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Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Olympics! Trade Deadline! Drama! Excitement!

photo courtesy Flickr user s.yume, displayed under Creative Commons

A few notes possibly of interest on the recently completed Olympics and the quickly upcoming trade deadline:

- What a great finish for the gold medal game on Sunday. Really, you couldn't have scripted it any better if you were a Canadian screenwriter: an overtime winner in a tense game against the US scored by Canada's best hockey player. Amazing. Congrats to team Canada.

- On the other side of it, how great a run by the US was that? Reaching the gold medal game after most people had them out of the medals going in...that's just good stuff. I hate to sound too "everybody's a winner! Yay!" about the whole thing, but really, great job by team USA too.

- Brian Rafalski's been in the NHL, what, ten years now? Can't say I've ever seen or heard of him putting together a stretch of games quite like that. In the preliminary round game against Canada, he was dominant. Just goes to show how far a stellar defenseman and good goaltending can take a team.

- Most invisible player on team Canada: Joe Thornton. Easily. I hate to go negative on a guy after a win like that, but Thornton really didn't look involved at all. It's too bad too, I can remember him on the 2004 World Cup team playing brilliantly in a shutdown role and I thought he'd be able to pull that game out again. He's lucky his Sharks linemates Heatley and Marleau were there to prop him up, otherwise he'd have spent a lot longer on the bench.

- Speaking of which, how worried are you right now if you're a Sharks fan? Not only did Thornton disappear in a big tournament (again), but goaltender Evgeni Nabokov completely melted down against Canada in the quarterfinal. Considering San Jose's team reputation for cracking under pressure, that's not good. At least Sharks' defenseman Dan Boyle had a good tournament for Canada after a slow start.

- Conversely, how much are Ducks fans fantasizing at the idea of a first round rematch with the first place Sharks? Anaheim is three points behind the eighth place Red Wings with both Dallas and Calgary in between, but it's not outside the realm of possibility that the two teams could meet in the playoffs again after the Ducks upset the Sharks last year. Scott Niedermayer, who hasn't been too good in Anaheim all season, also had a slow start to his Olympics but in the gold medal game he was Canada's best defenseman. If he can carry that over to the rest of the year with the Ducks, they'll be in good shape.

- If Slovakia had won the bronze medal game you'd have to think Pavol Demitra would've won the best forward award for the tournament over Canada's Jonathan Toews. He was brilliant. Why can't Demitra always play like that?

- I know Denis Grebeshkov wasn't having a great season in Edmonton, but is this really how the Oilers are going to rebuild, by dealing defensemen in their mid-20's for mid-second round picks? I realize a lot of the players they really want to move have virtually untradeable contracts, but Steve Tambellini better have a pretty nice rabbit ready to be pulled out of his hat before the deadline, or Oiler fans will be even more unhappy than they are now. And considering the team is mired in the worst season in franchise history, they're already pretty unhappy. Grebeshkov was a Russian Olympian and wasn't worth more in a trade than Dominic Moore or Andy Sutton? Really?

- Others have done a nice job of breaking down who's likely to be moved by the trade deadline already (including The Score's Jonathan Willis, who I would highly recommend if you aren't already reading him), so I won't do a big breakdown like I did last season. But there's really two teams I'm most interested in following what they do at the deadline: Buffalo and Washington. Several other contenders (New Jersey, Ottawa, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Calgary) have already made moves, while a few more (Vancouver, San Jose, Philadelphia) will probably stand pat. But with the lingering feeling that almost any team could come out of the Eastern Conference, Buffalo and Washington could be players.

- You'd have to think that if Buffalo's stingy ownership were ever going to throw off the restraints and go for broke, it would be now, what with Ryan Miller playing so well. Buffalo probably needs an experienced puck-moving defenseman and a scoring forward to really be a contender at this point. A Joe Corvo & Ray Whitney package from Carolina might look nice, or if they're a little more adventurous, Lubomir Visnovsky from the Oilers might work.

- Washington should definitely be going for broke this season. The Caps badly need an experienced defenseman. They were rumoured to be interested in Grebeshkov, but might be better off with someone a little more physical and defensively sound, like Nashville's Dan Hamhuis. There's also a lingering feeling that the Caps need an upgrade in goal. I don't really buy it, especially since many of the goalies on the market, particularly Marty Turco, Dan Ellis, or Martin Biron, aren't necessarily better options than what they've already got. Jose Theodore is just as likely to have a hot playoff streak as Turco, Ellis or Biron, and Varlamov, if he's healthy, probably has a better chance than any of them. It might be intriguing if they went hard after Florida's Tomas Vokoun, but there's no indication at this point that that's likely to occur.

- Finally, I heard a lot of talk about Jaromir Jagr possibly returning to the NHL next season in the preliminary round, when Jagr had good games against Slovakia and Latvia. That talk pretty much died off completely after that hard check from Alexander Ovechkin in the Russia-Czech Republic game nullified Jagr for the rest of the games, and deservedly so. I loved seeing Jagr in his prime, but it would be painful to see him come back and play a bit role with a lot of time on the injured list. Just ask fans of Peter Forsberg...

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

HYS The Hague vs. the Heerenveen Flyers (part 2): Hockey in Europe

HockeyZonePlus contributor Brian Pike is currently living in The Hague, Netherlands, working for a large international organization. As a Canadian hockey fan who's never been outside of North America before, curiousity about European hockey is high. The local team is defending league champions HYS The Hague, who play in the 8-team Eredivisie, the top league in The Netherlands. The game took place on November 13, 2009, against the Heerenveen Flyers. Here are Brian's observations as a non-Dutch speaking but passionate hockey fan from De Uithof, HYS's home rink,"live blog" style from his hand-written notes. Part one, covering the warmups to the end of the first period is here. Today we present part two, picking up in the first intermission with the score 2-0 Flyers. All photos were taken by the author.

First Intermission: There's a speed skating rink in this complex. I've never actually seen people speed skating for fitness, like how people run around a track. It must be a European thing. The view of the speed skating rink is from a window in the business concession area of the hockey rink, where they're selling wine and chips.

- My search for something more substantial than chips to eat ends in failure when the large concession stand in the corner of the rink promising "BEER AND HOT DOGS" doesn't have any hot dogs. Because of the 8:30 game start and me not eating beforehand, I'm so hungry.

- On the way back to my seat I see a guy wearing a Hartford Whalers jersey. Long live the Whale!

2nd Period: #16 for HYS The Hague goes straight into the opposition end after the teams come out of the dressing rooms and starts a chat with #4 on the Heerenveen Flyers. Initially I wondered if #16, who's name is Ronald Wurm, is some kind of Avery-esque disturber. But no, they just have a very friendly chat. Kind of disappointing, really.

17:40: HYS look a bit disjointed. A defenseman nearly puts the puck into his own net on a straightforward clearing attempt out front of his net. This is probably not good.

17:19: And a partial breakaway for the Flyers #7, Bert van den Braak (you've got to love Dutch names) results in a goal. It's 2-1 for HYS now, but you get the feeling the home side might be in a bit of trouble...

16:35: On a power play HYS goalie Tim Knudsen tries to play the puck up ice but his pass is picked off. The Flyers guy tries to go back against the grain and shoots high blocker, but #49 comes up with the save. Really bailed himself out with that one.

13:32: After an ineffective HYS power play, the Flyers promptly take another penalty, as an HYS player was breaking for the net and gets his stick on a quick pass across, but not quite enough for the redirect. I thought the defenseman played it fine, but he gets called for hooking anyway. Maybe the Eredivisie is cracking down on obstruction near the goal.

11:45: #24 on HYS, defenseman Josh Mizerek, feathers a beautiful saucer pass along the blueline to the other point. He looks like a good player at this level. Never made it higher than the ECHL in North America, though. That pass is the highlight of this power play, as there's no real chances. HYS are going to regret not scoring on these opportunities, I think.

11:05: Wurm gets called for cross-checking. Honestly, it looked like he just pushed the guy to me. Maybe the way the boards rattled when he pushed the guy into them startled the referee.

10:31: A slap shot from the point by John "Flash" Gordon (I don't really know if his nickname is Flash. If I personally knew anyone with the last name Gordon, though, they would automatically be "Flash" to me) beats Knudsen clean, with perhaps a slight screen in front of him. According to HockeyDB, Flash played NCAA hockey at Hamilton College, then played for Heerenveen in 2007-08, HYS in 2008-09, and now he's back with the Flyers this season. I wonder if he was traded or if it was free agency? Either way, the home crowd should be booing him, clearly. No one does, though.

8:08: Nice glove by Stephane Cesar, the Flyers goalie. He hasn't seen much action this period but has been sharp after some early jitters.

8:00: An HYS defenseman gives a Flyers forward a shove along the wall. The six kids sitting in front of me with one beleaguered set of parents watching them start hooting. It's pretty funny.

6:02: Alexander Selivanov's linemate blows the saucer pass across to him on a 2-on-1. Selivanov, the biggest former NHLer in the Eredivisie (that I know of), looks a little frustrated by the talent level of his teammates sometimes. On the other hand, he doesn't really have much to complain about, since he's been invisible all period. Tampa Bay Lightning fans are saying "That's the Alexander Selivanov we know!"

