Saturday, July 27, 2013
The thing is there are more than forty or fifty Oilers' fans and so you find people over the years who believed in everything that Lowe and Tambellini ever did, who thought that the Oilers were a playoff team every fall (man the number of times I was told I was a negative guy who hated the team), who thought that the club would be better if they sent Horcoff and Hemsky and Penner and Gilbert and any player with a modicum of experience straight to the minors and replaced them with Rob Schremp and Colton Teubert (or as Terry Jones once suggested, replace the entire D with any six kids from the WJCs) and okay you get the picture.
And I realized slowly because I am a slow learner that I have more in common with a dirty Flames' fan like Matt Fenwick than with probably a really big number of Oilers' fans.
But ... but, its not just OIler fans but all hockey fans who can tend to be ... well ... dumb.
Don't get me wrong now, I tweeted this and there were some who were taken aback. Obviously not all hockey fans are dumb, lets just say that hockey has more dumb fans than other sports and the dummies are dumber. There's a lot of dumb going on out there. So dumb they spell dumb without the 'b'. Dum.
In no other sport do you get what I referred to above where a lot of fans feel, without a doubt, that the club would be better without its best players. After the Bruins lost to Chicago there were many BRUINS' fans who thought that the best thing for Boston to do was to trade their best player, Zdeno Chara.
Never mind that Chara is one of the best defencemen in the NHL. Never mind that he had played massive minutes through the entire playoff run against the very best their opponents had to offer. Kessel. Nash. Crosby. Malkin. Toews. Hossa. Kane. All this while the Bruins' forwards corps was depleted by injuries and his fellow blueliners were found wanting. And so Chara did his job game after game until both he and Seidenberg wore down and were beaten.
And for this superhuman effort that fell short? Vitriol and calls for his head.
Trade the bum. Because a Bruins' club without Chara, with Seidenberg and Johnny Boychuk in the top pair would be ... well they would be out in the first round is what they would be.
I'm not talking advanced stats here, I am talking common sense and watch the game.
And yet some Pens' fans think trading Crosby and or Malkin would be a good idea. In Toronto its Kessel and Phaneuf in the crosshairs.
The team's best forward and defenceman.
Who would score Kessel's goals? Who would pull down Phaneuf's minutes?
I'm not talking random crazy anonymous commenters here. I am talking about guys I work with, guys I play hockey with. They believe dumping Grabovski was good, that Phaneuf is the problem, that Kessel is the problem, that Sundin was the problem.
Don't get me wrong, Phaneuf has never been as good as his hype and in many ways he reminds me of Bryan McCabe, another high risk high reward guy, a guy with the penchant for the glaring error, a guy who was cast as a number one when maybe he would have best fit as a number two.
But here is the thing. Move out Phaneuf and your top pair is Gunnarsson and Franson (if he doesn't get traded) and then your second pair is Gardiner and Ranger although if Franson gets moved then I guess its Gardiner and Gunnarsson in your top pair and you second pair is .... crap.
Good players don't grow on trees. The Edmonton Oilers are proof of this, spending years moving out good players without replacing them and then having season after season go down the toilet. Anyone watching MacTavish try and fill a roster full of holes this summer can see this. And so as the Leafs dumped a perfectly good centre in Grabovski (17th in goals by a centre over the past three years even with his year just past) and replaced him with a guy who couldn't produce offence getting easy minutes/zone starts with Patrick KANE and Patrick SHARP and who had his lunch eaten by Michael Handzus.
But fans think these types of moves are good moves because of ... intangibles? Because some media guys say so? Because there are thirty GMs and one of them is your GM and thus its a good move because he knows best?
Lets take the case of Ales Hemsky who until the arrival of Taylor Hall was the best Oiler, at times the only good Oiler player, a guy who produced almost a point per game for a garbage team, all while being pounded by the opposition game in and game out while being the only guy they had to key on to stop.
