Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Best Game You Can Name

When I was growing up in Sudbury I knew a lot of serious hockey families, they would have a couple of boys, maybe in AA or AAA. Back then hockey began in the fall and ran through to spring and then it was done. Nobody played summer hockey, they played ball or soccer or they just went up to camp and hung out by the lake. A good way to do it. During the winter though, man, they would be at rinks every night of the week, that was just the way it was between practices and games. I coached Select and then A here in Toronto for a few years and we would get on the ice three times a week, for a couple of years I coached both a houseleague and a Select team and so it was five times a week. It was pretty hectic but I loved it.

 We're not a hockey family. I play once, sometimes twice a week, year round and for ten weeks of the winter I play shinny as well once a week. Its my sport of choice and so as you know because you read my hockey blog I follow it, if not as closely as I once did, pretty closely nonetheless. But my wife doesn't play and neither daughter is interested although our oldest is kicking around the idea of ball hockey in the spring and the girls will come out and play a bit of road hockey with us now and then. Even the boy is a bit of a late bloomer. He played his first season last year and he loved it but whereas I grew up watching Hockey Night in Canada and spent my winters playing shinny or road hockey he is just coming around to this now.

 This past week though, we were a hockey family.

Saturday September 21 9:30am

Mid morning of my eldest's tenth birthday the phone rang and it was a friend of ours. They are a hockey family. Oldest son is nine and playing AAA, second son is seven and following in the brother's footsteps. We don't see them anymore, I see the Dad at shinny now and then but we are busy and they spend every evening in rinks all over Toronto and so its been probably a year or so and they live ten minutes away. Crazy. Anyhow he is a lawyer and a bank he does work with had ten box seats for the Sunday game with Les Sabres and after them and a neighbour they had three left. I've been to plenty of games but Jenn has never seen a Leafs' game and neither have the kids so I said sure we'll take the three and of course everyone was pretty excited about that.

Saturday September 21, 10-11pm

I hate getting to a game late, even though its just beer league I tend to get nervous before games and having to rush just makes me unhappy. When I left for McCormack Arena, a tiny closet of a rink dropped right in the middle of a Parkdale residential area, I had plenty of time even with the Gardiner shut down. Usually a twenty minute trip took me twice that and so I walked into the room just as the game before us wound up. To add to my agitation we had seven skaters, including me, and our goalie was a guy who had played D for us a couple of years back (great guy, all the tools, ten cent head) but who I had heard was taking up goaltending despite being forty or thereabouts. A guy poked his head in and asked us if we needed more skaters and our captain said 'no' and man I hate that, there's no fun in having seven or eight guys, you end up exhausted and while we've won a few like that usually you hang on for dear life and then get pounded once you run out of gas. We had another guy coming and he figured that was enough but when we stepped out and saw that our opposition had fourteen skaters and they were young to boot he turned around and accepted the offer.

 This is the Exclaim league, we play a half dozen games through the year to prep for the Easter tournament. Its an open division so the opposition ranges from being really good to really bad. The team we were facing is a better team and word is they've brought in some ringers despite the whole idea of the league being as rec as rec gets. The game started as expected, they came on and they got a softie and soon after they got another and while we were hanging in there until reinforcements came it was pretty grim. Early in the second their best player went through everybody and our goalie ... fell over. He flipped it into the empty net. We were down three when we finally reached our full compliment of nine skaters.

 And then ... we took it to them. The rest of the game we outplayed them by a good margin and scored in the second and then again with just over thirty seconds left. And then somehow (well its beer league) we ended up with a three on two and I found our Dman on the far side, hit him with a sweet pass and he waltzed in all alone. I was preparing to ride my stick to centre or leap into the glass and then he, who probably has the best hands on the team or close to it, watched the puck trickle off his stick. I don't even know if he got a shot. Game.

 It was worth it though to see the look on the other team's faces when helmets came off revealing grey and bald and then to add insult to injury our goalie (he didn't play all that bad to be honest) in conversation with their goalie let it be known that this was the third game he had ever played. It was pretty funny, you could see them looking at each other, we barely beat THESE fucking guys.

Sunday September 22 2-3pm

We won our first game the week before against the closest we have to a rival in our league and so we were feeling pretty good about ourselves. Early days in beer league are interesting because there are new teams and you don't know what you're going to get. Last year we finished third in a ten team league, a point out of second, three out of first. We were in the mix and the two teams who finished ahead of us last season were 1-1 and 0-1-1 after their first two games so a win would give us an early jump.

 It was a new team that we were playing,  they had tied another new team and so the question was were they both good or both bad. Turns out they're both pretty bad I think. These guys had a couple of solid defencemen and a nice centreman but other than that they weren't all that great. We were missing probably our three best forwards and we took care of business essentially.

 Up 2-0 and I headed out to kill a penalty. Our Dman got control and I broke for open ice but he didn't see or hear me and so he iced it. Out came the goalie to play it. He could have fired it up the boards or dumped it into either corner or fallen on it but instead he froze. Completely. And so I took the puck from him and scored the first wraparound shortie of my long career.

 Went back to centre, pushed the puck to their blueline and went after their Dman. He fumbled it, stumbled and as I picked it off of him he got enough of me that I did the old Bobby Orr as I got the shot off.

 No goal but if I had scored two shorties in ten seconds or whatever it was that might have been that moment where I picked up the puck, waved to the bench and gone straight to the room. Hang em up, you'll never beat that.

 They scored one late on a beerleague backcheck to break the shutout and we answered a minute later, awake again and so it was 4-1, tied for first early days.

Sunday September 22, 6:30-10:00pm

 I told Jenn to get the kids there early enough to see the warmup and she did. I thought box seats were, you know, a box, but it turns out they were four rows from the ice, directly across from the Sabres' bench. The game was, well lets just say they will probably never see a better game (and probably not from seats like that unless we start saving now). Preseason but the Leafs iced a real lineup. There were eight goals and a line brawl with a goalie fight and when they came home, wide eyed, my son told me about how between periods they stood where the players walk out to the ice and 'Phil Kessel shook my hand'. And so he now has a favourite player (he likes Hemsky and Hossa and Crosby but nothing compares to this experience) and possibly a new favourite team.

Wednesday September 25, 6pm

 I've been roller blading to and from work for most of the summer and the fall, I think its ten miles or so round trip. Have been watching what I eat and cutting back on the beer since Labour Day too, my cardio has been great but have packed on the pounds. Weighed myself Wednesday. Seven pounds down since the first of September. Pretty happy.

 Got home, hot tired sweaty, boy says 'Hey lets play road hockey'

 Some day, soon, he won't. So we, along with our youngest, passed the ball around for forty five minutes until dinner was ready. Best times.

Thursday September 26, 5pm

 My neighbour, also a good friend and Capsule teammate, texted me. The boy's birthday is coming up and we were looking at a net. He was at Costco and found a quality one and did I want it and yes please. The boy will love it and I know another guy who needs to work on his shot. I believe the term is muffin.

