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 ├╝ber 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.

June 16, 2008

Shall we call it Toronto's "interim" season?

Interim is the word at Toronto
With the recent announcement that interim GM Cliff Fletcher will be kept on by Richard Peddie for next season; Leafs fans around the globe can be assured that the franchise isn’t turning tack, no, with a new coach in place, now seems to be the perfect time to hang stalwartly on for, as everybody knows, Brian Burke, furthered more so today by Toronto’s cheeky acquisition of Al Coates as player personnel director, Burkes number two in Anaheim.

Clearly another year of tedium is stretching out into the horizon before we can endure the long death crawl of rebuilding that the Los Angeles Kings have become such fine poster boys for. It’s good to see that that Peedie and Kirke’s top candidate list turned into the predictable dud we all knew it would be.

Now, I can understand the MLSE’s reluctance, heck it’s been eyeing up Burke for some time now, being constantly shooed away like a horny dog by the Anaheim upper echelons with the position being dubbed as nothing short of salvation for the Leaf Nation. But with draft day coming and the free agency free for all upon us, it’s an unusual time to opt for an “interim GM” that was chased out of Toronto in 1997 after a series of inept and desperate trades saw the Leafs derail after four straight playoff years only to be brought back to cut trades that Ferguson Jr. could never cut, and make no trade moves whatsoever. Sure he didn’t want to make trades for trade’s sake, but a little bit of mixing up couldn’t hurt in a lame duck season. Instead it was a case of once bitten twice shy for Toronto’s former trigger happy now trigger-less GM, whose past seems to have given him something of an identity crisis. In the meanwhile Peddie has been lamenting the bleakness of Toronto’s immediate future to anybody who will listen, no surprise owing the Leafs recent propensity to trade away prospects in dumb, knee jerk deals.

Subsequently the hiring of Ron Wilson came as a refreshing change in tempo; the Leafs actually got out there and nailed their candidate, if not the right candidate. Hopefully he may be able to breathe an ethos of accountability through the roster and kill of the comfort zone many of the Maple Leafs have been playing in for the past couple of years. Still there is a sharp edge and stubbornness to Wilson that he could do well to learn from his past mistakes, i.e. Patrick Marleau. Constant public flagellation will not go down well with players used to Maurice’s soft handed approach. Furthermore Wilson’s ego has been known to clash with superstars, whilst he will not be faced with that kind of superlative in a talent starved Leaf team, the media induced fish bowl could prove Ron Wilson to be his own undoing if the team fails to perform and with an interim GM at the helm, failure to perform could become a mantra under Ron, a coach who will have to temper his famed manic highs and lows, if he is to endure a rebuild.

Nevertheless, the opportunity to steel a team and a system from his own vision maybe the kind of task that would see the arrogance of Wilson shine through into the fine, stable coach he has always threatened to be. Whatever you surmise, he will have to wait a year to begin building anything as his first task will be to dismantle, an act in itself made more difficult with an interim GM with trade impotence. After all, Wilson is going to be looking for some younger, sportier models to shape into his roster; preferably good puck possession players, as the driftwood is offloaded, but questions arise over Fletchers ability to shape such deals (such as the Sundin/Kaberle deal that was supposed to bring Phillies’ Carter, Montreal’s Higgins and a bunch of draft picks to Toronto but failed to materialize).

Buyouts and free agency seem to be the theme of the day then in the clear out. Tucker is an outstanding favorite to be bought out and will almost certainly be gone in the next few days if his no trade clause can be negotiated and Raycroft will more than likely join him unless management sees fit to send him down to the minors for his final contract year. Blake had been mentioned, but with four years remaining on his contract (albeit minus an NTC), buyout maybe too expensive to be worth pursuing and somewhat tactless in the face of his leukemia battle whilst Mark Bell was quickly herded out in San Jose by Wilson after a hit and run DUI accident and after a series of personal issues, including possible imprisonment, Bell’s future remains uncertain. In the meanwhile, the blue line faces potential change with a chance that one of Kubina or McCabe will be shipped to free up some cap space.

