August 27, 2010

Pittsburgh’s Loss of Guerin Should Be Another’s Gain

Bill Guerin’s Wikipedia page cites him as the first Latino to ever play in the National Hockey League. Go figure. Just one more thing he has done over the course of a long and celebrated career that he should carry on as long as possible.

Indeed, Guerin’s mother is apparently Nicaraguan and he is also part Irish, which could also explain the luck he’s experienced over the course of his 18 seasons spent in the NHL. He’s made the playoffs in 15 of those seasons and has two Stanley Cups to show for his hard work, with the latest coming in 2009 with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The recency of that victory serves as evidence that he can still play and contribute at the highest level of the game.

In truth, it’s somewhat surprising that the now-39-year-old Guerin didn’t retire following that latest championship, because in playing one more season he gave up the chance to go out as a winner. Now, after Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero has reportedly informed him that the team won’t be bringing him back, he must feel no better than a two-bit loser.

Statistics never tell the whole story, but they do tell a big part of it, and Guerin’s are clearly those of an aged veteran who is still playing at as high a level that he was a decade ago. It’s not a particularly interesting story, lacking the seemingly pre-requisite drugs, rock n’ roll, and dead hooker in a motel room, but it is a story nonetheless.

Guerin’s peak season, in terms of performance, came in 2001-2002 when he scored 85 points in 85 games (playing in 85 due to a discrepancy resulting in him being traded from the Edmonton Oilers to the Boston Bruins). That was his only season as a point-per-game player, which makes his 45-point season last year much more indicative of the type of depth forward Guerin was over the most part of his career and still is.

Granted, Guerin did spend this past season playing with superstar Sidney Crosby, which no doubt helped to pad his totals, but he’s about as guilty as a bureaucrat on a weekend in Vegas. Some weird, freaky things are going to go down, but you can’t blame him when the booze is free and the sex is cheap and readily available at every corner. But that would be too many plot twists to run parallel to a career defined by consistency.

The most debauched metaphor possible for Guerin’s career would be that of a slow and steady march in the winding-down stages of the Boston Marathon, with its completion addled in booze… hardly TMZ-worthy. One can only hope, though, there’s at least one more mile left before Guerin’s body collapses over the finish line into a well-deserved vat of his choice of beer.

Guerin will never be confused for a superstar. He never was. Contrary to popular belief, he was always a second-liner at best. What is a true testament to his longevity is that he spent time this past year on Pittsburgh’s first line. Considering he will be 40 in just a few months, that is downright incredible. Clearly, he still has a lot to give any team willing to pay for his services and that hypothetical team should come knocking any day now. For them not to would mean a lack of willingness to compete, something that Guerin in sharp contrast epitomizes.

There’s no longer a realistic chance that Guerin will go out on top of the hockey world – a 30-team league will do that – but he still can make a living doing what he loves. He has earned that right along with the ability to leave the game on his terms. Playing at least one more seasonwould give him that chance and fans a last one to witness a bona-fide champion in action.

August 26, 2010

The Devil’s in the Details

A second deal with the Devils fell through and, now, perhaps as much as a month of hell remains in the National Hockey League’s free-agency period.

Forward Ilya Kovalchuk, who signed an unprecedented 17-year, $102-million deal with the New Jersey Devils on July 20, only to have his dreams of having a contract until he was a brittle, battered, and bruised 44 years old quashed by the league, had his heart broken to a greater extent earlier this month when an arbitrator backed the league’s power play to reject the contract. And just this week the framework of a second potential contract was reportedly denied by the league. As a result, it’s clear that this summer hockey has made way for the always enthralling waiting game. The sad part is, as far as they’ve come in trying to work something out, the two sides have set the league back about a decade.

Clearly the initial contract was a joke, meant to circumvent the cap by front-loading the contract in its early years with salaries of upwards of $11.5 million. The peanuts totalling $550,000 in salary in the contract’s later stages only served to drag down the average salary-cap hit to make it more manageable on a per-year basis for the Devils.

