Monday, February 25, 2013

You've Got To Do What You've Got To Do

 Our first beer league playoff game was postponed this past weekend and I was seriously bummed out. I love playoff hockey even though its nerve wracking and checking through the scores reminded me why the latter is true. Our league was basically a two tier division this winter with the top four teams being head and shoulders above pretty well everyone and yet here were the first and second place teams barely edging out the ninth and last place teams and the team that finished just behind us barely eking out a tie.

 So after a season where we top teams generally feasted on the lower ones suddenly we might see an upset or two. Maybe not but the possibility is there.

 The boy started his own playoffs this weekend on a roll, something like six wins in a row, and, like Capsule, they are in a division where the difference between top and bottom is a marked one. They and one other team have run roughshod over the bottom two teams and it seemed, going into Saturday, that after a round robin, it will be these two who play for the championship in a month.

 Except ... except after a couple of shifts on Saturday morning it was the good guys ;) who were hemmed in their own end and it was our goalie, who has struggled mightily for a good part of the year, who was forced to make a few big saves (at this level they are all big saves) as his mates tried to get untracked. They did just this, finally, scoring one near the end of the first and then another early in the second and it seemed like they were off to the races and then the opposition scored one and then almost added another on a wraparound. We potted another and they answered back and then with about ten minutes left two more went in for us and it looked like we were home and cooled.

 But they inched back to within two and our goalie made a couple more nice saves and it wasn't until we added an empty netter at the buzzer when everybody exhaled.

 And as we left the rink the other patsy was up by one already.

 Some patsies.

 The good news in all of this is the boy's team is in the driver's seat, a win on this coming Saturday and they are through to the final and you could tell in their faces and the loud chatter in the room and the raised arms after the win that they were excited. And best of all the little goalie who got extra work at practice last weekend rebounded from a tough stretch with maybe his best game of the year. His grin was a mile wide and he got mobbed at game's end.

CLUTCH!!!

  As for the boy well he's come a long way my friends, from being a cipher out there to being a solid worker bee, the type that every team can use. He was in the mix when the puck was on his wing, clearing the zone, keeping it in the other team's end, mucking it up in the corners, stopping one of their quality guys making a rush. It was his best game yet and one highlight was when he was first man back after the puck had skittered below our goalline and one of their quality little guys had picked it up and was moving to take it out front. The boy got between him and the net and they both went down and the chance was neutralized.

 Except ... except after the game I was complimenting him on a game well played and he said to me

 Did you see when number five had the puck and I was the only guy between him and the net and I bodychecked him?

 I ... well for once I was speechless. From my vantage point (the length of the rink) he had tripped and fallen into him but when I talked to the coach he confirmed that when he had come off of the ice after that shift he had proudly told him that he had checked that guy.

 And he too was speechless, the conflict being between the fact that there is no contact, therefore its wrong, the fact that its playoffs, so in a way anything goes and of course nobody was hurt, they're so little and finally the fact that the team runt, my son, the budding engineer and scientist, who sits quietly and smiles at the world going by, had laid a guy out on purpose.

 Astounding.

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 A lot of talk about what the Oilers need as they get ready to hit the road, starting tonight. They're going to rue a lot of those missed chances over the past few weeks because it really comes down to that. They've had a few stinkers but this club is a better one than the garbage we've watched the last few years. The hockey gods haven't been on their side and they are still right there, the problem is they have this trip staring at them now and by the end of it the season could be done. Me, I think they muddle through and when its over they are still hanging around.

 A lot of talk about what they need. They have the core guys but the team they play tonight is a perfect example of the fact that you need more than the elite picks. When they won the Cup they had Byfuglien and Versteeg and Hjamarsson and Bolland and Ladd and Brouwer and yeah you get the picture. And now those guys are all gone except for the Swede on D but the latest cohort has arrived - Stallberg and Shaw and Saad and Kruger and Frolik and Leddy. And suddenly they're the class of the league again. Maybe the Oilers have a couple of these guys (Paajarvi and Hartikainen) already and maybe they sign or trade for another couple but yeah they have a way to go.

 I'll tell you what they need. A young Ryan Smyth. Imagine him playing with RNH and Eberle and Hall with Gagner and Hemsky. Or vice versa. A guy to retrieve those pucks and crash the net and bang in those rebounds. That's the guy they need.

