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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Getting Ugly Early On

Now, look, I get what pre-season hockey is generally all about.

It's about the stars not getting hurt.

It's about goalies not tweaking their groins (Mr. Hasek and Mr. Lehtonen I'm looking at you).

It's about young guys trying to make a name for themselves.

It's also about tough guys fighting each other to show that they can earn that one spot on the big-time roster for themselves. You know, have just enough skill and a lot of pugilistic integrity - enough to keep the big money earners on the team safe from the lazy cheap-shot artists and true goons (think of Jarkko Ruutu).

It's also the time of year when a lot of the AHL influence wears an NHL sweater. While the AHL isn't exactly the Federal League from Slap Shot fame, there's plenty of fighting to go around. After all, after the new rules reinforcement of the NHL, the AHL is where the true cementheads (and I say that with all the respect in the world, those guys would get a laugh in about it) went to roost.

In the NHL pre-season though, things can get a bit out of control. TSN's Bob McKenzie took note of a situation that developed between the Sabres and Blue Jackets recently:

On Friday night, the two teams met in Buffalo and there was a quasi line brawl,
just another pre-season game where it seems the gloves are coming off with great
regularity, including a nasty sucker-punch from Buffalo tough guy Andrew Peters
on Columbus rookie Jared Boll, the Plymouth Whaler grad who has a good chance to
make Ken Hitchcock's team as a tough guy/energy player.

Sabre rookie Patrick Kaleta picked up a charging penalty. Boll instigated a fight as a
result. After the gloves came off and the scrum ensued. Columbus' Tom Sestito, a
tough guy grad of the OHL, raced in and grabbed Sabre veteran defenceman Tony
Lydman and whaled away on him.

Take a look at that matchup again.

Tom Sestito - A 6'4" 209-pound left wing from Utica, NY. He's spent three years in the OHL, of which in his last two seasons he racked up 176 PIMs in 57 regular-season games in 2005-2006 and last season piled up another 135 PIMs in 60 games. The guy knows his way around the rink when the gloves are off.

Toni Lydman, on the other hand, in his full professional hockey career, going back to the Finnish Leagues and his time spent in the NHL, has piled up a total of 129 PIMs in 431 career games played.

To call Toni Lydman a lightweight would be an understatement when it comes to fights and scrums. Fighting in Finland isn't really their specialty.

We saw a matchup like this in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the opening round. It involved Brad May (lifetime PIMs: 2,040 in 882 games) of the Anaheim Ducks going after Swedish defenseman and non-threat to punch your lights out, Kim Johnsson (lifetime PIMs: 290 PIMs in 518 games) of the Minnesota Wild. Much like what happened to Lydman, May jumped Johnsson from behind and made him effectively useless for the rest of the playoffs.

What transpired tonight in Ottawa, however, was the reason why some guys will never make it out of the AHL - and probably a good reason why the NHL has already cut back on the number of pre-season games as it is.

Steve Downie spears Dean McAmmond as if he was Goldberg.

What you see there is Philadelphia's Steve Downie, who's claim to fame before this was being the guy who brought about the ire of Canadian fans after getting hit by Jack Johnson during World Juniors a couple years back. Canadian fans claimed that Johnson elbowed Downie in the face after Canada scored an empty-net goal to salt away the victory. While the replays from where the cameras are located are shoddy at best in the video seen here, Downie appears to take a dive and there are some scattered reports that Downie admitted to doing as much. The remainder of the tournament saw the U.S. team get booed at all costs by the Canadian fans and even resulting in the ever-tasteful show of respect and booing the National Anthem.

Downie is no stranger to dirty pool, and it's always been a rule that you absolutely cannot leave your feet to deliver a hit. It rarely does happen, which is good, but when it does happen... it's quite often missed or played off as part of a height discrepancy.

So what does the league do for this sort of junk? In Steve Downie's case, he's got at least a one-game suspension coming thanks to being served with a Match Penalty for intent to injure. Downie also got some post-hit justice because he timed it out poorly enough so that Ottawa enforcer Brian McGrattan was already on the ice and found his way to Downie rather quickly. Light-fighting Ottawa forward/defenseman Christoph Schubert also got his shots in as well.

