September 27, 2008

The KHL gets under way: A Month in Eurasia

With the NHL slowly whirring back into action after a colorful but entirely hockey free Summer it’s easy to forget that across the Atlantic hockey is in competitive full swing. Indeed as the NHL dusts off the cogs and goes through the oft tedious motions of pre season conditioning, the dropping of the puck at HV71’s Kinnarps Arena signaled the beginning of the Swedish Elitserien and the last major European league to get under way.

With numerous big name players opting to return to Europe in the face of the NHL’s renewed contract business model, European hockey is experiencing a new era of competitiveness and media world focus. In response Europe’s major leagues have demonstrated increased presentation efforts and accessibility as it embraces the liability of elite hockey standards and big business finance in what promises to be a highlight season for European hockey fans.

A considerable amount of responsibility for the limelight can be laid squarely at the feet of the upstart KHL. Replacing the old Russian Super League, the Kontinental Hockey League has devoured top clubs from satellite regions of Eurasia into an American formatted, oligarch financed elite league that has helped bolster awareness of European hockey through the acquisition of superstar NHLers such as Jagr, Emery and Radulov. Whilst the players may be veteran, trouble or wantaway in another tongue, the KHL’s ambitions to live up to its NHL rivaling hype has been nothing if not entertaining and the overshadowed element of hockey has been strong and exciting as well.

Now three weeks down the line from the inaugurating faceoff that saw eight of the KHL’s 24 teams get under way, the balance of power is beginning to immerge from the fanfare. Split into four divisions named for the greats of Russian hockey royalty the (Alexander)Kharlamov, (Vsevolod)Bobrov, (Anatoli)Tarasov and (Arkady)Chernyshev, the league has been structured to the NHL model with the top four seeds earning the top four births with the next best twelve, in lieu of conferences, being ranked 5 through 16. Early pace setters have proven to be Atlant Mytischi of the Bobrov Division. Backstopped by troubled ex-NHLer Ray Emery, the former Senator has been outshone in the early part of the season by bit part former Av’s netminder Vitaly Koleshnik. Aided by the goals of 2002 Blue Jackets draftee and 2008 RSL scoring leader Sergei Mozyakin and one year NHL wonder Esa Pirnes as well as the excellent defensive production of Magnus Johansson who played D for both Florida and Chicago last year, Atlant have made a noted improvement from last season’s fourth place in the RSL under their decade old moniker Khimik Moscow Oblast.

Currently proving Atlant’s stiffest competition is fellow Bobrov division side and reigning RSL champions Salavat Yulaev Ufa helped in no small part by leading scorer Alexander Radulov. Despite his tempestuous exit from the NHL and now reported desire to return, Radulov currently lies twelfth in the KHL scoring race having clicked with the leagues third leading goal getter Alexander Perezhogin. Ufa also boast arguably the best goaltending in the leagues early stages with Alexander Yeremenko showing the school of ex-NHL back stoppers such as Moss,  Emery, Chiodo, Dubielewicz and Esche how its done.    

Outside the Bobrov Division, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, with the aide of Finnish head coach Kari Heikkilä, are leading the best of the rest from the Kharlamov. Demonstrating excellent scoring depth across the top three lines, experienced ex-NHLer Josef Vašiček is currently leading by example whilst former Ottawa draftee Vitaly Anikeyenko boasts one of the leagues top plus/minus ratings.

Fourth placed Mettalurg Novokuznetsk has proven to be the surprise package of the early weeks. Foregoing the big money acquisitions of former NHLers and top European players preferred elsewhere, Novokuznetsk are little altered from the team that finished seventeenth of twenty in the final year of the RSL yet lead out all teams in goals scored in the KHL. Playing out of the same division as Atlant and Salavat, the Bobrov boasts four teams in the early top ten with Spartak Moscow sitting ninth.

In the Tarasov division, Traktor Chelyabinsk has also proved something of a surprise. Poor starts from expected frontrunners Metallurg Magnitogorsk and wealthy CSKA Moscow have let last seasons fourteenth placed finishers Traktor pull out an early divisional lead whilst utilizing the leagues top power play. Coached by former NHL enforcer Andrei Nazarov, Traktor are the third worst team for PIM’s but boast veteran NHLer Andrei Nikolishin amongst their ranks.

You have to look down to sixth to find the leaders of the Chernyshev Division. Perennial nearly men AK Bars Kazan currently lead out in what could be a season long battle with Dinamo Moscow for the divisional seeding. Despite bolstering the team heavily in the last two years, its come down to AK Bars’ longest serving player Danis Zaripov to lead out the team and the KHL in scoring with team mate and long-time Penguin Aleksey Morosov keeping pace for early honors.

Elsewhere around the KHL it has been slow start for Jaromir Jagr’s Avangard Omsk. Having won only two of their first six games, head coach Sergei Gersonsky was relieved of his position. Since Avangard have improved winning two of their next three games and winning their other in overtime, Jagr currently leads team scoring with eight points (five goals and three assists) in nine games.

Marcel Hossa is another noted ex-NHLer now plying his trade in Russia, currently sitting fifth in league scoring, Hossa’s Latvian side Dinamo Riga have made a good start playing some exciting passing hockey and lying second in the Kharlamov division. Riga is currently dominating the other two sides brought from outside Russia with Belarus’s Dynamo Minsk struggling in twenty first and Kazakhstan’s Barys Astrana improving only slightly to sixteenth.

Each team in the KHL will play out a 56 game regular season schedule set to close out on the 26th of February. Keep an eye out for updates on the NHL’s new WHAesque competitor as I provide season long coverage.

August 18, 2008

Is the Salary Cap Working?

It seems with all the excitement surrounding the trade merry-go round and the day by day shocks and surprises that sprung up around the free agency period, that this offseason has almost been as exciting as the on ice season that preceded it. Perhaps one of the most interested stories to emanate from the dizzying array of rumors and dollars fluttering around the hockey world in the recent months was how the Pittsburgh Penguins were going to cope with the salary cap. Built up from seasons of solid and often spectacular drafting, much of the young talent that drove the once stale Pens’ all the way to the finals were entering varying degrees of free agency including some at the end of their entry level contracts. This left many to ponder how the Pens’ would handle their roster with high end wage demands sure to follow their cup run and youth hype.
As it happens the Pens’ had little to be concerned about merely dropping out a couple of grinders in the form of Laraque and Ruutu, one young star in the shape of Ryan Malone and big money journeyman in Marian Hossa whilst finding reasonably priced replacements for all in the shape of Matt Cooke, Miroslav Satan and Ruslan Fedotenko. Sure these replacements may not be like for like, but the Penguins roster has hardly taken the bashing many thought it would considering the other big loss was Gary Roberts at 41 years old.
No, the Penguins have been the benefactors of a spiraling wage cap and league wide financial ethic that is showing worrying similarities to the seasons running up to the infamous labour disputes that brought about the season long lockout. In fact heading into just the fourth season of post-lockout hockey, the NHL salary cap roof has reached $56.7 million with the floor now pitched at $40.7 million. Put into perspective, the cap floor is now higher than the cap ceiling of 2005-‘06. The result is simple, bigger market franchises still posses the clout to buy into success with such an astronomic cap whilst small market teams struggle to stay in the black with such a high minimum floor. Subsequently fans can expect to see increasing ticket costs whilst small market teams have to juggle their prospects and stars with financial security.
What we now have is increased levels of disparity running its effects throughout the entire league structure with niche market teams feeling the pinch in much the same way as the slew of near bankrupt teams did in 2004. This of course can be traced back to the inception of the CBA, the child that spawned the euphemistic “New NHL.” With negotiations stalling on the concept of salary cap, the NHLPA wanted no such thing whilst the NHL wanted a hard salary cap unbound to league wide revenue, the natural convergence was on a salary cap tied to league revenues. The idea was that franchises not turning over profit would be supported by the high earners, the likes of Detroit, New York Rangers and Toronto. However with the strengthening of the Canadian dollar and the increase in ticket costs and league revenues as a whole, the NHL was able to announce profits in excess of $2.6 billion for 2007-’08. Subsequently players were entitled to 56.3%, up from 55.5% owing to the $2.5 billion excess bracket. Adding on the NHLPA sweetening 5% inflation bump and we reach a salary cap limit that will see average player wages reach $2 million for 2008-‘09, $200K more than before the league breaking lockout.
This would not be a problem if there was not such vast differences in the kinds of numbers the thirty organizations were pulling in, but to look at it from a microcosmic standpoint, the bottom fifteen teams featured in a leaked NHL league table regarding ticket revenues constituted just 35% of the leagues ticket returns, whilst the six Canadian franchises who make up 20% of the league, total 31% of all ticket receipts. Taking in the unchartered variables that surround NHL organizations such as local media deals, arena management and parking costs and the success of the traditional hockey franchises has seen hockey related revenues exceed 11% growth. In a nutshell, the success of the bigger teams has pushed the salary floor above the means of many small market franchises, allowing bigger money deals for the big clubs and the likelihood of continued HRR increases in the upcoming seasons. The revenue linked salary cap merely makes compensation to reach the salary floor and only in seasons where the player’s escrows, an overflow related to payroll midpoint, is available; in short, financial support is scant for small town franchises.
This naturally affects the NHL for the fan, aside from the mere inconvenience of overpriced tickets. With increased disparity, the league will slip into the cycles of predictable big franchise success we saw throughout the decade leading to lockout and in turn this will affect the marketability of the game in the US, where its more popular big “3” are less influenced competitively by fiscal mismanagement. This will mean a sport with comparatively minor support, coverage and sponsorship will be looking at a wage bracket over that of the NFL, the very same situation that brought the games biggest league to its knees less than half a decade ago.
So where do we go from here? With Hockey Related Revenues expected to continue rising for the foreseeable future and the NHLPA having the option to re-open contractual negotiations at the end of the upcoming season, the CBA could come under question very soon. For the majority of owners, 2008-‘09 will see them break even on the losses incurred by the lockout with all subsequent revenue becoming net gain. Although it’s unlikely that the NHLPA will exercise the right to re-negotiate, the latest the current CBA can be re-assessed is 2011-12 by which point, assuming HRR remains at a steady 11%, the cap floor will be $58 million, $1.3 million more than the upcoming seasons cap roof. However just three seasons down the road, most of the small town hockey franchises could be facing bankruptcy whilst the high rollers are free to sign in the highest cost talent. The league will be more lopsided than it ever has been
This will make for some interesting discussions whenever the CBA is next reviewed. The squabbles surrounding the lockout in 2004 was that player’s wages were taking such a significant cut from the organizations turnover that the financial structure had to be rearranged. At the time players were earning around 75%, according to the leagues dicey Levitt Report, or more likely 66% as apportioned by Forbes magazines own investigation of total league revenues. In the aftermath of the new CBA, players saw their portion reduced to 56% in years when profit exceeded the $2.5 billion bumper. However with the continuous rise of hockey related revenues, the players 56% cut is all-but-equal to the financial sum of 66% in pre-lockout money. In the meantime the 34% of the owners share has increased to 44% which sees them making a clear $260 million profit over the terms they found themselves in prior to the new CBA.
With so much of the disproportionate wealth being manufactured by the games elite franchises, there is the very real possibility that when the leagues various bodies come to reassess the CBA within the next three years, the discussions that had been so widely seen as player versus owner in 2004 will become owner versus owner. In the likelihood of many of the NHL’s less profitable organizations facing such desperate financial uncertainty, the bottom end of the microcosmic NHL ticket revenues league table may start squeezing the high turnover franchises for greater financial support. Subsequently the next battle may well be linked to the terms of the revenue sharing policy rather than player wage entitlement.
In the meantime the current CBA is beginning to feel like the dinosaur of the previous iteration. It’s obvious that well maintained franchises such as the Detroit Red Wings will remain successful no matter the financial state of the league, but for the majority it’s becoming the same old game we saw a decade ago, slowly slipping into absurd deals made by careless owners looking to push the big buck whilst smaller franchises fail to create bottom dollar turnover. Is the salary cap working? All signs point to no.