 And after that they need a young Shawn Horcoff.

 So basically a time machine. They need to invent a time machine and they'll be set.

 No problem!!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Its Magic




The boy starts playoffs this week. They've had a nice run, winning five in a row, having fun, and, most importantly, improving across the board. They have one wonderful player, he may be the best player in the league, and early in the year a lot of time the other kids stood around and watched him go end to end. The problem with this strategy is there is a maximum three goal rule in the league so there were a lot of 4-3 or 5-4 losses. He'd finish scoring (often in his first shift), the other team would chip away. End.

Credit to the league, they have the whole buzzer shift length thing and that aforementioned rule and the whole vibe is to let the kids play but we've had a few games where you can see other coaches cheating a bit. Its small stuff, maybe they rotate eight forwards but the top guys get out every second shift rather than every third shift. If you're paying attention you can see it. But the whole idea is to let the kids enjoy and to make sure they get their icetime.

My son's coach is one of my best friends and while I have coached kids forever and consider myself very good at it I couldn't hold a candle to the job he has done this year. He has terrific enthusiasm and an eye for detail but most importantly he, more than me, more than most, if not all of the other coaches, understands the point of it all. I play hockey with him and he is a super competitive guy and I've seen him grimace briefly at a bad call or killer mistake but he has never lost sight of what matters.

So what you might say? Well for my son this is everything. The boy was probably the weakest player on the team to begin the year. When I was a kid houseleague didn't have the same meaning as it does now and so weaker players often sat a bit or missed shifts. If you were the younger kids in a two tiered age group then you would play less than the older kids. It was the way it was, everyone, kids and parents, accepted it. Another part of the 'good old days' that weren't all that great.

I think if Jack was in that position he would think about hockey differently than he does now. Now I may be wrong. I was talking to one of the moms the other day and she was talking about how her son, who also plays soccer, is absolutely hockey crazy and she couldn't figure out why. Why? I said, I know why. When you are out on the ice its like no othe feeling in no other sport. You feel like you are flying, even if you are a beer leaguer like me. I have seen video of me playing once and I was shocked. How could that be me? I look so slow! When I'm out there, cutting towards the net, I feel like I am going a hundred miles an hour. And for the kids it is certainly the same.

The boy absolutely loves it. We've gone to the neighbourhood rink a street away and played shinny many times, as have many of his teammates I am sure of it, and he loses himself in it, the ice hard and beautiful, snow falling around us as we charge about, silence but for the snick of our blades and the crack of puck on stick.

But its been the experience he's had with his team that has led him to ask me if he can play this summer and if he can go out tonight and the next night and the one after that. The coach who threw him out shift after shift with words of encouragement, with tips of what to do next, so that last practice in a one on one drill facing one of his better teammates he shut him down completely. At one point in a two on two he fell and from his belly whacked at the puck, throwing himself in front of it, getting onto his knee, still fighting and then back on his skates again. Passion.

And just two weeks ago, standing at the corner of the crease, the puck hitting the goalie, coming to him on his backhand, no hesitation, the shot, the goalie, who hadn't stopped a goddamn thing all game, throwing himself across, my son banging his stick in frustration, looking to the sky.

My little guy is a cerebral fellow. He's a thinker, a reader, a guy who loves to know how things work. He's going to be an engineer, I'd bet money on it. And like his old man he's calm (for the most part), deadpan, pretty even keeled. Actually probably moreso to be honest.

Get him on the ice though and then the boy gets mental. Even before he began to improve he's get right in there, hacking and whacking, getting knocked over, getting back up, no problem.

Hockey. Best.
A few weeks back they played a club who had beaten them twice already this year. This time it was no contest. The other team keyed on our star and it didn't matter. They were overrun as each line in turn hemmed them in, went to the net, checked like demons and poured pucks at the net. In the end it was only the goaltending that prevented a blowout but it was an easy victory. The other team had two guys to rely on, same as in October, our team still had its star but after him over a half dozen players who could (and did) take the game to them and behind them another half dozen who could hold their own.

Its a wonderful thing to behold.

Yesterday I showed Jack the Hemsky goal from Saturday night. It was like he saw his first naked woman. I slowed it down.

See that guy on the boards. That's Ryan Smyth. His career is almost over but he's a great great player. Watch what he does here. See that big guy bearing down on him, what do you think he's going to do?

