Showing posts with label Pittsburgh Penguins. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Pittsburgh Penguins. Show all posts

Sunday, May 28, 2023

The Tale of Kyle Dubas and the Toronto Maple Leafs: Power, Pity and the Proverbial Ton of Bricks

When Kyle Dubas arrived to speak at the Maple Leafs’ year-end media availability on May 15th, 2023, his attire was the first indicator that things weren’t going to go well. A pullover sweater in May is not a good look. It was reminiscent of the Sally Ann sports jacket Craig MacTavish wore at one of his last press conferences as the Oilers’ GM a few years ago. Whether contrived or simply representative of how he felt, the sweater was a bad omen. The slumped shoulders, the down-beat tone and talk of his family only confirmed the worst. We were watching either a defeated man or a shameless manipulator. If you go with ‘manipulator,’ then you have to acknowledge that Dubas has a crater-sized lack of self-awareness in his personal make-up.

Whatever the truth is, after five years as the Maple Leafs’ GM and nine years in total with the organization, Dubas is out. It’s hard to believe he was given the chance in the first place. With zero NHL experience, Dubas was hired as the Leafs’ assistant GM at the age of 28. Four years later, he was promoted to GM. On-the-job training as an NHL general manager with one of the league’s most valuable franchises, and the one which undoubtedly receives more media scrutiny than any other. It’s hard to fathom. But then, the person instrumental in hiring him, Brendan Shanahan, is also a rookie in his role as team president.

Though Shanahan had a long and successful NHL playing career, he’d never had any team-executive experience before signing on with the Leafs. In turn, Dubas as Leafs’ GM hired his buddy Sheldon Keefe, who also— that’s right—had zero NHL coaching experience at that time. It wouldn’t be hard to advance the theory that Shanahan hired a neophyte in Dubas in order to insulate himself against the aspirations of a more seasoned GM. Shanahan, had, indeed, hired Lou Lamoriello as the Leafs’ GM earlier and then replaced him with Dubas. Perhaps taking his cue from Shanahan, Dubas pulled the same stunt by hiring Keefe as head coach.

Regardless, that’s the situation that existed. Dubas was handed the dream job of a lifetime without any real experience. So what went wrong?

You have to first look at Dubas’s record of negotiating contracts as general manager. When Dubas took the general manager’s reins, the core of the team was already in place, including Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly. A few months after boy-wonder Dubas was handed the keys by Shanahan, Dubas signed John Tavares to a seven-year contract at an AAV of $11 million. Even at the time, many fans and pundits questioned the deal. Though Tavares produced for the first four years of the contract (even in the season just finished his totals were respectable, though 5 on 5 points for him are now rare), he’s now hitting the aging curve hard and will undoubtedly be shifted to the wing next season. More importantly, the massive over-payment will be a millstone around the franchise’s neck for the final two seasons of the deal.

The Tavares deal set the stage for Dubas to renegotiate new contracts with Nylander, Matthews and Marner. Dubas was taken to the woodshed on all of those deals, a sequence of failed contract negotiations (read: team-unfriendly) perhaps unmatched in recent NHL history. All the deals were bad at the time, and though Nylander’s deal now looks better than the others, they all combined to handcuff the team and limit the all-important depth pieces that could be added later. Marner’s contract negotiations were particularly unpleasant and cemented his reputation as a shameless money grubber whose lack of self-awareness is maybe only matched by Dubas. While Matthews has improved as a player over the past few seasons, and his contract’s AAV was acceptable based on his scoring ability, the term was the real killer. In addition, Matthews has now taken on the dreaded ‘chronic injury’ label and may never again match his 60-goal, Hart-trophy winning season.

So Dubas had his skull caved in with the so-called core four’s contract negotiations. Forty million dollars, nearly 50% of the cap, tied up in four players. Dubas paid them as if they’d already won a Cup or two. He tacitly announced he was doing things differently. More than a whiff of arrogance emanated from Dubas when he discussed the players he’d blessed with mammoth contracts.

Yes, the Leafs’ regular season record under Dubas’s guidance as general manager was impressive. But the core four, already in place when he took over, has failed repeatedly in the postseason and now will undoubtedly be broken up. Tavares, Matthews, Marner and Nylander are oddly similar in the way they perform in the playoffs. Gutless, emotionless and rarely rising to the level of play that their contracts demand. At least Tavares seems to give an honest effort most of the time. But the other three regularly disappear for stretches in games and sometimes for full games in the postseason.

While Matthews has improved his back-checking and fore-checking and throws more hits than at any time in his career, his demeanor and actions when challenged are bizarre. There’s literally no fight there when an opposing player gets in his face. Marner plays scared in the playoffs and has recently adopted a rictus grin when he’s being rag-dolled by an opponent—the same kind of grin Matthews has sported for years when someone gets in his face during a game. And all of those four players deliver eerily similar, don’t-give-a-fuck responses when their gutless play results in another early postseason exit.

Dubas’s performance on other fronts is mixed. On trades, he’s made some horrible blunders, including shipping Nazem Kadri to the Avalanche for Tyson Barrie and Alexander Kerfoot, Mason Marchment to the Panthers for Denis Malgin, Matt Martin to the Islanders for Eamon McAdam, and a first-round pick to the Blue Jackets for Nick Foligno. Foligno played 11 games for the Leafs and accomplished nothing of note, unless you count a staged fight against Corey Perry in the 2021 playoffs. Dubas also puked up numerous other first-round picks for various trades, some of them rentals.

On the other hand, Dubas has made some decent trades as well. The Jake Muzzin trade in 2019 with Los Angeles worked out well until Muzzin’s body fell apart. Even the trade the following season, again with the Kings, that brought Jack Campbell and Kyle Clifford to Toronto in exchange for Trevor Moore and a pair of third-round picks wasn’t too bad at the time. Dubas no doubt got the best of the Penguins when Toronto received Jared McCann in exchange for Filip Hallander. The problem was, Dubas promptly turned around and protected Justin Holl instead of McCann in advance of the Seattle Kraken expansion draft.

That brings us to one of Dubas’s fatal flaws. He often makes decisions based on emotion instead of cold, hard logic. Despite all the talk of Dubas’s reliance on analytics, it’s perplexing how often he goes with sentiment when making a decision. Mixed in with that emotion is a huge dollop of arrogance. His decisions as Leafs’ GM were precious to him. Things to be guarded, stroked, revisited and doubled down on. His invincibly rigid stance on any player he signed, traded for or otherwise considered ‘his’ is a story of a strange kind of neurosis. His commitment to the gutless four ensured that the same story played out postseason after postseason, with the same sullen, vaguely disinterested post-elimination interviews from players.

And then there’s his pathological obsession with former players from the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, the Ontario Hockey League team Dubas cut his teeth with on his road to becoming an NHL GM. He started out as a stick-boy with the ‘Soo’ because of family connections and ended up as the team’s general manager. And during his time as Leafs’ GM, Dubas was often single-minded in his pursuit of signing or trading for former Soo players. Before the start of the 2022-23 season, Dubas acquired Soo alumni Matt Murray in a trade with the Ottawa Senators. No one else in the league wanted Murray, despite the two Cups he won with the Penguins. In fact, in Murray’s last season with the Sens, they put the egg-shell fragile goalie on waivers and no one bit. But Dubas knew better. The rallying cry at the beginning of Dubas’s final season with the Leafs was ‘Matt Murray’s got a lot to prove.’ This line was repeated numerous times by Dubas, Keefe and even Shanahan. It was one of the worst trades Dubas made as the Leafs’ GM. His mulish stubbornness ensured his Murray obsession became the final word on his inability to ever fully sort out the goal-tending situation during his time with the Leafs.

Dubas’s drafting with the Leafs was also less than stellar. It’s hard to develop home-grown talent when you keep trading away picks. At least Leafs fans can probably look forward to Matthew Knies contributing in the coming seasons, though even that expectation is a bit premature.