July 10, 2008

Goodbye 68, Hello Russia

Last week Jaromir Jagr confirmed he would be leaving the NHL to join Avangard Omsk of the Continental Hockey League, now 36 and with his heart set on an eventually return to his native Czech Republic and HC Kladno, the news all but certainly signals the end of Jagr’s oft brilliant, oft controversial NHL career after 17 years.

For anybody who grew up in the hockey world of the early 90’s Jagr was one of those young starlets who developed into a league and world megastar, coming to identify the sport and the NHL in much the same way as fellow Penguin alumni Sidney Crosby does today. With Jagr on his way to Russia, Selanne possibly on the way to Finland or retirement, Kariya and Tkachuk spent forces in St. Louis and Eric Lindros long retired by injury, few of the youngsters who became NHL institutions in the offensive golden age of the 1990’s remain in the modern game. Jagr’s leaving signals nothing if not the end of an era for a large portion of today’s fans.

Drafted 5th overall in 1990, Jagr’s ascent into a powerhouse Pittsburgh Penguins within his first year of eligibility was an astounding feat, that he was also the first Czechoslovakian to play in the NHL without having to defect from behind the iron curtain made it all the more notable and allowed him a privilege many had never been given.

Often dwarfed by the shadow of Mario Lemieux in his early years, upon his mentors first retirement, Jagr went on to secure four consecutive Art Ross Trophy’s between 1997 and 2001, a feat only equaled by greats such as Howe, Esposito and Gretzky. Regarded as the leagues finest skater in the late 90’s, the young Czech developed in skill and confidence from the gangly European who tended to pass the puck into one of the games greatest right wingers, winning two cups in his freshman and sophomore seasons before achieving what he regarded as his finest accomplishment, guiding his beloved Czech Republic to Olympic gold in 1998.
Despite being marred by gambling problems and a tendency to fall out with taskmaster coaches Jagr’s career will forever leave a mark on the NHL.
To end the story there would pay some testimony to a great player and character, but his choice of destination following the NHL is both a perplexing one and a considerable reason for concern in the annals of the NHL.

Often quoting Ronald Reagan as one of his childhood heroes, Jagr boasted that he carried a picture of the former US president in his wallet, an act of immense insubordination in the former communist state of his birth. Now going out to pasture in a country still greatly blemished by the era of communism and too many commentator, still ruled by an old school elite, Jagr’s choice seems at odds with his childhood beliefs.

Naturally the move is fuelled by something else, something more fundamental to hockey itself. Jagr had said that if an NHL team was willing to put up a reasonable contract, he would have stayed in the NHL, yet whilst teams had offered a considerable amount more than Avangard Omsk, the restrictions of the Collective Bargaining agreement tied organizations to one year deals for a potentially injury prone veteran. Jagr was not willing to be wrung through the Free Agency mill again. In the meanwhile Omsk were happy to put up a three year deal for the services of a player still vaunted by North American fans, after all Jagr was not only going to be a superstar for Omsk, but the face of a rival European league.

The Continental Hockey League or KHL is due to commence its inaugural season in September 2008. Having swallowed up the Russian Super League, the KHL has also taken the cream of the crop from the rest of Eurasia including top teams from Belarus, Latvia and Kazakhstan. Funded largely by the new Russian business class of oligarch’s whom came to prominence after the collapse of communism and the subsequent market liberalization, and backed by Russian hockey great Igor Larionov, the KHL is the closest thing to a European super league and with the touted expansion from twenty four to thirty teams in 2009-10, many expect the league to encompass more countries in the next few years. Indeed invitations for expansion have been proffered to Swedish superpowers Frolunda HC and Farjestads BK with teams from the Ukraine expected to bolster the league roster alongside the recent Finnish champions Karpat.

All this makes for a potentially threatening outlook for the NHL, which draws a considerable deal of its fan base from Europeans blighted by a lack of glitz and glamour associated with the world’s major league in their own backyard. Furthermore for a league gearing its rules to a more European game, the lack of traditionally lopsided trade agreements for much of Europe and non existent pacts with Russia has left the NHL open to the potential loss of its European player base who could be easily tempted to the deep pocketed KHL. All of this had been so much smoke in the breeze, a pipedream of primary backer and deputy chief executive of Gazprom, Alex Medvedev who envisioned a great new league born out of Russia. Having only previously tempted minor leaguers, juniors and lesser NHL veterans like Jamie Heward and David Nemirovsky, the signing of Jaromir Jagr, an NHL legend, will provide a real boon for the fledgling KHL.

Avangard Omsk Oblast, to give Jagr’s new home its complete title, is entering into its 58th year of existence with renewed hope. With only one European Championship and one Russian Championship to its name since it’s formation in 1950, the team has undergone a considerable overhaul in recent years thanks to the financing of Omsk Oblast tax payers and it’s part funding by Russia’s fifth largest oil provider Sibneft, now known as Gazprom Neft after it’s merger with Gazprom. Another sparkling example of Russian newfound and selective wealth in an open and oft corrupt market, Avangard Omsk are on of the forerunners for the KHL’s first title to be decided in April 2009 boasting a roster which includes two North American goaltenders in the shape of Fred Brathwaite and John Grahame.

With the recent disquiet that surrounded Nikita Filatov, a top 3 lock to many that ended up being taken on a “gamble” 6th by Columbus in the 2008 Entry Draft, many an NHL analyst will have one eye on the development of the KHL which is benefited by a wealth, interest, population and geographical distance that the World Hockey Association could never muster. Whilst the glamour and too an extent the money still lies in the NHL, the trade boundaries and potential loss of crowd pulling talent could open the door to the KHL if it can broaden it’s European remit into other hockey hotbed countries.

For Jagr, a chance to become a poster boy for a new age in hockey will perhaps allow him to relive the glory days nigh on a decade ago. With the troubles that North America often burdened him now in his past, Jagr can now leave hockey on a new high, in a new place and admired by the worlds second most hockey mad nation. Already given the “A” for the upcoming season, Jagr can build upon the legacy he created as opposed to vanishing into obscurity.

