Monday, March 10, 2008

Prolonged Absence

The time between posts is ridiculous. I will leave it at that and otherwise ignore the fact that I left this space untouched for three plus months.

NHL playoff races are heating up and unexpectedly the Senators are in the middle of it. I say unexpectedly given that when I last posted the Sens were still very comfortably out in front of the pack. Since then they have been at times decent but mostly a disaster. They have gotten a coach fired and stumbled back and forth between goaltenders and left themselves as nobodies favourite to come out of the Eastern Conference.

The biggest surprise in the East has been the play of Alexei Kovalev. He has been remarkably consistent all year in living up to his enormous talent and has gone a step further to be a leader and mentor on a young Habs squad that should only get better over the next couple of years. A close second and possibly first has been the fact that the Boston Bruins, minus Patrice Bergeron, have been in a playoff spot most of the year. It just shows that coaching really can make a big difference. The only major addition from last season on the ice, Manny Fernandez, has hardly played but the off-ice addition of Claude Julien has obviously made them a better team.

More to come soon.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Waiver Development

The Anaheim Ducks put Ilya Bryzgalov on waivers this afternoon. This was a surprise to most hockey fans and analysts and is perhaps as interesting a development in how teams will deal with players under the new CBA as the Oilers tendering of offer sheets last summer. Still young and generally well regarded, Bryzgalov is the kind of player who should have theoretically had some value. Despite efforts to trade him, however, Burke resorted to this. He stated that he was fulfilling a promise to the player to find him somewhere to play but it still seems odd to just let an asset go in a league where young, affordable players are the backbone of successful franchises. His pending unrestricted free-agency was said to be an obstacle but even that should have been easy to deal with. Sometimes these things just come out of left field and might be better understood with a little time.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Hockey Hall of Fame

Last night was the induction of what is being called the greatest class ever to enter the Hockey Hall of Fame. While there is no quibbling with the credentials each new inductee presents, I do think the selections demonstrate a bias that has not been discussed as much as it maybe should be. It is supposed to be the Hockey Hall of Fame and therefore not specific to the NHL and left out of the list of inductees was Igor Larionov. Larionov didn't play in the NHL until he was thirty years old. By that time, he had established a very impressive resume in international hockey winning both gold medals and world championships. After that, he played thirteen productive seasons in the NHL and won Stanley Cups in Detroit. He was a slick playmaker, good goal scorer and all around complete player.

By contrast, Scott Stevens, probably the weakest of the new inductees, was less accomplished before he moved to New Jersey where he would play the last thirteen years of his career. A good all-around defenseman, Stevens was physical and strong defensively and reasonably productive offensively. He finished his career with decent but unspectacular offensive numbers and is remembered for being a punishing hitter and a three-time Stanley Cup champion. Both of these are strong accomplishments but also representative of team success and teamwork. Stevens could take the big hit because players like Ken Daneyko and Scott Niedermayer were there to take the puck and make smart plays with it. He won Cups not only because he was a great captain but also because he was surrounded by excellent players. This is not to say that Larionov didn't benefit from great teammates but simply to point out that on merit, he is probably more deserving of joining this class and pushing Stevens into waiting for next year. As it stands, I would be shocked if Larionov didn't headline the class of 2008 but it doesn't take the fun out of discussing it.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Bounce Back

The Senators bounced back from their second loss of the season and from a one goal deficit to down the Habs this afternoon. Again Alfredsson led the way, scoring when they needed a goal and playing hard on every shift until that point. Heatley does seem to miss Spezza, even if the team is 5 and 1 with him out of the lineup but they are getting strong play from every line even if the production isn't always there. Gerber was again good when he needed to be and shut the door once the team took the lead, making a couple nice saves in the last minute. Detroit extended their winning strea to 9 games last night, beating division rival and upstart Columbus, a test similar to the one provided Ottawa by Montreal. It seems these two teams have put some distance between themselves and the rest of the league.

Interesting amongst the similarities between the Red Wings and Senators is the play of Henrik Zetterberg. Picked even lower than Alfredsson, 210th overall in the 7th round versus 133rd in the 6th round, Both players are late bloomers, though Zetterberg at 27 is younger than Alfredsson, and they play a similar sort of game. Both are almost equally adept playmakers and finishers. Neither is big but both are strong and physical and great defensive players in addition to their offensive gifts. If there was a Hart Trophy for the first quarter of the season it would probably come down to these two with another late round Swede, Henrik Lundqvist, perhaps interjecting himself in the conversation as the only reason that his team is winning.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, I was at the Civic Centre last night to see the 67s play the Oshawa Generals and John Tavares, who has been annointed as the number one pick in his draft year, even though there remains another draft between now and his eligibility. He does have remarkable game breaking talent, scoring twice and assisting on another despite seeming to have a fairly quiet night. His skating needs work as he had a couple of one on one rushes and even the OHL defensemen didn't have to fear his beating them to the outside but that is an easy obstacle to overcome. He does have the goal-scorers instinct for where the puck is going to end up and an incredible set of hands that he showcased not only in the game action but also in the Charity shootout that took place in the first intermission. He scored three goals on four shots with three competely different moves and you almost had to feel sorry for 67s goalie Adam Courchaine. The 67s kept it close before allowing the Generals to bounce back from a one goal deficit with about five minutes left in the game. It was, as usual, a very entertaining hockey game and great value for the $15 dollar tickets.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Senators Keep Rolling

Even without Jason Spezza in the lineup, the Sens continue to win games and look impressive. On an eight game winning streak going into tonight's game against Washington, the Sens have already put a little bit of distance between themselves and the other Eastern Conference teams. Detroit has done much the same thing in the West and is also now on an eight game winning streak. The two teams are in many ways similar and each has a Swedish right-winger who is setting the pace for the race to the Hart Trophy. Both Henrik Zetterburg and Daniel Alfredsson are racking up points while playing a complete game in all three zones and all situations.