How does the NHL manage to punish a guy that wasn't going to make the NHL team in the first place? Sit him down in the AHL? Big deal - he'll be back out on the ice soon enough and right back to his old tricks and never amounting to anything better in his career. Ben Eager already does his job better than he could ever dream. The problem here is that there's no punishment that can be dished out that fits the situation. He'll learn no lesson, he'll have no remorse and worse yet - he'll just keep pushing the edge in order to get noticed by the big club. You can't suspend a guy like this for the whole year, its excessive and crazy. Sitting him down for one game does nothing.

I'd say that the league will likely come down with something in the 10-15 game range because of the severity of the hit. Not only did he leave his feet, he led with his shoulder and connected with McAmmond's head. If it were possible to get three strikes on one play, Downie just figured it out.

Dean McAmmond, by the way, had to leave the game on a stretcher. It's unknown as of this writing what his injuries are, but seeing him get knocked out cold...you'd have to speculate that there's a concussion is involved. The league abhors blows to the head and something like this just looks so horrible and obvious what the intent was it makes me cringe and get angry. If there's anything about this that can be seen as a "good" thing it's that this occurred during the pre-season and the usual choir of writers who only talk about hockey when something bad happens will be kept out of the scene with their ignorance of all things that go on.

I'd like to think that this kind of hit is the type of thing that would go beyond such typical pathetic analysis and would be very obvious about what the problem is, but it's likely that talking about this hit would devolve into an argument about the physicality and danger of hockey and about how fighting should be eliminated if the NHL wants to have mainstream appeal and....

Well I'll stop there, we've heard it all before and I'd rather not just give them their head start on berating the game once again. This will probably be the only time you hear about Steve Downie this year and hopefully we'll get to hear more about Dean McAmmond this year after his career saw a resurgence in a new role last season in Ottawa. I just hope that the news we get about him is about a quick return to the ice and not about concussion symptoms that linger on too long and his career being in danger.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Right When You Think They'll Get It Right

The NHL Board of Poorly-Defined Misers have decided to pull the rug out from underneath their Man of the Hour, Gary Bettman, for once. Don't get too excited, Captain Dumb-Dumb still very much has a job as Commissioner. This decision, however, does make sense for the league; they're ditching the unbalanced schedule.

While they couldn't get it right to have the home teams go back to wearing white at home (for some reason this was a hard decision to make with the new OMGWTFRBKEDGE jerseys this year where each team only has a white and a dark uniform, no thirds) they did get this decision right to stop having divisional opponents play every other game against each other.

Sort of.

This story from The Hockey News makes mention of a few plans that the league was looking into to readjust so that each team will play everyone else in the league at least once. However, this blog's good friend Brian Burke, the ever quotable media slut, has chimed in to USA Today to say that the leading sentiment amongst the executives is to decrease the number of games against divisional opponents to seven (it is eight right now) which would help to up the number of interconference games from the laughably awful and boring 10 up to 15.

They're going with the baby steps approach apparently. It's probably smarter to do that since big steps seem to be the ones the league screws up the most, however, how hard would it really be to just go back to the old way of drawing up the schedule? They did it that way for years upon years but now they need a cute little mathematical equation to get things done.

The reasoning for doing the unbalanced schedule was boneheaded from the start. The NHL thought that by having teams duking it out for the divisional crown play each other eight times in the regular season that it would help spur on rivalries and make those games the most cutthroat of them all - to create a playoff atmosphere in the regular season and get teams to really dislike each other then so that when/if they face off in the playoffs that'll REALLY set the stage for good TV....I mean, hockey action.

Funny thing about the best laid plans though... the NHL in an effort to create more rivalries like Avalanche v. Red Wings; two teams that only played a handful of times in the regular season and made their killing on each other in the playoffs. They figured on familiarity breeding contempt, and last season it looked like we'd have just that with Buffalo and Ottawa. After Chris Drury got blown up unknowingly by Sens semi-goon Chris Neil, all hell broke loose in that game as well as their follow-up game in Ottawa.