Hit him?

Yep he's going to hit him. But watch Smyth. He could just throw it away. Panic. Do nothing. But watch this pass even though he knows he is going to get hit.

Roll tape. Smyth sends that beauty backhand cross ice to Ales Hemsky in full flight.

Now watch what Hemsky does.

His jaw drops. And then he grins.

Play it again Daddy.

Good Game Good Game Good Game

Capsule wound up our regular season Saturday night. Its been a very good year for the good guys, only five losses in twenty one games, three of those to one team, the first place club, the team we will have to beat if we’re going to go all the way. We played them three weeks ago and for the first time this season we deserved better. We carried the play all game and if not for some bad luck we would have walked away with the win. Sometimes the hockey gods smile on you, sometimes they do not.

We came into last night a point out of second, a point up on fourth, playing the team just below us. A 10pm game on a Saturday night in a snowstorm doesn’t do a lot for attendance and so we looked around the room before the Zamboni finished up and realized that there were seven of us skating against a club who we’ve tied and beaten by one with a reasonable roster and amongst the missing were two quality Dmen and our leading scorer whose wife just gave birth to their first child (Congrats Ben!!).

A tough row to hoe. Two subs.

And they’re a good club. We were hemmed in early and they potted one and it looked like a long night coming and then I fired a pass out in front to my centre who has been on fire for a couple of months now, scoring almost every game, and he made no mistake and … we were tied.

A few minutes more of hard skating and again we were in our zone and this time I basically fell over from being tired and sure enough my man was alone and pushed them ahead again and as I sat on the bench I figured we were done. I certainly was.

Except a couple of shifts later we hemmed them in and equalized it and then soon after we executed a two on one to perfection and Higgs potted his second and what the hell we were in the lead. So said our faces and theirs.

For a good part of the rest of the game we just shut them down. They have a guy who leads the league in scoring, an enormous young man, and every once in a while he’d wind up and try to take it all the way and each time one of us managed to shut him down, get in his way, chip the puck away. His teammates were less imposing and so after we killed a four minute power play it looked like we might escape.

Tension mounted. The first time we played them it was a scoreless tie when one of their guys took a bad fall into the boards. He ended up in the hospital unfortunately and so there’s some bad blood despite the fact that the incident was one of those bad luck flukes. The next time we played them there were probably a dozen instances which were more dangerous (and had more intent) than what had happened with such bad results in the first game and things almost spun out of control. In that game they scored the go ahead with ninety seconds left only to see us tie it with under a minute left and then win it (!) with only seconds left.

So there is some history and we’re pretty evenly matched but for the most part this was more of a game where there were tough battles and not a lot of shit going on. And as the game neared its conclusion they began to gamble and we began to find our legs as we realized that we might pull it off. I had a partial break and, realizing I had an avenue to the net, I went hard and as I tried to cut across I ran over the goalie. I took a header into the post and then lay prone, waiting for someone to pound me. Nothing happened (it turns out the big man had shoved me into his own goalie so this is why) and their goalie, who resembles Tim Thomas and is perpetually smiling, asked after me and I after him. Shoulder is killing me today but no stiff neck so I guess I’ll live.

And then with six minutes left, a good bounce for them and game tied and then seconds later things finally boiled over and two of us and two of them were sent off for roughing and jawing and all of that and so there were five of us left to hold the fort without relief, a task that became even more difficult when we didn’t get a whistle for almost four minutes.

And somewhere in that morass their big man, league’s leading scorer, picked off a pass through the middle and went in all alone. Shoulders sagged, none of us could catch him at full speed even if we weren’t exhausted, and he drove in, juked, went forehand and then, then he found our goalie right with him and no space and so the puck glanced off the outside of the post and skittered into the corner.

And with the penalties over the other two forwards headed to the bench and so I continued what would turn out to be almost a six minute shift. Ninety seconds left, I gathered the puck and headed down the wing, I skipped by the Dman and took it deep and one of them, maybe the winger, caught me, got his stick into me and began to waterski. I kept the feet moving, that’s what I do, and buddy had me wrapped up and I kept churning and there was no call and then I did something I’ve never done before, in forty years of playing hockey.

I fell down. On purpose.

And the ref’s arm went up.

