Saturday, February 20, 2010

I Can Live Without Jagr

There are quite a few storylines to choose from in Vancouver during these Winter Olympics, especially in the hockey tournament. The rivalries, the expectations and of course, the return of admired European players to the North American stage. I think the story that kind of irks me the most is Jaromir Jagr's, as he is doing a fine job for the Czech Republic, having a pair of goals and an assist in the first two games of the tournament. With three points in two games, there is a definite cry for his return to the NHL, which frankly, I could live without.

I have a lot of respect for the numbers that Jagr has put up in his NHL career (1,599 points in 1,273 games), those are fantastic, but without some high-flying talent playing alongside him, he's practically useless on a team that wants to win a championship and that's where a good portion of my disdain comes from when it comes to Jagr.

His work ethic on the ice is really what separates him from a lot of players that I respect and love to watch on a nightly basis. Now that the NHL is spoiled with the likes of Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, the floating style of Jagr just seems so weak to watch and if he's going to try and win a Stanley Cup upon his return, teams are going to want a level of effort that is up there with some of the younger players that are making names for themselves now. There is no question that Jagr still has good hands and an accurate shot, his goal against Latvia on Friday night was a beauty over the shoulder goal, but is that going to be enough, especially if an NHL team doesn't have enough room to give him a top-flight centre.

If Jagr finds a team that doesn't have the top-flight centre he needs, but gets a boatload of money, how long will it be before he just floats on his skill again and the complaints about the money spent to points scored ratio get to be too much? I'm sure there are a few NHL clubs that would love to experiment with Jagr on their team, he's certainly shown a burning desire for the game, but as Washington and New York had found, the honeymoons have not lasted terribly long.

I'm sure my favourite team, the Canucks, won't be in any sort of sweepstakes for Jagr, so I really shouldn't have much for concerns about his return, but with the price tag he would have around his neck, even at age 38, he would be changing the face of the game, in terms of how he'll fit in this already-tightly packed salary cap era that we're watching.

Without a doubt, Jagr will be a curiosity for all of us to behold, but I really do feel like he's going to be a bigger headache to the NHL then he's going to be a benefit to the game. I hope he takes his star power back to Russia and keeps it there. They need it more than we do.

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Olympic Hockey Tournament

Now that the Olympics are underway, it's hard to be enthralled with the hockey tournament, especially being a Canadian, hoping that the boys in red can recapture the gold medal after their disappointment in Turin four years ago. I'm going to do my best to watch every minute of every game, like most of us will and why not, this tournament only has the best players in the world, arguably... but is it the best tournament in the world? No, I don't think it is.

The gold medal in Olympic hockey is without a doubt important, but as a tournament for the best players in the world to play in, I don't think it lives up to the bill. When there is supposedly so much on the line, like the gold medal, I would really like to think it should be a harder tournament to play in and win for these guys. There is plenty of pride between all the players and teams that they are going to play hard for the small schedule that they have, but to me, there is a reason why you see a lot of North American players say that when they were growing up, they dreamed of winning the Stanley Cup. They only seem to throw in the gold medal into the conversation in Olympic years, which says to me, "promos." The Stanley Cup playoffs is a far more hardcore tournament than the Olympics, that really tests the mettle of players and the best players do succeed in the end.

But by no means do I have the Stanley Cup playoffs as my favourite tournament in the world. No, my favourite tournament in the world has to be the Under-20's, the World Juniors. The annual showcase of up & coming talent from the major hockey nations, that takes place after Christmas and through the New Year celebrations. It has the best developing players, in a development tournament, which gives the world and the pros a bunch of names to remember for years to come. There is just as much pride in the World Juniors in Canada, if not more, than the Olympics and I think the 2-week format for this tournament is a bit more grueling for these players, which is appropriate for both their age and for their development.

Nevertheless, I still like the Olympics, but I don't think you can convince me to make it my favourite tournament in the world.

