Friday, 26 November 2010

Surprises and thanks

Only one team, Detroit, has played fewer than 20 games. Here are some thoughts on the season so far:
  • Some growing pains should have been expected, but a season as bad as this one is a total shock. The Devils haven't won three games in a row in almost a year and are looking less and less like the team that frustrated me and every other Flyers fans for years. Does anybody else think Martin Brodeur should go back to his old style mask? For years, the Devils were all about the team, now it seems they are thinking more on individual terms. A player like Ilya Kovalchuk would never have been signed by the Devils a decade ago and for the past three years it seems their main focus has been getting Martin Brodeur his records. If there's one thing that shows this transition, its Marty's mask. It used to feature half the logo because he wasn't sure if he was good enough to make the team when he was younger. Now it says MB 30, like he just wants to promote himself, again, something that would not have happened a decade ago. 
  • Henrik and Daniel Sedin lead the Canucks with an identical 26 points in 21 games. Three other Canucks are tied with 14 points. The difference between the two brothers is that Daniel has 13 goals while Henrik, last season's Hart Trophy winner, has two. For those too lazy to do the math, that is a pace of eight over an entire season. That's right, stylistically, I am not allowed to write the projected goal totals of last season's Hart Trophy winner numerically, I must write it out. Does that seem wrong to anyone else?
  • The Buffalo Sabres are in 12th place in the East and the Devils sit in 14th while the Rangers and Thrashers occupy the 7th and 8th spots. In the West, the Blue Jackets are in 4th, the Blackhawks are in 7th, and San Jose sits in 9th place and out of playoff position. I know its early, but if you thought any of those teams would be where they are (not counting fans of those teams), maybe you should be interning for The Hockey News instead of me (but not really).
There's plenty to be thankful for, both in hockey and in life. I am thankful:
  • for Danny Briere's fist pump on one knee after each goal.
  • for Ryan Miller's spectacular performance during the Olympics that had many non-hockey fans coming up to me and talking about hockey in the weeks after the Games. 
  • I get to watch the Ovechkin/Crosby rivalry from start to finish, whenever that may be.
  • for Jeremy Roenick and the three years he spent in Philadelphia. Few are as passionate about hockey as he is and unlike many players, he is never afraid to show a little emotion. We need more of that in today's game.
  • for being able to witness history twice last year: the Flyers completing the greatest comeback in sports history after being down 3-0 (twice) and the Blackhawks winning their first Cup since Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull were a couple of young guns in 1961.
  • Ray Bourque's Avalanche beat the Devils in 2001 in a series that marked my official beginning as a hockey fanatic.
  • for Eric Lindros, John LeClair, Eric Desjardins, Keith Primeau, Mark Recchi, Rod Brind'Amour, Brian Boucher, Simon Gagne and all the other Flyers I watched when I was younger.
  • for playoffs beards and those who can't really grow them but try anyway.
  • for my Mom winning a trip to the Olympics which led to my chance meeting with Ken Campbell in what what was beyond the greatest trip I could have ever dreamed.
  • I live in a place where I will be able to spend my life talking about a game I have loved since I was six.
  • for my parents loving hockey as much as I do and taking me to all of those games.
  • my Mom did everything in her power to make my high school somewhat tolerable and got it a hockey team.
  • for my Dad's willingness to drive for several days to watch a hockey game that means nothing to us as Flyers fans but everything to us as hockey fans.
  • my brother loves sports in a fashion other than 'my team rules and your team sucks because I say so' and that it rubbed off on me (eventually).
  • my sister makes an effort to like sports and even when she doesn't for the uncanny ability to make me laugh.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Steven Stamkos' Sizzling Season

During last year's playoffs, the NHL ran an ad campaign that featured the phrase "History Will Be Made." It sure was as there were many memorable stories in the playoffs including the Flyers' comeback against Boston after being down 3-0 (twice) and the Blackhawks winning the Stanley Cup for the first time in 49 years. They should have kept that slogan for this season as well, at the very least just for Steven Stamkos. With his hat-trick against the Flyers in a wild game on Thursday, Stamkos now has 19 goals in 19 games to start the season. If he is able to keep up this pace, Stamkos will join the exclusive 50 in 50 club, a group whose emebers include Maurice "Rocket" Richard, Mike Bossy, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Brett Hull, and well...thats it. From what I hear, those guys were pretty good at hockey so thats not a bad group to join. It's still early in the season, but since the halfway mark of his rookie season, Stamkos has been the best goal scorer in the league.