Despite all Dubas’s shortcomings, he has many things going for him. Most importantly, he’s a good communicator and is obviously well liked by his players and peers. His ability to speak about both the game and the increasing importance of analytics, and his vision for how to build a winning team, undoubtedly cast a spell on Shanahan and led to Dubas being hired in the first place. While he doesn’t speak to the media in public more than any previous GM, when he does, he is eminently respectful and somewhat forthcoming. It’s hard to believe that it took Dubas to figure out the ‘speak nicely to people who buy ink by the barrel’ angle, at least when compared to some of the blowhard Leafs’ GMs and coaches of the past.

And maybe in this day and age, that ability to communicate directly with the media and fans is more important than ever. Coupled with Dubas’s instinct for understanding the zeitgeist and how professional sports teams now have to be conscious of so much more than in years gone by, it’s easy to believe that he will land another NHL GM job at some point in the future. Especially now that his training wheels are off and he will learn from his numerous mistakes with the Leafs. But there’s a very real chance Dubas has learned nothing at all.

Of course, there's more to interactions with the media than speaking in scrums or at press conferences. It’s clear that Dubas has cultivated some media members to do his bidding in their on-air hits and in the columns they write. I have no doubt that he leaks info to certain media dupes and engages in quid pro quos: access and information from Dubas in exchange for favourable coverage. But not everyone in the media plays along. In a recent 32 Thoughts podcast, Elliotte Friedman and Jeff Marek discussed a situation in which Dubas sent a profanity-laced text to them when they mentioned something on Hockey Night in Canada that didn’t sit right with him. And they suggested it was something that wasn’t uncommon from Dubas. Once again, arrogance and temper tantrums. And a personality far different than the one he tries to project in public.

But what about his relationship with the players? Yes, as mentioned, it’s obvious the players like him. But then, why wouldn’t they after the largesse he’s rewarded them with before they’ve won anything? By all reports, he’s hired dozens or perhaps even hundreds of people within the organization in an attempt to make life as enjoyable and stress-free as possible for his stable of millionaire players. And that may be part of the problem. Together with his penchant for sentiment over stepping on necks when the time is right, Dubas is loyal to a fault. It’s created a sense of security among the gutless four, and instilled the idea—confirmed year after year—that there are no consequences for lack of postseason success. Whether Dubas set out to cultivate loyal sycophants, or he simply came to the understanding of how taking care of people pays off, the reality is he likes the outcome. At times the whole set-up has a vaguely cultish feel to it.

And when Dubas’s arrogance and lack of self-awareness flare up, things get weird. Those public temper tantrums near the end of the just-finished season contrast oddly with the image Dubas tries to maintain. He passed off those incidents as displays of passion. I don’t buy it. It’s a lack of self control. People with anger problems like to grant themselves the license to be enraged. I think Dubas wasn’t pleased that he was left hanging throughout the season without a contract extension. The tantrums were the result. But Dubas’s end-of-season tantrums aren’t something new. Justin Bourne, sports-radio host and former video coach for the Toronto Marlies, says he witnessed Dubas explode on a regular basis when things didn’t go his way. Framed pictures shattered on the floor and other destroyed objects were often the result, according to Bourne.

That arrogance was no doubt simmering under the surface when Dubas took the podium for his year-end media availability. But what really did him in was his lack of self-awareness and terrible mis-reading of the situation. Perhaps a touch of greed also spurred him on during that odd display. After being given the chance of a lifetime by Shanahan, and—have I mentioned this yet?—having zero experience with an NHL team before the Leafs hired him, Dubas went with the pity-play and mused that  perhaps he did not even want to return as GM. While Dubas may have discussed this with Shanahan prior to speaking publicly about it, Shanahan was no doubt stunned to hear Dubas openly expressing doubts about whether he wanted to sign an extension. After hearing everything that Shanahan said on Friday, May 19th, it’s hard not to believe that Dubas was trying to wrong-foot Shanahan and MLSE with this comments earlier in the week. Dubas has not responded specifically to the timeline laid out by Shanahan. Which tells me that it's probably accurate for the most part, though Dubas will undoubtedly one day add his own spin to those events.

But let’s get this straight: Dubas mewled and whimpered about his family and talked about how hard the whole enterprise was while likely making $2 million or more per year? This as the world is coming out of a pandemic that cost almost seven million people their lives? The resulting economic convulsions have resulted in housing and affordability crises in Canada that have crushed thousands and thousands of people. And this little whiner offers up this horse-shit? He painted himself as invincibly arrogant, insulated and monstrously self-absorbed. And now we find out that Dubas’s agent sent Shanahan a new ‘financial package’ on Thursday followed up by an evening email from Dubas that he was now onboard with returning? Word is that Shanahan and Dubas were earlier working on an extension that would have given Dubas $4 million-plus a year over five years. And that wasn’t enough for him? Speculation floating around online, thought unconfirmed, is that the new ‘financial package’ was close to $7 million per year. The $4 million per-year offer was probably double his five-year, on-the-job training contract. And he was looking to almost double again the offer he’d been discussing with Shanahan?

Something is fundamentally wrong with Dubas if all this information is correct. And of course, the caveat, especially regarding the contract details, is that we don’t know for sure. But again, Dubas has not disputed the series of events that played out as detailed by Shanahan after Dubas’s cringe-worthy public display  on Monday. And so the whole talk of family starts to look like a ploy. A rather shameless and myopic ploy. Or maybe both things are true. Perhaps Dubas was genuine when he spoke about his family. And it just happened to come before he jacked up his salary request. All that loot would no doubt help ease the stress experienced by his wife and children. But the quick turn-around and last-minute request for a huge increase in salary is very slithery. I don’t see how Shanahan had any choice but to turf Dubas at that point. If Dubas is willing to play public games to extort salary increases (and isn’t it rich for Dubas to suggest in his vague statement released on Twitter that he won’t talk about private discussions?), what other stunts would he pull in the future?

Perhaps this whole talk of family is a generational thing. Everyone cares about their family. But to talk about it in such a way that can be so easily seen as disingenuous is very risky. Psychologists say that pity is the trump card of sociopaths and hard-core narcissists. That’s not to say that framing yourself as hard done by makes you a sociopath or narcissist, and I’m not saying that about Dubas. But by God, suck it up and be grateful for the privilege of having such a rewarding, high-profile job that would be the envy of many. His salary probably puts him in the top half percent of all earners in Canada. I guess attention seeking via airing in public your every weakness, doubt, grievance and instance of not getting your own way is considered ‘authentic’ nowadays.

But back to the blow-by-blow details which Shanahan provided regarding the breakdown in talks and eventual firing of Dubas. Some people suggest it was egregious to disclose exactly what happened. Perhaps in normal situations. But Dubas is the one who got the ball rolling with his performance at the media availability. Shanahan advised him not to do it. Dubas did it anyway. Shanahan is his superior and could have told him not to speak in no uncertain terms. Perhaps at that point, Shanahan still trusted him somewhat. Following the emoting session by Dubas, Shanahan still trusted him, but unfortunately for Dubas, it was only as far as Shanahan could swing a bull by its balls. Shanahan had to get in front of things and advance a narrative. It’s called ‘prolepsis’ (look it up).

Again, the Dubas arrogance and lack of self-awareness. After working alongside each other for nine years, without question Shanahan had seen other warning signs regarding Dubas. And oh yes, there was another very public incident that played out under Shanahan’s watch while Dubas was GM. One that is unique in the history of the NHL. It received almost unanimous praise at the time from Dubas’s sycophants in the media. He’d already built up good relations with the media at that point. And remember, many of the Toronto hockey hacks indirectly work for MLSE. Bell and Rogers own MLSE. And Rogers also owns Sportsnet, which employs numerous fawning, desperate-for-access hockey journalists. I use the word ‘journalist’ lightly because perhaps no other sports media outlet employs so many flat-out terrible writers. But that’s the subject for another article.