July 03, 2008

The Leafs Free Agency Ram Raid

If the 2008 NHL Entry Draft was going to be the linchpin onto which the Maple Leafs commenced its rebuild, then the July 1st free agency free-for-all was going to be a barometer with which to measure the organizations immediate ambitions.
Going into the first days of free agency, the Leafs had two options. The first was too play it frosty, pick up some low key, low cap hitters who could provide some depth in the roster whilst giving the team some substantial future cap space, or follow the traditional MLSE route and stack up several big, usually veteran, signings, putting of a true rebuild for instantaneous mediocrity and awkward ego clashes.
Thankfully the Leaf’s erred on the side of caution and picked up a couple of roster guys and a decent offensive presence nailing just 7.2 million on the cap limit and maintaining over 11 million in contingency.
Opening the days proceedings the Maple Leafs announced the return of Curtis Joseph, as much a memento of nostalgia, as a useful stop gap solution between Raycroft’s inevitable exit and Justin Pogge’s arrested development.
Having left Toronto in 2002, his previous incarnation for the Leafs, a three year stint between 98-99’ and 01-02’ saw three consecutive playoff appearances and two conference finals. Now 41, Joseph provided an adequate backup to Mikka Kiprusoff in Calgary where he posted 3 wins and 2 losses and a .906 save percentage last year and whilst little used, is known to be an excellent veteran presence in a young dressing room. Conventional wisdom suggests that 08-09’ will probably be Joseph’s final season and a return to Toronto as a career wrap up had always been in the mind for the Keswick, Ontario native for some time. Playing in front of a more defensively geared team, Joseph will provide good support to Toskala at a decent price so long as a prolonged period of usage is not required.
Three and a half hours later, the Leafs announced their second signing of the day and this one came as something of a surprise. Jeff Finger was welcomed as another defensive pick up but with a 3.5 million a year contract, a considerably number of eyebrows were raised in Toronto.
Entering only his third NHL season, Finger who is now 29, may be something of an unknown quantity outside of Denver, but as a team leader in hits, the overtly physical blueliner has come on leaps and bounds to tighten his positional play around his bodychecking tendencies and posted a +12 rating in a defensively lax team. Brought in, on rumour, as a potential replacement for Pavel Kubina who was being courted by the thread bare Blue Jackets, Finger is seen as a shutdown stay-at-home defensemen that could work well in a system awaiting Luke Schenn.
Nevertheless, considered a borderline 4th or 5th D-man in Colorado, Finger’s ability to be extremely solid and dependable does little to justify the 3.5 million cap hit Toronto have taken on him and the transaction has been a hotpoint of discussion around Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher since Tuesday. Fletcher was quick to point out that Finger was one of the few truly developing players available as a UFA on July 1st whilst waxing lyrical about his work ethic; meanwhile critics in Colorado were quick to scapegoat the rookie for a Minnesota goal in game 3 of the 2008 playoffs which effectively ended his time with the Avs’.
Either way a relatively immobile, low stamina, poor puck handling defenseman with a heart of gold, grinding ethic and decent cannon shot, he will be a dependable D in the vein of former Leaf great Ken Klee or a lesser Brooks Orpik, just a lot more expensive. One of the leagues dubious free agency deals.
From the Leafs most questionable acquisition to the most frugal, three hours after the ongoing debarcle surrounding the Jeff Finger deal, the Maple Leafs tied up former Dallas Star Niklas Hagman to a four year deal for a full half million less than the aforementioned, maligned D-Man.
Coming off the back of a career year in Texas, the unassuming Finnish left winger was something of a snap for the Leafs when nobody else came looking. Fletcher was wooed by the 28 year olds speed and offensive awareness having tallied 27 goals and 41 points in a full 82 game season last term. A consummate second or third liner for the Stars, Hagman’s goal finding flare will likely see him playing on the Toronto second, if not top line, whilst he also doubles as a useful second string penalty killer with a panache for shorthanders owing to his breakaway acceleration. Finishing the season with a total of eight game winning goals, a league wide tying 6th Hagman has proven to show up big late in games with a temperament and consistency much vaunted in an increasingly makeshift lineup. A long time friend of Leafs goalie and fellow Finnish international Vesa Toskala, Hagman is an accomplished pro and competitor and rounded out the first day signings in astute style.
Two days after the Leafs tied up Hagman and all but ceased their interest in the major free agency movements, the collective eye was on a trade falling under the radar. Swapping either side of the great Canadian rivalry, Toronto acquired Mikhail Grabovski from the Montreal Canadiens for the rights of 2008 draftee Greg Pateryn and Toronto’s second round 2010 draft selection.
An irksome return to newly drafted ship outs and draft selections all too common in Leafs history, Belarusian centerman Grabovski comes off the back of a good World Championships and successful stints in the AHL posting 20 points in 12 games and with the Canadiens where he posted 9 points in 24 games. Only 24, Grabovski has real potential stunted last term by a 25 game lay off. Nonetheless a injury shortened season into his NHL career, Grabovski is recognized as a speedy skater with an excellent offensive touch, albeit against AHL goaltenders. Particularly unphysical in his approach, Grabovski offers a lot of heart having been a popular franchise man for the Hamilton Bulldogs where he was a familiar and friendly face to staff, a nice touch for a highly paid athlete. Probably a third liner with second string power play potential, Grabovski has prospective talent that the Leafs will need.
Naturally the flip side saw a few players leave in the touted cleanout, but off the back of three poor seasons and a notorious inability to develop prospects, many of the depth players have had few NHL suitors. In fact, outside of the free agency period, much of the revolver door action occurred before July 1st as the Leafs cut loose the driftwood in buyouts and waivers. Raycroft, Tucker and Wellwood predictably exited whilst one of McCabe or Kubina look Ohio bound, but the biggest story in the free agency period remains the will he won’t he saga of Mats Sundin.
Long time captain on a terminally uncompetitive team, at least in the last few years, with a prolonged period of rebuilding in the woodworks, it would seem an apt time for the Swede to leave. However, with the Canadiens apparently chucking money at the 37 year old in a vein attempt to right the wrongs of the mid season trade deadline fiasco, questions still remain over the future of the Leafs poster boy. With the trade deadline three days deep and the interest of the Canucks apparently ceased, Sundin’s outlook appears to be a three horse race, the Leafs, Canadiens or the golf course.
With 11 million dollars worth of cap space, it’s unclear if the Leafs are planning for Sundin’s return, or preparing for his retirement. Whichever side the coin lands, the Leafs are going to be a very different beast in 08-09.’ Clearly not playoff contenders from the very start, with Wilson molding the team around his defense orientated strategy the Leafs seem to be stacking their roster intelligently with one eye on the future. Sure the Finger deal may be financially bad, but many in Denver prized the underdogs defensive presence and the Hagman transaction was one of the deals of the day.
It’s refreshing to finally see the organization start to put some genuine thought into the trade and drafting process with a mind on the roles incoming players will fill, Fletcher and the MLSE look like they are slowly getting their act together and hopefully, in time, the boys in blue and white might start doing the same on the ice.

July 02, 2008

The 84 Game Question

During the November 2007 Board of Governors meeting, the decision was made to return to the pre-lockout scheduling matrix ensuring every team sees each other at least once a year whilst cutting down potential periods of intercity activity from 3 years to 2. A considerable victory for the fans, at least that was how the NHL was selling it, the piecemeal offering to supporters also placated TV companies bored with repetitive league scheduling. However for many the measures did not go far enough and a new debate sparked when a suggested 84 game season was tabled for further discussion by the Detroit Red Wings.
Within the newly suggested 84 game matrix the permutations are varied but general consensus usually circulates about six games (three home, three away) against divisional rivals totaling 24 games, three games (a mix of one home or two home) to the other ten conference rivals totaling 30 games and two games home and away against all 15 teams in the opposing conference totaling 30 games. The subsequent extension of the regular season would be offset by a reduction of meaningless pre season exhibitions whilst ensuring every fan could see every team in the NHL every season.
Merely a suggestion doing the rounds following the great scheduling debate of last years post season, the 84 game concept has its fair share of supporters and detractors whilst underlining a variety of issues concerning the leagues size, product viability and sustainability.
Off course the biggest argument was that fans wanted to see the big stars in their building at least once every season, creating a need for home and away fixtures against opposing conference franchises. Fans only getting to see the likes of Crosby and Ovechkin once every three years was not a palatable concept and was particularly galling for teams in divisions such as the Southeast which struggled to muster enthusiasm for “rivalries” borne out of eight yearly games against the likes of, say, the Florida Panthers. Furthermore, established rivalries between the likes of Toronto and Montreal were bemoaned by opposing fans due to “overkill” on the part of the eight game interdivisional scheduling with the sense of occasion lost; familiarity not so much breeding contempt as tedium.
Whilst Gary Bettman was quick to point out that the league had seen average attendances rise three years on the run with interdivisional matches the most well received, he was not so rapid as to highlight the particular divisional matchups providing sizeable attendance data.
Detroit fans would be less than prompt in buying up tickets for a four game run in the Joe against the perennial crowd diminishing Columbus Blue Jackets, whilst many in the motor city are clamoring for a return to the original six matchups, traditional divisional names and alignments; a degree of feeling widespread amongst an increasing brand of die hard supporters.
Whilst a real return to core values such as the Patrick, Adams, Norris and Smythe may be pie in the sky, the decided and thankful retraction of the divisional schedule was the first recognition that the NHL is not working in its current makeup and size. Whilst some organizations continued to profit during the post lockout scheduling, the thread bare spread of talent and patchy nonexistent rivalry were, and to some extent, still are strangling the NHL and stunting its ability to market the game to US TV companies hungry for week in week out superstar billings.
A big burden the NHL faces is creating genuine enmity when the regular season ends, when Ottawa and Anaheim faced off for the 2007 Stanley Cup Final series they had not met on NHL ice since 2005. Additionally, the repetitive divisional matchups may have made for big games in the playoff run-in but were also believed to be creating lopsided conference standings, especially for teams in poorly stocked divisions. Naturally the decided change makes a lot of sense on so many levels but the 84 game debate signals the want for more; more exposure and more marketability.
There is however a notable sticking point in pushing forward an increasingly diverse fixture list. When the votes were tallied for the reintroduction of the pre-lockout schedule, the result came in 26-4, a sizeable victory with a noted opposition. The four dissenters in the verdict were believed to be Anaheim, New Jersey, Boston and the New York Islanders. Where the latter three were profiting from limited travelling in the geographically tight Atlantic and Northeast divisions, Anaheim were one of a number of Western Conference teams voicing concern over the extreme travelling distances cross-continental match ups would create. Where Anaheim was the only organization to oppose the return to a conference centric matrix, there would almost certainly be greater opposition in an 84 game debate.
This however controverts the NHLPA’s stance concerning travelling, with players believed to be in support of an 84 game schedule and increased balance if it saw a reduction of pre season exhibitions.
When the debate was originally tabled in November, the information from the NHLPA had not been received but the debate will almost certainly be tabled latter this year.
Whilst detractors are quick to concern themselves will the potential ruinous effect two extra games could have on the record books, my personal belief is that the NHL should be looking to shorten the schedule, to concentrate the matchups and to maintain sustainable interest in struggling markets. Perhaps employ a 74 game season with the three inter-conference games reduced to an even one home, one away make up, reducing games per week, allowing for an adequate spread of TV coverage as to avoid the usual canonizing of six teams to the detriment of the leagues other 24 and reducing league wide injuries. A shorter schedule would allow for more journey time and would see many teams spending considerably less on travel in a balanced schedule. It would of course see the NHL glean less revenue and shoot the idea dead in the water.
Personal digress aside, all eyes could be back on the great scheduling debate come the next GM’s meeting as players and organizations clash over how best to balance the leagues marketability and short term viability. Balancing the schedule further would be an undeniable victory of fans, more so in marginal markets as well as making the league a more versatile brand. With a decided increase in league revenue and players support the 84 game schedule is a shoe in if dissent from the West can be quelled.