5:22: Coincidental roughing minors to HYS's #44, Marcel Bruinsma, and the Flyers' van den Braak for a pretty minor scrum/facewash incident. The crowd really gives it to van den Braak when he gets to the box, which is fantastic. van den Braak doesn't take it sitting down, though; he gets up and starts yelling back. At this point I start noticing just how little separation there is between the crowd and the players. Nothing happens, of course, but it's worth noticing. Somebody tries to throw a napkin or a similarly flimsy bit of paper at van den Braak. It doesn't make it. This is as close to a fan/player incident as we get.

4:30: Selivanov seems to inspire his teammates to try and make way too many cute passes to set him up. That doesn't work too often. The kids sitting in front of me all get cups of a foul-smelling sugary concoction to drink. Which is just what a bunch of overstimulated 8 year old boys need, obviously. I cringe a little.

2:40: Knudsen flashes the leather for two nice stops in a row. The game is slowing down a lot from all the stoppages.

1:20: An HYS forward in on the forecheck plants a solid check on one of the Flyers defensemen. One of the kids in front of me barks like a dog for ten seconds in appreciation.

:30: Knudsen gets caught on his puckhandling again, and once again it almost ends up in his own net. Honestly, if he's this aggressive on the puckhandling every night, the opposition probably gets a goal from it once every two games or so. This time he bumps the puck right out into the slot with his paddle instead of covering it. Dumb. Luckily it gets cleared.

Second Intermission: Once again, the second the buzzer goes, half the crowd immediately heads out one of the rink's many doors to get a smoke. Is the number of smokers higher in Europe than back home? Probably.

- The arena zamboni sucks. It stops ten feet into it's run and needs a full minute of prodding before it gets going agin, then it leaves huge dry spots all over the ice. It's a big go cart that spills hot water, people, it's not supposed to be this complicated...

Third Period: Would someone PLEASE come over here and high five these kids??? PLEASE. Come on (picture on left).

19:25: A hit in the near corner. One of the kids quacks like a duck.

18:30: I become aware of the arena music. It's like a bad 90's arena mix CD (2 Unlimited, that kind of thing) crossed with tunes they played at the old Junior B rink in Wetaskiwin when I used to watch games there with my Dad, with the occasional happy Dutch kids song tossed in. Van Halen's "Jump" just started playing. They loved that song at the Wetaskiwin Icemen Junior B games.

16:38: van den Braak takes another penalty, a rather questionable hooking call, and the fans give it to him again. Awesome. He just sits down this time, though, rather than yelling back. Probably a good idea.

15:39: The referees give the Flyers a make-up call with a hooking penalty on HYS's #91, Jan Bohac. Don't tell me make-up calls don't happen, because they do, even here.

13:28: Just after Bohac's penalty expires there is, as Oilers radio voice Rod Phillips would say, a mad scramble in front of the HYS net. In the confusion, the puck comes back to the point and the Flyers player floats one over a sprawled shot-blocker that somehow finds the top of the net. Not sure who the shooter was, but forward Hans Kroon gets credit, so it might have been tipped. "Flash" Gordon gets the second assist, and it's 3-2 for Heerenveen.

12:47: With HYS threatening, #63 on the Flyers, Jamie Visser, gets a completely mystifying holding penalty that confuses everyone. Nobody saw it, nobody knows who's getting the penalty until they pick out Visser, and I think they might've even blown it dead when HYS had the puck. Bad refereeing is the same all over.

12:05: When HYS has pressure on the power play and the fans want a goal they start going "aaay-YUP, aaay-YUP." This is fantastic. The first fans who start doing this at an NHL rink, I promise I'll cheer for your team for the next two years.

10:31: The power play doesn't go anywhere. Shortly thereafter the Flyers have a 2-on-1, only to be foiled on a classic pass block with the outstretched stick by #19, Victor Ignatjev. He's had a good game. Apparently, Ignatjev had a cup of coffee in the NHL back in 1998-99 with Pittsburgh and played in the old International Hockey League, back when they were on equal footing with the AHL. He'll be 39 in April, but he can still play.

9:15: The Flyers really have all the momentum after that penalty kill. Offensive zone pressure results in a holding penalty to HYS defenseman Brian Mullally. The Heerenveen coach appears to have called a timeout. Odd.

- Ok, apparently it wasn't a timeout, because this is way too long a break for a timeout. I have no idea what the delay is. There's no announcement. Not that an announcement in Dutch would help me understand what's going on, but hey, other people might like to know.

- A good five minutes later, play is blown in again. Weird. I have no idea what that was about.

7:44: #76 on the Flyers, Erik Landman, just saved a goal by sliding behind his out of position goaltender. He looks like quite a strong two-way player. Of course, the bad news is that this chance happened with his team on the power play. They're looking a bit disjointed.

7:09: Selivanov takes a dumb slashing penalty. He may have just killed his team's comeback chances with that one. Selfish play.

6:10: Heerenveen kind of look like they're just trying to kill time on this power play. Maybe the big chance against on the last one was a confidence killer?

5:53: Apparently, it was all just a cunning ploy, because after a minute of hanging back on the power play, Flash hits a streaking Paul Vincent and he breaks right up the middle, untouched. He's stopped, but Visser scores on the rebound. On a related note, look at Vincent's HockeyDB page! He's played EVERYWHERE. He's played in leagues I've never heard of. What the heck is/was the ACHL? The QSMHL? The WHA2? Anyway, I'd like to stress once again what a bad penalty that was to take by Selivanov.

4:32: Mizerek eliminates his man behind the net who had the puck in his feet. Good solid defense, but the referee calls charging. This is a HORRIBLE penalty call. I mean, he was standing still! You cannot get a charging penalty when you are standing still. This is contrary to the very nature of charging.

4:20: Wow, "Radar Love" comes over the arena speakers! We're back to the Wetaskiwin Junior B playlist. What's next, "Living on a Prayer"? We can only hope!

3:56: Nice arm stop on the redirect by Knudsen. Selivanov and #20 Matt Korthuis, the penalty killing forwards, have spent the whole time on the kill looking for breakaway passes. This is not going to end well.

3:35: Knudsen looks like the only one on his team who still cares. An HYS defenseman makes a lazy turnover but Knudsen stops the ensuing breakaway. His skaters left him out to dry on that one.

2:30: The kids in front of me are apoplectic, screaming for HYS to score. I like their enthusiasm.

2:20: The Flyers jump on another turnover and van den Braak streaks in alone. He's stopped, but Landman scores on the rebound. One of the kids sounds like he shouts "f*** you" at Landman, but I can't be too sure. It might've been Dutch. Hopefully.

2:04: The kids turn on each other, attacking with empty pop bottles. This is actually more entertaining than the end of this 5-2 game.

1:14: "Cotton-Eyed Joe" comes over the speakers. Back to the bad 90's arena "classics" playlist. The crowd is deathly silent.

:49: Landman and Ignatjev are given coincidental minors for no particular reason. The official scoresheet actually has it as a hooking penalty on Ignatjev, and a diving penalty on Landman. That kind of says it all about the quality of officiating in this game. You can't even chastise the referee for forgetting his glasses, because he's actually wearing glasses under his visor and helmet. Seriously.

:00: Mercifully for the home team, the game finally comes to an end. Ignatjev is named player of the game for HYS, really for a lack of any better options. I look at my watch and find it's 11:15, then wonder what that delay in the middle of the third could possibly have been for. Time to see if I can figure out Den Haag transit in this end of the city to get home.

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Sunday, November 22, 2009

HYS The Hague vs. the Heerenveen Flyers (part 1): Hockey in Europe

HockeyZonePlus contributor Brian Pike is currently living in The Hague, Netherlands, working for a large international organization. As a Canadian hockey fan who's never been outside of North America before, he hopes to see games from as many nearby European hockey leagues as possible, time and travel budget permitting. First up is local Eredivisie team HYS The Hague, the defending champs of the 8-team elite league in The Netherlands. The game took place on November 13, 2009, against the Heerenveen Flyers. Here are Brian's observations as a non-Dutch speaking but passionate hockey fan from De Uithof, HYS's home rink,"live blog" style from his hand-written notes, starting with the pre-game warmups. All photos are taken by the author.

15:00 to Faceoff: Welcome to De Uithof! This rink is in the far west of the city, and man, is ever hard to get to. Still, hockey night tonight! I'm excited. Living in Toronto during the last NHL season I never actually got to a live game, so the last game I've seen in person was probably during the 2007-08 season in Calgary. Go HYS!

14:10: This is a pretty nice rink. There's only around 2500 seats, so it's small, and it has an amateur rink kind of feel, with just a small scoreclock at one end and no glass along the sides. It reminds me a little of the rink in my hometown, where I used to go see Heritage Alberta Junior B League games with my Dad. I like it here already!

13:30: Something else amateurish: the volume of the pre-game music keeps going up and down. "Beautiful People" by Marilyn Manson goes from screaming loud to whisper quiet. I guess Manson would just be happy he still gets played anywhere at all, at any volume.