On the free agency front, odds are that fringe players such as John Pohl, who had a poor last couple of years, will be left unsigned alongside number three goaltender Scott Clemmensen and the final transaction in John Ferguson jr’s. reign, Dominic Moore. It would also take a brave man to resign Wozniewski who had become something of a pariah in the Air Canada owing to his occasional defensive ”spasms”.

The big dice in the Toronto UFA lineup remains captain Mats Sundin, after years of loyal service his treatment in and around the trade deadline in February was shabby, but the Swede seems to show little drive to move elsewhere despite motioning that he may test the FA waters or retire. Conventional wisdom suggests that he will return to Toronto, although with a rebuild in the pipeline and his trade weight down significantly owing to his age, a lot of people wonder why Toronto’s management are dangling a “No Trade Clause” under his nose when they were so keen for him to waive his current “NTC” this year, although it’s probably because they know he is now worth nothing.

Perhaps a useful veteran to build a fresh team around, he will never win the big one in his time in the blue and white, but many believe he lacks the ambition anyway.

Of the restricted free agents the Leafs are in talks with Mitchell, Stajan and Wellwood whilst most expect the franchise to persevere with Foster and Ondrus. Stajan’s resigning is of the utmost importance as well as John Mitchell who has been impressive for the Marlies and could prove to be an excellent player in a period of rebuilding, but question marks still hang over Wellwood who had a disappointing season of the back of several injuries leading many to suggest he isn’t built for the NHL. Whilst he is a prime candidate to ship out, some would question the likelihood that any team would be willing to give up a third round draft pick for him, or if the Leafs would do better to just low ball him into a small cap hit contract.

Whatever the turnout in the next couple of weeks, the current lack of a full time GM means that the Leafs growth will be stunted. Sure a lot of players will go before next season, most for absolutely nothing, begging the question what exactly is Wilson going to have to play with when the free agency is all said and done? Perhaps if the Leafs can resist the temptation to throw prospects out like confetti, sign Brooks Orpik on the FA, stop putting No Trade Clauses in every contract and pull off a couple of good drafts on the back of what is likely to be some dreadful on ice seasons, the Leafs can start to build on the Pittsburgh model. But were a long way from there yet.

How to Measure a Goalie: The not-so All Star

Night in night out Ilya Bryzgalov and Tomas Vokoun faced a barrage of shots on teams that were never going to make the playoffs and what thanks did they get at the end of the season?

I don’t think the league was wrong to give the Vezina award to Martin Brodeur, posting a save percentage of 92%, he had the highest save percentage of any goaltender who played in more than 60 games, appearing in 77.What I do find mistifying is that Evgeni Nabokov was voted into 2007-08’ NHL all star first team.Posting a 91% save percentage, Nabokov finished the season with 46 wins, 2 more than Brodeur, but was rarely called upon to pull a game out of the fire in front of an experienced blueline, when compared to the youth of New Jersey.What is even more amazing is that neither Tomas Vokoun (Florida) or Ilya Bryzgalov (Phoenix) earned a single vote from the GM’s in the Vezina 1st 2nd 3rd voting system, whilst Vokoun posted a 91.9% save percentage and Bryzgalov 92%, facing a ludicrous amount of rubber for consistantly poor teams.Sure there is no accounting for the types of shot faced, whilst Vokoun only managed 30 wins and Bryzgalov 28, but they wore their heart on their sleeves for deadend franchises without a single vote of recognition. What made things even worse is that one GM gave Kiprusoff a first place vote when he struggled all season to remain above .900.Surely there should be an award that denotes save percentage, for me a much clearer indication of how a goaltender is doing as opposed to the team unit, in the case of Goals Against Average and wins, but then again there is no insurance that you are playing for the “right” team or getting the kind of coverage your league wide colleagues are. Basically if your team isn’t winning and your playing out in the NHL sticks it is clear you are being forgotten, anybody remember Di Pietro?