All Kovalchuk would have had to do was make a retirement announcement, met with little more than a nudge and wink between him and the Devils, prior to his senior citizenry kicking in and his contract would have been taken off the books. No one would have been the wiser, either. Well, except for the NHL... and each individual arena’s food vendors... and every five-year-old just picking up a stick for the first time... okay, the entire hockey-watching world, really.

I mean, thinking about it now, how did the Devils think they could pass their little back-alley perversion off as legitimate? Even Methuselah could not justify playing hockey at 44 years of age... without even knowing what hockey is. It just SOUNDS like a bad idea.

There may have been other, similar deals that have tested the size of the loophole in the collective bargaining agreement, but none that seemed as much a cartoonish slap in the face of the league and the 29 other clubs therein. And besides one need only look at the Chicago Blackhawks’s signing of forward Marian Hossa to a 12-year, $62.8-million contract last year to realize that general managers only screw their teams in the long run with deals such as these.

As a result of Chicago’s myopia, yes the Hawks won the Stanley Cup, but it has also contributed to the dismantling of the team barely a breath after its victory in June. If Hossa’s deal comprised roughly three-fifths the size of Kovalchuk’s , clearly the Devils would fare about as well in the coming years as Sylvester trying to fit himself into Speedy Gonzales’s mouse hole. The meal may make the Devils’ mouths water, but the pain and agony sure to be suffered isn’t worth it, unless they’re into some weird form of sadomasochism.

If the Devils want their man bad enough, in the interest of good faith and not prolonging the torture of hockey fans, they should just bite the bullet and make it a shorter contract. If the cap hit grows, so be it. It’s not as if the Devils have Zach Parise to re-sign to a similarly huge deal next off-season, right? Oh... in that case maybe Kovalchuk can take a pay cut, then. But that’s about as likely as the selfish sniper finishing his career with more assists than goals.

Maybe instead the Devils should take a step back and look at their roster, realize they’ve already got the likes of Parise, Travis Zajac, Patrik Elias, Brian Rolston, Dainius Zubrus, Jamie Langenbrunner, and Martin Brodeur, each providing an average cap hit of over $4 million, in the lockerroom. The reason for the salary cap is to promote parity across the league. Adding Kovalchuk might make the Devils a serious contender, but they already are.

As such, it should either be back to the drawing board for both sides, or back to Russia for Kovalchuk. New Jersey really doesn’t need Kovalchuk, and fans don’t need this frustration. By elimination, that makes Kovalchuk Kontinental Hockey League bound. It may not be the best solution, but it is a solution nonetheless. Maybe he can even take the Devils with him and make this the KHL’s problem. Who knows? They might smarten up and realize that 17 years exiled in Siberia, cold as it may be, just might end up feeling a little too much like an eternity.

August 25, 2010

Fasel Defends Europe against a Non-Existent NHL Threat

International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel may have come across as confrontational on Tuesday, as he voiced his concerns over a potential European division in the National Hockey League. However, those that harp on his supposed defiance are missing the larger point: The NHL does not belong in Europe or on any other continent aside from North America.

Speaking at a question-and-answer period at the World Hockey Summit in Toronto – where else – Fasel responded to a question asking how viable an NHL division would be by saying: “Try to come. Good luck.”

Taken out of context, sure, the sound bite may be interpreted as belligerent, like the growl of a chained-up dog at passers-by on the street. However, if one were to take a step back and actually take a look at the bigger picture, they would realize that Fasel was not urinating to mark his territory – or urinating at all, at least as far as the cameras showed. Instead he provided a reasoned argument as to why he would “fight like hell to not allow anybody to come from abroad”.

His main point was that Europe is strong enough to stand on its own two feet and that the pseudo rivalry currently on display between the continents, which segregates the hard-nosed North American style of play from the undeniable pure skill Europeans stereotypically possess, would be sacrificed were the NHL to enter Europe. Citing the infamous 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union, he pointed to a peak that the sport should forever aspire to reach again.

