29 November 2006

no-chance Norris candidates


SportsBlurb.com article

A few weeks ago I wrote an article where I pointed out that only a short way into the season there already had been some talk about who the leading Hart candidates were. While cautioning that, obviously, the bulk of the season was still to be played, a number of names weren’t being talked about that should emerge as MVP contenders, including Jarome Iginla and Thomas Vanek. While I still stand by those selections, after writing the article I reflected on it a bit and wondered why post-season sports awards are taken so seriously. Like anyone else, I get caught up in discussing who is the best at any particular position or in the entire league – that’s much of the fun of following sports – but in the end, awards are just a select group of newspaper writers (with flaws and biases, like anyone else) who vote on who they think is the “best” and the winner of that poll is awarded the official MVP, Norris, Gold Glove, or whatever.

Back in the days when the NHL consisted of literally only a handful of teams, beat writers were able to see each opponent up to 14 times per season and could get a pretty good idea of who the best players were. In contrast it seems logically impossible to be a voter today and sensibly evaluate players on all 30 teams to determine who the best is in any particular area (barring absurd seasons like a Wayne Gretzky 200+ point year) – how can a Northeast writer who might see Iginla or Chris Pronger at most once during the year make an accurate determination on whether they have had a better year than Jaromir Jagr or Zdeno Chara? They obviously can’t, and therefore earned reputations, deserving or not, play a huge part in who wins these awards.

All too often, the player that either has “The Name”, or is “The Story” of the year will have a huge leg up on winning the award while the more deserving player, who for whatever reason doesn’t get the press, or maybe even gets negative press, ends up in the pack of also-rans. To use an extreme example from another sport, baseball’s Gold Glove awards, which recognizes the best fielder at a particular position, are a joke – once you win it, it’s essentially yours to lose. For example, in the 50 years of the award, there have only been 11 different American League pitchers, and 14 National Leaguers, that have won it. And the most high-profile award, the MVP, this year went to two very good players – Ryan Howard and Justin Morneau – who were not the best players in each league (and in Morneau’s case, not even the best player on his own team), but instead were great stories on two teams who had surprising runs. In the NHL, the award for best defenceman in the league each year is the Norris Trophy. The Norris has seen its share of players who had a lock on the award, from Doug Harvey to Pierre Pilote to Bobby Orr (with eight straight Norris trophies), and while today there’s not a single-player stranglehold on the trophy there are still perennial favourites in Nicklas Lidstrom, Pronger, and Scott Niedermayer (and to a lesser extent contenders Chara and Bryan McCabe) that will always get the benefit of the doubt and therefore the longer look at awards time. In no way are those players mentioned not deserving of their accolades, but it seems a shame that other equally-deserving talents aren’t given as much exposure.

Rather than coming up with a huge list of underrated defencemen, I present three players to watch over the rest of the season; relatively unknown defensive names in terms of national press but this season are deserving of more love from the media – and maybe award voters come April.

Brian Campbell – Buffalo Sabres

The idea that Norris and Campbell could be in the same sentence (and not referring to the old division and conference names) would have been laughable a few months ago and downright ridiculous a year or more ago. Brian Campbell was an offensive wizard in the OHL with the Ottawa 67’s in the late 1990s, and did in fact win the OHL’s Norris equivalent (Max Kaminsky Trophy) in his final year (1999) when the 67’s won the Memorial Cup. Yet his first five years with the Sabres were spent either bouncing between Buffalo and their AHL franchise in Rochester or being periodically benched. His defensive play was not NHL-caliber and his offensive skills were not enough to outweigh his deficiencies. As last season progressed, however, Campbell began to fill a bigger role for the Sabres as they instituted a more high-tempo style of play, and now watching him this year he’s become a nearly completely different player. Not with regards to his offence – his 17 points is tied for seventh among all defencemen – but his overall game. Maybe it started with the notorious hit on Philadelphia’s R.J. Umberger in the playoffs last year, but his confidence is striking; comparing his defensive play to even a year ago is like night and day – his greatest strength is carrying the puck (many times utilizing his spin-o-rama move – of course all credit is due to the original Master, Denis Savard - leaving opponents grasping for air) but now he seems to be less-likely to be caught out of position as he had in the past; his pinches are more intelligent and perhaps as a result his +14 rating is fourth in the entire league among all skaters (he was a -14 last year and has never been a plus player). Since Buffalo’s top defensive pairing of Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman have gone down to injury, coach Lindy Ruff has placed Campbell in a leading role and he has succeeded, averaging a Pronger-like 29 minutes per contest over the past eight games while staying a +2 over the same span, showing that his play against the opponents’ top forwards has not suffered. He even has 48 blocked shots, tops on the Sabres. Campbell has become perhaps the vital cog on the back end of the Sabres’ offensive machine and can now be considered among the most exciting NHL defencemen, if not one of the best.