Saturday September 28, 8am

 First practice for the boy, once again my good friend is coaching him. Was talking to Mark and he said I don't think we have much of a team and I thought hm, your son scored two goals in the championship game (3-1 win) as a 7 year old in a 7/8 league and the other coach's son was pretty good as a seven year old as well, I think they might do okay.

 Of course I was most interested in my boy. He went to a week of hockey camp and there's been the road hockey and while he loved playing last year I was hoping that his skating might have improved to the point that he might be a bigger part of what's going on. And so after a half hour they scrimmaged and it turns out coach was wrong. The two boys mentioned as well as a third basically did what they wanted. If they were keeping score it would have been something like nine or ten nothing.

 As for the hero of our story ... the other club got their only sniff when one of their guys broke in alone, only to be caught and dispossessed by SOME GUY NAMED MCLEAN. Next shift the puck was behind his net and he swept in, took it off his opponent, carried it to the hashmarks and head manned it.

 Tape to tape. The boy can make and take a pass and he doesn't fuck around, he fires it.

 Moments later he picked up a loose puck and juked around a couple of guys as he raced through the neutral zone.

 After the scrimmage I said 'how was it' and he smiled and said quietly 'I had the puck. A lot.'


Saturday September 28th, 6:30-10 pm

Friday night grimly a self absorbed internet gangster messaged me and asked if the boy and I would be up for a Leafs' game Saturday night. I tracked down a sitter and so for the second time in his life and in a week the boy got to see the Leafs. We walked from Union Station with the blue shirted crowd, past a woman playing a fiddle like her life depended it and I told my son about how my father and I went to a few Leafs' games back at the Gardens and how the walk to the arena after a steak dinner and a couple of beers, past the scalpers and hobos and musicians and sausage carts, was one of my favourite parts of the whole experience.

 Both teams iced AHL lineups for the most part but it was a fun game, Reilly looked superb, great vision and hands and like any offensive Dman is wont to do, got caught up ice a couple of times. Reimer looked good. Colton Orr flubbed a perfect pass on a two on one. It was fun, we had great seats and of course Tyler and Amanda are great company. Tyler showed the boy a video of Yak's celebration last season and we talked about our upcoming trip to Europe and their own trips over to watch soccer and we sang along to the hockey song and it was very fine. Jack fell asleep on the subway on the way home and as we walked home in the warm dark night he turned to me and asked when he could get a Leafs' jersey.

 Fack me.

Sunday September 27th, 2-3pm

Capsule again. This is my son's teacher's team and I realized quickly that he's not the diving guy I spent a good part of last season telling to 'GET UP OFF THE FUCKING ICE!'

We played this team three times last season. They have a bunch of French Canadians on the team including two brothers, one of whom is the best player in the league. Buddy can skate, dangle, make plays and he has a heavy accurate shot. We split our first two games last year and then the third time we played them he wasn't there and we murdered them.

 We carried the play early and their goalie was up to the task but we're the better team and so we scored one and then we got another and then a third. I've been on the other side of it, they stuck with us, they're a good team but we were better and so after a while the shots start going in, a good bounce here, a good bounce there. They might beat us but they will need a lot to go right for that to happen.

 For the first third of the game or so my line didn't face their star and I was happy with that but after a while we began picking up a bit of their shifts until suddenly it was us against them and so it was for the rest of the game. It was tough slogging, I spent a good part of the game keeping an eye on him and trying to cut him off before he got going and somehow, somehow we did it. Our goalie saved our bacon a couple of times but at the end of the game we were a plus one, no goals against, outchanced them even and while they scored with about six minutes left they never got a sniff at the end even with a power play.

3-1 Capsule. Tied for first. A good start for the best guys.

Hockey. Best.


The East remains the junior circuit, Bettman's parity is slowly eroding the powerhouses out west but there are still four teams that are head and shoulders above anything the east can offer. Not to say that the Stanley Cup might not come back east, in a seven game series anything can happen, a team can get lucky (Carolina), ride a hot goalie and Shawn Thornton (Boston) or run into a club riddled with injuries to key players (Pittsburgh) but the reality is that the eastern teams are smaller and slower and not as deep as the big boys out west.

 That said the eastern conference is probably the more interesting of the two. There is no team head and shoulders above the rest except for the Penguins and we all know that their goaltending is garbage. They might run and gun to the conference championship in the regular season and a first round win over an eighth seed but as soon as they hit the big boys things will fall apart. Beyond the Pens it seems most of the rest of the conference playoff seeds seem pretty clear, though fluid, with a handful of clubs fighting for the final spot. Injuries and the unexpected may throw things for a loop but I'm pretty confident that things will suss out as follows or at least relatively close to this:

Sure Things

Pens - This club reminds you of the Pens clubs of twenty years ago in a way, its top heavy as hell. The problem for this club is that while those teams ran out Lemieux, Francis, Jagr, Tocchet and Stevens in the top six as well as some decent D and a reasonable goaltender in Tom Barrasso, this team is even more top heavy. Kunitz and Dupuis are nice players but they're not in the same conversation as Crosby, Malkin and Neal and after them the dropoff is severe. Their Cup winner had Staal, Kennedy, Cooke and Talbot in the bottom six, this team has Sutter and not a lot else. The D is shoddy and with Vokoun done its Fleury or nothing for the Pens. The crazy thing is that the talent up top was enough to help the Pens run away and hide last year and this year may be more of the same. But their goaltending, D and depth up front will get exposed in the playoffs.

Habs - The Habs are one of those clubs that you look at and wonder if its mirrors sometimes but their roster is pretty solid. Subban is a superstar and they have enough guys like Plekanec and Eller who can do the heavy lifting so that the kids (and Danny Briere) can kill the softs. Injuries blew the club apart last spring so its hard to say if they are a team that can come out of the east although one suspects that if Price provides them with good goaltending and they are healthy then they will be in the mix.

Bruins - Two trips to the Finals in three years, the Bruins are the team I'd pick to come out of the conference again this year except their depth has taken a hit. Horton, Seguin, Peverley, Jagr and Ference are all gone, replaced by Eriksson and Iginla and unprovens for now. Chara isn't getting any younger and so you know Chiarelli will being in reinforcements in the spring if the youth isn't up to the task. The edge the Bruins have had for years now is that aforementioned depth and as often happens the beginning of the end for a contender is when that depth starts to take a hit. That said they will be in the mix again and are a shoo in to make the playoffs.

Wings - Detroit leaves a division that included Chicago and St. Louis, two of the best teams in the league, and comes east and I expect they're going to tear it up. They aren't your older brother's Wings but they came the closest to knocking Chicago off last spring. In two years or so they are going to be fucked, they're all getting old, all of them, but Datsyuk and Zetterberg are going to eat the east alive and Babcock will get the most out of a roster that looks like a bit of a hodgepodge in places to be honest.