Fasel has a point that the international element that helps to shape hockey’s identity should not be stripped away bit by bit. Like during a lap dance from an erotic dancer who insists on no touching, all the client ends up getting, as her individual articles of clothing fall to the floor one after the other, is excited at the possibilities... never does he actually get to enjoy the proverbial fruit of her labour. If the NHL were to enter Europe, the only thing that would result is a washed-down brand of hockey about as defined as “dumbassery” in the dictionary... and potential fans just as confused and disinterested as a result.

Now, there’s no guarantee an eventual European division is actually in the works. All this is hypothetical, and with the amount of problems the NHL has to worry about closer to home, that’s likely all it will ever be: an already rustic-with-holes pipedream thought up as the next progression for a league that is just as likely to regress, contract, and collapse in on itself in several of its Southern markets. If the NHL is really looking at what it should do next, here is a brief list:

1) Figure out if the Phoenix Coyotes, who despite contending for the Stanley Cup last year were dead last in the league in attendance, are going or staying
2) Figure out what to do with the Atlanta Thrashers, Florida Panthers, and Nashville Predators
3) Figure out why commissioner Gary Bettman even allowed the NHL to enter those markets in the first place
4) Figure out why Mr. Bettman was even allowed to head the league in the first place

And if the NHL is actually serious about expanding into new markets or moving some of those aforementioned troubled franchises into a new international division, here are some suggestions:

1) Quebec City
2) Winnipeg
3) Hamilton
4) Red Deer, Alberta
5) Iqaluit, Nunavut
6) Any other conceivable Canadian market short of Alert, with a reported population of just five

Indeed, Canadian markets have had huge success when it comes to regular attendance, so much so that four of the six Canadian teams placed in the top 10, and the last-place Edmonton Oilers boasted bigger numbers than any of the previously mentioned American teams.

Resolving these lingering issues should be the NHL’s top priority. As such, expanding overseas is not a realistic next step, let alone a solution to any one problem (which, for the NHL, are legion).

If the NHL is truly serious about building up its hype in Europe and elsewhere, they should strongly consider resurrecting, as a joint effort with the IIHF, a stronger, longer Victoria Cup tournament. In this revamped tourney, the reigning NHL champions should do battle with all of the top European elite league teams. The Victoria Cup currently pits one NHL team, not even the Stanley Cup winners, against one European team during each NHL pre-season.

While the Champions League hockey tournament in Europe was short-lived, reportedly only taking place in 2008-2009, it is a good idea in principle that could use a North American representative as a participant and not just a throw-in by the NHL that displays not a desire at strengthening international ties, but rather feigned diplomacy.

Fasel has a right to defend his turf, but it shouldn’t even be an issue at this point in time, because the NHL, especially with the collective bargaining agreement set to expire in 2012, has its hands full at the moment. Urinating or not on Tuesday as a sign of aggression, he needn’t even be wetting himself out of fear. If the 2004-2005 lockout is any indication, the NHL won’t be entering Europe for a long time.

August 24, 2010

Without a Proper Defense, Ducks Left Rudderless in Pond

I got into a small disagreement with a follower of ours on Twitter, debating whether or not the Anaheim Ducks are a playoff team. While we kept it civilized, the discussion quickly turned to the ugly topic of worst blue line in the league. And, as far as riches-to-rags stories go, that of the Ducks’ once-storied blue line is as close as you can get to poverty-stricken.

The plight of the Ducks’ blue line is far from being a case of feast or famine. Its degradation can best be described as a roller-coaster ride reserved for those most prone to violent mood swings.

Go back a mere four years to the Ducks’ acquisition of defenseman Chris Pronger from the Edmonton Oilers for a package that included forward Joffrey Lupul. The resulting corps also included Scott Niedermayer, the ever-underrated Francois Beauchemin, and steady stay-at-home contributors Sean O’Donnell, Kent Huskins, and Joe DiPenta as well.

