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.