhile, Brygalov’s former teammates are ripping him for being a negative presence in the Coyotes locker room. You know what’s also a negative factor on team chemistry? Losing. And that’s something the Coyotes didn’t do very much when Ilya Bryzgalov was their goaltender. Things could have been much, much worse for Phoenix players than simply dealing with an difficult personality.
  • Final note on Bryzgalov’s current team, the Philadelphia Flyers – not sure their team speed is good enough, which makes them more vulnerable to trapping teams or teams with great speed and counter-attack.
  • Forwards still looking for their first goal of the season: Ales Hemsky (7 games); Jeff Carter (8 games); Scott Gomez (10 games); Sam Gagner (11 games); Kyle Okposo (14 games); Dustin Penner (14 games); Blake Comeau (0 points in 14 games); Marty Reasoner (16 games); Mattias Tedenby (16 games).
  • Loved this from the Leafs-Predators game.
  • Nikita Filatov, or “Filly,” probably doesn’t play in the NHL again either.
  • Paul Maurice is a nice guy but a bad coach. As the Hurricanes struggle, here’s a nice recap of potential coaching replacements if Carolina decides to fire their coach. Given how GM Jim Rutherford likes to keep things in-house, it wouldn’t surprise to see Jeff Daniels eventually take over the reigns.
  • The Toronto Maple Leafs are looking for goaltending. What if they had the solution but chose not to re-sign him? Cast-off J-S. Giguere is playing well for the struggling Colorado Avalanche, with a 1.98 goals against average to-date.
  • Speaking of the Maple Leafs, lots of talk about Wayne Gretzky fronting a U.S. bid for the franchise. While it’s a romantic notion, let’s remember that Gretzky is still owed $8 million by the NHL. Hard to imagine him returning to the league in any capacity until someone writes him a cheque.
  • From the department of weird stats – right now the Capitals have a better winning percentage when they give up the first goal of the game (.778%) than when they score the first goal (.375%).
Oct 082010
 

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

Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux

Photo credit: Pesonen and the Pens

Growing up in the `80s there were two camps: Wayne Gretzky vs. Mario Lemieux. The Great One vs. Mario “Le Magnifique.”

To idolize one was to idolize a “great Canadian” – a small-town Ontario boy who grew up playing on a backyard rink. Wayne? He was humble, hardworking and personified brains over brawn.

To idolize the other was, at least in my neighbourhood, almost traitorous. Mario? He was arrogant and aloof. He didn’t love the game. Yeah he scored that great goal in ’87, but he rarely played for Team Canada. For Pete’s sake, he was a smoker!

Funny how time changes things.

While Mario was saving the franchise that made him an icon, Wayne invested money into the Phoenix Coyotes, a team he had no previous allegiance to.

Today, Mario is a positive force and influential member of the Pittsburgh community. His Mario Lemieux Foundation has raised millions of dollars for medical and cancer research. He’s an active NHL owner, with a seat-at-the-table on decisions that impact professional hockey.

Meanwhile, Wayne has become a bit of a huckster, all activities seemingly weighed against their impact on his brand and bottom line. He’s currently ‘taking time away from the game” in an argument over
money owed by the NHL. Maybe this time away will help him manage his winery or his restaurant.

Yes, as I watched Mario christen CONSOL Energy Centre with water from the old Mellon Arena, I couldn’t help but think how, these days, I wish #99 was a bit more like #66.

******

In the post-lockout NHL, where the game is played at unparalleled speeds and teams have to manage the salary cap, young (cheap) talent is an important commodity.

Opening night rosters around the league are dotted with 18-, 19- and 20-year olds.

But one youngster whose name you won’t see in any lineup is Erik Gudbranson.

And this is not a bad thing.

Big and nasty, Gudbranson was arguably one of the best players at Florida Panther’s training camp.

But there is a big jump between pre-season and regular season hockey. Learning defense at the NHL level is extremely difficult, especially when this is so clearly a rebuilding year for the Panthers.

Returning Gudbranson to juniors gives him a chance to dominate, to work on his offensive game, and to take a leadership role on Team Canada at the World Juniors.

Meanwhile, the Panthers give themselves an extra year before Gudbranson starts the clock toward NHL free agency.

Contrast this to how the Toronto Maple Leafs handled the development Luke Schenn.

Schenn’s first training camp in Toronto was an impressive one. The stay-at-home defenseman made the team as an 18-year old, despite the fact that he couldn’t execute a slapshot consistently.

Two up-and-down seasons later, Schenn enters this year with reduced career expectations.

And at 21, he’s also just four years away from free agency.

The jury is still out on both Gudbranson on and Schenn, but their careers will serve as an interesting comparison to watch over the coming years.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Speaking of the Panthers, Michael Grabner’s work ethic at camp was one reason why the Panthers waived the former Canuck. But don’t rule out the play of Mike Santorelli as a contributing factor either. Also gifted with great speed and above-average hands, the former Predator prospect earned a top-6 role, bumping Grabner to the Islanders and Steven Reinprecht to the fourth line.
  • Boy did Edmonton look fast against Calgary. One game does not a season make, but those fears about Calgary’s footspeed may be justified.
  • The Leafs and Nazem Kadri are saying all the right things, but the fact remains he projects, at best, to a Derek Roy-type player at the NHL level. Is that good enough to win a Stanley Cup?
  • Cam Fowler will become the third youngest player to ever play for the Anaheim Ducks. Other notable teens to play for the Ducks: Oleg Tverdovsky, Stanislav Chistov, Luca Sbisa, Vitaly Vishnevski, Chad
    Kilger. That’s a lot of teenage mediocrity.
  • That was nice of Marty Turco to honour Antti Niemi by stinking up the place for Chicago in the first game of the season.
  • Still rather surprised the Oilers gave Shawn Horcoff the Captaincy. There was a strained relationship between veterans and youngsters in the Oiler dressing room last year, and Horcoff’s name was always included in the mix of vets (along with Ethan Moreau and Sheldon Souray) who were part of the problem. Even if he’s turned over a new leaf attitude-wise, Horcoff was also arguably the team’s worst player last year.
  • I still don’t understand how Rick Nash is the 14th best player in the NHL, according to TSN. On the one hand, he may be the most talented big-man in the game today. On the other, he’s never hit 80 points in a season and is a career minus-54.
  • Nigel Dawes – yes, that Nigel Dawes – is reportedly starting the season on Atlanta’s top line with Nik Antropov and Fred Modin. Good luck with that, Thrashers fans.
  • RJ Umberger starts the season on the third-line in Columbus so Nikita Filatov can play with fellow first-round picks Derrick Brassard and Jakub Voracek. Filatov’s had a good camp and might have 20 goals in his hands this year.
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