If I’ve got it right (and even TSN’s Bob McKenzie’s confused on this whole issue), the Anaheim Ducks DON’T need to get rid of Mathieu Schneider’s contract, meaning that they can create the most fear-inducing blueline in the NHL. However, is it the best defense we’ve seen in recent years? Here’s some food for thought:

2000-2001 Colorado Avalanche
Ray Bourque (age 40): In Ray Bourque’s final season, he wasn’t playing to the quality of his prime but he was still in the top tier of NHL defensemen, and he had the point totals to back it up. Most notably, Bourque, like Nicklas Lidstrom today, was a total package that allowed his game to adapt as his body changed. Even at 40, he was still capable of being most team’s #1 defenseman.

Rob Blake (age 31): By this time, Rob Blake was always considered “one of” the best defensemen in the league, but he was never “the best” of the best. Still, that’s nothing to knock, considering that at the time, he was a true #1 defenseman with a monster shot, superb power play instincts, and a good hard hipcheck that not enough people did. It’s hard to believe how bad young Blake was in the early NHL video games (dear lord, he was slow).

Adam Foote (age 29): Adam Foote never put up the numbers the way that some of his contemporaries did, but back in the pre-lockout era, Foote in his prime was a fierce shutdown defenseman who could kick the crap out of you as easily as he could stick check you. His play was never vaunted on a Scott Stevens-type level, which meant that Foote was never really a Norris candidate, but if you asked any coach today if they could go to war with Foote in his prime, they’d make it an emphatic yes.

2007-08 Anaheim Ducks
Chris Pronger (age 33): Big, mean, talented, and a little temperamental, Chris Pronger continues to show why he’s the complete package on the blueline. He can make tape-to-tape outlet passes, his long reach can make impossible poke checks feasible, and his defensive instincts can stifle even the most talented individuals. Sure, his temper gets the better of him, and you can say that he should be suspended more often, but there’s no doubt that he’s been a worthy Norris candidate for each season in his prime.

Scott Niedermayer (age 34): In my opinion, with all due respect to Lidstrom, no blueliner can control a game like Scott Niedermayer. It starts with the skating — or the fact that pretty much no one can skate like him. It’s speed, swiftness, and grace, combined with immense stick skills and hockey sense, and with that, Niedermayer can basically create a play all by himself or he can single-handedly bail his team out of a bad break.

Mathieu Schneider (age 38): Schneider may never make it to the Hockey Hall of Fame, but he definitely will make it into the USA Hockey Hall of Fame. He’s still got his offensive instincts and is a worthy power play contributor, but even in his prime, Schneider was never the most feared defenseman out there. Still, at 38, he’s a better #2 defenseman than a lot of team’s #1’s.

If we could time travel back to 2001 and you told any hockey fan that the Avs HOF defense wouldn’t be as good as the 2007 Anaheim Ducks, they’d probably scoff at you (after first correcting you with “Mighty Ducks of Anaheim”). However, when you line it up like this, the two-headed Norris monster of Pronger and Niedermayer is better than aging Bourque and in-his-prime Blake. Foote and Schneider represent different types of skill sets, and I’d give the advantage to Foote at 29 over Schneider at 38, but it’s hard to argue with Anaheim’s two #1’s.

And if you really wanted to break it down even further, you could look at the Avs’ mix of Martin Skoula, Jon Klemm, or Greg deVries as their #4 guy vs. Anaheim’s Francois Beauchemin. But for now, I’ll just leave it at that.

Do you think there’s a blueline in modern NHL memory that’s topped the Anaheim roster? Debate it out in the comments.


Definitions

07Dec07

Folks, before we all get on the “Marc Crawford is Hitler” bandwagon, let’s remember some key vernacular surrounding our beloved game:

“Punish him” = Check a player hard every time he touches the puck
“Pay the price” = Fight through physical adversity, like a forward battling for position in the slot OR get a player to drop the gloves in retribution for some event during a prior game

Nowhere have I ever seen or heard anything synonymous with “Sucker punch the guy in the back of the head, then drive his skull into the ice to break his neck.” If Marc Crawford pointed to Steve Moore’s number and said that Moore must pay the price, I’m pretty sure Crawford was telling his defense to check him hard whenever they got the chance, and if there was an opportunity to get him to drop the gloves, then go for it. However, I’m 99.999999999% certain that Crawford’s subtext did not translate into what actually happened.