For years fans have been calling for Hemsky's head. He's first off the ice at practice. He's lazy. He's soft. He's not a winner. These are the narratives. Mark Spector tells us so.
And yet what do we know about Ales Hemsky? If you watch him go to the net and into the corners with Robyn Regher and cut across the middle you know he is not soft. He played for weeks on a broken foot in order to try and get the Oilers to the playoffs. When the deadline neared in 2012 teammate after teammate spoke up to the media about the need to extend him.
So who knows better, Mark Spector? The guy in the blog comment thread? The talk radio caller? Or Taylor Hall, Shawn Horcoff and Tom Gilbert who all spoke up about the NEED to keep him in the fold.
Think about that.
Has he won? Well in 2006 he was a huge part of that beauty club. Since then he has not won because his team has been mismanaged and are garbage. So no he hasn't won because hockey isn't tennis or golf. Its a team sport, a sport where one of the best two way players in the game, Jonathan Toews, can go weeks without scoring.
So as I meander around here lets get back to the beginning and lets use Chara as our example.
Since Chara's arrival the Bruins have gone from being a middle of the road club to one of the elite NHL franchises. Only Chicago, with two Cups, has had more success. The Bruins, like Detroit and Pittsburgh, have won a Cup and had an opportunity to win another. Pretty heady company and the future hall of famer Zdeno Chara is a big reason why.
And still, two years after a Cup win, fans are calling for him to get dumped.
Here are some theories.
Media. Hockey media are notoriously terrible. Not all of them of course but watch Hockey Night in Canada. Its almost unbearable once you get by Friedman, MacLean and the production values. They seize on the most ridculous narratives and run with them and the cult of the plug is propagated by its high priest Don Cherry and his acolytes Stock, Healy, Weekes et al. Star players fail and lose their clubs' championships, the muckers and grinders win the Cup. Remember the ridiculous narrative about Shawn Thornton in 2011 and how he turned the tide for the Bruins. Never mind Tim Thomas and Chara and Bergeron and a deep and skilled lineup and the injury to Hamhuis that hobbled the Canucks. It was Shawn Thornton who, what, hit somebody? Fought somebody? I can't remember because it mattered so little.
Cheap shitty narrative.
And these ideas permeate hockey thinking. Mark Spector (such an easy target, sorry) claimed that what the Oilers needed to do earlier this year was put Ben Eager in the top six. Of course Spector is only echoing what Cherry used to say every Saturday night, that Tie Domi, expert self promoter though not much of a hockey player, should be playing alongside Mats Sundin. Leaf fans loved Tie Domi. Mats Sundin not so much. Not a winner.
Some weeks later Eager was waived through the league.
Spector also claimed that the Oilers had to dump their Euros, especially those in their supporting cast (read Paajarvi first of all), his theory being that no team could win with such a makeup.
After Brian Bickell scored to tie game six for Chicago Joel Quennevlle sent his fourth line over the boards to protect the tie and get the game to overtime. On that line - a Swede, Marcus Kruger and a Czech, Michael Frolik. On the blue in support, Chicago's second pair, Oduya and Hjalmarsson. (Also in Chicago's bottom six forwards, another Swede, Stallberg. In their bottom pairing on D, Roscival, another Czech.)
Seventeen seconds later Chicago scored to take the lead. After Boston's timeout Quenneville sent out the same five man unit to protect the Stanley Cup. When they came off with seconds left two more Europeans, Marian Hossa and Michael Handzus, were sent out with Jonathan Toews to finish the Bruins off.
So apparently Spector is wrong? And what about that old saw about Europeans and the Cup. You know where they don't care about it and all that.
Cheap shitty narrative.
Fact: skilled players on your fourth line > facepunchers. While Frolik and Kruger and Bolland were trusted with the Stanley Cup, literally sent out against Lucic and Krejci and Horton with EVERYTHING ON THE LINE, in the second game of a back to back where Toronto had a chance to advance to the second round, Colton Orr was stapled to the bench while his teammates flagged. Would an actual hockey player have made a difference? Maybe not. But common sense says yes, having a guy that the coach could have sent over the boards would have been a good thing.