June 15, 2008

Relocating the Predators: The NHL an era of Expansion or Relocation

Try as it might the Nashville Predators haven’t quite imploded, no sooner is the first financial threat to the franchise quelled by a deal with a Nashville based business consortium fronted by David Freeman, then the second majority shareholder under the new consortium, William Del Biaggio, files for bankruptcy. Of course anybody who has been following this story will be aware that Del Biaggio had previously lobbied to bring an NHL franchise to Kansas City and the AEG group owned Sprint Centre for whom he was in agreement with; but ceased his Kansas City intentions upon entering into business with the Nashville Consortium.

Nevertheless with his 27 percent interest (worth around $60 million) in the Predators up for grabs after Del Biaggio’s assets were placed in the hands of a trustee, one name refuses to go quietly into the night.

Jim Balsillie had been in the frame to buy the franchise in May 2007, making a bid in the region of $220 million when the Nashville Predators were first put up for sale by then owner Craig Leipold. The deal went hand in hand with Balsillie’s inaugurated company, Golden Horseshoe Sports & Entertainment, securing exclusive rights to bring an NHL team to Hamilton, Ontario’s Copps Coliseum alongside reported intentions that Balsillie would spend a further $140 million bringing the Southern Ontario arena up to NHL standards.

Having previously been snubbed by the NHL when he tried buying up and relocating the Pittsburgh Penguins in December 2006 when he was told that the NHL would restrict his control of the franchise, Jim Balsillie did little to improve his relations with the NHL board of Governors this time when he started accepting season ticket deposits for the “Hamilton Predators” season 08-09’ through the Canadian branch of Ticketmaster. Conceived as a PR stunt to show the league that hockey in Hamilton was more viable than Nashville, sales were extremely healthy; deposits totaled all 80 luxury boxes under support of Hamilton based businesses as well as selling a further 13,000 seat deposits, far surpassing the Nashville Predators 06-07’ 9,000 season ticket uptake. However this strong arming was seen in contradiction to the leagues policy of “Good Faith” for potential buyers who are expected to make some effort to keep the franchise in its initial location whilst angering NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman who has been a keen supporter of NHL franchises in unconventional American markets.

Despite support from Phoenix minority owner and hockey great Wayne Gretzky who sits on the NHL board of Governors and Ontario Premier Dalton McQuinty who suggested that the provincial government would consider offering financial support if the team relocated, Balsillie’s interest in relocating to Hamilton was further muddied by the Canadian Competition Bureau who informed the NHL over its relocation policies in regards to territorial infringement in light of Balsillie seeking legal opinions in fighting the current rulings which would have forced Golden Horseshoe Sports & Entertainment to offer compensation to both the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Buffalo Sabres if a team began operating within 50 miles of these existing markets.

With the league leaning on Leipold and Leipold himself indicating that extra time would be granted to seek a Nashville based financier, the Balsillie deal soured at the same time Leipold denied dealing exclusively with Del Biaggio’s Kansas City consortium bringing a Nashville investors group into the picture as a third party. Del Biaggio later became involved with the Nashville investors through Leipold who then signed a letter of intent to sell the franchise to the Freeman headed; Del Biaggio backed 36 Venture Capital LLC upon receipt of a $10 million deposit for the full $193 million purchase price being tabled. After protracted negotiations with Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and the NHL Board of Governors, the sale of the Predators was approved in November 2007 seemingly securing the teams future in Nashville.

However the recent bankruptcy of Del Biaggio, who currently owes Craig Leipold $10 million, has left the franchises financial position in a questionable state. Whilst the league and owners group has brushed aside the immediate turmoil, branding Del Biaggio a minority investor, his $52 million stake alongside partner Warren Woo’s $10 million leaves a sizeable hole in the 36 Venture Capital LLC purchase. With Del Biaggio’s creditors scrambling to reclaim as much as possible from the fiscal debacle and a vacuum forming in the deal, the league alongside the remaining Nashville investors, may not be able to hold of a renewed effort by Balsillie in the current credit crunch climate who it immerged was approached by Del Biaggio in the weeks leading up to his bankruptcy filling leading to a verbal agreement that was, once again, refused by the NHL. Furthermore, the Predators have got to exceed an average of 14,000 fans a game for the next two seasons otherwise their current lease agreement in the city and with the Sommet Centre could be terminated.