That little bit of mental connect-the-dots all happened in the mind of one Todd Bertuzzi. Look, you can blame Crawford and the organization for not saying, “We faced them once after he hit Naslund, it’s done with and we’ll let it go.” You can blame them for creating an atmosphere where for one fraction of a second, a little miswiring in Todd Bertuzzi’s brain thought that this was justified. But to say that Crawford goaded Bertuzzi into almost killing Moore? That’s just absurd. Circumstances contribute to everything we say and do, but ultimately, we can only control our own decisions and attitude.

In this case, Bertuzzi made the absolute wrong choice.


Coaching styles

06Dec07

Thanks to the different news bits from today’s Kukla’s Korner, we got a nice cross-section of how coaches are reacting. First off, a little bit of motivation from Mike Keenan:

“You won one game, big (expletive) deal!Do it right!” screamed coach Mike Keenan in the middle of the Calgary Flames practice yesterday….

Holy rage, Batman. Good to see Keenan’s still up to form. What was all that stuff about him mellowing out?

Let’s check in to see how things are going down south with our favorite humorist, John Tortorella. If you haven’t been following the news, Torts was expressing his anger at some media types by calling them clowns. Today, some of the media decided to play a practical joke on Torts to see if he would be like Mitt Romney and lighten up slightly.

A day after the whole media clowns thing, we decide it would be funny if when coach Tortorella came in to meet with reporters today after practice at the St. Pete Times Forum, we all would wear red clown noses. Low and behold, one of the media relations people for the Lightning said he had a box of red noses from when the circus was in town, and he runs to his office to get them.

So Torts comes into the meeting room, looks at four people with red noses, breathes deeply and says, “Great guys. Can we get going here, please. I have things to do.”

Didn’t even break a grin.

Wow. Someone forgot his happy pills this morning. What about you, Ron Wilson, what did you do the other day?

And when he was finished, he told the players “do whatever you want” and skated away.

I did that to my brother once when I was mad at him. It involved many more expletives, though. Maybe that means I can be an NHL coach someday. Let’s check in on Mr. Hardass himself, Ken Hitchcock.

Hitchcock would not get into detail about his message, he only hinted: “Let’s just say we don’t have many of those over the course of the season, but today was one of those. A heart-to-heart.”

A heart-to-heart? You mean one of those motivational speeches we only see in sports movies? Where’s the yelling? Where’s the name-calling? Where’s the cursing? Well, Hitch’s boys are doing more with a lot less on paper than Wilson, Tortorella, or Keenan while showing a lot of heart, so maybe those other coaches can try going with the tender approach.


Thanks Tom!

04Dec07

I had listened to the HNIC piece on bloggers but I didn’t see the actual video until today. Thanks to Tom Benjamin’s blog roll, I was pseudo-featured for a few seconds around the seven-minute mark. Ron didn’t click on me, but he seemed to be focusing more on the Canadian bloggers/market. It’s too bad they didn’t click on the Battle of California; I would have loved to see Earl Sleek’s greatest hits make it on to the CBC.


Recent reports coming out of the NHL Board of Governors meetings have an interesting tidbit regarding the whole “hits to the head” issue that has plagued the league so far. Apparently, the players themselves are finally waking up to the whole lack-of-respect notion within the league, and new PA head honcho Paul Kelly wants the players to have input on discipline regarding these situations.

Remember the age-old adage of “Let the players police themselves”? That used to mean Marty McSorely riding shotgun with Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri. Now, it looks like it’ll mean something else.

How much involvement will the players have? That’s still to be determined, but it’s a positive step forward for a group of guys that seem hell-bent on their own win-at-all-costs destruction rather than looking at the bigger picture of player safety. Still, the idea seems to be a Pandora’s Box of internal strife waiting to explode for the PA. Think about it this way — for every bad hit that’s happened over the past few seasons, you’ve had some players talking about how hits to the head are just part of the game and the victim’s responsibility for being aware of his surroundings. Then you’ve got the other group of players, usually the skill players, who talk about how this is eventually going to lead to paralysis or worse, death.

So what happens when you have these two different groups — and there’s no real way to get a true sense of how big each one is — being involved in the actual discipline process? Will the game wind up taking a more protective stance or will it be pushed into more of “responsibility of the person who gets hit” mode of thinking?

