September 24, 2010

An Analysis of an Improperly Handed-Down NHL Suspension

Suspensions have become an open well of criticism and ridicule for the NHL thanks to undeniable double standards and a lack of properly defined rules. It’s just plain sad that the NHL can’t even get it right when it comes to such an inconsequential act as Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Nick Boynton’s throat slash the other night.

Boynton, who got a one-game ban as a result of his actions, made the gesture to the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Blair Jones on Wednesday night during the Bolts’ 4-2 pre-season win in Winnipeg. Boynton initially collided with Jones’s teammate, Chris Durno. It could have been construed as a knee-on-knee, prompting the over-the-top reaction by Jones and eventually Boynton’s display of unadulterated idiocy out of the frustration of losing a fight to a guy who’s, incredibly, even more of a plug.

All this being taken into account, it’s clear the NHL needed to do something because:

1)    Nick “Bounce Around” Boynton isn’t exactly a star player. He’s certainly no Alex Ovechkin, so there’s no need for the league to look the other way as it did when Ovechkin slew-footed Atlanta Thrasher Rich Peverley and hit Buffalo Sabre Patrick Kaleta from behind. And, since no one else in the recent past has acted with as much stupidity as Boynton, there’s no risk of the league being made to look bad, just as it was embarrassed when Ovechkin got two games and Montreal Canadien Maxim Lapierre got four games for much the same offense within a span of just 10 days last season.

2)      The league, as is clearly defined in section 28.1 of the rulebook, reserves the right to assess a player a suspension for any offense, a category under which Boynton’s “obscene” and “profane” gesture (rule 75.2.i) falls. As such, the league can’t find itself painted into a corner as it did when Pittsburgh Penguin Matt Cooke blindsided Boston Bruin Marc Savard last year, but they “couldn’t” do anything for lack of an existing penalty for hits to the head. Of course, it was awful convenient for the NHL to forget the “Match Penalty” (rule 21.1) that should have initially been given to Cooke when he “deliberately” attempted “to injure an opponent in any manner”.

At the end of the day, though, what is most offensive about this situation is that Boynton is allowed to play in the Hawks’ remaining pre-season games, but has to sit out one at the start of the regular season. If his gesture was so bad that he should be prevented from representing the league in a regular-season game, it should have been bad enough to prevent him from playing until then.

It would not likely make that much of a difference to any of the involved parties. The Blackhawks could use the opportunity to audition the next-most ineffective defenseman on its salary-cap-depleted depth chart instead and Boynton really doesn’t need to risk being shown up by another eventual career minor leaguer like Jones. He’ll have plenty of chances to make a fool out of himself again come the second game of the season anyway, thanks to another ill-advised obscene gesture or not.

As for the NHL, it really needs to get a better understanding of the message it’s trying to send, because all anyone is hearing right now is: “We don’t know what we’re doing.” It may be true, but the league can at least pretend, kind of like what Jones did, pretending to care about Durno, a player he has never played with. Wednesday’s fight was no more legitimate than one staged between two enforcers at the end of a game. Jones only chose to fight Boynton to show off his ability to stick up for a fallen teammate so as not to be cut.

Unfortunately, though, Jones, bless his heart, is destined for the AHL, much like Homer Simpson can’t seem to hold down his job at the nuclear power plant. If your only redeemable quality is your ability to take and throw a punch, chances are whatever you do you’re in the wrong line of work. I mean, at least Derek “The Bogeyman” Boogaard has a cool nickname. What does Jones have? The same name as another fringe player on the Lighting, Randy? And Tampa, being as cheap as the clientele of a $10 hooker, wouldn’t dare pay for the extra first-name initials on two jerseys when no one cares to recognize either one of them.

So, I say take the fighting out of pre-season games, because all it does is give actual NHL players a chance to get injured and get humiliated and second-hand ones a chance to “earn” a roster spot and further water down an already low-on-talent league. Boynton knows firsthand just how true both statements are. And the league should just know better in general... about a lot of things.

September 23, 2010

An Introduction to All Six Canadian Teams

Just a little something to get you in the mood for the upcoming NHL season. To the American hockey fans out there, an in-depth look at the competition north of the border. To the Canadian fans, you know it's all true.

