Saturday, August 30, 2008

Tough Minutes

Poor Radek Dvorak. Not a goal in the spring of 2006.
Guy played an important role though. Wonder why that 2006 club went far - look at the list of guys who could handle the tough sledding:
Horcoff, Smyth, Pisani, Peca, Torres, Moreau, Dvorak, Pronger, Smith, Spacek, Staios
Playing a Detroit team that had three lines that could score the Oilers caught some luck, sure, but they had the horses that could outscore the big boys or hold their own against them. San Jose had Thornton and Cheechoo and they were outplayed by Horcoff and Smyth, Pisani's line took care of Marleau. When Anaheim came in with Selanne and a bunch of pluggers and kids we could all breathe pretty easily.
The Northwest has been bleeding some pretty good players over the past few years and the Oilers were ahead of the curve. Between June 19th 2006 and last year's training camp the Oilers said goodbye to six of the players on that list above. On top of that two Dmen they brought in who showed they could handle the tough stuff - Hejda and Tjarnqvist - came and went. Coming back - Joni Pitkanen and a youth movement. Other then that you had two soft minutes guys who came and went (Sykora and Lupul) and coming in a guy who got murdered playing the easy stuff in a weaker conference - Sheldon Souray - and another soft minutes guy in Penner.
In the comments section of this great post Vic refers to a point I made earlier this summer about this club's D.
Now I am cautiously optimistic about this year's club. I think the NW is good for two, maybe three playoff clubs and likely these teams may be the ones that stay healthy, simple as that. The good news is that the Oilers have clawed their way back into the mix after a season and a half in the dumpster. Even better news is that two of their divison mates look to be in decline and on the other two this looks to be Sakic's swan song and if Gaborik walks the Wild are going to take a fall. So the future is bright. The bad news is that the Oilers aren't the Wings - in no way are they free and clear of the division.
Back to point. 2006/2007 saw the Oilers short Pronger, Spacek, Peca and Dvorak from that list of tough minute guys. Tjarnqvist came in to play with Smith which gave them three guys on the back end rather then four to take on the Iginlas and Sakics of the world. And up front they had Smyth, Horcoff, Pisani, Torres and Moreau. Note there is just one centre there.
The Oilers held their own that autumn and were in first as late as early December iirc. Moreau had gone down early on but Pisani and Torres drove a line with Stoll so up front they had two solid lines. Tjarnqvist went down but Hejda replaced him and did the same job, maybe even better. And then Staios went down. And then that was that. Smith and Hejda and not much else on the back and then Smyth was next to go and then the summer saw Smith traded as well.
So last season the Oilers had Horcoff, Torres, Pisani and Moreau up front who could reasonably be expected to take on the toughies. And Pisani got sick and Moreau went down before a shot was fired in anger. And on the back end they had a whack of threes through fives - Staios, Pitkanen and Souray looked to be the best of them. And a bunch of kids. The results, especially early on, were to be expected but a funny thing happened on the way to Brian Burke picking up Steve Stamkos. Tom Gilbert stepped in early on and took on the tough stuff and survived. Pitkanen, a disappointment in some areas, did the job in his own end. Shootout victories kept them going and then Gagner, Nilsson and Grebeshkov began to make things happen in a positive way. The kids stepped up and they got a number of bounces and they survived.
So going into this season who can handle the tough stuff? The good news is that the Flames said goodbye to Tanguay, Huselius and Nolan and brought in Cammelleri and Bertuzzi. The Wild let Demitra and Rolston go and brought Brunette in. The Avs lost Brunette, Sauer, Finger and Theodore and brought in nobody of note. The Canucks replaced Morrision and Naslund with Demitra and Bernier. Everyone took a step back.
I feel pretty good about running out what the Oilers have against what the Flames have with one exception - as Vic pointed out - game 78 of the season, trying to get to the playoffs, leading by one with two minutes left and Iginla comes over the boards. Who do you send out to stop him? Remember last season when the Avs knocked the Oilers out? Jarret Stoll losing own zone draw after own zone draw. Kids everywhere trying to stop Joe Sakic.
So there's good news and bad news - good news is top through bottom the Oilers have depth up front and on the back end. Even the 2006 club had the old Chinese fire drill going on in their own end when Bergeron and Greene and got out there. This year's club is likely going to have Smid and Visnovsky as their third option at evens to start - pretty solid. And up front they are one player away from having a solid half dozen to run out there - maybe it will be Brodziak or Pouliot or Cogliano down the road but this season its going to get dicey at times. The problem is who gets the Iginlas, Sakics, Datsyuks etc on the back end.
That's the question.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Lets Go You Oilers!