So for starters you have that. Hockey fans are told over and over again, by a panel of mostly former plugs (Cherry a career AHLer, Weekes and Healy backup goalies, PJ Stock a plug's plug) that plugs are great and skill is soft and never mind the Europeans. Ilya Kovalchuk was reamed in 2012 despite playing through a serious back injury. He had filled the net the first three rounds but was ineffective and suddenly, four wins from the Cup, the narrative stated that he didn't care.
Critical thought folks. Critical thought.
Its not a strong suit in modern society so to expect it in sport may be asking a little much. People generally defer to authority, its in our general nature. People defer to the government, trusting that they are doing right by us. People trust the corporations who steal from us and the unions that steal from us and the media who have their own agenda. As Dave Nonis has blundered time and again this summer his supporters' most common refrain is 'he knows what he is doing, there are only thirty GMs and he is one and what do you know anyhow'.
This ignores the fact that holding a position does not necessarily mean you are good at that position. Mike Milbury. Doug MacLean. John Ferguson Jr. Steve Tambellini. They all say hello.
The best general in World War I, bar none, was a real estate agent from Victoria, Arthur Currie.
I'm not saying I could do the job of a GM, I couldn't, but the idea that a GM is infallible because he is a GM is so obviously ridiculous its not even worth addressing, similar to the idea that one cannot criticize a GM's move because one isn't a GM. That logic leads to this - you could not criticize a band unless you were professional musician, a book unless you were a published author, a business unless you were a businessman and so on.
Dumb. Really really dumb. But people believe this and this line of thinking, again, permeates hockey. Tie Domi used to say 'you never played the game' when he was questioned or criticized.
Hockey is a conservative world, in many ways its a backwards world. The kid who had the shit kicked out of him for snowing a goalie this spring and people saying he had it coming. The idea that a goon who can't play the game and dances with the other team's dancing bear is an integral part of the team when for the first century or so of the game there was no such role. The fact that fans think a guy like Colton Orr and his 'intangibles' matter and that the team would be better without Phaneuf (bad in the room).
I lived in Clearwater Florida for over three years when a very talented Bucs team looked to win their first Super Bowl. They would win it a couple of years after we left but when we were there they always fell short. The city was football crazy and there was anger and frustration but this was directed at the quarterback Trent Dilfer (ironically he would win the Super Bowl with Baltimore) and the coach Tony Dungy (he would also win a Super Bowl in Indy). It was not directed at Warren Sapp and Derek Brooks and Ronde Barber and John Lynch and the many high profile stars on the team. It was not directed at the best players.
When I lived in Toronto in the eighties and early nineties the Blue Jays were a team on the cusp. They collapsed in 1985 and in 1987 and for years they teased the fanbase. Why did they fall short? Their pitching was not good enough and their offence was not deep enough and their defence, especially in the outfield, could be shoddy.
People were disappointed and angry but as a fan from those days (and a young man at that, a little more prone to, lets say, hyperbole and exuberance, as young men tend to be) I can say that there were no calls for George Bell to get run out of town or Dave Stieb or any number of quality players. They may have been flawed but they helped the team win.
Somehow hockey fans though subscribe to this idea that in many cases it is the best player who is the problem when the team fails. It isn't a lack of depth or quality on the club or that they were outplayed or that they were just plain unlucky.
No, its on Zdeno Chara's head that Boston lost and on Crosby's that the Pens failed and on Phaneuf that the Leafs' failures rest.
Posted by Black Dog at 12:08 AM
Wednesday, July 10, 2013
For now though I will write about hockey. This blog started as a blog about life and hockey as well and then it became solely an Oilers' blog and then it went back to its beginnings. Right now I have no happy stories about life, just a terribly sad one and that's for another day, if at all, so hockey it is.