Sheldon Souray – Montreal Canadiens

Another who previously couldn’t have been listed on any “top defencemen” list unless it was followed by some phrase by Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, Sheldon Souray is having a very solid season, enough to not only quiet his legion of critics but garner support as one of the best in the league this year. Drafted 12 years ago by New Jersey, his play had been markedly inconsistent at best and through his first six years in NJ/Montreal, his career high was 11 points. Over the last two years though, Souray has found his long-dormant offensive game, with 35 and 39 points respectively, and this year is fifth among all defencemen with 18 points in 22 games. Although he’s only a -2, he is being challenged by facing more top forwards, and his success against the better teams is a strong mark in his favour - last week in Buffalo he was matched up against Daniel Briere’s line, was a +2 and more importantly ended up with the game-winner in OT. The week before against the Lightning he was matched up against the Brad Richards line and ended up with two goals. A much different player than the dynamic Campbell, Souray is much more a player who utilizes his large frame (6’4”, 225lbs) and big shot. That booming shot has always been a big weapon for him, but before this season he’s rarely been able to channel that into results on the scoresheet – this year he has used it to help him notch nine goals, tops among all defencemen this year. Montreal has had a quietly strong campaign thus far, sitting a strong third in the Northeast, only a point (with three games in hand) behind the hated Leafs, and their stalwart defence has only allowed 61 goals, good for third in the conference. Much credit goes to Cristobal Huet but the unknown defence deserves much credit (89.6% penalty killing rate, third in the league) and Souray has played an important part.

Kimmo Timonen – Nashville Predators

In another market – say, Detroit or Toronto – one with a bit more hockey focus and perhaps some more playoff experience, Kimmo Timonen would be a household name. He’ll just have to be content with being the top defensemen on the best unknown team in the NHL. This eight-year NHL veteran has been steadily improving his offensive output over the years, peaking at 50 points last year and was their second leading scorer (four points) in last year’s quick playoff exit. With four straight years of 40+ points, one would expect him to be more well-known but his home team and the fact that he’s only played in 11 playoff games (none past the first round) doubtless contribute to his relative anonymity. This year the expectations on Nashville are as high as they’ve ever been, and with those expectations came more responsibility for their veteran leader. Timonen was named team captain before the season and at the follow-up press conference expressed his own expectations on challenging for the Stanley Cup. Although his offence has been solid for years, his defensive game had been average, but this year his +6 would already constitute a career high. He averages nearly 24 minutes per night, and has become their power play quarterback with nine points – both tops on the team, and is constantly faced up against opponents’ top players – last week’s 6-2 rout of the rival Wings saw Timonen playing multiple roles, shutting down three Detroit lines while contributing to three power play goals. Nashville is currently leading the Central division and – like last season – will be in a two-team race with Detroit the rest of the way. They expect nothing less than a decent showing in the playoffs this time and with Timonen’s leadership over an otherwise very young defensive corps, a nice playoff run will increase his name value around the league.

A few other defensive names that are worth noting are Nashville’s Shea Weber, Washington’s Brian Pothier, Montreal’s Andrei Markov, and Carolina’s Mike Commodore (although known due to his Cup victory…and his hair, he’s quietly having his best season by a long shot). I was loath to bring up Toronto’s Tomas Kaberle, not because he’s not having an outstanding year (he is) but Toronto doesn’t need the extra press. ;-) As with my previous MVP article, this isn’t at all meant to be a comprehensive list, nor is this meant to say that awards are useless – they are fun and great to have fun with and debate. It would just be nice to hear a wider range of potential candidates throughout the year, as with 30 teams there is an amazing array of talent in today’s NHL, and beyond the “big three” of Lidstrom, Pronger, and Niedermayer, there are dozens of great defencemen deserving of their time in the limelight.

…and for the record, baseball’s MVP awards should have gone to Albert Pujols and Johan Santana. But then again, I don’t care….right?

Feedback can be sent to robaquino@sportsblurb.com.

22 November 2006

changing the playoff format


A quarter of the way through this season, postseason favourites are already being anointed as Buffalo and Anaheim have opened up relatively comfortable leads in each conference. It’s only November but today I’m standing on my soapbox, ranting against…the playoffs. The NHL playoff system as it stands is inherently unfair. Why would I bring this up when we’re still nearly five months away from the NHL postseason? Because Sabres and Ducks fans shouldn’t get too cocky - having the best team in the regular season is in no way a guarantee towards playoff success. And a revamped playoff system which legitimately rewards the better teams will in turn make for a more exciting and competitive regular season.

Here’s the problem: the present playoff system favours the teams who are the best at a particular point in spring as opposed to the entire year. Over the last ten seasons the President’s Trophy winner has only won the Stanley Cup three times (Dallas 1999, Colorado 2001, Detroit 2002) and in no other season even reached the finals. I say it’s time to take a step back and completely reevaluate the present playoff concept because it is counter-intuitive; teams that excel for the entire 82 game schedule are essentially punished - or at least not rewarded - by not gaining any significant advantage during the postseason.

Let’s look at the logic, or lack thereof: in the current system, the only advantage a division or conference champion earns by being consistently great for nearly seven months is merely the possibility of an extra home game in each round. How is this fair, or for that matter even an advantage? Last year’s playoff teams compiled an aggregate 44-39 record at home, hardly an appreciable home-ice advantage. Teams that may be vastly inferior overall - yet get hot (or healthy) for as little as a four-game stretch - can destroy the hopes of a team that has been superior for months longer. One key short-term injury to say, a starting goaltender, could single-handedly derail the favourite’s hopes.