What does this all mean? The blue touch-light paper has been lit for another NHL rumor mill abound by relocation and expansion talk.

Of course the above story negates the probability of expansion with the league trying to secure its current struggling franchises whilst the fiscal credit crunch would be an inopportune backdrop for seeking investors for new arenas. Whilst expansion talks have reputedly been tabled at recent Board of Governors meetings, Bettman has remained coy about broaching the subject in a public domain on one hand and flat out denying any further expansion plans on the other. Still conventional wisdom dictates that in the long run Bettman is a proponent of two 16 team conferences totaling 32 franchises, bolstered, of course, by exorbitant expansion fees in a time of poor television revenue.
Cities that are regularly cited are Las Vegas and Kansas City with parties also interested in Winnipeg and Seattle. Contrary to constant black balling, Balsillie clearly has the money to float a team in Hamilton whilst Oklahoma City has bust a gut on two previous occasions offering tax incentives. Houston has made a move on the previous two NHL expansions also but now look to be outsiders with Indianapolis and Milwaukee who are floated more by talk than any real corporate interest. If Seattle were to fall out of the picture a popular support is building behind any potential Portland bid whilst Quebec City remains a nostalgic candidate.

Whilst expansion maybe a while away, the possibility of franchises relocating is clearly greater in a time of financial difficulty. A recent leak of franchise ticket revenues for 07-08’ obtained by CBC, underscored some of the lame duck teams operating from under Bettman’s contrived American footprint. Whilst Canadian teams, who make up 20% of the league, are currently responsible for 31% of all league ticket revenues with all six teams featuring in the top seven, (the only American team to break into the top seven earners are the New York Rangers in fifth) the bottom fifteen franchises in the ticket revenue league, or 50% of the league, account for just 35% of league ticket revenues, the bottom of the pile being Phoenix ($0.45m), Florida ($0.5m), Chicago ($0.5m), New York Islanders ($0.55m) Atlanta ($0.55m), Washington ($0.55m) and Nashville ($0.6m). Whilst Chicago’s poor finances can be put down to a prolonged period of chronically poor team management, the other six teams are in genuine trouble with four of them representing Bettman’s push for unlikely American hockey markets in the 90’s.

Hockey is clearly proving a hard sell in the desert and Gretzky, a part owner of the Coyotes, has often waxed lyrical about a return to Canada in future league expansion. Florida is hitting an even greater wall as the sport fails to grasp even the slightest foothold in the sunshine state whilst the Islanders are facing increased pressure in the leagues highest density geographical market. Whilst Atlanta and Washington are under no immediate threat, Nashville, as mentioned above, clearly are and the basement of the leagues revenues are not the only financial danger spots. Season’s of on ice rebuilding saw Los Angeles ticket revenues fall by 7.1% between 06-07’ to 07-08’, one of only six teams to post such losses, another being the Columbus Blue Jackets whose sales were down by 5.9%. Further towards the top San Jose finished 13th in the revenue table ($0.95m) but announced that ticket prices would rise for 08-09’ campaign due to hockey operations costing the franchise a purported $5 million in losses in each of the last two seasons.

Paul Kelly head of the NHLPA has been quick to jump on the figures suggesting that looking north would clearly be the way to push the league forward citing the 30 team setup to be ideal. Of course this hints to relocation over expansion and Kelly has been a supporter of Balsillie, if not by name, recently stating:

“I think it would be a huge error not to relocate one of the existing franchises
to Hamilton or Winnipeg"

When speaking to the Toronto Star in early June.