13:10: The HYS starter is BIG. He's #49 in our single-page folded program, Tim Knudsen. The Internet Hockey Database reveals that he played 85 or so games in the UHL before coming over to Europe. So he's probably a better goalie than me, but probably not as good as Vesa Toskala, somewhere in that range. Wait, that's probably unfair. Nobody's as bad as Vesa Toskala right now.

11:15: The jerseys HYS are wearing are just AWFUL. They don't have names or numbers on the back, just a big circular ad for a local store. Hopefully these are just the warmup jerseys. The Heerenveen Flyers jerseys, meanwhile, are a rather ugly mustard yellow with blue numbers and a Comic Sans-like script for the player names. At least they have names and numbers, though.

9:55: Look, just outside the blueline! It's #77, HYS star winger Alexander Selivanov! Tampa Bay Lightning fans who followed the team in the mid to late-90's may remember Selivanov as the winger with the decent shot who scored 62 goals over three seasons from '95 to '98 before being traded to Edmonton the next year. He scored 27 goals as an Oiler in the 1999-2000 season, spent the next year with Columbus, then moved to Europe. In all he had 121 goals and 235 points in 459 NHL games. How does a 38 year old ex-NHLer fare in the Dutch League? We'll find out...

7:26: The pecking order in warmups between the starter and his backup has always fascinated me. I like it when you can tell who the starter is because he doesn't even try to stop half the shots he faces, or tries to glove every single shot because he wants to warm up the trapper, while the backup is trying groin-straining cross-crease lunges.

5:38: Apparently, you can't escape Nickelback by going to Europe. Damn. A song of theirs comes across the loudspeakers, and I recall the time I told a group of college kids they were "everything that is soulless and wrong in Canadian music." Oh well, at least it's not that Black-Eyed Peas song. You know the one I mean.

4:55: Man, does this ever seem like a long warmup. HYS look like they're running out of drills.

2:00: We must be wrapping up, it's semi-circle at the blueline shooting time. I think this is the last full team drill the world over in warmups.

The sound system issues continue, as a loud and lengthy blast of screeching feedback comes through the speakers for a full minute, then repeats off and on as the announcer, a woman in her late 40's who's probably one of the player's moms, tries to ask everyone if they're READY FOR SOME HOCKEY TONIIIIGHT. Or at least, I assume that's what she's saying. I don't know any Dutch.

The First Period: After a quick zamboni run, the rink is ready to go, the lights dim, and the Beastie Boys "Fight For Your Right" blares out of the rink speakers. A kid of probaby 10 or 11 in full gear walks unsteadily up the hallway to the ice. Sure enough, he's carrying a flag, and starts doing laps around the ice. Honestly, who started this particular bit of pre-game absurdity? I seem to remember seeing the Ottawa Senators do it on TV once or twice. As if to put an exclaimation mark on how silly the exercise is, after slowly taking three laps around the ice, the kid breaks for centre and falls hard on his backside while pretending to plant the flag on the dot. You can practically feel the tears of humiliation in his eyes as he leaves the ice. Poor kid.

20:00: Thankfully, HYS have indeed changed from their no-numbers warmup sweaters into a rather fetching dark red on a deep navy blue scheme. Superb. I like these jerseys so much that if I get into another game before I leave The Hague I will most likely pick one up. We go straight into the opening faceoff without any national anthem. After years of North American sports where the anthems always start things off, this feels surprisingly wrong to me.

19:31: We have our first whistle when the puck goes over the boards where there's no glass, and the second comes eight seconds later on an offside. Not exactly a roaring start. The eight-year-olds sitting in front of me are already restless.

18:35: The Flyers goalie is all over the place early. He looks nervous. HYS is clearly trying to get him going side-to-side and overcommit.

18:07: HYS's goalie, meanwhile, clearly loves to skate out and handle the puck. Knudsen has that kind of Roberto Luongo/JS Giguere look with the thick shoulder pads. His legs aren't as long, though. The Flyers goalie, Stephane Cesar, has more of a Martin Biron look; he's taller, but he looks smaller than Knudsen. Cesar is apparently from Ottawa and played in the OHL for a few seasons.

16:45: Nice breakaway stop by Knudsen as a Flyers player snuck behind the defense.

16:15: HYS answers that when a player breaks straight up the middle between the Flyers D, but his shot misses high blocker. I suspect things are starting to pick up.

14:57: Another nice stop by Knudsen on a Flyers player who walks straight out of the corner. Where's Derian Hatcher to drop a guy walking out of the corner when you need him?

14:07: Fifty seconds later, Selivanov misses on a breakaway. The hair on both coach's heads goes a little grayer from the lack of defense. Selivanov seems like he's taking exceptionally long shifts.

11:45: HYS had all the momentum early, but the Flyers are starting to carry the play now.

11:31: No sooner do I write that than HYS's Marcel Bruinsma of Abbotsford, BC, buries a wrist shot from the circles, shooting between the Flyer's defenseman's legs. Nice shot.

10:30: Selivanov, long known for his soft play in the NHL, pushes a Flyers defender off the puck in the corner right onto his ass. Lightning fans reading this won't believe it for a second.

10:17: Jan Bohac, #91 for HYS, skates right through the Flyers D on another breakaway. He's stopped, but Heerenveen's #10 is called for a slash. It's the first power play of the game. HockeyDB says that Bohac was a third round pick of the Senators back in 2000 but that he's never played in North America. He looks like a good player at this level, with size and skating ability. He also looks like he's missing the hockey sense to play at a higher level. I don't think Sens fans should be holding their breath waiting for him to make the show.

8:31: Selivanov finally leaves the ice with 14 seconds left on the man advantage after being out for the whole power play. Not too many good chances, but HYS almost caught the Flyers goalie going the wrong way once.

7:32: The Flyers come right back with pressure after killing the penalty and HYS defenseman Brian Mullally takes a tripping penalty.

6:53: #19 on HYS, Victor Ignatjev, has a filthy mouth. After missing a clearing attempt killing the penalty he fires off several f-bombs until the puck leaves the zone. I cringe on behalf of the parents who've brought the six eight-year-old boys sitting in front of me. They'll be hearing "f**k" repeatedly during the ride home, I just know it.

5:22: Just ten seconds after the HYS penalty ends, confusion at the Flyers bench results in a too many men on the ice penalty.

5:06: And just 16 seconds into the PP, HYS scores on a cross-ice pass from Bohac to defenseman Carl-Johan Johansson, who gets just enough of it to re-direct it into the net. 2-0 HYS.

4:30: The Flyers look like they've lost all composure, as they take another penalty during HYS pressure in their zone, this time for hooking.

3:50: Selivanov starts the power play, but doesn't get much done, so the second unit with Bohac comes on. Seems like the first unit just spends their time trying to find Selivanov, who's usually idling in the right side corner. Get in the slot, Selivanov, TAKE IT TO THE TOUGH AREAS. Somewhere, a Tampa Bay fan says "that's the Selivanov I remember."

2:08: After the power play, HYS's energy line comes on and promptly takes an offensive zone tripping penalty. HYS's coach tears out a chunk of his own hair. Andri Salomonson is the culprit, not to be confused with former Devils and Caps winger Andreas Salomonsson, who's currently playing for Modo, and probably tickled at the prospect of playing with Peter Forsberg and Markus Naslund. And who can blame him? I've been looking at flights from Amsterdam to Stockholm and Modo's schedule myself...

:31: The best chance on the PP comes from a weak short side attempt that Knudsen easily gloves. And that ends a fairly entertaining first period.

Look for Part 2 of Brian's blog of this game to appear in mid-December.

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Saturday, July 04, 2009

Early Returns, Part 2: The Worst of Free Agency '09

Continuing HockeyZonePlus's look at NHL free agency 2009, today we look at the team's who made moves that will almost certainly turn out badly during the league's annual free agent frenzy. Note that we'll include trades made since the draft too, and that the Winners of free agency can be found in a previous blog post here.


- Most people would suggest the Oilers had three problems going into next season: the lack of a top line winger to team with playmaker Ales Hemsky, no starting goaltender, and a general lack of grit and size, both up front and on defense. What have they accomplished so far? They've embarrassed themselves by getting caught up in all this Dany Heatley nonsense and thrown a lot of money at an aging and fragile Nikolai Khabibulin. The Heatley saga is, if nothing else, worth it's own column, so look for that another day, but Khabibulin? The Oilers let last year's starter Dwayne Roloson walk because they weren't willing to give a two-year contract to a 39-year old goalie. Apparently, though, a four-year deal for a 36-year old goalie was acceptable. Anyone else sense a disconnect here? Not only that, but this is such a soft goalie market that Edmonton and Colorado were really the only teams looking for a starter at all, though several teams signed backups; with goalie Martin Biron still available and several talented goalies reportedly available via trade (including Josh Harding in Minnesota and Kari Lehtonen in Atlanta), Edmonton showed a distinct lack of patience by giving Khabibulin $15 million over 4 years. Because he was over 35 when he signed, his contract is on their books whether he plays those four years or not. Had the Oilers kept their cool they could've waited a couple of weeks, a month at most, offered both Biron and Khabibulin $2 million per for two years, take it or leave it, then if neither accepted made a trade offer for Harding or Lehtonen. Not only that, but because the team was too busy messing around with Heatley, free agency pretty much passed them by, outside of Khabibulin. That means no big, tough defenseman, no gritty top nine forward, and, outside of moving centre Kyle Brodziak to Minnesota for draft picks, no clearing of the logjam the Oilers have up front of about 16 NHL-level forwards, most of whom are 6'1 or under and not quite scorers, but not quite premium two-way players either. October could be the start of another long season in Edmonton, where the fan base is getting impatient for a winner.

