Sunday, April 4, 2010

All Things Hockey, April 4th, 2010

Happy Easter, everyone. What better way to celebrate the holiday that means the playoffs are right around the corner than with an edition of All-Things Hockey?
(I thought about calling it 'resurrection edition,' but it seemed in poor taste. Let's get going.)

Mailing It In

In the last episode of All Things Hockey, I solicited questions for a weekly running section. I said that it would be solicited by me, only if I remembered, and probably sporadic. I would like to thank those of you who contributed, because for the first time in the history of this blog, it actually over-delivered. I got 5 or 6 questions that I could touch on. So, since there hasn’t been anything that leapt out as worthy of leading with, I am going to go ahead and kick it off with the first ever All-Things Hockey Mail Bag.

Is Steve Ott possibly the best player ever to play against the Sharks on March 31st in any year?

- Wally (Hailey, Idaho)

This question combined the three things in the world that I hate above all else: Steve Ott, the Sharks losing, and research. Obviously, it is in reference to Ott’s hat trick against the Sharks on Wednesday night. I was lucky enough to have missed most of this game, a 5-1 loss, so I can’t really break down Ott’s performance. From what I saw, which was a large part of the first and second periods, as well as highlights, I wil do my best.

I will start with the obvious. Ott was…

(this is harder than I thought)

Clearly Ott played…

(Nope I can’t do it.)

Number 29 on the team wearing black on Wednesday night at the American Airlines Arena had three goals and therefore people familiar with the game of hockey would consider this a strong performance. That wasn’t so hard.

Ok…putting aside my hatred, which is deep and well documented, Ott’s first goal was a hard working one, in which he beat Nabokov to the glove side, which was made easier by the fact that Nabokov made the questionable decision to cut holes in his glove and to wear a 15 pound weight on his wrist coming out of the Olympic break. Personally, I think that Nabokov made the wrong play, with the holes and the weight, but he is a professional, so maybe there is some reason behind it.

The other two goals were scored on shots from the top of the crease on passes, that isn’t fair grounds for criticism, obviously, but they weren’t spectacular plays either. It was, of course, a good game, but to the question, was it the best that the Sharks have seen from an opposing player?

Well, the Sharks haven’t played on March 31st since 2004, when they beat the Kings 3-0. Unfortunately, although they gave up 4 goals twice, 5 once, and 3 three times on the date, I couldn’t find box scores for any of the games before 2003.

So yeah, it was probably the best that the Sharks have seen for this particular date. This compelled me to head to Wikipedia to find a dictator or criminal who had been born on 3/31 in order to prove that the day is a sort of cosmic bastion of evil, or to find some terrible natural disaster or massacre. Ott beating the Sharks couldn’t just be coincidence, right?

For birthdays, unfortunately I struck out, finding Jack Johnson (boxer), Gordie Howe, Cesar Chavez, and Tom Barasso, but no Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin or Hussein, much to my chagrin. On the other hand, I did find a massacre in 1918 that took place in Azerbaijan. 12,000 Muslims were killed by Bolsheviks and Armenian revolutionaries. 12000! What the hell, Steve? What do you have against ethnic Azerbaijanis? Jesus, didn’t he know that the 31st is known as Day of Azerbaijani Genocide the world over? Is that an association he wants? Apparently it is.

(Also, Isaac Newton died, which makes sense, since Ott scoring a hat trick seems to defy physics. Wikipedia is fun.)

I want to make very clear that I don’t support hockey players contributing to ethnic genocide in Western Asia 92 years ago, but apparently Ott does, and I think that is sad. I hope that answers your question.

What teams in each conference need to be on upset alert?

- Andrew (San Francisco)

First of all, let’s define an upset in the context of the NHL playoffs. A 4/5 matchup can be a surprise, but it certainly isn’t profound enough to get the label upset. The obvious games that can be labeled as upsets would involve the 1/8 matchup and the 2/7 matchup. These two are, without a doubt, worthy of the term. The three seed, though, needs to be evaluated on a case by case basis.

A six seed is usually a team that was in something of a playoff race, and usually pretty well out of contention for the division. That makes them capable of being in the range of someone who could pull an upset. The ambiguity, though, arises from the three seed, which is the lowest division winner. Often, this team is the 4th or 5th best in their conference. If that’s the case, then it isn’t fair to label a 3/6 an upset. That doesn’t necessarily mean that if the 4 seed has more points, the three can’t be upset, but often times that is the case.