This is the second best start to a season since the lockout. Even Alex Ovechkin hasn't scored this many goals through 19 games; the most he has had was 17 last year when he finished with 50 goals. When he scored 65 in 2007-08, he only had 13 through the first 19. The best start so far has been Simon Gagne in 2005-06 when he scored 20 goals in the first 19 games, though a large part of that was the play of Peter Forsberg (remember him?) who had 30 assists in the first 19 games. Gagne would finish the season with 47 goals in 72 games.

The last two seasons, Martin St-Louis has played the Forsberg to Stamkos's Gagne as evidenced by his career high 65 assists last season and career pace of 18 in 19 games, a pace of 78 over a full season. Since the 2002-03 season, St. Louis has been by far the most consistent and important member of the Lightning. Its no coincidence whenever a player in Tampa Bay has a career, they see the tenacious winger on their right side the majority of the time. When Lecavalier won the Richard Trophy with 52 goals, St. Louis was right there with him the whole season, adding a then career high of 59 assists. St. Louis is a very crafty player with a strong chemistry with Stamkos and should be able to consistently set him up.

Stamkos has a lot more going for him than just a great linemate. His shot is easily one of the best in the league. Having already proven his one-timer from the left circle is money (seriously, how do teams keep letting him get open?) he has shown to be as accurate as anybody. He can put the puck where ever he wants from where ever he is on the ice, even from his butt. He is also durable having only missed three game thus far in his career and those were due to being healthy scratch by Coach Melrose. He is a strong skater and while he is always in the play, does not play with the kamikaze style of an Ovechkin or, to a lesser extent, a Crosby. There's no telling what may happen over the course of the next 31 games. He has quite a pace to maintain, one the NHL hasn't seen since 1991-92 when Brett Hull did it. Fortunately, Stamkos is smart as well as skilled and should be able to find new ways to score on the off chance teams remember to pay attention when he drifts towards the stick-side faceoff circle on the power-play. As was proved last Spring, it is really exciting to watching long-standing barriers and records broken or matched. On January 23, the Thrashers visit the Lightning, tune in to see if Stamkos pumps his fists for the 50th time this season.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

It's been a while. Let's get started shall we...