Montreal - Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't Montreal's mandate this summer to get bigger up front? Specifically on their top two lines? They were going to let Saku Koivu walk because he's too small, Alex Tanguay because he's small AND fragile, and Alexei Kovalev because he plays like he's small. So who do they add? Scott Gomez, who we'll call 'Tiny' (he's 5'11), Mike Cammalleri, 'Tinier' (5'9), and Brian Gionta, you guessed it, 'Tiniest' (5'7). Sure, the Habs desires to make a big trade for Tampa Bay star centre and 6'4, 220 pound Quebec native Vincent Lecavalier were probably unrealistic from the start, and yes, outside of second-tier free agents like Mike Knuble, Nik Antropov and Erik Cole, none of whom are first line forwards anyway, there wasn't a lot of size and talent on the free agent market. Still, they dealt more than they should've to the Rangers for Gomez and his nearly $7.5 million per season salary and overpaid for Cammalleri at $6 million/season for five years, though that one's almost forgivable, since somebody was bound to overpay around that much to Cammalleri anyway. But the real topper is Gionta, who's goal totals have gone down each of the last four seasons (from 48 to 25 to 22 to 20). He'll be paid $5 million a season for the next five years, so the Habs better hope being reunited with his old Devils centre Gomez reverses his downward trend of goal-scoring, even though at 30 years of age he's looking a lot like a player in decline. They did manage to add some size on their blueline in Hal Gill, even if sometimes he looks like he can barely skate anymore, and hopefully some power play points in the inconsistent Jaroslav Spacek. But even though one of GM Bob Gainey's virtues is supposed to be his patience, all these moves show a huge lack of it. Gainey would've been better waiting for some of his young prospects, led by goaltender Carey Price, who, no matter what Gainey does, is still a few years away from prime time, to mature. Instead, he's moved one of his best prospects, college defenseman Ryan McDonagh, and Chris Higgins, one of the team's leaders, for Gomez, lost all his cap flexibility by signing Gionta and Cammalleri too, and added a couple of aging veterans in Spacek and Gill to take up roster spots that he'd have been better off giving to a younger player.

San Jose - General Manager Doug Wilson promised some big changes after his Sharks were bounced in the first round of the playoffs this past season by Anaheim, a playoffs the Sharks entered as the #1 seed in the West and one of the favourites to win the Stanley Cup. So far, he hasn't delivered; in fact, it's looking more and more like the Sharks might enter next season with almost no changes to their core players at all. Wilson did enter the free agent season with the notable disadvantage of being fairly close to the salary cap, but he didn't help his cause by re-signing defensemen Rob Blake and Kent Huskins to $3.5 and $1.7 million contract extensions, respectively. Now he has over $22 million locked up in seven defensemen, the same ones that, outside of Dan Boyle and Huskins, who didn't even play against the Ducks after being acquired from them at the last trade deadline, looked so ineffective against Anaheim. Forget making changes, with so little cap space left now, the Sharks might have trouble getting enough forwards under contract to fill out their roster next season; they only have eight under contract with only about $1.5 million left to spend. For that reason alone, the Sharks must have some kind of move forthcoming, if only so that they can ice a full team. Forwards Patrick Marleau ($6.3 million next season), Milan Michalek ($4.33 million average for the next five seasons), Jonathan Cheechoo ($3 million average salary the next two seasons), and defenseman Christian Ehrhoff ($3.1 million average the next two seasons) look like prime targets to be moved, but really, who's going to want them at those salaries, let alone give the Sharks fair trade value for them? Wilson seemed to have the right idea heading into the off-season (he all but came right out and said that he needed to shake up his team's core with a trade) but thus far his execution is sorely lacking. With a lot of teams already close to being set with their salary committments for next season, outside of some kind of blockbuster trade what exactly can Wilson do? And if that blockbuster means Dany Heatley, like some rumour sites are suggesting, is getting him going to help change this team's reputation as a squad with no heart that can't take the next step towards being a champion, or make it worse?

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Early Returns, Part 1: The Best of Free Agency '09

It's virtually impossible to correctly gauge the positive or negative impact a free agent signing might have on a team before he's actually played a game for them. Talking wins and losses in free agency at this point, well, it's a sucker's game, purely a thought exercise, a matter of arranging player names on a piece of paper or computer screen with no real significance.

But hey, let's not let that stop us. Here's some early winners from the moves and signings teams have made since the entry draft and the start of free agency last Wednesday. Look for our list of free agency losers sometime in the next few days.

Free Agency Winners

Chicago - Ok, the Marian Hossa contract was easily twice as long (12 years) as any reasonable person might expect Hossa to be an impact player for and could hamper Chicago's efforts to sign young core players Duncan Keith, Jonathan Toews and Patrik Kane when their contracts all expire next summer. But a $5.23 million cap hit is really not that much, and adding Hossa, Tomas Kopecky, and defensive centre extraordinaire John Madden (in a highly underrated move), as well as getting young centre Dave Bolland signed to a long-term deal, gives the Hawks quite possibly as solid a group of forwards as there is in the league. How about sliding Hossa into Martin Havlat's vacated spot with Bolland and Andrew Ladd, Calder finalist Kris Versteeg playing with developing starts Toews and Kane, and Madden centring big Dustin Byfuglien and Patrick Sharp, who missed 21 games last season and still scored 26 goals? That doesn't even include Kopecky, tough guy Ben Eager, Troy Brouwer, who had some success playing with Kane and Toews as well, agitator Adam Burish, and prospects Jack Skille and Kyle Beach, both of whom might be ready. Sure, the 'Hawks aren't far from the salary cap, and Brian Campbell's long term, over $7 million per season deal signed last summer looks like even more of an overpayment, but Campbell, Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and possibly prospect Jordan Hendry give them a core on defense that's mobile and improving. Don't be too surprised to see Sharp and his $3.9 million salary moved for a tough defense-minded defenseman before the season starts. One of Skille or Beach could be used to sweeten the deal too, and defensemen Cam Barker and Brent Sopel both might be dealt for additional cap relief. If Cristobal Huet plays as well as he's capable for a full season this will be a very tough team.

Vancouver - The city of Vancouver's love-hate relationship with the Sedin twins will continue, at least for the next five years, as the Canucks managed to get Daniel and Henrik signed to identical $30.5 million contracts. It's not so much what the Sedins got that makes this a good deal as what they didn't get; most reports suggest the twins asked the Canucks for deals that were twice as long for more than twice that much money. The fact that Vancouver held firm with a more reasonable 5-year offer is a win. Most critics of the Sedins point out that they've never been great in the playoffs, but hey, neither was exactly bad last year either, and they used to say that about Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg too. A quick glance at what other players were getting on the free agent market (Mike Cammalleri: $6 million/season, Marian Gaborik: $7.5 million, Martin Havlat: $5 million, Brian Gionta: $5 million) shows just how hard replacing scoring forwards of the Sedin's calibre would've been this summer, had the team chose to let them walk. Couple that with reports that the Canucks are in talks with superstar goalie Roberto Luongo on a long-term extension and signing former Red Wing Mikael Samuelsson, who should look good either on the Sedin's right or the second line with top prospect Cody Hodgson, to a reasonable 3-year deal and the Canucks are in a very good position for next season and beyond. Now, if they can add a defenseman to replace the departed Mattias Ohlund, so much the better; recent rumours suggest they may have already talked to the Leafs about trading for Tomas Kaberle.

Toronto - Like the Sedins and Vancouver, the Leafs won for what didn't happen as much as what did. Fan interest in Toronto is extreme right now. People were salivating like dogs when GM Brian Burke promised he'd try to move up in the entry draft and get John Tavares. When it didn't happen, their eyes naturally fell onto free agency. It would've been so easy for Burke to give in to public pressure and outbid Montreal for local boy Mike Cammalleri or throw $8 million a season at Marian Gaborik. Trouble is, neither of those moves would've put the Leafs much ahead of where they are now: a bubble team that might squeeze into one of the last playoff spots in the East, but probably won't. Maybe it's that the players Burke really wanted didn't make it to market, as rumours suggested he was interested in Jay Bouwmeester and the Sedins, and maybe making either of those moves if they were possible would've been worth it. But in the absence of players he really wanted, Burke resisted the temptation to instead splurge on inferior replacements, adding only tough defenseman Mike Komisarek and enforcer Colton Orr by free agency and defenseman Garnet Exelby in trade. He also cleared significant cap space by moving Pavel Kubina to Atlanta. His team might not be much better, but they're tougher, so their handful of developing skill players won't get pushed around, and they've got cap space to add talent in the future. All they really need now is a young star forward to build around. Let the rumours of Burke trying to get Taylor Hall begin...

