Sunday, September 23, 2007

NHL 2007-08 Pre-season Review

NHL logoLeafs logoOilers logoIsles logo"It's meaningless," is the standard cry regarding preseason games, especially when your team is on the losing end of a good old down home whooping. But beat a hated rival in an exhibition match-up and it's reason to look forward to the regular season with anticipation.

The cliche that no meaning should be attached to what is essentially hockey's version of "friendlies" is pretty valid. It appears there is no standard number of games, with some teams playing as many as 9, while others suit up for a measly 5 (this based on last year's preseason.) While the outcomes themselves aren't much to get excited about, individual players can showcase their conditioning and potential for the beginning of the season. The result is line combinations heavy on experimentation with many skaters on the ice for the tryout of their lives. Of those, some will be long gone by the time games have any meaning.

With that belief firmly in mind for most fans, there's still an awful lot of scrutiny and a kind of faux significance that goes along with each meeting. As if it's a warm-up for the kind of reasoning and signature arguments fans plan on using with their fellow spectators once the goals and hits really matter.

Toronto Maple Leafs


Vesa Toskala's guts must have been percolating with bile during and after his debut with the Leafs. A first time appearance by a goalie in the Leafs nets demands a response from the Toronto media because of the insane interest surrounding the team. Especially for the type of event that can be classified under "first" "best" "last" "most" or "worst."

The result is an odd balancing act between knowing that the analysis will be devoured and delivering a kind of "hip to the absurdity of trying to extrapolate from one performance but doing it anyway because that's what everyone expects." I thought David Shoalts did a pretty decent job in his column about Vesa Toskala's first game as a Leaf, providing a specific critique of the netminder's performance while comparing it to a former Leaf goalie's (Ed Belfour) initial start.

Shoalts seemed conscious of the fact that his breakdown of Toskala's mediocre start would grate on some fans and spun a pretty interesting angle to make it more palatable. What, did you actually expect him not to address the play of Toskala?

Another article on the same Leafs game seemed to do just that. With a headline of "Toskala Shaky in Leafs Debut" the report by Tim Wharnsby went on to mention the goalie by name exactly zero times and instead concentrated on the new dehumidification system that has been installed at Air Canada Centre (to be fair, editors often write the headlines for stories.)

Edmonton Oilers


Though most people aren't paying attention yet, the ones who are want as much information as possible. Minor things take on huge import (as long as it's not anything as insignificant as final results.) Take for example the utterances of Ryan Smyth last week and the response from Edmonton fans. Prompted by some local reporter, Smyth put a clever twist on an old nick he once had and this caused a minor eruption over at the Oilers forum on HFboards.

I understand the loss of a player who was part of your team for so long. One who worked hard, never gave up, represented the pride of the organization. Maybe it also has something to do with him being a local boy. The mullet, the unique syntax, the fact he actually liked to live in town as opposed to the litany of players who have been slagging off Edmonton as of late. Hell, if he wasn't a pro hockey player, he'd just be another mulleted working class stiff. He would likely own a muscle car and on occasion would get into staring matches at traffic lights with mulleted individuals named Mike in other muscle cars. Sometimes they would get out and fight each other (I know all this because I grew up in Winnipeg which is similar in many ways, except that Edmonton is richer and has more people.) All these things endeared Smyth to Oilers fans and now that he's gone they're having a hard time letting go. Just remember that old cliche, "the opposite of love isn't hate, it's indifference."

The best way to get Smyth off their minds is with a strong start to the season. Dustin Penner running interference in front of the net and Sheldon Souray's big shot should go some way towards making that a possibility. Penner has probably enjoyed a more unlikely and whirlwind past few years than any other pro hockey player in recent memory. This article on Penner still ranks as one of the best off season hockey stories.

Injuries


Are there more injuries this preseason or is it just down to the lack of other news making those instances stand out? I've got no statistical evidence but it seems like there are an above average number this year. You've got to think that some players are either lacking in their conditioning, had lingering health issues or are just going balls out after the layoff. Perhaps the increased size, strength and overall fitness level as years go by has the inevitable effect of more bones, joints and ligaments giving way under the strain of collisions.

Must be a sickly feeling for any player after the anticipation and likely work they put in during the off-season. A signed player who has a history with the team and can expect to recover and see further play over a number of years is one thing, but for someone trying to make the cut, this must be like a kick to the guts (or the head.) That might have been a couple million dollar hit for Anson Carter, though according to reports on his off-season training (or lack thereof), he probably has to take some of the blame himself. Funny how often I feel sympathy for some of these characters who have already raked in millions and had some great experiences as players.

Kissing Babies


There's always some time for glad-handing and publicity work for players in the pre-season, as they play games in locations whose local residents will never get to know the experience of having their own NHL team. The result is the kind of situation that played out in Moncton, New Brunswick. Just as many cities end up taking their pro team for granted until it's too late, those without the ready access to big league games savour these kinds of opportunities to witness the competition live and interact with some of the players.

As for me, I'm still trying to see my first (online) pre-season game of the year. The life of an overseas hockey fan (especially in Asia) is not easy in terms of finding ways to see NHL games. I will be looking for every online opportunity to check out the action and with the time difference, it will be Hockey Morning in Thailand when I get the chance.

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