On the contrary, the end of last season was abuzz with swirling reports that Expansion plans were to be set in stone, whilst these announcement proved to be unfounded expansion remained at the forefront of rumor mill agendas with the two most likely expansion franchises continuing to be cited as Las Vegas, fronted by multi millionaire film producer and avid hockey fan Jerry Bruckheimer and Kansas City, still backed by AEG and bolstered by the presence of the NHL ready Sprint Centre. This of course would continue in Bettman’vein to force feed hockey into unsustainable markets at a time when the league is becoming increasingly
bloated by such franchises.

Potential NHL Locations:

Las Vegas and Kansas City

Whilst Bruckheimer toyed with purchasing the Penguins in October 06’ Bruckheimer seems to be more interested in expansion than relocation and is in cahoots with AEG President and CEO Tim Leiweke, the man behind the Kansas City bid and Sprint Centre, to build an NHL ready arena. Whether a possible partnership to build such a venue in Las Vegas along the Strip would muddy both cities getting a team is too be seen but the Del Biaggio saga has done little to strengthen confidence in the Kansas market whilst analysts are quick to point out the failings of the 1974-76 Kansas City Scouts who up’d sticks after two years and moved to Colorado as the Rockies. Of course Kansas City supporters would quickly retort that the Rockies failed but the later relocation of the Quebec Nordiques to Colorado as the Avalanche has been a relative success proving that market re-entry can be viable whilst a scheduled pre-season exhibition game between the St. Louis Blues and Los Angeles Kings at the Sprint Centre is being touted as the NHL testing waters in the Missouri market. Nevertheless what would quickly become an AEG duo would do little for the supporters of the NHL’s confidence in Bettman nor would blindsiding a desperate northern market yet again.

Seattle and Portland
So if the unlikely were to happen and the NHL did expand in alternative cities to Las Vegas and Kansas many would taut Seattle as a front runner. Remaining in America, Seattle would not be as unpopular in the eyes of traditionalists owing to the cities history in the sport, after all the Seattle Metropolitans of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association were the last winners of the Stanley Cup in 1917 before the foundation of the NHL and were losing finalists in 1920 before the NHL assumed total control over the cup. The city can also boast a profound history in major junior hockey, playing in the Western Hockey League since 1977 as first the Breakers and then the Thunderbirds under which moniker they were losing finalists in 1997. Seattle would also provide a plug in the NHL geographical map and give the Vancouver Canucks a much needed rival (although questions remain over the fiscal loss or gain by obtaining a close geographic rival). Nevertheless Seattle are a candidate without an venue, the Key Arena where the Thunderbirds played until this season has a capacity of 15,177 for ice hockey but the over subscribed venue has forced the Thunderbirds to seek a new home in Kent, Washington for next season. Questions are also raised about the cities cosmopolitan demographic for what is seen as a blue collar sport and the subsequent manhandling of the NBA Seattle Sonics franchise.

With this uncertainty and a perceived Pacific Northwest audience, Portland has been banded around as a potential home for the NHL owing to its further geographical positioning to Vancouver and its excellent Rose Garden Arena, home of the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers and WHL’s Portland Winter Hawks. With an ice hockey capacity of 18,280 and a state of the art facility, “The Gardens” multi-billionaire owner Paul Allen has researched interest for a second winter sport, but the perception is that Portland is too smaller market and the Trail Blazers too big a financial burden with a history of fiscal disasters in the wake of the NBA franchise and arena.