I hate divers and our league has plenty of them and it makes me mental. Our last three games have featured some topnotch embellishing from the other team, guys falling like they’ve been shot as soon as someone skates near them, that sort of stuff.

So I’m not proud of what I did but I can certainly rationalize it. I’ll bet this is how it all started with Anakin Skywalker though. *lovingly caresses Dustin Brown hockey card*

And so just seconds later our LW carried the puck into the zone, backed off the D and let a hard low shot go, Tim Thomas grinned, butterflied and the rebound caromed out to the top of the circle on my wing and onto Lightning Boy’s blade and I fired it top corner.

I stopped dead, raised one arm and then raised both and gave a little pump. One of our Dmen cruised in, arms up, letting go a whoop, and then, for the first time I remember, we celebrated a goal with some quality hockey hugs. (we're fist bump men as a general rule, big goal or not)

They had one last gasp and the puck skittered through out crease with just seconds left and then it was over.

One of the best ever.

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After showering I checked the twitter, saw that somehow the Oilers were losing 4-1 to the Avs, read Cam's tweet that despite the score the Oilers were a good bet to come back (noted Oiler hater and pessimist Tyler Dellow chimed in in agreement), muttered and then headed out the door. Twenty minutes later we walked into the pub back in the neighbourhood, checked the TV and saw that it was 4-3.   While we talked and talked about our own game and bars and restaurants and holidays and all of that out of the corner of my eye I saw Eberle tie it and then the big PK near the end and then Paajarvi with the game winner and so when we finished our pints and headed into the night I was happy although of course, like you I wondered why Cam and Tyler hate the Oilers so much.

 The Oilers probably deserved two wins this past week and they got them although they should have lost to the BJs and beaten Dallas and of course that's hockey. What have we learned from this past week? Anything?

 - thank goodness for Belanger. Seriously. When Horcoff went down the Oilers basically got boned for a week but that week also saw Belanger out and Ted as well and then Lander went down too. Folks wailed about the Oilers' depth at centre but no club could survive losing three of their top four guys. Luckily for Edmonton Ted and Belanger came back fairly quickly and the ship righted itself. The Smyth at C experiment was a disaster, as expected, and Vande Velde has done his job since he got the call. He just has to give them low event minutes until Horc returns. Meanwhile Belanger has been carrying the defensive load, and well, proving that last year was an aberration

 - the problem for the Oilers, for once, is that while ideally they would have another top two or top four Dman, their top four has actually been decent. Its the bottom pair that has been a nightmare. On a club that has been loaded with decent 5s and 6s over the past few years (but very little above those guys) its weird to have a club with a reasonable top four and then a bunch of 7s and 8s. If Schultz's back flares up or something happens to Smid or Schultz Senior or Petry then that will be it for the Oilers. Fistric is a legit bottom pairing guy I think but poor Whitney is done, Potter is an AHL guy and Theo is eating barbeque in OKC. This is probably the biggest issue for the club right now.  

- I really can't see the issue with Paajarvi and I'm not sure, honestly, why he's not playing top nine minutes every night. I love the kid, full disclosure, he just seems like a nice kid (those pics of him wheeling Lander around the WEM are priceless) but here's the thing, buddy is a big part of the future. If somehow they get past their own stubbornness and hang onto Ales then he will be a third line guy who can slide up the lineup and if they don't well then he has the speed and talent to take a place in the top six imo. And yet he was going to be scratched last night? He should be on Belanger's flank until Horcoff returns and then he should move beside 10 and play the heavy minutes with him. Best thing for him and the club. He and Teemu have to play and when Jones comes back I'd run the three of them and Smytty and spot in Petrell and Eager here and there  

- loved Smyth's game last night - the two assists, the greasy work along the boards and in front of the net. I would love to write on what happened with him this week but this piece and this piece say it all, there's no way I an say it better. Especially love Tyler's last paragraph. Gave me chills.  

- Love Eberle, Ted, Gagner and Yakupov but the best players on this club are Taylor Hall and Ales Hemsky. Seeing Ales healthy and playing the way he can has been the best part of this season so far. Would love to see him play meaningful games for the Oilers once again. Folks forget 2006. He was just a baby then and he was still wonderful in that run. Would love to see it again.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Nightmare

 So last night at about 4 am I could hear some moaning from down the hall from our youngest daughter. My wife sleeps like a rock, I do not, so for the most part I'm the one who gets up at night. Its not a big deal, we've been lucky, our kids aren't ones for getting up a lot at all for any reason and they've all slept through the night for ages so with the odd exception I may get up once or twice a week to check on the girls. The boy gets up about once a year needing something.

