Thursday, September 16, 2010

2010 All-Prospects Tournament Team

Every year, there are always players people look forward to seeing at the NHL Prospects Tournament, and this year was no exception.  A total of 15 first round draft choices appeared in the 2010 edition of the tournament, yet so many more players brought their best game to display for the eyes of the hockey world to see (including TSN's Bob MacKenzie).

My selections for the best players overall were influenced by the games I saw, and unfortunately not every team received equal viewing time due to my schedule of games I was due to work.  As a result, Carolina may be a bit under-represented (since I didn't get to see a single full game featuring the Canes, only brief snippets between periods of the games I did work).  Columbus and Tampa Bay were only seen once for a full game, but I got to watch every other team in the tourney at least twice.  But as previously mentioned, I made it a point to head next door to catch brief look-ins of the games I was not working, in the hopes of being impressed. 

For those of you looking for some additional info on the tournament's statistics, standings, and box scores, feel free to visit Pointstreak.

So, without further ado, here are my picks.... 

1st TEAM
C - Derek Stepan, New York Rangers (co-tourney leader with 7 points)
W - Casey Wellman, Minnesota Wild
W - Tomas Tatar, Detroit Red Wings
D - Marco Scandella, Minnesota Wild (tourney leader in plus/minus at +6)
D - Brendan Smith, Detroit Red Wings
G - Matt Hackett, Minnesota Wild

2nd TEAM
C - James Wright, Tampa Bay Lightning
W - Jeff Skinner, Carolina Hurricanes (tied with Stepan in points with 2-5-7)
W - Evgeny Grachev, New York Rangers (a tourney leading 4 goals)
D - Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues
D - Nate Prosser, Minnesota Wild
G - Jake Allen, St. Louis Blues and Mike Murphy, Carolina Hurricanes (tie)

Carolina - Matt Kennedy, Zac Dalpe
Columbus - Tomas Kubalik
Dallas - Tomas Vincour, Jack Campbell
Detroit - Willie Coetzee, Brent Raedeke, Mitchell Callahan, Travis Ehrhardt, Jordan Pearce
Minnesota - Cody Almond, Joel Broda, Jarod Palmer, Jared Spurgeon
New York - Ryan Bourque, Brandon Manning, Ryan McDonagh
St. Louis - Brett Sonne, Stefan Della Rovere
Tampa Bay - Brett Connolly, Carter Ashton, Mark Barberio, Brock Beukeboom, Jaroslav Janus

2010 NHL Prospects Tournament: Championship Game - Detroit vs. Minnesota

In the 13-year history of the NHL Prospects Tournament, one somewhat surprising fact seemed to loom on a lot of people’s minds. The Detroit Red Wings, hosts of the tourney since its inception in 1998, have never won the championship. 8 other NHL teams have claimed the crown in that timeframe (led by St. Louis’ 4 trophies – 1999, 2000, 2001, and 2004). In fact, the Wings have been very gracious hosts, only reaching the title match in the inaugural year, losing to Nashville. But the buzz around Centre ICE was palpable as the home crowd anticipated victory heading into the 2010 NHL Prospects Tournament championship game versus the undefeated Minnesota Wild.

Detroit stormed the net early, making Wild netminder Matt Hackett (Plymouth – OHL) work early with a handful of chances in close. But Hackett stood his ground and the Wild worked hard to regain momentum, with captain Cody Almond (Houston – AHL) forechecking along the boards behind the net of Detroit goaltender Thomas McCollum (Grand Rapids – AHL). Defenseman Jared Spurgeon (Spokane – WHL) and stud forward Casey Wellman (UMass-Amherst – Hockey East) played dump-and-chase, and Jarod Palmer (Miami – CCHA) showed some speedy wheels as he deftly maneuvered into the Detroit zone. The Wild had a golden opportunity when Chad Rau (Houston –AHL) pick-pocketed a Detroit player to set up what would’ve been a 2-on-1 chance, but Red Wing FA tryout Trevor Parkes (Montreal – QMJHL) showed great hustle by backchecking to thwart the would-be scoring opportunity. Despite the back-and-forth tempo, only a handful of shots landed on net (Detroit finished the first a 9-6 edge) as both teams headed to the lockerroom in a scoreless tie.

Minnesota showed more of its defensive tendencies, as Joel Broda (Calgary – WHL) was able to force a turnover early in the second, especially showing his hard work in the neutral zone throughout the game. Almond tried to set up shop in front of McCollum to screen blasts from the point from the smooth puck-handling blueline pair of Nate Prosser (Colorado College – WCHA) and Tyler Cuma (Ottawa – OHL). Detroit looked to regain their edge by trying to draw penalties (as they were uncharacteristically called for 4 minors in the middle period), but Brent Raedeke (Edmonton/Brandon – WHL) as not convincing enough to the officials after taking an errant Minnesota elbow to the chops.

The pace of the contest picked up towards the middle of the second, as the teams exchanged a handful of frantic end-to-end rushes. The Wings’ persistence paid off as Sebastien Piche (Toledo – ECHL) unwound a one-timer from Landon Ferraro (Red Deer – WHL, but bound for Everett this year) that beat Hackett to crack the scoreless tie. But Minnesota came close to tying the contest soon after when Kris Foucault (Calgary – WHL) dangled a nifty backhander that McCollum was able to swat away. Minnesota had the edge in shots at 9-7 in the second, but trailed 1-0 heading into the third.

The Wild attacked the Detroit zone in search of an equalizing marker. Winger Brandon Buck (Florida – ECHL/Houston – AHL) showed great speed circling around the net, forechecking tenaciously to keep the puck deep in the Detroit zone. Finally, with 9 minutes to play, Almond took an entry feed from big blueliner Marco Scandella (Val D’Or – QMJHL), skated along the left boards, and fired a shot from the faceoff circle to McCollum’s right that tickled the twine to tie the contest. The Wings attempted to counter, but Hackett was up for the challenge, making 15 saves in the final frame and 30 for the game. J.T. Barnett (Vancouver – WHL) notched the game winner with 4:31 to go by potting a loose puck after a big scramble in front of McCollum. Scandella added an insurance goal on cannon of a shot from the left point off a Wellman feed with 1:32 left, leaving the home crowd somewhat deflated, but very appreciative for the phenomenal hockey acumen displayed over the last five days.

FINAL SCORE: Minnesota 3, Detroit 1

With the victory, Minnesota claimed its second NHL Prospects Tournament title (their first was in 2003). Cody Almond accepted the trophy at center ice as the team celebrated to a polite round of applause and “We Are The Champions” in the background.

Meanwhile, in the 3rd place game next door, fans were treated to an equally exciting contest, as Jeff Skinner (Kitchener – OHL) scored 3:36 into the second overtime frame (played with 3 skaters aside) to give the Carolina Hurricanes (last year’s defending champions) a 4-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning. Carolina received tallies from Matt Kennedy (Guelph/Barrie – OHL), Justin Shugg (Windsor – OHL, bound for Memorial Cup host Mississauga via an off-season trade), and Jared Staal (Sudbury – OHL), while Tampa’s James Wright (Vancouver – WHL) forced overtime with 7 ½ left in regulation. The Lightning also received a pair of goals from emergency addition Matt Butcher (Northern Michigan – CCHA).


