Friday, August 31, 2007

Game 3: Canada-Russia Super Series

On Wednesday, Team Canada took a 2-0 series lead over Team Russia at the Canada-Russia Super Series. They have left Ufa for Omsk, the hometown of Russian star Alexei Cherepanov. Will Team Canada continue to play a physical game, despite the travel schedule? How will the arena’s condition in Omsk compare to that in Ufa? Will the Russians use their anger and frustration in a positive way, or will their game continue to suffer? And will Cherepanov’s absence hurt the team, or be a rallying point for the rest of the troops?

The final score of Game 3 was 6-2 for Canada, but the Canadians did not play their best game.

Today’s game featured Leland Irving in goal. The question going into the game was if he would be able to match Mason and Bernier’s strong performances. He certainly entered the game with a lot of pressure on his shoulders, and his first game at this level of competition was good overall. The two goals that he let in were not great by any means, but the Russians held a huge shot differential over the Canadians at the end of the 2nd period: 24 for Russia and only 10 for Canada. I think that Irving held his own today, and Brent Sutter will be happy with his decision to start the goalie rotation over to let all three netminders play again in the series.

Contrast this to Russia’s goaltending situation. For some reason, Semen Varlamov started in goal today, despite his poor performance in Game 1. He played 20 minutes, faced 4 shots, allowed 3 goals, and was replaced in favour of Vadim Zhelobnyuk. I somehow doubt that we’ll be seeing Varlamov again in this Super Series.

Team Canada had a very good first period and demonstrated their skill when cycling the puck in the offensive zone. As a result, they were rewarded with 3 goals in the first period, versus one shortie for the Russians.

The second period was much different, as the Russians definitely stepped up their game and played their best period of the entire Super Series. They scored again, and I thought that Canada might have been letting up a little on the gas.

The Canadians sealed their victory in the third period with three unanswered goals, the first two coming within a minute of each other. The Russian offence really appeared to fizzle and they looked tired and frustrated after Canada scored goals 4 and 5 – they lost that spark that carried them through the first two periods.

Defensively, Canada has kept it up. Drew Doughty is one amazing kid, with an awareness that is rarely seen in a young defenceman – I think Pierre McGuire might be right when he says that he could go first overall in next year’s draft. Josh Godfrey is another D-man who was very visible today after sitting out the second game, and I bet his point shot is the envy of many players. Sutter and Legein continue to impress me with their defensive play. Sutter is so great with his stick and body positioning, and you don’t need to worry about turnovers when he is on the ice.

From a physical point of view, this game was not as nasty as the previous game, but the physical tone was still very much present. Canada kept blocking shots and delivering the body checks. The Russians seemed to step it up in the first two periods, but they are running into serious injury trouble. Not only is Cherepanov out for the series, but a number of other players, including Anisimov, hurt themselves today. This makes a bad situation even worse for Team Russia.

There are a number of things that Canada did well today, but the biggest was…Special teams, special teams, and special teams: Canada was able to kill off 13 penalties, including three 2-man disadvantages, and they scored four power play goals. It can’t get much better than that.

Things that Canada needs to work on for Game 4:
- Icing the puck. They still need to take that extra step because the linesmen are using magnifying glasses down there.
- Penalties. The players are still taking way too many penalties, and they had three 2-man disadvantages in the first 2 periods today. I know that the referees are making phantom calls now and then, but this is still unacceptable. And Brad Marchand needs to keep himself in check because he received his second 10-minute misconduct in as many games. He’s an important player on the team, but he can’t do much if he’s sitting in the box.

My stars of the game:
* Claude Giroux, for finally getting a goal (from his knees, no less) after being snake-bitten for 8 periods.
** Brandon Sutter
*** Kyle Turris, cuz this kid’s amazing

Honourable mention to Stefan Legein, who scored his third goal in as many games.

Game 4 kicks off tomorrow morning at 7AM AT on TSN. Will Canada be able to sweep the games in Russia?

Cherepanov done after just 2 games at the Super Series

Alexei Cherepanov, superstar forward for Team Russia, is out for the rest of the Super Series with a concussion. He sustained the concussion in the first period of Wednesday's loss when Brandon Sutter caught Cherepanov with his head down and delivered a crushing hit.

He didn't take part Friday in the morning skate, and officials for Team Russia are saying that he's still in the hospital.

I have to wonder about the severity of this concussion. On the one hand, the team would not want to lose their star player for the entire series, because it will be that much harder to succeed at all. But let's say that team officials are really beginning to doubt whether they can succeed, and they worry that the Canadians will go after Cherepanov even more as the series wears on. There are six games left, four of which are on Canada's home turf, so you know that Team Canada will be even more aggressive in front of their fans. Perhaps Cherepanov's RSL team quietly said that they don't want their star player to lose his entire season with the club and that he should be pulled from the team.

Ordinarily I don't question a player's health when it comes to concussions, but this one just struck me as being a little bit off. Cherepanov actually played his best hockey of the Series after Brandon Sutter hit him in the opening frame on Wednesday. Sure, he made a few lazy plays, but he had a number of shifts that were really good, if not great. He wasn't knocked out, he didn't have any balance problems (certainly not like Seidenberg of Germany, who was on the wrong end of a Shea Weber hit at Worlds this spring), and frankly, he looked okay on the ice for over 40 minutes of play. The fact that he's still in the hospital would suggest that he sustained a serious injury, so why was he able to play for so long after being hurt?

Maybe I don't know anything here...maybe Cherepanov is really hurt, and maybe my 'pro-Team Canada' attitude has clouded my judgment, but something just smells a little fishy here. I mean, shouldn't Team Russia be calling for some kind of suspension on Sutter? I haven't heard anything yet on that front.

Update: According to Pierre McGuire of TSN, the Russians did call for a suspension of Brandon Sutter, but they didn't get it. In addition, there are rumours in Russia that one of the reasons why Cherepanov isn't playing anymore in this series is because of a confrontation with his coach. Apparently the Russian coaches called out their star players for not producing, and Cherepanov wasn't happy about this.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Canucks show off their new threads

The Vancouver Canucks unveiled their new uniforms on Wednesday before a crowd of 8,500 fans at GM Place.

Captain Markus Naslund (left), along with fan favourites Trevor Linden, Willie Mitchell, Kevin Bieksa, and Mattias Ohlund, modelled the uniforms for the crowd.

The logo on the front of the jersey is still the orca (yay), while the original hockey stick logo can be found on the shoulders.

The colour scheme is the same that was used 37 years ago, when the Canucks first entered the NHL - blue, green and white.

One glaring difference is the addition to 'Vancouver' above the orca logo. I'm not quite sure about this addition - it's a bit much on the front - but overall, the jerseys look good. I like the colour scheme and I like how the 'powers that be' kept the logos. A lot of fans really don't care for these new unis, but I think that they will mellow in the next few months.

After all, it's not like Vancouver reverted back to the red, orange and black of the 1980's.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Perdita Felicien wins silver at Worlds

Perdita Felicien is finally on the upswing after disaster struck three years ago.

Felicien was in the final of the 100m hurdles at the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens. She was expected to win gold for Canada, but she tripped. In that split second, Felicien saw her Olympic dreams vanish and she was left injured. Her injuries kept her out of commission for months and her confidence was shattered. She didn't even qualify for the finals for the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki, Finland.

Fast forward to the summer of 2007 and things are different for Felicien. She won Nationals, captured the silver at last month's Pan Am Games in Rio de Janeiro, and now she placed second at the 2007 World Championships in Japan - on her 27th birthday, no less.

"This silver is like a gold for me. I just wanted to bring something to Canada," she said following her race.

Felicien has her eyes firmly set on next year's Olympic Games in Beijing, China. She may not be favoured to win gold at the Games in August 2008, but I have a feeling that she will turn heads with her performance.

Nothing like crashing in the finals at the Olympics to make you want to win it all the next time around.

And I hope that she shows everyone that she still has what it takes to be a champion.

Game 2: Canada-Russia Super Series - Keep your head up, Cherepanov!