Sens Show Their True Colours in Loss to Leafs... Red with Failure

While much has been made of how poorly the Toronto Maple Leafs’ will fare this season by yours truly following their pre-season-opening 5-0 defeat against the Ottawa Senators, little has been said of the Sens and their chances... which are really only slightly better.

"Roosters are red by definition! I never had a chance!"
The Battle of Ontario got evened up on Wednesday, with the Leafs gaining some measure of revenge with a 4-1 victory, just one day after dropping an egg worthy of only the most rank chicken you can think of, worse than even that Red Rooster gimmick from out of the WWF back in the 1980s... and that was pretty bad. Terry Taylor must have spit in Vince McMahon’s coffee once upon a time or something.

Still there’s little point breaking down a nothing game that clearly meant more to Toronto than Ottawa. Toronto had gotten embarrassed a night earlier and had a point to prove, whereas the Sens had already proven theirs... that, all things being equal, they are better than Toronto. Unfortunately for Ottawa, most other teams in the NHL are as well and the Sens can ill afford to become complacent after beating one of the league’s lower-tier teams.

Simply put, the Sens aren’t good enough to get by on talent alone. I may have just channelled Kurt Russell’s Herb Brooks, so my apologies. Still, how else do you explain Alex Kovalev? Everyone keeps on saying he is one of the most skilled guys on the entire planet, but all I see is a guy who went pointless over a stretch of 12 games following the Olympic break last year. He wasn’t snubbed by the Russian Olympic men’s hockey team. Russia just had a fortune teller in its back pocket, or, more likely: tapes of his entire overrated 16-season career.

The same goes for Jason Spezza, or “The Spez Dispenser” as I like to call him for his playmaking ability and his uncanny resemblance to Beeker from The Muppets. Spezza is one of the premier talents in the league and is most definitely more valuable than Kovalev for the simple reason that he brings it more often. But that’s like saying Fozzie is funnier than Sam the Eagle just because he tries to tell jokes every once in a while. Waka, waka, waka.

"Fan abuse is one thing... This is just mean!"
Spezza’s supposed summer trade request notwithstanding, he is the Sens’ key to success. If captain Daniel Alfredsson is the heart of the team (he is), Spezza is the aorta. If he’s able to do his job, the team will make the playoffs. If he isn’t, which is more likely, bad things will happen, starting with the team crashing violently like a late Ray Emery on his way to the airport. Say what you want about Emery, at least he lived up to his potential. Granted, it may have been as a trouble-making cancer in the dressing room, but the point stands.

Meanwhile, when defenseman Sergei Gonchar got signed, the move was applauded as it finally gave the Senators a superstar on the back-end. Obviously, fans’ memories are so short they can’t recall the likes of Wade Redden (before he took a bite out of Snow White’s Big poison Apple), Zdeno Chara (before assistant general manager Peter Chiarelli jumped ship en route to the Boston Bruins, using his 6’9” frame as a raft), Andrej Meszaros (before he got to thinking he was better than he was only to get traded to the talent wasteland that was the Tampa Bay Lightning), Anton Volchenkov, and Chris Phillips. With Volchenkov following the green all the way to New Jersey (“green” being money, not the stench) to play for the Devils this off-season, Phillips is all that remains of that superstar-laden corps of 2005-2006. 

Now all that the Sens have? Filip Kuba, who is injured, the up-and-coming Erik Karlsson, who may be due for a sophomore slump, Chris Campoli, who wasn’t defensively responsible enough to play for the defenseless New York Islanders, Matt Carkner, who is career minor-leaguer, and Brian “The Blond Bust” Lee. Oh, yeah, and Gonchar, who is 36 and counting and is as much a liability to the team as unpaid student loans are to a Harvard Medical School drop-out. Thi is the defense that is supposed to insulate Brian Elliot, who is still so unproven that during the playoffs he had to hand the goaltending reins over to Pascal “The Transparent One” Leclaire???

The main difference between the Sens and the Leafs is that Ottawa has big-name talent. Unfortunately, that big-name talent isn’t very effective, and until they buckle down and come together two things are abundantly clear: the Sens won’t make the playoffs, and future Battles of Ontario will play out much like these past two pre-season games.