2010 – Minnesota Wild
2009 – Carolina Hurricanes
2008 – Dallas Stars
2007 – New York Rangers
2006 – Columbus Blue Jackets
2005 – Columbus Blue Jackets
2004 – St. Louis Blues
2003 – Minnesota Wild
2002 – Washington Capitals
2001 – St. Louis Blues
2000 – St. Louis Blues
1999 – St. Louis Blues
1998 – Nashville Predators

2010 NHL Prospects Tournament: 5th Place Game - Dallas vs. New York

All the fun of round robin play was done after the first three days of games at the 2010 NHL Prospects Tournament.  Only one day of games remained to determine the final pecking order.  Columbus and St. Louis clashed in the 7th place game, while I got to call the 5th place game between Dallas and New York (the third game I got to see for both of these teams).

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Day 3 at the 2010 NHL Prospects Tournament: Detroit vs. St. Louis

The "Howe Division" was quite congested as we entered the final day of round robin play.  All four teams - Detroit, Tampa Bay, Dallas, and St. Louis - had each won one game and had lost one game.  However, Detroit's defeat came in a shootout vs. the Lightning, which gave them an extra point in the standings.  The formula for the Red Wings was simple:  win and they are in to the championship game against the Minnesota Wild, who had beaten the New York Rangers earlier in the day to earn their chance at the title.

Day 3 at the 2010 NHL Prospects Tournament: Minnesota vs. New York

The Minnesota Wild went into the final day of round robin play of the 2010 NHL Prospects Tournament with the chance to clinch a berth in the championship game as they faced-off against the New York Rangers. The Rangers, who won on a goal with 6.1 seconds left in their opening game to stun Columbus, experienced the same heartbreak as the Blue Jackets in an equally heart-breaking 1-0 loss to Carolina when the Canes broke the scoreless match with under a minute to go.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Quick Hits From Day 3 the 2010 NHL Prospects Tournament

Just a quickie tonight....I'll have a full summary of Rangers-Wild and Blues-Wings (plus snippets from Lightning-Stars and Hurricanes-Blue Jackets) tomorrow morning.  For now, here's today's scores from Centre ICE (all scores final and were completed in regulation, no OT controversies today):

Tampa Bay 3, Dallas 1
Minnesota 5, New York 4
Carolina 8, Columbus 1
Detroit 2, St. Louis 1

So with today's games in the books, here is the game schedule for tomorrow:

7th place game:  Columbus (0-3-0) vs. St. Louis (1-2-0), 2:00 EDT @ David's Rink
5th place game:  New York (1-2-0) vs. Dallas (1-2-0), 2:30 @ Huntington Bank Rink
3rd place game:  Carolina (2-1-0) vs. Tampa Bay, 5:30 @ David's Rink
Championship game:  Minnesota (3-0-0) vs. Detroit (2-0-1), 6:00 @ Huntington Rink

Per my usual schedule, I'll be due to call both games from the Huntington Rink.  I typically end up missing to the chance to see one team play a full game, and as a result of the standings following round robin play, this year's team is the 'Canes (much to my chagrin).  Oh well, them's the breaks.

So Carolina will not get the chance to repeat as tourney champ, and Detroit attempts to capture the crown of its own tourney for the first time in the 13 year history of this event.

More to come....please stay tuned.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Day 2 at the 2010 NHL Prospects Tournament: Tampa Bay vs. Detroit (A Marathon Recap)

OPENING DISCLAIMER: Apologies to all who’ve been patiently waiting for the write-up to last night’s Tampa Bay-Detroit game. Unfortunately, pulling 10 hours at my actual job today loomed on the horizon heading into today. With that, enough with the excuses, and on with the game….

Day 2 at the NHL Prospects Tournament: St. Louis vs. Dallas

Sunday at the 2010 NHL Prospects Tournament started with the Minnesota Wild taking on the Columbus Blue Jackets, and I’ll have a few snippets of commentary from that contest later in this summary. I was scheduled to call the St. Louis Blues versus the Dallas Stars in the second afternoon contest, and here's my summary.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Day 1 at the 2010 NHL Prospects Tournament: Dallas vs. Detroit

The second half of the day in Traverse City featured the team most everyone in the stands were here to see, the Detroit Red Wings. After all, they are the hosts of the tournament, and Wing-nuts everywhere are getting quite excited about Detroit’s training camp here in T.C. next week. The Wings faced off against the Dallas Stars in the evening tilt on the Huntington Bank Rink at Centre ICE.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Day 1 at the 2010 NHL Prospects Tournament: New York vs. Columbus

Day 1 of the NHL Prospects Tournament certainly proven to be a good day to be inside, considering the weather outside here in Traverse City was wet, rainy, and pretty much miserable. Needless to say, the action on the ice did plenty to warm the spirits of all the hockey fans, volunteers, and team personnel in attendance.

Monday, September 6, 2010

10 Players to Watch at the 2010 NHL Prospects Tournament

With less than a week until the start of the 2010 NHL Prospects Tournament (and the unofficial start of the hockey season, as far as I’m concerned), I took the time to sift through the rosters of the eight teams participating in the five-day tournament in Traverse City, Michigan (now that they've all finally been posted). What I came up with was a list of ten prospects at the tourney who will likely be gracing an NHL roster this season, whether it be opening night, a mid-season injury call-up, or a cup of coffee at season's end.  I’ve also added several other players worth keeping an eye on, which you'll find farther down the page.

1. Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis – The Hockey News’ Future Watch top-ranked prospect has experienced brief stints in the NHL (17 total games) over the last two seasons, and will make his case for a full-time position partoling the Blues’ back end. Drafted 4th overall in 2008, Pietrangelo represents the highest drafted played at the tournament this year, so understandably, all eyes will be the former Barrie Colt and Niagara IceDog.

2. Casey Wellman, Minnesota – Wellman made his NHL debut late last season after signing as an undrafted free agent following his sophomore season at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Wellman tallied 34 goals and 44 assists in his two seasons in the NCAA, and stands a good chance at cracking the Wild’s opening night lineup and sticking for the season.

3. James Wright, Tampa Bay – The sizeable Wright – 6’3”, 196 lbs – split his season last year with the Lightning and the WHL’s Vancouver Giants, where he averaged nearly a point per game. Drafted in the 4th round (117th overall) in 2008, “Killer” is hoping to crack the Lightning full-time year.

4. Jeff Skinner, Carolina – Skinner had a breakout season last year in Kitchener, notching 50-40-90 in 64 games (plus an additional 20-13-33 in 20 playoff games). The Rangers’ Memorial Cup chances could hinge on Skinner’s return to the OHL, but a solid camp could earn the 7th overall pick from this June’s draft a spot in Raleigh.

5. Brett Connolly, Tampa Bay – Connolly is looking to bounce back after an injury-plagued year in Prince George (WHL) which limited him to 16 games. The 2009 CHL Rookie of the Year will look to test out his surgically repaired hip in Traverse City and display the scoring prowess that led the Bolts’ brass to pick him 6th overall in June.

6. Brendan Smith, Detroit – The Red Wings opted for a veteran presence for their 6th defenseman when they signed Ruslan Salei this offseason, but the former Wisconsin Badger – chosen 27th overall in 2007 – will likely garner strong consideration as the first blueline injury call-up from Grand Rapids.

7 & 8. Ryan Johansen, Columbus and Dylan McIlrath, NY Rangers – Arguably the two most scrutinized 1st round of the 2010 draft (4th and 10th overall, respectively). Johansen had a breakout season in his WHL debut season with Portland, leading to his ascent up the draft boards. Johansen’s offensive exploits (25-44-69 in 71 games) could greatly help the goal-starved Blue Jackets this year. Meanwhile, McIlrath used his hulking frame (6’5”, 215 lbs) to his advantage in becoming a top shut-down defenseman in Moose Jaw, and proved he wasn’t about to shy away from the rough stuff (169 PIM). His toughness could prove to be a huge asset to the Blueshirts’ blueline.

