16 February 2006

T.H. - The Olympic Edition

Treasure Hunting, the Hockey Edition

By Rob Aquino


The format of the Olympic hockey tournament has changed in so many ways over the years – from the development of a formal medal round to dropping the amateur requirement (a fuzzy requirement at best for some of the former Soviet teams) in recent years, nonetheless it rarely fails to generate excitement. This year’s tournament is underway, and for hockey fans everywhere will hopefully provide drama on par with many past tournaments.

Many players have used the Olympics as a stepping stone to success in the NHL – back in the “amateur” days there was more of a sense of “coming out of nowhere” as most of the public hadn’t heard of the players until the tournament began. 1980’s “Miracle On Ice” United States team contained players such as Neal Broten, Dave Christian, and Ken Morrow who all went on to great success in the NHL. 1988 was the last hurrah for the legendary and mysterious Russian “KLM” line of Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov, and Sergei Makarov as they took gold in Calgary. Soon afterwards, players behind the Iron Curtain began to defect and find their way to North America. A better way of life, to be sure, but much intrigue was to be lost forever in international hockey.

1992 was an emotional tournament in which the unheralded United States – led by goalie Ray LeBlanc – went undefeated in their first six games to reach the medal round (where they lost their last two, finishing fourth). The eventual winner was the so-called “Unified Team” which was comprised of members of the former Soviet Union. And in 1994 Peter Forsberg “stamped” his presence on the international stage with his legendary shootout goal against Corey “lawsuit” Hirsch.

The format is drastically different now, with established professionals being allowed to compete, so the chances are less that an unheralded or unknown player will suddenly make himself known, especially on the Canadian or United States teams which are primarily comprised of veterans. Yet there’s always the chance that the world stage brings something out in a player and they reach new levels of success –recall Dominik Hasek’s performance at the 1998 Olympics: he had been considered an excellent goaltender before then but his incredible play leading the Czechs to gold cemented his status as an all-time legend of the game. He went on that season to win his second consecutive league MVP and over the next two seasons in the NHL he led his Buffalo Sabres to semi-final and final appearances.

The nostalgic part of me undoubtedly misses the “old” format – using the best amateur and junior level players in the world. For me, I’d rather see an eager college kid (e.g. 19-year old Brian Leetch -1988) manning the point than a 43-year old uber-veteran like Chris Chelios. Yet I also recognize that without the often-abused “amateur” tag as a barrier, we now have a true world tournament pitting the absolute best players in the world against each other, with perhaps as many as eight teams with a legitimate medal chance. I’d rather see the reinstitution of the old Canada Cup / World Cup format, with a return to the younger players in the Olympics, but that time has likely passed.

This week I’m offering a few quick one-timers on a few non-superstar players competing in the Turin Olympics who have been playing quite well of late in the NHL – some “underdog” names to watch for. I think each of them could have a big impact on their teams for the remainder of the NHL season.

Maxim Afinogenov, Winger, Buffalo Sabres - Russia

Maxim Afinogenov has been labeled a “Pavel Bure” clone for years now – fairly or not - but has never come close to validating that label on the scoresheet. He did score 21 goals in his third season and total 40 points but that has been his high until this year. With 14 goals and 42 points, statistically he’s on pace for his best year on paper, but watching him play it becomes especially obvious that he’s made great strides in all facets of the game. He is playing much more aggressively –not unwilling to muck it up and go after the puck in the corners - and when the situation calls for some puck control there may be nobody better in the entire league at stickhandling than Afinogenov. He still lacks that killer finishing touch which could turn him into a perennial 40-goal scorer, and at times actually seems to be playing “too fast” – he needs to find that ability to vary his speeds (and thereby not knock linemates offsides), but overall this season he has transformed himself from merely a talented curiosity into an integral part of the diverse Buffalo offense. Immediately before the Olympic break Afinogenov was on a four game point scoring streak with seven points and as a bonus was a +5. Now might be the time to grab the speedy Maxim and if you are in deep keeper leagues might be worth a gamble hanging onto in the off-season if he continues his confident play into the fall.

David Vyborny, Winger, Columbus Blue Jackets - Czech Republic

It’s hard to make the case that a team’s leading scorer is a sleeper pick, but when you’re the leading scorer of the Columbus Blue Jackets, and you’re not Rick Nash, it may be legitimate. David Vyborny has actually been around for a while compared to other players we’ve profiled – currently in his fifth NHL season, he also played eight professional seasons before arriving in North America for good, playing mostly in the Czech League (with one spent in the American Hockey League). Vyborny was a second round pick of the Oilers way back in 1993 and has since – as mentioned – bounced all over the world. He made his way to the Columbus organization in 2000 and has put up average-at-best offensive statistics over the past four seasons on a mostly very weak club. This year again started out poorly for the Blue Jackets (winning only five of their first 23 games) and Vyborny especially, who notched a mere five points in the first month. However since the new year, Vyborny has been hot and the Jackets have improved their play. Vyborny has scored 22 points in his last 17 games, 12 of those points coming on the power play. That’s a long hot stretch, one that makes it likely that with 44 points to date, he’ll top his previous season high of 53 points.