On Monday, Team Canada overcame an early 2-0 goal deficit against Team Russia to win the game by a score of 4-2. How did Canada fare in the second game of the Canada-Russia Super Series? Was Jonathan Bernier of the Lewiston MAINEiacs as solid a goaltender as Mason? Did Canada learn how to stay out of the penalty box? And could the Canadians manage to capitalize on the power play?

I guess things clicked once again on Team Canada’s bench, as they won Game 2 by a score of 3-0.

Visibility was certainly an issue in this game, as the high humidity in the arena created a thick fog. All they needed was a bat flying around…Nevertheless, it didn’t seem like the players were hindered by the conditions.

Bernier is a terrific goalie for Lewiston, no doubt about that, but I was a touch concerned because he hadn’t played since suffering a high ankle sprain during the Memorial Cup playoffs. His right leg seemed to bother him a bit in practice, but his performance today shows that he was ready to play. He wasn’t very busy in the first period, with only 4 shots on goal, but he did make a number of really great saves in the game. He offered very few rebounds, and he remained calm while the players around him were exploding. Considering he earned a shut out in the fog, wow.

I mentioned on Monday that I wanted Canada to create more chances in their own end because the Russians had about 40 shots on goal in Game 1. Looks like I got my wish today. Team Canada frustrated the Russians with their constant puck pressure, and they had many quality chances. The thing that I like is that it wasn’t just one or two guys who were great on offence, it was at least half of the team. Players like Tavares, Turris, Legein, Perron, Marchand, and Gagner all played a skillful game. And Perron’s goal in the dying minutes of the 3rd period is worthy of the highlight reel – like Kyle Wellwood’s goal in the World Juniors in Halifax. Simply amazing. If it wasn’t for the Russian goaltender Bobrovsky playing so well, this game could have easily been 8-0.

I was a bit worried about Canada’s power play, but they managed to get that going, thanks to a first period goal by Kyle Turris. Now if only they could get a few more.

As far as defence goes, Canada has definitely gotten better. Doughty’s vision and passing ability makes him a great player that should be a high draft pick next summer, and he partners very well with Alzner. The other D-men are also playing very well and keeping the Russians in check.

All players are becoming more and more defensively responsible, which is no surprise considering Brent Sutter is behind the bench. Turnovers were not a problem today, as players are starting to chip the pucks in deep to avoid turning it over in the neutral zone – Tavares is one player who has gotten much better in this department.

Penalty killing? Not a problem. Canada took less penalties this time around, with 10 (one being a 10-minute misconduct for Marchand), and there were less undisciplined penalties.

Three words describe the physical presence of Canada on the ice: oh…my…goodness. Brandon Sutter, who is 6-foot-3 and only 170 lbs, really laid the body on the Russians to stop them dead in their tracks. He caught Cherepanov with his head down and just crunched him on open ice, and repeated this action later in the game with another Russian player. The atmosphere between the teams is definitely getting nasty. The Russians are angry and frustrated and I expect it to get worse as the series moves to Omsk on Friday.

A word about the Russians: their play seemed to be a bit disorganized for most of the game. Cherepanov was definitely more visible today, and he had a few good shifts, but he also made a number of lazy plays that led to turnovers. I know that the Russians have a really good team, but I just haven’t seen them play really well for an extended period of time. If they’re smart, they’ll keep Bobrovsky in goal.

What did Canada do right? Just about everything…

What to work on for Friday’s game – not icing the puck. When Canada dumps the puck in before going for a line change, they have to be careful to take that extra step. The linesmen virtually have magnifying glasses when it comes to making icing calls.

Brent Sutter and his coaching staff should also work with the players to make sure that they don’t get over-confident in this series. A cocky attitude could really flip the momentum back to the Russians.

My stars of the game:
* David Perron
** Jonathan Bernier
*** Stefan Legein

Face-off for Game 3 is Friday at 9AM AT on Rogers Sportsnet.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Game 1: Canada-Russia Super Series

August 27th, 2007: the day the Canada-Russia Super Series opened, and also the day the new rink opened in Ufa, Russia - with the last-minute help of the Russian Army, equiped with tools. Nothing like playing hockey on brand-spanking-new ice when the temperature indoors nearing 100F. Makes for a lot of bouncing pucks...

To be honest, I expected Russia to have the clear edge in this game. The Russians had practiced together for a longer period of time, they had played two exhibition games together against RSL teams, they weren’t fighting a 10 hour time change, and they were playing to a home crowd. I thought that the Canadians would likely lose the game, but take the opportunity to work the bugs out and try to develop some team chemistry.

I definitely didn’t expect Canada to win the game 4-2.

I don’t think that I can say enough good things about goaltender Steve Mason. He displayed a calmness in the net that would make most NHL goalies envious, and this calmness was evident from the very start. He let in two goals in the first 10 minutes of the game, and I thought that this was more a reflection how the team was playing as a whole. Mason should have stopped the second Russian goal, but he didn’t let this mistake rattle him. His positioning in the net was excellent and it allowed him to stop shot upon shot, without rebounds. Goalies Leland Irving and Jonathan Bernier will also get starts in net in Games 2 and 3, but they will have a tough time stealing the job from Mason after that.

As alluded to, Canada didn’t start the game on a good note. The team as a whole appeared nervous, which led to many turnovers and bad penalties. Coach Sutter wanted Team Canada to set the tone of the tournament by really playing a physical game with Russia, but that physical element was absent on the Canadian side in the first portion of the first period – it was Russia who laid the body on Canada. After Russia scored their 2nd goal of the game, a power play goal at 10 minutes, Stefan Legein responded by scoring a goal for Canada. Just 45 seconds later, Kyle Turris was awarded a penalty shot, which he capitalized on. These goals helped Canada to gain confidence, and the tables started to turn in their favour.

The second period saw Canada extend their lead by two goals, thanks to contributions by Brad Marchand (the only Maritimer in the Series) and Sam Gagner – they each had a goal and an assist in the 2nd period. There was clear chemistry among the players, and they all stepped up their play. Canada wanted the puck, and they played well with (and without) it. This attitude continued into the third period, which saw the Russians play with a desperate tone and begin diving to try to draw penalties.

Canada often gets into penalty trouble on the international stage – like at this year’s World Championships – and this game was no different. There were 14 penalties called on Canadian players, two of them being called while Canada was already shorthanded, leaving Russia with 12 power play opportunities and two 2-man advantages. By comparison, Canada had 5 power plays. What saved Canada was their PK, as they allowed only 1 power play goal in the game. Claude Giroux and Turris seemed to work well together on the PK, and Brandon Sutter played a top-notch defensive game.

The big question mark over Canada’s head coming into this game was defence, and I thought that Canada’s D was pretty good today. The Karl Alzner/Drew Doughty tandem worked well, and the defencemen seemed to be in position to help Mason most of the time. What certainly helped were the defensive forwards – the shut down line of Milan Lucic, Sutter and Legein were effective in containing Alexei Cherepanov, who was virtually invisible in this game. Since Coach Sutter places such a high priority on defensive responsibility, I’d look for Canada’s defence to get stronger as the Series rolls on.

There are a number of things that Canada did right in this game:

- players blocked shots

- they set a physical tone (although it did only come late in the first period)

- they won key face-offs, and

- they kept their composure when behind or on the PK.

In order to have continued success in the Series, Canada must decrease the number of turnovers. They must also adjust their game so as to not take as many penalties, while still keeping a physical game – international referees prove time and time again that they call a very tight game. Third, Canada must continue to be defensively responsible (and I'd like to see their defence get better) because the Russians had a number of really good chances today that would have been goals had Canada not been there to clear the puck. Finally, I’d like to see the Canadians spend more time in the offensive zone and get more shots on goal - the Russians seemed to dominate in the SOG deparment.

My picks of the game:

* Brandon Sutter

** Steve Mason

*** Karl Alzner

Honourable mention to Kyle Turris, who scored a penalty shot, won key face-offs, and smashed his face on the boards. Ouch

Game 2 will be Wednesday at 10AM AT on Rogers Sportsnet.