9. Evgeny Grachev, NY Rangers – The lanky Russian (6’3”, 212 lbs) endured some growing pains in his first professional season last year with the Rangers’ AHL affiliate in Hartford (12-16-28 in 80 games), but hopes to take his game to the next level. Drafted in the 3rd round (75th overall) in 2008, Grachev was the OHL’s Rookie of the Year with Brampton after posting 40-40-80 in 60 games.

10. Jack Campbell, Dallas – While it’s unlikely Campbell will play in the NHL this year, he was the highest selected goaltender in this June’s draft – 11th overall – carrying with that status some lofty expectations down the road for a team with a question mark in goal. Campbell spent the last 2 seasons with the USNTDP, and makes the jump to major junior this year with the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires. And of course, Campbell was a key member of Team USA’s gold medal winning squad at the 2010 World Juniors.

Also registering high on the radar (in no particular order):

Riley Nash (CAR) – Originally picked by Edmonton 21st overall in 2007, Nash was acquired by the ‘Canes for a 2nd round pick in June’s draft. Nash signed an entry-level deal after 3 seasons at Cornell.

Matt Kennedy (CAR) – The former Guelph Storm and Barrie Colt is best known as the recipient of Zack Kassian’s cross-check to the head, which earned Kassian a 20-game suspension. Kennedy was drafted in the 5th round (131st overall) in 2009.

Jason Missiaen (CLB) – A goaltender of alarming size (6’8”, 220 lbs), Missiaen comes to Columbus as a free agent tryout after Montreal chose not to sign the former Peterborough Pete, drafted 116th overall by the Habs in 2008.

John Moore (CLB) – The offensive-minded blueliner had a solid rookie campaign in Kitchener (OHL), notching 10-37-47 in 61 games for the Rangers after being selected 21st overall by the Blue Jackets in 2009.

Scott Glennie (DAL) – Glennie comes into his second Stars’ training camp with the experience of the Memorial Cup under his belt, leading host team Brandon (WHL) to a runner-up finish. The 8th overall pick in 2009 scored 32-57-89 in 66 games last year for the Wheat Kings after an injury-plagued 2008-09 season.

Tomas Tatar (DET)Ranked as Detroit’s top prospect by Red Wings Central, the slick Slovak winger had an inconsistent season in transitioning from the Slovak ExtraLiga to the AHL last year, totaling 16-16-32 in 58 games as a 19-year old in Grand Rapids. Tatar – chosen 60th overall in 2009 – will look to dazzle Red Wings fans in Traverse City for a second straight year.

Bjorn Krupp (MIN), Chris Bourque and Christian Thomas (NYR) – Nepotism alert! The sons of former NHLers Uwe Krupp, Raymond Bourque and Steve “Stumpy” Thomas hope to impress in Northern Michigan. Krupp arrives as one of the Wild’s free agent tryouts after playing the last two seasons in Belleville (OHL). Bourque is eligible for an over-age season with Patrick Roy’s Quebec Remparts (QMJHL). Thomas notched 41 goals in Oshawa (OHL) last year after being part of the John Tavares-to-London blockbuster trade in January 2009.

Ryan McDonagh (NYR) – Originally Montreal’s 1st rounder (12th overall) from 2007, McDonagh arrived on Broadway via the Scott Gomez trade last offseason. McDonagh will be the third Wisconsin Badger blueliner to turned pro this summer (along with Smith and Columbus’ Cody Goloubef).

Ian Cole (STL) – One of three 1st round picks for St. Louis in 2007 (18th overall), Cole turned pro after three seasons at Notre Dame, finishing 2009-10 in Peoria (AHL).

Stefan Della Rovere (STL) – Originally drafted by Washington in the 7th round pick (204th overall) in 2008, the gritty Della Rovere was traded to the Blues for D.J. King this offseason. The 2009 World Junior gold medalist hopes to add some sandpaper to the Blues’ rookie camp.

Jake Allen (STL) – Back for a third tourney in T.C., the 34th overall pick in 2008 split his season between the Montreal Juniors and the Drummondville Voltigeurs (QMJHL) in 2009-10, in addition to minding goal for Team Canada at the World Juniors.

Alex Hutchings (TBL) – Hutchings – chosen 97th overall in 2009 by the Lightning – could either break in with Tampa’s AHL affiliate in Norfolk or return for an overage season in Barrie (OHL), where he was second in scoring for the Colts last year (47-34-81 in 68 games).

Richard Panik (TBL) – The Lightning’s 2nd rounder from 2009 (52nd overall) split his season between Windsor and Belleville (OHL) last year, totaling 21-20-41 in 60 games of major junior before finishing the year in Norfolk.

The tournament kicks off Saturday September 11th, and you can find the schedule of games here.  I'll be blogging with coverage from all the games I'll be calling (I'm currently scheduled to do the P.A. for all the games at the Huntington Bank Rink) of the tournament here at Spittin' Chiclets.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

2010 NHL Prospects Tournament News: Tampa in, Atlanta out

We're less than a month away from training camp opening up for NHL teams, which surely has hockey fans foaming at the mouth.  But from my particular locale, today means I'm three weeks away from standing front and center at the NHL Prospects Tournament here in lovely Traverse City.  The 13th annual edition of the tournament is set to begin September 11th, and the complete schedule of games, rosters, and historical information can be found at

I'm slated to work the P.A. for the third straight year, and I will call the games at the Huntington Bank Rink side of the Centre ICE complex for the tourney.  As it stands right now, I'll get to see all 8 teams play at least one game with the exception of Carolina (just happened to be the luck of the draw with the schedule set-up), but I will get to see the 'Canes play should they make the 5th place or 1st place games (both of those contests will be at Huntington on Wednesday the 15th). 

A couple changes to the tourney this year:  the Atlanta Thrashers opted out of the tournament this year, and in their place, the Tampa Bay Lightning return after a one-year absence.  Apparently from what I was told, Atlanta decided against returning to T.C. for financial reasons, which opened up a spot which Tampa (with new GM Steve Yzerman) was more than happy to fill.  A look at the Lightning's rookie roster - combined with the newly refurbished ownership and management overhaul of the off-season, and the general sense of needing to prove themselves (Tampa had gone winless in T.C. in three straight tournaments from 2006 to 2008) - have the Lightning amongst the pre-tournament favorites in this writer's eyes.

While the Lightning will be a welcome addition to the 2010 tourney lineup, I must state I am a bit disappointed that Atlanta will not make the trek up north.  This can mainly be summed up in two words: Patrice Cormier.

Cormier would have been by far the most compelling player at the NHL Prospects Tournament had Atlanta decided to participate this year.  To give some context to the uniformed, Cormier is a bruising power forward who was drafted in the 2nd round (54th overall) back in 2008 by the New Jersey Devils.  Cormier represented Team Canada at the 2009 and 2010 World Junior Championships (where he earned a gold and silver medal, respectively), and also played in the 2009 Memorial Cup for the Rimouski Oceanic for the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.  He was part of Atlanta's haul in the Ilya Kovalchuk trade prior to this year's Olympic break and NHL trade deadline.  But Cormier is most famous (or infamous) for his forearm shiver/elbow to the head to Mikael Tam of the Quebec Remparts, which earned him a suspension for the remainder of the QMJHL season including the duration of the playoffs.  (Of Note:  Cormier's hit occurred in only his third game with his new team, the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, after Rimouski traded him after following the World Jrs. in January.)

