“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.
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.
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