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Monday, June 15, 2009

Should Crosby Have Made More of an Effort to Shake Hands?

First off, congratulations to the Penguins for winning the 2009 Stanley Cup. Few people were betting on them to win game seven in Detroit after the home team won every game the rest of the Finals, including me, but they pulled it off with a well-deserved victory.

I think maybe the most impressive thing about Pittsburgh's victory is that they did it even though Pens captain Sidney Crosby was effectively neutralized by the Red Wings. Crosby had three points, all of them coming in games three and four of the finals, and was -3. By comparison, Crosby's shadow, Henrik Zetterberg, had six points and was +3, but when Zetterberg didn't score a point in game six or game seven, well, the Wings were sunk. Even though Detroit was seen by many heading into the series as having superior depth, when Pittsburgh got just one point from their two best players, Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, in games six and seven and Detroit got none from Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, their best, Pittsburgh came out on top, thanks to guys like Max Talbot, Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy.

As for Crosby, after being a polarizing figure throughout the finals, exchanging slashes with Kirk Maltby, sitting out the third period of game seven with a knee problem thanks to a hit from Johan Franzen, causing a stir by sitting out one of the media days, and generally not playing up to his usual standard, he managed to create some controversy once the game was over too.

Obviously this Sidney Crosby not shaking Detroit captain Nicklas Lidstrom's hand thing has gotten blown out of proportion somewhat, thanks largely to public statements made by Kris
Draper and Henrik Zetterberg on the subject. Crosby was basically celebrating a little too much with some of his teammates at one end of the ice while the Red Wings lined up for the traditional series-ending handshake. Some players, most notably Lidstrom, waited for a handshake from Crosby, Pittsburgh's captain, before finally giving up and leaving the ice. Crosby was unapologetic, going so far as to shift some of the blame to Lidstrom for not waiting long enough. Crosby also said he felt he had the right to do some celebrating with his mates, and he's got a point.

The problem is that Crosby is the team captain, and the captain has to lead the handshake line, especially in that situation. No exceptions; the fact that Crosby didn't have the presence of mind to organize his teammates into a proper handshake line is a little disappointing. I've always enjoyed the sportsmanship and tradition of the series closing handshake, and I'm sure Crosby does too. I believe him when he says he didn't mean to snub the Red Wings. I think it's something another player, particularly a guy Crosby's age who's mistake can be written off to youth and enthusiasm, could've easily gotten away with.

Crosby's status as the 'face' of the NHL only magnifies things. Yes, it's a youthful mistake and, as Lidstrom says, something he'll learn from. But you're the captain. You have to lead the handshake line with the losing team, no matter how much you want to celebrate. There's no two ways about it.

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Monday, March 30, 2009

Head May Roll in Alberta, Lecavalier Rumours and more

Some quick hits today as the NHL regular season winds down:

I can't be the only one thinking that if the struggles of both of the NHL's Alberta teams continue that heads will roll. In Edmonton, the Oilers front office put the sights squarely on head coach Craig MacTavish by adding two scorers at the deadline. The message was this: if you can't get this team into the playoffs after we've added just the thing you've been complaining you needed all season, you're gone. Whether the old-boys-from-the-glory-days network in charge of the Oilers will follow through if the Oilers don't make the playoffs is another question.

Conversely, I can't help but think that Calgary GM Darryl Sutter put the sights not on his head coach, but squarely on himself with his deadline moves. Dealing as many draft picks and younger assets as Sutter did to get Olli Jokinen and Jordan Leopold badly depletes an already thin Flames system. Not only that, but Sutter is the one who committed nearly $6 million a season for six years to goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff, who's struggled badly down the stretch run. He also inexplicably handed journeyman defenseman Jim Vandermeer, who's played only 37 games, a three year deal worth $2.3 million a season, and committed big money to defenseman Cory Sarich, who's not one of Calgary's top four defensemen, and centre Daymond Langkow, who's now making $4.5 million a season to play on the second line behind Jokinen. These are all deals that run past next season, when the league's salary cap is expected to go down for the first time. If the Flames fail to make it past at least the first round of the playoffs, Sutter will have quite a mess on his hands here, and may well pay the price for it. And he does have a coach in Mike Keenan who has on more than one occasion gone from behind the bench to the GM's job when his boss couldn't cut it...

Is there anyone out there willing to bet against New Jersey coming out of the East in this year's playoffs? Anyone? Anyone? No, I didn't think so.

Somebody suggested to me the other day that with Zach Parise emerging as a new American-born star in the league that the NHL should be making an effort to market him to help sell the game in the United States. But if the NHL could never follow through with that line of thinking when Mike Modano was in his prime, an American-born player who was not only talented and fun to watch, but was (and still is) one of the most handsome guys you're ever likely to see, why would they get it through their heads to do it with Parise? With all the league's somewhat meagre player marketing push behind poster boy Sidney Crosby, we've already seen what can happen when an equally talented player such as, oh, Alex Ovechkin tries to hog some of the spotlight (see above). A better question is this: why can't the NHL seem to market more than one player as it's poster-boy at a time? Other sports manage it.

What happened to Florida's playoff chances? Not so very long ago it looked like they were a lock, and that they might finish as high as 5th in the East. Now they're floundering in 9th and might not be able to catch New York or Montreal. I don't see a lot of Panthers games here in Toronto, but I understand that Jay Bouwmeester's play since the trade deadline, when he figured into a lot of rumours but wasn't moved, has just gotten worse and worse. It must be driving his agent nuts. He used to have the hottest commodity going heading into this season's free agent period. At this point, though, how can a team not look at Bouwmeester's play in the latter quarter of the season and wonder if he just can't handle the pressure when the games get tough?

Finally, I understand that the Vincent Lecavalier to Montreal rumours just won't die, with yet another story in the Montreal Gazette today about them. But here's something for Montreal fans to ponder: there's a pretty credible line of thinking that says that Lecavalier hasn't put up great numbers this season and has struggled the last quarter of the season or so because his shoulder and wrist are hurting. Lecavalier had surgery on his right shoulder last summer, and because of it a scheduled surgery on his right wrist had to be cancelled. If Lecavalier's shoulder and wrist are both bothering him this season, well, those are problem that are over a year old, and thus are starting to look like chronic injuries, and quite possibly things he'll have to deal with the rest of his career. Lecavalier's 28 years old, and his 11 year contract extension with the Lightning begins this summer. Leaving aside just how asinine it was to sign him to that extension in the first place, we can now see several reasons why Tampa Bay might want to deal him, the first two being those injuries and their need to surround star in the making Steven Stamkos with talent closer to his age. But should Montreal really be anxious to add Lecavalier, especially if it costs them a couple of first round draft picks and either prospect PK Subban (who skates as well at age 18 as almost any player I've seen) or Max Pacioretty, plus a player or two off their roster? That's the kind of package Montreal media people were suggesting in January, and it's an awful lot. Especially for a guy with a guaranteed 11 year contract worth some $78 million and a growing history of shoulder and wrist problems. Even if he is French Canadian.

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Friday, March 27, 2009

The Ovechkin Story That Just Won't Die

I don't know if the manufactured furor over Alexander Ovechkin's celebration of his 50th goal (youtube video of it here) is a league-wide phenomenon, or if it's just here in Toronto that it's been kept alive in print and TV and sports talk radio for far too long, but it's hard to disagree what Bruce Boudreau said to a scrum of reporters the other day.

"It's 10 friggin days since it happened," said Boudreau "We have talked to Tampa's coaches, we have said our speech. The people that are bringing the crap up are you guys. Nobody cares about it anymore. You guys want to bring it up because you want to see a riot, then you want to talk about retribution. It's the dumbest thing in the world. You gotta have better stuff to talk about.

"You guys coming from Toronto to find out an answer on retribution where there should be no retribution at all," he continued. "He scored his 50th goal in a zero-zero game. It wasn't 8-0 where he made a mockery. If Tampa scores a couple of goals and wants to do a celebration, go for it. We have talked to everybody we can talk about. It's a done deal as far as I'm concerned."

This story is over, and I'm not only surprised people are still bugging Boudreau and Ovechkin about it, I'm surprised it caused such a stir in the first place.

The arguments I've heard most about Ovechkin doing his choreographed goal celebration are three-fold. First is that it sets a bad example for hockey playing kids who now might do their own big goal celebrations and show poor sportsmanship. Second is the Don Cherry argument that he's become nothing more than a clown, that people are laughing at him, not with him. Third is that he's embarrassed the Tampa Bay Lightning and made them feel bad.

My take on it is this: Alex Ovechkin is 23 years old. If showing a little youthful exuberance at accomplishing something great, something that no one else in the league is likely going to accomplish this season (Jeff Carter and Zach Parise are tied for second in goals with 41 each, both with just nine games left to play), is wrong, I don't want to be right. If you're a kid playing minor hockey and you score a big goal, go ahead and celebrate it, just do it in the same spirit as Ovechkin: do it because you're having great fun playing a game you love to play.

Ovechkin has plenty of time to become the robotic player who does a simple fist pump then hi-fives his teammates player that Don Cherry and many hockey traditionalists who can't remember what it's like to be 23 years old and doing something you love to do well anymore want him to be. And Don Cherry is not a man who should accuse anyone else of being a clown, not while wearing the various costumes he's worn over the years.