So let’s look at this year. Washington, San Jose, Chicago and the Atlantic winner (Pittsburgh or New Jersey) will definitely be strong enough teams to be labeled upsets (they are strong enough teams that they need to be considered contenders, even if they have the 3rd or 4th most points). In the East, Buffalo has actually snuck up on the Atlantic teams, and has done so in a division with four playoff teams. So, should they lose in round 1 that would certainly go down as an upset.

Out West, it is harder to label Vancouver a strong enough favorite to be ‘upset.’ That isn’t to say that they aren’t a good team, quite the opposite, but they are actually built more like a team that would be pulling an upset with a strong goaltender and a couple of tope end scorers. If they played Detroit, they may not even be favored.

That brings me to the answer for the question, although the last statement steps on it a bit. Unsurprisingly, none of the favorites look primed to go down to me, as far as the first round is concerned. Rather, the area where an upset would occur would be from a frisky 6/8 seed. Right now, the simple answer to the question would be whoever plays Detroit. Obviously San Jose and Chicago have questions, but I thnk that they are just too good to go down to a team like Nashville or Los Angeles. If they face the Wings, though, they will be high on upset alert.

In the East, the 6-8 seeds look weak to me. Boston doesn’t have any scoring, especially without Savard, Philly doesn’t know who their goaltender is, although if they want to find him, they should check the IR, since that is where all of their tendys seem to be, and Montreal is generally a pretty uninspiring group that will probably go with Price, a goalie who is capable of stealing one or two, but just as capable of giving a couple of games away. Should Atlanta or New York manage to unseat one of those teams, I really don’t think they pose any greater of a threat. I could see a team getting hot and knocking off Pittsburgh in the 2 seed, to be honest (they look like a classic year after championship hangover group with the exception of 87 to me), but I don’t see that coming from any of the lower seeds in the East.

Why does James Wisniewski get suspended for 6 games for the hit on Seabrook when Ovechkin gets 2 games for a much worse hit and taking Campbell out for the rest of the year?

- Austin (Ketchum, ID)

I pretty much covered this a couple of weeks ago. I don’t want to repeat myself too much, but suffice to say I think that the suspension on Wisniewski’s suspension was justified and then some.

I won’t break down the hit again to justify this (if you want to see what I thought, read this), but let’s get to the comparison, leveled by an Ovechkin hate cool aid drinker (yeah I’m talking to you, Grill).

It would have been easy to say there is none, Wisniewski’s hit was worse and say that is that, just like it would have been easy to say that Ott isn’t the best player the Sharks have played but he did have the best game. Like the last one, though, I will get into it a little bit deeper.

Wisniewski wears number 34, which I can only assume is in homage to Adolf Hitler becoming fuhrer of Germany in 1934 (just kidding...)

The question that is actually at stake here is intent versus result. If you look at the result of the hit than sure, Ovechkin’s is worse, with Brian Campbell going down for the rest of the year. The problem is, such a large plethora of factors go into a player getting hurt, that to use it as a basis for discipline is unfeasible. If you look at intent, on the other hand, Wisniewski’s hit was exponentially worse. He left his feet and went right for the head of Seabrook, extracting revenge on a player who didn’t have the puck.

The only possible intended result of his actions was to hurt Seabrook. It is impossible to watch the play and say that if anything else had come of the hit, it was not by Wisniewski’s design. This wasn’t the case with Ovechkin who was stupid in the way he finished Campbell into the boards, but the result of the play was due largely to a dangerous circumstance which came about during standard play, not by maliciousness on Ovechkin’s part. For that reason, it doesn’t make sense to punish Ovechkin any more based on the outcome of the play.

Who is going to win the World Cup?

- Rob (Los Angeles)

That isn’t an NHL question. It isn’t even a hockey question. Read the rules.

And Germany will win the World Cup.

You need to be more concise. It is hard to read your entire columns because they are too wordy and long.

- Wally (San Francisco)

No I don’t. These are meant to be comprehensive. As to wordiness, I can’t altogether disagree, but I think that I have a wandering, insightful tone, rather than a detrimental wordiness. In my defense, the columns that I write (not the All-Things Hockey editions) are usually pretty manageable, under 2000 words at any rate. You can easily read something like that in 10 minutes. If you can’t break off 8 minutes to read, I don’t know what to tell you.