The other news around the NHL today is the official announcement of Eric Lindros' retirement. The subsequent question has been whether or not he deserves to be admitted to the Hall of Fame when the time comes for that. The best article that I have read with regard to that question was by Stephen Brunt in today's Globe and Mail. Based on the standards that have been set by the Hall of Fame, Lindros' resume stacks up fairly comparably especially with Cam Neely whose career was similarly shortened and whose career overlapped Lindros'. Lindros did put up good point per game numbers, won in international hockey (though never won a Stanley Cup and only played in one final) and was for a period of time one of the games more intimidating players.

The question, I guess, should be can the Hall of Fame now begin to adjust its admission standards. To a lesser extent, the question is also whether sentiment enters into it and if it does, certain aspects of Lindros' personality and certain off-ice actions may hold him back. Certainly other factors have kept Dino Ciccarelli, a career six-hundred goal scorer, out of the Hall while several guys who never even approached that number being inducted ahead of him. Lindros certainly never lived up to the hype and the trade that paved the way for him to enter the league is considered one of the worst ever. It is reasonable to debate whether his career even stacks up to Peter Forsberg's, just one of the players included in the package that went to Quebec. To my mind, those sorts of questions mean that any consideration of Lindros has to be made in conjunction with the other eligible players in his year. Certainly, I would take Forsberg ahead of him (if his foot situation forces him to also retire this year) and he would definitely fall short of this year's class of Messier, Francis, MacInnis and Stevens as well as Igor Larionov who was overlooked this year. The question will be answered three years from now and will probably be easier to judge with at least that distance.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Busy Weekends All Around

A busy weekend in my world was also a busy weekend in the world of sport. The Patriots came through in possibly the biggest regular season game in the history of the NFL and preserved for at least another two weeks (as they have a bye this week) the talk of them pursuing an undefeated season. Despite seeming to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, the Colts kept the Pats in check for much of the afternoon and showed that they are certainly in the same class. Chances are pretty good these two teams will meet again since nobody else seems to be able to stay close to them. Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings was able to steal just a small portion of the attention by rushing for an NFL record 296 yards. Considering this was only his eighth NFL game, he seems poised to set at least a few more records before his career is over.

In the NHL, the Senators won two more games. They downed Boston on back to back nights, demonstrating excellent perseverance in the face of a hot goalie who was stopping almost everything thrown at him. They found a way to score despite that and managed to win both games. Jason Spezza, fresh from signing his new long term extension was unable to play because of his lingering groin injury. Randy Robitaille and Mike Fisher have each had solid games in his place but it will be a big boost if he can be in the lineup for tomorrow's game against the Leafs though that prospect seems dim. Martin Gerber played well both Saturday and Sunday but I would expect Ray Emery will get the nod after Gerber played both games of the home and home. This seems to be a big week for divisional rivalry games. The Habs and Leafs are doing the tour of the Northeast Division (the Sens will see Montreal on Saturday) and there is a substantial number of divisional games throughout the league tonight and through the rest of the week which should make for some interesting hockey.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Senators Situation

After two great periods last night, the Senators had a lacklustre third period and almost blew what should have been an incredibly safe lead. The defensive coverage broke down a little bit and Ray Emery wasn't able to come up with the big save. Hopefully a lesson can be learned from it and they will remember the next time that they need to play all sixty minutes no matter what the score is.

On a more positive note, this afternoon brought the news that Jason Spezza has signed a seven-year, $49 million dollar contract extension. This is good news despite the almost perpetual concern of repeating the mistake made by the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Heatley/Spezza duo is probably the best combo in the league. The Sens seem to be on track to not fall victim to the Tampa Bay syndrome for a couple of reasons.

One is that we already have some of our depth players locked up at more reasonable sums, namely Fisher, Phillips and Volchenkov. Not to mention the incredible value that we are getting from Daniel Alfredsson. They have a solid goaltender under contract for the next two years and a good goaltending prospect coming. They have valuable veterans like Dean McAmmond and Shean Donovan willing to play here for a reasonable amount of money.

The other advantage that the Senators have is the great job that they have done in the draft. Tampa has struggle because since signing the contracts with their big three they have not had young players come in and play prominent roles for them. The Senators have managed to slide a first round pick into the lineup almost every year. Nick Foligno, Patrick Eaves, Andrej Meszaros and Anton Volchenkov were all picked in the 20s in the first round since 2000. Tim Gleason was as well and he is playing regularly for Carolina. Brian Lee looks like he'll be ready to play in the NHL next year. We have managed to find solid prospects like Brian Elliott and Ilya Zubov and current contributors like Chris Neil and Chris Kelly in the later rounds. This means that even if players like Kelly or Vermette leave, which would be unfortunate, there will likely be someone who can step into their place.