I welcomed the hiring of Craig MacTavish and I have for the most part, been happy with his work so far. Anyone would have been an improvement over Steve Tambellini but by my eye MacTavish has done well. He isn't knocking it out of the park but the team is, at this moment, a better one than the one that finished its seventh year out of the playoffs.
The problem for MacT is that he has a hell of a hill to climb. Its the organization's fault through and through. Go back to 2006 and you had a club that was deep and strong and only needed a good starting goalie to get its shit together. Once Lowe provided that goaltender and they got by Detroit they were on their way.
It takes a special brand of incompetence to take apart a club that should have contended for a number of years after 2006 but Lowe and then Tambo had the right stuff. Little by little they picked at the foundation of the club. They moved stars for futures, most of whom failed, as futures often do. They waited too long to move some guys, gave up too early on others and essentially moved out NHL quality without replacing it for about five years or so. And the end result as one might suspect was a garbage team. Worst in the league.
Now things are getting better, mostly because of an unprecedented run of number one picks. The top six is young and talented. There are so many quality D prospects that it would take a literal disaster for some of them not to pan out. On top of that they have a handful of good solid pieces, guys like Smid and Petry and Dubnyk, to augment the young skill.
The good news for MacT is that this summer is a buyers' market, there is a lot on the market, a lot of clubs with cap issues, guys getting bought out, guys who (you would think, I certainly do) could be had for less than usual. The bad news is that the Oilers had a ton of holes coming out of the season. You don't miss the playoffs seven years running if you're roster is flush and so for MacT tinkering isn't going to get this team anywhere. Add to that the fact that it appears that the decision was made (it seems to be a mutual one) to move Horcoff and Hemsky and suddenly you have two more holes to fill.
And with the Oilers there's an awful lot of noise. There are the relentless cheerleaders who think every move is absolutely wonderful, have proclaimed every summer fantastic since 2006 and think that guys like Mike Brown and Ben Eager are the answer and that you CAN'T WIN WITH EUROS OR SKILL in support roles. You know, like Chicago didn't win with Roscival, Hjalmarsson and Oduya in the bottom two pairs and Frolik, Kruger and Stallberg in their bottom six.
WAIT A SECOND!!!!
And on the other hand you have the cynical doom and gloomers. Some have been worn down by years of losing and others, quite frankly, pan every single move almost immediately. When the team does well its luck. When they make a good move, by any measure, it gets torn down.
This summer where does the truth lie? In between as you might suspect. This team is better but it needs a lot of work, especially in the bottom six up front. A top four D would be lovely as well.
So here is the depth chart coming out of last season in goal.
And now we have:
There was some talk of Dubnyk maybe getting flushed, I never quite got that. Yeah he lets in a softie now and then but with a shitshow in front of him his numbers have been on the rise and they are good numbers. Much like Toronto Edmonton didn't really have a goaltending issue last season. Unlike Toronto they didn't waste assets and cap space trying to shore up the nonissue. And LaBarbera is a nice add, certainly more reliable than Khabibulin. So an A here for not panicking and for bringing in a quality backup for very little.
On D we had:
Schultz elder Schultz younger
So terrible. Basically one top four pairing and six bottom pairing guys (or worse).
Now we have:
Ference Schultz younger
Schultz old Potter
Better? Yes. Ference would have been the third best Dman on the Oilers last year. Is the contract too long? Sure. Would I prefer Ference and a Schultz as the third pair? Absolutely. Andrew Ference has also been in the second pairing of one of the best teams in hockey over the last three years. He's an honest to goodness real NHL defenceman. So yeah he's an upgrade. Contract is too long but for at least a year or two I think he's a top four guy. I would prefer one more move back here and yes I would like to either see a move for a legit top four guy from a cap strapped team or for the club to sign Grabovski and move Gagner for same. Push guys down the depth chart. Failing that sign Tom Gilbert. He was a good defenceman here for years and a short season in which he was both very ill right before the season and unlucky besides (for that matter just a short season period) is no reason to believe that a guy has suddeney stepped into the elevator shaft. Push guys down the depth chart.