The Ducks went on to win the Stanley Cup that year, but it was the following season that the team’s defense arguably reached its apex from which it came tumbling down in the more-recent past. In 2007-2008, Mathieu Schneider and Marc-Andre Bergeron were added to complement the back-end, at least in an offensive capacity.

In 2008-2009, however, Schneider, whose 39 points in the previous campaign had made him the second-highest-scoring d-man on the team behind Pronger, was shipped off to the Atlanta Thrashers for the cheaper and less-effective Ken Klee. Beauchemin was limited to just 20 games. And a past-his-prime Bret Hedican and depth-defensemen Bret Festerling and Sheldon Brookbank joined the team.

Trade-deadline acquisitions Ryan Whitney and James Wisniewski rounded out the team’s defense, once the team had a legitimate chance at making the playoffs. As an eighth-seed, the Ducks bounced the number-one-ranked San Jose Sharks in a stunning upset, only to lose to the Detroit Red Wings in the next round. The run was cause for optimism as the Ducks entered the post-season as the hottest team in the league. However, any confidence in the team’s future was unwarranted moving forward.

This past season, Pronger was sent to the Philadelphia Flyers, Whitney was traded away in favour of an older and more expensive Lubomir Visnovsky, and Steve Eminger finally got around to his pre-requisite stint with the Ducks during his 30-team tour. Put simply, general manager Bob Murray’s moves made about as much sense as a lightweight on an out-of-character drinking binge, his slurring a sure sign that he’s in over his head... if there are any brain cells left.

The Ducks missed the playoffs and in another curious move Murray re-signed Wisniewski to a one-year deal only to deal him to the New York Islanders for a mere mid-round draft pick. It’s understandable to want to rebuild, but Wisniewski was a legitimate second-pairing defenseman and giving him away for just a draft pick, a conditional one at that, is akin to giving up a lottery ticket with three out of the seven winning numbers. You may not have won the jackpot, but you are guaranteed at least one sinful weekend in Las Vegas. And Murray just threw it away as if the Islanders were some charity case. As bad as the Islanders may end up being, here’s a newsflash: the Ducks are going to be worse.

With Niedermayer now retired and Murray signing Toni Lydman and Andy Sutton this off-season, the Ducks now only have three defenders with significant NHL experience and Visnovsky is the only one capable of putting the puck in the net. With youngster Luca Sbisa waiting in the wings and the recently drafted Cam Fowler alongside him, also possessing the most appropriate last name considering the uniform he will soon be donning, it is clear that the Ducks are only looking to be competitive in the distant future.

Back to the initial argument: a non-deserving team always has a chance to make the playoffs, just not a very good one. Assuming the status quo, no one can justify a claim that the Ducks are a playoff team because even the Ducks’ shambolic management, if it can even bring itself to muster a half-intelligible thought, let alone a transaction, doesn’t seem to believe in them.

Teemu Selanne came back for little more than another opportunity at a debilitating career-ending injury. Even though the sure-to-be Hall-of-Famer said he would only return only if the Ducks were going to be competitive, all signs point to him having delayed his retirement one year just to spend the coming season perpetually frustrated.

He may have re-joined a competent base of forwards, but they likely won’t be able to put up enough goals on the board to keep up with the ones an inexperienced defense will continually be letting in. And with Lupul, looking to enjoy a strong second season back with the team that first drafted him, suffering a reoccurrence of a blood infection that kept him out of the line-up for most of last year, even the team’s offensive depth has taken a huge hit.

Meanwhile, goalie Jonas Hiller may have earned more wins last season relative to his coming-out party the year before, but that is likely only due to his getting more starts with Jean-Sebastien Giguere being permanently thrust into the back-up role before being shipped to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Hiller still has to prove that he’s capable of carrying a team on his back. With the defense as weak as it is, he’ll no doubt have ample opportunity in what is sure to be a long season in Anaheim.