Sens - Ottawa had a quality year despite being ruined by injuries last season and I think the addition of Ryan, good health and a step forward from their raft of quality kids will actually put them into the conversation when it comes to contenders this season. I rate MacLean as a quality coach and they have very good goaltending and strength up the middle. A team on the rise even if you can't name half of their players.

Caps - Washington started slowly and then got rolling last season and I expect them to have a good year. The addition of Grabovski is going to help a lot and their lineup is deep pretty everywhere you look, not sure if they are a true contender but I suspect that they are.

In The Conversation

That's four teams in the Atlantic and two in the Metropolitan what the fuck oh right its the NHL. (Had a conversation at the boy's practice this morning, one of his buddies asked why the Sabres' coach got a fine for leaving John Scott on the ice last Sunday, all we could say is 'because its the NHL'. Mickey Mouse right down to the red pants with the big brass buttons). Anyhow another team from the I can't even say it division has to make the playoffs. My guess is the two remaining clubs will come from this group of four and the teams that end up out of it will probably be the least healthy of the lot.

Islanders - these guys have the inside track, they are a team on the rise and one suspects with some goaltending they might have beaten the Pens last spring. Indeed if I were an Islanders' fan (are there any Islanders' fans?) that would be my biggest concern. They have enough up front and on the back end and Tavares is unreal. But the goaltending ...

Rangers - the Rangers have Lundqvist and if Staal can recover then I really love their top four D and while a lot of their forward corps is more sizzle than steak they still have a lot of quality there. And I like Vigneault a lot, I like him more than Tortorella, I think he can get more out of this club. Really hard to see them missing the playoffs to be honest.

BJs (heh) - Wow Columbus really is a bunch of no names for sure, other than Gaborik, talk about your anonymous bunch. But they fell just short of the playoffs in a tougher conference last year and they added Nathan Horton. On the other hand they were a bit lucky last year and do we expect Bobrovsky to repeat his numbers from last season. Then again they were in a division with St. Louis, Detroit and Chicago and now they are not.  So yeah I have no idea.

Leafs - The Leafs were super lucky last year and they got rid of their best centre, two decent top nine options and a quality fourth line player. In came David Clarkson, Dave Bolland and Mason Raymond as well as Paul Ranger on the back end.

 I think the Leafs don't make the playoffs if its a level playing field and I am pretty confident that Carlyle will screw things up (he's already grumbling about Gardiner and one must remember that the Leafs didn't put their best lineup together until, what, game four against the Bruins?) but with that said their D is a pretty reasonable group one through six and they have a nice set of wingers in the top nine and Phil Kessel is one of the best players in the league. There's not a lot going on behind them in the standings so if a team or two above them falters then I think the Leafs might make it. The problem for them is the loss of Grabovski turns a strength (centre) into a weakness. Remember that Dave Bolland lost his job to MICHAEL HANDZUS and was a fourth liner in Chicago who could not produce offence playing with PATRICK KANE. And then you have Kessel's comfort goat, Tyler Bozak, also know as a poor man's Matt Stajan. I picture Carlyle making a mess of this with his 'system' and insistence on playing a couple of goons every night and Kessel, Kulemin, Reimer and Phaneuf all being gone by next June. We worry about a lack of depth with the Oilers, the Leafs have nobody who can move into their top nine forwards after McClement. Nobody. Think about that. And a poor possession team got rid of some good possession guys with speed. LoLeafs.


There's a real drop off after the top ten teams.

Devils - New Jersey finished in last place in their division last year and then lost Kovalchuk and Clarkson, its up to Patrik Elias, one of the great underrated players of his generation, Adam Henrique and a bunch of nobodies. I've never liked the Devils, ever, maybe this season will lead them to folding, a man can hope.

Flyers - Watching Holmgren try and build a contender is sheer entertainment, every year he throws money at flawed aging players, every year the team takes another step backwards. They really have some wonderful players up front but their best two D are on LTIR and pushing 40 and whoever thought Steve Mason was the answer in goal is well I have no words for that one really. Unless Ray Emery's magic hip can withstand 75 games of 35 shots plus then the Flyers are going to sink in the standings and then next summer Holmgren will throw a huge contract at Nick Schultz and sign Jose Theodore.

Lightning - part of me wants to like Tampa, they have some tremendous players up front and of course now they have added Filppula and Drouin to replace Vinny but I think they're top heavy and their D is shoddy and honestly I don't see them being any better than last year when their GA was sixth worst in the league. Another high pick for them I think. Fun place to see a game though.

Panthers - Dale Tallon reminds me of Garth Snow. Sometimes he does great things. He built the Blackhawks. This summer he picked up Boyes, Gilbert and Tim Thomas for basically nothing. He has some nice young pieces on this club. Other times he's a disaster. The qualifying offer fiasco. A couple of summers ago when he threw big money and term at a pile of mediocre free agents. He's the Dave Kingman of NHL GMs. All or nothing. This year its going to be more nothing even if Tim Thomas is Tim Thomas. The Panthers were full value terrible last year. Only Nashville scored less goals. Nobody allowed more. In a short season they were twenty points out of the playoffs. Some people say they might surprise. If they aren't a lottery team colour me surprised, whatever colour that is, maybe its 'flesh' whatever the hell that was.

Les Sabres - oh the poor Sabres. Add Darcy Regier to the long list of GMs who did great when faced with a budget and then fell to pieces when suddenly given an open chequebook, it reminds me of when I went away to school for the first time, by the spring I was looking in couch cushions for money to buy Kraft Dinner or a bowl of soup. The men from moustache town are facing what will be another long winter in what will be a series of long winters with the only drama being when Vanek and Miller get sent out of town. Its amazing how difficult it is to build a good team but how easy it is to ruin same. They have some nice kids but a long way to go and once Vanek goes its going to be a real wasteland.

Canes - its almost as if these eastern teams have a blueprint on how to be bad. Super quality top six forwards and then junk on the blueline and or in net. Carolina's goaltending is better than a lot of these other clubs and Hainsey was a nice cheap add but their D is thin and not that good and after that top six their forwards are either unproven, ancient or terrible. No way to run a railroad but fuck the Canes anyhow. Fuck them.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Phil Crushel

 First couple of years out of university I lived in an old house in High Park with my best friend and a revolving cast of third roommates, first a buddy of mine from uni who moved out after six months to move in with his girlfriend (now his wife), then my buddy's buddy from uni who had just split up with his girlfriend and then, after six months, moved out to shack up with her. (They later got married, not sure if they still are. Hopefully they are and happy). And then for the duration another fellow my buddy knew from his days in Waterloo. So we knew it wasn't us who were driving these guys out. Or maybe it was. Who knows.

 For those couple of years where we lived together we were a bit of a base camp for nights out for the gang we got around with. Most of them were my buddy's pals from Laurier and the majority of them were from Mississauga and still lived there once they got out of school. While we were a bit of a hike to the subway and a ways from downtown we were a hell of  a lot closer than Mississauga and so many Saturday afternoons our place (we had the main floor and basement of the house) would get pretty cramped as everyone rolled in to make the pilgrimage into the city.