When the playoffs rolled around, the tempers had cooled because all matters had been hashed out on the ice during those regular season matchups. The result? Along with a stone-cold gameplan by the Sens to muck things up and slow down the game - there were no brou-ha-ha's, no cutthroat play and most importantly, no seven-game series chock full o' drama.

With that failed plan out of the way, now the NHL can fall back on their much hated Plan B:

Learning to market itself and its stars to all 30 cities and beyond.

Yes, I know, it's a daunting mission that the NHL tried their damnedest to avoid what with the unbalanced schedule making sure that some cities wouldn't see some superstar players for up to five or six years. Considering the bulk of the new supertalent is in the Eastern Conference and many of the hockey fanatical cities are in the Western Conference this presented the NHL with a huge problem. What good is it to have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on the same team if some Western Conference cities will only get to see them once every five or six years? They might as well be Halley's Comet.

That's where this new plan for scheduling still manages to fall short. Instead of every five or six years, these new stars may get to come around once every two (if I'm understanding the plan correctly that is). Sure, comparably that's better - but back in the good ole days, everyone got to see every city in the league.

Is that so freakin' bad? Western Conference teams don't care about the travel since they get hammered on travel as it is already. Eastern Conference teams are excited that they'll get to either go back to home cities in Canada or get to go to Los Angeles once a year to star gaze and party or visit Minnesota and find out what its like to play hockey in an American city that really gives a damn about the game.

OK so that's the only reason to be excited to go to Minnesota in winter - let's just move on.

What I like most about this move by the Board of Governors is that its a direct shot across the bow of Gary Bettman. The unbalanced schedule was his big fat stupid idea to generate false drama and interest in the game. Much like other Bettman bad ideas, this one fell haplessly short of expectations and in my idealistic mind I'd like to see that this move to reverse direction on the schedule will be the first of many reversals to bring the game back.

Of course, that's probably being way too optimistic and thoroughly unrealistic.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Suspended In Time

There have been a couple of team suspensions of note recently - one with a lot of speculation surrounding it and the other, amazingly so, isn't making more headlines for the rather disgusting way it's come about.

First off, the fluff news. Brian Burke suspended his life partner Scott Niedermayer for not appearing at training camp because he's still mulling over retirement. It makes sense, obviously, if you decide to not come to work when you're under contract (Niedermayer has two years left on his deal) you need to get punished. A lot of the fun in this story comes from the ever spotlight hungry Burke - take a look:

"Yes, he was suspended today," Ducks GM Brian Burke said during an NHL media
conference call. "I spoke with Scott to tell him he was being suspended, which
Scotty expected."

You can practically hear the heartbreak in his voice about this - like a teenager who just got dumped and is trying ever-so-desperately to win back their now lost love. It makes you pine for a viewing of American Pie doesn't it?

The initial speculation on this story from the blog and message board worlds is that this is all an elaborate ploy on their parts to cut down on the cost to employ Niedermayer. Obviously, if he shows up and is in camp, the Ducks cap space goes bye-bye. While he's suspended and being fined all while hemming and hawing about retirement, he's not exactly on the books - at least in Anaheim's mind. After all, the organization is being held hostage by the player and they have finances to worry about.

The other side of that is that they would, potentially, like Niedermayer to pull some Peter Forsberg-like type of action and just go away for a while (say... til about February) and then decide that yes, he does want to play hockey again and then the Ducks would get Niedermayer back at a vastly reduced rate for this season. It would be shrewd to say the least and I'd never put anything past Brian Burke, but this would definitely be skirting the rules, perhaps enough to even arouse the attention of Gary Bettman who doesn't seem to care about anything unless you're screwing around with the money.

Life, though, is riddled with caveats, friends, because life and/or karma may force the Ducks and Scott Niedermayer to come to a decision a lot sooner than either may have hoped. With the pre-season underway and pre-season games being what they are (read: a mine field for injuries to important starters) new Ducks defenseman Mathieu Schneider broke a bone in his left ankle in the Ducks first pre-season game against the Kings and will be out for at least a month.