Summer is almost over and training camp is just around the corner and here come the hockey previews and their predictions.

Both have the Oilers making the playoffs, sold by the kids' rush to the finish last season I would guess.

Predictions are a mug's game. Last season I predicted all eight Western playoff teams correctly but only picked four in the East. Two years ago I picked the Oilers to finish around sixth, figuring that they would pick up a defenceman or two. That was the year THN picked them to finish 13th and the writer, Adam Proteau, crowed when the Oilers failed miserably in the spring. Of course that team, while flawed, collapsed when injuries ravaged the roster, especially the thin back end. Proteau boasting about his pick shows that some waters certainly don't run deep but that's no surprise.

Hopes are high amongst Oiler fans and for good reason:

1/ The additions of Visnovsky and Cole make this team a better one.
2/ Penner will be in better shape.
3/ Fernando is healthy.
4/ Last year's team was ravaged by injuries - this may happen again but maybe not.
5/ The kids will likely be better. Some may take a step back but its likely we will see a lot trend upwards, especially considering a few more vets in there to help shelter them.
6/ No more rookies unlike last year when the roster was riddled with them.

Detroit is in and we know that it is likely that the big three in the Pacific are golden as well. That leaves four spots for the Northwest clubs, Chicago, Nashville and Phoenix. Phoenix won't make it - they are a year away I would say. The Ducks are fading but this is their last kick at it and the Yotes' eighteen games against them, the Sharks and the Stars are going to leave the Gretzkys out of it.

So four spots for seven teams. The Oilers are going to be better, I think everyone can agree on that. The key is that many of their opponents are weaker. The Avs are in trouble in net and have lost a terribly underrated guy in Sauer. If Sakic is gone then I think they have to take a step back. The Flames said goodbye to two of their top six forwards - Tanguay and Nolan>Cammilleri and Bertuzzi. On D the Flames have gone from having a terrific young D a few years back to having a suspect one. And a malaise seems to be settling in on the West Coast.

The Wild are the team that most are picking to win the division with Brunette and Zidlicky coming in while Demitra and Rolston are out. What they have going for them are young guys like Koivu and Burns and the system that seems to have them in the mix every year. Like Jersey and Nashville they are always competitive, no matter who is in and who is out.

So the Oilers have two possibilities. First or second in the division, as predicted by these magazines, and they are in. Third and they are in the mix for the eight seed. Fourth or fifth and they are done.

They have holes; we all know that. The thing is everyone else does too. The Flames are thin up front, on the back end and they don't have a lot of guys to play the tough minutes. The Canucks will have trouble scoring - their forwards are just poor. The Avs have a nice looking back end and are pretty solid up front too but their goaltending is weak and if Sakic is out then there goes the guy who makes that team go.

Personally I will wait to make my calls on the season but for the first time in three seasons I think the Oilers have a legitimate shot to play when it counts.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Youth Will Be Served