Cormier would've been playing his first meaningful hockey (aside from the Thrashers rookie camp following the NHL Draft in June) since the World Jrs., and I'm sure I'm not the only one interested to see how he would've responded on the ice following his abrupt end to his season.  And considering Cormier is gunning to crack Atlanta's roster this year - and has some speculating that he may indeed do so - he was easily tops on my list of "must-see" prospects.

Instead, I'll get to see Brett Connolly and James "Killer" Wright (amongst others) for Tampa Bay.  I think I'll survive just fine.

Another notable change is the eight teams have been shuffled around into two new groups.  Gone are the East and West "Divisions", and in come the "Howe Division" (Detroit, Dallas, St. Louis, and Tampa Bay) and the "Gretzky Division" (NY Rangers, Minnesota, Columbus, and Carolina).  Each team will continue to play a round-robin style format against each of their three "divisional" foes.  The two first-place teams square off against one another for the championship, the two second-place teams play for third place, and so on.  All NHL standings rules apply (two points for a win, one point for an overtime or shootout loss, no points for a regulation loss), with tiebreakers being head-to-head matchup and goal differential.

One final note regarding the tourney is that the attention given to this event has not gone unnoticed.  The off-season at Centre ICE has been consumed by renovations to the facility, including additional locker rooms and showers, a mezzanine section for additional standing-room and handicapped-accessible viewing at the north end of the Huntington Rink, and a "scout's lounge" adjacent to the press box which overlooks the ice.  The construction is due to be completed prior to the start of the NHL Prospects Tournament, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony slated for September 8th.  The funds for the renovations came directly from the Detroit Red Wings, who hold their training camp following the Prospects Tournament (and have done so in Traverse City since 1997).  The Wings have donated all the proceeds from their annual charity golf tournament to Centre ICE for the last several years, and will do so for the next 6 years as Detroit has recently committed to continue holding training camp in T.C. for that timeframe.  Additionally, the renovations at the rink will help in taking the steps needed to make the NHL Prospects Tournament "the premiere scouting event in the hockey world".  If all goes according to plan, the NHL Prospects Tournament will expand to 12 teams by 2012.

I'll be blogging about the games I'll be calling - as I have the past 2 tourneys - but will do so at this blog site.  I'd blogged on's social website in 2008 and 2009.  Once all eight teams post their official rosters (Columbus, this means you!), I'll post my list of "must-watch"players. 

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Look Back - and Ahead - at the Muskoka Five

Now that the Ilya Kovalchuk hostage situation is over, the rest of the hockey world can move on.  Oh wait, strike that thought....

Even with the news of the scrutiny over the Kovalchuk contract, the moratorium on player movement seems to have finally broken with a handful of deals signed today (including RFA David Perron re-upping with St. Louis).  And teams have finally returned to the bargaining table to hash out trades to either fill a need in their lineup or to clear out cap space. The Philadelphia Flyers opened those floodgates Monday afternoon by trading Simon Gagne to Tampa Bay for a 4th rounder and Matt Walker. News of the Flyers-Lightning trade (the 2nd deal between these teams in the past 3 weeks) circulated almost instantly once the details of Kovalchuk’s massive deal with the Devils broke.

As there are a handful of teams in similar cap pinches as Philadelphia is (COUGH – Chicago – COUGH), several players’ names have been bandied about as trade bait. This is where we come to the curious case of Kaberle….Tomas Kaberle, that is.

Kaberle has seeming been on the trading block for well over two years now (and some may say since he signed his current 5-year, $21.25 million deal to open Free Agent Frenzy ’06, the first following the lockout). Considering Toronto’s need for a top-six forward, the salary cap pinch the Leafs’ blueline has the team in (counting Kaberle’s salary and the recent Brett Lebda signing, the Leafs’ top 7 D-men pack a salary cap hit of nearly $27 million), and Brian Burke’s unwillingness to part with youngsters Luke Schenn or Nazem Kadri (WHAT?!? There’s prospects and young players the Leafs AREN’T willing to trade?!?!?!?!?), Kaberle becomes Toronto’s most marketable trade asset by default.

With Kaberle’s imminent departure from the Big Smoke all but assured, I can’t help but look back on the end of the Leafs’ season just two short seasons ago….and back to the Muskoka Five.

If you recall, the Leafs were making another ill-fated late-season charge towards the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference (Toronto was eliminated on the final day of the regular season in both 2005-06 and 2006-07). Interim-GM Cliff Fletcher – brought back temporarily for a second reign in T.O. following the firing of John Ferguson, Jr. in January 2008 – had every intent of making the Leafs “sellers” at the trade deadline, but was unable to convince the team’s core players (and most valuable trade assets) to waive their no-trade clauses to aid in the (eternal) rebuilding process. These players became infamously known as “the Muskoka Five."

With Kaberle – currently the longest tenured player Leaf – being the last man standing amongst the group who refused to go to greener pastures at the 2008 trade deadline (and with Burke seemingly mulling over his options), I figured a brief look back at what exactly transpired for the remaining player who are now only a memory to Leafs fans.

Darcy Tucker was the first of the gang to go, having had his contract bought out prior to the opening of Free Agent Frenzy ‘08. Tucker was just one year into a four year, $12 million deal – meaning the Leafs will continue to owe Tucker $1 million each season through 2013-14. Tucker signed with Colorado for $4.5 million over 2 years, and after two largely unproductive seasons in the Rockies, is presently a UFA.

The scourge of Leafs fans in 2007-08 (and the butt of all own-goal jokes), Bryan McCabe was traded in training camp on 9/2/08 with a ’10 4th rounder to Florida for Mike Van Ryn. While McCabe has been the lynchpin for the Panthers’ power play, Van Ryn has played a grand total of 27 games over the last two seasons for the Leafs thanks to a rash of unfortunate injuries (and one memorable shattering experience) – and will miss the 2010-11 season as well).  Florida, by the way, used the pick to select goaltender Sam Brittain of the AJHL’s Camrose Eagles at 92nd overall last month, a player bound for the University of Denver in 2011-12.

Mats Sundin – you all remember him, don’t you? Sundin became the poster boy for indecisive hockey players everywhere (perhaps inspiration for Kovalchuk?) after dancing around the topic of retirement-vs.-returning-for-one-more-season during the 2008 off-season. When 2008-09 started, the long-time Leafs captain was still without a team, and waited until mid-December before finally signing with Vancouver. After an unimpressive run in his half season with the Canucks (where he never really seemed at top speed nor found chemistry with his new teammates), Mats hung up the skates for good in 2009.

Thanks to a loophole in his no-trade clause which permitted the Leafs the chance to trade him during the off-season (which is the case with Kaberle as well), Pavel Kubina was traded on the opening day of Free Agent Frenzy ‘09 from Toronto (with Tim Stapleton) to Atlanta for Garnet Exelby and Colin Stuart (who was later traded with Anton Stralman and a ’12 7th rounder to Calgary for Wayne Primeau and a ’11 2nd rounder). Kubina spent just one season in Hot ‘Lanta, and recently signed with Tampa Bay – where he won a Stanley Cup in 2003-04 – to a 2-year, $7.7 million deal. Meanwhile, Exelby made it clear during the season that he didn’t exactly enjoy his time in Toronto – considering he spent a good part of it in the press box. Both Exelby and Primeau are seeking new teams as UFA’s.

Tomas Kaberle will become an unrestricted free agent after the 2010-11 season. His $4.25 million hit against the cap certainly won’t break the bank, considering his value as an offensive weapon on the power play.