Marek Zidlicky, Defense, Nashville Predators - Czech Republic

If for some reason Marek Zidlicky is available in your fantasy league, you’re in great luck - he has become one of the top defensemen in the league without deserved fanfare. The Czech Republic is a favorite to medal in this tournament and Zidlicky is a crucial cog in their mobile defensive corps. The relatively unknown defenseman has a similar resume to David Vyborny’s in that he played nine seasons overseas before coming to the NHL. In this season, only his second in North America, he has 40 points (with ten power play goals) from the blueline and is a +6 for the powerful Nashville Predators. He’s an exciting player to watch and should continue his production as the Preds battle for first overall in the West.

Jochen Hecht, Center/Wing, Buffalo Sabres - Germany

Sadly for Germany – and of course Jochen Hecht himself – Hecht went down last week with a knee injury last week and is unable to play in the Olympics. Over the past few weeks Hecht has become one of the most important players for the Buffalo Sabres, if not the most important. With injuries to two of their top scorers in Daniel Briere and more recently Tim Connolly, Hecht moved over to center from his familiar wing position and has added a scoring touch to his strong defensive game, with five points in the six games that Connolly has missed. Hecht will never put together a season with huge numbers but his overall play makes him a very valuable player – as long as the Sabres continue to have injury woes, look for Hecht to remain in a bit of a scorer’s role, and he could be especially valuable if he qualifies in your league at center and wing.

Fedor Tyutin, Defense, New York Rangers - Russia

Second-year Russian defenseman Fedor Tyutin played one year in the Canadian Junior system and was the defensive anchor of the 2002 Memorial Cup host Guelph Storm, scoring an impressive 69 points in 62 games overall that season. He had yet to regain anywhere near that scoring touch until this year, where currently Tyutin is the leading defensive scorer on the division-leading Rangers, with 21 points in 54 games. Even though his overall numbers aren’t exactly eye-popping, if you take out an early season 14-game pointless streak he’s been fairly steady at about a point every other game, which is quite good from the defensive position. As the baby on Team Russia’s blueline, the Olympic experience could be a big one for Tyutin, and the Rangers should benefit. Tyutin could be an excellent depth addition to your defense for the remainder of the season.

Mikael Tellqvist, goaltender, Toronto Maple Leafs- Sweden

As has been the custom for most of this decade, this season started with high goals for Leafs fans. After the first few months of the season, those lofty goals looked not entirely out of reach, yet hard times have befallen the 1967 Stanley Cup champions and as of the Olympic break would be out of the playoff picture in the East. One part of the Leaf failure is the play of veteran Ed Belfour who continues to get the bulk of the starts yet statistically is far inferior to young Mikael Tellqvist. Tellqvist has played only 14 games this year to Belfour’s 45, yet has much better goals-against and save percentage numbers. At this point it is impossible to predict what coach Pat Quinn will do – he favors the veteran players for certain, but with Toronto embarking on a desperate run to simply make the playoffs, keep an eye on the netminding situation – Belfour is not the future of the team at age 40 and whether Tellqvist is or not is also uncertain. But if Belfour falters severely, look for the Leafs to rely on the Swede Tellqvist.

For the Olympic tournament, Tellqvist will likely be backing up Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers’ stellar rookie goalie.

Evgeni Malkin, Center/Wing, (property of Pittsburgh Penguins) - Russia

This is purely an entry under “long-term potential” and “keeper.” This Olympic tournament will be the first chance for much of the world to view the electrifying talents of Penguins’ draft choice Evgeni Malkin. Selected second overall in 2004 after Alexander Ovechkin, Malkin is described as a scintillating franchise player – something the Penguins are slowly stockpiling. If your league allows it, grab Malkin whenever you can and stow him away. Then watch the Russian team play over the next week and a half, and picture next year’s top line in Pittsburgh with Malkin next to Sidney Crosby. Better yet, picture that line in about three years when the team should be more mature and their young stars have likely begun to gel - Penguins fans can only hope the team is still in Pittsburgh at the time.

Feedback can be sent to robaquino@sportsblurb.com.