 As with any group that I got around with at any time there was a core of guys and girls and then some others who floated around on the periphery, someone who you would see now and then but not all the time, maybe they worked different hours or were in a serious relationship or they lived further afield. In this particular gang there was a guy named Heinrich (I'm pretty sure that's his name though I could be wrong its been over twenty years) who lived down Niagara way so we would see him rarely. He was a really nice guy, just terrific, soft spoken but pretty smart and interesting. I liked him a lot because while my pal's pals were good guys for the most part they were pretty dull fellows. I could sit down with Heinrich and have a good conversation and he liked me although I think he thought I was a bit of a mental case. (He was right).

 Its been so long that I don't recall much about him at all. I went out with his sister on a date once, I think we went to a movie but nothing came of it. And he thought my signature dish at the time (fry up a pound of ground beef with an onion, put in bowl, eat) was completely insane.

And he was a St Louis Blues fan. Now the Blues are a pretty cool team, I think, I really like their uniforms and they've had, for the most part, pretty solid teams over the years. Once the Kings won a couple of years back that left St Louis with the longest Cup drought along with the Leafs though and the other thing about the Blues is that while they have had some great players and characters at times - the Plagers, Unger, Fernie Bederko, Hull and Oates, Pronger, Shanahan, Dougie Weight - they still for the most part are one of those mostly anonymous franchises. Even now despite being one of the best teams in the league and probably a Cup contender (along with Chicago, LA and San Jose) or at least just on the outside of that elite group, they remain a bit nameless.

 And in the early nineties, well they had Hull and Oates I believe but the 70s and 80s when we grew up was really a dead zone for them. But Heinrich, in conversation one Saturday night, brought up the fact that he was a Blues' fan. He was the first I had ever met and I was astounded. 'How can that be?' I asked and he replied that his favourite player growing up was Inge Hammerstrom.


 So when Hammerstrom was dealt to St Louis by the Leafs he followed his heart and voila, lifelong Blues fan.

 The weirdo. Inge Hammerstrom? Seriously.


 The boy still hasn't found the club that will break his heart over and over again for seventy or eighty years, with maybe, if he is lucky, one or two moments of joy to ease his pain. I was talking to a cousin of mine last night, he is in his late twenties, a wonderful young fellow. He was at game six of last year's Leaf's series and he talked about how amazing it was and then joked how game seven was a perfect summation of what a Leafs' fan is all about.

 I laughed and told him to hang in there, he might end up like Dad who saw his favourite team win the Cup in 1961, got married and started with the gas company the next year, had kids, retired after over thirty years with the company, had grandkids and was pushing eighty when Chicago won again, nearly fifty years later. And then for good measure they won again!

 My cousin laughed but in all likelihood he will live a long fulfilling life and pass away in his sleep in his nineties without ever seeing a Leaf Cup. The Leafs are like the Cubs. There is no curse or any of that. They are just, with the odd outbreak of competence now and then, terribly inept.

 One of you math guys needs to do a workup on the odds of the Leafs not even making the Finals since 1967. It has to be ridiculous. Even the Capitals and Panthers have made the Finals. Reminds me of something I read a year or two before the White Sox won the World Series, something like the chances of the Cubs and White Sox having the droughts that they did was around 10000 to 1. Holy shit that's terrible.

 In any case the boy wavers year to year on what team he likes, he likes the Oilers because I do but in his heart I think he is a Leafs' fan. His favourite player was Ales Hemsky, I have sent him enough videos of the Czech genius to ensure that but because of the timezone thing I am sure he has never even seen the Oilers play live.

 Before last night he had never been to an NHL game. We have gone to a couple of AHL games, dull affairs, the only relief for him being the food and drink and sweet talking Dellow's girlfriend after wiping the floor with him at Tic Tac Toe. I want to take him and his sisters to a game some day, maybe next time we are in Florida, I'm just loathe to spend a ton of money to take them down to the ACC, I'd rather give as little money to MLSE as possible and I'm not sure at this point if they'd be engaged enough in the game to be honest.

 And then Saturday we received a call from friends, they had box seats for last night's exhibition tilt with les Sabres, freebies in fact. Its my eldest's birthday weekend, she turned 10 on Saturday, and I thought it would be a nice treat so I said that we'd take the three tickets and Jenn would take the two oldest kids, none of the three of them have ever been to a Leafs' game and for the kids it would be their introduction to live NHL action.

 It turns out the tickets were about ten rows behind Buffalo's bench and of course the game features eight goals, a line brawl, Phil Kessel trying to chop down John Scott, Clarkson leaving the bench the dummy and a goalie fight.

 I don't think anything can top that.

 And they had the fancy seats which meant they had a private room in between periods and stood RIGHTTHERE as the Leafs marched out for the second period and as when the boy came home, exhausted but elated, I asked him what the best thing was and his eyes lit up and he said 'Phil Kessel shook my hand!!!'

 So he has a new favourite player its been confirmed and really Kessel is a good choice, now it will be interesting to see who the boy's favourite team will end up being when Nonis doesn't sign his best player and Kessel walks next summer. Maybe St. Louis!


 Some crazy shit over the weekend and today but I'm going to concentrate on the Oilers although the Leaf mess is total hilarity. They have gotten rid of MacArthur, Grabovski, Frattin and Komorov and used their piles of cap space to sign 40 point player (well once anyhow) Clarkson, extend their third best centre last season to a nice fat deal and bring in a guy who lost his job to Michael Handzus. And now they are against the cap with one of their top four D from last season unsigned and are talking about running with a short roster plus Clarkson is gone for the first ten games, they have a goalie controversy and Bolland is already hurt. (Just in case you didn't know Leaf fans when he wasn't playing on Chicago's fourth line last year he was always hurt).

 I foresee Kulemin and Reimer and probably Franson gone by next summer and probably Kessel and Phaneuf as well. Its going to set the franchise back five years and best of all a lot of fans will think all of those guys getting moved will be a good thing.

oh l.o.l.

 Anyhow, Oilers. Two things about all of this hullabulloo.

 First of all while the Oilers are short a centre on the depth chart that would be their fourth line centre and as a matter of fact their depth one through three is pretty good. For example it is better than Chicago's. And facts are facts, if say the Boston Bruins lost Bergeron and Krejci they too would be pooched. It would be Kelly and Campbell. Better than Gordon and Acton? Sure. But to get on MacT because he doesn't have another top two centre floating around is a bit goofy. Do they need better than what they have for the fourth C role? Yes and he has to get on that. But to say LOOK AT HOW TERRIBLE MANAGEMENT IS THEY DON'T HAVE THREE TOP TWO CENTRES is over the top.