By the way, it was odd to hear Pierre McGuire providing colour commentary from the press box. His voice was so calm and quiet - unlike his loud volume, rink-side performances on TSN and NBC.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Leland Irving: An inspiration to sick kids everywhere

Leland Irving was selected as one of the goaltenders to compete for Team Canada at the 2007 World Junior Hockey Championships in Sweden, but he didn't play a single minute - Carey Price dominated the tournament instead. Many would show disappointment, but not Irving. He always had a bright smile on his face.

Irving is the star goaltender for the Everett Silvertips of the WHL, and was drafted in the first round of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft by the Calgary Flames. He will once again represent his nation at the Super Series this year, but there was a time when his future wasn't so bright. There was a time when his very survival was in doubt.

When he was just eight years old, Irving was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. He endured 13 months of chemotherapy, but still managed to keep a positive attitude. He played hockey as often as possible during this time, and it probably helped him to overcome the disease.

Now cancer-free, Irving is an inspiration to many sick children. It's not easy living with an illness, and it's hard to keep going when things get difficult, but perseverance can bring great things.

And the countdown is on...

In less than 24 hours (10AM AT, TSN), Team Canada will take to the ice to play Game 1 of the 8-game Super Series against Team Russia. The hockey season finally begins!

Milan Lucic, a power forward with the Vancouver Giants, is playing in his first international tournament, but that didn't stop head coach Brent Sutter from giving Lucic the "C" to wear on his jersey. Sutter also named the team's alternate captains: Sam Gagner (London Knights), Brandon Sutter (Red Deer Rebels), and Karl Alzner (Calgary Hitmen).

The starting goaltender for Monday's game will be Steve Mason of the London Knights, who had an OHL-record 45 wins in 2006-07.

The atmosphere of the original Summit Series will certainly be missing this time around, but who knows what will happen. Maybe there will be a huge brawl and cause the TV ratings to skyrocket. Whatever the case, this tournament will be the highlight of the careers of a lot of these guys, and they're going to play their hearts out for their countries.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Long-term, big money contracts: Not such a great idea after all.

Milan Michalek of the San Jose Sharks just signed a 6 year contract worth $26M, which will begin in the 2008-09 season. As the summer comes to a close, I realize that we have seen this contract time and time again in the last few months - the big money, long term contract. Derek Roy, Ryan Whitney, Dustin Penner, Stephen Weiss...and the list goes on.

I've been thinking a lot about this issue lately, and I'm conflicted. On the one hand, I think that these players are really good and part of me is not bothered by the salary. But on the other hand, I think that players are receiving the big bucks because of their potential - their current paychecks are not based on what they are doing now, but rather what they are projected to do in the future. This is a dangerous way to do business because a player may not develop as predicted, leaving the team with a player who is grossly overpaid. And the long term nature of the contracts just make everything worse.

I heard that the NBA went through something like this in the late 90s, when they were handing out long term contracts to their players - and things fell apart. Now, the teams hand out short term contracts and everybody's happy. It's too bad that the NHL didn't learn from the NBA's mistakes...

NHL teams should hire some people who specialize in the salary cap. In fact, I predict that 'Cap-o-logists' will be in high demand within the next couple of years.

I think I picked the wrong major...

What makes a great hockey market?

The Toronto Maple Leafs – who wouldn’t want to be like them? Sure, Habs fans in this world would scream “ME!” at this question, but follow me on this one. The Leafs have not won a Stanley Cup in 40 years, and it’s been awhile since their last playoff appearance, but they are still the most profitable team in the NHL. People from Newfoundland to British Columbia bleed blue and white, and though they will be the first to heap criticism on their own, they will forever be Leaf fans. They pass on their Leaf allegiance to their children, who then pass it on to their children. The Air Canada Centre sells out just about every single game, it’s virtually impossible to get season tickets, and Maple Leaf fans dish out hard-earned money for ‘nosebleed’ tickets. The Leafs organization is just rolling in the dough, so which team would not like to enjoy this kind of success?

Which brings me to what everyone has been talking about lately: hockey markets. There have been whispers for awhile that the NHL will be expanding within a few years, and it has been confirmed that AEG is building a new arena in Las Vegas that can house hockey or basketball franchises (or both). And then there are the existing franchises that are on the verge of relocating because they are in poor hockey markets.

What makes a good hockey market? I think there are basically two things that all teams need: fan support and corporate support. It’s not enough to have casual fans – teams need to have fans who have hockey knowledge and who are willing to spend money on tickets and merchandise. If you’re a new team in the area and the ‘fans’ are cheering for every goal scored – even the ones scored by the visiting team – you’re in trouble from the get-go (this should have been Nashville’s first clue). If a team cannot draw a decent number of fans for each game, then there will be little corporate support, and the franchise is in the toilet.

Nashville is the current problem market in the NHL. The owner of the Predators, Craig Leipold, has been losing money on this team since day one. The biggest problem is that there is no fan support, so there is basically no corporate support. Leipold invoked a clause in the arena’s lease that says that if the team draws an average of less than 14,000 fans per game for 2 consecutive years, then the team can break the lease with the arena. Last year, the Predators played for less than 14,000 people per game, and if 2007-08 follows the same path, bye-bye lease.

Leipold wants to sell his team (and hand off the money pit to someone else) and the biggest fear is that the team will leave the city. First, Jim Balsillie made a ridiculous offer to buy the Predators, and then promptly made arrangements with the kind people of Hamilton to bring the Predators to Ontario in the near future – that deal with Leipold quickly disappeared, since Balsillie just couldn’t play by the rules. Soon after, a group of investors (mostly Nashville locals) decided to buy the team to keep it in the city. It now looks like that deal is close to crumbling because of issues with the lease.

My two cents on this situation is that Nashville is not a good hockey market. It’s hardly a market at all. Sure, there are Predators fans in Nashville, but I don’t think that there are enough of them to support an entire franchise. If a business continually loses money, they don’t hang around just because of the few customers that stop by on a regular basis. The NHL should cut their losses now, get out of Nashville and go into a city that has a good market for hockey. I don’t blame Gary Bettman for expanding the league to southern markets in the 90s to capitalize on the 'Wayne Gretzky effect', or whatever you want to call it, but I have the feeling that he doesn’t want to admit that he was wrong. A lot (if not most) of these franchises are suffering financially, and this is only bringing down the entire league.

If I was commissioner, I’d put a halt to any talks of expansion. The NHL is simply not ready for more teams. There are so many franchises that are in trouble and their problems should be addressed. A number of teams need to relocate in order to strengthen the league, and these relocation cities should be in proven hockey markets (not ‘experiments’). I’d put together a committee to look into possible relocation cities, and I would put a focus on Canadian cities – Saskatoon, Regina, Winnipeg, Hamilton, Quebec City, Halifax. Who knows, maybe two or three of these cities would be great NHL markets that could boost league revenue.

And as for Las Vegas, I’d avoid it like the plague. Any professional sports franchise in that city is risking scandal. A lot of athletes like to party and gamble, and Vegas will be too tempting for some – especially with the Las Vegas Strip being literally a block away from the new AEG arena.

Stanley Cup ring found in the Gulf of Mexico - 30 years after being lost.

Imagine winning the Stanley Cup (makes for a pretty good dream). Now imagine losing your Stanley Cup ring (makes for a pretty good nightmare). That's pretty much the story of Jim Pappin.

Pappin was a key member of the last Maple Leafs team to win the Stanley Cup (40 years ago...sorry Leaf fans). In 12 playoff games, he scored 7 goals and had 15 points - more than any other player - but that didn't convince the team that he should remain a Leaf. Pappin was traded to Chicago in 1968 and was so angry with Toronto that he gave his Stanley Cup ring to his father-in-law, Peter Kyrzakos, a die-hard Maple Leaf fan.

Unfortunately, Kyrzakos lost the ring at a beach in Florida in the 1970s. He hired people to find the ring, but it was seemingly lost forever. He didn't tell his son-in-law, but he did take Eddie Shack's ring to have a duplicate made. Kyrzakos gave the (replica) ring back to Pappin in 1982 and told him the story. Pappin gladly wore the replacement ring, thinking that the original was lost forever.