As for the ATH editions, sure, they usually read around 5000-6000 words, which, admittedly, is long. I go off on tangents that have nothing to do with hockey, and try to cover as many subjects as possible. The thing is, if you look at them, the are broken up in to 7 or 8 sections in a typical edition. It isn’t as though I am rambling on for 2000 words about a particular Patrick Marleau backcheck. Usually, these are a series of columns that are actually pretty short, around 800-900 words. Take the section after this mailbag. It is on a pretty prevailing subject, in my opinion, which is going on in the NHL, and I go through it in less than 600 words. That is fairly concise if you ask me.

If you can’t carve out half an hour to plow through the whole thing, fine. Pick and chose. Read the shorter stuff at the end, and then read the lead in column the next day. Pick and chose stuff if you want. This is meant to be a fairly comprehensive look at the state of hockey for a given week, and that is pretty tough to fit into a single page.

Also, if you have to blame someone, blame our education system. I have been brought up in a system in which higher grades clearly correlate to higher page counts. No matter what teachers say, they are much less likely to reward a 10 page paper with a failing grade than an 8 page paper. On top of that, when you are assigned a paper, it is usually billed based on page count, so to get it done, you have to hit a certain number of words, rather than a certain amount of subject matter. This has lead to a desire to be wordier and long winded that may have carried over into this writing.

Actually, that isn’t necessarily true; I just needed to make this answer longer. Isn’t irony fun?

Which players need to step up for their teams to go far in the playoffs?

- Andrew (San Francisco)

Time to look at San Jose for this one. There are two guys who need to be big gamers, something they have never been, in order for the Sharks to make a serious run. The first is Nabokov. He has been bad lately. He has struggled, historically, in the playoffs. The Sharks will need both of these trends to change, though, for the Sharks to be the cup favorite they should be.

The other player that the Sharks need to step up is Joe Thornton. For the most part, my attitude towards the Sharks playoff strugogles has been that it isn’t some great failing of the team’s psyche, just some ill timed slumping that is bound to correct itself if the team stays together. Thornton is the one player that I’m not so sure that this is the case for. He has never had a great playoff resume, and he has absolutely disappeared at times, something that the Sharks can’t afford from their best player. Thornton’s problem seems to be intensity. When intensity steps up, as it does in the playoffs, Thornton seems unable to match that step.

Eventually, he will need to this year. The Sharks are good enough that they don’t rely on Jumbo like they once did. Guys like Marleau and Heatley, even Pavelski and Setoguchi can step up for the Sharks and win a series, maybe even two if Thornton mails in another May. Eventually, though, the Sharks will need their number one center to do what he does in the regular season if they are going to win the cup, and anything less would be a failure fin San Jose.

Elsewhere, it is pretty simple. Teams need their best players to be their best players. There really isn’t one that I can identify, though. If Crosby is great, the Penguins have a chance. If Ovechkin steps up, the Capitals are probably the favorite. If Kovalchuk and Parise are great, the Devils could return the Cup to Newark (30 days without a murder!).

Everyone looks at goaltending as the determining factor for playoff success, but really it comes down to who gets the most out of their star players. Sure, you have your 2006 Canes, who didn’t have anyone step up other than Cam Ward, but for each one of them you get three Penguins getting Crosby and Malkin, Wings getting Zetterburg and Datsyuk and Lightning getting big springs from Lecavalier, Richards and St. Louis. Really, then, everyone has guys that they need to step up for them to go deep, but nowhere are these questions more pronounced than in San Jose.

Handcuffed In Net

Tim Thomas has, to put it honestly, had an absolutely terrible season. At this point it would be foolish for a (likely) playoff bound Boston team to do anything other than take the starting job away from the platoon that last year’s Vezina winner has enjoyed with Tuukka Rask, and give Thomas a front row seat for the playoffs with Rask tending to the crease.

After Thomas was shelled in his last outing, that appears to be what Coach Claude Julian will do, but the move to the Finnish rookie comes months after it had been made clear who should have been the man in Boston. While it would be unfair to pin the Bruins drop entirely on Thomas when the team has lost all of its scoring punch (through injuries to Marc Savard and the trade of Phil Kesell) and gotten a lackluster year from its best player (Zdeno Chara), his decline certainly was a contributory factor. Sticking with him as a feature goaltender may well have kept the Bruins in the race for the 8 seed, rather than a more comfortable playoff spot.