 With that said its going to be interesting to see what MacT does here. Last season's chances died when Tambo sat on his hands when the C core was decimated. It looks like a month will go by before either Ted or Gagner are back. That could cost them the playoffs.

 As an aside Kassian was suspended five games for the incident. Any time something like this happens all logic goes out the window and anything sensible gets lost in the white noise. What do I think? Well Kassian may not have meant to knock Gagner's teeth in but there is no way that the act wasn't intentional in some way. When you try and hit somebody your stick does not flail like that. As Mark Spector said today, in perhaps the first and only time I will ever quote him and agree with him, Kassian is able to tip a 95 mile an hour slapshot. He is also an NHL calibre skater. In other words he is a pro and pros don't lose control like that unless its on purpose. Hell I've never even seen anything like that in the beer league.

 Add to that the fact that Kassian seems cut from the same cloth as Shayne Corson, that is a cementhead entitled asshole on and off the ice and yeah he did it on purpose. He has the track record in the minors and off the ice.

 So as to point two from this whole mess, the return of Steve MacIntyre. Oh my.

 I'm happy for the guy that he has carved out a bit of a career in the NHL, I just prefer it was back in Pittsburgh. As it is he is now taking the roster spot of a better player (they are all better players than him) and the Oilers are not that good that they can be shorthanded for even three extra minutes a game. He can't take a pass. He can't skate. He's horrible.

 And in his first go around with the Oilers guys got run left right and centre, despite his presence. That's the fact. See here's the thing, hockey is a vicious and violent game. Always has been. Read about hockey at the turn of the twentieth century. It was insane. And all through the years it was the same. As a matter of fact it was often the greatest players who were the most vicious. Shore. Howe. Orr. Maurice Richard. Mikita. Messier. The list goes on and on. These guys took care of themselves. I was watching some video of a Hawks/Leafs game from the early sixties (it may have been 1961) the other day. It included a line brawl that started when Pierre Pilote, a Hall of Fame defenceman and smooth offensive player, swung his stick at a Leaf's head. He connected (the Leaf player, I can't remember who it was, had been hooking him as he raced up the ice) and all hell broke loose, the benches ended up clearing and the cops came onto the ice. Hilariously the CBC commentators tut tutted that that was no place for the police to be. So that hasn't changed in fifty years.

 The modern goon, the guy who barely plays at all, is a modern invention. Michael Parkatti looked at it last night and marked ~ 1986 as the beginning of the trend towards it. I blame Bob Probert myself. A guy who could play in the top six and essentially knock anybody out, teams had no answer for him in their regular lineups (or didn't want big guys of value taking him on) so they began to bring in the designated fighter to take him on. And away we went. HNIC helped make these guys into legends, led by the old man in the first intermission who, along with others, puts guys like Colton Orr and Fraser MacLaren on the same level as Probert and Neely and Tocchet and Howe and the tough guys of old. Shawn Thornton won the Bruins the Cup remember!! Except all of the guys of old were tough. And they all could play while MacLaren and Orr cannot take a regular shift without hurting their team. And Thornton was nailed to the bench while the Hawks' fourth line, Bolland and two Euros, pushed the Bruins into their grave and shoveled dirt onto them.

 Colton Orr was on the ice last year when Kadri was a target and he stood by while Kadri ended up in a brawl, having to defend himself. When David Steckel knocked Crosby woozy the Pens' lineup that night included Engellund, Aaron Asham and Mike Rupp. When Marc Savard lost his career to Matt Cooke the guy who passed him the puck was Milan Lucic. When Taylor Hall fought Dorsett and Avery sucker punched Smid and Hemsky got run night after night Steve MacIntyre was sitting on the bench. He did not deter these actions, no more than Lucic stopped Cooke from ruining Savard's life.

 Because hockey is a vicious game and unless next time Vancouver plays Edmonton MacIntyre assaults and hurts one of the Sedins badly his presence is going to mean nothing to the Canucks. If he is on the ice with Vancouver's stars then they will score on the Oilers. He might fight some plug like Weise but so what? Big deal.

 The Oilers need to get harder to play against. They probably need to get bigger and meaner but they need to add guys who can play who are bigger and meaner, guys like Jason Smith, Torres, Moreau, Mike Grier. Teams messed with the Oilers less in those days. Guys still got run. They always get run. Savard got run. Krejci got run in the 2010 playoffs. And that is with Lucic, Chara and so on. But having guys who are big and tough who can play helps.

 What else helps? Sticking together as a team. Being hard on the puck, hard on the body. Detroit and Chicago are two of the smaller skilled teams in the league but both are tough and while Chicago employed Bollig last year he had five fights. Total. Chicago and Detroit don't fight and yet they win. Why? Because they are really good and they don't get intimidated and they are hard on puck, hard to play against.

 And still Toews, Seabrook, Hossa have all been run in recent years.

 Because its a vicious brutal game and Bollig or no Bollig its going to happen.

 What do the Oilers need to do? They need to take a page from Ryan Smyth and when a guy runs at them they need to feed him their stick. They need to be a little vicious like Taylor Hall, a little crazy like Perron. People will tut tut this but if the league isn't going to protect you then you need to protect yourself. Perfect example - Duncan Keith. Totally has crossed the line a few times, often in response to slights, real or imagined. For the most part you don't see guys taking shots at Duncan Keith because he is liable to take you out. The red mist you know.

 Its a complicated issue is what it is. Its shitty what happened to Gagner but the reality is the presence of MacIntyre would not have prevented it, the presence of Lucic wouldn't have prevented it and on and on. Past history tells us that sometimes there is no such thing as deterrence. Kassian is an asshole and he figured he'd try and hurt Gagner and Dale Weise thought he'd take a run at Taylor Hall and Mike Brown did his thing and no matter. Its a violent game, I've done things worse than Kessel's 'spear' of John Scott in beer league, its the nature of it, and on top of everything the NHL doesn't care to crack down on the shit one iota. Want to stop guys taking gratuitous headshots or swinging their sticks? Suspend them for twenty, thirty, forty games. But until that happens there is nothing that is going to stop guys from running other guys.

 Certainly Steve MacIntyre is not going to do it.

Friday, September 20, 2013

So ... Chicago model?

It looks like it. Ted signed his extension at six million per, same as Hall, same as Eberle, one would think same as Yakupov will a year from now. This is the path the franchise has decided to take and I heartily approve.

 Its a gamble but as has been said in this corner of the interweb many times (when I say this corner I mean the Oilogosphere as a whole although I have probably said it a million times right here) managing a professional hockey team is all about making a series of bets, some small, some big, with the end result hopefully being a Stanley Cup. You look at your team and you look at the players you have and the players that you want to acquire and hopefully you are astute enough to make an educated bet that works out for you.