Here’s an idea that will probably never come to pass but it would hold the players accountable for their own safety. Paul Kelly and the PA want to participate in discipline? Fine; how about a 50% share? Under this idea, any time a dirty play goes into league/PA review, the PA gets to make a first vote at what the severity of the punishment is:

A) 0-5 games
B) 6-10 games
C) 11-15 games
D) 16-20 games
E) 21-25 games
F) 25+ games

With the Internet, it’s easy to get votes tabulated. Logistically, let’s say that players have two days to visit a special PA web page with video of the hit. All they do is fill out an online poll — you snooze, you lose, and your voice isn’t heard — and the most popular range of suspension games is forwarded to Colin Campbell, who determines a final number.

Do you think Sean Avery will vote the same as someone with a concussion history, such as Paul Kariya? If a player on the Hurricanes makes a bad hit to throw someone into the boards headfirst, will Erik Cole support his teammate or look at his own injury history and vote accordingly? A player-involved discipline system like this would force many players to look in the mirror and decide where their allegiances are: to their fellow players, to their teammates, to themselves, or to the game?

I don’t think something like this would ever come to fruition because it’s just too radical a change, and we all know how glacially the NHL likes to move over major changes. Most likely, Colin Campbell will wind up meeting with a group of PA representatives and get their input. However, if that’s the case, you’ll never get a true sampling of what the PA’s constituency really cares about: safety and respect or their own win-at-all-costs impulses. They want a voice? Let’s give them a voice.


With word coming out that the NHL will reevaluate (re: probably not bother with) the league’s participation in the 2014 Winter Olympics, it looks like this grand ol’ experiment may finally be coming to a close. The final verdict? On the ice, NHL participation in the Olympics was a resounding success filled with swift skating, passionate hitting, beautiful passes, and clutch plays. What other tournament could motivate Teemu Selanne to skate at full speed while trying to knock future-teammate Chris Pronger off the puck? Where else could a team from Belarus destroy a goalie’s confidence and career with a single shot? How else could an entire country live (Canada 2002) and die (Canada 1998) in a two-week span?

The players took the tournament nearly as seriously as the Stanley Cup Playoffs, meaning that every save, every hit, and every goal was an absolute battle. For anyone who took the time to watch, almost every game was a beauty to watch.

That’s on the ice. Off the ice? It’s hard to actually put a metric to any sort of tangible success, but the verdict is almost unanimously considered a big bust — or at the very least, pretty darn disappointing.

Sparked by the media frenzy created by the NBA’s Dream Team, the 1998 Nagano Olympics were to be a test run for the 2002 Salt Lake City games. In Nagano, the hockey may have been fantastic, but the TV ratings weren’t — with Canada knocked out by the Czechs and Team USA too busy having a frat party in the Olympic Village, only die-hard hockey fans were intrigued by how far Dominik Hasek could take the emerging Czech team. However, 2002 set the stage up with plenty of drama: USA vs. Canada, both teams looking for redemption in front of one of the largest combined audiences for hockey in North America.

For one afternoon, hockey was king in the US. Then it came and went, the NHL resumed business as usual, and rather than experiencing a bump in ratings, the NHL was its normal self in the television landscape. In other words, not very good. Sure, more people may have known who Chris Chelios and Mario Lemieux were, but they weren’t tuning into regular season or the Stanley Cup playoffs.

And that’s the crux of this problem. With 2010 in Vancouver, the NHL will now have had two chances to try to use Olympics on North American soil as the ultimate advertisement for the game. Will HD broadcasts and a new media landscape change things? Probably not; in fact, with the increasing fragmentation of communication and attention spans, you’ll probably get more of the same: decent ratings if it’s a US-Canada final, then no real significant bump.

By 2010, other measurements may determine how valuable this experiment is for the NHL. Web traffic, online advertisers, video streams, all of that will have more of a prominent revenue stake than before. But the bottom line is that while this tournament produces some of the best hockey you’ll ever see, it doesn’t really help out the NHL’s business plan.

In fact, some may argue that it actually hurts some markets. After all, after seeing the best hockey in the world, who will want to tune in to a no-offense, go-nowhere team wasting away at the bottom of the standings? A great songwriter once wrote, “If I hadn’t seen such riches, I could live with being poor,” and that’s how a number of casual fans could feel depending on how the team in their marketplace is doing.