Sure, in theory there is a built-in additional advantage in that the higher-ranked teams obviously get to play a “weaker” team in the playoffs. Yet a look at some of the so-called “bottom” playoff teams over the past decade shows a good deal of first round upsets, calling into question just how much weaker they really are at the time; take last year for example - of the eight first round series, four “underdogs” won (all four being in the Western Conference), including the monster upset of Edmonton over Detroit. Detroit finished with 124 points – only eight behind the all-time record (Montreal, 1976-77) and 29 points more than the Oilers (who squeaked into the playoffs on the second-to-last day) only to fall to Edmonton in six games.

A further advantage for the “weaker” teams is that the trading deadline is obscenely late in the season – this year it will occur on February 27th, a mere five weeks before the end of the regular season. A team can muddle through the bulk of the schedule, then make a major addition to their lineup for relatively little short-term cost (not counting future considerations, draft picks, etc.); a team will only have to pay roughly one quarter of the salary of an acquired player at the deadline. With the salary cap now in place, we’re likely to see an increase in the “rent-a-player” method employed so frequently over the past few years (most likely to move would be Peter Forsberg, who will be an unrestricted free agent after this year and the way the Flyers are going this year, highly unlikely to make the playoffs in Philly) that can dramatically alter the power balance in the league so late in the season.

OK, I hear you: “enough talk – what do you propose?” First, a question: Why is it that most North American professional sports leagues are so unimaginative when it comes to a playoff format? The standard formula seems to be: eight teams (or four in baseball) per league get in, rank ‘em, then play a string of standard playoff series (at least the NFL offers a bye to the top teams). The NHL has been criticized in recent years for losing much of its uniqueness – let’s bring some of that back by making a unique playoff format. The easiest or most-obvious one is to award byes to division winners. This is not unprecedented in the NHL, which has a dizzying history of changing playoff formats. For a time during the 1970s, when the league hosted 17 and 18 teams, a total of 12 made the playoffs from four divisions. Each division winner received a bye, while the remaining eight played a short (and unforgiving) best of three preliminary series. The four winners were then reseeded as 5-8 and faced off in the second round against the top four teams. This was in place until the World Hockey Association folded and the NHL acquired four of their teams, making the total 21 – they then went to the 16-team format (hard to believe how long that pitiful “16 out of 21 teams make the playoffs” system was in place – it lasted until 1992 when the NHL began a new wave of expansion, starting with San Jose) which still stands in a slightly modified form today.

In recent years we have heard the occasional rumour that there is an underground movement afoot to increase the number of playoff teams to 20, which would include a bit of my idea – the bottom four (7-10) qualifiers in each conference would play each other in an initial round, and the two winners there would play the top two seeds. As much as I don’t like the idea of more playoff teams at all, that’s really not too bad. It would create incentives on different levels: it would benefit the top two teams in that they’d earn the right to oppose two teams who have already played a round and would - in theory - be a bit more beat up. Also, teams below them would be fighting for those 3 through 6 slots to avoid the “suicide” round. The problem of course is obvious, in that you’re essentially giving byes to the top six teams in the conference.

The present 30 team league makes it hard to come up with an easy alternate playoff system, unless you were to cut the amount of qualifying teams (copying the 1970s system of 12 teams), which will never happen. So here’s how to make everyone happy: put an extra team in the hunt and increase the total playoff teams to 18 - nine per conference. Rank the teams as you do now by giving the division winners the one through three slots, then four through nine based on total points. Now here’s where the big changes come, which adds an extra (short) round to the playoffs: the preliminary round matches up #6 vs. #9 and #7 vs. #8. Then in the second round you have those two winners matching up against seeds #2 and #3 (with the #4 and #5 seeds battling against each other as well). What of the conference champion? They’re sitting this one out, waiting for the next round to face their first opponent. This works all around – you have nine playoff slots, teams six through nine have to play a preliminary round (let’s say best of three which will create great drama and won’t delay the full playoffs for more than a few days), and division winners two and three get an advantage in that they play the winners of the preliminary round. Once this first best-of-seven round is done, you’re down to four in the conference and you reseed everyone – the conference champs have earned a huge prize in the right to automatically make the conference final four and play the lowest-seeded remaining team.

While we are at it, how about one more radical proposition? Start the season in January. Remember the 1995 season, where a lockout prevented the season from starting on time and the puck was first dropped in January? Despite the lousy publicity the league got for killing any momentum coming off a successful playoff in 1994, the 48-game shortened season was great – there were no cross-conference games and therefore every game was a battle for playoff position. Admittedly, this proposal has virtually no chance of ever being implemented – it’s obvious that the regular season is the cash cow for the owners, and as much as I want to think of myself as a “purist” it’s easy to understand that without money, there’s no league.