So what event am I talking about? The sacking of former Leafs head coach Mike Babcock. When Babcock was hired by the Leafs in 2015, there was a lot of fanfare. Babcock was hailed as one of the greatest NHL coaches ever. And he was paid more than any other NHL coach before or since. His $8 million per-year contract with the Leafs skewed head-coach salaries sharply upwards in the NHL. Brendan Shanahan was instrumental in convincing Babcock to come to Toronto. Babcock had coached Shanahan for a time in Detroit, and Shanahan couldn’t say enough good things about his former coach. The Leafs improved under Babcock but still couldn’t break through in the playoffs. But perhaps more importantly, Babcock didn’t coddle the gutless four. And so, the time was right when the Leafs got off to a slow start in the 2019-20 season, and Dubas fired Babcock. Shanahan had to have been on board with the firing. But what about everything that came after?

As Babcock was on the way out the door, Marner shared his opinions of Babcock with the Toronto hockey media herd. And what he had to say wasn’t very complimentary. It seems Babcock has a vicious streak and convinced Marner to write out a list of who he, Marner, believed were the laziest players on the team. And then, according to Marner, (and yes, later confirmed by Babcock) Babcock by accident/on purpose, let some other players know who Marner had ranked on that now-famous list. The horror! A list! Sure, a bit manipulative if we take Mitchie boy's word for how it went down. But anyone who knows anything about hockey and the history of the NHL knows how utterly tame that incident really was, regardless of the details. Yes, things in the league have changed for the better in past decade and nastiness isn’t going to build trust with players in the long run. But I bet Marner was thrilled at first to think he was being brought into the inner circle and asked for his opinion.

Regardless, for that knee-capping of Babcock to take place, a couple of things had to happen. First, Marner and his ‘entourage’ would have gone to Dubas and told him what they wanted to do. And Dubas would have said ‘Yeah, sure, let’s get it done!’ That’s remarkable. After the Leafs had praised Babcock as one of the greatest coaches who’d ever lived, they now thought it was a grand idea to try to ensure that he would never again coach in the NHL. Was Shanahan fully on board with the career assassination of his former coach? He had to have been to some degree. But perhaps it was floated to him in one way and then it played out in a harsher manner than he’d anticipated. Perhaps Dubas already had numerous staff and management types on his side and made a real push to show everyone to what lengths he would go to protect one of the gutless four.

I imagine that whole sordid affair was in the back of Shanahan’s mind as he laid out the timeline of poor little hard done by Dubas’s final days with the Leafs. One interesting footnote to the Babcock affair: Babcock and Dubas’s contracts expire on the same day: June 30, 2023. Except Babcock got paid a lot more not to coach the Leafs than Dubas did to perpetrate his failed on-the-job training experiment on the team. Regarding that huge amount of money that Babcock was paid for four years after being fired: even for an empire like MLSE, $20 million for not coaching is a lot of money. That must have grated and was likely a black mark on Dubas’s record (and Shanahan’s) as far as MLSE was concerned.

It now appears that Dubas will take some kind of management job with the Pittsburgh Penguins only a week or so after he said it was Leafs or no one. And right on schedule, the media shills say that going against his word doesn’t really matter. It does matter. It shows him to be a shameless manipulator willing to say and do a lot to get what he wants. He thought he was rocking MLSE with Machiavellian masterstrokes, but he was really offering up cack-handed blunders that highlighted him as the lacking-in-real-world experience novice he actually is.

His most loyal media lackeys are currently in full cloak-and-dagger, palace-intrigue mode. A couple of The Athletic’s writers are doing their best to please Dubas with teary-eyed pieces about the emotional destruction suffered by the servile troops left behind to soldier on without their fearless leader. These are some real hyper-sensitive Leafs staff members who need immediate triage for the horror they’ve experienced. What trauma did they go through? They had to watch the person who handed them their cushy jobs find out what consequences are all about.

Another access-seeker who likely fancies himself a real operator in the world of ‘NHL insiders’ says that Dubas’s words about not going elsewhere no longer matter because of a ‘paradigm shift.’ Mind you, he’s the same person who claimed that Auston Matthews’s vicious cross-check into the side of Rasmus Dahlin’s head at the 2022 Heritage Classic in Hamilton wasn’t what it seemed. Trying to defy reality but failing miserably, the journalist in question said that Matthews didn’t drive the cross-check into Dahlin’s head at all. In fact, the fabulist claimed, Matthews drove the vicious blow into Dahlin’s shoulder, and pesky fantasy-world physics did the rest. No one bought it, least of all the NHL, who assessed Matthews a two-game suspension for the gutless assault. Nothing warmed Dubas’s heart during his time as Leafs’ GM more than a loyal media boot-licker going to bat for one of the gutless four, regardless of how unhinged or divorced from reality the claims may have been.

So the fallout from the media availability, Dubas’s sacking and Shanahan’s public account of how it all went down has included numerous questionable articles in the media. Though it may seem like ex-post-facto reasoning, the flood of nonsense from Dubas’s media shills lends support to the logic behind Shanahan’s sharing of details at that press conference. Even if he hadn’t done that, the innuendo and gossip about a supposed power struggle would likely have shown up anyway. Shanahan had learned enough about Dubas to understand what he was dealing with. So he protected himself.

This is not to suggest that Shanahan looks good after all the melodrama. He doesn’t. But getting his side of the story out first makes more sense than ever after the articles and leaks which have followed. And it's important to note that not all hockey writers are going along with the Dubas-friendly narratives being peddled. Push-back has appeared and more is coming. As mentioned, Friedman and Marek are offering up less than flattering accounts of blunder boy’s time as Leafs’ GM. Friedman is one of the most reliable NHL insiders. He covers the entire league instead of one team and strives for accuracy and fairness. He apologizes when he screws up. And based on everything else we know about Dubas, Friedman and Marek’s anecdotes have the air of truth about them.

And what exactly does Fenway Sports Group see in Dubas? I’m not exactly sure. They’re on record as saying that no one they currently employ really knows anything about hockey. But for whatever reason, they like the cut of Dubas’s jib. His communication skills (when he’s not in tantrum mode) have got to appeal. And his ability to develop mutually beneficial relationships with the media also have to be a selling point. Similarly, years of postseason failure with the sword hanging over his head but never falling, has got to impress his potential new bosses. And Fenway have made it clear, through the forced actions of Ron Hextall and Brian Burke in their final season with the Penguins, that Fenway, like Dubas, understands the importance of coddling and hanging onto to marquee players, no matter their age or ability to deliver when it matters most.

Or maybe, more simply, they just speak the same language as Dubas. They come from the same privileged backgrounds and can speak off the cuff, crafting clever new platitudes on the fly while using all the right words to appeal to the emotions of the fan base. Perhaps that dubious display of emotions in Dubas’s final press conference with the Leafs actually impressed them. In the modern era of North America’s bloated, 30-plus-team professional sports leagues, winning may come along but once or twice in a generation. Or not at all. Maybe hiring a GM who can spin narratives, feign emotions when necessary, and be someone younger fans can identify with, is now more important than having a winning record.

But if they don’t know much about hockey, what are they going to ask Dubas when they sit down to interview him for some kind of management role with the Penguins? Maybe they’ll go with the free association, get-to-know-you-over-several-days-and-different-interactions type of examination. Stand to the side and see how Dubas performs when interacting with Penguins players for the first time. Get him yapping about his vision for the team and see how well he distills esoteric information into something the layman can understand. Invite him for a nice dinner at a restaurant with some important people, get a few drinks in him and see if his table manners hold up. And then when he’s feeling relaxed and thinking it’s his job to lose, hit him with one of those classic questions and gauge his response. “So, Kyle, can you tell us what really happened?” 

Dubas is one of those hipsters of a certain age who thinks he’s got the world figured out, but as his actions have demonstrated, he’s still got a lot to learn. In short, he’s a punk. He’s been involved in hockey his entire working life and obviously has some gaps in knowledge about the ways of the world. Here’s a hint, Dubas: if they ask you that question, offer a bland, diplomatic, anodyne dodge and that’s it. If you give them the real dirt, then they immediately wonder what you’ll say about them when they’re not around. Got it?