June 30, 2008

Breakin' What Don't Need Fixin': Scoring in the Boring NHL

There seems to be a belief amongst NHL fans that the game is in a state of disrepair and far be it from me to disagree in some respects. There are far too many power play opportunities in the “new” NHL with much too little constituting a holding or hooking obstruction whilst the leagues marketing department has all the longevity of a kamikaze pilot on payday, but that isn’t what most have been preoccupied with this season.
No, the picture perfect execution of trap driven puck possession hockey demonstrated with such aplomb by the Stanley Cup winning Detroit Red Wings has got a considerable number of onlookers in a flap over the success of defensive hockey and the subsequent knock-on-effect in the high scoring game treasured, in generalist terms, as a staple of North American pro sports. Of course I don’t want to attest to a narrow predilection in differing sporting cultures, I mean after all the comparatively low scoring sport of soccer is eating into hockey markets all over the US whilst dominating the two sports in TV coverage. So how can we mend the “boring” NHL?
I’ve seen a number of suggestions pop up on a variety of hockey forums, chat rooms and blog spots and they go from the often touted to the plain ridiculous. We have people prescribing to the reduction of goaltender equipment, the increase in goal size, the expansion of the ice surface to Olympic specifications and the banning of the trap, or left wing lock.
Naturally the goaltenders will get it in the neck with fans baying for 10-14 score lines. The discussion over goaltending equipment is as much a shoe in at every GM meeting as Nicklas Lidstrom is on a Red Wings team sheet and of the suggestions it would seem to be the most manageable on a level playing field.
Coming out of the winter GM get-together where the subject of goalie equipment was familiarly tabled, former hotshot Brett Hull was spitting blood at the NHLPA after making a lengthy presentation on behalf of the Dallas Stars. Hull’s dissatisfaction was aimed at NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly who brushed the discussion aside noting that some changes would be made but would not be pushed for anything definitive. The result was the suggested creation of a committee chaired by the NHLPA and NHL encompassing GMs and goaltenders both past and present. Naturally the important word is “suggested” as the whole subject is swept under the carpet for the next meeting.
The whole monotonous debate stems less out of the size of equipment as opposed to the ways in which goaltenders are circumnavigating NHL rules to gain an advantage.
Clearly the best way to negate such unsportsmanlike conduct would be to eject goaltenders abusing the rulings, I can’t imagine after a few months of having to continually ice backups any organization would be stubborn enough to support repeat offenders rather than correct any equipment issues.
Off course goalies will point to personal protection as a sticking point and at this level it’s the leagues duty to create a detailed scale of pant and chest shield sizes that encompass all possible measurements within reason. Such a measurement table could be applied as the letter of the law with regular checks insuring that no player is breaking the ruling, meting out sizeable fines and bans to goalies that choose to infringe the measures. As a means of creating more scoring, tightening up equipment rules is clearly the most favorable when compared with the alternatives.
Speaking at the aforementioned GM’s February meeting, a decidedly fed up Ken Holland, who had previously quoted his disdain for the goaltender equipment debate, suggested that if the problem wasn’t corrected then goals would have to be increased in size to make the game more exciting. Later talk began of a two inch increase both horizontally and vertically that had been discussed by the NHL as far back as the early millennia. Now does anybody else see the fault in this idea? The goalies abusing equipment size rulings will still garner an advantage even if you make the goals soccer sized. Furthermore where the new NHL has killed of larger obstruction/goon style players on the ice, in the net, increased goal sizes will finish any goaltender under six foot tall. Meanwhile the game won’t be more exciting as there will be more goals but less scoring with the use of the trap mushrooming to nullify scoring opportunities as the punishment for teams displaying an attacking mentality will be greatly increased.
Moving away from goaltenders, one suggestion tabled over a decade ago seems to have come back in vogue as an answer to the neutral zone trap, what many see as the true bane in NHL excitement. Recently tapped at an IOC meeting in concerns with the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, the decision was made to maintain NHL sized rinks in opposition to the huge costs required in refitting General Motors Place. For many, this was a missed opportunity to test run Olympic sized rinks in the NHL’s backyard.
A full 15 feet wider and a descendant of European rinks, Olympic dimensions are seen as a solution to open up the NHL thus negating defensive strategies. Falling short of ludicrous calls to ban the trap, those calling for Olympic sized rinks are lured by the superlative width measurements as opposed to the reality of the European game that spurned the need for larger ice surfaces in the first place.
Where much of the NHL’s draw comes from physical board play, dump and chase and aggressive zonal defense, the European game is characterized by low physicality, high open ice possession and man to man coverage. The realities of more ice surface may, on one hand spread a neutral zone trap, but the style of play will have to gear towards finesse as opposed to checking. Subsequently dangerous open ice hits will increase and the quality of puck retention will be greatly decreased at first as NHL franchises clamor for four lines of silky European puck handlers signaling a death knell for grinders, a role little used in corner less Euro Hockey. Not only will the game completely change but many of the staples of NHL hockey will be lost.
You know, I was told the NHL was boring and yet I didn’t notice. Strategic evolution, like Jacques Lemaire’s sleep inducing neutral zone trap, is part of a continually developing sport and one that people should learn to appreciate. Hockey is a comparatively young sport in an organized form and there may be an attacking minded coach who will provide the antithesis of Lemaire.
Whatever is trying to fix hockey just drags us further from the days of Gretzky and the free scoring Oilers of the early 80’s. Putting in little boundaries here and there is just sticking an old semi-adhesive band aid over the game, mothering it whilst mocking what made the game great in the first place, admitting that the traditions of the game were based on an incorrect footing whilst toadying to the sole concept of entertainment in the face of competition.
People are determined to solve the NHL, and yet the ideas brought forward are just knee jerk and short sighted. Increasing the goal count does not make the game more exciting, only in increasing scoring chances can that be achieved and it requires brave coaches to challenge those determined to employ the trap, to develop and nurture an offensive forechecking gameplan. I hate seeing lopsided score lines and yet creating larger nets or minimizing goalie equipment beyond a fair point will create 4+ goal advantages day in day out whilst reducing the competitiveness within the league exponentially.

Sure stop goaltenders from cheating and tighten up equipment rulings. But stop treading on the game and strategic evolution, all you achieve is stunting the growth of the sport like a pre-teen smoker.

June 27, 2008

2008: A Draft Odyssey

If there is one time of year when the NHL becomes a platform for stories of profound personal interest, the Entry Draft is that time. From the inspirational, brave and underdog style champion of the world tales to the heart warming and outright tragic, the Entry Draft is a narrative that runs a full gamut of emotions. Yet beyond the glitz of those first five or ten picks, many of these stories fall from the limelight to be caught in a small hold web of local interest articles and small time city newspapers.
Last weekend 211 young kids’ dreams became, at least a partial reality, 211 stories of their ascent through the sport we love and 211 talents still with much work to tap their vast potential. But at least for the next few weeks, for those that do make it and more so for those that don’t, now is a time to revel in the stories that saw their names go up on the draft board on Friday and Saturday. Here are five short stories of kids making the NHL draft.

Daultan Leveille
When Daultan Leveille’s name was slotted in at 29 next to the logo of the Atlanta Thrashers, many an onlooker would have been forgiven for missing the significance. However, the drafting of Daultan Leveille signaled a historic day, not only for the young French-Canadian, but for the Junior B league from which he hailed.
For the entirety of its 33 year existence, the Golden Horseshoe Junior Hockey League never saw one of its luminaries make a draft day board. Sure Nathan Horton spent a single season in the GHJHL as a fifteen year old before stepping up to major junior in the OHL and Krzysztof Oliwa spent his draft year in the GHJHL, but neither player was a product of the Ontario Junior B.
Conceived in 1974, the league serviced small town junior hockey teams situated in both the inner and outer “Golden Horseshoe,” Canada’s most densely populated urban agglomerate that horseshoes around the west side of Lake Ontario. The St. Catharines Falcons were the only team to play every season from 1974-75 through 2006-07 winning 15 titles on the way including 4 on the bounce between 1975 and 1979. Despite this the scouts never came, at best Junior B was an outsiders chance and the league, the Falcons and its players went unheeded, a minor miracle when you consider the breadth of scouting in the tight hockey world.
When the 2006-07 season concluded, the Golden Horseshoe Junior Hockey League had ran its course as a sovereign entity. With disputes raging over the quality of hockey in Southern Ontario’s junior B leagues in comparison to the tier II junior A’s of the Greater Toronto Area and the subsequent player raiding that would happen with junior B leagues losing their players minus any compensation. The decision was made at a meeting of all the Ontario Junior B general managers to merge the Western Ontario Hockey League, Mid-Western Junior Hockey League and the Golden Horseshoe Junior Hockey League into one amalgam to provide a united front against player pilfering. The subsequent product was the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League, complete with three divisions that outlined the original three leagues. The consensus was to run an interlocking league season with the divisions and scheduling running in a similar vein to the NHL, technically this would signal the end of the Golden Horseshoe Junior Hockey League as anything more significant than a conference.
However with Daultan Leveille suiting up for his sophomore year at the historic Junior B Falcons in the Golden Horeshoe division and the league ready to get under way, the separate management of the Mid-Western division, a relic of the original three league system, resigned. With no effective management it was deemed that the Mid-Western division could not run an interlocking schedule, thus branding each division a separate league playing, as they had done previously, for the Sutherland Cup. The GHJHL had earned a stay of execution.
Leveille, a rookie out straight out of high school, would undoubtedly have been good enough for Junior A, if not Major Junior, but the native of St. Catharines never wanted to leave home and the people he grew up with. Level headed and realistic, Leveille, who jumped from 89th to 47th in the North American skater ratings, had put his education and friends ahead of his career, opting to continue to Michigan State University, rather than go into Major Junior, and graduate with the school and the people it all began with.
Leveille himself admitted that at the start of the season he didn’t even think about the NHL, but when Central Scouting released their mid term rankings Leveille was shocked to see his name at 89. Aware that scouts had somehow found him and taken an interest, Leveille pushed on and worked to finish the season with 29 goals and 27 assists for 56 points. Not hugely remarkable numbers in junior B, what set Leveille out from the pack was his skating ability and not only his ability but his speed, one scout was quoted as saying:
“Very fast skater, perhaps the fastest in the 2008 draft class”