That’s fine – this is more justification to implement a less-radical proposal to simply change the playoff format and reward the top teams in each conference for a job well-done over the long haul. It will hardly guarantee victory for the top teams, but that’s not the point – yes, you are more likely to crown a more worthy champion but the most important result would be giving all teams a real incentive to finish as high as possible in the regular season. And finally, finishing first overall would mean more than just a meaningless banner to hang from the rafters – it would gain a team perhaps an extra week of rest, increasing the likelihood of their actual entire squad suiting up for their first round and a better chance at the ultimate goal – the Stanley Cup.

Feedback can be sent to robaquino@sportsblurb.com.

15 November 2006

early underdog MVP talk


“Well it’s back to the creek with these things and their reflections” - Lying’s Wrong, Rheostatics - 1991

I’m quoting the great Canadian independent band this morning to reflect on – and defend - some predictions I made before the season, specifically my preseason picks to meet in the Stanley Cup finals: Buffalo (so far, so good) versus Calgary (hmm). Of course it may seem a bit ridiculous to speculate on the Cup finals so early; it’s dangerous to judge a team only 25% of the way through the season as we can't ignore the fact that so much of the season has yet to be played - injuries, trades, and the natural ebb and flow (read: individual and team hot/cold streaks) of an 82 game schedule will doubtless add (and drop) a few teams from serious playoff consideration within a few months.

Still, there’s already much talk about which teams are contenders and which are not. I’m going to defend my picks today by highlighting who I think the key player is for each team and why they’re the main reason these teams will meet in June – I also believe each of them should end up as leading contenders for the Hart Trophy. Some names have already been thrown into the ring as early MVP candidates - Atlanta’s dynamic duo of Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa, Buffalo’s Daniel Briere and Maxim Afinogenov, and the Rangers’ Jaromir Jagr are some of the hot scorers of the early season, and don’t discount Sidney Crosby if the Penguins surprise all year long. Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom is yet again dominating on defence and could be on pace for his best season to date. Yet if it’s likely that some of those names will cool off, then it’s just as likely that some other names that aren’t being talked about in such high regard will emerge in MVP talk. Two of which are Calgary’s Jarome Iginla and Buffalo’s Thomas Vanek.

(note: in no way am I implying that these two players are finalists at this point, but in my opinion they are as valuable right now as any players in the league.)

“Let’s remain calm – let’s not underestimate the calm” – Remain Calm, Rheostatics - 2001

So often in life when you’re the top dog, people love to knock you down - even more so when you’re supposedly the top dog and struggling – see also this year’s Calgary Flames (a.k.a. last year’s Northwest division champs). Off to a terrible start this year, they’ve been on the road to recovery of late and played in Vancouver this past Saturday night aiming for their fourth straight win. With Vancouver up 2-0 over the Flames, Calgary’s Jarome Iginla scored one of the most impressive goals of the season and single-handedly dragged Calgary right back into the game. Gathering a pass from Alex Tanguay in the neutral zone, with an incredible burst of speed he split the defence – beating Lukas Krajicek and Mattias Ohlund – and headed straight for the crease. With Ohlund checking him from behind, Iginla turned his body (still moving at top speed) and deftly slipped the puck on his backhand between his own legs, through Roberto Luongo's pads, and across the goal line before Iginla and Ohlund came crashing into Luongo and the net. I'd never seen Iginla skate like that before and it seemed to lift Calgary’s game as a whole.

Iginla’s play on Calgary's second goal was completely different yet perhaps more important: with Calgary trying to cycle the puck down low, Iginla read the play brilliantly - barreling down low and laying out Krajicek with a great forecheck - dislodging the puck and taking control in the process. He skated around the boards, avoiding checks and waiting for his teammates to position themselves before giving a great feed to Tanguay. Tanguay quickly dished the puck to Rhett Warriner who tied the game. It’s the kind of play that wouldn’t necessarily make highlight films coast-to-coast but it’s exactly the kind of play that elite players and championship teams make. Many forwards would have been content to let the puck cycle down low and would hover around the slot waiting for a feed, but by recognizing an opening and making the play himself he demonstrated why he’s one of the handful of great players in the world.

So now the previously lackluster Flames have suddenly won four straight games and are (as of Tuesday night) now at .500 (7-7-2) and only six points out of first place in the Northwest division. There have been numerous naysayers over the past month who have labeled them as overrated and underachieving. Premature, of course, as last year they started off with the identical October record and ended up division champions. As for Iginla, he has historically gotten off to slow starts, yet this year with nine goals and 18 points in Calgary’s first 16 games he’s been the Flames’ one reliable contributor as they weathered early season troubles. If he continues at this pace and thrusts Calgary firmly back into the Western Conference race he may finally get the MVP he was jobbed out of in 2002.

“We are making progress – we are making dreams come true” – Making Progress, Rheostatics - 2004

Back East, the story of the year has been the Buffalo Sabres, off to an incredible start in every way – sporting the best record (standing at 15-1-1 as of Wednesday morning) in the league while leading the league in goals by a wide margin, averaging an amazing 4.5 goals per game. Their offence is notoriously well-balanced, with stars Afinogenov and Briere leading the attack, and young guns on four lines.