I mention these things because considering how little the Leafs received in return for Tucker, McCabe, Sundin, and Kubina, I’d prefer to see Toronto actually receive something of value for the services of Kaberle (well, duh). But knowing the non-sensible way the Leafs have been governed over the years, let’s just say I won’t hold my breath.

Yes, I do realize Cliff Fletcher’s hands were tied thanks to the unity of these five players just two years ago. Fletcher likely would’ve landed more for any or all of those players at the ‘08 trade deadline, but that wasn’t exactly an option. I also realize Fletcher was acting as a stand-in until Brian Burke officially took the reins as GM and President in November 2008. But considering his previous ties to the franchise, you’d think “Fletch” would’ve made a better effort than he did.

Bottom line, Burke has an opportunity this off-season to make a major addition with Kaberle as the bait. Considering the failure to do so with the rest of the Muskoka Five - combined with the gross miscalculation of the Phil Kessel trade and the inability to acquire a 1st round pick prior to this June's draft - it seems imperative for the Leafs to go fishing for a top-six forward.  And with no 1st round pick next year - not to mention the Leafs horrific track record in the draft over the years -  the time is now to strike while the iron is hot.

Just one simple request:  Please, no more "truculence."

Sunday, July 11, 2010

RFA Poaching: Swimming in Shark-Infested Waters

It’s now been nearly two weeks since the NHL’s free agency period has opened, and with all the fiscal irresponsibility transactions that have taken place, numerous hockey websites, blogs, and analysts are mulling over the best, worst, and most confusing moves made this off-season. But Friday’s top signing seems to trump all the others thus far when it comes to sheer shock-value: the San Jose Sharks’ offer sheet of $14 million over 4 years to Chicago Blackhawks’ defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson. Since he is a restricted free agent, the Blackhawks have seven days to match San Jose’s offer sheet to retain Hjalmarsson’s services, or lose the 23-year blueliner to the Sharks and receive compensation in the form of the Sharks' 1st and 3rd round draft picks next year.  (For a frame of reference on just how much a team gets compensated for an unmatched RFA tender, click here).

Why the shock, you ask? For starters, Hjalmarsson may well be the eighth player from the ‘Hawks Stanley Cup winning squad from last month to leave the Windy City via trade or free agency. Short of the Florida Marlins circa 1997, I’m not sure if I’ve seen a championship team in ANY sport dismantled so quickly. OK, I’m being a bit rash, but with the number of secondary scorers and role players Chicago has parted ways with so far this summer (Byfuglien, Eager, Sopel, Fraser, Ladd, Versteeg, and Burish, for those counting at home), one can’t help but be curious to see how the Hawks fare in defending the Stanley Cup victory in 2010-11, considering the sizeable makeover. And depending on how well Antti Niemi fares in salary arbitration, more moves could well be on the way (are your bags packed yet, Patrick Sharp?).

But I suppose I’m surprised more because in this salary cap era of financial management – where several teams are pressed against the cap ceiling due to poor managerial foresight, overspending for mid-level players, constant speculation the cap may decrease, etc. – that more NHL front offices HAVEN’T taken advantage of teams in the same monetary quandary Chicago finds itself in by tendering an offer sheet to the numerous RFA’s on the market.

Since the NHLPA ratified the current CBA (and thus ending the darkest days in NHL history), a grand total of FIVE offer sheets have been tendered to RFA’s throughout the league in that time (Ryan Kesler by Philadelphia in 2007, Thomas Vanek and Dustin Penner by Edmonton in 2007, David Backes by Vancouver in 2008, Steve Bernier by St. Louis in 2008) before Hjalmarsson’s signing Friday. All but one contract – Penner’s deal with the Oilers – was matched by the parent club of the prospective RFA. Oilers’ GM Kevin Lowe’s RFA poaching attempts of Penner and Vanek three summers ago drew a stern league-wide rebuke, and birthed a classic feud between himself and both Sabres GM Darcy Regier and then-Ducks GM Brian Burke.

Even before the lockout, it’s not as if teams were in the habit of offering deals to other RFA’s across the league. The last offer sheet tendered to an RFA of an opposing team? Try going back to 1999 and the legendary Brett Hauer, who last played in North America in 2002.

While most of the hockey headlines continue to fixate on the potential whereabouts for Ilya Kovalchuk for 2010-11 (or something about nuptials exchanged this past weekend), little text seems to be devoted to the numerous RFA’s still on the open market (though Puck Daddy had a nice piece earlier last week on this very topic).

Given the (mostly) lackluster crop of UFA’s this summer, one could easily argue that the RFA crop is much stronger (still available as of this writing: Bobby Ryan, James Neal, Marc Staal, Ian White, Carey Price, Devin Setoguchi, Blake Wheeler, amongst others). It’s safe to say NHL Free Agency 2010 has mostly disappointed until Friday. Perhaps the work by Dougie Wilson in San Jose could trigger a shift in philosophy for teams looking to fill the holes in their rosters for next season – and spark some animosity and hostility between other teams (like Chicago) in economic dire straits….nothing like a little hatred towards a fellow conference rival.

Maybe it’s the worst-case-scenario mentality that scares off NHL GM’s from courting RFA’s, knowing the cost of compensation could be quite steep (just think back to the Scott Stevens/Brendan Shanahan fiasco in the early 90's). Perhaps most GM’s seem to think they can do better for themselves by trading for an RFA’s rights rather than actually offering a contract (Phil Kessel last summer and Jaroslav Halak this summer come to mind). Perhaps it’s the harsh scorn and ridicule Lowe received following his pursuit of Vanek and Penner in the summer of 2007 that scares off any notion of scoring an RFA. Or it could be that these GM’s simply don’t want to take that chance, knowing either the parent team will match the offer, or that GM’s are clutching too tightly to those precious draft picks as if they were family heirlooms.

Whatever the reasons may be, I’m one hockey fan that’s hoping Doug Wilson’s actions might spice up the free agency world this summer.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Got Hart? The 2010 Edition (Part Deux)

Now that I’ve said my piece on those who WEREN’T considered for the Hart Trophy, I’ll shift my attention to those who actually were nominated for the National Hockey League’s MVP.

As much as disagree with the exclusion of Ryan Miller and Ilya Bryzgalov from the running for the Hart Trophy, it’s hard to make a case against Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin, and Vancouver’s Henrik Sedin. I suppose the NHL is simply selling themselves short by limiting the candidates for MVP to simply three, but it’s hard to top this trio of point producers.

I know what you’re all thinking….He’s been brainwashed by the NHL’s promotional team! The Crosvechkin phenomenon continues to take over, and will soon block out the sun! Yes I will admit, it was an incredibly convenient pair of selections to name #87 and #8 amongst the league’s best (considering the NHL mentions one or both of their names in nearly every breath). But both had extraordinary seasons in 2009-10. Crosby tied for the NHL-lead in goals scored (with 51, a career-high), elevating his game after suggestion that he doesn’t score enough goals for the Pens. Ovechkin finished just behind Crosby with 50 goals on the season – in only 72 games – and tied Sid with 109 points, good for 2nd overall in the NHL. Both were certainly central fixtures on their squads, and were key to the successes of their respective teams – Washington, of course, captured the President’s Trophy with 121 points, while Pittsburgh finished with 101 points, two behind New Jersey in the Atlantic Division and for 2nd overall in the Eastern Conference.