Ultimately, 2014 will be based on the success of 2010. If the NHL sees a resurgence in popularity similar to the infamous 1994 Sports Illustrated cover that proclaimed “Why the NHL’s hot and the NBA’s not,” then it might make sense to really have a showcase that can be a magnet for casual viewers. The other thing to consider is that while the situation may not be a moneymaker for the North American market (Canada being maxed out, America being somewhat apathetic), all sports leagues are seeing significant growth in overseas revenue thanks to international satellite broadcasts and online communication. If the league can make a significant increase in its international revenue, especially from hotbeds like Sweden and the Czech Republic, it might be worth the effort to have a cross-timezone stoppage.

In a perfect world, the decision would be based solely on the on-ice product, meaning that tournament participation would continue. When judged by the almighty dollar, the path is uncertain. The alternative is to have the Olympics be a glorified version of the World Junior Championship — which would still produce some dynamite hockey — while the NHLers continue to play in the on-again-off-again World Cup tournament.

However you slice it, though, a World Cup tournament in September just doesn’t hold the same mystique as playing on the biggest sports stage in the world. Still, you have to start tradition somewhere, and perhaps such a tournament really is the only logistical way to get a happy medium for everyone.


Promising goalie is mired in backup position, then gets dealt away for next to nothing and inspires team to become a whole lot better. We’ve heard this story before; in fact, it was just a few seasons ago where Miikka Kiprusoff was mired in the backup role for the San Jose Sharks. While whispers around the team had Kiprusoff’s talents pegged as even better than starter Evgeni Nabokov, Kiprusoff’s one chance at taking the role (with Nabokov in a contract dispute) was blown with a horrendous effort in the disaster 2002-2003 season.

Soon after, no one wanted to touch Kiprusoff with a 20-foot pole…no one, that is, except for his ex-coach recently relocated to Calgary. A second-round pick later and you know the rest of the story: awards, ridiculous stats, and a trip to the Stanley Cup final.

Will Ilya Bryzgalov take the Phoenix Coyotes to the Cup final in his first season? Probably no, but you never know in today’s NHL. Still, Bryzgalov’s move to the desert via waivers brings up some echoes of the Kiprusoff transaction. The difference lay in the circumstances: Kiprusoff’s stock was at an all-time low with an awful 2002-2003 season where he earned the nickname Kipru-Soft among Sharks fans while Bryzgalov has won a few playoff series and been mired in a minor goalie controversy out in Anaheim. The similarities, however, are there: like Kiprusoff, Bryzgalov is approaching his prime during the move and was snagged for next to nothing.

Bryzgalov’s talent has never been questioned. His sustainability? That’s another issue. As with all backups-turned-starters, there’s never any certainty as to who can carry the ball for the long haul. Kiprusoff is at one end of the spectrum while countless others who showed promise at one time — Brian Boucher, Steve Shields, Kevin Weekes, Dan Cloutier — have ranged anywhere from disappointment to disaster.

Why is Bryzgalov’s journey going to be any different? For one thing, Bryzgalov’s done his share of consistent playing while Jean-Sebastian Giguere’s been injured. That means that Bryzgalov has replicated the starter’s role by successfully putting together streaks of games, and his games-played totals are hefty for a backup role: 31 games in 2005-2006 and 27 games in 2006-2007. During the 2005-2006 season, Bryzgalov was also the anchor for 11 playoff games.

It helps that Bryzgalov’s got a solid (but underrated) defense group in front of him. Ed Jovanovski’s playing almost to the same level as his heyday in Vancouver, Derek Morris has been surprisingly consistent, and Keith Ballard and Zbynek Michalek are living up to their potential. Nick Boynton’s not as valuable in the post-lockout era as he used to be, but he still provides a steady, physical presence, while Matt Jones and Brendan Bell can be trusted despite their relative inexperience. It’s a step down from having Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer guarding the blueline, but as a group, the Coyotes’ defense is better than most people think.

Will Bryzgalov keep up his blazing hot start (1.23 GAA, .954 save percentage)? Probably not. After all, even the best falter at some time. However, Bryzgalov’s career stats show that he’s consistent, and as he enters the prime of his career with a young team that’s a lot hungrier than it was before, the cards are lined up for some surprising success out in the desert. Strong teams are built from the crease out, and with Phoenix’s emerging blueline supporting Bryzgalov, it’s up to the young forwards, led by Peter Mueller and Martin Hanzel, to come through and give the Coyotes some more offensive weapons besides Shane Doan.

Now if only someone can get Wayne Gretzky to stop all that anger from behind the bench, things might really be looking rosy in Phoenix.




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