  • I was watching the Bruins-Canadiens game last night when Jeff Halpern had a goal waved off because he kicked the puck into the net. According to NHL rules,  a goal can be allowed off of a skate as long as there is no distinct kicking motion. Is it just me, or does that allow for too much grey area? For those who didn't see the disallowed goal, Halpern was going hard to the net, took a pass off his skate, and the puck bounced into the net before he could get his stick on it. This is where the grey area comes in. When watching the replay, it can easily be argued that Halpern was simply trying to stop in front of the net, rather than run over Tuukka Rask. The key to situations such as these, is the leg must be going in a pendulum motion for the goal to be disallowed, something rather hard to see in a game where players' legs churn as quickly as in hockey. It is just too hard to judge just what it is the player in question was intending to do. Here is what I would recommend: allow a goal that is kicked in as long as the puck is not in the crease at the time. It is a simple, black and white rule that can be easily judged by the refs calling the game. At least if this were the rule, one inconsistency in the game (and there are plenty of others) will be taken away.
  • With the exception of Steven Stamkos, if the season ended today there would be a chance that all three finalists for the Hart Trophy would be goaltenders. As of November 12, five goaltenders have a GAA under 2.0: Mathieu Garon (1.28), Tim Thomas (1.39), Jonathan Quick (1.58), Jaroslav Halak (1.79) and Antero Niittymaki (1.80). Sure, its early in the season, but these goaltenders are playing out of this world. Each of them has their team in a position well ahead of what was expected of them; the only exception is Niittymaki's Sharks who currently sit in 12th place in the Western Conference, though that is largely do to the play of last year's Stanley Cup winning goalie Antti Niemi who cannot seem to find his groove in San Jose with his 3.91 GAA and .870 save percentage. Garon is definitely the most surprising name among those. The career backup has been exceptional, keeping former rookie of the year Steve Mason on the bench while he is leading the Blue Jackets into playoff position for just the second time. One of the feel good stories of the year so far, Thomas has regained his Vezina Trophy winning form from two seasons ago. This is a player who has had to fight and scrap for years in order to get into the NHL and even then many though he would be out of the league n a few years. He remains undefeated and went six games this season before giving up more than one goal in a game. The Bruins have full confidence in Thomas and it is east to tell the team is more relaxed when he is in goal as compared to Tuukka Rask. Quick and Halak are both leading their teams to surprising starts. Quick's Kings are at the top of the Western Conference and the Blues are tied with the Red Wings for the top spot in the Central Division. Both teams were expected, by me at least, to have good seasons this year, but stingy goaltending has transformed them into two of the most dominate teams in the league. Of course, it would be ridiculous to expect these goalies to keep up this pace for an entire season, but few players are more instrumental in their teams' success than these players. There hasn't been a Hart Trophy winning goalie since Jose Theodore in 2001-02; how Miller didn't win it last year I can't figure out. Goaltending may be the most important position in sports, these guys deserve more respect and credit for their teams' success.
  • This year's All-Star Game will feature a new format for selecting teams, and in tern, eliminating the East vs. West format altogether. Two captains will choose the teams, with the fans voting in the starting line-up. The list of players eligible to be picked can be found here. It will be interesting to see who are picked to be the captains. I know to East-West format is officially gone, but I think a fair way to do this every year, if this format becomes the norm, would be to have the captains of the previous year's Stanley Cup Final do the picking. Other than a fan vote, which would probably produce Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin as captains every year, this seems the fairest way to pick the captains. If that is the case, it will be fun to watch Mike Richards and Jonathan Toews square up against each other again. In terns of who is on the ballot, it seems every year the players eligible to be selected are picked before the season even begins. It will be just as interesting to see who is picked last as the All-Star game is becoming gym class all over again. Every year there are snubs and players on the ballot that do not deserve to be there. I understand the NHL wants a representative from each team, but does anyone on the Devils really deserve to be there? Zach Parise is injured and Ilya Kovalchuk and Martin Brodeur are in the middle of the worst season in each of their careers. Among other players on the ballot who aren't having All-Star caliber seasons are Boston's Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci (2 goals in 13 and 11 games respectively), Calgary's Jarome Iginla (2 goals and 8 points in 15 games), Montreal captain Brian Gionta (3 goals and 6 points in 16 games), New York Rangers' Marina Gaborik (2 assists in 4 games), San Jose's Antti Niemi (.872 save %, 3.91 GAA), and Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf (4 assists and a -6 in 11 games), just to name a few. All have been great players in the past, but are simply not getting it done this year. They may be the big names that could possibly draw in audiences (I think I get the point now, actually) but are in the place of more deserving players like Colorado's Chris Stewart (10 goals, 18 points in 15 games), Chicago's Patrick Sharp (10 goals, 17 points in 17 games), New York Rangers' Brandon Dubinsky (10 goals, 15 points in 16 games), Philadelphia's Sergei Bobrovsky (9-2-1 record, .931 save %, 2.09 GAA), and Washington's Alex Semin (12 goals, 21 points in 16 games), as well as plenty of others. One other thing they did was take away the Young Stars game. It was an interesting idea, highlighted by Kovalchuk's 6 goals in 2002, but players there give even less effort than the All-Star Game. Instead, 12 rookies will be invited to take place in the skills competition, though they won't make an appearance in the game itself. It seems its like this every year though, and I guess for an every where even the players don't put much effort into anyway, it won't make much of a difference.