Fast forward 25 years. Mark DesErmia is a treasure hunter who found Pappin's ring three weeks ago in the Gulf of Mexico. He was offered $20,000 for the ring by a sports memorabilia collector, and he has thought about auctioning the ring on eBay, but DesErmia says that he'd be happy to give the ring back to Pappin for a reward. Something tells me that his reward will be pretty sweet, since Pappin says that he hopes to sell the replica ring (worth between $10,000 and $20,000).

What's really nice about this story is that the ring will mean a lot to Pappin's daughter, who was really close to her grandfather and will love to have something that he treasured so much.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Mr. Canuck to stay another season

The Vancouver Canucks announced today that they have re-signed Trevor Linden to a one year contract worth $600K (up to $900K with bonuses). My response: it's about time.

He's one of those guys who is the heart and soul of his team. He may not score in bunches like in past years, but his leadership and absolute commitment to the team make him a valuable player. He was one of the few players who actually showed up and played during the playoffs this past spring - maybe it can rub off on the Sedin twins?

I'm surprised that the Canucks took so long to re-sign Linden. Could he have thought about retirement and only recently decided to give it another go? Perhaps. In any case, the Canucks made a good move by signing Linden, and they certainly didn't break the bank to get him.

Esposito injured, out for Super Series

The big countdown is on: just six days until Team Canada and Team Russia clash in a one time, 8 game Super Series. Team Canada is currently in Toronto, having their first practice, and already someone is out of the lineup.

Angelo Esposito, the star centre of the Quebec Remparts, will not be suiting up for Canada for the Super Series. A groin injury will keep him out of competition, and he probably wants to rest up before his very first NHL training camp (assuming he's ready to go by then).

Esposito has a lot to prove to the hockey world. Just over a year ago, he was a rookie on the Memorial Cup-winning Quebec team and projected to be the first overall pick in the 2007 Entry Draft. However, Esposito's sophomore stats were not as impressive as his rookie stats and his stock fell. By draft day this past June, he was projected to be taken 8th or so, and hockey analysts were saying that he might be around for Carolina or Montreal to snatch up in the 11th and 12th spots. Carolina and Montreal went up to the podium - and chose someone else. Amazingly, Esposito was chosen 20th overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins. Although thrilled with the idea of joining the Pens, my bet is that Esposito has a burning desire to tear up the NHL and prove to 17 teams that they made a mistake in drafting someone else.

He could have used the Super Series as a first step in proving the world wrong, but he'll have to wait until the Pens training camp to make an impression. I seriously doubt that he'll make the team this year (but then again, they all said the same about Jordan Staal), but he can still put in a good showing before return to Quebec. My guess is that he'll regain his confidence and scoring touch this year in the Q - Patrick Roy will definitely help him out - and we'll be hearing a lot about him at Christmas-time.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Beware of Cat

Danny Flynn is no stranger to the Moncton Wildcats’ organization. Two years ago, the Cats hired Ted Nolan to coach the team for the 2005-06 season (which would see the city host the Memorial Cup) and Nova Scotia native Flynn came along for the ride as an assistant coach. The Cats would capture the President’s Cup as the top team in the QMJHL, and would go all the way to the final game of the Memorial Cup Playoffs, losing to Patrick Roy and his Remparts. Nolan and Flynn left Monkey-Town that summer for the big show on Long Island.

Fast forward to 2007, and Flynn is back – this time as the Wildcats’ head coach. He has been spending his days at the Tim Horton’s 4-Ice Centre, evaluating dozens of players who all hope for a coveted spot on the team. He has sent a lot of kids home, but he still has a long way to go before he gets his team. I’m not sure how the team will pan out this year since I’m not familiar with any of the players, but I like how Flynn is not loading up on veterans or rookies – this way, the team will not have to go through periods of ‘rebuilding’ as their veterans move on.

Here’s to the Wildcats bringing home the Memorial Cup in 2008, the first championship trophy for Moncton since the Hawks won the Calder Cup in 1982.

And here’s to the Cats developing the next Grant Fuhr, François Beauchemin, Steve Bernier, or Luc Bourdon – all of whom played in Monkey-Town.

And finally, here’s to Devon MacAusland, a local kid looking to be a rookie Cat this year. I hope that Flynn keeps him around, and I expect that he’ll be a crowd favourite.

Friday, August 17, 2007

End of Summer...

It is official: the middle of August has passed, and we are now heading into the latter portion of August. That means that we are getting closer to September, and we all know what the beginning of September brings: Labour Day, yes, but also the Back to School Fiasco. The countdown has begun – T minus 15 days and change. Did I hear someone say ‘term paper’? I think I’m going to have a panic attack.

These next 2 weeks will be insane. I’m talking about finding all of my junk that I threw in the basement back in April when I moved back home. I’m talking about packing my stuff into boxes, and then re-packing these boxes when the car won’t hold it all. I’m talking about last minute shopping when I break my el-cheapo wooden clothes rack from Walmart. I just may require nap time to re-energize.

You can feel it in the air when the ‘back to school’ date gets closer. The weather is still warm, but the heat and humidity are not unbearable. Some of the leaves on the trees are even turning a little brown. It’s still ‘construction season’ in Monkey-Town, but summer is coming to an end. It was like a bitch-slap to the face when I got the Sears Christmas Wish Book in the mail yesterday.

It was the ultimate wake up call. I mean, I was aware that we’d soon be under 8 feet of snow (ok, more like 8 cm), but it’s a whole new level of awareness when that Wish Book enters your home. I flipped through those pages in a semi-state of shock, my eye catching on what seemed like hundreds of items with NHL team logos (ok, Canadian team logos). If only I could win the lottery and get that mini-fridge, those slippers, an alarm clock and a wall clock, that super-cool watch, a few hoodies…that would be so cool in my dorm room. Too bad Sears is so selective with their logos – would it kill them to show the Pens some love?

Oh well, I guess “Summer 2007” is rapidly coming to an end. I should enjoy these last few precious days while I am still free, because in less than 3 weeks I will find myself trapped in a Halifax dorm, surrounded by 18 year olds going crazy with ‘freedom’ (oh, how naïve they are).

As depressing as this sounds, there is a light on the horizon. If the end of summer brings anything good, it’s hockey. So while school crap might start in September, so does training camp. Hockey will get me through those term papers, tests, quizzes, midterm exams, lab reports, projects, and final exams – and then the playoffs will bring graduation – and then a real job.


The government can be a bitch when they want their money back.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

New Leafs Forward Heading to Jail

This isn’t exactly breaking news, but Mark Bell of the Toronto Maple Leafs is heading to jail. Bell plead guilty in a California court on Tuesday to drunk driving with injury and hit and run charges, stemming from an incident that happened last Labour Day. He was sentenced to 6 months in jail and will have to pay restitution to the victim, in addition to fines.

The interesting part of this story is that Mark Bell will serve his sentence following the 2007-08 NHL season. I was a little shocked by this information since most people must serve their jail sentence in the immediate future – not in eight months time. Is this a form of favouritism?

My first instinct was to say “heck yeah”, but now I’m not so sure. It’s not like the perceived favouritism that we see with the Paris Hiltons and Nicole Ritchies of this world. Bell was sentenced to 6 months in jail, not exactly a slap on the wrist. I’m inclined to think along the lines of what legal analyst Rob Becker said yesterday on Prime Time Sports with Bob McCown – that Mark Bell would have received the same punishment if he had gone to trial (he was facing between 3 and 12 months in jail). He chose to plead guilty, and people almost always get some sort of ‘reward’ for doing so. Instead of getting a reduced sentence, Bell’s ‘reward’ is to delay his jail stay until next spring.

I’m curious to see how Bell’s season with the Leafs will turn out. I wonder if his troubles with the Sharks last season ultimately stemmed from this DUI accident. If so, he will have to toughen up psychologically because the Toronto media will not let this story die. Toronto is already the toughest city to play in because of the media pressure, and he will need to be strong because all eyes will be on him for the next 8 months.

Former Habs GM Sam Pollock passes away

It was reported yesterday that Sam Pollock, who served for 14 years as the GM for the Montreal Canadiens, passed away at the age of 81.