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Thursday, February 11, 2010

It's No Goal...

A night doesn't seem to go by in the NHL anymore, where we can have a slate of games and have zero controversy. It's pretty crazy, if you ask me. On Wednesday night, the Washington Capitals appeared to have scored on a broken play, which resulted in a massive pile-up in front of Carey Price and the Montreal crease. The signal was initially called a goal, but after a consultation with all of the officials, the goal was called back and no penalty was assessed on the play, leading to the cries for some justification as to why the goal was called back.

Now, my initial thought was tweeted as soon as the goal was scored, saying "How was that legal," and thankfully, I thought, it wasn't counted in the end. I honestly thought it was the right call to wave off, just for general sake that Carey Price had no way of making a play for the puck after the initial save, regardless of whether or not Ovechkin was the one who hit him or if he pushed Hal Gill in. Upon further looks at the YouTube clip above, I still stand by that and the rules do back that up, in a roundabout way.

Thanks to Kyle R. on Twitter for having the rule up on his feed this morning to help back-up the referee's decision.

Rule 69.1, within the first paragraph reads:

Goals should be disallowed only if: (1) an attacking player, either by his positioning or by contact, impairs the goalkeeper’s ability to move freely within his crease or defend his goal; or (2) an attacking player initiates intentional or deliberate contact with a goalkeeper, inside or outside of his goal crease.

See how the second point was italicized? That's because it's important to the argument.

After the puck had been initially stopped by Carey Price, the puck was loose in front of the net and Hal Gill was about to play the puck. Alex Ovechkin took notice of Gill's intent to play the puck and chose to play the body instead of the puck, which is fair game. Unfortunately, the contact initiated by Ovechkin, sent Gill into Price, making contact with the goalkeeper and when the puck went with the collision, it would then be deemed unstoppable.

Frankly, I don't see how there could be much of an argument, because that's pretty straight-forward and kudos to the officials for getting the call right.

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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Another Huge Hit in Philly

Well, the NHL comes right back at the debate machine with yet another questionable hit, this time Flyers forward, Jeff Carter destroys Anssi Salmela of the Devils.

Well, instead of trying to describe the hit myself, I thought I would include the YouTube clip for you below, just to get a quick refresher in. It's a pretty big hit... consider that your warning.

The first thought that crept into my head was, "oh man, that's brutal!" It truly is quite brutal and it doesn't help that Salmela's face hit the ice unopposed, which sucks the most and likely did the most damage, bodily harm wise. Salmela has been reported to have a fractured nose and has lost some teeth, on top of what is suspected to be a concussion.

Now, I'm not going to be surprised if the NHL comes down on this hit with some authority, which is likely going to be a game or two at best. With video that backs up the shoulder on shoulder contact, there was very little malicious intent to really hurt him, like you would consider a charge or an elbow to the head, but it is going to raise the discussion of blindside hit again, much like Mike Richards' hit on David Booth earlier this season.

In the Richards case, I would contend, much like the NHL probably did in not suspending him, that Richards was finishing his check on a player that had just given up the puck. Frankly, there isn't anything wrong with that, but the disaster strikes when Booth gets caught admiring the pass, not keeping himself aware of defenders coming across the blueline.

In this Carter case, it does appear that Richards loses Salmela defensively and Carter realizes that and goes down to assist his teammate in containing the shooter, which is helpful if a rebound was to have happened. In this case, Salmela actually puts the puck past Michael Leighton, the goal counts and Salmela, not anticipating help for Richards, who is having to let him go, obviously lowers his guard and Carter gets him. This does look to me like a hockey play, with shoulder on shoulder contact, so its hard to punish on that merit.

What does bring this whole thing back into question is the idea of the blindside hit on an unsuspecting player. Does this come into effect here? Is this something the NHL has taken note of and wanted to make illegal through suspensions? Well, this is really one point, because if the NHL has taken note, it would come into effect. I don't think it has, if we were to go back to my checklist on assessing discipline on a controversial play, I think the biggest one on the list is whether or not this is a hockey play, which I believe it is.