September 22, 2010

Maple Leafs Always Good for a Few Laughs

Torontonians have been positively pumped up in regard to the Maple Leafs’ chances this upcoming NHL season. That is until Tuesday night when, following a 5-0 defeat against the Ottawa Senators, any hope they might have had got deflated like a bad balloon animal made vulnerable to the countless pins and needles on which Toronto’s roster is now certainly walking.

I’m reminded of that car gag that has one clown after another exiting an undersized vehicle. You think to yourself there can’t possibly be one more in there, and, then, lo and behold... Substitute clowns for mistakes made on the ice and you have the Leafs game in a nutshell.

Sure, this is the pre-season, but the Leafs iced nine NHL regulars on Tuesday... 10 if you count supposed superstar-in-the-making Nazem Kadri, who ended the game much like most of his teammates, in the red in the +/- column. The Senators in contrast played just eight major leaguers, and that’s being somewhat generous to Jesse “Don’t Play Me if You Want to Win” Winchester.

Now, the boxscore doesn’t always tell the whole story, but when a 27-year-old with just 31 career points scores the game-winning goal against your team, set up by Roman Wick and Ryan Keller (who???) no less, you’ve got big problems. Probably more of an indication of just how bad the Leafs were: they had six power plays in the second period alone (to the Senators’ none), including a couple two-man advantages, and still couldn’t score on rookie goalie Robin Lehner.

Broken down, what that means is that on Tuesday night the Leafs wouldn’t have been able to hit the broad side of a barn blocked by just three cows and one lowly, scared-out-of-his-mind, mask-wearing calf that had essentially been sent out to be slaughtered for his veal. In other words, they sucked.

If you believe the (Toronto media’s) hype, the Leafs, who finished 29th in the league last season, are supposed to be this much-improved squad. According to those media types, they have more depth. Someone should tell Toronto that when you’re starting at close to zero on the depth scale, almost anything constitutes an improvement. I mean, if they signed one of those cows right now, management would at least be able to offer Santa Claus some milk with their cookies come Christmas, at which point a decent hockey team will be atop most everyone’s lists once again.

This isn’t meant to detract from general manager Brian Burke’s efforts thus far. I actually think the Kessel deal was a good one and he really has improved the team, but nowhere near as much needed to make it playoff-bound. Just look at their projected top six of Kessel, Nikolai Kulemin, Tyler Bozak, Kris Versteeg, Mikhail Grabovski, and Colby Armstrong.

Forget that Armstrong and Versteeg would be third-liners on a good team, or that Grabovski was so far down the Montreal Canadiens depth chart once upon a time that not only was Kyle Chipchura ahead of him at the center position, but he was eventually traded for a mere second-round pick (and a throw-in prospect). Instead, look to Burke’s own words in discussing Kulemin, when the two sides were negotiating a contract earlier this summer:

“When the team stinks, (players) get ice-time they don’t deserve,” he told the Toronto Sun, clearly in truer words never before spoken. “We’re not going to pay a player money for situational ice time he gets by default.”

Kulemin eventually got $2.35 million per year, which is still arguably top-six money. Kessel, though, still remains the team’s only legitimate offensive forward. Admittedly, he and Bozak showed a lot of chemistry last year, but Bozak’s decent rookie season was clearly the by-product of him playing with Kessel than anything else. Needless to say, there’s a reason the term is “top-six” forwards and not “top one”. If you have a “top one”, you’re looking at a “top spot” in the draft, something that has also been taken away from the Leafs as well, along with their long-since-dissipated dignity which began to slowly fade sometime, oh, I don’t know, after 1967.

"It's such a relief to finally be a big fish in a small pond... What's that? The only fish?"

Meanwhile, in goal, Burke was able to acquire the over-the-hill Jean-Sebastien Giguere last year to mentor the up-and-coming Jonas Gustavsson. However, recent reports have surfaced that Giguere will be the number-one goalie this year meaning one of two things: either the Leafs aren’t as optimistic about Gustavsson’s long-term potential as they once were (that they’ve resorted to going with whatever second-hand trash washed up out of the Anaheim Ducks’ pond) or they’re thinking Gustavsson’s telltale heart murmur poses a very real threat.