09 February 2006

Hartnell, Huet, Stempniak

Treasure Hunting, the Hockey Edition

By Rob Aquino


The NHL is in their final week of play before taking a two-week Olympic layoff. With that layoff comes a roster freeze, but don’t expect general managers to not be extremely active behind the closed curtain. After the NHL resumes there are only nine days until the trading deadline (March 9th) so I expect that the genesis of many deadline deals will take place in the next few weeks.

As mentioned in last week’s column, many teams have already begun to restructure their squads, either in anticipation or hopes of a long playoff run (e.g. Nashville), desperation to make the playoffs (Montreal), or simply throwing in the towel on 2006 and rebuilding for 2007 and beyond (St. Louis). Today’s column looks at a player on each of those teams and we’ll take a look at how they could contribute down the stretch.

Scott Hartnell, Winger/Center, Nashville Predators

Drafted sixth overall in 2000, Scott Hartnell at age 23 is already in his fifth full season. Hartnell doesn’t have the long scoring resume that many other top ten draftees often have – the biggest reason for this is that he immediately joined Nashville after being drafted (becoming the youngest player in the NHL). He only played two full years in the Western Hockey League; his second season being the one that attracted scouts as he provided his Prince Albert Raiders a nice blend of scoring (team-leading 82 points in 62 games) and toughness (124 penalty minutes).

Although he has not yet realized the high expectations laid on him coming out of the WHL, Hartnell has been a solid player for Nashville over the past four years, but never really contributing in the offensive end on a consistent basis. Yet over the past three weeks he has shown signs of finally becoming an impact player, averaging a point per game over the Predators last 11 contests. On the season he has notched nine power play goals and has shown a knack for the timely goal with seven game-winners so far. His 154 shots (a close second on Nashville behind Paul Kariya) is further exhibit of his offensive aggressiveness this year.

As for predicting how well he’ll finish this year, a lot may be dependent on who Hartnell’s linemates will be - Nashville has been juggling their lines quite a bit, often times during a game. At times Hartnell plays on a wing with Kariya and Yanic Perreault, other times with Greg Johnson and Jordan Tootoo. Obviously if he were to stick on a line with Kariya the likelihood of offensive production would increase.

With 36 points in his first 55 games, Hartnell is well on his way to establishing a career high in points – his previous high being 41– and he’s already hit the 20 goal mark this season for the first time. Nashville is viewed as one of the league’s elite teams this season and has put together a high-quality and diverse offense, of which Hartnell is becoming an integral part. Hopefully he can use the rest of this season as a springboard to a highly successful career, one that has been expected of him since his draft year.

Cristobal Huet, Goaltender, Montreal Canadiens

Another week, another seemingly out-of-nowhere hot goalie: I originally wrote something along the lines of “there’s a serious goaltending controversy in Montreal right now” but in all honesty, there isn’t one. Cristobal Huet – with his gaudy .925 save percentage – has closed the books on which goalie has been Montreal’s best this year. Of course decisions like this are never simple – does past performance mean anything when deciding the future of a franchise, especially in terms of the most important position in the sport?

All things being equal, Huet should get the starts but whither former league MVP Jose Theodore? As the season of goalie-flux continues…it’s really time to wonder about Jose Theodore’s status in the game today as an elite netminder. Aside from his glorious 2001-2002 season in which he won both the Vezina and Hart trophies, has he really earned NHL elite goaltender stature? With his save percentage down to a brutal .881 (last in the league for qualifying goaltenders), he has a long climb back up the ladder of respectability ahead of him. And that climb may not come in Montreal, as backup Cristobal Huet has been stealing playing time from Theodore, and taking advantage.

Huet spent parts of the past two NHL seasons with the Los Angeles Kings, getting into 42 games in the 2003-04 season, and was traded to Montreal last summer with the expectation that he’d see limited action as a backup to Theodore. Alas, Theodore stumbled badly this year and Montreal turned to Huet, who has been remarkable, especially in the last week. Huet posted back-to-back shutouts over Boston and Philadelphia and put together a span of over 173 minutes without giving up a goal. Many comments from the coaching staff and his teammates are quite revealing, giving the distinct impression that they have full confidence in him as their goalie down the stretch.

Whether Montreal takes the plunge and deals the former-MVP Theodore (of course providing they find a willing partner to take him) is still undetermined, but based on playing time it seems obvious the club has lost a lot of faith in Jose. Huet probably isn’t viewed by Montreal as a long term solution as he’s 31 years old but I would think that the Canadiens would be foolish to not play out the string this year with Huet, at least until he falters horribly, as the Canadiens frantically attempt to remain in the playoff picture in the East.