Almost certainly, Fenway will want to probe Dubas about that now-famous media availability. Though they probably won’t phrase it so directly, what they really want to know is: “Could you one day do the same thing to us as you pulled with MLSE (negotiating through the media, using the pity card etc.)?” As mentioned, there well may have been aspects of Dubas’s performance that appealed to Fenway. Shamelessly manipulating the fan base and doing whatever necessary to save your own skin is one thing. But when it was apparent Dubas was playing games with the people who paid his salary and tolerated the team’s lack of success under his watch, then Fenway’s ears likely pricked up. It’ll be a tough one, but they’re likely looking for a ‘What have you learned?’ type of response.

It would have been fascinating to sit in on that final meeting with Shanahan and Dubas. When Shanahan stood, swung the metaphorical ball-peen hammer and landed the blow directly between Dubas’s eyes with the news that Dubas would not be returning as Leafs’ GM, how did Dubas react? Did he cry out? Slump into his chair, defeated? Stare, uncomprehending? If his past actions are any guide, my guess is he lashed out with a temper tantrum for the ages.

Whatever happened, it’s almost certain that waves of life-altering regret are currently washing over Dubas. He’s a bit too young now. But in ten years or so, depending of course on what comes next in his career, when the mortal bell is tolling not as far off in the distance as it once was, the true horror of what Dubas did to himself, and yes, his family, too, will come down on him like the proverbial ton of bricks. But at the moment, perhaps he's so monstrously arrogant that he's now driven on by rage that he couldn’t finagle things to a situation he felt he deserved. 

One thing is certain, employers and employees never get exactly what they expect. Dubas may find that, if he’s hired by Fenway in some management capacity with the Penguins, he might walk into a situation where he has less autonomy than he had with the Leafs. And Fenway may soon realize that Dubas isn’t the genius they thought he was.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Arron Asham Knocks Out Jay Beagle: NHL Hockey Fights

And fighting comes one step closer to being eliminated altogether in NHL hockey with another vicious result in a game between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday, October 13th, 2011.

The fight was between Arron Asham (Pens) and Jay Beagle (Caps).

Brutal knockout of Beagle by Asham.

And what are fans outraged about? The fact that, in the heat of the moment, Asham made some theatrical hand gestures after Beagle was knocked out and lying on the ice.

Which goes to prove that in hockey, as in everything, being humiliated by someone after the fact often causes more outrage than the initial instance of conflict.

Drive your fist into someone's face, knocking him out, possibly shattering  his jaw and likely concussing him? No problem. You see, that is ritualized and has a long and storied tradition in the NHL. Celebrate the total destruction of someone after the fight? Now that really has a way of focusing people's sense of what is right and wrong.

And I am not trying to be ironic here. That's just the way things are. Not least because of the fact that in most NHL fights (as in this one), the two combatants willingly engage in battle. But there is something repellent about mocking your opponent as he lies injured on the ice.

On the other hand, some fans claim that Asham absolved himself of the post-knockout taunts by tapping his stick against the boards in the penalty box when Beagle got up off the ice.

Friday, January 4, 2008

NHL Hockey Fights: Jarkko Ruutu vs. Darcy Tucker

Leafs logoPenguins logoListening to the Toronto Maple Leafs/Pittsburgh Penguins game on radio, I didn't get a clear sense of who had won the fight between Darcy Tucker and Jarkko Ruutu. Shameless homerism by announcers has been known to result in less than objective descriptions.

This fight took place during a game between the Leafs and Penguins in Pittsburgh on January 3rd, 2008.

It starts out at about the midway point of the second period with the game tied 1-1.

Ruutu lays a hit on Tucker in the Pittsburgh zone. Tucker starts yapping, goes after Ruutu and both players throw down their gloves. They grab hold of each other and Tucker starts throwing the right cross, three ineffectual shots barely making contact with Ruutu's face.

Ruutu gets a hold of the sweater behind Tucker's head, pulling his head down and knocking his helmet off. Tucker continues throwing blind shots, his right hand landing behind his opponent's head and having little effect.

The two are now in a momentary standoff , circling and trying to get their arms free. Tucker's face is an almost comical beet red from exertion and rage. Ruutu tries to get his right hand up and over to land a punch but Tucker has a strong hold on the sleeve of his adversary's right arm.

Now in an almost identical reply, Tucker tries to throw a right but Ruutus's grip renders the punch meaningless. Tucker shows some fighting skill and instantly counters with a left hook that doesn't connect but the force of his swing knocks Ruutu slightly off balance. Once again a mirror image response as Ruutu throws a looping left hook that is way off the mark and the two fall towards each other.

Tucker eye gougeThe natural physics of any fight will force the combatants to adopt similar tactics to counter whichever situation develops and the attack style of whomever has the upper hand. Hockey fights are no different--and probably more so because of the logistics-- but this bout is uncanny in the near simultaneous actions of both players.

Ruutu Tucker fightIt couldn't have been choreographed to coincide more perfectly as both players rake their clawed hands across the other's face at the same instant, with Tucker perhaps getting in an eye gouge in the process.

Both come out of that nasty bit of intimacy and get their right hands free at the same time. Ruutu throws a right hook that lands behind his opponent's head and then brings his arm down and pistons a few shots into Tucker's guts.

Tucker Ruutu fightNow they both have their right arms up and identically timed right hooks glance off both of their faces. Another pair of right hooks at the same time. Tucker throws another that knocks off Ruutu's helmet while Ruutu leans away to adjust to having his lid removed and manages one weak right cross at the same time.

Tucker throws a few more quick right hooks but only one more lands, giving him three out of six since this recent flurry began.

A brief let up from both. Now Ruutu throws three solid right hooks, all landing. Tucker stops the barrage by getting his left hand over top of Ruutu's head and briefly holds onto the back of his sweater. Ruutu is looping punches around Tucker's arm however, a few of them crunching into the Leaf player's skull.

While maintaining a slight edge to this point, the momentum now clearly shifts to the Penguins' player. Ruutu rattles off 2, 3, 4 5, 6 right hooks to the side and back of Tucker's head, some of them hitting home harder than others.

Now Ruutu gets his right hand completely free and throws at will, landing nine solid right crosses directly into Tucker's face. Hard meaty blows into Tucker's blazing red mug. Tucker takes them all and doesn't waver once, gamely flailing with his right but connecting with none except for perhaps the last punch of the fight that may have hit its mark.

The body language says it all as the refs come in and separate the two. Tucker nearly collapsing into the safety of the penalty box, spent and thoroughly destroyed by Ruutu. It appears Tucker is almost out of it, the look of of a deer in the headlights that just got run over, conscious that a linesman is conversing with him but likely unaware of exactly what is being said.

Ruutu is loose, relaxed and confident in the knowledge that he has won handily. Praise from his teamamtes for success in battle will come when he rejoins them on the bench and later in the locker-room.

Though Tucker clearly lost this battle, his fearless approach to the fight is the only reason Ruutu could score such a victory. Remember also that Ruutu has 3 inches and at least 20 pounds on the Leafs' player, with the added advantage in reach that goes with such a size difference as well.

It's of course easy to dissect a fight after it occurs. In the heat of the battle the announcers are calling it in real time without the advantage of repeated replays. Still, the bias in this one is glaring.

YouTube Video of Fight Between Tucker and Ruutu

It's admirable that Tucker didn't go down under such a bludgeoning. But the long term effects after that kind of beating can be significant, especially for someone like Tucker who has to play with an edge to contribute to his team. It will be interesting to see how he bounces back in subsequent games and how willing he is to throw down the gloves in the near future.

Monday, December 17, 2007

NHL Suspensions: Chris Simon Attack on Jarkko Ruutu

NHL logoIslanders logoPens logoIt's hard to commit an act of violence in the NHL that receives universal condemnation. A player can pour every ounce of energy into an explosive, premeditated, pivoting two-handed slash to the face of his opponent and someone, nay, a legion of people, will come screaming to the defense of the piece of filth.