Sometimes it doesn't work. When the Oilers signed Eric Belanger that was a good bet. Buddy had a good track record. It didn't work out (and the third year was likely unnecessary) but Tambo wasn't going out on a limb when he signed the guy. It just didn't work. Of course the organization also made a series of bets on other players that failed miserably. Some were small, like extending Sutton or signing Hordichuk for a second year. Some were a little bigger like signing Eager. And some were much bigger, like gambling on Khabibulin and Souray or trading Smyth, Brodziak and Cogliano or not signing Glencross and Hejda. Notice how there are a lot of bad bets? Little wonder the Oilers have been awful for seven years now.

There is no such thing as an infallible general manager. Who are the best? Ray Shero traded two second round picks for Douglas Murray. Stan Bowman just gave six million bucks a year and term to Corey Crawford. Peter Chiarelli, well okay he's pretty damn good, but go through his record and Doug Wilson and all the rest of the good managers and you'll find the mistakes. They are human after all and they rely on other men to help them make their decisions. I like Craig MacTavish quite a bit, I really like his summer's work but the money he apparently threw at David Clarkson makes me a little less confident.

 So they make mistakes because they are human and the nature of the business too is that you're willing to throw a seven year contract (or longer than that before the last lockout) because unless you are Glen Sather or Lou Lamoriello you know that you will be gone in five or six years anyhow, although there seems to be more front office stability in the league these days overall.

There are only two quibbles about Ted's contract. One is the simple nature of it as mentioned above. Its a gamble on a guy who has only been in the league two years and who has had injury issues. So the question is whether its a good bet or not? Part of the problem is that Tambo painted the team into a corner with the Eberle contract. I think, personally, that Eberle is a very good player and that also he is not at the level of the other three kids, the number ones. Its my opinion that Hall is the cream of the crop but of course we will see if this is so. I think that this year we could see either Ted and Yakupov or both for that matter go completely mental, just as Hall did last year. Worse case I believe it will be next year. These kids are special, their counting numbers say so, their underlying numbers (in the case of RNH) say so. For now though Hall is the man. Top ten in scoring in his third year in the league? Would be pretty easy to say to the other kids 'hey he's the benchmark, like Lidstrom nobody gets paid more' except Eberle got the same dough. So there we are.

In any case its a gamble of course but its fine. Quite sure that they went to the doctors about the shoulder. Could he get hurt? Sure. Anybody could. Crosby, Bergeron, Toews, there are three guys a brain injury away from being done. Seriously. But you're still going to gamble on those guys. So that doesn't worry me and I think he's going to be an elite player because what he has done so far has supported that so ... pay the man. Don't quibble and try and get a bridge contract and fack with arbitration. The window where these guys aren't getting paid passed when they threw them into the fray right away and looking at the roster they are probably three years from serious contention anyway at which point they would be getting ... paid.

 And that of course is the second quibble, the cap. They are GOING TO HAVE 24 MILLION tied up in four guys plus Gagner and Schultz junior and oh the humanity. Except the cap is going up, everyone says it is and the feeling is that it will be pushing eighty million and soon and what is the plan anyhow? Don't pay them? If they are the talent and we know that they are then 24 million in an 80 million cap world is a drop in the bucket. And Chicago pays, wait for it, Toews, Kane, Hossa, Sharp, Keith, Seabrook and they're doing okay. Not to mention Bickell's ticket and what Hjalmarsson and Crawford will be making soon enough.

We have joked and mocked and groaned for years about the 'model' but really Chicago has it right. Their core is locked up and they fill in the holes with relatively cheap kids (2010 Cup - Byfugien, Ladd, Brouwer, Hjalmarsson, Niemi, Bolland, Versteeg) and a few vets (2010 - Campbell, Kopecky, Sopel, Madden). Tallon's fuckup meant they had to jettison more of those kids than they wanted to but in 2013 we saw the same formula at work. The core was augmented by cheap youngsters like Saad, Bickell, Shaw, Leddy and Kruger as well as vets like Bolland, Frolik, Handzus, Oduya, Stallberg, Emery and Roscival. They had to move a few of these guys this summer but unlike 2010 when they were gutted they have lost two fourth liners, a third liner and their backup goalie. Not to say these guys weren't important (Frolik especially will be missed) but its easier to fill around the edges. And of course this is the difference between Chicago and Edmonton right now. The Hawks have a load of talent ready to step in, guys who have been tested in the AHL and have come out smiling, Pirri and Ben Smith and Hayes and Morin and we haven't even mentioned the young Finn who may be the steal of last year's draft. A couple of these guys make the grade and then add another couple of guys at the deadline and they are back where they were this spring. Remember this is a team that won the Cup with Michael Handzus as their second line centre.

The Oilers ... well as Robert Cleave pointed out to me on the twitter, they aren't in the ballpark. If they were they'd be a playoff shoo in this year instead of a team on the margins. The stockpile of young D is impressive. Klefbom and Nurse and Marancin and Gernat and Davidson and Simpson ... a couple of these guys won't be good enough and maybe another gets hurt but in a few years the D is probably going to feature a couple of these guys plus Schultz and Petry and they will be set back there. Disaster might happen but we're not talking Abney and Moroz here. These guys are mature prospects except for Nurse and we are getting an idea about them and they are quality. At this point if shit falls apart its going to be one of those things nobody can help

The problem is up front. A lot of the last cluster (all of them?) are busts and so its Roy and Khaira and the Russians we pin our hopes on with the hope that maybe, just maybe, one or two of Lander and Pitlick and Hartikainen (if he returns) might be able to make the grade. So that is MacT's mission. Fill in around the talent, especially up front. Build that pipeline of kids who can come in and augment the talent year after year. Will he be able to do it? Hard to say but the Oilers, by design or sheer folly, are on the same path as Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, basically every recent Cup winner but Boston, in that they have a core of homegrown talent. MacTavish just needs to fill the rest of the picture in with kids and a sprinkling of vets and if he can do that then he's going to have something. And if he doesn't well then fire his ass.

 And Ted is a part of the talent. So yeah, pay the man.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Letting Go

We've had a busy busy busy September. Jenn has been working a ton and she had some dental surgery that knocked her on her ass for a few days and today she took off for a conference, back on Saturday. Its been a grind.

September is always a hectic month as we get thrown back into the routine of school and activities and all of that good stuff. I've written about how for me I really look at Labour Day as the beginning of the new year rather than January 1st. I think it has to do with the rhythm of life I picked up in university. I never really got out of it, even though I'm years out now, and the arrival of our kids and their entry into school has strengthened that backbeat. With September comes the kids in school but it also marks the beginning of the kids' activities and for that matter, our own. A new Capsule season started last weekend and the two sports I follow, NHL hockey and European soccer, both get underway in the fall. Summer is fading away (although autumn in southern Ontario is the best season here, crisp cool nights and usually sunny warm days run right into October) and the snow will fly soon enough.