The problem is, they had a specific reason for staying with Thomas, and they are hardly the only franchise that finds themselves in this predicament. 2009-2010 has seen many a goaltender take a large, often long term contract, like the one that Thomas was given by the Bruins, only to be questionable in net, and at times even be outplayed for the starting role.

A desire to get a return on the investment made (or even the desire to keep trade value high), kept a number of goaltenders in starting roles, even for contenders, for a much longer time than they should have been.

Money kept JS Guigerre in a platoon role, with the more skilled, less paid Jonas Hiller behind him, hurting the Ducks, but maintaining Jiggy’s trade value for a deal with Toronto dumping a 6 million dollar contract. Christobal Huet was kept in the mix for the Blackhawks despite an absolutely dismal year and a better performance from Antti Neimi, thanks to a financial commitment to the Franco goaltender by a team already strapped for cash for the next three years at $5.6 million. The Capitals have been more reluctant to go away from Semyon Varlamov in order to justify Jose Theodore’s $4.5 million contract, but they have platooned the struggling veteran with the rookie that should be taking the reins.

Ultimately, come playoff time, it will be Rask, Varlamov, and Neimi in net (and Hiller on the links), but these teams have definitely failed to effectively walk the line between getting their money’s worth on the cap, and putting the best product on the ice.

Homer Note of the Week: Lining Up

Last week I talked about the fact that the Sharks were shuffling lines down the stretch, in an effort to shake things up before the playoffs. As you can tell from the preceding sections, I am ready to start looking forward to the playoffs and taking a look at what will happen when they begin.

Looking to the playoffs for the Sharks, here are my picks for the lines that coach McLellan should use in the second season.

Marleau-Thornton-Heatley

Sure, this is top loading the scoring a bit more than you should like, but the Sharks can’t pass up the opportunity to go into the tournament with the best line in hockey. As I said earlier, Joe Thornton is as crucial a player as anyone in these playoffs, and the Sharks will need him to win. It will be much less of a load on him if he is playing with two other superstars to take off some of the pressure.

Setoguchi-Pavelski-Couture

Seto and Pavelski have made up the second line for much of the year, and both are good players who can provide strong secondary scoring. On their wing, though, I am being a bit aggressive by throwing a player with just 3 NHL goals in the second line. The fact is, though, Couture is a scorer. He has averaged more than a point per game the last three seasons in the OHL and the AHL. While he may not continue at such a tepid pace in the NHL, he should be given the chance, and will have that with Seto and Pavs. He has performed extremely well since his call up, and can contribute offense probably better than anyone other than the Sharks top 5 forwards. Clowe has filled this spot for much of the year, but Couture’s game fits better with Setoguchi and Pavelski (more on Clowe below).

Clowe-Malhotra-McGinn

Clowe and Malhotra bring as much offense to a third line as anyone that you will see in the NHL. Clowe is a grinder with good hands in front of the net who can pile up points when he is on, and Malhotra has a great shot that makes him a threat to create opportunities, even if he isn’t a plus skater or stickhandler. Putting McGinn with them makes this a complete scoring line, and makes more sense than going half way towards a checking line with a more defensive guy like Ortmeyer or Nichol.

Ortmeyer-Mitchell-Nichol

To be honest, I would rather see Frazier McLaren with the grit and power that he brings on this line with Ortmeyer and Mitchell, but it is unrealistic to put Scott Nichol outside of the top four lines. Mitchell has been playing well of late, but he is clearly the fourth center on this team right now. At any rate, this is a fourth line that you don’t have to be afraid to throw out. At home, I think the Sharks match strength with strength and play their top 2 lines against opponents top units, but if they have to take a shut down shift, Ortmeyer, Nichol and Mitchell are a luxury in that they will be able to shut down opponents, even though they won’t bring much offense.

Goal of the Week

Once again, it is Max ‘how do I not do this more often’ Afiogenov, who dances around what appears to be the Toronto Marlies, and beat JS Guigerre, tying his career high with 23 goals.




Save of the Week

The save of the week is mostly for context here, but it is via Nashville Predator Pekka Rinne. David Paron made a couple of great moves, walking through the Nashville defense late in the game in an attempt to tie it for the Blues. Rinne made a sprawling save on Paron, who had managed to elevate the puck, saving the game for Nashville.