That being said about those two heavyweights, my support for the Hart goes solely to Henrik Sedin. And it’s not a choice I’ve made simply to spite the fans of Crosby and Ovechkin

“Hank” led the NHL with 112 points (29 goals, 83 assists) after playing in all 82 of the Canucks’ games, which has already earned him the Art Ross Trophy. Sedin improved upon last year’s previous career high of 82 points – a quantum leap of 30 points! But going beyond the sheer scoring numbers, it must be noted that Sedin did so while garnering significantly less ice time per game - 19:41 per game – than either Crosby (21:57) or Ovechkin (21:47) or many of the NHL’s other top forwards, as Sedin ranked 37th amongst forwards in ice time per game.

While Sedin anchored the Canucks’ power play (6th in the NHL, clicking at a 20.9% clip), it should be noted that 83 of his 112 points were scored while at even strength.  No one in the NHL has tallied as many even-strength points in 14 seasons.  While his power play numbers were solid (4 G – 23 A – 27 Pts), he was far from padding his stats with the man-advantage.

Henrik Sedin has always predictably linked to his twin brother, Daniel. The “Wonder Twins” have been a point producing pair for the Canucks since their NHL debut in 2000-01. But when Daniel went on the shelf in November with a broken foot, Henrik continued to excel, scoring 10 goals and 8 assists in the 18 games Daniel was on IR for. Henrik also tallied an assist in a late season game Daniel was scratched for due to a back injury, making the final tally 19 points in 19 games sans Danny. Incidentally, Daniel still managed to total 29 goals and 56 assists in 63 games, with those 85 points placing Daniel tied for 11th in the league in scoring – while missing nearly a quarter of the season – as his brother’s go-to winger.

Many have chosen to knock Sedin’s credentials as a Hart candidate by stating that he doesn’t score enough goals to be a true MVP (Hank’s 29 goals placed him in a tie for 25th).  Some have even suggested that of Sedin padded his stats with “secondary” assists (indeed, 40 of his 83 league-leading assists were considered secondary). But the fact remains that Vancouver – as a team – finished second in the league in goals scored (up from 11th a season ago). The Canucks also finished with 6 different players with 25 or more goals this season – a feat unmatched by any other team.

And Henrik Sedin was the key cog in that team-wide scoring explosion for the Northwest Division champions. Sedin elevated the play of all who played along side of him. He is directly responsible for the emergence of the scoring touch of uber-pest Alexandre Burrows, who led the Canucks this season with 35 goals. Burrows – whose mouth may still over-shadow his talent – notched also 28 goals in 2008-09 after being placed on Vancouver’s first line with Henrik and Daniel Sedin, up from his previous career high of 12 goals. Burrows saw company in posting a career-high in goals in Vancouver in the form of career journeyman Mikael Samuelsson. In his first season with the Canucks, Samuelsson notched 30 tallies (his previous high was 23 markers with Detroit in 2005-06), and clearly benefited from the first-line minutes playing with Henrik he earned when Daniel Sedin was injured.

If the true mark of a great player is to make his teammates better, then Henrik Sedin ranks above all others in my book. The heights to which the likes of Burrows and Samuelsson took their game along side of Henrik Sedin is what you should expect of your first line center. He may not be a pure, bona-fide goal scorer himself, but if you play along side of Hank Sedin, he’ll make sure you’ll become one.

Not to knock Crosby for altering his game to score more goals, but many of the Penguins’ woes this year were perpetuated by the weak scoring touch of Sid’s wingers (as well as an anemic power play, but let’s blame Pittsburgh’s blueliners there). Had he opted to concentrate more on his great playmaking skills, he may well have raised the games of Kunitz or Guerin or Fedetenko or Dupuis. Yes, I realize that’s a tall order, but Guerin was the only of that group of wingers that reached the 20-goal mark for the Pens. I also realize Crosby needed to score more for Pittsburgh due to the injury-riddled and less-effective Evgeni Malkin (who seemed to float and coast on the ice like a lost puppy when he was healthy), which may ultimately give Sid the edge over Sedin, give the weaker supporting cast.

As for Ovechkin, his haphazard style of play made him somewhat of a liability this season in Washington. Suspensions and injuries – all directly attributed to the reckless abandon with which he plays – cost him 10 games this season, plus additional game misconducts cost him what (more-or-less) amounted to another 3 more games. Even so, the Capitals fared quite well without him, going 9-1 during those contests Ovechkin sat. The well-oiled arsenal of offensive weapons on Washington’s roster (Backstrom, Semin, Green, et al) didn’t seem to miss a beat without its captain.

Even with Sedin’s gaudy resume, the odds makers is Las Vegas seem less than impressed. Hank has been given 9/2 odds of winning the Hart, paling in comparison to the 2/3 odds of Crosby or the 5/4 odds of Ovechkin. Could it be the old East Coast bias rearing its ugly head yet again (despite the generally accepted thought that the Western Conference is the tougher of the NHL’s two halves)?

I’m not much of a gambling man, but if I were to lay down a wager, I’d take Sedin’s odds right to the bank. It is entirely possible that the Eastern Conference voting contingency could very well split their vote between Sid and A.O., leaving Sedin to mop up the Western Conference voters.

I anticipate a close vote once the final numbers are revealed, and it wouldn’t surprise me (or offend me) if Crosby won the Hart. And while I like Ovechkin as a player, I wouldn’t give him the Hart this season for the reasons I’d outlined above. 

But in a race this close, you go with what you know, and I must admit I watched the Canucks play more than anyone else this season (yes, that statement is true).  Therefore, my vote goes to Sedin.

Regardless of how the Hart vote turns out, at least I know I'm not alone in my thinking.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Got Hart? The 2010 Edition (Part 1)

As the NHL honors the best of the best of the 2009-10 season on Tuesday night, the most compelling debate continues to rage for (arguably) the league’s biggest individual award – the Hart Trophy.

Seems like every nearly year there is a bit of an uproar over which players are named the three finalists for the NHL’s most valuable player, and this year is no different. Many in the media have suggested both Buffalo’s Ryan Miller and Phoenix’s Ilya Bryzgalov should have been named amongst the finalists for the Hart after their Herculean efforts in net for their respective teams – teams that would’ve finished substantially worse in the standing were it not for the two netminders’ performances this year. However, both players were left off the ballot and were instead named finalists for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender.

There has been outcry from far and wide debating the candidacy of both Miller and Bryzgalov, and has led to some of the league’s greatest alumni to chime in with their thoughts. And there always seems some who feel the need to feel the need to provide clarity on the criteria in determining the NHL’s awards process.

It certainly seems as if there is an anti-goaltender bias when it comes to naming a goaltender as a candidate for league MVP. It would be akin to Major League Baseball’s consistent exclusion of pitchers for consideration for the MVP of both the American and National Leagues. Perhaps the thinking is that since pitchers have their own award to recognize excellence at their position – the Cy Young Award – it would require a truly super-human season to sway the media to vote for a pitcher. (Ironically enough, this peculiarity may well happen this season, considering the dominance of Ubaldo Jimenez of the Colorado Rockies this year, which is already being dubbed “The Year of the Pitcher” by many in baseball’s circles.)

Considering the NHL has given the Hart Trophy to a goalie only 7 times since its inception following the 1923-24 season, it may be safe to say that the NHL’s best netminders will have to settle for the Vezina. And that’s a shame for both Miller and Bryzgalov, because neither of these two fine goalies will take home this particular piece of hardware this year.