Yet one Buffalo forward who hasn’t had enough praise is second year winger Thomas Vanek. Vanek has been playing with a force unimaginable to those who watched him last year. He did have a nice rookie season - on paper - with 25 goals, but was invisible on too many nights and played with a noticeable lack of fire, notably anywhere on the ice behind the opposing blue line. Seemingly unprepared for the rigours of a long NHL season and playoff run, he found himself benched by the end of Buffalo's playoff run, playing in only ten games. It appears he took the message to heart - if he had played in May like he is now he may have been the difference in getting the Sabres to the finals. His stickhandling and offensive skills have never been in question but this year he's added intelligence and desire to his game – on many nights he’s been playing like a less-nasty Peter Forsberg, using his size to ward off defenders while he controls the puck. Most surprising has been his hustle in all zones - breaking up odd-man rushes coming back into the Sabres' zone as well as his timely forechecking has created endless opportunities for his linemates Afinogenov and Derek Roy, as well as on the powerplay. As a result, his +/- rating is +16, good for second in the entire NHL, whereas he was a -11 last season.

He was, however, drafted out of the University of Minnesota for his offensive skills, and this season he’s demonstrating that he knows where to be – his positioning has been nearly flawless in the offensive zone and with 11 goals and 22 points in 17 games, he is firmly entrenched in the top 20 in scoring - and climbing. And in the end, the thing that makes Vanek stand out to me amongst all the other talented Sabre forwards is that he doesn’t fit their mold of the small quick player darting between enemy traffic – he has the size and ability to hang out around the crease and absorb punishment more so than his teammates, which at this point is making him the team’s most indispensable – and irreplaceable - player. With him playing as consistently as he has (not yet going two straight games without a point and ten goals in his last 12 games) and the crazy success of the Buffalo Sabres, he stands a chance at being a Hart finalist in June.

TalentedMrRoto.com ICE league Update

First the good news: I’ve been out of last place for just about a week now (file under: setting your goals extremely low). I had a few good goon nights and my +/- is tops in our league. Daniel Briere has been on fire with ten points in his last five games; Evgeni Malkin is still helping make me not look too ridiculous with my first-round selection of him. Left wing has been my weakest offensive position (Mark Bell, Raffi Torres, Jussi Jokinen) but I got an enormous gift this week as both Malkin and Zach Parise now qualify at LW. I’ll be looking to pickup a center or two this week which should vastly improve my team.

The bad news: how I’m going to advance at all this year with my goaltending is a huge question/problem. I’m dead last in wins and goals-against, and somehow have gained a slot (read: second-last) in save percentage. Martin Gerber is having an awful time in Ottawa and I picked up Olaf Kolzig in exchange for Dan Cloutier a week ago – I have a team total of only eight wins - terrible. Hey, I need guys who are playing, and they just aren’t out there on the waiver wire. My fatal miscalculation in the draft was not shoring up goaltenders early – in such a deep league as this, if you blow it on goalies you have virtually no options during the season (barring a trade) to improve, as opposed to other positions, where there’s always someone on waivers. It seems absurd to say this in November but my chance at even an upper-division finish is a long-shot at best unless Gerber and Kolzig (or Alex Auld as my third goalie) rattle off big winning streaks.

Feedback can be sent to robaquino@sportsblurb.com.

08 November 2006

Ducks still mighty (the name still sucks though)


Monday night’s matchup between the Anaheim Ducks and Pittsburgh Penguins gave a good look – to those who saw it – of two of the more exciting teams in the league, both loaded with young and talented forwards. Pittsburgh has had the press – and television coverage – so most hockey fans have seen or at least know about Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal. But what about Anaheim? If you’re like a lot of sports fans, you’re only paying attention to what’s happening with your team, or maybe the teams in your division, but it’s time to start paying attention to the Anaheim Ducks. Monday’s win by the Ducks in overtime tied an NHL record: 15 consecutive games earning a point to start a season, tying the legendary 1984-85 Edmonton Oilers team, and currently standing at 11-0-4.

Yet virtually nobody across the United States or Canada has even seen them play. Unless you either have the Center Ice package (and if not, why not??) or your home team has played the Ducks, you haven’t had a chance to watch Anaheim on national television, and amazingly will not until February 13th on Versus or March 18th on TSN. It should be frustrating to hockey fans, because it’s not as if the Ducks have come out of nowhere – they had a very strong second half last season, ending up with the best season point total in their short history with 98 points. In the playoffs they defeated the favoured Calgary Flames then swept the Avalanche before bowing to the Edmonton Oilers in the Western finals.

Even though expectations were fairly high coming off the successful 2005-06 season, the summer acquisition of Chris Pronger ratcheted up expectations to where Anaheim became a chic pick by many to be a contender in the West (the SportsBlurb.com hockey staff in our preseason guide had them finishing a close second to San Jose in the top-heavy Pacific division). But not even the most glowing of picks had them without a loss in their first 15 games of the season, becoming the last team remaining with a zero in the “L” column. While the Buffalo Sabres have garnered nearly all of the early press as the first honorees with the “best team in the league” label, the Ducks are leaving little doubt who the elite squad is out west thus far.

