October 1, 2010

A Tale of Two Teams Destined to Still Fight for a Playoff Spot at the Start of April

The Montreal Canadiens and the Buffalo Sabres played each other on Thursday in a nothing pre-season game that ended as a 5-3 Sabres win. Here are just a few scintillating highlights:

Hab Andrei "Original Sin" Kostitsyn can't seem to buy a break, or a wig for that matter. Is this a sign of things to come in another sub-par slump of a season for the Belarusian?

"Yep. He's bald!" Please note no other more appropriate pics were available to show AK 46's MPB

No, your eyes do not deceive you. That's actually Maxim Lapierre dropping the gloves. There's apparently a first time for everything. Maybe there will even be one for him winning a fight cleanly.

All in all, while the Sabres outplayed the Habs, Buffalo fans should not get too excited as there's still a lot of hockey left to be played this year, all of which should show that the Habs aren't a playoff team... and neither are the Sabres.

Now Starring for the Buffalo Sabres... Tyler Ennis?!

"Dude, where's my comb?"
Apparently, a half-decent first 10 games in the NHL buys you instant cred. At least that seems to be the case for Tyler Ennis of the Buffalo Sabres, who, no offense to him, looks more like he belongs in juvie as a 15-year-old crack addict guilty of trying – and failing – to rip off a convenience store rather than on an actual professional hockey team.

Ennis, obviously, isn’t 15. Considering he was drafted 26th overall by the Sabres in 2008, and players have to be 18 to be drafted, he’s 20. However, if ignorant fantasy-hockey poolies had to guess he likely would be going on 28 and entering the prime of his career following his nine-point performance in 10 games last season.

I have personally been a part of several fantasy drafts in the past few days and Ennis has been drafted relatively high in each of them, ahead of players like Stephen Weiss, Alex Kovalev, Jason Arnott, David Perron, Steve Sullivan, Sam Gagner, Mike Fisher, Chris Stewart, James Neal, Andy McDonald, hell, even Tyler Seguin. As such two things are abundantly clear:

1) The world is going to hell in a hand basket and Ennis is one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, probably famine, judging by his skeletal appearance, but that could be the crack, though.

2) I’m in all likelihood going to do alright in all of my pools.

Now, admittedly Weiss may not pan out with the Florida Panthers because he may or may not have a lucid David Booth to play with (I like Booth, but, when it comes to pools, past concussions are a serious cause for concern), and Kovalev is always a risk-reward kind of guy. Meanwhile, Arnott will be playing in the offensive wasteland that is New Jersey, with the Devils only possibly due for an increase in output now that they have Ilya Kovalchuk. And Perron has yet to find his full stride as a top-six forward.

In addition, Sullivan is likely to get injured sometime before Christmas as sure as death and taxes are a certainty. The only thing that remains to be seen is for how long. But, then again, Marian Gaborik is also due for a groin pull, or some other type of injury that sounds like it could originate in a bath house, following a completely healthy 2009-2010. Now look me in the eye and tell me that you would choose Ennis ahead of Gaborik. If you’re able to, you’re either a very good liar or are blessed with some weird kind of medical condition that prevents you from blinking regularly.

At the end of the day, choosing Ennis over any of those players can certainly be justified if one tries hard enough, but who would the guilty parties be trying to convince? Their competition that Ennis is destined for 60 points so that they can trade him before the season starts and he turns out to be just as much of a dud as teammate Drew Stafford? Or themselves because they’re closet Sabres fans that have to draft every Sabre possible the same way Hab-happy Montreal Canadiens loyalists choose to believe P.K. Subban will win both the Calder and Norris Memorial Trophies this year? Maybe both sets of fans should go shopping in the next few days to get a head start on getting their grocery bags before the playoffs, which both teams are likely to miss.

Logic dictates that the only way Ennis starts the season as a top-six forward is if he starts the season on a team short on depth. Seeing as scouting reports reveal just that, it’s clear the Sabres will encounter much the same problem they did last year, with a twist: there’s no guarantee that they will have the above-average goaltending necessary to come to the rescue of their utterly average team.