This shakes up a Ducks blueline that during the Cup Finals last year was so formidible and that saw with the addition of Schneider another guy to quarterback their power play. Now, the Ducks have Chris Pronger and his band of unrenowned (Kent Huskins, Shane Hnidy, Sean O'Donnell, Maxim Kondratiev, and Joey DiPenta - yikes). Will the Ducks weather the storm for a month without Schneider or do they suck it up, make some salary-paring deals and get Niedermayer into camp? It should be interesting and add to the drama that's for sure, and it's not exactly the kind that Brian Burke feeds off of.

The other suspension this pre-season is a bit bothersome. Buffalo Sabres defenseman and NHL stalwart Teppo Numminen was suspended by the Sabres because he'll not be on the ice and skating with the rest of the team.

Not because he's holding out in a contract dispute.

Not because he wants to be traded.

Not because he's debating whether to retire and move home to Finland.

He's being suspended because he won't be on the ice thanks to having to get heart surgery.

Let me preface this in saying that thanks to the salary cap times we're in, teams are forced to do things like this (like with Numminen and also with Niedermayer, whether that's by hook or by crook regardless).

This situation just stinks because this is the third surgery that Numminen has to get to fix the valve in his heart. For just anyone this would be a tenuous time and situation, but for a professional athlete where their heart undergoes a bit more stress than us common shmoes it's of the utmost concern and urgency to get this taken care of and fixed.

The reasoning behind the suspension, frankly, just stinks.

The NHL players union confirmed that Numminen had been suspended without pay for failing to report to camp in adequate physical condition. "We are currently
reviewing this matter," NHLPA spokesman Jonathan Weatherdon said, according to the newspaper.

The Players Union should have a field day with this, and rightfully so, its bogus to suspend Numminen without pay because he has to get his heart operated on. What would the NHL rather have: a healthy, veteran doing his best to help lead his team to victory or to have that same player potentially die on the ice in practice because he can't get it fixed without getting punished by his team and the league. The answer is pretty simple here and in matters like this, the league should have a cap exemption.

Major League Baseball has a roster exemption for players who leave the team for bereavement and the NBA has an injury exemptment for their salary cap as well. In fact, the NBA goes above and beyond to allow everyone a chance at spending more money for a host of reasons. Not that that's the solution the NHL should go for here, at the very least allow for a team to not have to worry about their finances when a player is going in for heart surgery. Seems to make the most sense to me.

A lot of folks will want to blame the Sabres in this matter, and that's somewhat fair - the Sabres could look the other way and just tell Teppo to get back and get well when he can. The problem is is that there's a huge risk in doing that and with resources being a bit more scarce the closer you are to the salary cap, the Sabres have no choice whatsoever but to do what they did and have to eat the PR hit that they'll take for it.

Make no fault about it, however, it's not the Sabres who should be getting jeered over this one. I think we all know who should take the hit...

Sunday, September 9, 2007

And Now It's Time To Really Get Going

September 10th means a lot of things to a lot of people. For some, it means Monday Night Football and thanks to ESPN, that means a double-header of games that tries to ensure that most people on the East Coast miss out on a lot of football.

For others, it means the release of the College Football rankings and where their teams are landing. Even for a select few more, it means roasting the comeback of Britney Spears on MTV's Video Music Awards. For those folks, I kindly ask to move to a different webpage than this one; you'll be better off.

For those of us that live, breathe, eat, and die hockey - it means our long, continental nightmare has come to an end for the mean time. Hockey season is about to begin again. The Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings open their training camps a few days earlier than the rest of the league, mainly because these teams will be taking off for Europe to kick off the NHL Regular Season in London, England on Saturday, September 29th at 12 noon Eastern time.

The Ducks, of course, begin their season as the reigning Stanley Cup Champions while the Kings will start their season looking to build off of the youth movement behind Mike Cammalleri, Anze Kopitar and Patrick O'Sullivan. Unfortunately for the Kings, they don't have a youth movement in goal as they'll turn their Hollywood hopes on semi-permanent minor leaguer Jason LaBarbera to stop the puck.

Hey, anything that keeps Dan Cloutier out of the goal has to be a good idea.

