29 March 2006

Wales Watching - SportsBlurb.com / FoxSports.com

We’re down to the final three weeks of the season and finally starting to see a playoff picture emerging. Over the past week we’ve seen teams going in opposite directions (Buffalo, New York Rangers) but the top seven teams are the same as they were a week ago. It looks like the top five teams are virtually assured of playoff spots (with Ottawa and Carolina officially clinching this week), while there will be a real battle for the last two or three spots. Most teams have only 10 or 11 games left in the season, and every game is taking on a magnified importance.

Ottawa did become the first team in the league to clinch a playoff spot this week. After a small mid-season "slump" (compounded by key injuries to such players as Jason Spezza and Martin Havlat) they seem to have regrouped once again into the team to beat, even as Ray Emery handles the goaltending duties while the enigmatic Dominik Hasek nurses the most talked-about groin in the league. He’s expected to return to the Senators crease “anytime now” (officially somewhere from one week to the 2008 draft).

The New York Rangers continue to battle neck and neck with the Philadelphia Flyers for first place (and a top-three playoff seed) in the Atlantic Division – a big home-ice comeback shootout win against Buffalo on Monday night, coming down from two goals in the third period, was spearheaded by the amazingly resurgent Jaromir Jagr and his team-record 52nd goal (tying Adam Graves). With all due respect to the Senators’ Daniel Alfredsson and the amazing rookie season of Alexander Ovechkin (47 goals for a team full of third-liners in
Washington), Jagr is my choice for this year’s Hart Trophy winner. He was the first (and currently only) player to hit the 50 goal mark, and is also leading the league in points with 109, second in shots, and is a +24 all while becoming a leader on this Ranger team set to clinch a playoff birth.

Montreal continues to fight to stay in the race, led by goaltender Christobal Huet. Huet continues to reward the faith that the Canadiens’ front office showed in him by dealing former MVP Jose Theodore last month. Over his last five games Huet has only allowed ten goals. The Habs essentially eliminated the Leafs with two wins this week helped by Radek Bonk – Radek Bonk!!! – scoring three goals in two key victories.

The Florida Panthers are currently scorching, having won nine of their last ten games and have closed to within six points of the final playoff spot. This is a team that should do everything in their power to re-sign goaltender Roberto Luongo as with the commitment to captain Oli Jokinen (Panthers fans can thank good ol’ Mike Milbury for those two – the outgoing Islanders’ GM was fleeced years ago as he dealt both of them together in one deal back in 2000 for Mark Parrish and Oleg Kvasha – ouch!) this is a team that – with a few smart moves – could become a contender very soon.

Meanwhile two old Adams Division rivals are struggling – one a surprise, one continuing a season-long malaise - the Buffalo Sabres and Boston Bruins. What in the name of Tom Draper has happened to the Buffalo Sabres? They are currently in the midst of an out-of-nowhere six game losing skid, this immediately on the heels of an eight game winning streak. Before a week and a half ago, they had only lost two straight games in regulation once since early November, and from mid-November until mid-March they were the best team in hockey – easily a long enough period to no longer be called a fluke success.

So what could explain the bizarre losing streak? On the surface you could point to the quality of their opponents: two games against Ottawa, and one each against Carolina and the Rangers; but they also suffered a 5-0 drubbing to the Thrashers and took their first loss this season to Boston. Aside from year-long problems with Ottawa, beating anyone hasn't been a problem for the Sabres this year. The emotional slant can't entirely be discounted, with popular coach Lindy Ruff's 11 year old daughter undergoing surgery for a brain tumor. However the most obvious reasons for changes in play by a team will always occur on the ice. The Sabres' success has laid in great special teams, excellent goaltending, and aggressive play in all three zones. What they've lost over the past ten days is quality play in all of those areas. Before Chris Drury scored the first goal against the Rangers on the power play Monday night, the second-ranked power play unit had been blanked over their previous 22 chances. The speedy Buffalo forwards have not been nearly as aggressive in backchecking as they have in the past, perhaps fatally exposing weakness in the Sabres’ defence, whose recent play could best be described in the manner of the review for Spinal Tap’s album “Shark Sandwich.” Their steady “no-name” defence had been unspectacular but solid all year long, but lately has been prone to awful lapses in coverage, often looking like a bunch of junior high kids playing floor hockey in gym class. Caught out of position, they’ve been left to rely on their goaltender too often…

However….said starting goaltender Ryan Miller has not been making the big saves that define top-flight goalies; he has been beaten much more often than he should be on unscreened and undeflected shots. His positioning has looked off as he’s been guilty of committing terribly early on shots, looking much like the rookie he is rather than the Olympian he was in the court of public opinion two months ago. Considering a few of Buffalo's losses have been by a goal, some of those softies could easily have translated into wins and we wouldn't be talking about a Sabres slump at all. In Monday night’s Rangers game he played his best overall game in 2 weeks – particularly in overtime on a powerplay dominated by Jagr - yet still succumbed to his recent tendency of letting in an easy goal.