Was out for a couple of quick pints with an old friend Friday afternoon and we got to talking about the Olympics.
I'm a big fan. I prefer the Winter Games which are a little more streamlined then the monstrous Summer Games. If I were Olympic czar I would probably eliminate about half of the "sports" but then again I'm a crank. If I were King of the NHL I would eliminate half of the teams. If I were Emperor of Canada the first guy under my watch going over the speed limit in a residential area would be executed in the street. I wouldn't fuck around.
There's a lot of bullshit with the Olympics. The politics. The hypocrisy. The crooked judging. The kowtowing to advertisers and NBC. Having said that I dig it. Big time. I watch it 24/7. Nothing like it and yeah, a lot of it is basic jingoism. I get a charge out of Canadian successes.
So, I was having a pint and discussing the Games with my buddy, who happens to be the most athletic person I know. Another friend of ours, a doctor, describes him as a physiological freak of nature. Plays contact hockey with kids half his age (he's 41) and dominates. Plays soccer, football and whatever else he can. The type of guy who will pull on his sneakers for his local 5K and blow everyone away. Then he puts them away until next year.
The point of all of this is that he knows sports. Discussing last week's uproar over Canada's lack of medals he snorted derisively about those who were running down our team. His points were simple:
- an injury, any type of injury, that effects training almost certainly will lead to failure; it affects fitness and preparation and if either is off a bit then there is almost no chance for success. The fact that a guy like Shewfelt could even compete was a miracle. Other failures that we saw over the weekend - Paula Radcliffe and the American sprinter Gay. You have to be 100%. If not failure will result in nearly every instance.
- the fact that someone was World Champion the year prior or Olympic champ four years ago or the winner of an event has no bearing on the event today. A guy could win a World Cup ski event in 2009 - so what? Other skiers are gearing towards 2010. One might be trying new skis. Another might be a little hungover. The winner may have had the race of his or her life. Watch the Olympics and see how many repeat winners there are. You have a freak like Phelps and there are others but when Grant Hackett, one of the greats, is trying to be the first to win three straight 1500s then it puts it into perspective
- people who aren't at that level (and I hate this argument because Tie Domi used to always use it) have not the foggiest clue of what it takes. People who look at Mike Brown's great semifinal swim and then say he choked because he did not replicate it in the final are idiots. If you are not a part of it then you cannot fathom it.
Anyway just one man's opinion but an interesting one. I'm not much of an athlete but what he told me confirmed a lot of what I believe to be common sense.
So what does all of this have to do with the Edmonton Oilers? As usual its a tenuous connection but hell its August, we have a new baby and I just finished two weeks of vacation. I can be forgiven. Right? (sound of crickets chirping)
The Canadian swim team once was a pretty terrific one. Alex Baumann and Victor Davis were two of the alltime greats. Remember Anne Ottenbrite? She tore it up in LA in 1984. At the time commentators suggested asteriks go beside many of the results (though not Baumann and Davis) - of course history's revelation of the systemic doping in the Eastern Bloc tells us that the asteriks belong elsewhere. Relay medals were common in every Games for Canadian swimmers and there were usually a couple of individual medals as well.
Then things went wrong (much like another proud program, the ski team). Politics has been blamed. Neglect set in. Excuses were made and in Athens the program hit bottom.
Baumann returned from Australia and now we can see progress has been made. I'm not talking about all of the Canadian records. The new suits are causing records to fall everywhere. I'm talking about the long list of young Canadians who made the finals. I'm talking about 19 year old Ryan Cochrane picking up a bronze medal and about youngsters like Julia Wilkinson and AnnaMay Pierse rising from out of nowhere in the last two years to being in the finals in these Games.
One medal does not sound like much but I remember when rowing and canoeing were nowhere, when Canada picked up less then a half dozen medals in the Winter Olympics, when cross country skiers set Canadian records and finished 73rd, when the bobsled team finished way up the track, so to speak.
It takes time and Canada's swimmers are getting there.
People forget that it takes time. Its the times. When a teenager or twenty one year old is a millionaire and hasn't stepped onto the ice in the NHL, hasn't thrown a pass, taken a jumpshot or stepped up to the plate in the majors, well then everything gets skewed. We expect these kids to emerge fully formed as pros and Hall of Famers and gold medallists like Athena from Zeus' head.
It happens - Crosby and Gretzky and your teenagers who win medals from nowhere. But they are the exception.
In the past summer I have read comments about how Cogliano will never be a shutdown centre, how Tom Gilbert has plateaued, how Ales Hemsky should be traded because he has reached his ceiling. Penner, Grebeshkov, Smid, Greene, Stoll, Pouliot, Brodziak, Glencross - to name many current and former Oilers. All relatively young and inexperienced. All of them dismissed as players who cannot do the job, will never improve, have peaked.
Now in some cases this will be true but history tells us that experience and maturity and proper preparation will mean that many of these players will improve, some by leaps and bounds. The number of greats who were dismissed early on is a lengthy one - Lafleur, Neely, Esposito - it goes on and on.
This is going to be an interesting year for the Oilers. They are making strides in the right direction but presently they are the Canadian swim team. They are young and they are going to make mistakes and its frustrating at times but you know what? In a couple of years (likely just about the time Nick Lidstrom begins to slow down) this may be a beautiful thing.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Summer of Kev *

* With a tip of the hat to The Chief

There hasn't been an uneventful summer in Edmonton in years and Kevin Lowe did not disappoint again this year. The good news is that before Lowe was bumped up the ladder he had looked like he regained his mojo in July of 2008. Not as good a summer as three years ago when he brought in Pronger and Peca but certainly far better then the past two summers when the team he created went into camp with big holes. This team has good balance everywhere and while there are questions here and there for the most part Oiler fans should be pretty happy with what Lowe did in his last month as Oilers GM.