And, finally, in regard to the Leafs strongest point, their defense, yes they do have eight NHL-calibre defensemen raring to go, but, of those eight, two are Jeff Finger and Brett Lebda, who are barely top-six material, and two others are Luke Schenn and Carl Gunnarsson, whose development is being sacrificed as likely little more than a propagandistic ploy to give the team’s fans something to cheer about, because there’s little else.

Instead, team management would do better to ice a bunch of clowns, because at least it’s their job to make the people laugh. When the Leafs do, it’s just sad. So, while the Leafs will no doubt be better than they were last season, there’s little cause for celebration, unless the circus suddenly rolls into town to take fans’ minds off what is certain to be another non-playoff year.

September 21, 2010

Blue Jackets Fans Should Start Singing the Blues and Get Fitted for Strait Jackets

It’s an interesting conundrum, but as much as time will tell whether or not Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Steve Mason was just a flash in the pan, time is no longer a luxury which his team has in abundance.

The Jackets signed Mason to a two-year contract extension on Monday, with him earning $2.6 million in the first year and $3.6 million in the second. He is currently earning $765,000. The signing is a curious one, not because Mason is seemingly being rewarded for seriously underachieving this past year, but because it comprises an actual move by team management in this, its summer of not-so discontent, at least in regard to its mediocre roster.

Looking at what the Jackets have accomplished this off-season, it makes one wonder why general manager Scott Howson has a job... again, not because he has done anything inherently detrimental to his team, but because he hasn’t done anything at all. Then again, a closer look will show that even if he is being paid for nothing his lacking performance more likely reflects the organization’s faulty corporate culture. One playoff appearance (and no playoff wins) in nine seasons is not exactly a glowing return on investment.

Sure, Howson did pick up forward Ethan Moreau off waivers from the Edmonton Oilers, but, when the Oilers don’t even want a player, it’s probably a sign to stay away (which is good advice pertaining to Sheldon Souray as well). And, yes, restricted-free-agent Anton Stralman, who led all defensemen on the team in scoring, was re-signed as well, but that’s more evidence of anyone being able to score some points for lack of a decent alternative. Even Souray would be a better option. I mean, forget the Oilers... Stralman’s a Toronto Maple Leafs castoff for crying out loud.

All in all, it was a summer of lateral moves if anything, and in the case of Ken Hitchcock being re-hired as a special adviser, lateral moves backwards. When the team finished fourth-last in the entire NHL last year, the only logical explanation is that management thinks some weird golf-scoring system has been implemented in the standings.

Maybe Howson wants to give new head coach Scott Arniel a chance to evaluate his players himself before making any moves, which may sound fair... until one realizes that there’s only so much good to be found in a locker room full of hand-me-down, second-class players that are more used to being coddled than they are actually competing. 

For example: Rick Nash, who, next to Marian Hossa, is probably the most overrated player in the league. His $7.8-million salary indicates that he’s a superstar, when, in reality, he isn’t even a point-per game player. He should instead turn his attention to a second career as a lookalike to the also overrated Eric Gagne of Los Angeles Dodgers fame. He might be better at that.

"C'mon! He looks like Clark Kent more than anything! And I'm hardly Superman!"

Then there’s Nikita Filatov, who was reportedly so enamoured with the prospect of playing in North America and competing for the Stanley Cup as an undrafted prospect that he got the green light to go back to Russia and play in the KHL last year after just eight games as a Jacket. Now that he’s back and apparently prepared to fight for a roster spot, the only question is: how long until he finally opts against a career in hockey altogether and decides to pursue his actual calling as a silver-tongued, soothsaying politician?

"The joke's on them! Wait until they find out what they paid for!"

Finally, what about Mike Commodore, the highest-paid defenseman on the team with a salary of $3.8 million this year? Apparently that kind of green only buys you a fringe 20-point-per-season defenseman. No wonder he can’t afford any clothes.

When defenseman Kris Russell, the team’s best hope at a legitimate number-one defenseman sometime down the road, goes down with a sprained knee in training camp, you have to know that even luck isn’t on your side. That’s about the only thing that would have given the team’s fan base some false hope this season.

Mason may end up bouncing back from his sophomore slump, but unless Columbus trades in their blue jackets for angel wings, it won’t make a difference. The team in front of him is too weak to withstand a wind of change let alone win him some games. This will be the team’s 10th season, and barring a miracle upswing on the ice and in attendance figures, one has to wonder how many more the Jackets will survive in the hockey hotbed of Columbus.