August 23, 2010

Asham Signing with Pens a Sign of the Times

Joe Sakic may have just recently retired, but the days of a National Hockey League player staying with one franchise their entire career have never seemed further away.

Over the weekend, checker Arron Asham signed a one-year, $700,000 contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins, a move that would usually be reserved for the last sports page in even the most fervent hockey market. However, this time it’s different.

Forget that the Penguins will be Asham’s fifth NHL team (Montreal, New York Islanders, New Jersey, Philadelphia) and that he’s quickly building up a resume to rival that of Mike Sillinger. No, the reason why this relatively minor transaction is newsworthy is because Asham is just coming off a successful playoff run with the Pens’ cross-state nemeses, the Philadelphia Flyers.

The hatred between the two cities, at least when it comes to hockey, has been well-documented, the actual rivalry between the teams doubly-so, even in the recent past. In the 2009 post-season, the Flyers were trailing the Pens three games to two but were well-poised to force a game seven, leading 3-0 in game six of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series. The Pens rallied to win that game, eliminating Philadelphia and striking a hot poker through the hearts of Flyers fans everywhere.

I’m sure the pain has yet to fade yet or that it will ever. It was at least still raging these past playoffs even though the Pens and Flyers did not meet each other. There Flyers fans were, in the stands of the Wachovia Center, on their feet, applauding as the scoreboard updated to show that the Montreal Canadiens had upset the Pens in their conference semi-final showdown. Their elation, eerily reminiscent of a championship celebration, was about as ill-timed as a joke at a funeral, which in a weird way is exactly what it was... a laugh at the Pens’ expense as they died a most improbable death.

Sure, they may have been happy that the more difficult obstacle en route to the Stanley Cup Finals had just been eliminated, but in actuality the Flyers, that night, were playing just game six of their series against the Boston Bruins after being down three games to none. While fate may have been on their side, the odds definitely were not in their favor to eventually move on to face the Habs. But they did, becoming just the third team in NHL history to turn the trick. And, yet, despite laying claim to the rare ability to bask in the glory of that miracle with his now-former Flyers teammates, Asham, with a flick of the wrist, a pen in his hand, chose to switch sides just like that.

There is no doubt that the salary cap kept the Flyers from re-signing Asham, as, following Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren’s off-season shopping spree, Philadelphia is right up against the $59.4-million ceiling. But he most definitely did not have to opt to play for the Pens. Clearly, there is much more at work here than simple economics. It is quickly becoming a deep-seeded facet of the sport’s culture.

For every Joe Sakic in hockey there are at least five Ashams or Steve Begins out there, Begin being the former Hab who spurned Montreal by signing with the hated Bruins last off-season. An unrestricted free agent again, no one would likely hold it against him if he were to go for the trifecta and sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He needs a job and if Hogtown were to call, in these dire times of financial uncertainty, even for professional athletes, full-time employment is full-time employment.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, you have the case of one Mike Modano, arguably the most celebrated American hockey player of all time. Modano, the highest-scoring American, had up until this past off-season played his entire 21-season career with the same franchise. However, upon being notified that the Dallas Stars would not re-sign him, despite being the face of the organization, he joined the Detroit Red Wings.

Modano’s skills at the age of 40 can certainly be questioned, but his off-ice worth, his experience, his leadership would have all been invaluable tools to a team looking to make the playoffs for the first time since 2007-2008. Instead, the Stars decided that the $1.75 million Modano signed for with the Wings was too high a price, despite consistently finding themselves well under the league’s ever-increasing salary cap.

Joe Sakic will go down as an all-time great, but also a class act who made the conscious choice to stay with the same team throughout his career. Not to be overlooked, the Avalanche, who re-signed him three times in this post-lockout era, should be considered a model franchise for looking at the big picture and not the bottom line. The big picture of course showing that loyalty is still a virtue. It’s a picture that is unfortunately quickly changing in all of professional sports.