Lee Stempniak, Winger, St. Louis Blues

As was mentioned in last week’s column, the revamping of the Blues franchise has created - and will create - nearly limitless opportunities for young players in the organization. With the jettisoning of high-salaried veteran players, the time has come to rebuild with youth – and it’s open-audition time in St. Louis. Dartmouth College graduate Lee Stempniak has been the latest beneficiary of greater ice-time with the Blues. Stempniak led Dartmouth in scoring in each of his final three seasons and made the Blues out of training camp this year.

Stempniak initially struggled during his first tour of the NHL, going through a 12-game pointless streak that lasted over a month, which culminated in his demotion to Peoria in the AHL. Yet since his recall on January 29th he’s been producing at an impressive clip. In his first four games back in St. Louis he has scored at least a point in every game, including four goals, and has added two shootout winners in that streak as well. He put at least three shots on goal in three of the games, which he had only done twice before in 24 games and has been a +2.

Of late he’s been seeing time with a host of linemates, from Dean McCammond and Petr Cajanek to Scott Young and Keith Tkachuk (who, if you read the writing on the wall, may not be long for the Blues this season – probably dependent on whether the Blues can convince another team to pick up some of Tkachuk’s salary). So predicting who he’ll be lining up with is virtually impossible, but I’d expect this will probably settle out by the trading deadline at the latest, as St. Louis will likely bid farewell to more veterans. For now, however, Stempniak is hot and getting quality ice time (averaging over 15 minutes since his recall) and could be a sneaky pickup for the final two months of the season.

Feedback can be sent to robaquino@sportsblurb.com.

02 February 2006

Wideman, Thomas, Bryzgalov

Treasure Hunting, the Hockey Edition

By Rob Aquino


As we progress further into this season, it becomes harder to find that “diamond in the rough” for your teams. One of the better ways to uncover late-season help is by keeping your eyes on teams in transition - it can reveal players getting better opportunities or simply more ice-time, which may translate into better numbers. I’m specifically referring to teams either changing their philosophy of team-building (as in trading of veterans to free up money and begin rebuilding with youth – see Pittsburgh, Boston, St. Louis) or inadvertently having to look elsewhere due to circumstance, i.e. injuries.

Today we’ll take a look at a few players who unquestionably have risks associated with them – earlier in the year they wouldn’t be players I would flat-out recommend for long term pickup – yet at this point if you’re looking for a pickup, then you’re probably struggling to contend in your league. It’s time to start taking some chances and to make some risky pickups – there are major question marks regarding all of these, mostly in terms of “how much of an opportunity will they actually get?” Yet in following these players closely over the next week, you might be first to grab them if/when it becomes apparent that they have been fully worked into their team’s lineups…

Seeing as much of this column has focused on forwards over the year - as that obviously tends to be where the more offensive oriented players play - we’ll dedicate the bulk of the column to the back end of the ice; at defense and goaltending.

Dennis Wideman, Defense, St. Louis Blues

We'll dispense with all the "fire-sale" analogies surrounding the St. Louis Blues and focus on the potential opportunity that has opened up for virtually everyone in the organization. One player that I've had my eye on for years is the Blues' rookie defenseman Dennis Wideman. By all possible measures, he had a highly successful five-year junior career - he began in Sudbury then really elevated his game upon a trade to the London Knights where he helped to lead them from a bad squad in 2001 to the top of the league three years later. Wideman is a highly skilled offensive defenseman, with a keen awareness of everyone on the ice around him. In London he became the quarterback of the power play and on-ice leader on a team loaded with junior stars - his final season was marked by leading the Ontario League in efficiency with a +51.

Wideman was drafted by Buffalo in 2002 in the eighth round but was never signed by the Sabres. He was inked to a free agent deal by the Blues in 2004 and plied his trade in the AHL until this year, when he got the opportunity with the big club.

With being a point-per-game defenseman (in both the regular season and playoffs) throughout his three years in London, what's been the impediment to his ascent to the NHL? As much as big numbers look flashy on a defenseman's scoresheet, his primary role is of course defense. And rightly or wrongly, that had been the knock on Wideman for years by scouts - his defense was not "NHL-caliber" – combined with a perception that he wasn't big enough to have an impact.

Breaking into the NHL with St. Louis this season might have been the perfect situation for Wideman. This year he has been getting a shot on a bad club that very possibly could get even worse before getting better. Wideman has increased his ice-time to where he's getting over 20 minutes a game (with a season-high of over 28 minutes Monday night against Calgary, and a shootout goal to boot). Overall he has 17 points in 36 games but with nine in the last month and increased responsibilities I'd expect those numbers to rise. Don't expect anything out of his plus-minus; on this team only one semi-regular (Matt Walker) is NOT a minus. If you're looking for points from defense, Wideman could be a nice surprise for the rest of the season.