Topped of with excellent offensive awareness and instinct, Leveille took his game to a new level to chase his dream in the playoffs scoring 14 goals and 16 assists for 30 points in just 16 games.
Despite this, Leveille still found he ranked a mere 47th in the final rankings, partly owing to the level of the play, partly owing to his svelte 5’11” and 163 pound frame.
Nevertheless with his place at Michigan State confirmed few expected to see his name out on Friday night. Few others that is than Leveille who attended the first round more in hope than expectation. But when his name was called out by the Atlanta Thrashers, Leveille realized a lifelong dream and broke the Golden Horseshoe Junior Hockey Leagues NHL draft duck in its final true year.
Headed to the NCAA for an excellent program with the Spartans, Leveille has a long way to go before he can become the third GHJHL alumni and first genuine draftee to play in the NHL. First he has to prove he can play at a greater level than Junior B, a prospect Leveille takes in his quietly confident demeanor, then he has to work on his size. To be picked out in the first round is just the start, but with skating speed surpassing all others, Leveille is perhaps just 25 pounds short of NHL ready.

Justin Azevedo
The OHL was the toast of the Draft 2008 in terms of a feeder league for juniors. With 47 players selected overall including 11 in the first round, the OHL ousted its nearest rival in draft steaks, the WHL, by a full 9 selections.
There is little wonder when you look at the pedigree coming out of the league, Stamkos, Doughty, Bogosian and Pietrangelo went 1-4 in the overall selections and with Tavares expected to top the draft next year the future looks bright for the Ontario Hockey League.
Indeed Stamkos posted a more than handy 58 goals and 47 assists for 105 points in 61 appearances last year with the Sarnia Sting, whilst the underling, Tavares, who missed out on this years draft by a mere 5 days of birth, tallied 40 goals and 78 assists for 118 points for the Oshawa Generals. Undoubtedly exceptional numbers and yet both were eclipsed, at least in the overall points column, by one man.
Justin Azevedo was the second oldest draftee from the OHL ranks, passed up twice for drafting having become eligible in 2006, Azevedo headed into the 2008 draft completely unranked by Central Scouting outside of the top 210 North American Skaters. Uninspiring you would think for a player who finished up his junior career with 43 goals and 81 assists for 124 points in 67 games with the Kitchener Rangers.
Paired alongside Nick Spaling and Matt Halischuk, both younger and both drafted in 2007, the Kitchener Rangers top line were unstoppable in the regular season winning the Hamilton Spectator Trophy, before dominating in the playoffs and winning the J. Ross Robertson going all the way to the Memorial Cup Final, but the success was predominated by a single figure, Azevedo.
Collecting the Red Tilson Trophy for the OHL’s most outstanding player, he added the Eddie Powers Memorial Trophy as the OHL’s scoring leader, the Ed Chynoweth Trophy as the Memorial Cup top scorer, the Wayne Gretzky 99 Award for the most outstanding player in the OHL playoffs as well as the CHL Player of the Year and CHL Top Scorer Award. With a single season hardware collection like that how was it that Azevedo had been passed up twice, only to be finally selected in 2008 153rd overall by the Los Angeles Kings?
For Central Scouting and GM’s alike there is one word “size,” listed anywhere between five foot six and five foot eight. When the NHL completed their draft Azevedo went down listed slap bang in the middle, five foot seven, the shortest player drafted and a factor that has underpinned his entire career and overshadowed the numbers and accolades the West Lorne, Ontario native has put up in recent years.
In fact Azevedo’s whole hockey makeup is something of a quandary; described as “small” and “knock-kneed,” he is generally seen as a fairly slow, poor skater with a weak shot, hardly the attributes of a five foot seven CHL player of the Year. However aside from his two noted strengths, superb acceleration and puck handling, Azevedo is distinguished by a tremendous work ethic, intelligence and heart that has helped him become a modest team leader and overcome his physical disadvantages.
When asked about his prospects coming into his final year of eligibility, Azevedo answered:

“I think you've got to prove yourself no matter where you go. I am a
smaller guy and I've been trying to prove to everybody that I can play at a
higher level my whole life growing up. It's nothing new to me”
Azevedo is clearly blessed with a maturity beyond his years and a raw offensive awareness that his small stocky frame belies. Unfazed by the constant questions over his size and his draft status, Azevedo lists five foot nine and undrafted Martin St.Louis as the hockey player he most looks up too.
Still the naysayers believe that Azevedo does not possess the physicality, albeit a 183 pound frame, to take the punishment of the NHL, a belief fuelled by Justin Azevedo’s time at the Atlanta Thrashers Prospect Camp in 2007 that he described as “disappointing.” Some point to his high draft stock linemates as the secret to his success or the strength of the Kitchener Rangers as a whole, yet Azevedo continued producing when his star teammates succumbed to long term injuries and was the most consistent offensive leader on an fantastic team. The small Hispanic hockey player has been defying the odds his entire career, too finally see an NHL team take a chance with him must have felt like a great payoff for the season he had and provided a clear goal and target for a young man who has made a career out of reaching his goals, a potential surprise from the Kings draft school of 2008? Azevedo recognizes there is work to be done on his skating and shooting along with his two way play but his foot is well and truly on the NHL ladder.

Jason Missiaen
From the shortest player in the draft, too the tallest and you would be forgiven for thinking that would be 6’7” 12th overall selection Tyler Myers. But you would be wrong. Look down into the depths of the fourth round and a relatively unknown name has quite an extraordinary attribute. 6’8” and 193 pounds, Jason Missiaen is one of those players that sneak up on you, albeit in this case, metaphorically. A backup goaltender for the Peterborough Petes, Missiaen is a super massive talent and just 18 years old.
With his knees on the ice, Missiaen’s shoulders reach the height of the crossbar and subsequently trying to go high on him is a matter of impossibility designed for an age of NHL goal/goalie tinkering. Despite this, Missiaen never set out to play in goal.

“I started playing hockey when I was eight years old, but the problem was
my mom insisted that I wear the most protection possible and that’s how
I became
a goalie.”

Whilst hardly the stuff of legends, the Chatham, Ontario native’s fantastic growth in stature was timed astutely with his rise through the ranks of junior hockey. But in recent years his development stalled when he jumped to Major Junior with the Peterborough Petes of the OHL, a team already ‘minded by Colorado Avalanche prospect and 2007 draftee Trevor Cann in a lineup exuding mediocrity.
In two years Missiaen played just 30 games, winning nine, losing fifteen and playing in one tied decision. His continued ranking in the Central Scouting evaluations seemed as much to do with his height as his propensity to face rubber. Whilst his save percentage rose from a rather meager .879 in his rookie year (1-7-0) to .911 (8-8-1) in 2007-08,’ Missiaen’s lack of game time was highlighting his drop in the top prospects charts, culminating in his name featuring as one of three top fallers in the OHL prospects come March 08.’As part of Missiaen’s summary, the write up concluded that he went to the ice too quickly negating his size whilst struggling to find pucks in and around his feet, meanwhile his large gait made him ungainly and awkward around the net with the sum total being sporadic inconsistency.
Missiaen saw his draft stock fall to 23rd in North American Goaltenders with a strong likelihood that less than 23 goalies would be called from North America and Europe combined. Considering skipping the draft altogether in light of his ranking, Missiaen was taken 116th overall by the Montreal Canadiens, the 12th goaltender of the draft, the 10th from North America and the first goalie drafted by Montreal since Carey Price in 2005. His selection came just two picks after his friend and fellow Chatham native T.J. Brodie was taken by Calgary and the Chatham party was still celebrating Brodie’s selection when Missiaen’s name was called out.
Although it later immerged that Montreal had shown some prior interest at the combine, they clearly hadn’t grasped the size of Missiaen, who upon reaching the stage was handed a Canadiens jersey that barely reached his belt buckle.
Missiaen’s draft seemed to follow in a trend of big, lanky goaltenders; whilst short goalies in the vein of Pang and Brathwiate appear to be a dying breed with size foregoing agility. Playing a hybrid style, Missiaen is no slouch with his legs and feet but with an inclination to hit the ice you would hope so. Expected to challenge Cann for the number one slot next year, Missiaen may see out his full junior eligibility before moving up too the Hamilton Bulldogs, Montreal’s AHL affiliate. It’s always a long game for goaltending prospects with so few big league jobs going, but you get the feeling Missiaen has been brought into the organization with a view to utilizing his size, subsequently if he can work on his all round game he has a very real shot at the NHL.