Pollock was one of the best when it came to evaluating talent in others. He was one of the first GMs to recognize the importance of building a team through the draft. He used the draft and made a series of trades to build a dynasty in Montreal, with the team winning the Stanley Cup in 9 of the 14 years that he served as GM.

After he left the Habs, Pollock landed in the offices of the Toronto Blue Jays. He served on the board of directors, and then became the president and CEO of the Jays in the mid-late 1990's.

The sporting world will certainly miss Mr. Pollock.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

TSN and CBC release NHL broadcast schedules for 2007-08

Today is an exciting day: TSN and CBC just released their broadcast schedules for the upcoming season.

NHL on TSN is going to broadcast 70 games this season to a national audience, 40 games of which will feature a Canadian team (3 games will be all-Canadian), and 75% of the weekly Wednesday Night Hockey games will have Canadian content. In addition, TSN broadcasts one-half of the games in the first three rounds of the playoffs.

Here's the breakdown by team:

Montreal Canadiens: 13 games
Toronto Maple Leafs: 7 games (with more games broadcast in the GTA)
Ottawa Senators: 6 games
Calgary Flames: 6 games
Edmonton Oilers: 6 games
Vancouver Canucks: 5 games

Other highlights in the schedule include:
- 8 doubleheaders
- 13 Pittsburgh Penguins games.

Hockey Night in Canada will kick off its 55th season on September 29th in London, England with Anaheim and Los Angeles. HNIC will broadcast a record 85 games this season, not including their extensive coverage of the playoffs and exclusive coverage of the Stanley Cup Finals.

The HNIC schedule will include:
- 18 regional matchups
- 23 all-Canadian games
- 10 afternoon games
- 7 tripleheaders
- 2007 Hall of Fame Game (Nov 10)
- 56th All-Star Game, YoungStars Game, and Super Skills Competition in Atlanta (Jan 26/27)
- Hockey Day in Canada (Feb 9)

In addition, viewers will have the choice of which game to watch, as all games/pre-game shows/post-game shows will be streamed live and on-demand on

Forsberg a Senator?

The big hockey news on is that the Ottawa Senators are interested in signing Peter Forsberg. Is this a good move for GM Bryan Murray and the Sens as they attempt to make another serious run for the Cup?


Forsberg is a warrior on the ice, a proven winner. He has won the Triple Gold of hockey (Stanley Cup, Olympic Gold, and World Championships) – twice. He is arguably the best player to come out of Sweden. He can score, and he can help to lead the way to the Stanley Cup, since there are so few rings in the Sens’ dressing room. Any team would love to sign this guy.

But…(and this is a big ‘but’)

Forsberg has had some serious foot and ankle injuries lately which has caused him to miss a lot of games. He had surgery last month, but who knows if it will cure his problems. He won’t be ready to play for awhile, and when he does return to the ice - assuming he doesn’t retire – who knows how the foot will hold up. Will he be able to skate relatively pain-free? How will this affect his speed and agility on the ice? Will the least little bump re-injure his ankle? There are a lot of questions that cannot be answered yet, and likely won’t be answered until after he is signed.

A lot of teams could take the risk and sign Forsberg in the hopes that all will turn out, but this would be a very high risk signing for Ottawa. The Senators came very close to winning it all last season, and they are definitely one of a few teams that have the tools necessary to pull it off this year. If they sign Forsberg, they will have to do so for less than the $5+M that he received last season (given the unknowns surrounding his health), but they will still have to make room under the salary cap. Exactly which player do you unload to make room for Peter Forsberg? Wade Redden? Some have made this suggestion because he is a bit overpaid, but he is still one of the top defensemen on the team, and who would replace Redden? The forwards should be off-limits because that group seems to work well together, and Bryan Murray will need them all in case Forsberg misses half of the season. No, the Senators will likely have to try to move backup goaltender Martin Gerber to free up some money under the cap.

So, here’s my humble opinion: if Bryan Murray can move Martin Gerber, and if Forsberg is willing to take a cut in pay for (1) the chance to prove that he can still play and (2) to (possibly) win the Cup, then I say sign Forsberg. Just don’t mess with what looks like a good team, because Ottawa fans do not deserve more disappointment.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Pre-Season Predictions: End of Season Standings

Now that I have made comments about each team in the League, I will try to predict how the teams will sit in April (and then in April we can all see just how wrong I am).

Eastern Conference

1. Ottawa (President's Trophy)
2. New York Rangers
3. Atlanta
4. Pittsburgh
5. Buffalo
6. Toronto
7. New Jersey
8. Philadelphia

9. Tampa Bay
10. Montreal
11. Washington
12. Carolina
13. New York Islanders
14. Florida
15. Boston

* I believe that the teams will be very close in the standings (especially those teams in the 5th to 12th spots, as well as the race for the Southeast crown), and that the final standings may not be set until the last day.

Western Conference

1. Detroit
2. Anaheim
3. Colorado
4. San Jose
5. Vancouver
6. Calgary
7. Dallas
8. Minnesota

9. St. Louis
10. Chicago
11. Edmonton
12. Nashville
13. Los Angeles
14. Columbus
15. Phoenix

* I think that we will see a lot more parity in the West this season, and those teams in the 9th to 12th spots may still be in playoff contention in the last week or two of the season.

* Since I think that we will see a lot more parity in the League this year, similar to what we saw in the Eastern Conference last season, it only makes sense that injuries will play an even bigger role in whether a team makes the playoffs.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Pre-Season Predictions: Pacific Division

The Anaheim Ducks celebrated their first Stanley Cup win this June, and it will be interesting to see what kind of roster changes happen before training camp. They already lost Penner to the Oilers and picked up Bertuzzi from the Red Wings (though I’d rather take Penner than Bertuzzi for $4M). Schneider also decided to leave Detroit for sunny California. The big question, though, is if Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne retire. If they do, the Ducks will certainly miss them – but their play won’t really suffer. It says a lot about a team when they can lose two of their top players and still have the potential of going deep into the playoffs.

The Dallas Stars is a quiet team, at least in this part of the world, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not good. They have a lot of good players, starting with Mike Modano, but the guy I really like is Marty Turco. I felt really bad for Turco this spring in the playoff series against Vancouver because he had to prove himself by getting the Stars to the second round, but his teammates in front of him let him down. Turco played 7 outstanding games with 3 shutouts and a ridiculous GAA; I hope he doesn’t get any flack because the Stars lost in the first round. In my opinion, all of that blame lies with the forwards who couldn’t score.

I think the Stars will land themselves in the playoffs once again. I expect that they’ll find a little more success in the post-season.

The San Jose Sharks have what’s looking like a crazy good team. Rivet’s looking better in California than in Montreal, ‘Pickles’ is developing into something good, and then you have the forwards: Thornton, Michalek, Cheechoo, Marleau, and so on. If Nabokov can stay solid in net, and if Thornton can push through the playoffs with consistency, then there won’t be much slowing this ‘big’ team down.

The Los Angeles Kings have been hanging around the basement of the League standings for awhile, and I think they’re finally on the upswing. If Cammalleri, Frolov and Kopitar can keep up the good work, and the new guys (like Stuart and Nagy) can contribute, then the Kings might get closer to the playoffs this year. They definitely got a good deal when they acquired Jack Johnson in a trade – something tells me that Carolina will be smacking their heads over this one. The Kings won’t be in the playoffs this season, but they won’t be at the bottom of the League.

That’s because the Phoenix Coyotes will be bringing up the rear come April. The GM may have lost his job this year, but new guy Maloney didn’t do anything to improve the team. Their biggest free agent signing was probably David Aebischer, and that’s not a good thing considering how he finished his season in Montreal.

Jeff Mackie put it best when he wrote, “Who’s going to score goals?” When your team has only one player who scored more than 20 goals in the previous season, something is desperately wrong. Kyle Turris may be able to help the team on the scoring front, but he won’t be available for duty for at least a year. And does anyone else think it’s a little ironic that this score-less team is coached by Wayne Gretzky?

