Tuesday, August 13, 2013

True Things

 It was a tough beginning to this summer for me, I've been a lucky man for many many years when it comes to the health and safety of those I love and those that they love and so on and so when Spencer got sick it threw me for a loop and then within weeks he was gone, a healthy young man in his prime, imagine that and a reminder that for all of what we collectively believe or would like to believe about karma and good things happening to good people and all that the reality is that its so much a toss of the dice in the end. Nothing good came from his passing, not one goddamned thing at all except perhaps in the time before he passed he learned how beloved he was but he would have laughed and said he'd pass on that for another fifty or forty or thirty or ten years of life I am sure.

 For myself it was a reminder, one that I could have done without, about how fragile it all is and talking with a friend who just retired a few months ago and how he had seen two folks at his work go just like that and how one can't live life like one will go tomorrow (quite frankly that would be exhausting I think) one can certainly find a balance between the day to day grind and planning for the future and the fact that we're here for a good time not a long time as the band once said.

 And so once I flew back from Calgary where I helped carry my cousin and dear friend's coffin I looked at my kids and my wife and cracked a beer and thought well you'd best live and the truth is that Spencer's passing reminded me of that too because few lived life like he did, he really did, and so while there were a few more tears here and there its been a great summer. The things that once worried me, work and money and all of that, well they've drifted away, I was never much of a worrier over that but its gone now, hopefully for good.

 We've been busy as we always are but we have seen friends and family and ate and drank probably too much and the summer hockey has been grand, well we're getting our asses kicked but its been fun, as fun as it can be when you're chasing guys half your age around the ice and then the next morning you find you can barely get out of bed. I've been playing centre all summer and I'm playing as well as I ever have and yesterday we were at dear friends here on the Island, having supper and drinks as the kids swam in the pool, having to be dragged out at 11 to go home and my buddy and I were down in the basement shooting pucks and stickhandling and laughing as here I am, 45 years old, working on getting better at a game but man its wonderful. Life is wonderful, it usually is until you get one of those awful kicks in the head and then all you can do is get up and try and carry on really and so last night one of my best friends and I laughed and drank and caught up and tried to go top corner as we bragged on our kids and talked about what has passed and what may be and it was good, it was a good night, a very good one indeed.


 I wanted to tie this all back to what I wrote earlier this summer because so much of hockey narrative is junk. I think it was Bob Johnson who said that the best coach is the guy who gets off the bus with the best players and of course he or whoever said it is right. On any given Saturday night anything can happen of course and even over the course of seven games the less talented team might beat the better one but there has never been a team of pluggers that won the Stanley Cup, even the Habs of 1993 and Canes of 2006, probably the two weakest Cup champions of the modern era had a ton of skill. Teams of plugs and grinders don't win the Stanley Cup and for the most part they don't even make the playoffs.

 But hockey narrative (and most sports narrative) insists that it is character that wins out in the end because it is a story and a story about hard work and perseverance and overcoming the odds is far more interesting than a story about how having more talent and the required dollop of luck (if Stallberg doesn't get on Datsyuk in G7 OT and hinder his shot at the last minute Chicago never makes it to round 3) wins championships.

 Watch the Olympics, especially the NBC version. Even the greatest most shoo in champions are painted as gritty underdogs, overcoming loss, tragedy, setback after setback. I could barely believe Michael Phelps won even one medal after that piece I saw about his jug ears. Heartrending stuff.

 But the truth is that the team that wins the Stanley Cup is almost always very talented, very deep, generally healthy and a bit lucky. They have great guys and probably a few jerks. They are professional hockey players so even the 'soft' ones are way tougher than any of you keyboard warriors, sorry to burst your bubble, and they all have worked their balls off to get to where they are, even the guys who are first off the ice at practice. If they didn't work hard they would not be NHL players.

 You want to know how the team that you follow will become a contender if they are not a contender right now? They will add good players and keep the good players they have right now and they will not chase 'intangibles' in place of the tangible that is talent.

 We once had a very good player who played for Capsule. He was a big centre who could skate like the wind and he could score and he was a bit soft and sometimes he was inconsistent. I play centre now. I'm a decent player. I work my ass off, I don't back down, I score a little, I do all of the little things, every game I come out and play my game and I can even drive play a bit. I am the poster boy for intangibles and our team is a lot weaker without him on it. He was a way better HOCKEY PLAYER and for all of the lovely little things that I do he would drive the play, truly drive it and the difference between him and me (and losing a few other good players and replacing them with other guys like me and aging for that matter) is that we are a good team in a division below the one we were a good team in when we had him.