It doesn't take much to provide the basis for such bizarro world rationalization. Any questionable action by the player who's been attacked is all it takes. A genuine foul or perceived slight that went unpunished, either earlier in the game or months previously, justifies the retribution that flows his way.

A barely concealed glee at injuries resulting from cheap shots is not a difficult-to-find sentiment amongst hockey fans. To be fair, it's the kind of bald-faced sociopathic ranting usually seen in the discussion board trenches, where the normal societal division of those who love to play the callous lunatic and those who love to be outraged is magnified a thousand times.

In the "public face" discourse of such incidents, the mainstream hockey media voices all the appropriate outrage, calls for punishment from the league and uses it as a segue to demand that the game be cleaned up. No doubt they are sincere in most cases.

But there are just as many references to the importance of "consequences" and that nebulous "code" that has never really been adequately articulated by anyone, ever. The proper and expected responses come when the glare of exceptional occurrences transcend the game and everyone is at their politically correct best.

So it is a rare instance that gutlessness is distilled into its purest essence and a moment of clarity is shared by all fans, including those of the offending player's team and those who normally take pride in celebrating cowardice and cruelty.

Chris Simon's insane stomp onto the ankle of Jarkko Ruutu's ankle seems to have achieved that rarest of unanimous loathing amongst hockey fans. Simon of the Islanders, in what was a clear and deliberate move, drove his skate blade into Ruutu's ankle, as Ruutu was lying prone on the ice.

That it was planned and Ruutu couldn't even see the attack coming makes it even more insidious and unforgivable. Add in the potential for the seriousness of the injury that could have resulted as well as Simon's track record and he is in for one record-setting suspension.

The odd thing about the incident is that, while it was obviously intentional, it almost seemed like an afterthought by Simon as he made his way through the gate onto the Islander's bench.

Here is the YouTube video of the attack

He wasn't involved in a fast moving, intense game situation. The "fog of battle" defense, that points to the speed and the near impossibility of pulling up in some cases, is irrelevant here. And yet it seemed so casual and pointless. The term "banality of evil" comes to mind (only the second Nazi reference I've made in the past week.)

And so the guessing game begins about the length of suspension the NHL will hand down to Simon. I really wanted to avoid checking in at Bob McKenzie's blog over at TSN because after doing so it's almost impossible not to be derivative of whatever he has to say on such issues.

He has an uncanny ability of putting his finger on the pulse of the league after every suspension-worthy incident and accurately predicting, within a few games, just how long the sentence will be. However, he hasn't commented on this most recent episode yet.

Following the attack with his stick on the New York Ranger's Ryan Hollweg last season, I believe Simon will get hit hard.

The rest of the season, with a less than subtle hope on the part of the NHL and many fans that he decides to call it a career.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Sidney Crosby: Canadian Athlete of the Year

Political pundits--those columnists and talking heads who discuss the government and issues of the day--often end up shaping the news themselves. Influential writers frequently make the move into politics or at the very least offer up their loving paeans to whichever party or individuals appeal to them the most. Their thoughts and suggestions no doubt have some influence on official decisions and policy.

Sports writers also have some clout within the world they write about. Not in the same incestuous way that political hacks court their subjects in the hopes of being asked into the inner circle. Sports journalists rarely, if ever, become part of a team in any other facet except professional sycophant.

But they do channel the thoughts and passions of numerous fans. And on occasion they help to stoke a wave of sentiment that leads to a move by management.

The sports media also chooses the recipients for a number of different awards. Winning such official accolades can boost a player’s profile and lead to consideration for hall of fame induction.

A major league baseball player, Curt Schilling, recently had a clause written into his contract that would add a million dollar bonus for garnering even a single vote for the Cy Young award,
which is given to the best pitcher of the year. The writers on the Cy Young voting committee convened a meeting and decided to disqualify from consideration any players who have negotiated such incentives.

A fair decision I believe. With the number of ethical questions already swirling around baseball, the game’s image doesn’t need to be further tarnished in the eyes of fans. Follow that path and how long before cries of “kickback” are made when a player with such a contractual provision receives a vote from a writer he is friendly with?

Beyond that, the whole notion of sports writers being handed the power to decide who is crowned the best, is fraught with at least a few potential pitfalls.

The Lou Marsh Trophy for the Canadian athlete of the year was given to the Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby last week. Crosby was in the running against various other athletes including Steve Nash of the NBA's Phoenix Suns and downhill skier Erik Guay.

A good discussion on Prime Time Sports with Bob McCown raised some interesting issues surrounding the whole voting process. McCown, who was one of the panel members, highlighted the criteria taken into account when voting on candidates.

One of the considerations is "depth of field," which makes it hard to fathom how any amateur sports or less popular athletic pursuits have athletes worthy of the prize.

However, it's not the only factor scrutinized when casting the final votes. It seems there are a number of qualifiers given more or less weight depending on whichever pick needs to be justified every year.

In the panel discussion on Prime Time Sports, those who were part of the process admitted the sentiment that "a hockey player hasn’t won it for a while and so it was due," received some play. Nice for hockey fans but ultimately irrelevant.

Beyond the fact that Crosby is a completely deserving winner of the award, his cause couldn't have been hindered by a few other aspects. First, he has the full marketing support of the NHL, who have anointed him as the chosen one. Also, besides his incredible talent and work ethic, he is just a very likable and mature individual.

Ostensibly outside the parameters of such awards, it's impossible to deny the effects personality and image have in what is partially a popularity contest despite the supposed "rules" involved. If Crosby were a nasty son-of-a-bitch with a handful of off-ice incidents under his belt, would he be such an easy choice?

Thankfully, it's not a question that needs to be answered. Like the other high profile ambassadors of the game who went before (Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr), Crosby seems blessed with that natural sense of honour and decency. (Another discussion worth pursuing: does exceptional character help build superior athletes or does it come after someone with talent has enjoyed the special privileges and treatment that society bestows on such youngsters?)

Aside from those questions, are there any conflicts of interest involved in the player/media relationship? What if a journalist follows a particular athlete closely, befriends him or her or is considering the possibility of writing a book about that individual? Should they be part of a particular panel when that player is in the running?

There are other awards decided by fellow players, management or even fans. It's unlikely that less bias exists amongst those groups of people.

Still, at least an open discussion of the voting process creates some pressure and a greater sense of responsibility for those involved. When these committees remain shrouded in secrecy, it creates the perception, rightly or wrongly, that politics and favouritism trumps merit.

And finally, congratulations to Sidney Crosby for being chosen as Canada's athlete of the year!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

NHL 2007-08 Regular Season: Quarter Pole Standings and Review

nhllogo.gifWith most teams in the NHL having played 25% of their schedule, it's time for a look at how things have played out so far.

Eastern Conference

The Ottawa Senators are in a class by themselves in the Eastern Conference and show no sign of letting up. On the few occasions the team have played poorly, they have quickly bounced back and returned to their winning ways.

The Washington Capitals are about the only team whose season is already looking close to an unsalvageable disaster. That they haven't made some kind of move yet is perhaps a testament to the lack of other clubs willing or able to shift players. You've got to think that head coach Glen Hanlon will be walking the plank any day now. A coaching change can jolt a team in the right direction as demonstrated by the Atlanta Thrashers.

The Thrashers have gone 10-4 since sacking Bob Hartley and are suddenly a tough team to beat. They are now nipping at the heels of the hapless Leafs and within a few points of the 5th to 8th place glut in the Eastern Conference.

More than just trying to turn around their season, the Capitals have got to be thinking about Alexander Ovechkin and his looming free agency that will become a reality at the end of the season. No doubt the Caps' potential in the next few seasons will affect his decision about where to play.

Ovechkin will be a Group 2 free agent, so if he does accept an offer from another team and the Caps don't or can't match, at least Washington will get four first round draft picks in return from the organization who lures him away (the prescribed compensation for the salary range Ovechkin will no doubt command.)

Regarding a change behind the bench, what exactly have the Caps got to lose besides more games?