So overall a B minus with room still there to move up. Its an improvement but more is needed.
Hall Nugent Hopkins Yakupov
Paajarvi Gagner Eberle
Jones Horcoff Hemsky
Smyth Belanger Petrell
Eager Brown Hordichuk Hartikainen Lander
Your mileage may vary.
Now it stands like so:
Hall Nugent Hopkins Yakupov
Perron Gagner Eberle
Jones Gordon Joensuu
Smyth Lander Brown
Obviously Hemsky would slot higher if he were not to be moved but I have kept him at the outer edges because we want a snapshot of the lineup. And .... up front its not looking so good. I like Perron and he is a clear upgrade over Paajarvi. The top six is set until we see if they can't do the job. Maybe they can't but for now this is the best top six the Oilers have had in years.
The bottom six is a horror show though and again what is needed are additions to push guys down the depth chart. Ryan Jones needs to be on the fourth line, I have no problem with him there. Joensuu, well, I would prefer the same. To think that he is going to play on a shutdown line is a little too optimistic. And the fourth line remains a gong show.
Hemsky needs to bring a quality third line guy back and then ideally they would add another (KULEMIN! KULEMIN!) from a team too dumb to manage an enormous amount of cap space and then they would add a guy like Dave Steckel to push Lander down the chart as well. And then they'd be cooking with gas. Will it happen? No idea but right now up front looks like more of a slight win altogether with Horcoff, and Paajarvi out and Perron and Gordon in. Like I said a reasonable return for Hemsky (and there's no way they go with this third line, right? RIGHT?) makes it better and adding a fourth quality piece would make it a clear win imo.
Really though up front is at best a C until more moves are made and if Hemsky moves out and nobody of quality comes in then its a loss.
Finally about a couple of other things, that is, the coaching and the draft. I liked Ralph Kreuger, he was a bright guy and articulate and like MacT, Quinn and Renney he was dealt shit but like Quinn I suspect that he may have made things worse. I'm not talking about his strange habit of sending out his fourth line to take defensive zone draws after TV timeouts (although DUMB) but rather about his system. Tyler Dellow has done a ton of in depth analysis on the Oilers this past season and really you need to check out his 'big data' series at www.mc79hockey.com - one of the things I drew from this work is that in some cases the issue was the system. It wasn't helping.
Eakins is highly touted and he did a good job of developing young guys. I think he's an improvement. Good on MacT for seeing who he wanted and pulling the trigger. I think this was a very good move. A.
As for the draft well who the hell knows. All I know is it looks like they got a few guys who were ranked pretty highly a little later and to me this is a win. There were no garbage picks early on, so win. And while the Russian kid intrigued me and I would have been happy with him I also know of a few who touted Nurse as the best Dman in the draft, period. I've heard little bad about him. Who knows what happens, we won't know for four, five years, maybe longer. Anyhow overall I'm happy with the draft and the fact that Craig Button hated it probably means its a clear home run. Lets say B.
And that's it, so far.
Posted by Black Dog at 8:48 PM
Friday, July 05, 2013
So Horcoff is the first to go, Ales Hemsky will be next, maybe as early as today, and when Ryan Smyth retires next summer the last link to that wonderful 2006 team, the culmination of 'The Little Team That Could' era, will be gone. Smyth will forever be the face of that time in Oilers' history, the gritty guy who did all of the little things right and built an excellent career which included three appearances in best on best tournaments. Fans today look at Smyth and see the shell of a guy who was once a truly great player and they bitch and moan because they are idiots. There was a wonderful post at Oilers' Nation last season talking about Smyth which should be required reading for any Oilers' fan or for that matter any fan.