 So I wander in and she's crying a bit in her sleep so I rub her back and speak a few soothing words and tuck her in tightly and head back to bed. This is usually the cause of me having to get up, sometimes I have to visit again, sometimes not. Bad dreams or some sort of ache I guess, she is always asleep when I go in.

 Except this time a few minutes later she starts screaming I mean heavy duty holy fuck screams. Its a nightmare and I go down the hall and its bad enough that she is coming out of her room to meet me.I pick her up and her heart is pounding like mad and when I go back into her room she absolutely freaks out about the bug that's in her bed that has just told her that its going to eat her for lunch.

 Which is pretty funny though not to her at this time.

 She points to the bug which first of all is a screw in the frame of the bed and then a shadow and then nothing. I go to put her down but she completely freaks out and my older daughter is awake now of course (not the boy though, this morning I asked him if he heard anything and he had not) and trying to calm her until my youngest says the bug is gone because its now in the top bunk and now my oldest is freaking out as well, in the haze of just having woken up, thinking that there is an actual bug rampaging through their room.

 The end result was our youngest in our bed, literally wrapped around my wife for an hour and a half and me on the couch (I can't sleep with a kid in the bed, never have been able to).

 Pretty funny shit though.

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 I don't know if its the shorter season or ridiculous expectations or just because Oiler fans are dumb (For the record I don't think Oiler fans are any dumber or smarter than any other fanbase. I think they tend to be very easily led by ownership and management, on most other clubs Kevin Lowe would have been fired years ago. I think they turn on players faster and more easily than most. And I think they also love prospects more than most. But I think like any fanbase there are dummies and not dummies) but you'd think this club was bottom of the league right now. The brand new coach should be fired. Everyone over 21 should be shipped out. Etc etc.

 Where the Oilers are is where expected them to be. In the mix. They've had a tough early schedule, they have a large number of guys slumping, teams have obviously watched tape on their PP, their centre corps was basically wiped out for a couple of games and Ryan Whitney who Tambo (shockingly I know) seems to have thought could still contribute, is done.

 And yet ... and yet ... they're in the mix. And this is with who outperforming what we might expect? I mean really outperforming. Dubnyk. Justin Schultz. Maybe Nick Schultz slightly.

 Did the Oilers just have a bad week? Sure. They were missing two of their top four centremen for all but one game plus Ted is obviously hurting and their fourth centre this weekend was Ryan Smyth who hasn't played centre since that time they slotted him in between Newsy Lalonde and Frank McGee a couple of years before poor McGee went West at the Somme.

 I mean really.

 And yet the calls for Kreuger's head have already begun. Buddy never had a chance having been to Europe and all.

 Here's a coach with no training camp, one of the youngest teams in the league, everyone coming in with varying levels of fitness (same as everyone of course) - he is still figuring it out. Where everybody fits, what they are capable of. With Whitney sitting  in the pressbox and Hordichuk barely playing before getting waived its becoming clear he's figuring it out.

 (More impressive to me is how useful Paajarvi has become under Kreuger's tutelage. This is a kid who wasted away under Renney. That in itself was worth old silk scarf taking the gaspipe.)

 So be like Fonzie Oiler fans. They are where you should expect them to be. The bad news is that Dubnyk is not going to be Jack Plante all year. The good news is that they aren't going to shoot 5% all year either. And Tambo's job is on the line if they don't make the playoffs so expect some moves to shore up weak spots.

 Of course the question of wheter or not we trust Tambo to do the right thing is for another day ....

!!!!

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Uh Oh

Tyler Dellow has made the point a few times on the Tweeter that depth is an issue for most clubs these days in Gary Bettman's NHL. The salary cap has really done a job so that unless you have a ton of youngsters or value contracted veterans you're going to be thin somewhere.

You're not going to see many clubs like the Chicago squad that won the Cup. Here are their top twelve forwards: Toews, Hossa, Kopecky, Sharp, Kane, Byfuglien, Bolland, Ladd, Versteeg, Madden, Brouwer, Eager

 Troy Brouwer scored 23 goals that year, iirc, and he was on the fourth line in the playoffs.