The scary aspect of the Ducks’ dominance so far is that they’ve built such a huge goal differential (sixth in goals-for, third in goals-against) and scored at a 15% better clip than last year’s squad without anyone higher than 39th in league scoring – a three-way tie between Teemu Selanne and their two star defenceman: Scott Niedermayer and Pronger, all with 14 points. Remember last year when the Sabres were emerging as one of the year’s surprise teams, and so many articles were written on “who are these guys?” “how are they doing it?” – those very questions were what made that Buffalo team so difficult to shut down – they spread their offence so deeply that it’s difficult for other teams to match up against them. The Ducks are on their way to becoming this year’s Sabres.

The biggest concern going into the season was where their scoring was going to come from. Emerging scorer Joffrey Lupul was dealt away to Edmonton in the Pronger deal and the pressure seemed to be on the veteran Selanne to perhaps once again carry the team this year. Instead it’s Chris Kunitz who is leading the team with seven goals, and fellow youngsters Ryan Getzlaf (21), Dustin Penner (23), and Andy McDonald (a relative oldie at 29) right behind with five goals each. They – along with Selanne - form a corps of dangerous forwards, along with Corey Perry (21) and Ryan Shannon (23) that makes them difficult to stop every night.

Defenceman Francois Beauchemin is proving that the trade that brought him from Columbus in exchange for Sergei Fedorov was a steal…for Anaheim. I wrote last year that this was a good deal for Anaheim despite media overreactions that it was lopsided in favour of the Blue Jackets. I thought this was a great deal simply for the elimination of an overrated past-his-prime former star, freeing up icetime for younger (and cheaper) players, and the freeing up of six million dollars of cap room. What I didn’t know was that Beauchemin would be such a solid addition – with Niedermayer and Pronger taking up so much prime scoring ice time this year, it’s no surprise that Beauchemin’s point totals project to be much lower than his 34 points last year, but his role is more important this year in being the defensive conscience of the defensive corps.

Of course what most commentators like to talk about with regards to Anaheim is their “Big Two” on defence in Niedermayer and Pronger. It’s hard to believe it was 11 years ago that Niedermayer truly burst on the national scene when he completely undressed an aging Paul Coffey in the 1995 Stanley Cup finals, and still all this time later Niedermayer remains one of the best skaters in the league (reminiscent of Mike Gartner in terms of keeping great speed and skill for such a long career). With the addition of Pronger, it has given the Ducks two of the very best defencemen in the world that not only play great two-way games, but log an incredible amount of icetime. By my rough estimate, in Monday’s game there were at most maybe 12 minutes when neither Pronger nor Niedermayer were on the ice (Niedermayer with 26 minutes, Pronger with over 32). Opponents are going to have a hell of a time trying to penetrate through the Ducks’ team with at least one of those players on the ice at all times.

However, looking at this in the obvious negative light - if one of those players goes down with an injury, there could be big trouble. While Niedermayer’s defence partner Beauchemin has been a pleasant surprise, the depth at defence is negligible in Anaheim. A look at the official shift chart shows Pronger and Niedermayer playing a combined 58 minutes, Beauchemin with 23 minutes, and veteran Sean O’Donnell at 19 minutes. Rookie Shane O’Brien logged 15 minutes as the fifth option but Ian Moran – in his Anaheim debut, filling in for Joe Dipenta - only put in six minutes of work. If one of the big two goes down, those numbers for O’Brien and either Dipenta or Moran will have to go way up, which should be a concern to the team. Barring a deal getting a steady top four defenceman, the Ducks need to spend the season working in the rookie O’Brien, steadily increasing his minutes and responsibilities so he would be prepared in the event he needs to take on a more prominent role.

There are other reasons for the Ducks and their fans to take a deep breath and not get overly excited just yet. Even though every win counts, 11 of their first 15 games have been played against teams that missed the playoffs last year (they beat Detroit and Edmonton, lost in a shootout to Dallas and in overtime to the Rangers), so we’ve yet to see them play many games against truly elite teams. The minimal depth at defence and over-reliance on Pronger and Niedermayer could very well be an issue - Monday night O’Brien and Moran had a total of ten shifts between them in the third period and overtime – Pronger took ten by himself. The offence has been excellent thus far, but will the reliance on such a relatively young group prove costly over an 82 game season, especially when they start playing upper-echelon teams like San Jose, Dallas, and Nashville? And we haven’t even touched upon the potentially prickly goaltending situation – with J.S. Giguere and Ilya Bryzgalov both worthy of number one status will they be happy if they both remain with Anaheim throughout the season? Their eastern-counterparts Buffalo have proven that having a top-notch duo in goal is invaluable for the regular season and ideally would be best for the Ducks, but if they can parley one of those goalies into a reliable defenceman it could have a great impact on a potential playoff run.

In the end, all teams have question marks, but only Anaheim has points in each of their first 15 games. So all of you eastern and Canadian hockey fans, take note: the Anaheim Ducks are serving notice that they are determined to improve upon last year’s showing and not only win their division, but advance even further in the playoffs. Oh, and you Anaheim fans? Maybe you should take notice yourselves: last year you filled up the Pond to 88% capacity, at 15,106 fans per game. This year – this potentially record-setting year – you’re merely at 84.6%. Get out there and support the team – it’s not like there’s any football teams in town to distract you.