Speaking of the Leafs, they offered up another classic third period collapse in the game against the Bruins last night. The fans at Air Canada Centre had to feel a bit queasy at the sight of goalie Tuuka Rask performing at least as well as his Finnish compatriot in the Leafs net. Most importantly, he got his first start and win in the NHL against the team who traded him away for Andrew Raycroft.

The Leafs now sit in ninth place in the conference. All the teams above them in the standings have at least one game in hand on Toronto and most of those clubs have played two or fewer matches. No sense of urgency seems to grip the organization at the moment.

The Philadelphia Flyers have flattened out a bit after their strong beginning. After going 6-1 with 28 goals to start the season, they have followed up with a rather mediocre 5-6-1 with only 29 goals during that stretch. To this point it has still been an impressive turnaround from last year. The Flyers have a tough run in front of them in their next 8 games as they play the Senators, Bruins, Wild, Avalanche and the Hurricanes (twice), amongst others.

The two most disappointing teams in the East are the Buffalo Sabres and the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Sabres plummet is not as much of a surprise since their team scoring was gutted in the off-season with the departure of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. But most fans didn't expect their drop-off to be as sharp as it has been. Head coach Lindy Ruff has built up loads of capital with the Sabres and despite the team's woes, I can't see his position being in jeopardy any time soon.

The Penguins on the other hand, have got to be the biggest under-achievers of the season. They could be in the market for a number one goaltender or a new coach in the next little while. Rammed with talent and coming off last year's impressive regular season, it will be a bit hard for fans to tolerate the losing much longer.

Two other teams that have swapped places in the standings as compared to last year are the New Jersey Devils and the Carolina Hurricanes. The Devils are getting hammered this season. They have yet to win more than two games in a row and the last time they did that was in mid-October.

The Canes on the other hand are off to a great start after their disappointing campaign in 2006-7 and have scored more goals than any other team in the league with 71.

Western Conference

The Western Conference is even more of a mash-up, with the Detroit Red Wings at the top, the Los Angeles Kings, Edmonton Oilers and Phoenix Coyotes at the bottom and every other team clogging up the middle. A whopping four points separates 2nd place from 12th.

The grouping at the bottom looks similar to the end of last season with the exception of the Chicago Blackhawks who have exited the cellar. The Blackhawks are a rejuvenated club with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews off to good starts. The ongoing restructuring of their front office is a positive sign for Chicago fans as well.

The biggest non-story of the season is still the expectant Calgary sports writers waiting for Mike Keenan to blow a gasket as the Flames continue their underwhelming start. The standard lament from everyone who follows this team closely is that they seem to have a talented club with all the potential pieces to do well but they continue to offer up sub-par efforts. Keenan's got to be wondering if he should shelve his new milder approach and once again start throwing wild haymakers (metaphorically) in the dressing room.

It's been frustrating so far for the Edmonton Oilers, though their fans at least can take some solace from the fact that they're not too far behind the Flames in the standings. It's safe to say that Dustin Penner is the biggest bust of the off-season free agent signings.

On pace for only 16 goals, that's far from what the Oilers were probably expecting from the lumbering forward. Most fans of the team will say that it's a signing whose worth can only be accurately judged after Penner's 3rd or 4th season with the team. Fair enough. But in the short term, it's certainly not looking too good.

The Detroit Red Wings keep blazing along with consistent play and plenty of offense. Second in goals scored in the league and second in goal differential (with 19 more tallies than they have given up), the Wings are still one of the toughest teams in the league to play against.

The Anaheim Ducks have put together six wins in their last eight starts after a dismal start to the season. The Vancouver Canucks have been improving lately but are still having trouble with consistency. The Columbus Blue Jackets have come back to earth with only two wins in their last nine games (and three shootout loss points) after their impressive beginning.

The St. Louis Blues are in the midst of their second four game winning streak of the season. Though they are a bit lean in the scoring department they have found ways to win. The goaltending from Manny Legace has been solid if unspectacular, though he has only faced 389 shots. Based on play in 15 of the Blues' games, the number of shots directed at him is lower than for most other goalies in the league with comparable minutes played.

A definite sign of good defense and also borne out by the fact that St. Louis have allowed only 40 goals. This has also been helped by having had the lightest schedule in the league so far. With only 18 games played to this point, they have at least two games in hand compared to all other teams above them in the conference standings.

As much as I dislike that qualifier "It's still too early/close to count anyone out," it has a lot of merit for most teams with three quarters of the season yet to play.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

NHL 2007-08: Game Day Previews November 3rd

Leafs logoHabs logoThe Leafs skate into Montreal on Saturday, continuing one of the greatest rivalries in NHL history in terms of length, passion and polarizing effect. At least in Canada. More than just two hockey clubs playing each other, in many ways the rivalry is symbolic of the dual nature of Canada's founding and the ongoing struggles that involve Quebec and the rest of the country.

Earlier in the week there was another reminder of just how important the language issue is in Quebec when Habs' captain Saku Koivu was criticized for not learning how to speak French. The comments against Koivu came from a Quebec lawyer during public hearings about religious minorities in the province.

It's always ironic that any group feeling threatened (Quebec within Canada in this case) will usually end up taking out their frustrations on other minorities that have even less power in society. There have long been questions about how new immigrants to the province are treated and these hearings are looking at how new-comers are being discriminated against based on religion.

In an obvious attempt to shift the focus, the grand-standing lawyer launched a public attack on the Canadiens' Finnish captain.

Koivu took note and delivered the pre-game announcement of players mainly in French (albeit taped...he had done opening night's all in English which provided the kind of opening the language fascist lawyer was looking for) in the game against the Flyers on Friday.

He then promptly served up another response in the "actions speak louder than words" manner as he had a solid game and received well-deserved cheers from the Montreal crowd for both efforts.

Back to the Leafs/Canadiens game tonight. The Canadiens have been playing extremely well over the last seven games or so, earning at least a point in each of those contests. The story with these two teams is the contrast in special teams.

The Habs' power play is on fire at the moment, with a league wide best when it comes to converting extra man chances. When opposing teams are taking loads of penalties it usually is indicative of team speed and effort for the club being given the man advantage. A huge 21 goals on 68 chances for Montreal when on the power play.

The Leafs on the other hand are still having some problems when their opponents have a player in the box. They are at the bottom of the league when trying to make use of their chances. They have converted a measly eight out of 64 opportunities.

Add to that woeful stat the fact that the Leafs are worst in the NHL for coughing up short-handed goals with four. They gave up one against New Jersey on Friday night. The goal broke a tie, shifted the momentum towards the Devils and helped them to win 3-2 against the Leafs. Second loss in a row for Toronto after previously winning two consecutive games on the road. The Buds are taking plenty of bad penalties as well.

If those trends hold up tonight, it won't be good for the Leafs.

Bruins logoSens logoThe game in Ottawa could be an interesting match-up. While the Senators have been rolling along, they did let up the other night against the worst team in the league (Atlanta Thrashers) and the game ended much closer than it should have.

With the exception of the shellacking the Bruins absorbed from the Canadiens 12 days ago, they have been playing well and winning some close games, with an overtime win against Buffalo on Thursday.

However, Boston hasn't fared too well against teams higher than them in the standings and obviously this will be the best team they have faced this season.

An all important divisional game will make this a close one I believe.

Zdeno Chara versus Brian McGrattan in the fisticuffs department perhaps?

Devils logoRangers logoTwo disappointing under-achievers in the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils meet in the Big Apple. Both clubs have equally mediocre 5 and 6 records with the Rangers holding the dubious honour of being the lowest scoring team in the entire league.

The Devils have been putting the puck in the net at a better pace than the Rangers but have still been blanked three times this season. One of those shut-outs was delivered by the Rangers in a 2-0 win in the teams' first meeting of the season.

Maybe they should skip the preliminaries. Just head right to overtime instead of playing what's likely to be a bland, scoreless regulation.


Some other interesting match-ups amongst the eight other games being played on Saturday night. Phoenix coming off a big win against Dallas could highlight just how far the Ducks have fallen if they can handle Anaheim at home.