The only points left on my checklist that would have any merit going forward would be #1 (first or repeat offender) and #5, (injury). For Carter, this would be his first suspension, if one was to be levied. Usually, there is a grace on a first time, so that saves him, almost to the point of a trump card. The injury to Salmela does seem to be fairly severe, but listening to the broadcast team on Versus during the third period of the game, Salmela was said to be up and walking around and should be okay. Of course, the word concussion will mean that he's on the shelf for at least a week, which puts him through the Olympics.

Unless the NHL is going to take a stand on blindside hits, Carter will escape this without punishment, in my opinion.

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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Let's Talk Kovalchuk, Shall We?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Is Sutter Trying to Get Fired?

I'm really beginning to wonder if Darryl Sutter even wants his job as Flames GM anymore. This isn't a passing thought either. He's been trying to answer to his own ideals, but seems to end up bowing down to the fans' voice, which the conflict between the two is hardly constructive in a town begging to be entertained. Between the style of play, the dealing with the players and now the subsequent trades, I'm not sure if he's lost his nut or what here.

Around the time that Darryl hired his brother Brent to be the head coach of the team, there was somewhat of an ideal laid out that between the two brothers, they would re-institute the defensive play system, which led them to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2004, despite the city's cries for more offense and a more exciting game to watch.

First things first: it's ridiculous to me to cry about a boring game when my favourite team is winning and comes one goal or one "missed call" away from winning the big prize at the end of the long & winding tunnel. Sadly, I blame this on the fans not wanting to learn the game and rather just desire to be entertained like they are when they watch their terrible reality TV shows and listen to their terrible pop music. There is a general lack of appreciation for the game of hockey by the general masses, but this is definitely not unique to Calgary. As I've learned on Twitter over the past calendar year, every team has fans that don't appreciate the game and its hard to deal with sometimes, you know?

So, saying that, Sutter ends up bowing down to the masses that buy the tickets and changes up the game, with good regular season results, but nowhere near the height of their Cup run. It's not hard to realize why, in my opinion. Sutter can't judge a player without thinking about the defensive style of play that he's come to know and cherish and trying to build a offensive team with some more defensively sound players isn't all that easy. I honestly believe he knew that going into this change of heart, which is why he stepped away from the bench and went up to the press box as full-time General Manager, because he didn't know how to coach the system that would entertain the Saddledome. Poor Jim Playfair was the guy who got held accountable for the switch in styles, as management cranked the dial in the opposite direction to what won them so many games.

Sure, Jarome Iginla enjoyed some pretty good scoring regular seasons in the change of style, but that couldn't be translated into the same game in the playoffs where teams buckled down and got the job done. Dion Phaneuf also enjoyed the offensive system, getting the okay to bomb pucks at the net, because that was what he was good at, next to knocking opposing players into next week.

So, when the fans and media called for Playfair's head, Sutter decided to take the offensive knob and put it back a couple notches with the hiring of Mike Keenan. A little bit more defense, but the Flames will still try to put some pucks in the net. Sutter kept bringing in players that would suit the system, but he wasn't able to stray too far from his own ideals and when he did, a la Kristian Huselius, there was a lot of confusion as to what his role was with the team. When everyone started to get confused, it really didn't look good on Darryl, Keenan or anyone on the team. Needless to say, when Huselius put points up on the board on a good night, everyone would forget why they were confused until he was a minus-3 a few nights later.

Then comes the Olli Jokinen saga. Of course, this had to be the make-or-break card that Darryl had to play to try and turn things around. Now, in all fairness, I truly believe that the fans of the Flames are somewhat scared of Darryl Sutter or just have him on too high of a pedestal, because of 2004's run. Darryl really wanted Jokinen for years and when Jokinen was made available to him from Phoenix, of course he was going to jump at the chance to acquire him. This was going to be it... the Flames are on their way to the promising land.