Feedback can be sent to robaquino@sportsblurb.com.

01 November 2006

Buffalo vs. Atlanta


Atlanta and Buffalo

It’s not often that I feel compelled to write about a single regular season game, but last Saturday night’s mega-hyped game between the 10-0 Buffalo Sabres and the 7-1-3 Atlanta Thrashers had the makings of an early-season classic. As it turned out it became the “Rocky II” of the season (only…without the drawn-out maudlin Adrian-in-a-coma section to kill the excitement), with Atlanta playing the role of Rocky Balboa to Buffalo’s Apollo Creed - withstanding wave after wave of punches and then brutally taking advantage of the occasional letdown, sometimes due to the Sabres’ overconfident play.

Tickets were being scalped for up to $300 as Buffalo fans were there to see if the Sabres could break the all-time record for consecutive wins at the start of a season. Alas, the result – Atlanta winning 5-4 in a shootout – ended Buffalo’s undefeated streak (15 straight regular season wins dating back to last season) and may spark some eventual debate to exactly who the best team in the Eastern Conference is this year. Not only did the game give fans a showcase of two excellent teams battling to a virtual draw, it also gave each of these teams things to learn from for the rest of the season.

In my column last week, I asked the question “how are they doing it?” regarding the Atlanta Thrashers’ great start to the season. After watching the game on Saturday night the answers are clearer to me. Atlanta plays a fantastic team game; nearly everyone seems to buy into their defensive system, which overcomes any supposed lack of elite depth. On Saturday night, the Thrashers on my count gave up no odd-man rushes, and to a team as dynamic as the Buffalo Sabres that is a high accomplishment. The Atlanta forwards consistently back-checked all night – often times they could be found as far back as the goal line getting in the path of Buffalo passes. All night, Buffalo was generating rushes from their defensive zone but found tough resistance from Atlanta through the neutral zone. Perhaps the most impressive feat was Atlanta’s ability to consistently get in the way of Buffalo shots in all three periods, both by numerous stick deflections and blocked shots. Defensemen Greg DeVries and Andy Sutton blocked 17 shots between just the two of them.

Atlanta’s big name forwards didn’t have much of an impact on the victory, which should speak well for their squad as a whole. Ilya Kovalchuk was held in check for over two periods but in the third period did come alive when the team needed him most. His goal - nearly four minutes into the third period (and only one minute after the Sabres had tied the score for the third time) - deflated some of the Sabres momentum. He began to play a more physical game and during one Buffalo flurry flung himself to the ice in front of a Toni Lydman shot, blocking it and diffusing the immediate threat. Marian Hossa – leading the league in goals and points at game time - ended up with five shots but was not a major factor as he was held to just one second assist. Slava Kozlov – despite getting the eventual shootout winner – was invisible most of the night, playing on the perimeter of the action. Instead, Atlanta got great contributions from depth players and especially veteran forwards Bobby Holik (playing his 1100th NHL game) and Scott Mellanby, and hung on with every Buffalo attack.

Kari Lehtonen was perhaps Atlanta’s biggest story; his rather non-textbook play is in stark contrast to the cool mechanical stylings of Buffalo’s Ryan Miller, and of course means nothing – he is a top notch talent no matter how he stops the puck (I’m reminded of an offhand comment I heard sometime around 1993 from former Buffalo General Manager John Muckler with regards to then-fledgling goaltender Dominik Hasek – Muckler described him as being “a fantastic athlete who has no idea how to play goal” – the cliché “more than one way to skin a cat” can apply there…). When the Sabres’ dazzling moves were too much for the four or five men in front of him, Kari was nearly always up to the task (excepting a big rebound on the game-tying goal late in the third period).

Despite the win – impressive as it was on the road in front of a raucous pro-Buffalo crowd – Atlanta is still no match for the Sabres’ talent. Buffalo dictated the pace for much of the night. However, talent isn’t everything (see also: Ottawa Senators not advancing past the second round last year) – coach Bob Hartley and the Thrashers are proving that having a few elite players and an entire team buy into one system could be enough to carry the team to a division title, but therein lies the danger: if the team lets down from their cohesive style they don’t have the depth to keep up with the more talented teams in the league. It will be interesting to see how well they adhere to this thus-far winning formula.

As for the still-unbeaten-in-regulation Buffalo Sabres, they can take many lessons from Saturday night’s game. Indeed, they did control the play for huge portions of the game – I’ve yet to see a team this year better able to transition out of their defensive zone to begin a rush up ice. Even though Atlanta gave them more trouble than most teams have, Buffalo still proved far superior in that regard, and only Atlanta’s strict attention to positional play kept Buffalo from having even more scoring chances.