The Canucks must be thankful to get back on the road after they continued their dismal play at home in a loss to the Nashville Predators. Regardless, they'll still have to ratchet up their shots on goal (though they did manage 29 against the Preds) or they won't fare too well against a strong Colorado Avalanche team who are unbeaten at home so far this season.

The Sharks and Kings finish off a home and home series in Los Angeles tonight with the Kings winning the first leg 5-2 on Friday. Battle of California has some insight on that match-up and a preview of the Ducks and Coyotes game as well.

Pittsburgh travels to Long Island hoping that the re-energized Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin can keep scoring the way they have in the past few games. Though they'll want a better result than they had in their loss to the Avalanche on Thursday.

Florida in Carolina, Atlanta at Tampa Bay, Calgary in Minnesota and Chicago visiting St. Louis are the other games being played.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

NHL 2007-08: Game Day Previews October 23rd

Avs logoOilers logo

Colorado Avalanche at Edmonton Oilers

Prodigal son returns with a fistful of dollars and burning desire to massage his lagging reputation in his hometown. Loads of post-playing appearances, endorsements and perhaps even a future with the Oilers organization to be considered.

The Mulleted One, Ryan Smyth, spurned Edmonton for a shot to perhaps win a Cup with Colorado and at least slurp up another four and a half million dollars over the course of his contract as opposed to what he would have earned with the Oilers.

In his attempts to assuage the feelings of fans in the Alberta capital, he mentions that his heart is still in the city and he will bring the Cup back if he ever wins it with the Avalanche.

How soon do those kinds of comments start to grate on Colorado team-mates and fans?

With the Oilers continuing to struggle to score goals and the injuries mounting, the fans could have a lot to boo about in tonight's game.

Thrashers logoLeafs logo
Atlanta Thrashers at Toronto Maple Leafs

With a 1-1 record after former head coach Bob Hartley was sacked, Atlanta will be playing against another team in Toronto whose coach is starting to feel the heat. Look for the Leafs to ratchet up their effort a few notches in hopes of reversing the early season 3rd period disintegrations. Or not.

As the abuse rains down on the team while the "Maybe it's the coach?" narrative also starts to pick up steam, perhaps the players begin subconsciously latching on to that easy out and let up even more in hopes of a fresh beginning.

Rangers logoPens logoNew York Rangers at Pittsburgh Penguins

Relatively slow starts for both of these clubs. Especially the Rangers, who were widely touted in the pre-season as the most improved team in the NHL. It's far too early to label their free agent signings as busts but there has been little scoring from Scott Gomez or Chris Drury so far. Only three goals between them and a combined total of nine points.

The Ranger's Marc Staal in his rookie season in the league and his brother Jordan of the Penguins will get their first chance to play against each other in the NHL.

Overall, it's a game of potential breakouts, with Jaromir Jagr of the Rangers and Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins all looking to get back to a scoring pace they have been accustomed to in previous seasons (with Crosby and Malkin only in their 3rd and 2nd years in the league respectively.)

B Jacks logoHawks logoColumbus Blue Jackets at Chicago Blackhawks

One of the most exciting stories of the season so far is the play of Chicago rookies Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Kane at 18 and Toews at 19 are rare examples of teen-aged players entering the league and being able to immediately adapt to the pace and style of NHL games. It may not continue all season but they're helping the Blackhawks get off to a good start in the the post-Wirtz era.

Columbus have been up and down this season. They have blanked the opposing team in all three of their wins, been close in two others and dropped two lopsided contests. By many accounts they seem to be putting in a solid efforts on most nights and have benefited from the return of Mike Peca after he started the season injured.

Ducks logoBlues logoAnaheim Ducks at St. Louis Blues

A bit of an early season reversal of fortunes for these two teams as compared to last year. The Ducks have been struggling while the Blues have been showing improvement. Anaheim have played four more games than St. Louis but only have one more point in the standings.

The Ducks are having problems putting the puck in the net and only have one player in the top 50 for scoring league wide with Ryan Getzlaf at 18th place with ten points.

Remember also that the Ducks have played more games than any other team in the NHL.

Predators logoKings logo Nashville Predators at Los Angeles Kings

Two teams that have started poorly. Both have experienced five game losing streaks with Nashville still in the midst of theirs. Los Angeles started the season in London against Anaheim and like the Ducks have played more games than other teams in the league.

They are not nearly as disappointing as Anaheim have been this season but perhaps there is some credence to the claim that the overseas traveling and early schedule have somewhat accounted for the poor start.

The Kings at least rebounded with a win against Vancouver on Saturday while the Predators are continuing to let in boatloads of goals. It doesn't look as though that trend will change any time soon.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

NHL 2007-08 Predictions: Eastern Conference

Sens logoPens logoTampa logoDevils logoSabres logoRangers logoThrashers logoLeafs logoFlyers logoCaps logoBruins logoHurricanes logoPanthers logoIsles logohabslogo.gifOK, here's the requisite prediction post wherein I make studied and reasoned comments (offer up a bundle of paraphrased rationalizing) on why I've placed various teams in my projected final standings. In the end I'm going to make at least some wild assed guesses with the knowledge that many well articulated forecasts are no more accurate than the looping swings in the dark variety. Regardless of how someone arrives at their choices, at least a few teams will surprise and insanely over-achieve while one or two clubs will disappoint.

I'm going with conference predictions for the simple reason that they're a helluva lot easier to post. But because of the heavily weighted intra-division play, the only way to make any kind of pick is to look at those groupings first and decide who improved the most and proceed from there. Of course, by working backwards, you could ultimately determine what my picks would look like if sorted into divisions.

You may have read an article I posted last month in which I described the various teams I have cheered for over the years. After a fairly long absence away from regularly watching games (which could continue this season depending on how the online viewing situation plays out) I come to this season as a hockey fan with relatively few biases. Some of you may consider this unthinkable, a bland, second-rate way to watch the game. I'm perfectly content to watch the season unfold in this way and I think it will make me a better observer who is relatively uninfluenced by emotion. At the same time, I'm looking forward to being drawn in by certain teams and situations and will no doubt have some favourites by the end of the season.

First, the Eastern Conference:

1. Ottawa Senators
2. Pittsburgh Penguins
3. Tampa Bay Lightning
4. New Jersey Devils
5. Buffalo Sabres
6. New York Rangers
7. Atlanta Thrashers
8. Toronto Maple Leafs
9. Philadelphia Flyers
10. Washington Capitals
11. Boston Bruins
12. Carolina Hurricanes
13. Florida Panthers
14. New York Islanders
15. Montreal Canadiens

The Senators haven't done much in the off-season but really, they had no need to. Coming off a season in which they surged in the last half and were dominant throughout the playoffs with the exception of the finals, they have every right to leave things as they are. Bryan Murray as GM will no doubt be looking to add the final piece before the trade deadline and John Paddock behind the bench as coach could provide a nice jolt. Ray Emery had his wrist and a new contract sewn up in the off-season but I wouldn't be surprised if Martin Gerber plays a more prominent role this season. A 52 save shut-out, regardless of whether it's in the pre-season, bodes well for his potential in 2007-08. Emery still has some technique issues to sort out before he's ranked as one of the league's elite netminders. He also has a tendency for off-ice antics and any further melodramas involving him together with average play could see his stock plummet.

Many have picked the New York Rangers as the most improved team in the entire league with the signings of Chris Drury and Scott Gomez. And the addition of Brent Sutter could improve the perennially solid and well-disciplined Devils. But I'm still going with the Pittsburgh Penguins to take the Atlantic Division and second overall in the Eastern Conference for no other reason than I like to be a contrarian son-of-a-bitch on occasion. But really, it's not much of a stretch to think they will in fact finish ahead of the Rangers and Devils. The explosive talent they have, has, in my opinion, the greatest potential for further improvement this season. Another year of playing together under their belts and the disappointment of an early playoff exit will spur them on to greater heights.

The Buffalo Sabres are going to see their "goals for" numbers take a hit with the loss of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere and that will cause them to slip somewhat but not as much as many are predicting.