And if the Lightning feel bad about Ovechkin celebrating on something about it. There's nothing wrong with Tampa Bay wanting to show up Ovechkin the next time they play the Capitals by blowing them out, or catching him with a legal check, or keeping him from scoring another one. In fact, that's a good thing. One of the most common complaints about the game today is that there aren't enough rivalries. Well, these are the kind of things that create rivalries. If the Lightning player's self-esteem is so poor that they get depressed because of what Ovechkin did, they need to grow some thicker skin.

Image Source: Flickr / clydeorama

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Sunday, March 01, 2009

(Less Than) A Week from the Trade Deadline, Part 3

Our look at the players most and least likely to move at the NHL's trade deadline finishes today with the player's who aren't going to be dealt by Wednesday. In fact, we guarantee it (note: not a guarantee).

apologize for not finishing this trilogy of trade deadline columns two days ago, as promised. Bob Gainey didn't think my head was in the game and gave me a couple of days off to think about things (note to Panther fans: this joke works just as well if you replace Gainey's name with Jacques Martin's).

You can see our list of players who will be moving at the deadline (also not a guarantee) and the list of guys who might or might not be moving (which included Bill Guerin, who has been traded according to several reports but nobody seems quite sure where as yet). Today, our focus is on players who's names have been seen in trade rumours this season, won't be packing their bags on Wednesday. Probably. Their particular combination of high salaries, no trade clauses, their team's place in the standing, and their importance to those teams means they'll be staying put.

The "Not Going Anywhere Despite the Rumours" Guys:
Alexei Kovalev (Montreal), Ryan Smyth (Colorado), Vincent Lecavalier (Tampa Bay), Ilya Kovalchuk (Atlanta), Ed Jovanovski (Phoenix), Martin St. Louis (Tampa Bay), Michael Nylander (Washington), Scott Gomez (Rangers), Jason Spezza (Ottawa), Nikolai Khabibulin (Chicago), Martin Havlat (Chicago), Nathan Horton (Florida), Niklas Backstrom (Minnesota), Chris Pronger/Scott Niedermayer (Anaheim).

- Alex Kovalev's name came up a few times in trade rumours, as his much publicized "time off" from the team last week had some saying he had played his last game in a Canadiens' jersey. Much as being sent home to think about things might seem the beginning of the end for some guys on some teams, with Kovalev and the Habs, well, it's a little different. Bob Gainey took a lot of heat for his decision to tell Kovalev to go away for a while; Gainey is not the kind of man who's going to set himself up for that much criticism without cause. If he were going to trade Kovalev, he'd have done it before sending him home. Besides, while Kovalev's play has improved since his benching, the Habs wouldn't get much more than a second round draft pick or so for an inconsistent 36 year old forward who's about to become a free agent anyway. If Kovalev can get his game back on track, and with seven points in four games since coming back that looks like a strong possibility, they're better off keeping him.

- Ryan Smyth's name has appeared in the rumour mill a great deal lately for some reason. While yesterday I mentioned that Colorado will be trying to lower their payroll by next season, and they're definitely a "selling" team at the deadline, what with being last in the Western Conference and all, don't bet on Smyth moving. This appears to be another one of those rumours that looks to have started in Montreal (though recent rumours also have the Kings interested in Smyth), probably when somebody said "wouldn't the Habs be a better team if they got 'Player X'?" and somehow by the time it reached a rumour web site became "Bob Gainey is interested in 'Player X.'" This theme will be evident with a couple of other players on this list as well. Anyway, the reality is, Smyth has a huge contract for three seasons after this one ($6.25 million a season), a no-trade clause, and even though he's having a good season, tends to be injury prone and is already 33 years old. Nothing about this suggests Smyth will be moved; the Avs would have to take a similar amount of salary back for this to make any sense for another team, and if they're trying to cut payroll, why would they do that?

- Number two on our list of "only being a trade rumour because it involved Montreal" (but number one in our hearts) is Vincent Lecavalier. The Lecavalier to Montreal rumours became a large sideshow around the All Star Game in Montreal a month ago, but even though some hockey rumour sites out there (not mentioning names) are keeping this one alive. Mark this down: Lecavalier is not being traded. Yes, it does seem that the mess of rumours about Vinny came about because Tampa Bay GM Brian Lawton quietly let it be known Lecavalier could be had, for the right price, and that information leaked. But irate Lightning fans have apparently dissuaded Lawton to the point where he said last week that he would never move Lecavalier, and never intended to. There's still a slim chance somebody could make a move for him in the summer, but don't count on it. Let's just move on.

- Ilya Kovalchuk might be moved, but it won't be before March 4th. Kovalchuk can become a free agent in the summer of 2010, but that's not this summer. While Kovalchuk's given strong indications that he'll move on if he doesn't think the team is moving in the right direction, it would be foolish for the Thrashers to move him before they have even had a chance to talk to him about a contract extension. While it's possible he could be moved this summer, the more likely scenario sees him being traded before the deadline next season if Atlanta is once again a bad team next year. Stop laughing, they could be better next season. Really they could!

- As much as teams might want to add the talent of Ed Jovanovski, Martin St. Louis, or Michael Nylander at the deadline, all three veterans have no-trade clauses, and also make a lot of money for two more seasons after this one (quick quiz: which of the three has the biggest contract? If you guessed former league MVP and scoring leader St. Louis, you'd be wrong; Jovanovski makes $6.5 million in Phoenix, St. Louis pulls in $5.25 million, and Nylander $4.9 million). Phoenix's supposed desire to cut payroll motivated the Jovo rumours, but moving a contract that big just doesn't happen that easily. Pittsburgh was rumoured to be looking at St. Louis to play with Sidney Crosby, but after dealing Ryan Whitney to the Ducks for Chris Kunitz they may no longer be interested. As for Nylander, well, he's making nearly $5 million to be Washington's thid line centre right now, and it's starting to look like his free agent signing in the summer of 2007 was a mistake. But much as Washington might like to move him, that doesn't mean anyone will take him off their hands.

- Why has Gomez's name come up in rumours? Well, it appears to be because of New York's lack of salary cap space. The theory went that if the Rangers were going to make a move on somebody else, moving Gomez would be the prelude to that, giving them the salary cap space to do whatever they wanted, since Gomez is cheduled to make over $7 million for the next five seasons. But these rumours were mostly in connection with the Rangers either signing Mats Sundin to a free agent contract in December, which we all know didn't work out, or pulling one over on the Canadiens and getting Vincent Lecavalier, which is very unlikely. So it looks like Gomez is staying put, but unless he starts putting up better numbers soon, the size of his contract is going to look like a burden on the Rangers for a lot of years to come. As far as a lot of Senators fans are concerned, you could substitute Jason Spezza's name in that last sentence to describe how they feel about him in Ottawa right now. Spezza has a no-trade clause in his contract, which runs for six seasons after this one at $7 million a season, but it doesn't kick in until this summer. But it's littl emore than wishful thinking by Sens fans that he'll be moved by the deadline. Unless he and Gomez are traded for each other. Hmm...anyone know how to start a trade rumour?

- Earlier this season it seemed like a sure thing that Chicago would move Nikolai Khabibulin. After signing Cristobal Huet to a big free agent deal, Khabibulin looked like the odd man out. But the Blackhawks couldn't find a deal they liked and kept Khabibulin, which has looked like great strategy since Khabibulin and Huet have formed a great goaltending tandem. At this point the 'Hawks are still not going to find a deal they like for Khabibulin, not with his high contract and free agent status at the end of the year, but at this point they may as well keep him around.

- Martin Havlat is another one of those guys who's been persistently in trade rumours, but it seems like that's only the case because some who write such things think he'd be good for Montreal. But with Chicago firmly ensconced in a playoff spot and Havlat their second leading scorer, there's little to be gained in trading him right now, even if Havlat is a free agent this summer and might be looking for a raise on his $6 million salary. The Blackhawks are more likely to add a forward to play on Havlat's line than trade him. Trade rumours have seemed to dog Nathan Horton his entire NHL career, but like Havlat, he's currently one of the top scorers on a team that looks like a good bet for the playoffs. Unlike Havlat, he's signed long-term and still has a lot of room to improve his game. I've never really understood why his name comes up in rumours so much. He'll stay in Miami.

- Again from the "almost unfathomable rumour file," we have Niklas Backstrom of Minnesota, who supposedly might be traded if he doesn't sign a contract extension by Wednesday (he's a free agent this summer). Why this rumour is ridiculous: The Wild don't have a hope of making the playoffs without him. Minnesota currently sits 10th in the Western Conference, just two points back of Edmonton and Anaheim, who are tied for 7th right now. As good as Wild backup Josh Harding's numbers are, he hasn't shown the consistency he needs to be a starting goaltender. He's not ready to take over from Backstrom next week; the Wild will have to gamble that they can either re-sign Backstrom before he becomes a free agent, or that Harding is ready to take over by the start of next season.