Finally, although it’s impossible for the loss of one player to cause such a streak, Jochen HechtBuffalo’s most unsung and best all around player – went down with a knee injury two weeks ago in a win over the Sabres’ personal rented mules from Toronto. They haven’t won a game since then.

And then there are the Boston Bruins. General Manager Mike O’Connell was not unexpectedly given the axe on Saturday evening. Many pundits missed badly on evaluating the Bruins before this year – some even picked them to win the conference. However, the team never caught a break, never gelled, and aside from a decent little run before the Olympics where they won six of eight games, they never put any sort of winning streak together – only twice all year have they won three straight.

An idea that picked up steam in the early 90s and became an unstoppable was the penurious ways of owner Jeremy Jacobs and former-GM and current president Harry Sinden were preventing the Bruins from having any chance at the Cup. Is this accurate? Now reported in the newspapers and on the web as a matter of fact, it has gotten to the point where it is beyond thinking - perception has become fact, and as a result the once-proud pro hockey town of
Boston treats the Bruins as a joke. And I think that perception isn’t entirely correct – let me point to a few examples in the recent past where the front office has been skewered for letting popular veterans go seemingly in the interest of saving a buck or two, yet were moves that needed to be made:

The Adam Oates deal – Boston dealt him to Washington in 1997 after spending parts of six seasons in Boston and helping to propel Cam Neely to a Hall of Fame scorer. This was widely panned as a simple salary dump, and maybe on some levels it was, but they got young talent in return, getting Jason Allison and Anson Carter (ok, and Jim Carey) as well as 2 draft picks. This was a case of acknowledgment that the team needed rebuilding with youth. And it nicely helped them to finish last in the league and get great drafting position!

The Ray Bourque fiasco - sure for the sake of the career he had put in for the Bruins it was hard to let him go, but let's be honest - he wasn't a great defenceman anymore and he himself wanted the trade. Even remotely criticizing anything regarding Ray Bourque in Boston is and would be considered on par with driving with your hazards on through the Big Dig with a “Big Papi Sucks” sticker on your bumper; but in my opinion he left management high and dry and yet managed to turn public opinion absolutely 100% in his favour to where all you heard was “Ray deserves a Cup.” The situation was comparable to Hasek demanding out of Buffalo in 2001, a Sabre legend who changed a lot of fans’ minds after he forced the Sabres to deal him to Detroit Lots of great Hall of Fame players don’t win a championship, and lots of crappy players win them – it just happens. The cold reality was that the team was lousy and was better off getting value for him while they could.

The Bill Guerin loss - wow, was there an outcry when they didn't re-sign him – and I always thought…why?? It was obvious at the time that the market was ridiculous (Guerin signed with
Dallas for USD$45 million over five years) and hockey is not a sport that lends itself to spending a large percentage of the payroll on one player who will play at most 20-22 minutes a game. See also Alexei Yashin (a.k.a. most ludicrous contract signing in history – hey our second Mad Mike Milbury reference in one article!). The Bruins have been vindicated in not spending the enormous sum it would have taken to keep him, yet never recovered from the public relations hit.

This finally leads us to this season’s dealing of Joe Thornton to San Jose. The deal was met with stunned silence, anger, and then sarcasm as the Bruin front office was mocked in the local and mostly hockey-ignorant press. Yet getting three cheap and (most importantly) quality bodies for one superstar is often a prudent, if not popular, move. The Bruins haven’t exactly fallen apart since the deal, even sporting a winning record since the trade and gaining more flexibility with their roster. Admittedly on paper it looks like San Jose dominated this trade as Thornton and his 100+ points are currently second in the league. But the fact is that he wasn't bringing A-game results in Boston. And don't discount Jonathan Cheechoo with helping Thornton find his potential - sometimes a player only reaches his peak with a new set of teammates – Phil Esposito was a mid-level center for Chicago in the 1960s before fortuitously being dealt to a sleeping giant in Boston, coinciding with the rise of the incomparable Bobby Orr, as well as other stars like Johnny Bucyk and Ken Hodge.

My point is this – too often (as in all aspects of life) fans look at their teams in black and white terms. The Bruins have without question been conservative over their recent history in terms of finances. Yet throwing money at a sports problem almost never solves said problem – the reason for the lack of success in Boston over the past decade has naught to do with “being cheap” but it’s an easy answer for fans and lazy media to fall back on. Mike O’Connell and Harry Sinden have failed to deliver a winner – not because of money – but simply, the Bruins have done a lousy job in virtually every other area, mostly in the draft and development of players. They’ve used a patchwork approach to building their team, and when they actually have gone out and spent money they’ve done it in a manner that shows surprisingly little understanding of the team they had and what areas needed addressing.

Thanks for reading – we’ll be back in seven days and report on the playoff race as well as other stories from our old Wales Conference. See you then!

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