I see Tampa Bay leapfrogging Atlanta for the Southeast crown and thus being positioned 3rd in the Eastern Conference. Just like last season, I believe the mediocre Southeast will field only one other playoff team with Atlanta taking the 7th position. I well may have ranked them higher but my research on the team has been abysmal. That lack of recognition factor alone is why I have slotted them in based on a quick look at last season's final standings. Sad, I know, but I'm doing this for kicks and can afford shameless admissions such as that. (Imagine one of the well-paid hacks at the Globe and Mail's sports section dropping a line like that?)

I must admit that I've bought into the rationalizing regarding the improvements made to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the off-season and have thus awarded them the last playoff position at 8th in the conference. Despite the 2 poor performances so far by Vesa Toskala in net during the pre-season, I can't help but feel they will see an improvement overall at the position, whether it's with shared duties or perhaps with the unexpected development that sees Andrew Raycroft step up. They have added some scoring with Jason Blake despite having been quite strong in that area last season. Unfortunately, they've already been hit with some pre-season injuries though it's unlikely things could be as bad in that regard as during the 06-07 campaign.

I can't see the Leafs missing the playoffs for a 3rd straight year, not only because of their mild improvements but more for the fact that there will be hell to pay if it even looks like a possibility approaching the midway point of this season. Pressure in the nasty pit of hockey insanity in which the Leafs lurch wildly about is surreal and larger than life.

At least 2 key individuals, GM John Ferguson Jr. and Leafs icon Mats Sundin, will be riding hell bent for success in their respective off-ice and on-ice roles this year. Ferguson will orchestrate at least one final Hail Mary if his job looks like it's in jeopardy and Sundin will haul the team into the playoffs alone even if he's jacked up on enough cortisone to kill a buffalo. Surprisingly, not much has been said as of late (relatively, relatively) by the Toronto media about Sundin's final quarter season slump in 06-07. It could either be painful or inspirational to see how Sundin winds up his career in Toronto this year.

The columnists and journalists who weigh in on all things Leafs related have been braying loudly about everything else though. I believe the sports writers on the hockey beat at Canadian papers, especially the Globe and Mail, are so conscious of being branded as having a pro-Leafs bias, that they go ricocheting in the opposite direction as a way to compensate. Sure there are many informed and often prescient views offered up on the Leafs but so often it's a skewed picture that is presented in the sports sections in many rags. The shrill pronouncements are already flowing from some on the demise of the Leafs this season with the regular season not even underway. They are so extreme in some cases that a person can only lean at least slightly in the other direction and be confident that that is a more likely possibility.

And finally regarding the Leafs, I do buy into the argument that they were hammered beyond normal limits in the injury department last season. Look at where they were at about a month into the campaign in 2006-07. Sure they had some games in hand, but still, they were off to a fairly good start. If anything, I see a reverse of last year with them having a slow start and then improving during the final stretch.

Philadelphia could well be one of the most improved teams this years. It will definitely be a fight for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and if it isn't the Leafs, I'm sure the Flyers will be right there. The Flyers shipped out their favourite whipping boy (at least he was for some of the fans and a columnist or two) Joni Pitkanen in exchange for Jason Smith and Joffrey Lupul from the Edmonton Oilers. A big unrestricted free agent signing saw the addition of Daniel Briere. He should provide a boost to their scoring, which was horrid last season. The Flyers also grabbed another pair of players from Nashville who were set to become UFAs, when they inked forward Scott Hartnell and defenseman Kimmo Timonen. If not the most improved, the Flyers have at least altered the face of their team more than any other club.

However, they absorbed a bludgeoning in that pre-season game with Ottawa a few days ago, losing four players to injuries. It looks as though Scottie Upshall and Joffrey Lupul both damaged their wrists though only Upshall's injury is serious enough to require surgery.

Washington and Boston are 2 teams that have people throwing around that catchall phrase "You'll be surprised." Having been a Bruins fan many years ago, it would definitely be nice to see them break out of their years long average to terrible play. They've got a new coach in Claude Julien who has made it clear the Bruins will be a more physical team. For some real in-depth parsing of the Bruins at every position and the kind of substance and minutiae that can only come from years of following a team, check out this excellent blog.

Well, that's it for my Eastern Conference predictions. I'll offer up my Western Conference forecasts within the next day or two.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Another Take on the NHL Winter Classic

NHL logoSabres logoPens logoHere's Damien Cox at his not quite contrarian best with a column in which he tries to rip to bits the outdoor match-up this season between the Buffalo Sabres and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

I usually like reading Cox for the entertainment value though I don't always agree with his opinions. He enjoys ruffling feathers and being harsh in his criticism of the Leafs, other teams and the NHL in general. Conflict is the basis of all good writing whether it be novels, scripts or yes, even sports columns. There are other hockey writers who seem more intent on securing and maintaining their access to the good ol' boys network that is the NHL, with articles that at best put a positive spin on everything related to the team they cover or at worst are nothing more than hagiography. That's fine as well and while I read both, I'll take the guys who rip things with abandon over the professional sycophants.

Disagree with Cox on this one though. He has a nice set-up where he blasts the NHL for constantly experimenting on a whim only to reverse their original plans and then casually implement another gimmick or two. Beyond that there's not much of his criticism of the Winter Classic that stands up, in my opinion.

First, the analogies he offers regarding other sports really aren't applicable. He suggests that it would be ridiculous if an NFL game were to be played inside a hockey arena on a makeshift field, in reference to the fact that the Winter Classic will be played inside a football stadium.

NHL Winter ClassicWell, football never was played inside in its original form and the location for the outdoor NHL game is simply to accommodate the number of fans willing to attend (and make the game as profitable as possible.) That the stadium is normally used for football is irrelevant. As for the rink being "makeshift," according to this article, the rink set-up and its construction alone will cost well over a million dollars and will closely mimic the conditions in all current NHL teams' arenas.

He also provides a few more analogies that have little to no merit. The NBA staging a regular season game on an asphalt court in Compton or a major league baseball game in a corn field in Iowa? Though NHL games never were played outside, the fact is, hockey originated outdoors by necessity and this event is a throwback to that while maintaining the modern rink. For his comparisons to be applicable to the NHL scenario at all, the Pens/Sabres match-up would have to take place on a frozen lake without any of the expensive and high-tech installations that are going to be made. The far-fetched situations he offers are not really similar to the unique aspect of hockey being played outside in far colder weather as compared to its indoor version. Pro baseball is still played outside (and in the case of recreational basketball) with little difference in terms of climate or atmosphere as compared to hockey.

Even if you assume the respective sports leagues would see any merit in such proposals (they wouldn't because, again, there's no real comparison) the logistics of building a temporary diamond and sufficient stands in a cornfield render the analogy fairly worthless as does the lack of any nostalgia that would be associated with both examples.

The claim that this is risky for both teams involved in terms of the regular season points at stake and the fact the game could turn on weather related interference also holds little weight. Both teams have agreed to the game and will play under the same circumstances. Just as poor ice conditions, unpredictable rebounds off end boards or some kind of game delay due to arena malfunction, fan interference or other unexpected event can affect the flow and potential outcome of any indoor game, both teams in the Winter Classic will be subject to the same conditions. In fact, in the case of the al fresco tilt between the Pens and the Sabres, this is even less of a factor as no team has an edge regarding familiarity with the rink conditions.

As mentioned in the column, the concern for poor weather conditions causing the game to be canceled and the resulting logistical problems is an important issue. The NHL is working on a contingency plan and should have one in place shortly.

While it's easy to blast the NHL for its litany of problems and poor decisions, I see the Winter Classic as a positive event.

Now, are any players going to drop the gloves knowing that their hands may go numb as they smack the raw, frost-bitten flesh of each other's faces? Will a fog from the players' heavy exhalations and steaming sweaters and equipment hover over the rink like a surreal nostalgic haze? Will that magical sound of pucks clacking on sticks reverberate all the way up to those spectators in the last few rows? The fans in attendance will find out as they take part in a memorable experience and hopefully witness a great game in the process.