September 10, 2010

“C” Back on Luongo Would Be as out of Place as Hasek Back in NHL

The question is: Should goalie Roberto Luongo remain captain of the Vancouver Canucks? Barring a trade, does back-up Cory Schneider have a shot in hell of ever becoming a starter, let alone of starting even 10 games this season?

One has to think that even if Luongo gets injured, Canucks general manager Mike Gillis would sooner enlist the help of an arthritic 45-year-old Dominik Hasek before handing the goaltending reins over to the unproven Schneider. So, the answer, in both cases, is: “No.”

Gillis has publicly acknowledged that Luongo staying the team’s captain could become a distraction and that the possibility of him giving the “C” away would be discussed next week. Considering Luongo’s performance dropped off this past season, his second as captain, both issues have come to the forefront.

Luongo is the Canucks’ $10-million man, at least this year, and even if he starts to channel Andre “Red Light” Racicot, his job is safe to say the least. The Canucks need to justify the contract, and, even if that worst-case scenario becomes a very sad and unenviable reality for the organization, Luongo will get every second chance in existence before Schneider even gets a whiff of starter superstardom. Gillis wouldn’t have it any other way, because he’s the former agent that signed the goalie to the 12-year, $64-million deal that has since become the bane of his and the team’s Stanley Cup hopes. Clearly, he suffered through a bit of an identity crisis during negotiations. But that’s in the past. In the present-day one has to question Luongo’s worth as team captain, and it isn’t very sizeable.

Luongo may be the team’s highest-paid player. On some nights, he may even be the team’s best player, but he has as much business being the Canucks’ captain as Gillis does showing in face around General Motors Place (or Rogers Arena) or even in the mirror after negotiating that contract. That’s proof positive that Luongo may very well still bear the “C” at the start of the season. By now, though, the reasons why he shouldn’t have been discussed to death:

1) Goalies cannot efficiently relay referee rulings to the bench and coach, due to their need to remain in the crease.

2) Goalies cannot conduct post-game interviews with the media, answering questions as to why the team lost 5-0, for example, without seeming as though they’re blaming every other player on the team except themselves for all the defensive breakdowns suffered during the rout.

3) Fashionably, the “C” on the jersey takes away from the statements goalies’ masks tend to try and make.

"My head may just cave in from all the added pressure."
While Luongo found a way around point #3 by putting the “C” on his mask (and not trying to make a statement with his bland-looking mask to begin with), points #1 and 2, arguably the two most important of the three, have been left unaddressed. As such, the captaincy has to be given to another player. The most realistic alternatives include:

1) Rotating the captaincy between several players, working out a schedule around the few games defenseman Sami Salo has decided to stay healthy this season.

2) Giving Daniel and Henrik Sedin half-crests and allowing them to split the “C”. I mean, how can you choose between identical twins when you would always be mistaking one for the other outside of their uniforms?

3) Giving it to Alexandre Burrows in a bid to give him more alone time with the referees, you know, to give them a chance to talk about God knows what.

4) And giving it to Ryan Kesler, who best exemplifies the characteristics of grit, hard work, and performance on a game-to-game basis.

At the end of the day, there really is one choice, and that is to give Kesler the chance to prove himself in more of a leadership role. The team really has got little else to lose after two straight harrowing post-season defeats at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks, both series ending with Luongo doing his very best imitation of a sieve.

So, the question now becomes: Are the Canucks good enough to challenge for the Stanley Cup? With the additions of Keith Ballard and Dan Hamhuis on defense, the back-end is now probably the deepest in the entire NHL and will likely perfectly complement the little-changed, second-most prolific offense in the league from last year. It all comes back to Luongo... can he return to his all-star form? That remains to be seen.

September 9, 2010

Thrashers Look like a Pretty Good Team... No, Really

There is no team in the NHL marred by as inappropriate a name as the Atlanta Thrashers. Over their first 10 seasons in the league, they have more accurately been thrashees.

A simple illustration of this fact: The team has earned a winning record in just three seasons and has made the playoffs only once, getting swept in the first round.

Perhaps as expected, they’ve also taken a serious spanking over the turnstiles, finding themselves in the bottom ten places in league attendance every year this decade. In their inaugural 1999-2000 season, they actually managed to place 10th, but ticket sales have suffered an almost perpetual decline since. Attendance has dropped in each of the last four years despite two of those winning seasons during that span.

There is hope, though, that the situation isn’t irreparably damaged down South. The Thrashers may have turned a corner, with last season comprising an undeniable overall success. However, it should be taken into account that low expectations serve as a pick-me-up in the direst circumstances, which in the Thrashers’ case amounts to constant mediocrity.

"That's what you get for trading me, a better team."
The team finished over .500 with a 35-34-13 record, just five points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. More interesting to note is that after trading Ilya Kovalchuk to the New Jersey Devils, the Thrashers went 11-11-5, doing just as well without a legitimate superstar. And, in addition to underrated Swedes Niclas “Anti Forsberg” Bergfors and Johnny Oduya, Atlanta also got a prospect and draft picks in return. There’s no doubt about it, there’s an air of change in Atlanta. But this time it’s no New Coke... this time it’s actually for the better. The Thrashers are now free to play a team game instead of “Pass the Puck to Kovalchuk”, which, rumour has it, was about as popular in Georgia as the Thrashers themselves. Needless to say, no PS3 versions were sold.