Jesper Samuelsson
Where would any article on draft oddities be without a feature on the last draftee, the perennial pub quiz trivia man.
The strange thing is in recent years there has been a fantastic amount of interest in the bottom picks partly owing to our morbid curiosity on a destined “dud.”Whilst not the real headline act, everybody wants to know the story of the final pick as if going into the draft there were only 211 17-20 year olds in the world playing hockey.
Bottom-line, Jesper Samuelsson has achieved something that most of us could never even conceive of dreaming about, being drafted into the NHL, by the championship team and furthermore a team with a storied history of drafting Europeans late in the day and finding proverbial “diamonds in the rough.”
Where would the Red Wings be without Russian, Pavel Datsyuk selected in the sixth round 171st overall or Swedes Tomas Holmstrom (10th round 257th overall) and Henrik Zetterberg taken in the 7th round, 210th overall.
Owning a place on the draft board, a space down from where H. Zetterberg appeared in 1999, Jesper Samuelsson has more than just his Swedish heritage in common with Hank. Born in the Swedish capital Stockholm, Samuelsson is a product of the Timra IK club and their junior setup, the same setup in which Henrik Zetterberg matured. Furthermore at 5’11” and 178 pounds, Samuelsson shares the same build as Zetterberg when he was first drafted into the organization, small, stringy and fairly weak looking.
Such a summary of the twice passed up 20 year old would be missing the point, Samuelsson’s selection was born from the advice of arguably hockey’s greatest scout Hakan Andersson, Detroit’s head of European scouting and the finder of nearly all Detroit’s European obscurities.
A team leader in scoring at Christmas, Samuelsson was blighted by the arrival of a new coach who failed to utilize the talents of the playmaking center causing his late year production to drop. Andersson, having seen the youngster in the early half of the season, noted that his numbers were despite his line mates rather than helped by them, his fast passing hands often duping his slower paced colleagues.

“There were times he'd (Samuelsson) make plays and his winger wasn't even close
to being ready for the puck. He'd be looking somewhere else with his stick up in
the air and there was the puck, in front of him, and the net was wide open.”

The head scout was of the opinion that Jesper Samuelsson was gifted with great hockey intelligence and a telepathic ability to find open players, perhaps a good winger short of thirty more points in division 1. Still an extraordinarily raw talent, with good hands and reasonable skating, Samuelsson is keyed in at a low level of competition for a draftee. Worse still, with a stature hardly suited to an NHL center man prospect, Samuelsson was recently diagnosed with gluten intolerance. Having fought with intense training regimes, the Swede was finding he would put on muscle and bulk for a little while, then his stomach would go bad causing him to lose weight and ice time. Nevertheless with a good prognosis and the future guidance of a Detroit Red Wings dietitian at Prospect camp, Samuelsson will be well on his way to recovering his peak fitness which will be a boon having finished his final year with the Timra juniors.
Heading up to the Swedish elite division, the Eliteserien, will be the biggest jump in Samuelsson’s career, as many perceive the quality gulf amongst the largest in European systems. Zetterberg managed to post 46 points in 47 games in his first year in the Timra pro team and it will be interesting to see how Samuelsson fairs when paired with more competent teammates.
At this point it would be worth remembering that Zetterberg served 2 full seasons in Timra never averaging more than a point a game. In fact his production dropped in his second season before being brought into the Red Wings lineup.
Andersson summarizes Samuelsson potential as a little more than a solid player who has the intelligence to take him to another level, to compete with the tempo and strength of the Eliteserien and beyond.
A complete unknown to this point, Samuelsson would not be the first Red Wing to jump from curiosity to star on the advice of Hakan Andersson.

David Carle
Perhaps the most emotive story to immerge from the draft was the seemingly innocuous selection of David Carle, selected in round 7, 203rd overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning, however too many it was the finest moment in Ottawa last weekend.
The younger brother of San Jose’s Matt Carle, David was expected to go before the end of the third round in the weeks leading up to draft day having been touted by his brother as the better player and ranked in the top 60 skaters by Central Scouting. A defenseman like Matt, David was short on the accolades of the Hobey Baker winning older sibling, but still noted as a compact and solid defender with a fine mix of speed, presence and size.
Alaskan born Carle was invited to the draft combine having already excepted a sports scholarship to the University of Denver where Matt played. The notoriously grueling event for the top 75 ranked North American players is designed to test the junior prospects physicality, strength, endurance and general athleticism alongside their ability to play hockey whilst networking with GM’s, coaches and scouts in attendance.
With 98% of all players who attend the combine being drafted, David Carle arrived at the event having missed his graduation with the hockey world at his skates, but whilst receiving a mandatory EKG an abnormality was found in the electrical activity of his heart under sustained physical stress. Subsequently referred to the Mayo clinic in Minnesota for further testing, Carle was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a thickening of the heart muscle which can cause sudden, fatal, cardiac arrest attributed to “Sudden Death Syndrome” in young athletes.
In an instant a promising career was ended and on receiving the news Carle said:

“I just lost it and had a good cry. ... The doctor came in, and I was pretty
shell-shocked at first. After a few hours passed, you can step back and evaluate
it, and move forward. I'm really quite fortunate they were able to find it. I've
still got a long life ahead of me. I have a lot to look forward to and a lot of
opportunities ahead of me”

Amazingly mature for the former Shattuck-Saint Mary’s blueliner, an 18 year old just deprived of his life’s dream. But such a write up would be glib, Carle retains the hope of future opportunities and was later informed that the University of Denver would honor his scholarship allowing the youngster to move on from his NHL disappointment and work towards new goals supported by a top class education. Denver coach George Gwozdecky, a friend of the Carle’s from his time working with Matt, has even extended the scholarship to allow David too work with the Pioneers hockey team in some capacity.
With that act of good faith at a desperate time in a youngster’s life, the story could end on a little high; however David Carle’s story doesn’t end there.
The day prior to the draft, David Carle had to take the rending step of informing all 30 NHL organizations that he would not be available, removing his name from draft consideration and retiring from hockey. After all the work he had put in to get this far, Carle was sure never to get the recognition and as pick 202 rolled by and the draft winded down, the Tampa Bay Lightning stepped up to make their final selection.
Carle had come to the event in support of his Shattuck teammates David Toews and Derek Stepan who were shoe-ins for the draft and had long been selected when D.Carle slid up onto the board and Tampa announced they would be taking the young man as their final draftee at the behest of owner Oren Kroules, whose son attends Shattuck-Saint Mary’s.
After the event Kroules phoned the taken aback draftee.

"The owner called me and just kind of explained to me why they did it. He just
told me that I worked too hard, that I worked my entire life to be drafted, and
he didn't really see why I shouldn't be. (He said) that I deserved it, and he
wanted that to always be by my name."

Kroules, who has made a name for himself as one of the leagues off-the-wall owners, said he wanted the organization to be seen as making the right decisions and that Carle’s selection was a mutual agreement amongst the organization. Nevertheless with the money and business that surrounds the NHL; to surrender a prospect to honor the work and effort of a youngster and allow him to partly accomplish his goals is a beautiful and savvy gesture which is bound to sway the neutral.
An undeniably classy move that will in some small way soften the tremendous blow Carle has taken so calmly, he can now move on assured that his name will forever be in NHL record books.

June 23, 2008

Toronto Maple Leafs Entry Draft Review 2008

For Toronto fans, the Entry Draft 08’ signaled a new age. With the much vaunted clear out in the upcoming months, the draft had all the makings of a cornerstone with which the franchise could rebuild in the next few years.
Despite having 10 picks at their disposal, even after the eyebrow raising trade for Jamal Mayers, the Blue Nation was hoping that Toronto could buck their propensity to throw picks around like veteran bait on draft day. Whilst Mayers offers a lot of grit and toughness, characteristics sorely missing from this seasons Leaf lineup, some onlookers were quick to dub the trade another typical back step whilst others pointed to the comparable efforts of Gary Roberts nursing a young roster in Pittsburgh. Whatever side of the fence Leafs supporters were standing on over the Mayers trade, the coin flip debate sent a shiver through those hoping for a blue youth movement at the Air Canada.
However in Ottawa, interim GM Cliff Fletcher was quick to dispel the fears of naysayers. With rumors abound, Toronto were clearly in the hunt for an NHL ready defenseman to sure up what looks to be a thread bare roster for 08-09,’ desperately short of blue line talent. Word was Toronto wanted Luke Schenn, having spoken to the young Kelowna Rocket at the draft combine, and the Leafs management were quick to jump the gun on a day filled with draft trade movement to secure their man, shifting their 7th overall pick along with 2nd and 3rd round conditional picks for the Islanders 5th overall selection.
The move paid off as the highly rated, stay at home D-Man became Toronto’s earliest draftee since Wendel Clark went first in 1985.
Getting his first taste of the Ontario rivalry, Schenn made his way to the stage under a hail of hometown boos.
For Fletcher, the Schenn deal was pretty much job done picking up a potential great defenseman in a first round dominated by defense and trades whilst showing the Leafs management were finally looking towards the future.
A neat underrated Right Winger in Jimmy Hayes supported a cast of useful second day draftees into Toronto with big being the theme of the day, bucking the small and flighty brigade whilst the Leafs drafted into all positions. In total three blueliners were selected in a deep draft, as well as two centers a left winger and a goalie made up with a nice mix of projects, characters and prospects.