Tim Thomas, Goaltender, Boston Bruins

If you live in New England, you're no doubt quite familiar with what 31-year old “rookie” Tim Thomas has been doing this past month, but others may be late in coming to the party. The Bruins overall have had a fairly miserable season; considered in some corners to be a division contender this year, they had a horrible start and then they further alienated much of their dwindling fan base by dealing their captain Joe Thornton to San Jose. What was supposed to be a strong point - their goaltending - with reigning Calder Trophy winner Andrew Raycroft and top rookie prospect Hannu Toivonen backing him up - became a huge problem. Raycroft suffered from poor play and injury, then when Toivonen seemed to settle the problem with decent play he severely sprained his ankle early last month against Ottawa and is out indefinitely. At that point Boston fans were thinking their team was closer to Phil Kessel, Erik Johnson, or Jonathan Toews in the June draft than the playoffs.

Ah...enter the savior: Tim Thomas. Thomas certainly hasn't taken the direct route to the NHL. A member of the outstanding University of Vermont teams of the mid-90s (and teammate of reigning Hart winner Martin St. Louis) he's played in Finland, the ECHL, IHL, and AHL - on no less than nine teams before getting called up to Boston on January 10th. So the expectations - if there were any - were fairly minimal at best.

Fast forward to this Wednesday - Thomas had played in nine straight games, the most for a Boston goaltender this season, and won six of the seven decided in regulation (and in that loss he still managed 47 saves while only letting in four in a barrage from the Islanders). On Tuesday night he earned his first NHL shutout against what many people feel is the best team in the league, the Ottawa Senators. More importantly, the Bruins have moved squarely into the playoff discussion in the East, having maneuvered to within two points of the eighth and final playoff spot.

And now the ultimate question: who is the Bruins' number one goaltender? GM Mike O'Connell has said that they will go with whoever is playing the best - considering nobody else is currently playing at all, that would be Thomas. With Raycroft back from injury (and the subject of trade rumours all year) we shall see, but if you're struggling with goaltending Thomas is worthy of an immediate pickup and may end the season as Boston's top man.

Ilya Bryzgalov, Goaltender, Anaheim Ducks

(Seeing as Anaheim is planning on dropping "Mighty" from their name next year, I'll happily play along early. I only wish they could take the old moniker California Golden Seals...)

How long ago does it seem that the Ducks made their storybook run to game seven of the Cup finals? Jean-Sebastien Giguere was the talk of the league, as his two-month-long dominance nearly single-handedly got the title of a Disney movie engraved on Lord Stanley's Cup <>. After becoming just the third player on a losing team to win the Conn Smythe award for playoff MVP, the future of the Ducks seemed to be squarely on his shoulders, yet they've struggled. This year seems to be a transitional one for Anaheim, as they finally appear to be making a turn towards youth - one that should benefit them in years to come.

Where does Giguere fit in all of this? He should be the centerpiece of the youth movement but that now appears to be in some question. Following his classic freak-out last week against Edmonton the Ducks have at least temporarily turned to rookie Ilya Bryzgalov - he has played and won the last three games for Anaheim, putting them on a parallel with the Bruins in the West as they have moved into ninth place, three points out of the final spot.

Even without the recent streak, Bryzgalov's important season numbers (goals against and save percentage) are better than Giguere's. With Giguere making about four million dollars this year, it is conceivable that he could be shopped around if the club has confidence in Bryzgalov to carry the load for the next few years. After four full seasons in Cincinnati of the AHL, Bryzgalov is probably in the NHL to stay for a while, whether it is as starter or backup. A team like Anaheim doesn't have much to lose seeing if the younger (and cheaper) Bryzgalov can do the job for them - he's another goalie worth taking a chance on with a pickup. You're likely to know within a few games whether he'll remain as the main man in Anaheim.

Other early-February Players of Note

Buffalo: watch for captain Chris Drury and rookie Thomas Vanek, currently linemates (with winger Mike Grier). With the injury to top center Tim Connolly and JP Dumont not yet fully effective upon his return, Drury has had to take on an even bigger offensive role and he is responding. He has a reputation of being a clutch performer and his recent play hasn't changed that perception with 11 points in his last nine games. Vanek has had a streaky rookie season and is on a mini one now, with four goals in his last three games.

Columbus: Columbus is still a team that will end up far out of the playoffs but they've figured something out, having won seven of their last ten - winger David Vyborny has led the way in January. He's been on fire with 16 points in his last 11 games, including six multiple-point games.

Feedback can be sent to robaquino@sportsblurb.com.