 Nothing replaces good players. I think David Bolland is a solid player and David Clarkson is a wonderful story but Grabovski+MacArthur+Frattin>Bolland+Clarkson, they just are. And so when there was talk of Gagner's deal maybe not getting done earlier this summer man it got my back up here was an honest to goodness NHL centreman, just a kid still, and there was talk of getting rid of him, mostly from the usual hammerheads who think any hotshot can step out of junior or the minors and score thirty like a snap plus do everything else a pro has to do to succeed.

 I mean Jesus.

 But of course he got signed and I am very happy with the deal. Ideally it might have been a bit longer but the numbers fit the market and the club's salary structure (if anything he might be underpaid slightly in terms of the market) and he's tied up for three more years and that's good news.

 Any regular visitor here knows that my mantra when it comes to managing a hockey club is pretty straight forward. Get good players and keep them. Its as simple as that. Accumulate good players. If you have to move one out make sure to bring one back in. If you do that then sooner or later your team should get pretty good as you will end up like Chicago did, with a fourth line that included Dave Bolland and Michael Frolik. Both guys have been moved this summer, I can guarantee you that they won't be fourth liners in their new homes.

 This was the problem Craig MacTavish faced this summer. Since June 19th 2006 first Kevin Lowe and then Steve Tambellini did the exact opposite of bringing in good players and keeping them. Instead they moved out good player after good player without replacing them. That turned the team into shit and on top of that destroyed the value of many of the remaining players. Shawn Horcoff playing tough minutes with Ryan Smyth and Ales Hemsky was a guy who could add some offence to an excellent defensive game. Shawn Horcoff playing tough minutes with Patrick O'Sullivan and Jean Francois Jacques got killed. The Oilers would bring in a quality guy (Erik Cole) and then play him with Kyle Brodziak and Ethan Moreau and wonder where the offence was. They'd move him out at a discount and he'd go to a better team (they've all been better teams) and better teammates and lo and behold he would produce.

 MacTavish's problem this summer is that he had so many holes to fit its almost impossible. Keeping Gagner (and Ales Hemsky if he cannot move him) is a start. They suddenly have two quality goaltenders, a plethora of NHL defencemen for the first time in years (although a little light in top four guys still) and a good young top six up front. The bottom six looks like it may still be junk although that could be easily fixed one would think. So overall things are better. Why? Because MacTavish has added good players, replaced one good player he moved (Horcoff) with another (Gordon), upgraded the second one he moved with the Paajarvi deal (I love Magnus but Perron is quality) and kept the rest of his good players. There are fans who think moving Ales Hemsky is a good idea and the answer to that is wait, what?

 Ales Hemsky gets hurt a lot but he is still a good NHL hockey player and if you move him out for a pick then your bottom six looks like this:

Smyth Gordon Jones
Joensuu Lander Brown

That's garbage folks sorry it just is. And if Eberle or Hall goes down then what? Or if Ted isn't ready to start the season and Hall slides over to C for a month.

 Keep Ales Hemsky and Jones slides down in the order or maybe Smyth, whatever fits your world view and when someone gets hurt or slumps, someone always gets hurt or slumps well wait a second you can plug Ales Hemsky right in there.

 Good teams have options.

 Brandon Saad struggled in playoffs for a while alongside Toews and Hossa and so Bickell slid up beside them when he got hot and when he got hurt and struggled a bit then Saad moved back up again and Stallberg was up and down the lineup as well and Bolland jumped up when he was pulled out for a few games and wait what's that you say, depth matters, really I would have never guessed. And so while Chicago kept eight of their top nine forwards this season, a vast improvement over 2010, they are still a weaker team than they were two months ago because Stallberg and Bolland and Frolik are gone. Surely a kid or two will come in and get their chance and then at the deadline Bowman will probably pick up a couple of guys from somewhere because he will have to do so.

 Watch the last two minutes of game six of the Finals again. That should be required watching for every fan and columnist and anyone who has anything to do with hockey. Bickell scores and with just over a minute left to go the Bruins leave out Lucic and Krejci and Horton  and Quenneville sends Oduya and Hjalmarsson out and up front he sends out Bolland and Frolik and Kruger.

 He sends out his second D pairing and fourth line to get the team to overtime. He does what the Oilers have not been able to do for years and what the Leafs were unable to do against Boston. Instead Colton Orr was stapled to the bench and Phaneuf and Gunnarsson and Grabovski and company were run out over and over again in the last ten minutes until they had nothing left.

 And then Bolland scores and Boston calls timeout and sends out the Krejci line again and Quenneville sends the same five guys out again with the STANLEY CUP ON THE LINE. And they nurse it until Toews and Handzus and Hossa come out to finish the job.