- Finally, Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer's names have both been making the rounds of the NHL rumour mill during the last few weeks. The Ducks are probably looking at having to cut payroll by next season, and Pronger and Niedermayer would undoubtedly add a lot to any contending team's blueline. The Ducks are also probably looking at starting a rebuilding process soon, one that can only be helped by trading one, or both, of their two star blueliners. Some took it as a sign that when the Ducks traded Chris Kunitz and prospect Eric Tangradi they'd be trying to move one of these two by the deadline. However, the more likely scenario goes like this: with the Ducks competing for a playoff spot (they're in 8th place right now), they keep both defensemen and see how things play out this summer. Niedermayer will be a free agent, but if he wants to keep playing he'll probably re-sign in Anaheim, though the decision not to retire took him five months to make back in 2007. The Ducks can't afford to wait that long for him to decide again, but have apparently already told Niedermayer he won't be traded. Pronger, meanwhile, has a contract for next season, but other than Whitney he's the only proven NHL defenseman the Ducks have that does. The Ducks will keep both at this deadline, unless they get a truly knockout offer for Pronger that they can't turn down (which would probably involve a younger top-four defenseman, a good prospect forward, and a first round draft pick, at least), push Niedermayer for a decision on whether or not he'll return next season early in the off-season, then decide whether or not to trade Pronger before next season starts. If Niedermayer returns, Pronger will almost certainly be dealt; if not, they may keep him around.

To everyone reading this, I hope you enjoy the trade deadline as much as I will.

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Week from the Trade Deadline, Part 2

Yesterday, we posted our best guesses about which players you're most likely to see traded at this year's trading deadline, which is now less than a week away. In the interests of full disclosure, I must tell you that neither Chris Kunitz nor Ryan Whitney were on it, but that didn't stop them from being traded for each other today.

Today, we'll take a look at the guys who might be on the move. These are guys that, whether they have no-trade clauses, large contracts and underachieving seasons, or because their team is still the fight for a playoff spot, have some complications to be sorted out before they can be traded. The only really safe bet is that some of these guys will be moved; exactly which ones or where they're going, well, quite frankly, your guess is as good as ours. There are some big names here, some of whom have been in trade rumours for months, but because of the salary cap and their current team's asking prices may not end up going anywhere. The Whitney for Kunitz deal proves, once again, that while speculating on who's going to be dealt is fun, getting it right doesn't happen that often. Once again, some thoughts and analysis follow the list below.

The "Your Guess is as Good as Ours" Guys:
Jay Bouwmeester (Florida), Tomas Kaberle/Pavel Kubina (Toronto), Tim Connolly/Max Afinogenov/Ales Kotalik (Buffalo), Bill Guerin (Islanders), Milan Hejduk (Colorado), Brett Clark/Ruslan Salei/Scott Hannan (Colorado), Keith Tkachuk (St. Louis), Brendan Morrison (Anaheim), Samuel Pahlsson (Anaheim), Kari Lehtonen/Johan Hedberg (Atlanta), Antoine Vermette (Ottawa), Christoph Schubert (Ottawa), Alexei Ponikarovsky (Toronto), Matt Stajan (Toronto), Ian White (Toronto), Scott Upshall (Philadelphia), Matthew Lombardi (Calgary), Mattias Ohlund (Vancouver), Marian Gaborik (Minnesota), Sean Avery (Dallas), Olli Jokinen (Phoenix), Derek Morris (Phoenix).

- Jay Bouwmeester is the most intriguing case at this deadline. At the beginning of the season it was all but certain he'd be traded by next week, but most people making that prediction did it on the assumption that the Panthers would be out of the playoff race by now. With Florida in 7th place, one point out of 6th, do the Panthers take the chance that they can still make the playoffs without Bouwmeester, who's having a great season and is clearly their best defenseman? Or do they keep him, even though he's all but shouted from the rooftops that he will see what free agency brings him the summer, meaning they'd be losing perhaps their best asset for nothing? This is why being a general manager is hard.

- Both Tomas Kaberle and Pavel Kubina have no-trade clauses and refused to waive them at last season's deadline when asked. Speculation is that Kaberle will do so for a particular list of teams this season, but Kubina won't. The asking price for Kaberle, however, will be steep; Leafs GM Brian Burke said recently he expects it would take a good young player, a top prospect, and a first round draft pick for another team to get him to move Kaberle. Whether anyone will come up with that kind of offer for a guy with 4 goals who's -12 is anyone's guess. However, both Kaberle and Kubina have clauses in their contracts that say they can be dealt this summer if the Leafs don't make the playoffs; if neither moves at the deadline, expect one to be traded then.

- As for some of Toronto's other players, well, the expectation was that when Burke took over he'd spectacularly blow up his roster and rebuild the Leafs from the ground up. That hasn't happened yet. The truth is that the Leafs just don't have that many players a playoff bound team would want, and while I'm sure Brian Burke wouldn't mind moving players like Alexei Ponikarovsky, Matt Stajan, and Ian White, the three most likely to go by next week, as well as overpriced veteran guys like Jason Blake, Niklas Hagman, Jeff Finger, Mike Van Ryn and even goalie Vesa Toskala, it remains to be seen if anyone will even bother to call him about them. It's a similar situation in Ottawa, but the players GM Bryan Murray is most likely to want to move, like Antoine Vermette and Christoph Schubert, and possibly Chris Kelly and Jason Smith, aren't going to command much attention.

- Buffalo has a trio of forwards with no contracts for next season, as well as defensemen Jaroslav Spacek and Teppo Numminen, but with the Sabres currently in the final playoff spot in the East they might not be trading anybody. The only reason they might move players out is the ankle sprain top goaltender Ryan Miller suffered last weekend; you have to think that with that injury, and with Buffalo holding onto the 8th spot by the skin of their teeth, the Sabres won't make the playoffs, but stranger things have happened. Whether or not there's much of a market for the oft-injured Tim Connolly, the streaky Ales Kotalik, or the badly underachieving Maxim Afinogenov, the three Sabre forwards heading into free agency, is debatable anyway.

- Bill Guerin, Milan Hejduk, Mattias Ohlund and Derek Morris would all be great additions to a playoff-bound team, but all four have no-trade clauses and might not agree to a trade. Morris is reportedly trying to negotiate a new contract with Phoenix, but he makes nearly $4 million, will be 31 this summer and is -12 this season, all factors unlikely to result in a new contract from the rebuilding Coyotes. Ohlund plays in Vancouver, where it looks like the Canucks will make the playoffs, but it also looks like he'll move on this summer. There was some speculation linking Hejduk to Pittsburgh, but that's less likely with Kunitz becoming a Penguin, and Hejduk may not be that interested in leaving the only NHL team he's ever played on. And Guerin...well, if Guerin were that interested in playing for a contending team he wouldn't have signed with the Islanders in the first place. Keith Tkachuk, Brendan Morrison, and Samuel Pahlsson are veteran forwards who, like Guerin, will be free agents this summer but don't have no-trade clauses and might be on the move next week (edit: Tkachuk apparently actually does have a no trade. Also, Pahlsson has mono, so is probably not going anywhere).

- It does seem certain that even if Colorado can't move Hejduk that they'd like to cut salary. The Avalanche are nowhere near the playoffs and might finish last in the West. Some are reporting the team would like to move Ryan Smyth; we'll talk more about that tomorrow. Colorado would probably like to move at least one of high-priced veteran defensemen Scott Hannan, Ruslan Salei and Brett Clark, but all three have at least one year remaining on their contracts past this one, and another team coming to the Avs offering decent trade value for one of them may or may not happen.

- Olli Jokinen's name has been making the rounds lately, and while I don't really think he'll be traded, I rather hope he does get traded. Why? Because Jokinen is now 30 years old, has played nearly 800 NHL games since 1998, and has never played a playoff game. Please, somebody, give the guy a break. He's a good player. Sure, he makes a lot of money this season and next (over $5 million) and Phoenix will be asking a lot for him, but come on! Show a little empathy!

- What's going on with Sean Avery? His troubles and suspension this season have been well-documented, and the expectation when he was assigned to the minor leagues by Dallas was that the Rangers would make a move for him. Although new Rangers coach John Tortorella was critical of Avery and his antics while working for TSN between coaching jobs, the Globe and Mail is reporting that coaching Sean Avery was a condition of Tortorella's employment. Adding yet another level of complexity to all this is that Avery isn't automatically going to New York; Dallas put him on waivers in order to send him to the minors, and have to put him on re-entry waivers before the trade deadline if he's going to play in the NHL this season. But re-entry waivers also means any team below the Rangers in the standings will have a chance to claim Avery before New York does. Does anyone else have the interest in committing to the three years Avery has left on his contract? Whew. It's complicated.

- Here are some other players in a similar situation to Avery, that is to say, players who have passed through waivers at some point during the season for various reasons (usually poor play coupled with a large contract) who have NHL-level talents who may be called up before the trade deadline for any team to claim, just like how the Rangers claimed Mark Bell from the Leafs the other day: Martin Gerber (Ottawa), Manny Legace (St. Louis), Kyle McLaren (San Jose), Peter Schaefer (Boston), Anders Eriksson (Calgary), Michel Ouellet (Vancouver), Jeff Cowan (Vancouver), Curtis Sanford (Vancouver), Danny Sabourin (Edmonton). The nice thing about these guys is that, unlike Avery, none of them (except Schaefer) are signed past this season, so if they don't work out, teams can just cut them loose in July.