To recap:

1/ Acquiring a PP QB and top four Dman in Lubomir Visnovsky. Oiler fans were coveting this guy before the Kings signed him to an extension. Not a great year last season but the Kings were brutal. Should help upgrade an Oilers' PP that seemed to turn the corner in efficiency last season. Also excellent first pass. This team looks to be building itself as a quick strike transition team and Visnovsky will help that. Acquired for a guy who had three goals at ES last season (one into an empty net) despite playing with Penner and Hemsky for a time and a guy who was getting passed by on the depth chart by player after player. Matt Greene might become a player and Stoll might rebound but Visnovsky is a veteran and a quality player.

2/ Picking up Erik Cole. Cole is the top six forward Lowe promised. With his arrival the Oilers have a legitimate top nine forwards for the first time since the '06 run. Unlike last year where raw rookies or Sanderson and Reasoner were asked to step into roles that they couldn't handle this season will see Moreau or Brodziak or both on the fourth line. That's a good thing. This team has depth up front. Cole is physical, fast, can score and can play the tough minutes. Too bad that it cost them Joni Pitkanen and Cole is UFA after this season but Joni wasn't a fit.

3/ Remaking the team culture. Joni, like Stoll and Torres, had serious issues with consistency. With the cap you have to carry kids and you have to be able to rely on your vets, even the young ones, to bring effort every night. Joni couldn't be relied upon and Stoll and Torres underperformed to the point where they were healthy scratches on a team that didn't have twelve NHL forwards at the time. I recognize the value of all three players but I think that with a young team you want to have your vets lead by example. I liked Raffi Torres but his head wasn't always in the game. You can't afford to have a guy on your team like that especially when he's surrounded by kids. I know words like chemistry and intangibles drive some guys nuts but I think that these moves may be cases where the phrase addition by subtraction may apply for those very reasons.

4/ Locking up Tom Gilbert, Robert Nilsson and Shawn Horcoff longterm. No Smyth drama for the Oilers' best allround player also sent the message to the long suffering fans that finally this team will try to keep its star players. Add into this a deal for the terrific young defenceman and the young winger who turned the corner in the spring and its good work for Lowe. Next summer brings Cole, Garon and Grebeshkov as the challenges but Lowe cut the possible headaches in half with his work this July.

5/ Getting the salary structure back in order. Dumping Stoll and Torres and even Greene rid the team of three guys who were underperforming. As I said I recognized the value Torres had as a 5 on 5 player, guy was tough to score on. But 2.25 for him and over 2 for Stoll - thats too much dough for two guys who don't bring enough to the table.

6/ Not giving away any of the prize kids for a quick fix.

7/ Keeping his head (sort of) in the UFA market. Unlike last year when he overpaid for a mediocrity Lowe went after the biggest fish and when that failed he looked at Jagr shortterm. Neither worked out (and if Hossa was a nine year deal that may be for the best) but compare what he did with the money thrown at Jeff Finger, Michael Ryder and so on. Sometimes what you don't do is as important as what you do and Lowe apparently had a good plan and did not panic when it did not pan out.

Was it perfect? No. Giving up Torres rankles some, which I understand though I don't agree with them. It would have been nice if Cole had longer then a year on his deal. Keeping Glencross probably would have been a good idea. There are still questions about goaltending, team toughness and who on this team takes on the tough minutes. It would be nice if they had a cheap Dman who could play the tough minutes and come out smelling like roses, like that Jan Hejda guy.
But overall in his last month on the job Lowe kept this team pointing in the right direction. They took a step forward while the rest of the division looks to have stepped back and they likely will compete for a playoff spot this season.

Lowe was golden in 05-06 and lousy in the two years following, imo. He got the flak for the last two seasons; he deserves credit for some good work this summer.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

One Step Back and Two Steps Forward

During the lockout I began to follow Premier League soccer and chose Tottenham Hotspur as my team. Just as Ryan Smyth was a major impetus in my becoming an Oilers' fan, so was Irish striker Robbie Keane, who I recalled from his heroics against Germany in 2002, a big reason for me deciding to cheer for the Spurs. A few years along and I follow Spurs still, catching them when I can, also watching Champions' League, Euro and World Cup. The big stuff. I'm a casual fan.

Tottenham is a club with a long storied history who have failed to live up to that glorious past recently. Sound familiar? Although Spurs history goes back to 1882, a little longer then the Oilers. Recently however, a disturbing pattern had emerged at White Hart Lane. Young players come and then are sold to bigger clubs once they become prominent and the club meanders about the middle of the league, a once great club now a mediocrity.