Winnipeg and Quebec
It would be frivolous to reiterate the position of Hamilton, Ontario and the Copps Coliseum but as Paul Kelly underlined, Canada is a market which could easily sustain another one or two franchises in the current NHL market, subsequently whenever the subject of expansion or relocation arises people can’t help but look back with a hint of bitterness to two Canadian cities who had their franchises ripped from them.
Off course, Winnipeg stands out for potential investment due to the previous popularity of the Winnipeg Jets and the recently built MTS centre which hosted a sell out pre season exhibition game between the Edmonton Oilers and the Phoenix Coyotes (the contemporaries of the Jets franchise) in September 2006, however with a seating capacity of just 15,015 for hockey, the arena would require a sizeable expansion. Furthermore, whilst there has been league wide support from such luminaries as Wayne Gretzky, Ottawa owner Eugene Melnyk and Gary Bettman himself, Winnipeg audiences have proved resistant to the perceived top dollar costs of modern day NHL tickets. Nevertheless the comparably poor currency exchange between the Canadian and US dollars of the mid 90’s, that was in part the downfall of both the Jets and the Nordiques, has improved notably in the franchises 13 year absence and now looks a better time than any for a return to the great white north especially with the leagues new collective bargaining agreement and salary cap.
For Quebec, corporate support and league wide backing has been somewhat more subdued and in the modern climate of the NHL, a lack of corporate backing both putting up an offer and buying up luxury boxes alongside a lack of an NHL capable facility, scuppers any realistic chances for a prompt return to the big league and the general feeling is one of financial apathy. Furthermore, both teams would face the potential wrath of the Canadian Competition Bureau which could provide a legal maelstrom that Bettman’s southern outlook would keenly avoid whilst a there is an awareness towards the cyclical nature of the Canadian dollar and the struggles some of the Canadian franchises were facing prior to the lockout.
Oklahoma City
The overlooked outsider, Oklahoma City, is yearning for a high level pro league sports team to house in its impressive Ford Centre Arena. Already trying to relocate the Seattle Sonics, the city government has shown in the past its willingness to offer tax incentives to draw the big leagues. Indeed it was a major part of their 1997 attempts to bring the NHL to Oklahoma and now it has an arena to go with its aspirations and a hockey fan base borne out of the Oklahoma City Blazers who play in the Central Hockey League and have housed hockey teams on and off since the original Blazers were founded in 1965. Whether Oklahoma has a sufficient fan base for the NHL as well as an NBA franchise; or anybody will come forward to tender a bid awaits the day the NHL needs new buyers. It seems likely that Oklahoma will remain an unlikely site for the NHL in the near future.
In my opinion the league needs to stick to 30 teams and concentrate on marketing the game and increasing television revenues and interest. A watering down of the NHL’s current talent pool is the last thing the league needs when its revenues are still small fries to the big three of the MLB, NBA and NFL with the upstart MLS providing real competition in a number of American markets.
Still I am not opposed to a realignment of the league and relocation of some of Bettman’s struggling brainchildren. Hockey was never going to be a good fit for Florida and Arizona whilst Nashville could be as good as buried if Balsillie can surpass hockey politics and become a big money minority investor. Sure an increased number of Canadian teams will partially dilute some existing markets and Hockey Night in Canada income, but in the current financial climate, a mid pack Canadian team, in terms of revenues, will do better than bleed money hand over fist like the Coyotes and the Panthers. There is a hunger for the sport in the North that Bettman’s purported plans for Las Vegas and Kansas City continues to ignore in the face of stone wall facts, sure the initial $300 million will boost league coffers, but the heritage and strength of the game should have some part in Bettman’s long term plan.
In my ideal world I would relocate the Panthers, Coyotes and Predators, putting two in Canada, be it Winnipeg, Quebec, Hamilton or less likely Halifax and one in Seattle or Portland, it would make sense and it would renew the NHL, both in terms of the sport and the business. Many think that Bettman’s reign has been money orientated; if that were the case surely the time is right for a return to Canada and a new franchise in the Pacific Northwest.

June 11, 2008

Everybody Hates the Kid: Crosby the Pariah

Not only did the Stanley Cup finals offer a chance for Sidney Crosby to truly leave his mark on the game, but it gave all his detractors the chance to really whale in the face of “Crosby Mania” and to let “The Kid” feel the full force of the NHL’s superstar marketing backlash.

When Wayne Gretzky came to eminence it had been as if God himself had fated it for Canada. From the tender age of 10, national Canadian media had begun to track the most prominent of all hockeying talents after scoring 378 goals and 120 assists in just 85 games for his pee wee team, the Brantford Nadrofsky Steelers. From then on it was just a case of if the kid could make it through the pitfalls; the third overall selection in the OMJHL midget draft, the escapades of an under 20 in the World Hockey Association and the game of cards proposal that saw a private jet wing an 18 year old into Edmonton. To prove his critics wrong and become a star in the big boys league in front of Canada, the NHL and the rest of the world.