This September has been a bit bittersweet for us. Our youngest has started her second year of kindergarten and thanks to genius Dalton McGuinty she is spending the full day at school so for the first time in a decade there are no little ones around the house during the day. Its strange. All three are in school from 9 until 3:30. We will never have a kid at home again. Our oldest turned ten in a few days and while she is still a kid in so many ways she is growing up. She is a sweet sweet kid still (although the hormones are kicking in a bit) but often after school she heads to her room after her homework is done, closes the door and draws or reads with the radio on. The boy is nearly eight and he too likes his privacy, so much so that Jenn asked me if I thought he was pulling the goalie in there. Now you know me, if masturbation were an Olympic sport I'd be Paavo Nurmi but I just laughed, the boy might be a chip off the old block (and he is) but I'm pretty sure nothing's going on in that department quite yet.

He's become his own man though. He had hockey school the last week of August and they were off and on the ice numerous times so he had to learn how to get himself changed. The first morning I tied his skates, that sfternoon camp staff took care of that and the next morning when I asked him if he needed me to do his skates or anything else he just gave me a laconic shrug and said 'naw I'm ok'. When Jenn took him the next day he not only declined help but when she leaned in for a kiss good bye he gave her the 'jeez mom' look and fled into the sanctuary of the dressing room. This has carried over to the beginning of school and his mom is taking it pretty hard. I miss the goodbye hug and kiss myself but I understand it and he's still affectionate at home, although for how long its hard to say. He'll come back some day.

 I had a conversation about this on the Twitter with Mike Forbes a couple of weeks ago, he was experiencing similar issues with his oldest. Mike is a terrific guy, he really is, I'm glad to have met him through the magic of the interweb and so we compared notes on the inevitable, our kids are becoming everything we want them to be, independent and strong and their own people, I am confident that my guys are going to be finest kind some day and I think Mike feels the same way, It doesn't make it any easier though. You teach them to be everything that you want them to be and part of that means that they will pull away from you and go their own way.

I work with a guy who has one daughter, two weeks ago she started university. A few days before he moved her we were talking and he was joking that in some ways he was happy to see the drama go away, it had been a challenging eighteen years, being a parent is a lot of work. After Labour Day I was talking to him and he was full of sorrow, he said, he realized when he and his wife got back home that his daughter was gone. She would be back for holidays and summer for a while and then one day she would not even be back for a lot of that. She is gone, he said. It will never be the same.

He and his wife had done a wonderful job.

 But he wasn't feeling all that wonderful.


 Oilers' camp is progressing and so far its, well, its training camp. Its a necessary evil and its dull. Someone on Twitter the other day remarked that essentially camp was to decide the last spot or two on the roster and of course he was right. He wasn't referring to the Oilers but for most teams this exercise is exactly that. Unless you are horrible and have a pile of spots open and a bunch of kids coming up not much exciting is going to happen this month. The guys who surprise and grab that last spot are often exposed pretty quickly and back in the minors come November.

 Its not always true of course. Sometimes there are surprises and when they happen its pretty exciting. The one (only) positive about the Oilers sucking ass this past seven years is that camp often leads to positive surprises. In 2006 Patrick Thoresen came out of nowhere to grab a roster spot early in camp and Jan Hejda joined him as well. A couple of years later Kyle Brodziak roared into camp, grabbed a fourth line spot and never looked back, although like Hejda he became one that got away. And then there was the fall that Tom Gilbert impressed enough to not only grab a spot but to grab a top four spot at that.

Its a different club this fall. There aren't many spots open. Oscar Klefbom and Martin Marancin, two guys who might have challenged for spots in past years when the club had nothing going on, are going south for sure, unable to crack a defence corps which includes eight actual NHL defencemen and a guy who most consider to be the best defenceman from the KHL. Up front there are no kids rising at all and the only questions revolve around the spots at the end of the roster. Will Will Acton beat out Anton Lander? Will Omark make it or Hamilton? Eager or Brown? Does it matter? Not really. The guys who don't make it will be back when the inevitable injuries happen and the guys who make it aren't likely to make an impact, with only Linus Omark possibly being more than a scrub. Not to say that there aren't interesting stories. Belov is intriguing. Can he be more than a third pairing guy? Maybe, the KHL isn't shit, and if he is then things look pretty bright. And what of Joensuu? Again maybe nothing more than a borderline guy but interesting all the same.

Things will become clearer in the next week or so as guys get let go but there isn't much drama and really, for the Oilers, it probably represents a step forward.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Oilers Rising