Please enter your foghorn sound here.

From what I read around the Jokinen deal, the Flames fans were excited to see a new number one centre for Iginla arrive and everything was okay, because Darryl really wanted him and "if he wanted him, so did we." Jokinen ended up scoring some goals and putting up some points, but the Flames didn't win many games, ending up losing the division title to the Canucks and then flopping out of the first round of the playoffs again. It looked so bad, that Keenan lost the job in Calgary and there was a call for Darryl to come down from the press box and coach again.

"Wait, what?" I know I heard on several occasions that some Flames fans wanted Darryl to come back down and coach again, meaning that the Flames would go back to playing boring old Sutter hockey. That blew me away to say the least. It's amazing what people forget when they just want their team to win. The 1-0 wins, the lack of goals, shots and chances. Sure the defense is fine and Kiprusoff is putting up some great numbers, but it's boring. How long would it have been before that cry emerged again?

Out of the Eastern Conference there was a little bit of scuttlebutt that brother Brent was getting homesick and that he would prefer to go home to the ranch and work his WHL team, the Red Deer Rebels. "But wait, if Brent is getting homesick, why doesn't he just come and coach the Flames? Then we'd have two Sutters and then we can't lose!" The mood lightens a bit when Brent and the Devils come to terms with an amicable split and then the coaching decision in Calgary becomes one of the most obvious rumours and worst-kept secrets in the past few years.

Sadly, the tale hasn't gotten any better. A rocking start again, a fresh defensive system, more accountability to the players in post-game interviews and it just went sour. All of this effort to rebuild the old system is seemingly going to waste. The team currently has lost 10 of their last 11 games, Olli Jokinen's numbers are not those of a number one centre with a cap hit over $5 million and no one seems particularly happy with being on the team full-stop. It couldn't be a coincidence that the private locker room blowout with Dion Phaneuf had much to do with the start of the slide down the Northwest Division standings, could it? Of course, it still remains speculative that it happened, but the Sutter-denial system usually means its Opposite Day in Calgary.

Now, after all these seasons, coaches, players, systems and nothing to show for it... how would you feel if your team wasn't performing like the team that they should be on paper? I'd be pretty pissed off too and likely pretty fed up. It's crazy to think of any manager nowadays putting dynamite in the kitty's ears and blowing the whole kit & kaboodle up (in the same vein as Itchy & Scratchy), but it has begun.

I can just picture Darryl Sutter on the side of the road looking holding a sign that reads, "Kovalchuk or Bust!" Rumours are abound about Sutter landing the top prize at the trade deadline and it doesn't seem to be out of the question that he is going for the Thrashers sniper. It also seems likely, which is the general idea of this blog post, that he is trying to bust his way out of the job.

Look at these two deals he's made. He's shipped Dion, which is a good thing for the room, and brought in four players from Toronto. Sure, you can bring in two of the four top scorers on a team... but is that really what you want from a team that is last in the Eastern Conference? Next, he finally gets around to dealing Olli Jokinen away. Fantastic! He was a big lump on the ice that wasn't helping anyone. But in return, Sutter managed to get a selfish player in Ales Kotalik and another underachiever in Christopher Higgins.

Now, there is a good chance that Sutter has been chatting with Don Waddell in Atlanta on what the best way to go about landing Ilya Kovalchuk would be, but if flipping Kotalik in this deal is what's going to do it, then the Thrashers organization better have a second mental assessment on Waddell to see if they want him going working for the team going forward.

I truly think that Sutter is making these deals in spite of everything that he knows to be true about winning in the NHL. He's gotta be fed up with the team, the city, the fans and the media, which has made his life a living hell since he raised the bar of expectations after his Cup Finals appearance six years ago. Even if he can land Kovalchuk, that will be his last straw... I have to believe that. How much longer can he go?

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