Shawn Horcoff was never quite the player Ryan Smyth was and when that big contract was signed (and when it was signed people forget that the vast vast majority of fans and media approved of it) it cast the die - he would never be as loved either. Tyler Dellow does a wonderful job of talking about Horcoff, no surprise of course, and I won't try and rehash the same arguments, there is no point. Everyone who comes here goes there but if you don't please take the time to do so.
I was always a Horcoff fan and I've never understood the vitriol directed towards him. Fans worry about how much these guys make, as if it matters, in Horcoff's case it never did. He was paid based on the fact that at the time he was a pretty good number one centre. Two years prior, in fact, he had been the number one centre on a team that came within a bounce or two of winning the Stanley Cup and on that glorious run he had outplayed, amongst others, Joe Thornton. After he got paid he got hurt a lot but mostly he ended up playing on terrible team after terrible team, quite often with horrible linemates.
And you know what? He never complained. Have you ever played for a horrible team? If you have then you know how absolutely discouraging it is to get smoked night in and night out. Now imagine that's your job and for seven years, the meat of your career. Every winter your team is full of no hopers and you get crushed almost every night and management sits on their hands the entire time while you get older and start to slow down and every spring you watch the playoffs and know that its not your lot again. He got paid well for those years, as we know, but that wouldn't make it an easy thing to take.
What I liked about Horcoff was that he was everyman. Smytty was touted as everyman but Smytty had pedigree from the get go, a junior star and high draft pick and World Juniors' gold medallist and as his career moved along he played with Doug Weight and captained Team Canada and played at the Olympics and World Cup. So in other words while the style of his game was what we could relate to - the blood and sweat, the corner work, the standing in front of the net, the garbage goals - Smyth was always one of the chosen ones.
Horcoff on the other hand was the ninety ninth pick overall, a fourth rounder, you know one of those type of picks that Tambo gave up willy nilly for guys you could grab off the waiver wire any day of the week. He went to college and went to the minors and when he came up he started on the fourth line and he worked and worked and worked his way up the lineup. He wasn't a big thumper and if you look at that highlight reel above you will note that, like Smyth, nearly all of his goals came from about five feet out or less, from the dirtiest of areas, including that sweetest of all goals against San Jose, the biggest goal for the Oilers since the glory days. Without that goal San Jose might go up three to nothing and the run ends in round two. Instead it carries on into history.
So Horcoff won faceoffs and blocked shots and killed penalties. He won puck battles along the boards and in the corners and he went to the net and he picked up his man. He was a beautiful skater and an underrated passer and as a captain, well, he was excellent. He stood up and talked to the media mooks, loss after loss, and he worked his ass off and played through pain and he taught the wonderful kids what it means to be a professional hockey player.
He didn't have the blistering accurate shot as his detractors love to point out. He didn't have the skill of Ales Hemsky, able to turn entire teams inside out with a nod and a smile. He wasn't a crasher and banger.
He just did all of those other things and he did them at a high level, all the time carrying himself with dignity. He has played a dozen seasons in the NHL, has scored over 150 goals, went to the Stanley Cup final and an All Star Game, captained the Oilers and won two gold medals and a silver representing Canada at the World Championships.
And he achieved all of this through plain old hard work. Its a shame that he was pilloried by the fans. Its insulting that the majority of the media in Edmonton pushed the '7 million dollar man' story and never looked deeper but then again expectations for a group led by Mark 'Ben Eager is a top six forward' Spector and Terry 'any six WJC D are better than the Oilers' D' Jones should be kept reasonable. As in have none.
Good luck to our man from Minsk. He gave it his all and as a fan there is nothing more I would ask for.
I don't see a Cup run in Dallas' near future so here is hoping that in spring of 2015 he gets moved to Chicago or Los Angeles or one of those quality clubs and that when Toews or Brown or whomever picks up that Cup and raises it over their head as the crowd roars he then turns and shouts 'Horc! Get over here!'
Posted by Black Dog at 8:13 AM