Treasure Hunting, the Hockey Edition
By Rob Aquino
The NHL is finally back after a long Olympic break, and with it brings many questions about how teams will respond. For one, the Olympic schedule was incredibly demanding: the two finalists, Sweden and Finland, played eight games in 12 nights. That alone would be exhausting but compound that with the fact that these games were all at the highest level possible as well as played halfway around the world, and you have a lot of tired athletes….who are set to come back to a grueling final six weeks of the regular season.
So we are left with an unprecedented and rather mysterious end stretch to the season – for each team there are a crazy amount of games in a short amount of time. Nobody knows how this will play out – the conventional wisdom is that players will be exhausted – will those teams with players who played in the Olympics be more affected than those without Olympians? What of the players from Sweden and Finland, some of whom have only returned to North America within the last day? As reported on Canada’s TSN, the five Detroit Red Wings on the gold-medal-winning Swedish team will end up playing 13 games in 25 days, while traveling virtually around the world.
While nobody can predict how this will play out, we can assume that the Olympics could very well have an effect on some teams making or missing the playoffs this year. There is a lot of parity in the NHL in 2006, with both conferences being more compressed than ever - just ten points separates the third from eleventh seeds in the West. Most teams are actually still in playoff contention (flashback to the 21-team era when “playoff contention” meant that you could be somewhere within 20 game of .500 and still carry that label…maybe things really weren’t better back then…) which if we relate it to the Olympic break means that any slight edge might be the difference between the eighth and final spot and missing the playoffs by a point or two.
This week I’m taking a look at a few different players who are/were affected by the Olympic break either due to injury or simply play on young teams who may be able to convert the two-week break into a playoff sprint.
Andy McDonald, Center, Anaheim Ducks
The Ducks have quietly put together a good few months and are now within striking distance of the playoffs. The deal that sent Sergei Fedorov east to the Blue Jackets was good for them in myriad ways, not the least of which was allowing their younger players to step up and establish themselves as vital members of the Ducks present and future. Andy McDonald is one of those players; he’s been flying under the radar of national attention thus far but his play has warranted so much more – prior to this season McDonald’s high in points was 30, in 79 games two years ago. His best efficiency rating was a +2 in his first extended campaign back in 2001-2002. This year, with 53 points to date, he will soon double that previous high and perhaps just as significant is his impressive (and team high) +20.
McDonald is a smallish center, listed at 5’11” and 186 pounds. He spent four years at Colgate University where he scored 136 points over his final three years - in his senior year he finished seventh in the nation in scoring with 58 points in just 34 games, so he has the scoring pedigree. Or *did* - he had a fine time in two AHL stints, scoring over a point per game, but over his first three-plus years with Anaheim was not statistically too successful - his best run was 2003 with 21 points in 46 games.
That has all changed this year, and especially of late. Currently McDonald is riding a league-high 11-game point scoring streak, helping the Ducks close to within a few points of the playoff picture in the West. Anaheim could be a very interesting team down the stretch, and with McDonald on a fairly constant pairing with Teemu Selanne, expect the confidence and points to continue at a career high.
Ray Emery, Goaltender, Ottawa Senators
Let’s just say that Ottawa backup goalie Ray Emery has had an “interesting” year. He started off the year winning his first six games in a row, which enabled him to set an NHL record for most wins at the beginning of a career (nine) – in many people’s minds this put him as the Senators’ goalie of the future. Emery certainly does nothing to dispel the “crazy goalie” stereotype, but rather than being the moody or odd introvert (ala Hasek), Emery is brash and outgoing. Those who paid attention to him in juniors knew, but finally this year he attracted attention with the story about Emery eating a live cockroach in the dressing room (on a dare from teammate Daniel Alfredsson). This would have been brushed off as harmless and amusing…but soon to follow came the inevitable Ottawa slump, and as Emery took a few of those losses (some of them bad including giving up eight goals to Atlanta in early January) critics were a bit more vocal about Emery and his potential shortcomings. Erratic or non-traditional behaviour…the Mike Tyson mask “controversy.” So what now for Ray Emery? Due to Dominik Hasek’s groin injury at the Olympics in Italy, now he finds himself – at least for a little while – the number one goalie for the Senators. The spotlight is on.
Emery started his pro career with the Sault St. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League, and became notorious for his aggressive (and admittedly entertaining) play – both inside and outside of the crease (I was fortunate enough to be in attendance one night against the Knights in London, Ontario while he engaged in one of his many fights). His often on-the-edge behavior didn’t obscure his considerable talent, as in his final year in the Soo he was named OHL goaltender of the year and was runner up to Brad Boyes for league most valuable player.
He spent most of the last three seasons in the AHL with Binghamton, putting up good to great numbers each year. He had a few tastes of life with the big club, but was third on the Senators’ depth chart behind Patrick Lalime and Martin Prusek and was better served getting playing time in the minors. It seemed that Emery’s time had come…until Dominik Hasek was signed, and Emery was going to be at best the number two guy.
Fast forward to today – conflicting reports have Hasek out for anywhere from a week to the end of the regular season, so barring a disastrous performance before next week’s trading deadline, the Ottawa crease belongs to Ray Emery. The time is now for Ray Emery to show the league – and more importantly his teammates – what he’s made of, talent-wise. The Senators – once runaway leaders in the East – are only a few points in front of Buffalo for the division lead. Even if Dominik Hasek returns to take the top spot soon, Emery is using this time to showcase himself as an imminent goaltending star in this league.
Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Winger, Minnesota Wild
Since entering the NHL in 2000, the Minnesota Wild have been known as a team focused mainly on the defensive side of play. This year they’re once again only in the middle of the pack in terms of goals per game, but they do feature some premier offensive talent. Remember the name Pierre-Marc Bouchard. Bouchard was a high first round pick, going eighth overall to Minnesota in the loaded 2002 draft. Bouchard had come off a spectacular two years in the Quebec Major Junior League; with the Chicoutimi Sagueneens, he had seasons of 95 and 140 points, the latter season (2001-2002) leading the league and earning Canadian Hockey League player of the year honors.
He immediately graduated to the NHL where he obviously found the competition just a little more difficult, yet he was only 18 years old as a rookie, so expectations were not unrealistic. He has been brought along slowly, notching 20 and 22 points in his first two years in the NHL, but last year with Houston of the AHL seemed to help elevate his game – he increased his production to 54 points, a pro high for him. This year with Minnesota he has already totaled 45 points (exceeding his NHL career totals) in just 58 games. Coach Jacques Lemaire last month challenged Bouchard to be more aggressive and he has responded with nine points in his last six games - he seems to be getting better as the season progresses. Again, this is a kid who is only 21 years of age and has the talent to be a premier sniper in the league for years to come.
As of Wednesday night, Minnesota was 11th in the West, but at the same time only ten points out of first place in the incredibly competitive Northwest division. The pressures of a playoff race could be great experience for the young team and it will be interesting to see if Bouchard can keep his outstanding play up for the remainder of the season. Bouchard has occasionally been lining up with Marian Gaborik and Brian Rolston, putting the Wild’s top three snipers all on one line, so if he remains there he could be one of the better point producers in the conference for the last six weeks and a true sleeper.
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