The only bright spot that I can see (and it’s really just a dim ‘light bulb moment’) is that Gretzky acknowledged this spring that the Coyotes have to start building their team through the draft. It certainly is better than loading up on veterans who can’t sign elsewhere. I guess Phoenix fans will be spending the next several years getting their biggest thrill from the Entry Draft.

Pre-Season Predictions: Southeast Division

Of the three divisions in the Eastern Conference, I think that the Southeast will be the weakest. We may see just one team of the bunch get to the playoffs.

The Atlanta Thrashers were definitely humiliated by the Rangers during the playoffs this spring, and it will be interesting how they bounce back after that embarrassing debut. They seem to be good in goal, they have a pair of really nice looking players up front in Hossa and Kovalchuk, and they have a pretty good team overall. They’ll be in a race with Tampa for the top spot in the Southeast.

The Tampa Bay Lightning just changed ownership, but I’m not sure that they’re going to be a much better club this season than they were last year. Granted, they have the “Big 3” in Lecavalier, St. Louis, and Richards, who will all continue to play hard and carry the team. They also have underrated defenseman Dan Boyle and pretty good goaltending, so I think that they have a chance to make the playoffs if their star players remain healthy. But another run for the Stanley Cup? Nope.

The Carolina Hurricanes captured the Stanley Cup in 2006, and then fell out of the playoffs in 2007. The big question is whether they will turn their luck around and make another run at it. I’m not inclined to think so. They have a number of players who look pretty good on the ice (Staal, Williams, Commodore, Brind’Amour, Ward), but I’m not sold on the team as a whole. About half of the team is in their 30’s, with 4 being 35 and older. It’s not necessarily bad to have older players on the team, since they bring experience and leadership to the mix, but there’s always the question of whether they can keep pace and not show the signs of age.

The team as a whole will have to get their act together this season and fight for one of the last playoff spots, but I'm not sure they'll make it.

The Florida Panthers are a team that has some really good players (hello Horton, Jokinen, and Bouwmeester), but they are a disaster as a whole. They did make an upgrade in net this season with Vokoun, but I think everybody would agree that they should have kept Luongo (well, everybody but Mike Keenan). Noah Welch and Cory Murphy are the new guys on D, and they should do pretty well. I really liked the look of Murphy at Worlds, and he’ll probably become a power play specialist in the NHL. But will the Panthers be golfing in April? Yep.

The Washington Capitals is a team that is a bit of a question mark. You have a feeling that they are going to break out of their shell soon and really stir things up, but will that happen this year? Eh, probably not, but don’t count them out of the running for a playoff spot. Ovechkin was very ticked off last season because his team missed the playoffs and his own stats were not as impressive as they were the year before – look for him to pound his way back. Semin is also a really good player, but since he doesn’t speak English and seems to be a quiet guy in general, he has really been under the radar (I bet a lot of people haven’t even heard of this other Alex). Michael Nylander and Nicklas Backstrom should also add some offensive punch to the lineup. I expect that hockey people will be talking about the Capitals a little bit more this year, but they are still years away from being a Cup-contending team.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Pre-Season Predictions: Central Division

The Detroit Red Wings are always a threat in the race for the Stanley Cup, and this year won’t be any different. They lost Schneider, but immediately signed a capable defenseman in Rafalski – he should fit in nicely with the likes of Chelios and Lidstrom. The Red Wings still have a nice little trio up front that should give the opposition headaches; it’s hard to believe that Zetterberg, Holmstrom, and Datsyuk were drafted so late in their respective years. And don’t forget Hasek, who proved last season that he’s still got the goods.

I predict that the Red Wings will win their division by a mile, and they might even make it to the Western Conference Finals again. Considering how well they played last season, and how they few changes they made this off-season, expect big things from Detroit.

Now there’s the Nashville Predators. Last season, they played extremely well and probably should have made it to the second round of the playoffs, but San Jose stood in the way. You would expect good things this year, but that won’t happen. The team has been essentially blown apart, with their best players either traded or leaving before disaster strikes. They still have some pretty good players in Hamhuis, Weber, Radulov, and Dumont, but they lost Timonen, Hartnell, Kariya, Forsberg (unless he resigns), and Vokoun.

It seems stupid that the Predators would completely unload their talent when have a winning team, but it has to be in order to (1) not lose as much money this year, and (2) facilitate a move to another market. I think that putting a team in Nashville was a bad idea to begin with because it is simply not a hockey market, and Craig Leipold’s finances seem to agree because he has lost about $70M on this franchise. The average attendance was under 14,000 this past year, and if they can get the same record this coming season, the Preds will be able to break their lease and move out of town. Why not help things along by having a somewhat crappy team? I really don’t think that Nashville will be around for the playoffs this year.

The St. Louis Blues is a team that has fallen on hard times, but I like some of the guys on their team. I haven’t really seen them play as a team, but I watched a number of them play for Team Canada at the World Championships this past summer. Brewer, Jackman, Mayers and McClement really impressed me. They’ll also have some fresh faces on the team, like Erik Johnson and Paul Kariya, and veteran player Tkachuk is back for another go at it.

I don’t know of the Blues will actually make the playoffs this year – I expect them to finish between 9th and 11th in the conference. But who knows? Head Coach Andy Murray is an extremely likeable guy and capable coach (I was uber-impressed with him at Worlds), and he could very well make a huge difference this year and get the team into the post-season.

The Columbus Blue Jackets have never made the playoffs, and they won’t be breaking that trend this year. Longtime GM Doug MacLean got his walking papers this spring because he failed to make the team better, but his replacement Scott Howson hasn’t done anything this summer to better the team either. Maybe he has something up his sleeve, but that sleeve’s looking pretty empty to me. I’d like to see Nash and Zherdev play better hockey (especially the latter). I’d also like to see Voracek play a few games to see how he’ll do after a great year in Halifax, but don’t get me wrong – he’s no Sidney Crosby or Jordan Staal. He very well might get a chance with Columbus, but I expect he’ll be back with the Mooseheads this fall.

Evan Grossman said that the Chicago Blackhawks could be the next “Pittsburgh Penguins” and I tend to agree. Years of poor performances gave them high draft choices, and the Blackhawks are on the upswing as a result. Toews has proven to be a skilled player who can perform under pressure (hello World Juniors ’07). Kane is also an offensive threat, and hopefully his size won’t give him trouble at the NHL level. But it’s not just the rookies that will bring excitement to Chicago: they also have Ruutu, Havlat, Khabibulin, and a number of young defensemen who are looking good. Hopefully Samsonov will regain his Calder Trophy-winning play and not be the disaster we saw in Montreal. Will the Blackhawks make the playoffs this year? Probably not, but they’ll be thisclose.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Pre-Season Predictions: Atlantic Division

I think that the Atlantic Division will be one of the more exciting divisions to watch this season.

First off, the New Jersey Devils. Losing Brian Rafalski and Scott Gomez to free agency was like being kicked in the stomach, but all’s not lost. Jersey’s known as one of the best defensive teams in the League, and I think that they will still make the playoffs this year, although they won’t repeat as divisional champs. The EGG line may not be intact, but there’s still an EG in the likes of Elias and Gionta – and perhaps a “Z” with Zubrus? Who can argue about the strength of the Devils’ checking line? And then there’s still the youngsters – look for Parise and Zajac to really pick things up. Questions about goal? Didn’t think so, since you can’t get any more stable than Brodeur.

It should be interesting to see how Brent Sutter makes out as the new head coach in Jersey. Sutter has had a lot of success in Juniors, with his own Red Deer team and with the national team. Here’s the question mark: he’s used to doing things his own way, controlling everything – how will he adjust in “Lou” Jersey?

It’s hard to deny that the Pittsburgh Penguins have something truly special. They crawled around the basement of the NHL, collected their high draft picks in the process, and selected a group of kids who are turning out to be the face of the NHL. The sky seems to be the limit for this group, and a lot of people are comparing the Pens to the Oiler dynasty of the 1980’s. Pens fans around the world are ecstatic at what might be around the corner – especially after last season’s showing.