Yet there were some signs in this game of things the Sabres need to be aware of going forward. Perhaps the most glaring is that the team shows the occasional lapse in positional play and will often get too cute with the puck. This team has so much talent that they appear to often resorting to pond hockey which, although making for great viewing, leads to excessive turnovers and inevitable Lindy Ruff tirades. Each of Atlanta’s first three goals were a direct result of careless play by the Sabres: on the first goal Daniel Briere wasn’t back-checking nearly hard enough and let Bobby Holik slip by him to gather a loose puck and score from the slot; the second goal was a result of a horrible drop pass from Maxim Afinogenov – the “RAV” line (Derek Roy, Afinogenov, Thomas Vanek) was tic-tac-toeing all the way up the ice when Max dropped the puck to nobody, which gave the Thrashers a rush going the other way leading directly to a goal; the third goal was the result of Chris Drury losing the faceoff to Niko Kapanen and then failing to mark him afterwards – Kapanen gathered a rebound of a quick shot and buried it.

Buffalo should also be concerned about their inconsistency on faceoffs. Although they improved their rate during the third period and overtime, had they been better in the first two periods when they controlled the puck and took (and more importantly *lost*) a number of faceoffs in the Atlanta zone, they could very well have capitalized on that – of course just one more goal would have won the game for them in regulation.

Still, that’s nitpicking, isn’t it? It’s hard criticize a team that has a ridiculous 21 of a possible 22 points thus far – Buffalo is still the class of the league – and watching Saturday brings a number of positive observations about the Sabres that may not come through in game recaps:

Afinogenov – despite his occasional flaws – is the most exciting player in the NHL today. When he gathers the puck behind the Buffalo net and rushes up the ice, it’s an amazing sight to behold – a throwback to 70s and 80s eras where such rushes were much more commonplace. Max has clearly gained self-confidence over the past two years and also has gained the trust of his team and coaching staff, who are willing to live with the negative aspects of his game (read: three giveaways on Saturday night) in exchange for the numerous scoring chances he generates.

Offseason acquisition Jaroslav Spacek is a better fit for this team than the departed Jay McKee. As outstanding as McKee was for the Sabres in his nine seasons in Buffalo, Spacek’s offence is unquestionably superior and his transitional game is better-suited to hitting the streaking Sabre forwards in stride.

Jason Pominville should start getting more respect around the league – he has proven himself a natural goal scorer at every level, and with seven on the season (tied for second in the league in even strength goals with six, behind only Brian Rolston and Martin Havlat – each with seven) he may start to hear that label in the NHL as well. He scored over 100 goals in his final two years in major junior (Shawinigan of the Quebec League) and 64 goals in his final two full years in the American League (not including 19 goals in 18 games last fall before getting called up to Buffalo). Daniel Briere – having a great start to the season despite a low amount of goals - recently admitted to specifically looking for Pominville while on the ice because of Briere’s confidence in Jason burying his chances. Remember that Pominville has only been in the NHL for less than one full season (called up last December) – the three year / $3.1 million contract he signed in the off-season is already looking like a bargain for Buffalo.

Jochen Hecht is as reliable and unspectacular a forward as any in the league. His third period goal tied the game with less than two minutes left on one of Lehtonen’s few mistakes of the night, in which Lehtonen gave up a big rebound of a Pominville shot, directing it into the slot where Hecht drove it home. Hecht has been the unheralded “other” winger on Briere’s line for two years and can be counted on to grind in the corners and provide defensive coverage so that Briere and Pominville can concentrate more on creating scoring chances.

Finally, at the risk of sounding hypocritical, the end of the game (read: shootout) was frankly a lame way to end 65 minutes of exciting hockey. I’m not advocating banning the shootout (I realize it is here to stay) – it’s actually a great way to end an otherwise-stale game - but after the most exhilarating October game I can remember, going to a skills competition to decide it just seemed wrong.

In the end, this was a highly entertaining game that literally went down to the last shot. Atlanta should feel confident that with a few stars, a lot of veterans, and a franchise goaltender they could make noise in the Eastern Conference playoffs next spring. Despite being outplayed and outchanced, Atlanta capitalized on the few mistakes made by Buffalo and made them pay dearly. Each time the Sabres would tie the game they let down their guard just enough for the patient Thrashers to take advantage. Buffalo would be wise to take note of that – they should still be proud of their 10-0-1 record but realize that talent alone will get them nowhere in the playoffs.

ICE update

The SportsBlurb team is alive…sort of. Last Wednesday I was deep in last place with only 30 points, a distant ten points behind the 11th place team. Mostly thanks to my boys gooning it up on Saturday night I gained seven points in one day, helping me jump into 11th place. “Take that, East St. Louis!” A total of 22 PIMs (11 from Chris Neil who felt the pressure I was feeling to let him go from a certain unnamed colleague…) and a good game from Martin Gerber (despite a loss) gave me the much-needed points. I made two moves last week, picking up defencemen Ron Hainsey and Mike Commodore, while releasing Paul Mara and Jim Vandermeer. I was looking for some cheap PIMs and hoping to jettison negative players, and while neither acquisition has done much to date, the addition by subtraction has been successful - I avoided some bad +/- from Vandermeer this week. Of course with nobody on my team playing Monday night, yesterday I slipped back into my familiar home in 12th. There’s always November…

Feedback can be sent to robaquino@sportsblurb.com.