Luke Schenn
Selected: 1st Round, 5th Overall
Position: Defense
Junior Team: Kelowna Rockets (WHL)
Born: November 2nd 1989 Birthplace: Saskatoon, SK
Height: 6’2” Weight: 216lbs

Only selected 20th overall by the Kelowna Rockets in the WHL Bantam draft, Schenn went from a mildly successful freshman year in the WHL, to top line D in Kelowna in his sophomore season, second in the team for assists (27 in 72 games). Despite the Rockets abysmal season in 06-07’ Schenn was selected for the Junior Team Canada for both the Canada-Russia Super Series and the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships in 07-08’ in which Canada came away with the gold medal, Schenn posting a team leading +5. Kelowna also saw a better season helped in part by a mobile D led by Schenn, fellow 08’ draftee Tyler Myers and the underrated Tyson Barrie.
At the 2008 Top Prospects game, Schenn scored the first goal while running an aggressive defense clinic. Despite missing out at the arena for honors, a poll later run by The Pipeline Show on the Hockey Future website for the best performer of the day saw Schenn walk away with the fans vote by 59%.
Often compared to Ed Jovanovski and Adam Foote, Schenn is regarded as an NHL ready player with an ultra solid, stay at home ethos. A good hitter, Schenn is built physically strong and big and plays a tough shut down game suited to the new NHL. When caught out of position he recovers quickly and despite his reputation will pinch up if required. Sometimes noted for bad decision making, especially in his aggressive play, Schenn has worked to improve his skating and mobility and is touted as a potential team leader in the future after earning the assistant captain role at Kelowna.
Almost certain to see some big league service in 08-09’ Schenn could be the best traditional blueliner to come out of an excellent 2008 defensive crop and will be a fine foundation from which the Maple Leafs can build.

Jimmy Hayes
Selected: 2nd Round, 60th Overall
Position: Right Wing
Junior Team: Lincoln Stars (USHL)
Born: November 21st 1989 Birthplace: Boston, MA
Height: 6’5” Weight: 210lbs

At one point ranked in the Central Scouting’s top 20 prospects for 2008 and touted as a potential top 10 draftee after the US National Junior Evaluation Camp in 2007 despite failing to make the team, Hayes 07-08’ campaign saw him splitting time between USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program and the Lincoln Stars, subsequently his draft stock sunk to 64th. A late addition to the 2007 camp brought in after an injury to Peter Mueller, Hayes had had previous junior international experience having played for the US National U-17 in the 2005 four nations tournament in Russia and the 2006 U-17 select side that played in the U-18 Ivan Hlinka memorial tournament in the Czech Republic whilst participating in school hockey for Noble and Greenough.
Later going on to play US National Team Development Program U-18, Hayes played for the silver medal winning team USA at the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships.
Continuing as the first ever overage player in the US National Team Development Program U-18 team, Hayes was released to play in the USHL having had his rights traded from the Jr. Blue Jackets, who had drafted him first overall in 2006, to the Lincoln Stars, Hayes had previously been drafted in the 7th round of the QMJHL bantam draft by the Moncton Wildcats.
Compared by himself to Keith Tkachuk, Hayes is a big, long reaching power forward, noted for his long looping, fast stride and multitude of skills. Despite his size, Hayes has been criticized for his inability to finish checks and put his body about; nevertheless his payoff is a surprising level of agility and willing to work extraordinarily hard up and down the wings with a great team working mentality.
Due to start his stint in the NCAA with defending champions Boston College under the tutelage of Jerry York; Hayes has the potential to make the NHL if he applies his physicality more. If he can avoid the trap that college hockey has proved in the past Hayes could see the big league in within the next few years.

Mikhail Stefanovich
Selected: 4th Round 98th Overall
Position: Center
Junior Team: Quebec Remparts (QMJHL)
Born: November 27th 1989 Birthplace: Minsk, Belarus
Height: 6’2” Weight: 202lbs

The only Belarusian drafted in 2008 and one of surprisingly few members of the QMJHL, Stefanovich was considered one of the highest tier Imports in the CHL imports draft taken by Quebec with their first selection. Having played for the Belarus U-18 team in the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships in both 06’ and 07’ Stefanovich impressed at the CHL prospects game and was quickly touted as one of the highest ranked prospects from the QMJHL.
Blessed with a naturally big physique, Stefanovich is noted for his excellent mix of size, speed, strength and stick handling. Despite this blend, Stefanovich is heavily marked by a lack of consistency, interest and work ethic. Although he is willing to grind in front of the net and battle with a long striding skating style, he rarely utilizes his size to any kind of advantage and his output is overtly unsteady. Despite this, he finished 07-08’ as the top scoring rookie in the QMJHL and received the Mike Bossy Award for the best professional prospect in an upcoming draft, aided by a wicked shot that made him a useful component for the Remparts powerplay as a point man.
Stefanovich has all the marks of a potentially flashy European underdog. Given a year or two to work on his physicality and work rate, Stefanovich could have all the attributes to make him a useful future NHLer as a power forward. A potentially astute pick by the Leafs albeit boom or bust.

Greg Pateryn
Selected: 5th Round 128th Overall
Position: Defense
Junior Team: Ohio Junior Blue Jackets (USHL)
Born: June 20th 1990 Birthplace: Sterling Heights, MI
Height: 6’2” Weight: 212lbs

Toronto’s youngest draftee in 2008 and the first of the Leafs 5th round triumvirate, Pateryn is known as a big, strong and physical D-Man.
Playing his high school hockey for the Birmingham Brother Rice Warriors, Pateryn earned an honorable mention for Michigan all-state as the Warriors captain in 06-07,’ before being selected in the 3rd round of the USHL entry draft by the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders and subsequently traded to the Ohio Jr. Blue Jackets.
In 07-08’ Pateryn was dubbed a B grade prospect for the NHL 08’ entry draft whilst also featuring for the Eastern Division team in the USHL All-Star/Prospects game.
Noted as a sizeable defensive presence, Pateryn is held in high regard by the University of Michigan who enrolled him for 08-09’ owing to his offensive play and passing ability that would work well in a fast transitional puck possession team. Pateryn also worked on the powerplay for Ohio where he is expected to remain in 08-09’ before joining Michigan in 09-10.’
Its hard to measure how these NCAA bound players will turn out, his transitional defensive play sounds impressive and his 24 assists in 60 games in the USHL is useful for a D-Man straight out of high school. However with his hockey tied up for at least two or three years, only time will tell if Pateryn can step up to College hockey and then pro level.

Joel Champagne
Selected: 5th Round 129th Overall
Position: Centre
Junior Team: Chicoutimi Sagueneens (QMJHL)
Born: January 24th 1990 Birthplace: Chateauguay, QC
Height: 6’4” Weight: 210lbs

The tenth overall selection in the 2006 QMJHL midget draft, Champagne was expected to top the scouts ranking charts often featuring in the QMJHL top prospects. However Champagne has failed to live up to his lofty potential and has been dubbed a slow developer.
Used sporadically in his rookie year in Chicoutimi and as a second line center man in his sophomore season, Champagne’s numbers increased from 6 goals and 16 assists in 06-07’ to 18 goals and 22 assists in 07-08’. A notable increase attributed to his improved use of his size, Champagne managed to make both the CHL top prospects game and a junior Canada team that played in the ADT Canada/Russia Challenge where he was considered an impressive physical forward, topping the team statistics for hits and even more notably won 20 of 28 faceoffs taken to match his 58% success rate in the QMJHL.
In spite of this pedigree, Champagne saw his draft stock fall dramatically in 2008, with scouts airing concerns over the consistency of his physical application, puck handling, agility and his weak skating. Whilst he possesses good anticipation, two way play and a willing to cause trouble in front of the net, Champagne has been branded a project just scratching the surface of his potential.
Champagne has all the marks of a useful fourth liner, with a good physique that he should learn to utilize more often as he develops, he could become a useful defensively minded forward whose talents in the faceoff circle could be tapped late in games in the same way Chicoutimi utilized him.
Definitely a long term investment, it could be a few seasons before Champagne becomes an NHL ready player.

Jerome Flaake
Selected: 5th Round 130th Overall
Position: Left Wing
Junior Team: Koln Sharks (DEL)
Born: March 2nd 1990 Birthplace: Guben, Germany
Height: 6’2” Weight: 187lbs

As Stefanovich was the only Belarusian drafted in 2008, Flaake was the only German, an unusually low number for a country that had supplied five juniors in the previous two years.
Obviously topping the chart as Germany’s leading prospect for 2008, Flaake came to prominence after his superb 07-08’ campaign in the top German junior division the DNL. Playing for the Koln Sharks development team, Flake posted 35 goals and 45 assists for 80 points in a mere 36 games. So impressed were the pro team that Flaake had the daunting honor of dressing in 30 games for the DEL Koln Sharks in 07-08’, although his extremely restricted use saw him post a single assist in his pro-stint.
Further cluttering his calendar, Flaake was selected to play for the German U-18’s at the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships Top Division where he tallied 3 points in 6 games, having already played for the German U-20’s at the corresponding IIHF world event where he scored 6 points in 5 games, albeit in a division lower.
Flaake, a quintessential European junior, is considerably smaller than his fellow Leaf draftees at only 187lbs; however he makes up for his size with excellent speed, agility and offensive awareness. A noted leader in his junior team, Flaake’s prominent goal scoring in the DNL came from his superb stick handling, accurate shooting and skating speed around the net. Whilst he still needs to gain some weight and work on increasing his strength, Flaake is expected to at least spend another season in Germany, with Koln keen on him making the professional team full time in 08-09’ where he can condition himself in a pro league similar in playing style to the NHL.
Flaake could be a real 5th round find for the Leafs. Although the DEL is far from a typical route to the NHL, its fast, physical play in a professional sports environment could be the perfect surroundings for a youth if given ample play time and encouragement. Expect him to spend a year in Germany before being brought to North America where he could easily be AHL ready by 2009.