In his first year he won the Hart, tied the scoring lead with fewer goals and by rights should have won the Calder but was ineligible due to his time in the WHA. When he finally broke the 200 point barrier in 1982, Gretzky was just 21 and had come to epitomize the game and by all accounts save it.

The NHL was small time in the late 70’s barely able to get a foothold in America with falling attendances and struggling TV contracts. A backwards entity, The league couldn’t market the best of players and iconic figures were few and far between; Trottier, Lafleur and Dionne were the standouts, Bobby Orr’s career had all but come to an end by 1975 and Phil Esposito was getting the wrong side of thirty five. Whilst a Canadian audience was all but assured, the league desperately needed a figurehead, a star and an ambassador, to make the game viable across all North America and secure its future; the fact Gretzky’s immergence came at just about the same time as “Miracle on Ice” didn’t hurt either.
To say Gretzky saved the NHL would be trite, but his influence on the game pushed hockey from the brink of obscurity back into the major four professional sports. His multi-national-migrant appeal, his stats and his skill made him popular outside of Canada and renewed the sport of ice hockey worldwide. For a nation like Canada, whose own national institutions, for many, include the sport of hockey, to see the game once again flourishing, if not more so than ever before, was a boon and the subsequent proliferation of books and movies that sprung up around the 80’s and 90’s were a testament to the newfound popularity of the game. To expand upon the legacy and importance of Gretzky, his trade to Los Angeles was the catalyst for many, if not all, of the sunbelt expansion.

However the descent into lockout was a worrying period of stagnation for the NHL, where rule changes and a lack of personalities were again threatening the much expanded leagues revenues and attraction. With Gretzky retiring in 1999 and Lemieux’s much vaunted return blighted by injury, it fell on a new crop led by the likes of Eric Lindros to reinvigorate the league, but try as they might, there were no descent young superstars that could fill that fresh faced void and combination of charisma and world beating talent the league and Canada so desperately wanted.
Enter stage right Sidney Crosby a young Canadian with good looks and glittering junior career in tow. A first overall draftee in the QMJHL, in many regards Crosby’s junior numbers were even more impressive than Gretzky’s and the Canadian media weren’t slow in building the hype with the youngster appearing on Hockey Night in Canada at just 14. Gretzky himself heaped praise on the Nova Scotian. When asked if anybody could break his records, The Great One replied he believed Crosby could.

Unlike Gretzky who entered through the WHA backdoor in almost quaint obscurity to his pee wee fame, Crosby’s ascent into the league was supported by the elaboration of the modern draft and all the multi media that supported and promoted “The Kid” through the weeks leading up to and after the event. Crosby was certainly of a different hockey age and we were all made sure we were aware of him, what perhaps surprised many, was like Gretzky, he defied the odds and secured the Hart trophy in his first season becoming the youngest ever player to record 100 points in a season then added an Art Ross the season after, the first teenage scoring leader since “The Great One”. It seemed as if maybe prophecies could be fulfilled.

Regardless of his successes, Crosby’s play was different and peppered with the positive and negative sides of contemporary hockey. A ripple was passing through the NHL’s fan base of which true superstars rarely have to face, “Crosby Mania” was very much a Penguins and Nova Scotian delight, “The Kid” was not liked when he headed off home turf. First came the “sell-out” Reebok adverts before his first full season then the teenage alternate captaincy debacle that registered outcry from many including hockey god Don Cherry. More noted came the diving and chirping which could also be leveled to a younger Gretzky, whilst in recent times fans of any team other than Pittsburgh have been quick to call out Crosby’s unphysical presence and ice position around the net, leading many to brand the NHL as protectorate over its prodigal son’s “wuss hockey”.
Clamoring to his defense, people refer to his tremendous skill and youth, his excellent leadership for somebody so young and the recent success of a franchise, under Crosby, that at one point looked dead in the water. What is undeniably clear is the pastures under which the grass grew green for Gretzky have become a hardened rocky path for any contenders to his crown. In this mass-media-age Crosby is fair game and locked in the sights of many a hockey commentator; which is just about anybody with a blog or a social networking page.