Its been a long time since there has been optimism in this space about the Oilers. A long time. It goes against my nature to be a pessimist and so in the fall of 2006 I figured the Oilers would be in the mix again even with their mess on the blue because Kevin Lowe wouldn't stand by and let things fall apart. Right? RIGHT?!?!?!? I was wrong. And that was, I think, the last time I had true hope for this club. I have read some hilarious things over the years. Year after year comments to the effect of 'you will eat your words, the Oilers are going to be good' and 'you're a pessimist no wonder you think they will suck'. The ones of the latter ilk make me laugh most of all because I'm an optimist through and through, just like my old man. Can't help it, its in my bones, so if you beat me down like the Oilers beat me down then you know you're pretty terrible, Slowly slowly things are turning around. Last winter with a short season I figured that they might be in the mix for a playoff spot with some luck and good health and they actually had some poor luck and still got into the conversation for a while. This year ... well, this year I think they have a legitimate shot at it. My guess is you can pencil in San Jose, Los Angeles and the Canucks in as playoff teams in their division and Chicago and St. Louis in the other one. So that means they need to beat out Anaheim and Phoenix or one of those clubs plus all but one other Central club. Do I think its guaranteed? Not at all. If they had added another legitimate top four Dman (or better yet a top two) then I would be very confident. With that said I think that MacTavish has improved them enough that if all things are equal then they will be in the race come the spring. And truly in the race, not one of these 'they are eight points out but still have a shot' positions. I mean in it. Look at the roster. For the first time in years the club has depth so that the biggest question isn't who will play in the top six or who will play centre but rather, right now, who will be the third LW. That is the biggest issue facing them right now. They have a legitimate top six and in Gordon and Hemsky a truly legitimate top eight. Think about that for a second. Ales Hemsky is, for now, their third option at RW. Ted's shoulder needs to get healthy but if it is then the Oilers quality up the middle is better than any Canadian team except maybe Ottawa and Montreal. Hell its better than Chicago's. Although obviously they have nobody of Toews' calibre. Or anyone other than Hall who would be one of Chicago's top three wingers. Or that D. Anyhow, depth at centre!! All kidding aside though MacTavish has done a pretty good job. - as noted the top eight forwards are high quality. I hated seeing Paajarvi go but Perron is a legitimate top six talent - the remaining three winger spots have Joensuu, Smyth, Jones and Omark in the mix. Can one of these guys fit in the top nine? Maybe or maybe not (I tend to believe the former) but the fourth line W spots will be taken up by actual guys who can play this season So up front the two issues looks to be 3L and 4C. And MacTavish has already proven to be proactive, I doubt if the team is lacking in either case that he will stand by. - in goal the club has a legitimate quality backup goaltender - on the blue ideally everyone would be pushed down the depth chart but its not a perfect world and MacTavish has brought in numbers, so many guys that probably one or two guys with NHL experience are probably going to get waived or moved. Klefbom is going to start in the minors, as he should, and Potter, probably fifth on the depth chart last season, is fighting for his job - so we have Smid and Petry as one pair and Ference and Schultz younger as another and then Belov, Grebeshkov, Schultz elder, Potter and Larsen fighting for the remaining three spots. Its not Chicago's D or Vancouver's but for the first time in a long while its not horrible. Ference is a legitimate top four guy so now the Oilers have three of those and if Schultz younger or Belov can do the job then there's your four. Its not an elite unit but its reasonable For me when I rate a club I look at their depth all of the time. Depth is what separates good teams from bad teams. It was the difference between Boston and Toronto and the difference between Chicago and Boston. I've mentioned it a thousand times but look at Chicago's fourth line last season. Frolik. Bolland. Kruger. Compare them with the shitshow the Oilers had. Or the Leafs. Or almost any other club. And remember that after Bickell scored to tie the game Quenneville sent them out against Krejci, Lucic and Horton to get game six to overtime. His fourth line. And they scored. And then he sent them out again. With the Cup on the line. Depth. Meanwhile when Toronto was exhausted and collapsing Colton Orr was stapled to the bench. Depth. Put it another way, Toronto has lost Grabovski, MacArthur, Frattin and Komorov from last year's club and replaced them with Bolland and Clarkson. You can talk about intangibles and a whole lot of other shit but the Leafs are worse up front this year. They have lost four effective NHL players, replaced them with two and have given up a ton of speed and skill. Its pretty simple. Its the same in Chicago. Frolik, Bolland and Stallberg are gone. I rate the Hawks and still think they are the team to beat this season but they are weaker right now than they were three months ago and until they replace those guys that's a fact. Put aside the things that we cannot predict, the injuries, the pure luck involved in the sport, the fact that guys may go supernova (Hall) or take the next step to stardom ( I honestly thing if Nugent Hopkins is healthy that we see him explode like Hall did last year. And Yakupov is next) or for that matter, regress. Put aside coaching. I liked Ralph Kreuger but it looks like, in retrospect, that he was out of his depth and Eakins looks like he may be a guy who can have a big positive impact. We don't know that for a fact though. Put all of that aside and look at the club's roster. Nick Schultz was the number three Dman last year. Now he is what, fifth? Sixth? Potter was the number five, ahead of Whitney, Fistric, Peckham. Now he is seventh? Eight? Ninth? Two years ago Smyth and Jones were firmly planted in the top nine forwards, Smyth was probably the fourth winger, Jones the fifth. Now they have settled down the depth chart. Maybe one rebounds and moves up into the top nine but the position is not theirs by default. Depth. The usual worries abound, health being the big one, but the holes are fewer and the 'ifs' are as well. The Oilers might need luck to make the playoffs but they won't need EVERYTHING to go right. The amount of luck they need is shrinking and that's a good thing. They're getting there. Finally.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Now It Is Beginning

Do you remember last spring when the last four Cup winners made the Conference Finals?

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that we are going to see more of this pattern rather than less over the next couple of years. The buzzword for many when talking about the NHL is parity but while there is a mushy middle that is growing, thus shrinking the number of elite teams, at least out west, there is also a clear number of teams that have separated themselves from the pack. As we all know anything can happen come the spring and injuries will play a part but if I were a betting man I would put money on the Stanley Cup being in Chicago, Los Angeles or San Jose next summer with St. Louis just being a step below that group due to their lack of the elite offensive talent that the big three have.

Last spring I thought those four teams plus the Canucks were the heavyweights and that while an upset might happen the reality was (and is) that the East was a step below the West. Nothing has changed my mind except I think Vancouver's window has closed once and for all.

This summer was a bit of a bust wasn't it? With the cap falling we (or at least I) envisioned madness with teams buying out quality players and selling high priced players at ten cents on the dollar. The reality was a letdown. Not much happened. Pending free agents extended contracts with their existing teams for the most part. The guys who lost out were the UFAs as teams looked to their farms to fill roster spots on the cheap, leaving a number of veterans looking for tryouts.

The lack of movement, especially when it comes to the high profile unrestricted guys, means that the old quick fix no longer exists. Brian Burke found that out during his tenure with the Leafs. You may have all the money in the world but when all of the star players stay with their clubs it makes it hard to make the big splash. Getzlaf and Perry stayed with Anaheim  for example, leaving Clarkson, Clarkson!, as the biggest UFA forward. I never even had heard of the guy until two years ago and to think that he was the big prize this summer is mind boggling.

Already Kris Letang is off the market for next summer and you can bet that the majority of the big names will be gone when July rolls around. There is some serious quality out there although it trends to the older crowd, the best player who may be available is Phil Kessel. (loLeafs).

It could make for an interesting trade deadline although running through the top of that list you'll note that most of the big name quality guys play for playoff contenders and won't be moving. That's the thing with the NHL these days, there's always the promise of all of these exciting moves and the end result is usually nothing. Hilariously the biggest possibility for carnage is Toronto where their best defenceman and best forward are both pending UFAs and the team looks less than impressive. A Leaf freefall followed by Kessel and Phaneuf getting shipped out (a move that would be applauded by many fans and MLSE's media lackeys (Hi DREGS!!)) would be, well it would be amazing, especially considering that there are no UFAs who could come in and do the job that they do.



In any case back to point and as I said I see Chicago or LA or San Jose. The Hawks return mostly intact. They will see if any of their impressive prospects up front can replace Frolik, Bolland and Stallberg and if they cannot then they will bring in reinforcements in the spring. The Kings lost Penner and Scuderi but Willie Mitchell is back and while their biggest concern is probably scoring goals I would bet on them bringing in a winger at some point. As for the Sharks well this may be the last kick at it for this bunch with Thornton, Marleau and Boyle all unrestricted next summer but they're in the mix. They're always in the mix.

The Blues have the best D in the league and they have a deep deep bunch up front and really they probably deserve to be included in that upper tier. The good news for them is with the new divisions they'll avoid the heavyweight battle in the first round and if they can score more than a little they will be a threat to go all the way.

In the Least its wide open, same as last year. Any team could come out of the conference and get pumped by the Western representative. Nobody took a big step forward over the summer except for Ottawa who added Bobby Ryan. He is going to score 40 is my guess and so you can add the Sens to the upper echelon which includes, well who does it include? Boston. Pittsburgh, despite that abysmal back end. Montreal. Detroit. The Rangers. Probably Washington and the Islanders as well. Boston and the Pens are still the cream of the crop though. Well and the Wings.

You know what's funny? There really isn't much room out east. Maybe one or two of those teams gets devastated by injuries or falls apart but the reality is there is a clear upper echelon in the junior circuit.

 A lot of teams with high hopes are going to fail in a big way. I'm looking at you Toronto.