Time is relative, and it doesn’t take an Albert Einstein to realize that it’s not on the team’s side. In fact, it’s not a matter of if but when they leave... just as it is with them eventually getting mathematically eliminated from playoff contention this season. The best guess is sometime in December.

September 20, 2010

Easily Discarded Savard Should not Be Taken for Granted by Bruins

There is nothing funny about post-concussion syndrome. That puts me in a bit of a bind, because as unfunny as Boston Bruin Marc Savard’s recent turn for the worse is, the Bruins’ epic collapse against the Philadelphia Flyers last spring? Absolutely hilarious.

The only logical solution is to skip over the seven-game defeat as much as possible in order to stay respectful of the Bruins’ chances this year, which, as it turns out, are pretty good.

Through injuries taking their toll, a general inability to score, and a goaltending situation with as many twists and turns as an ill-advised Tim Thomas excursion out of the crease, last season was a disappointment to put it mildly. And it’s true, revisiting their defeat at the hands of the Flyers would at this point likely only re-open old wounds best left scarred reminders of what not to do when you’re up three games to none in a series – namely, not losing the next four.

As such, the only thing of any relevance that can be said right now is that logic dictates that the Bruins can only go up. However, even though they’re relatively stacked, an unhealthy Savard severely limits their chances at giving the Bruins faithful ample reason to forget the granddaddy of all embarrassments. Think then-Hab Mike Komisarek losing to Milan Lucic in one of the great mismatches in hockey-fights history, multiply that by, oh, I don’t know, getting beaten by your own shoe in the stands of a hockey game by Mike Milbury, and, maybe, just maybe, you would come close.

The team’s salary-cap concerns have been resolved right now with Marco Sturm on long-term injured reserve for the time being and the onus is still on Michael Ryder to prove to team management that he still belongs in this league. If not, added cap relief is most certainly on the way, with one of Maxime Sauve, Joe Colborne, Jordan Caron, and Brad Marchand looking to snatch his spot.

Based on the media speculation, though, the Bruins likely wouldn’t hesitate to trade Savard and lose him as well if the right deal came along. However, if Savard isn’t given ample on-ice opportunity to prove himself as being anything other than one hit away from an ended career, even the Toronto Maple Leafs, desperate for offense in the worst way, wouldn’t even take him off Boston’s hands. Hell, Leafs general manager Brian Burke, probably pissed off (despite what he keeps telling the media) about giving up the rights to Tyler Seguin in the Phil Kessel deal, has probably conveniently lost Peter Chiarelli’s phone number in a self-help bid to prevent himself from trading away Sean Couturier... Oh, wait.

The Bruins should sit back, enjoy their spoils of war, and take this unfortunate tragedy as a blessing, assuming of course Savard returns sooner rather than later.

Taking into account the team’s depth at center, i.e. David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, etc., it seems illogical for the recently drafted Seguin to not be sent down to the Plymouth Whalers as soon as Savard gets cleared to play. Still, management is determined to keep him with the big club and waste one year of his entry contract for whatever reason, moving him to the wing if need be. 

Seguin is not going to be a star in this league this year, no matter how it plays out. He may end up being better than Bergeron and a presumably healthy Krejci, but he isn’t now. Savard, in contrast, is. Three good lines are most definitely better than two and comprise the difference between a contender and just a playoff team.

"This is actually me celebrating... no post-concussion syndrome here!"
So, as foolish as the Bruins may be for deciding to keep Seguin, the move will pay dividends this year as soon as the team gets fully healthy. Sturm and Savard, along with Seguin, Bergeron, Krejci,  Lucic, Nathan Horton, Blake Wheeler, and Mark Recchi most certainly give the Bruins three great lines. It’s just a matter of when, because Savard, as the team’s best player, is the straw that stirs its drink. In a town where good alcohol is never wasted and Saint Patrick’s Day is treated like a religious experience, that’s saying something... other than Bostonians having an unnatural and unhealthy fixation on drinking, that is.

With Savard, the Bruins have the potential to win it all. Without him, they’ll likely stagger into the playoffs once again, just as they did with him limited to 41 games last year. We all know how that ultimately played out. It was a real tear-jerker.