Fleury is quickly developing into everything the Pens hoped him to be, but he’ll be expected to be even better next year as he gets more comfortable on the NHL stage. I’m thinking along the same lines as Pierre McGuire in that Fleury might soon belong on the same page as Luongo and Brodeur. It’s a lot to ask for a 22 year old goalie, but considering how good his teammates are, he doesn’t want to be the weak link that jeopardizes a run for the Cup.

It’s clear that the Pens are strongest up front, and who wouldn’t be with Crosby, Malkin and Staal. Thankfully, Shero resigned Recchi and Roberts, as many of the younger players look up to these guys. The addition of Sykora was good, given that he put up a fair number of points on the disaster team that was Edmonton. It’s also great to see Armstrong staying with the team, as his energy and work ethic will be valued (and perhaps he’ll regain his scoring touch…perhaps?).

Will the Pens have the defensive skills to carry them to the Holy Grail? That’s still a bit up in the air, for now, but I am honestly not that worried. If Whitney can keep doing what he’s doing, and Gonchar can stay consistent, things won’t be too bad. Hopefully Eaton can stay healthy to really show us what he’s all about, and I’m counting on Letang to make a big splash this year and show the world what he’s got up his sleeve. Sydor was a great addition this summer, as he can be a mentor to the kids the same way that Roberts is to the young forwards.

I am a huge fan of the Penguins, so I acknowledge that I am biased, but I am truly excited for this coming season. We all know that the core of this team is basically a bunch of uber-talented kids, but I think that Shero has turned this group into a future Cup contender. The team has more grit than it did last summer, and the kids are now surrounded by a group of talented veterans who are Stanley Cup Champions. Crosby may be the captain, but they will all follow the lead of the veterans who know what it takes to win it all. I get the impression that this group wants to improve on last year’s playoff performance, and I would not be shocked to see them make it to the Eastern Conference Finals.

The team that made the second biggest splash in the free agent pool this summer was the New York Rangers. They were a really good group before July 1st, and now with Drury and Gomez, they are downright scary. Resigning Shanny was a really smart move, since he works harder than most players. Jagr looked to have regained some of his interest in the game towards the end of last season, and he should retain that enthusiasm if he sees the potential in this team.

The Rangers’ defense isn’t looking too bad, especially with Lundqvist in net. If Lundqvist can stay sharp, he’s almost unbeatable. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see the introduction of Marc Staal to the NHL.

One big question mark over the Rangers regards the Sean Avery factor. Will his mouth get him (and his team) in trouble? We already know that the Rangers feel as though Avery is a detriment to the team because his mouth and his style of play. He has never played for a Cup contender before (and I think that the Rangers could make it to the Finals in 2008), so he will have to tone things down if he wants to see ice time. The team will not put up with Avery’s needless penalties if it hurts their chances, and I don’t think that Avery’s biggest fans in New York will put up with it either.

The New York Islanders squeaked into the playoffs last year, but the same fate will not greet them this year. I don’t think that Ted Nolan will have that much to work with this season, and it certainly doesn’t help that they are playing in a division that should be very tough.

DiPietro is a very good goalie, but I wouldn’t put him in the same class as Luongo or Brodeur, and he doesn’t have the defense in front of him to give him much help. Bergeron played fairly well for the Islanders after he was traded from Edmonton late last season, and hopefully he will get better. Hopefully Guerin will show the consistency and leadership that will be required of him, but I still think that the Islanders will find themselves near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings come April.

Speaking of the bottom of the standings, there’s the Philadelphia Flyers. Without a doubt, the Flyers take the prize for making the biggest off-season splash, and considering last season’s embarrassing performance, it’s no surprise. Philly has been blowing up their team since the trade deadline. Everybody seems to be getting rich in Philly (hello Briere, Timonen and Hartnell), and hopefully it will pay off.

Considering the seemingly endless talent that has been brought into the Flyers’ organization, you’d think that they’d take the cake this year. I think that the team will certainly do better this year, and I think that they might make the playoffs, but I’m not sure how good they will be. The big question mark with the Flyers concerns their team chemistry: can a team develop into a cohesive unit when half of the players are new? It is certainly possible, but nothing is certain just yet. After all, you can assemble a team with the greatest hockey players in the world, but it doesn’t mean that the team will win.

Pre-Season Predictions: Northwest Division

The race for the Northwest Division crown will be interesting this year. The Vancouver Canucks will certainly look to repeat this season, armed with Luongo in goal yet again. Luongo carried this entire team on his back this year, but especially in the playoffs. His teammates in front of him just couldn’t seem to find the net in the post-season, but Luongo somehow managed to get the team to the Western Conference Semi-Finals; it was a shame that the last goal against Luongo was a bad one. Look for this Montreal-born goalie to continue to be his brilliant self.

The Canucks have been relatively quiet this off-season, but I don’t think that they needed to necessarily make a lot of changes. Something that they do need is consistent scoring from their top forwards (hello Naslund and Sedin twins) – which was definitely absent in the playoffs. I expect that they will be fine during the season and they will make the playoffs, but they may want to add a little something at the trade deadline if they think they have a legitimate Cup contender.

Something Vancouver fans should be excited about: Bieksa’s going to be hanging around for awhile!

The Calgary Flames will certainly want to improve on their consistency this season by winning as many games on the road as at home. I think that the Flames have a really good team in place. They are solid in goal with Kiprusoff, their defense is looking good with shutdown guy Regehr, superstar-in-the-making Phaneuf, and the newly acquired Aucoin. And with Iginla leading the way, the Flames aren’t a bad team.

The big question mark that pops into my mind concerns new head coach Mike Keenan, who is certainly not a stranger to the NHL. If a good kick in the rear is what the Flames needed to play consistently, then Iron Mike is the guy to dish it out. But will Keenan go overboard and risk alienating the team? I guess this is where Iginla has to really step it up to rally the troops and keep them going. The Flames should be able to make the playoffs this year, but Keenan might ruin it all with his iron fist.

I think that fans of the Colorado Avalanche have something to be excited about this season. The Avs is one of many teams that missed the playoffs by thismuch, but they made a few big splashes in the free agent pool. Newcomer Scott Hannan improves the Avs defense; Ryan Smyth adds grit, leadership and offensive punch to a group of forwards that include youngsters Stastny and Wolski; and Budaj has proven himself worthy as a starting goaltender (although expect Theodore to make a push for that job).

The Avs have a history of success, and last year’s early end to the season should not be worrisome. The team is stocked with young talent, and they have the leaders to take them to the playoffs in 2008. Joe Sakic has led this team for 15 years, has won the Cup twice before, and still has more talent than most players in the NHL – I would not be shocked if he made another run for Lord Stanley’s Mug before he retired.

The Minnesota Wild is a team that I don’t know that much about, but I do know that they have some talent. Backstrom was very solid in net last season (you don’t win the Jennings Trophy by being a slacker) and I expect this trend to continue. They seem to favour a defensive style of play but they aren’t slouches up front, with the likes of Koivu, Rolston, and Gaborik. I think they are going to make it to the post-season, but I’m not sure if they can catch the Canucks and the Avs in the divisional race.

Finally, we come to the limping Edmonton Oilers. I feel really bad for this team and all the adversity and instability it has faced in the past 14+ months. They squeaked into the playoffs in 2006 and somehow made it all the way to Game 7 of the Finals before losing to Carolina. Not long afterward, Pronger bolted to Anaheim, Spacek left for Buffalo, and Peca wound up in Toronto. The Oilers had a tough season to begin with, but with injury trouble and the loss of Ryan Smyth, the team seemed to lose its heart and soul. Watching the Oilers play after losing Smyth was like watching a team that just simply gave up – and the fact that they only won 2 games illustrates that point.

MacTavish and the rest of his coaching staff will be fighting an uphill battle this year as they try to stabilize this team and develop some pride. There are a lot of young players in the Oilers’ dressing room - about 16 players have less than 3 years of NHL experience – so the veterans will really have to step up and lead the way through adversity. Without “Captain Canada” or Captain Smith in the lineup this season, leadership might just be the thing that will make or break the Oilers in 2007-08.