 Of course a combination of the cap and Tallon not knowing how to use a fax machine ended up with that team getting blown up about five minutes after they won it all.

 This year's Hawks' team has ripped out to a fast start, in large part to the fact that a new cohort of cheap kids has arrived. So at least for now Bolland plays with Kane and Sharp and they have Shaw and Kruger holding down the 3rd and 4th C positions.

 I haven't watched a lot of Chicago this season but my impression is that while they're not full value for their record (no regulation losses in 9 requires some luck) they're a really good club.

 But even then they're thin. They have about five players they literally cannot afford to lose if they are going to compete for the Cup imo - Toews, Hossa, Keith, Seabrook, Crawford. You might throw Kane in there too.

 So in other words even the best team in the league has depth issues.

 Which leads us to the Oilers.

 There are more important players on the Oilers than Shawn Horcoff and Eric Belanger for sure. If Dubnyk or one of the top four D (the bottom pairing guys have shown they are barely capable of playing in the bottom pair) went down then the club would be in deep and while they could likely survive one top six forward going down, more than that would probably do them in too.

 But losing both Horcoff and Belanger at once is bad bad news.

 Belanger was awful last year, mostly due to a bad back, I believe, which apparently bothered him right out of camp. This year though he has been terrific, everything they expected. Big body centre, PK, draws, defensive work. No offence to speak of but he was doing very well until he broke some toes last weekend.

 Gregor said last night on the Tweeter that he will be back on Sunday at the earliest and that a bigger issue than the toes was a 'large open wound' which makes sense, broken toes are nothing, to a professional hockey player anyhow, I would think they would just freeze those suckers. But if this 'wound' doesn't heal quickly then we may be looking at something longterm.

 And longterm is what Horcoff is out for it seems. The captain is despised, because a lot of fans are idiots and don't like his contract (who cares) and think hockey is a video game. 10 is not the player that he once was (you know, the guys who outplayed Joe Thornton in the playoffs the year Thornton won the MVP) but he does those little things and a lot of those big things, that you need to win.

 Read Elliotte Friedman's reaction to Horcoff going down - 'a tough loss' for Edmonton and incredulity at those who don't recognize what he brings to the table.

 So where does that leave the Oilers? Down two of their best four PK men, their best two faceoff men, their best two defensive centres. At least until Sunday, maybe longer.

 Anton Lander is likely back up to stay for a while, centring Paajarvi and Hartikainen. Jean Vande Velde will get the call for Wednesday and Saturday and I presume he will centre Smyth and Petrell. VV can take draws and PK but really he is a beggar's Eric Belanger, if that. Unless he is sheltered or his wings dial it way up he's going to get eaten alive.

 So then what are we looking at?

1/ Both Horcoff and Belanger are out longterm or Belanger comes back and is horrible.

2/ Horcoff is out longterm but Belanger returns and is effective

3/ By some miracle both are back next week.

I don't believe in miracles.

 So if we're looking at option two and Belanger can play then I think we see Lander stay until/unless he starts getting killed, which is very possible, even with a couple of decent wingers, which he rarely had last year.

 If we're looking at the first scenario then I think Tambellini makes a move and soon. I believe his job is on the line if they don't make the playoffs. I may be wrong but I think it is. So as I've said its really win win for us fans.

 The problem is its early and nobody is dumping guys so options are limited. Possibilities being thrown around:

Langkow - he's retired. You might call him but how fit would he be even if he said yes.

Arnott - failed a physical with the Rangers. Probably done.

Dominic Moore - Gregor said that Strudwick said that Moore was one of the worst teammates he ever had fwiw (might explain why he's moved around so much, I always wondered why) but he would be a fit. Having just lost his wife to cancer though I wonder if he will even play this year.

Tim Connolly - playing for the Marlies, I don't know if he has to clear waivers or if the Oilers even want him but buddy is a good player. Good on the PK. Underrated even if he is exile.

Steckel - not playing in Toronto at all. He's a fourth line guy but there are worse options. Don't know much about him but is faceoff wiz and PK guy I believe. Big body.

 I'm sure there are others but pickings are slim. Probably sacrificing a goat is in order.