The Ducks, in spite of being the... ugh - champs still have a lot of questions unanswered. Scott Niedermayer pulled a page out of the Roger Clemens and Brett Favre playbook and called a press conference in Anaheim to announce... that he wasn't sure about what he was going to do yet and that he may still want to play in the NHL. Teemu Selanne also hasn't expressed what he wanted to do yet, but from all accounts out of Finland, he appears content to just take it easy.

Of course, this kind of indifference means nothing. We've seen Peter Forsberg pull action like this and use it to "rest" himself up and then finally show up in Colorado to give the Avalanche a boost. It didn't lead the Avs to the title, but it did serve to pick up a team that had been a bit lethargic.

Brian Burke, however, isn't exactly the most patient guy around and he'd much rather get an answer from both Selanne and more importantly Niedermayer so that if there's any additions left to be made to help the team, he can make them without putting the team's cap space in jeopardy. After all, you can't count on either of those guys to offer a friendly discount to stick around and then ask them to bump off guys from a starting line-up that had been busting their humps all season long. That's a pretty good way to submarine clubhouse chemistry.

All is not going to be sunshine and garden variety season previews here though and I'm happy to see that The Hockey News can see what hell the Ducks winning the Stanley Cup hath brought. Soak in this little blurb from The Hockey News Ultimate Fantasy Guide 2007-2008, this came from the Buffalo Sabres team page:

If the Sabres had won their first Stanley Cup title in franchise history last season, many teams around the NHL would have likely altered their style this year in the mold of Buffalo's "Four Lines of Thunder" concept.

That didn't happen, so now it is the Sabres' turn to make alterations. The reigning Presidents' Trophy winners were the most dominant team in the regular season and the only NHL outfit to eclipse the 300-goal mark.

However, the were completely neutralized by Ottawa in the Eastern Conference final. That setback raised questions about Buffalo's ability to win low-scoring, tight-checking contests.

Part of me hopes that this isn't true, but the smart guy in me knows this assessment to be 100% correct. No one will want to mold themselves after the Sabres because "it didn't win the big one" and only helped them get regular season success and nothing in the playoffs. After all, the Presidents Trophy means you're only good when the season only kind of counts.

Instead, what will we likely have? A lot of Anaheim clones. More teams like New Jersey. More teams acting like Ottawa did against Buffalo - locking it down in a defense-only kind of game and waiting things out until its time to go on the power play. The NHL's plan was to improve the game in five-on-five situations all while enforcing the rules as they're written. Of course, the number of power play opportunities increased a lot and the amount of scoring that occurred during the man advantage grew by a lot. These things will happen.

The trend we saw in the NHL Playoffs last season, however, shows me that we're going to see more teams lean that way - especially in the Western Conference where virtually everyone plays that way already and with a team like Buffalo (who was already somewhat of an aberration playing how they did and rolling four lines consistently) losing the scoring talent they did and electing to fill from within (something that's not really a bad idea, Rochester plays the same style Buffalo does and has done very well in grooming their youth) you have to expect that Buffalo's scoring will fall off noticably.

Will Lindy Ruff change the team's style of play? I don't know, I don't believe that he will - but if he sees the writing on the wall that I think I'm seeing - it's inevitable and it will make me weep and want to kick Brian Burke, Jacques Lemaire and Lou Lamoriello in the junk.

Of course, after a display like that - Burke would want to sign me to the team. It's a delicate balance I tell ya.

Some amusing things from The Hockey News Fantasy Guide though, they predict a 128-point season from Sidney Crosby with Evgeni Malkin pulling in 98 points. This guide also predicted that last season Ilya Kovalchuk would emerge with a 110+ point season. Whoops.

They also figure Marc Savard of the Bruins to have a 100-point season. I don't know how he'll do that when he'll likely be in Claude Julien's doghouse after a couple of months. Julien is another of the defense-first, get offense if it happens kind of coaches so Savard's dislike of playing defense will drive him insane.

This guide's most amusing prediction however has to be who they think will emerge in the Stanley Cup Finals. They predict that the final four teams will be Calgary, Anaheim, Ottawa and the New York Rangers with Ottawa moving on to face Calgary and beating them in what they call, "an epic seven-game series."

And we thought an Ottawa-Anaheim final was bad for TV - if this should come true - good luck NHL selling a TV package to anyone. Yikes.