I have serious doubts that the Oilers will make the playoffs this coming season. Even though they were the Cinderella team that made it to the Finals in 2006, they are currently light years away from that team. Kevin Lowe made some serious mistakes with Smyth, and his escapades this summer are questionable (though understandable, in my opinion). If things get worse in the “City of Champions” – could they possibly get worse? – K.Lo. will certainly be shown the door.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Pre-Season Predictions: Northeast Division

The pool of free agents is shrinking by the day, and training camp begins in about a month. What shall I talk about? Perhaps a little pre-season prediction for each team? Let me see, who will succeed, and who will flop around like a fish…

Northeast Division

Saku Koivu let it slip that he’s a little disappointed that his Montreal Canadiens was unable to attract a big name. He may be a “little” disappointed, but Habs fans are wildly disappointed with Gainey for doing little to improve the team. The team was already on the rocks with fans for missing the playoffs by thismuch.

One problem that was solved was that of backup goaltender: Abby was a UFA and not given another chance with the Habs. That leaves Halak and Price to fight over the job, and since they are both projected to be starting goaltenders in the not-too-distant future, I think the Canadiens are okay in goal.

It’s hard to predict the impact of Souray’s departure on the team. While he was certainly a great powerplay quarterback who could help offensively, his defensive skills had so many holes – holes big enough to pass pucks through and score. So while the Habs will miss his contributions on the scoreboard…they also won’t miss his contributions on the scoreboard.

I don’t think that they really upgraded on defense with the signing of Brisebois, and they are pretty much the same up front as last season. Unless they can recapture the magic they had last fall, and not fall apart with the smallest sign of adversity, I can’t see the Habs making the playoffs in April – and that would surely bring about a change in coaching and management.

The Toronto Maple Leafs is another team that missed the playoffs by thismuch. But unlike the Habs, the Leafs did manage to make a few big signings this summer. First off, I believe that the Leafs solved their goaltending problem. Raycroft was the starting goaltender and even though he posted a franchise record for number of wins in a season, his stats and consistency were not becoming of a Calder Trophy-winning goaltender. Aubin, the backup, was shown the door to free agency and Vesa Toskala was ushered in. Toskala will force Raycroft to work harder if he wants to keep his job as a starter.

The Leafs also made a splash in the free agent pool when they signed Blake to a contract. He scored 40 goals with the Islanders last season, which will be greatly welcome in Toronto. I imagine that he’ll play alongside longtime captain Mats Sundin and I wouldn’t be surprised if they started scoring in bunches. The fact that he plays with an edge will likely make him a fan favourite in Toronto.

Their defensive corps was not really upgraded this off-season, which will cause fans to cry in frustration because certain defensemen are still hanging around and are still overpaid. That being said, I still think that the Leafs have a better chance at making the playoffs this season than the Habs. If not, John Ferguson Jr. can start looking for another job.

I was glad to see that Bryan Murray kept the Ottawa Senators pretty much intact this summer, which isn’t much of a surprise considering the Sens made it to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in 80 years. These guys are a talented bunch who found out that they could win by playing a physical, hard-hitting game. It’s a shame that they lost this edge in the Finals, because I thought that they would’ve ended Canada’s 14 year Cup drought. I believe the Senators learned their lesson the hard way back in June, and that they will come back in full force. I think we will see a new Sens team that is not the fragile team of years past, and they will go deep into the playoffs (perhaps making another run for the Cup).

The Buffalo Sabres have been kicked around and toyed with all summer, and this will surely have an impact on their season. First, they saw both of their captains bolt for big, fat salaries with big market teams. Then, big, bad K.Lo. from the West made the Sabres hand out a big, fat contract to Vanek, who hasn’t proven himself to be worthy of such a raise. While they will remain a run-and-gun team that will score in bunches, they will not score the most goals of any NHL team this season. The Sabres will be offensively gifted, solid in goal, and acceptable on defense (which is probably underrated), but I can virtually guarantee that they will not repeat as winners of the President’s Trophy. The biggest thing the Sabres will miss in this season’s playoff run: Drury’s leadership and clutch play.

The Boston Bruins. In years past, they were a force to be dealt with. In recent years, not so much. And I don’t believe that this coming season will reverse that trend. I think that Fernandez will definitely help with the goaltending situation, but I’m not convinced that the team can band together and make it to the playoffs. They certainly have some good players, like Savard and Bergeron, but you could say that about every team. I think that they’ll be in a bit of a rebuilding phase for another year or two.

John Tavares: The "Exceptional Player"

John Tavares. No, I’m not talking about the lacrosse legend, but rather his nephew, the projected-to-be hockey legend.

Tavares is just 16 years old and already the star of the CHL. Two years ago, he was permitted to enter the OHL at age 14, thanks to being classified as an ‘exceptional player’. In only his second year, this centre for the Oshawa Generals had 134 points and scored 72 goals, enough to break a record set by Wayne Gretzky.

The interesting story about Tavares may not be his hockey skills, but rather his draft status. Since he was born on September 20th, 1990, NHL rules dictate that he is eligible for the 2009 draft. His agent, however, is looking into the possibility of Tavares being drafted in 2008 since he was drafted into the OHL a year early.

There are many reasons why Tavares should be allowed to enter the draft in 2008. Because he entered the OHL early, he will have played 4 years in the league by the time he is drafted in 2009. Some people look at how well he is doing now, and how quickly he is developing, and they begin to wonder if he will soon outgrow the CHL and cause a stall in his development.

I, however, do not believe that Tavares should be allowed to enter the draft early. Not all players will be thrilled to see Tavares receive special treatment from the NHL because he is a good player. I believe that this special treatment will make Tavares a target, and this may hurt him. In addition, he will be expected to have an outstanding season, and should he fall short of being ‘outstanding’, who knows what will come his way. He already has so much pressure placed on his shoulders; why add to it?

In the meantime, Tavares still has to prove that he is the player worthy of the “Mike Bossy” comparisons. He will have to improve on his 2006-07 stats for the upcoming season, or suffer the same fate as Angelo Esposito. In the immediate future, he must have a strong showing at this summer’s Canada Russia Super Series to show that he can succeed in a tournament comprised of mostly 18- and 19-year-old players. He must also make the squad for the 2008 World Junior Championships and find success there. Should he fail to make a great impression, he can kiss his chance at the 2008 draft goodbye.

If only he had been born a week earlier…

"Super Series" of hockey coming soon

The hockey world has been generally quiet since the first few days of the ‘free agent frenzy’, except for ownership issues and a few offer sheets here and there. Hockey fans can get a quick fix now and then with brief stories on SportsCentre, sandwiched between stories on Michael Vick and Barry Bonds, but a Top 10 list of Crosby’s greatest NHL moments is little more than a tease.

The good news – check that, great news – is that the summer hockey drought is about to come to an end. The Canada Russia Super Series officially begins August 27th in Russia and ends on September 9th in Canada. This eight game series will showcase the best junior players in a format that is very familiar to each nation.

It has been 35 years since the original Summit Series was played between the best players in the Soviet Union and the best players in Canada. Many people believe that the best hockey in history was played during these eight games. At the time, it was assumed that the mighty Canadian NHL players would easily sweep the series and humiliate the Soviets, but Team Canada’s ego was put in check when they lost the first game 7-3 in Montreal. However, in the end, it was Canada that was victorious in the Series, thanks to a goal by Paul Henderson with 34 seconds remaining in the final game.

While the original Summit Series caused nationwide interest, and most Canadians tuned in to watch the final game, I do not believe that the current series will enjoy the same interest. There will certainly be a number of Canadians who will tune in to watch the games, but the interest will not be near what it was during the Olympics (especially the Salt Lake City Games) or maybe even the World Junior Championships.

Even though this Super Series does not showcase the best of the best Canadian/Russian players, it does have the best teenaged players from these two nations – the next generation, if you will. I think that we will see great hockey, and it will be a chance to peek into the future of the NHL. A lot of players have something to prove in this tournament: Cherepanov and Esposito will have to prove that they are players that should have been top 5 draft picks, Turris will have to prove that he can be as successful with CHL players as he was in Junior A, and Tavares will have to prove that he is the player that everyone believes him to be. Should be an interesting show!