Here’s a crazy thought: If the Oscars can expand their nominees for Best Picture from 5 films to 10 – for the purpose of recognizing a wider selection of great movies each year – why can’t the NHL do the same for the Hart Trophy? Yes, ultimately there can only be one winner, but a little extra recognition after a stellar season may perhaps take the sting off of what may still be considered an unsuccessful season (considering the TEAM goal of all but one team goes unfilled every year) and may go a long way to provide motivation for next season. At the very least, it would provide incentive for the best players to avoid becoming a one-season wonder. More importantly, it gives another nod to the players who truly deserve it, rather than going with the “safe picks” (more on that very topic coming very soon).

Just a thought, anyway. Time to get off my soapbox and get down to brass tacks….

Friday, June 11, 2010

A (Post-) Season To Remember

So the Blackhawks have finally ended their nearly 50-year Stanley Cup drought. Can we finally put all the talk of the Marian Hossa curse to rest now?

In all seriousness though, what a memorable playoff 2010 turned out to be. Chicago had a great run and truly earned the Cup with a great TEAM effort. I had figured when this season started that the ‘Hawks would be at least one more year away, but the bitter taste from last year’s loss in the Western Conference Final to Detroit seemed to fuel Chicago’s drive to succeed now. And in this current climate of sport – where the prevailing attitude seems to be, “What have you done for me lately?” – it couldn’t have happened a moment too soon for the long-suffering hockey fans in the Windy City. Sure, there are plenty of bandwagon fans who’ve jumped on board in Chi-town, but what team doesn’t have those fans come out of the woodworks once that winning mojo is rediscovered?

Philadelphia also warrants a tip of the cap on a phenomenal postseason. After an underwhelming regular season – which was riddled with rumors of infighting and injuries to several key players – the Flyers came together (and got healthy) at just the right time. I’d stated to some of my hockey friends when the playoffs started how the Flyers – along with the Bruins and Canadiens – got into the playoffs in the East by default and therefore, didn’t truly belong in the postseason.

Talk about eating crow.

Philly showed me – and the whole hockey world – that they indeed did belong in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and made the most of their opportunity after sneaking in. There was simply way too much talent on this Philadelphia roster to dismiss them as also-rans (something the media did far too often this postseason). The Flyers responded to their detractors with a big middle finger and put on an impressive playoff run that was one of the most memorable in recent memory. After all, they call the playoffs “the second season” for a reason, right?

Philly fans shouldn’t hang their heads. Their team did the City of Brotherly Love proud. Every time the Flyers were considered down-and-out-for-the-count, they responded with the resiliency and heart of a champion. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to land the big trophy.  But they didn't miss by much.

Perhaps my biggest realization about my hockey observations this season is how I’ve found myself drawn more to rooting for certain players rather than teams. I admitted prior to the start of the Stanley Cup Final that I didn’t have a rooting interest in either team. In fact, I wouldn’t have minded some miraculous aberration allowing both teams to lose. But I chose to watch, and as a hockey fan who is watching from a more objective viewpoint as time passes by, I was mostly certainly rewarded.

I suppose some of that mindset stems from not seeing Toronto in the postseason since before the lockout. Maybe it’s because I’ve had those images from the Vancouver Olympics permanently burned into my mind (therefore making the players who played in that tournament more visible to the eye). Maybe it’s because Mike Emrick reminded anyone who watched NBC’s NHL coverage that Duncan Keith played at Michigan State (but never mentioned once that Keith left MSU for the Kelowna Rockets of the WHL during his sophomore year in 2002-03….did anyone else catch that?). But the individual efforts in the 2010 Stanley Cup Final really stood out to me. The face-off circle prowess of Jonathan Toews. The never-say-die attitude of Mike Richards. The shut-down capabilities of David Bolland. The tenacity and fearlessness of Scott Hartnell and Danny Briere. The physical pugnacity of Chris Pronger and Dustin Byfuglien. And of course, the missing teeth of Duncan Keith.  While I was certainly aware of these specific skill-sets possessed by these players, seeing them displayed on hockey’s grandest stage seemed to magnify those abilities to the Nth degree. Gotta love seeing who rises to the occasion when the pressure’s on.

Well, now what? The entry draft is two weeks away, so we’ll be riddled with more of the Taylor vs. Tyler debate. My take on that topic will be coming in the near future, so stay tuned.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

High Praise For A Marked Man

Over the last couple of days, I’ve found myself both bewildered and amused at the reactions to Chris Pronger’s post-game puck swiping and verbal sparring with both Chicago’s Ben Eager and the media following Monday’s 2-1 victory for the Blackhawks in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final. Almost instantly, a vitriol-laced backlash against the rock-solid defenseman littered an abundance of hockey blogs throughout the web.

Frankly, I’m wondering what the fuss is all about.
We all know of Pronger’s reputation as a hockey player who treads the line between aggressive, hard-nosed hockey and malicious head-hunting. Many would say he crosses that line into the abyss of reckless abandon far too often, which places Pronger front-and-center into the conversation of “The NHL’s Dirtiest Player”. We also know he’s not exactly the most media-friendly athlete out there. Pronger can be moody. surly, and downright unpleasant to the media. Just ask the folks in Edmonton about his short-lived tenure as an Oiler.

But Pronger is also a player who also has a reputation as a leader. He’s a force to be reckoned with, an immovable object with the perfect combination of size and skill. He continues to log major minutes on the Flyers’ blueline in all situations, playing with the same tireless energy as the young man who won the Norris and Hart Trophies a decade ago. He’s always been the kind of player you hate to play against, but you’d love to have on your team. And he does whatever it takes to help lead his team to victory. I’ve come to appreciate Pronger’s play over the last several seasons, and have often wondered numerous times in that time if the unabashed hatred towards Pronger has blinded many in the hockey world to all his on-ice achievements. For that I’ve provided a brief recap:

• OHL and CHL Defenseman of the Year – 1993
• NHL All-Rookie Team – 1994
• NHL Plus/Minus Leader – 1998, 2000
• 6-Time NHL All-Star – 1999, 2000, 2001 (voted in as starter but injured), 2002, 2004, 2008
• Norris Trophy – 2000
• Hart Trophy – 2000
• NHL First All-Star Team - 2000
• NHL Second All-Star Team - 1998, 2004, 2007
• Stanley Cup champion – 2007
• St. Louis Blues captain – 1997-2003
• Anaheim Ducks captain – 2007-08
• World Junior Championship Gold Medalist – 1993
• World Championship Gold Medalist – 1997
• Olympic Gold Medalist – 2002, 2010

Despite all these accolades, many prefer to focus on this list instead. But it’s safe to say without the edge he has played with for his entire career, many of the honors listed above disappear.

Uncompromising would be the term I’d use to describe Chris Pronger. He is who he is, with no apologies to the media, fans, and the rest of the league. I’m not about to paint Chris Pronger as a cuddly, friendly, huggable player who loves kittens and daisies and ice cream. Nor will I try to make him a sympathetic figure, someone who is being unjustly portrayed as a victim being blacklisted. He clearly will never fir either of those descriptions, and he’ll go to great lengths to prove it to everyone in the hockey world.

Many disagree with Pronger’s rubber-robbing, towel-tossing tactics following Game 2 Monday night – called out as acting "crassly and dishonorably" and “childish” and by some – but they were simply a smokescreen. It was merely a mind game intended to get inside the Blackhawks’ heads as this series moved east. The results of Game 3 (a 4-3 OT win for the Flyers) indicate that Pronger’s ploy worked to an immeasurable degree, but it also backfired somewhat, as the attention has shifted from the Flyers’ do-everything D-man’s on-ice exploits (in erasing Chicago’s dynamic top line of Kane, Toews, and Byfuglien, who’ve tallied a combined 1 goal, 3 assists and a -6 rating in the series’ first 3 games) to a new off-ice controversy. And that’s just another excuse to turn him a punching bag once again. Yet all he’s done is add some spark to this series (considering both Philly’s and Chi-town’s top lines have yet to do so). After all, aren’t we all sick of hearing about the curse of Marian Hossa?