Off course other factors haven’t helped, the expectation with which Crosby entered the league under the questionable draft lottery, and the subsequent mantle of “media darling” have made him instantly dislikeable to the average fan-bystander, whilst the arrival of Alex Ovechkin the season before Crosby has split opinion down a bitterly divided line. Many look at the all-hands-to-the-pump back checking and physical playing ethos of the Russian as the true pinnacle of the sport when married with his stick handling finesse and cannon shot. It’s similar to the Lemieux or Gretzky debates of the late 80’s and early 90’s, only in today’s game there is a prevailing thought that there is only space for one megastar in the game and fans on either side have a ferocious passion partly owing to Crosby’s unsportsmanlike rookie nature and partly owing to the peculiar American and European affinity with Ovechkin.

When you break it down, Crosby isn’t the devil he is made out to be. He is the unfortunate product of the NHL’s desperate marketing scheme propelled furthermore by the Canadian media’s desperation for a new Gretzky. To top it all off his prominence to the highest tier of the sport has coincided with a massive corporate partnership with Reebok to whom many a player “sold-out” and to whom the new starlet was almost doomed to comply, a unprecedented lockout that predetermined the necessity of the draft lottery and the emergence of a truly respected youngster in Ovechkin, whose life and hockey nurturing has been in contrast to that of Crosby’s.

The NHL has been particularly cynical in the way it tries to promote the game with young names; Bettman’s era has seen the same ham-fisted marketing strategy that the league owes its historically varied levels of popularity too. Crosby was just another name to hype and throw around in promoting the league and the Canadian media jumped like a fish to a hook creating this idea that Crosby is some media hungry prima donna more owing to sports like soccer or basketball, a boy in the trappings of a multi-million dollar contract. Ovechkin by contrast, minus a Canadian passport, never received the kind of coverage many believe he deserves and with a modern greater American fan base who have ironically taken to the Russian this has caused a North American divide.

For Canada, Crosby is a renewed hope to promote their game internationally and return to the household name branding that Wayne Gretzky provided so stoically throughout the 80’s and 90’s. The reason people worldwide associate Canada with hockey was in a large part down too Gretzky and the media explosion that came out of his and the NHL’s golden age of marketable viability.
On top of all this, “The Next One” as he has been so glibly dubbed, has had to endure the constant pressure of a sportingly desperate public and the endless comparisons to Gretzky. Crosby is Crosby, he has a physical advantage over Gretzky who negated this issue with ultra fine stick work, on that note alone Gretzky is above and beyond even the most intense expectations. More importantly the game has moved on, defensive strategy is better realized and goaltending more pandered, the trap is truly developed and worked and the simple porosity of the league is no longer so profound. The year Gretzky recorded his first 200 point season; his Edmonton Oilers slotted the opposition for 417 goals, last seasons scoring leaders, the Ottawa Senators, scored just 262 goals, it would take a miracle for any player be it Crosby, Ovechkin or Ken Klee to record 200 points in the modern game.

What has to be remembered is just like Gretzky or any other Canadian, American or European hockey player who has or has not made it to the NHL; Crosby was a kid who grew up dreaming of playing hockey in the big time. Some may question the way he plays but in that respect he is simply a product of the modern game, he has never and never will be Gretzky or Lemieux, he just wants to reach his own goals and leave his own mark on the game. He will grow up and his game will develop and he will hopefully move away from the unsportsmanlike elements in his game to become a true contemporary ambassador for the sport alongside Ovechkin, in the meantime we should criticize any player who chooses to dive or argue with the officials; but not pretend that guys in our own shirts don’t do the same thing, or for that matter sell the shirt of his own back at the first chance.