With the ability to build a more well-rounded team, new general manager Rick Dudley wasted no time, acquiring Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Akim Aliu, Ben Eager, and Brent Sopel from the Chicago Blackhawks, who at the time were a team as desperate as a crack addict a day into his most recent bid to get clean. Dudley also signed forward Fredrik Modin and number-one goalie Chris Mason via free agency. Modin should serve more of a checking role, while Mason will help to insulate arguably the team’s most important prospect, Ondrej Pavelec.

And on Wednesday came reports that former Calgary Flame Nigel Dawes, who must have mistakenly called gm Darryl Sutter by one of his brother’s names to warrant the contract buy-out, signed a two-way deal with Atlanta. If true, Dawes constitutes a veritable steal, one that adds to an already deep group of forwards.

Perhaps the team’s biggest strength, however, is its defense, which boasts proven puck-movers in Tobias Enstrom and Ron Hainsey, the unsung Oduya and Sopel, and superstar-in-the-making Zach Bogosian.

All in all, the team is young, talented, and poised to turn at least a few heads... and this year it won’t be because of a car crash on the ice. However, despite the team having a bird for its mascot, it’s disappointing to say, but the sky won’t be the limit.

At this stage, the best the Thrashers can hope for is a playoff berth... but it is a realistic goal. So it’s time for fans in Atlanta to get all aflutter as they will likely get a chance to celebrate the team’s first-ever postseason victory this season. It’s not much, but it’s something for a team that could just as easily have been called the Trashers.

September 7, 2010

Castoff Halak Continues to Overshadow Price in Montreal Spotlight

Most likely words out of Price's mouth during a conversation last year: Where do you think you're going with my starter's job?
If you thought goalie Jaroslav Halak getting the Montreal Canadiens to the Eastern Conference finals last spring was one of the greatest displays of smoke and mirrors ever pulled off, how about this one? Even after being traded away, he’s still stealing the spotlight away from default starter Carey Price in Montreal.

Price signed a two-year, $5.5-million deal last week, over two months after Halak was traded to the St. Louis Blues. Still the timing couldn’t have been worse as Saturday Halak came back to town to sign autographs as a final farewell to a city that exalted him as a veritable superhero mere months prior. Not only that, but all proceeds of the autograph session, a reported $20 for each item signed, went to charity. Not a bad final bid adieu at all.

However, if you’re Carey Price, you probably would have preferred him falling off his pedestal somehow instead of his adding to his legendary status in town and all around the NHL. Anything would have sufficed: being caught with a hooker, defenestrating some revered piece of Habs lore from out of the Bell Centre, hell, even taking candy away from a baby (something he arguably already accomplished, wresting away the number-one spot from Price). Anything! Instead, if it was possible, he became an even more beloved Quebec folk hero, ranking right up there with the likes of Jacques Plante, Jean Beliveau, and the dude that came up with the idea for poutine (fries, gravy, and cheese all in one superb dish).

As if channelling former Calgary Flame Kent Nilsson in nets, Halak was magic last spring. The only difference being that Halak decided not to disappear during the playoffs, nearly singlehandedly eliminating the top two teams in the Eastern Conference before the Habs succumbed to the Philadelphia Flyers in five games in the third round.

Now, after a well-documented holdout by Price, during which he allegedly went on strike until he got $3 million per year, Halak had the nerve to add class to his ever-increasing repertoire of skills as well? Things certainly are not shaping up very well for Price in 2010-2011, needless to say. Add in Stanley Cup-winning goalie Antti Niemi signing with the San Jose Sharks for a paltry $2,000,000, on the same day no less, and seemingly all the pressure in the entire world has been put squarely on Price’s shoulders.

There’s little need to cite clich├ęd Price is Right references as a result of the goalie finally signing on the dotted line last week, especially since, in spite of his small victory in getting the hefty raise (from a base salary of $850,000), Price has played this all wrong.

There’s no rationale in existence that can logically explain someone demanding more money just to set themselves up for long-term failure. If Price really wanted to succeed, he would have asked for less, placed his play under a smaller microscope, and given himself a better chance at proving himself and actually earning more in future years. Now, Halak, fresh off signing his new four-year, $15-million contract, is making more money than him after playing the role of Price’s back-up for much of the last three years.

Yes, Price may have chewed out Sergei Kostitsyn during a practice last spring for not trying enough... admirable stuff, that... sincerely. But, if he truly wants to be the go-to guy in Montreal, he first needs to be embraced by the masses and not just his teammates for showing that he cares. Holding out for an ill-deserved raise is not exactly the way to go about humbling one’s self in the eyes of the not-so-adoring public. All that could have been looked past, though, if his performance last season was that of a bona-fide number-one goalie and not a second-rate chump, who couldn’t even hold the jock of that chimp from that Most Valuable Primate movie.

Price’s stats will reveal a sub-par 13-20-5 record to go along with an inflated 2.77 goals-against average and an admittedly decent .912 save percentage. Halak meanwhile had a 26-13-5 record, a 2.40 GAA, and a .924 save percentage. And, contrary to popular belief, Halak actually faced his share of tougher opponents, posting a 9-8-2 record against playoff teams, including Pittsburgh, New Jersey, Los Angeles, and Vancouver. Price conversely went 8-13-3, with his crowning achievement being a 2-1-1 record against the Washington Capitals during the regular season. When it mattered most, however, Price choked and lost game four of the two teams’ conference quarterfinal, allowing four goals as the Habs went down three games to one against the Caps.

Clearly, dealing with pressure just isn’t his strong suit. Just one more trick he can stand to learn from Halak.