 Get good players and keep them. Having Ales Hemsky as your third right winger is fucking awesome because it means you have two other really good RWs. Actually a healthy Ales Hemsky is probably your best right winger right now imo but your mileage may vary on that and if so that's cool. The point remains. If Nick Schultz is pushed down the depth chart that's great, that is not a slam on Nick Schultz it means that the team is better and if Schultz rebounds and makes things difficult for the coach well that's a great thing too.

 Andrew Ference got too much term but the fact is that he was a good second pairing D man on one of the best teams in the league the last few years and the number crunchers have done their thing and he's not riding coattails out there, he's the real deal. MacT added a good player and who did Ference replace? Ryan Whitney?

 Klefbom won't make the team unless he passes four other Dmen on the depth chart (they won't keep him up to sit in the pressbox). Might he beat out four of Schultz, Belov, Grebeshkov, Potter and Larssen? Sure. But again if he does that's fantastic and the other thing is there is suddenly depth there.

 The team is flawed. I don't like their depth up front even with Hemsky back, they need Smyth to rebound or Jones to step it up or Joensuu to surprise and I don't think the top four is up to snuff yet but ... but ... things are better. They are getting to the point where they need fewer and fewer things to go their way to do well. MacT has made his bets and while the Clarkson chase irks me overall he has made good bets. Its like the Belanger deal. These may not work out but based on track record of the players and the money/term shelled out to them I have no complaints. Overall its been a good summer. Ideally he'd add a LW who can check or a veteran fourth C with chops but overall its been quality.

 He's gotten some good players and kept the ones he has. That's all you need to do folks, that's all you need to do.


Calgarysux said...

Here's what you might be ignoring about Hemsky, though: he's playing out of his element on the 3rd line.

Unless the Oilers are making the 3rd line another scoring line (which they're not, otherwise why would they have gone so aggressively after Boyd Gordon).

Ales Hemsky is a complementary player who is at his best when playing with a sniper. You'd have to be an idiot to play him over Eberle or Yakupov if they're healthy, and he'll probably be playing with Jones on the 3rd line but chances are whether he passes the puck to Gordon or Jones more often than not the play will die.

You can't just have a team of snipers, you need the right mix of guys who play a more defensive role in the bottom 6 who can chip in some secondary offense. That's the flaw in your "hold onto good players and keep them" philosophy. The mixture has to be right, and having 3 scoring RWers and 1 physical/defensive guy in Mike Brown is not the right mix. Just like as you said you can't win with a team full of nothing but pluggers, you can't win with a team full of scorers, either.

Hemsky should be traded because he deserves to be traded to a team that can play him in the top 6 and he can play with guys who can optimize his game. This is not going to happen with him playing on the Oilers' 3rd line.

Just as an example, Ottawa had problems scoring last year. You're telling me we can't organize a trade with Ottawa where they give us a bottom 6 guy in exchange?

I have no problem with Hemsky the player, but he's the odd man out because he's a top 6 player playing on the bottom 6 here. IMO that's why he needs to go.

Plus, we only have $1 million and change in cap space right now. A Hemsky trade would go a long way towards giving us some breathing room and helping the bolster the biggest weakness on the team right now (the bottom 6).

Anna McCurdy said...

Just wanted to send our condolences in the loss of your beloved cousin. It is hard to lose a loved one- especially one way too soon.
It is true that you can't live like there is no tomorrow but life sure can be fragile sometime. One never fills the spaces of the loved ones who pass from this life but maybe that is as it should be. We become their torch bearers- remembering them keeps them in the lives of those who live on.
May the Oilers continue to grow in a positive way .
Wishing you and yours opportunities with friends and loved ones that bring you comfort and joy in the dog days of summer.
Anna and Bruce McCurdy

Black Dog said...

Thank you Anna, I really appreciate your kind words. I hope this summer has been a good one for you and Bruce.

Black Dog said...

Calgarysux - I have no issue with them moving Hemsky as long as they get quality to replace him, whatever that may be. But until they do its better to have him on the team than not. He's a goner and most likely it will be for a Brouwer/Ward type I would guess but until they find a fit I'm glad they have him around.

Jeff Chapman said...

Your analysis of the bottom six minus Hemsky is pretty spot on.

Would love to see another C get signed to play on 3rd, but that'd push a 3M Gordon to 4th. Hemsky's numbers are gonna suffer playing with Gordon.

But you're right, overall, better.

Black Dog said...

Jeff, I'm happy with Gordon as 3C, the idea I have floated is they might have been better off is if they kept Horcoff as 3 LW and then you have your C depth as well. Of course who knows what was going on behind the scenes and all that.

OilfaninVic said...

Love reading your posts!

Black Dog said...

thanks Vic!