In the last few years however there was a change with Spurs. They came close to breaking into the top four of the English league and began to make strong advances in the European club tournament that they qualified for the past two seasons. Young and flashy, they looked to be a team on the rise, a team to break the hold that giants Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea have on English soccer. At the centre of this uprising was Keane, a player who might not rank amongst the elite of the game but was definitely a player of high quality. In low scoring soccer nearly every goal is a "big goal" but Keane has the reputation as a game breaker, the player who scores near the end of the game when the result is in doubt or who scores the lone goal in a 1-0 game. A terrific player, not amongst the greatest the game offers, but a player in the next echelon, imo.

If you are still reading this (I know that soccer causes eyeglazing among many), even if you are not a fan of soccer, if you are ever overseas I highly recommend going to a match if you can. My wife and I went to White Hart Lane two years ago and it was the experience of a lifetime. Really cannot be beat.

Anyhow with Keane one of the constants the Spurs have had a nice run the last few years, culminating in a League Cup title this season. In the Premier League there are three possible trophies to be won. The regular season title and two tournament titles - the FA Cup and the League Cup. With the big four teams its pretty difficult to take any honours but Spurs thumped their greatest rivals Arsenal in the semifinal 5-1 (imagine the Oilers beating the Flames by ten goals in a huge game) and then took down Chelsea in the final to win this year's League Cup and guarantee a third lucrative year in Europe.

So here we have a team on the rise, looking to return to past glories, led by a popular and charismatic player. And last week that player was moved to Liverpool, a team Spurs are chasing for one of the top four spots in the league, for a hefty sum of cash. Liverpool wanted Keane and approached Tottenham with an offer. Of course this info filtered to Keane. A month ago he was saying he felt he would end his career with Tottenham. Now with the opportunity to play for one of the top teams in England (and Europe), a team in contention for trophies year after year, and to reportedly double his salary, Keane went for it. The deal was made.

The club's supporters are divided between those who see the move as same old same old Spurs and those who support the club and call Keane a greedy liar. And then there are those in between.

The manager says Keane was terrific but Spurs policy is to replace players with players who are younger and also better.

For me as a Spurs fan its a bitter pill. I don't blame Keane although he should have kept his mouth shut. Then again, he probably never thought he'd be a candidate to get moved. Anyways I don't blame him. Since the 80s they have won three honours, in 91, in 99 and now this past season. Talk swirled around the club this summer about Berbatov (in the picture above with Keane, arms outstretched), their other terrific striker, getting moved. If I am Robbie Keane and I look at this club, I wonder if this past year was the start of something good or, if Berbatov is on the move for cash, if this may be the only trophy I ever win with Spurs.

Instead he goes to a club that is always in the mix, in England and in the European Champions' League, a team for whom money is no object. And his salary gets doubled.

An athlete plays for three reasons, imo - to win, to make money and to be happy, with one and two contributing to number three. Robbie Keane has hit the jackpot.

Now in fairness to Tottenham they are spending the money they received for Keane but they have gotten younger and its pretty likely that this upcoming season will see the club take a step backwards, especially if Berbatov is moved to Manchester United, as is rumoured. If they do take a step back then there will be no European tournament and thus less money and the club may have to sell other valuable players. You can see where this can go. Spurs are gambling that the kids they bring in to replace Keane and other veterans they have moved will be better and that they can improve what they have done the past few years.

Maybe five years from now Spurs' fans look back on a nice run and realize that moving Keane was the right idea. I sure hope so although I'm not sure why a guy good enough to play for Liverpool is not good enough to play for Spurs. This guy has been the constant in the success they have had recently. He's in his prime. It doesn't make sense to me but then again I'm a casual fan.

I find the parallels to the Oilers and Ryan Smyth interesting although of course there are many differences. Lowe knew that moving Smyth would be unpopular and would set the Oilers back. Fans were split over the move, just as Spurs fans are. A lot of Oilers' fans chose to villify Smyth. A lot feel Lowe can do no wrong.
Lowe was right on both counts but now the Oilers' arrows seem to point in the right direction, just a couple of years later. Those in favour of the trade point to Smyth's poor year last year, the direct return for Smyth, Robert Nilsson, and what many claim is another result, Sam Gagner, to show that Lowe was right. The Gagner connection drives me bananas but I'll leave it.
Lowe is looking better right now although this team hasn't won anything yet but I'm hoping that a few years from now Horcoff is skating the Cup around the ice and we look back and realize that the heartbreak was worth it.
And I think in North London they may be feeling the same way.
In both cases though I think that those who have gone before will make it a little bittersweet.