Grant Rollheiser
Selected: 6th Round 158th Overall
Position: Goaltender
Junior Team: Trail Smoke Eaters (BCHL)
Born: July 24th 1989 Birthplace: Chilliwack, BC
Height: 6’4” Weight: 195lbs

Where some might be disappointed with a sixth round draft, Grant Rollheiser would certainly not be one of them. From not making the Chilliwack midgets team to NHL draftee, Rollheiser is trawling through his hockey career like the perennial underdog.
A tall, gangly goalie in the vein of Ryan Miller or Martin Biron, Rollheiser is noted as a positional goaltender with excellent poise and consistency at Junior A level who late in the season was being touted as the BCHL’s top goaltender having only risen from Junior B in 07-08.’
A late developer, Rollheiser went from abject obscurity to having a pick of NCAA schools at the close of last season, eventually committing to Boston University where he is expected to challenge for the starters role at an NCAA division 1 level in 08-09.’
Undoubtedly a project for the Leafs, Rollheiser’s work ethic throughout his junior career has been phenomenal. Posting a 91.07% save percentage and 3.19 GAA in 07-08,’ many see the likeable youngster as a goaltender blessed with great potential who the Leafs had shown some interest in prior to the draft.
With fellow late bloomer Justin Pogge currently working his way through the system, Rollheiser has the chance to make strides as the next best prospect; James Reimer is considered hit or miss in the Leafs system. Paving his way, like many other Canadian Junior A players to the NCAA, Rollheiser has had the fortune to land himself a scholarship with a division 1 team with many seeing him as a starter.
It’s clearly a long game for a goaltending prospect, but with a story like Rollheiser’s it would be great to see him make it, whether or not he can remains to be seen.

Andrew MacWilliam
Selected: 7th Round 188th Overall
Position: Defense
Junior Team: Camrose Kodiaks (AJHL)
Born: March 25th 1990 Birthplace: Calgary, AB
Height: 6’2” Weight: 214lbs

The Leafs final draftee in 2008, Andrew MacWilliam happens to be the teammate of 16th overall Joe Colborne who was taken by the Bruins in the 1st round.
MacWilliam a large, strong, stay at home defenseman has already built an impressive Junior A resume having featured in the CJAHL prospects game, the AJHL south division all star team, Team Canada West who won a gold medal at the World Junior A Challenge in 2007 and a surprise call up to Team Alberta in the 2007 Canada Winter Games.
Although abundant with strength, MacWilliam is a long shot for the NHL owing to his slow skate speed and minimal agility. However despite this MacWilliam is headed to North Dakota University following the traditional Junior A path and is noted as a dedicated shot blocker who will almost certainly work out the next four years with the Fighting Sioux.

June 19, 2008

Why Fighting belongs in the NHL

Fighting in the NHL remains one of the most staunchly debated subjects in the world of the hockey and yet the argument barely divides supporters down the middle. Far from a modern topic, the recent incident with Patrick Roy’s son Jonathon has quickly risen fighting back to its usual grandstanded place. Now I’m not here to endorse stupidity like Roy’s kid or fighting for the sake of fighting but I am here to support fighting as the part of the game it always was and the integral part at that.

Last season 38.46% of regular season games saw a fighting major called with 143 games seeing multiple fights, up from 31.22% of games and 87 multiples the season before. Where the statistics spiked were less than 3% down on the season before the lockout and the “new” family friendly NHL. The big project of castigating the enforcers on the ice whilst remaining cryptic off it has begun to backfire on the league and there is a stonewall reason behind the increase that defies the concepts of entertainment and goonery.

Post-lockout the NHL was looking to rebrand itself, the pre-lockout game was getting bogged down with obstruction plays and slowing the sport that marketed itself as the fastest game in the world. The remit was to tighten holding, hooking and interference calls and open out the game, showcase the talent and make the sport a more family friendly spectacle. There is this perception that if they took the hard stuff out of the game the fans will suddenly flock; of course this could be dubbed as more league chicanery in the face of next-to-zero TV coverage. After all, how are you going to promote the friendlier NHL when nobody gets to see it and furthermore why oxymoronically support the divisional schedules with phrases like “familiarity breeds contempt” and then complain if it becomes violent? But I digress.

With the post-lockout game opening up the ice the game certainly became faster and players such as Peter Worrell, Gordie Dwyer, Chris Dingham or any enforcer who possessed little to no skating ability, puck handling consistency or offensive flair were rendered extinct either in the first year or after the instigator penalty was brought in and that was not entirely a bad thing, after all even Bob Probert or Tiger Williams could post nigh on 30 goal seasons. What the death of the barely-skating-fists brought in however was an entirely new type of enforcer designed for an entirely new NHL.

With the prototypical goons rendered obsolete by the rule changes and antsy officiating calling chincy penalties left right and centre, the NHL has become blighted by the agitator. Generally smaller players who won’t think twice about drilling players head first into boards or laying stupid charging hits in vulnerable positions, with the emphasis on stupid and not “a hit.” Players who to name and shame include Hollweg, Janssen, Tootoo, Avery and Cooke have become cheap shot merchants with free reign.

Now the agitator isn’t a new breed, but time was their job to draw penalties could be negated by the threat of a hulking player like Worrell or Dingman offering them a beat down for their insolence. Now there is a lack of respect and the hitting is getting out of hand, the fact that an instigator penalty can give the cheap shots a power play is drawing significantly closer to a bad injury and not one brought about by fists.

In fighting there is a code and honor, but hammering players head first into boards is downright dangerous. One of the anti-fighting schools of thought is that eventually a fight is going to end in tragedy, and of course as a Toronto fan, I and the rest of the league held our collective breath when Kris Newbury hit the ice head first after a series of haymakers from Ronald Petrovicky in 2007. The fact that Newbury, a competent scrapper, came out of hospital amidst the moralizing and said “I think it [fighting] belongs in the game, it's just a freak accident that happens every once in a while." Seemed to have been lost in the moral panic, meanwhile think back to Hollweg’s head high cross check on Sergei Kostitsyn or Cam Janssen’s frankly pathetic über late jumping hit on Tomas Kaberle and its hardly surprising that a new talented breed of enforcers are making their way back into the game.
Of course the whole deal became a lot smoother for the contemporary goon after Anaheim’s cup winning triumphs atop the record of most fighting majors by a team, a fete fronted by fan favorite George Parros. Not only popular with the fake moustache wearing crowd, Anaheim showed that fighting could still be used as an integral part of a winning formula be it as a momentum breaker/builder, keeping dirty players in check or bringing the crowd into the game whilst mocking the ambiguity of the instigator rule. What Anaheim did was set the wheels moving towards intense offensive hockey, supported by a heavy core of players who could be called upon to intimidate if needed, basically hockey where it was prior to the lockout.
Of course a return to fighting would clearly result in fans marching out of the arenas in utter disgust, but low and behold the NHL saw a 2% increase league wide in attendances in 07-08’. To note this simply to the increased proliferation of gloves on the ice would be trite, but to say the trend, which started early in the season, was damaging to the game would be plain wrong. As Mr. Hockey himself, a.k.a. Gordie Howe once said:
“I have always believed that far more people come to games to see the fights
than stay away.”
And in this sentiment belies the paradox that stereotypes the act. Hockey is not solely about fighting and those reputed fans that come to see the fighting alone, if such a fan base exists, are not fans of the game, but there are almost certainly more of them out there than this phantom crowd that are put of by the “nature and barbarity of the game.” The nature being the important phrase and not one implicit to the act of fighting alone but owing to the history, traditions and stereotypes of the game, draw from its necessity. Basically if you don’t like fighting and physicality, chances are hockey is never going to be your cup of tea.

Perhaps it’s easy to wax lyrical in the face of naysayers about the good ol’ days, the Broad Street Bullies and the Big Bad Boston Bruins, but the fact of the matter is that fighting is still an important part of the game, both in play and also in the marketing of it. Whilst I don’t believe in pandering to a crowd of fight hungry meatheads, many would argue that the NHL’s inability to pull a major US TV deal lies in the decreased marketability of the game sans fighting in the American market. The fact the league uses this as a springboard to usurp much of the physicality in the game for endless power plays shows how out of touch the league is in marketing itself to even the most fervent followers.
If you were to take an example, one particular to my argument, say the Columbus Blue Jackets. Their season was all but over with a couple of months to spare, in the face of a miracle. The fact they had the league leader in fights, the small but ultra willing Jared Boll provided some pull for crowds in a quiet market. Pair that up with the fact that Boll and fellow fighter Jody Shelley are amongst the fan favorites after Rick Nash and that after Nash are two of the most enthusiastic players to skate in the Jackets teams and its hard to see how these power players can’t be a pull of a mainstay demographic.

Subsequently fighting is a part of a multi faceted sport and that is what makes hockey the spectacle it is. The various roles of the players, the strategy, the scoring and the physicality, its all part and parcel of what makes hockey the greatest game in the world and the NHL the greatest league. A wise man would market fighting for what it is, a part of the game and stop placing it on a pedestal of evil as if the debate were more prevalent than the sport itself. A great fight, especially if it were for the right reasons, can be part of a spectrum of experiences that can occur in hockey from the nasty to the sublime and we should stop striving to remove the various layers of the game as if to leave it bare and bleak.

For me I don’t find a place for marketing in the debate of hockey fighting. Hockey fights happen for a variety of reasons, some good and noble, some bad and pointless they are never there to be a circus sideshow attraction and the guys dropping their gloves are not performing monkeys. It happens down to emotion and protecting your team mates and god forbid if those elements are ever removed from the game.