If the Flyers are to challenge Chicago in this series, Chris Pronger needs to continue to be his usual cantankerous self, whether we all like it or not. He’s been easily one of Philadelphia’s best players thus far (along with Danny Briere, who’s also impressed quite mightily in the Final), and no amount of premeditated judgment towards Pronger (and his prior mishaps) should cloud that fact.  And perhaps now that Philly has cut the series deficit in half, the focus can shift back to the ice - where it belongs.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Wait Is (Almost) Over....

After 4 full days without any hockey (though several stories such this one, this one, and this one have certainly held the attention of the hockey world this week), we’re finally less than 4 hours away from the start of the Stanley Cup Final from the United Center in Chicago. Two franchises steeped in tradition will be looking to end lengthy championship droughts. And while I’m brimming with enthusiasm at the prospect of tuning in tonight to see two of the best teams in the NHL (yeah, I said it), I’ve found myself reverting to behavior not all that unfamiliar: rooting for no one. Such is the curse of the objective perspective, I suppose.

There’s (probably) no possible way I can bring myself to actually cheer for the Philadelphia Flyers in the Stanley Cup Final. No way, no how, no chance. Period. They’ve never been my cup of tea, from Bobby Clarke to Dave Schultz, from Mike Keenan to Rick Tocchet, from Eric Lindros to Jeremy Roenick, they’ve been a team of players and coaches I despise and one of the NHL’s franchises I love to loathe the most. As a Leafs fan, the Flyers sealed Toronto’s fate in the sixth game of the second round of the 2004 NHL playoffs….and needless to say, the Leafs haven’t sniffed the aroma of the postseason since. Yeah, that one still stings, and I’m still a bit bitter, considering that (short-lived) playoff run is one of the few joyful Leafs moments for this Toronto fan in recent memory (though this one ranks highly as well).

That being said, I must say I admire the heart, soul, and sheer determination of this current Flyers team. They underachieved all season long but turned it on and found their groove just in the nick of time (otherwise, we could well be talking about the New York Rangers being in this same position….well, then again, maybe not). This team has way too much talent on the roster to be dismissed. I’ve come to admire Chris Pronger over the last couple of seasons, and he showed his true value as a leader on-the-ice (despite the constant scuttlebutt early in the season hovering over an alleged dispute between Pronger and captain Mike Richards, but it appears they’ve resolved any alleged differences). He’s a lock as a Hall of Famer, and at age 35, he was a legitimate Norris Trophy candidate (which validated my choice of Pronger as my first D-man in all 4 of my fantasy hockey leagues), and helped to foster the development of blueline partner Matt Carle into a potent power-play point-man. Meanwhile, Richards is one of the most well-rounded forwards in the league - though the numerous injuries in Philly more or less forced the captain to focus more towards crashing the net this year than defending it (hence, no Selke nod this year). The mix of veteran forwards (Jeff Carter, Simon Gagne, Danny Briere, Scott Hartnell, amongst others) and young guns (Claude Giroux, James van Riemsdyk, Ville Leino) have gelled together into quite a formidable unit at just the right time. Plus, the recent Achilles’ Heel of Philly’s playoff runs – goaltending – has become an asset this year, thanks to Michael Leighton (with his playoff leading 1.45 GAA and .948 SV%) and Brian Boucher. Of course, they’ve made history in the process (sorry B’s fans, but it’s got to be mentioned….just use that 1st round pick this year to cushion the blow).

On the other side of the ledger: the Chicago Blackhawks, a franchise that as recently as three full seasons ago was rendered irrelevant both in the Windy City and the rest of the hockey world. What a renaissance this Original Six team has undertaken! The Hawks advanced to the Western Conference Finals last year in their first playoff run in 7 seasons (and only their 2nd playoff berth in 11 seasons), and have taken the next step by advancing to their first Stanley Cup Final since 1992 (when leading scorer Patrick Kane was only 3 ½). The upside of Chicago’s dry spell in the 2000’s was an abundance of lottery draft picks which the Hawks used to build this team into the powerhouse it is today (sound similar, Penguins and Avalanche fans?). Kane and captain Jonathan Toews are amongst the NHL’s elite, and are the core of a deep group of forwards who’ve had a terrific postseason (esp. Dustin Byfuglien and Dave Bolland). The shut-down pair of defensemen Brent Seabrook and Norris-nominated Duncan Keith anchor one of the league’s best defensive teams (2.48 goals allowed/game, tied for 5th best this season). Antti Niemi came from nowhere (well, that’s not true, try from Pelicans Lahti) to steal the Hawks top goaltending job from Cristobal Huet this year, and has silenced the critics who said he’d crumble under the pressure of the playoffs.

As great of a story as the resurgence of Chicago hockey has been, I just can’t bring myself to jump on the bandwagon. Again it wasn’t that long ago when the masses steered clear of the United Center in droves. Proof positive that no matter how strong the traditions and the market are for ANY team, American sports fans want to watch a winner. Not surprisingly, attendance at Blackhawks games has risen dramatically over the last three seasons in concurrence with their rapid ascent in the standings. Translation: Chicago’s got enough bandwagon fans already (every winning team does, no need to read any more into that), and they sure don’t need one more. Besides, following one O6 team with a prolonged Cup drought is enough for me. Safe to say I’m not too thrilled about the prospect of the Hawks ending their 49-year absence from Lord Stanley’s graces, considering who’ll own the longest stint without the silver chalice should Chicago win (though most everyone already seems to think the Leafs had already do own that distinction, judging from the continuous chants of “1967”).
I’m certainly not about to make any predictions on this series, considering my instincts are crap. But I’d say this has the potential to be an unbelievable series that could go 7 (You want history to be made? That’s what Game 7’s were made for….but, let’s not rush ourselves), and that’s what I’m hoping for. I’ll leave the analysis of this series to those more qualified than myself who have scrutinized every possible angle of this matchup.  Puck Daddy has done an excellent job breaking down all the ins-and-outs of the Flyers and Blackhawks (especially on the must-read between the young captains Richards and Toews, both with quite a list of accomplishments in their hockey careers). These two teams are so evenly matched, it’s eerie (regardless of their conference seedings).

No matter what of the outcome of the 2010 Stanley Cup Final is, at least two players will join an elite group this year. Only three players in hockey history have won a Stanley Cup and an Olympic Gold Medal in the same season. Both teams feature players from Team Canada’s triumph in Vancouver this past February – Richards and Pronger for Philly; Keith, Seabrook, and Toews for Chicago. (Bonus points if anyone can name the three who have already turned the trick.)

History will be made, indeed.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Thank you, Duncan Keith!

8 months is a long time....

Finally time to grab the ol' laptop and talk some hockey.  And what better way to re-introduce one-self to the blogosphere by re-christening the blog.  I've been thinking for over a week for a new name for the blog, and came up empty.  Then it took a Norris Trophy nominated blueliner from the Windy City to suffer an injury only a hockey player would be able to withstand....and then return from in the same game (football players are such pussies).  Nothing like looking a gift horse in the mouth (sorry Duncan, I couldn't resist).

So it's time to write, and I've actually got time to do so.  Keep your eyes peeled for some scribblings and ruminations coming soon....after all, there's still 2 more days until the Stanley Cup Final begins.