Shorter Hockey Thoughts

­- Funny stat of the week: The St. Louis Blues goal differential (-1) is 2 worse than that of the Nashville Predators (+1). The Blues have 13 less points and are 7 spots lower in the standings.

- Aaaaannnd reason number 7,289 that the Canadiens should either get something for Jaroslav Halak or make him the starter…brought to you in the form of a 1-0 win over the Flyers.

- In the interest of positivity, I am going to pretend that I didn’t see that weak Guillerme Latandresse wrist shot hit you in the shoulder, then somehow trickle over you and into the net on Friday, Evgeni.

- From the ‘what the hell was he thinking’ department, Alain Vigneualt left Roberto Luongo in the net for all 8 goals that the Canucks gave up Thursday night, in an 8-3 loss. Hey, any time you have a chance to kill your goalie’s confidence in a meaningless game a couple of weeks before they playoffs, you gotta do it.

TOP 8 / bottom eight

On the Down

23. Dallas Stars- Bonus downs for having Steve Ott give them the edge over Minnesota

24. Carolina Hurricanes- They were better in the second half, but 2010 was a season lost to injuries in Raleigh.

25. New York Islanders- They have youth and skill, but even as it develops, they will need to find depth to compete.

26. Tampa Bay Lightning- The Vinnie contract poses problems for signing Stamkos in a couple of years.

27. Florida Panthers- There is a nucleus here if they can keep it and build a bit.

28. Columbus Blue Jackets- Enter: rebuild. Playoff appearance #2 for the franchise is a few years away.

29. Toronto Maple Leafs- Overachieving, but still in the Eastern basement.

30. Edmonton Oilers- Like Carolina, the Oilers have been plagued by injuries. They have too much skill on that roster to be as bad next year.

On the Up

8. Detroit Red Wings- Once again, the hottest team in hockey.

7. Phoenix Coyotes- I have no idea how.

6. Pittsburg Penguins- I just don’t see a repeat from this group.

5. Buffalo Sabers- Miller makes them a threat to win the East.

4. New Jersey Devils- The Kovy trade makes a lot of sense right now.

3. Chicago Blackhawks- Quietly holding the 2 spot in the West.

2. San Jose Sharks- They have managed to hold on to 1 in the West through a pretty big lull post-Olympics.

1. Washington Capitals- Impossible to argue with 112 points and 5 games to go

Non NHL Update


Unsurprisingly, the clash between the Windsor Spitfires and the Plymouth Whalers was billed as a showdown between projected 1 and 2 picks Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin. As such, it will likely that Hall got the better of Seguin, when his Windsor squad knocks off Plymouth in the OHL semis (it is 2-0 now and neither game has been close). That isn’t fair though.

Hall has a ton of help with the likes of Ryan Ellis, Justin Shugg, Greg Nemisz, Cam Fowler (the likely #3 pick in June), Zach Cassian and Adam Henrique, all future NHLers (and good ones). Plymouth, on the other hand, has a couple of solid players, but relies much more heavily on Seguin than Windsor does on Hall. The main takeaway from this series should be that Windsor is the hands down Memorial Cup favorite, rather than taken as a Hall victory over Seguin.

Award Watch

Vezina

Ryan Miller (Buffalo Sabers) - Still. Tuuka Rask has made a charge but he doesn’t have enough of a body to take it from Miller, who has been spectacular all year.

HM- Tuuka Rask (BOS), Thomas Vokun (FLA), Ilya Bryzgalov (PHX)

Adams

Dave Tippett (Phoenix Coyotes) - They clinched a playoff berth, and they have challenged San Jose for the Pacific Division crown. It has to be Tippett. It just has to.

HM- No one comes close.

Calder

Tyler Myers (Buffalo Sabers )- Jimmy Howard has garnered some buzz of late, but I would still give the nod to the Buffalo Sabers rookie defenseman.

HM- Jimmy Howard (DET), Matt Duschene (COL)

Hart

Alex Ovechkin (Washington Capitals)- I am going to keep giving Ovie the nod, having recorded more assists than his competition in the Richard race, and waaay more goals than anyone else in the points race.

HM- Sidney Crosby (PIT), Henrik Sedin (VAN)

1 comment:

austin said...

dechene should get the calder. he was huge for getting the avs to the playoffs.