- Finally, why list Marian Gaborik? Gaborik is a free agent this summer and it was thought that he would be a hot commodity to be traded by the deadline, but that was before he hurt himself (again). He's played just six games all season and might still be out as much as another month. However, with the offensively-gifted Gaborik said to be looking forward to the chance to sign somewhere besides Minny, where defense is the focus, and Minnesota unlikely to commit big money to a player who's hurt so often, this could very easily be Minnesota's last chance to get anything at all for Gaborik before he walks. And while any team trading for Gaborik would be gambling that he won't a) re-injure himself before the end of the season and miss the entire playoffs, and b) re-sign somewhere else this summer, despite being traded to a team other than Minnesota, it's still a gamble that could pay off very handsomely for a team willing to make a deal for one of the most explosive offensive players in the game.

Tomorrow, we'll bring you the list of guys who've been in trade rumours, but aren't too likely to be going anywhere.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Week From the Trade Deadline, Who's Most Likely to Move?

The week before the trade deadline has always been a fun time to be an NHL fan, but with the advent of so many hockey trade rumour web sites and television "insiders" who are always trying to get the latest scoop, deadline day is a bigger deal than ever.

Every year I scoff at the TV commercials from Sportsnet and TSN, I think "not this year" and pledge not to get up early and watch the coverage from the start, which this year begins on both the major Canadian cable sports networks at 8 AM ET, or that I won't be checking hockey web sites every five minutes to see if a new trade has happened. And every year, I fail in this pledge.

With rumours about what players might move seemingly everywhere, with some big names making the rounds, over the next few days we'll be posting our list of some of the names that have cropped up in rumours most often. We'll start today with the most likely to be traded category, and will follow with the maybe/maybe not and staying put categories later this week. These players have been sorted using a complex system of guesswork, common sense, and logic. But don't put money on who's being traded based on what's written below. Or if you do...don't blame us if you lose your shirt.

The "Most Likely to be Packing" Guys: Erik Cole (Edmonton), Colby Armstrong (Atlanta), Jordan Leopold (Colorado), Chris Neil (Ottawa), Nikolai Antropov (Toronto), Niclas Havelid (Atlanta), Sean O'Donnell (LA), Kyle Calder (LA), Ian Laperriere (Colorado), Dan Hinote (St. Louis), Radek Bonk (Nashville), Greg de Vries (Nashville), Ville Koistinen (Nashville), Gary Roberts (Tampa Bay), Mark Recchi (Tampa Bay), Filip Kuba (Ottawa), Dominic Moore (Toronto).

There's not a lot of big name guys here, and for good reason: these are the kind of players that move most often during deadline day. Yes, Marian Hossa, Brian Campbell and Brad Richards were traded at last season's deadline, but that was just three of the 25 trades that were done that day. For the most part, these guys have smaller contracts easy to fit under a buyer's salary cap that are expiring this summer, are playing on teams unlikely to make the playoffs and very unlikely to bring them back next season, and can fulfill the needs a lot of contending teams have at the trade deadline have, namely some depth at forward or defense and a few goals here and there, but they aren't top line players. Some specific thoughts:

  • If there's a player deserving of a "most likely to be traded" tag, it's probably Nik Antropov. Called out publicly by Toronto GM Brian Burke recently for his play, Antropov isn't going to be re-signed for next season by the Leafs, isn't needed this season by a Leafs team that doesn't have a shot at making the playoffs, and could look good on the second line of any number of teams.

  • Brought in in the summer specifically to play left wing on Edmonton's top line, Erik Cole couldn't make the transition from the right side, where he'd played his whole career, and despite a few good games recently, just hasn't fit in with the Oilers. His $4 million salary might scare off a few teams, but someone should find room, and Edmonton will want to get something for him while they still can. The only way Cole doesn't get dealt is if no one comes to the Oilers with a good enough offer for him.

  • Despite being over 40, Roberts and Recchi can still offer some veteran savvy to a team in a playoff spot. Recchi has even proved this season he can still play, especially on the power play.

  • Fun fact: when Sean O'Donnell was dealt from Anaheim to LA in the summer, the Ducks thought it was so likely the Kings would trade him before the deadline they worked the trade so that the draft pick they get will be higher if the Kings move him.

  • Chris Neil, Dominic Moore and Ian Laperriere are all reported to be negotiating with their current teams on contract extensions, but are also reportedly not close to signing. If no contract is made in the next few days, all thre will likely be dealt, as their teams will be trying to rebuild with younger guys next season. All three of them, along with Dan Hinote, Kyle Calder and Radek Bonk fit into the category of players who can play a third or fourth line role and play it well, especially on a good team.

  • Filip Kuba has a no-trade clause in his contract, but he waived it this summer so that Tampa Bay could trade him to Ottawa. With no contract for next season and any offer of such from the rebuilding Senators unlikely, Ottawa will want to move Kuba, but he'll have the final say.
If all goes as planned, we'll bring you our list of "maybe, maybe not" to be traded guys Thursday, with the "staying put" player list on Friday.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

All Star Game Needs Revamp

I'm a huge hockey fan. I love to watch the NHL on TV. Though I'm not a Habs fan, I have a lot of respect for the Canadiens, their history, and the city of Montreal. And I didn't watch more than two minutes of the All Star Game this past weekend in Montreal, and I didn't miss it.

Something is wrong with this.

I have no memory of watching it last year in Atlanta either. I'm sure I didn't the year before when it was in Dallas, when for some inexplicable reason the league scheduled it in the middle of the week. Both of the two seasons before that there was no All Star Game. I didn't really notice.

Oh, I used to like the All Star Game. I was at the 1989 game in Edmonton as a kid, when fans gave Wayne Gretzky, who had been traded barely seven months previous, a massive standing ovation. For years after that the ASG had a soft spot in my heart; I watched every moment I could, from the skills competition to the player introductions to the last seconds of the game.

But ever since the NHL started to tinker with the teams in 1998 with it's failed "North America vs. the World" format, the game has desperately needed a revamp.

Oh sure, some people say the game is just for corporate schmoozing anyway, that unless you're there for the fan interactive exhibits you can't get the whole experience and the TV broadcast is really secondary.

That's all well and good, but when players are declining invites to the festivities en masse, injured or otherwise, and the league is responding by suspending players, well, something's got to be done. Instead of forcing guys to participate, the league should be looking for new ways to make the game fun for the players and relevant for the fans again. Here's a few suggestions:

1) Come up with a new format every year, unique to the city the game is in. The first idea that comes to mind, with the game in Montreal? French Canadian players vs. everyone else. That's right, we're celebrating cultural and language differences with the All Star Game. Fans all over Quebec would completely eat it up, and would go wild if the French team won. You could even give the French side Sidney Crosby, since he played his junior hockey in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, despite being from Nova Scotia.

For a game in California, you could have players from the three California teams against the rest of the league. Game in Buffalo? Players from teams in cities as cold or colder than Buffalo vs. players from everywhere warmer. In Colorado, play Joe Sakic's favourite players against Peter Forsberg's favourite players, and have the two icons coach the teams. Maybe not every venue would suggest an All Star Game idea very easily, but the point is, be creative and have some fun with it. Have five suggestions, and have fans vote for their favourite.

The game is in Phoenix, where Wayne Gretzky is coach and part owner, in 2011; why not have guys who idolized Gretzky growing up against guys who idolized Mario Lemieux?

2) Eliminate the All Star Game entirely, and have the Outdoor Game the centrepiece of the NHL's showcase weekend. The majority of players seem to like having a weekend in the middle of the season off, and the league's new annual outdoor hockey game, this past year held January 1st in Chicago, has already surpassed the ASG in many ways, including the amount of American TV ratings and goodwill it generates. Sure, only two teams play, but where's the downside in that? You'd still do the weekend the same way; shut down the regular NHL schedule for five or six days and include all the exhibits, events, and corporate schmoozing you would in a normal All Star Game weekend, and no players would back out because it's still a regular season game for the two teams playing.

You'd still do the skills competition, but it would be by invitation or fan voting, which might be better for the skills competition anyway because a lot of guys who could compete for titles in the individual events don't make the All Star teams. Imagine a fastest skater competition where the players invited are Calgary's Matt Lombardi, Edmonton's Andrew Cogliano, Columbus's Jason Chimera, and some of the other guys who are fast but don't have the hands to be All Stars. It might be lacking a bit in star power, but you might actually get an answer to the question of who's really the fastest skater in the league.

3) Pick the best 40 players in the league, throw their sticks in a pile in the middle of the ice, and divide them up shinny style, throwing one to each end until they're all divvied up. Sure you might get nine defensemen on one side and only three on the other, but man, would it ever be fun. Coaches would have to do some quick thinking and put their lineups together fast. You could tie the player introductions that always seem to take forever at the start of the game broadcast to the stick throwing and spice them up a little. And there could be a contest to be the lucky fan who's blindfolded at centre ice and gets to throw the sticks.

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