Ryan Miller may have won the Vezina Trophy last year, but the Boston Bruins’ Tim Thomas won it the year before, and that only got him the best seat in the house riding the pine as Tuukka Rask’s back-up. And while Martin Brodeur won it in each of the two previous years, the Calgary Flames’ Miikka Kiprusoff won it the year before, and I would refer you then to our post which reveals just how quickly a decent team can turn bad. Shameless self-promotion or not, it doesn’t change the fact that the Sabres can go from Northeast Division champions to playoff-bubble chumps just like that.

Up front, while Tim Connolly is injury-prone, Thomas Vanek continues to cripple the team with his huge $7-million salary-cap hit and ever-decreasing return on investment. And Jason Pominville and Derek Roy continue to baffle fans with their inconsistency. Roy, especially, can be a superstar one game and worse than invisible the next.

Meanwhile, if your best defenseman is a 20-year-old not named Drew Doughty, you’re in for problems. Tyler Myers will be a stalwart on the blue line for many years, but he’s still some time away from making that potential of his a reality. Forcing him into a starring role on what by most accounts will be a mediocre team is not going to lead to success for him or the team. Kind of like Ennis.

September 30, 2010

The Best of Olli Jokinen's First Go-Around with the Flames (All 15-Minutes' Worth)

With the Calgary Flames re-signing center Olli Jokinen after a somewhat disastrous first tour of duty with the team that lasted one year and led to a mere 50 points in 75 regular-season games, it seemed fitting to post the same video general Darryl Sutter must have watched when he opted to reach out to the overrated sniper for a second time. So, for your viewing pleasure: Olli Jokinen as a Flame, Take One, the Elongated Version.

Flames’ Fire not Dead yet, but on Its Way as Bodies Continue to Drop

"Out of the playoffs again? At least I'm not in Calgary... that place is Colddddd!"
It seems like just yesterday that the Calgary Flames were THE up-and-coming team in the NHL. It was literally yesterday when the team’s ever-fading Stanley Cup hopes might have been extinguished for good when center Olli Jokinen was reported to have gone down with an injury.

Time really does go by quickly. The Flames came out of thin air to compete for the Stanley Cup in 2004 and became legitimate perennial contenders following the lockout the following year. And then slowly but surely everyone started to wish that they would disappear, like a flickering fire on its last few breaths that’s put out of its misery by being dowsed with a huge bucket of water. I mean it doesn’t count as raining on a Cup parade if the team’s marching backwards in all actuality.

Indeed, through some small miracle, general manager Darryl Sutter has harnessed the power of time travel, and has turned back the clock in re-signing forwards Alex Tanguay and Olli Jokinen. If nothing else, he could maybe find a way to market it into a means to raise enough money to get the team the new arena for which it’s apparently so desperate. It’s probably the only way to capitalize on this momentous discovery of his, seeing as both Tanguay and Jokinen each initially left Cowtown as goats. As Sutter’s motto must go: “If it’s broke, try to fix it, then break it some more in trying to fix it, then try and take back your mistake and make it less broken.”

Jokinen, whose apparent back injury on Tuesday, has become the team’s third offensive center to go down in the recent past. Both Matt Stajan and Daymond Langkow are each on the shelf indefinitely as well. If Jokinen were to be out for any significant amount of time, the team’s top center would be, wait for it, rookie Mikael Backlund. While Backlund is about as heavily touted as the next designer drug on the street, he’s also just as likely to get Flames fans overdosing on the kind of frustration only a veteran of 24 career NHL games can provide.

On a positive note, Backlund is an upgrade over fellow center Craig Conroy, the 15-year veteran who celebrated the modest milestone with a career-low 15 points in 63 games. Conroy is no doubt a valuable presence in the dressing room at this stage of his career, possessing the incredible ability to relay to youngsters tales of his first-hand experiences during the Original Six era. But his leadership aside, a team should not have a 39-year-old greybeard, whose point totals have decreased in recent years from a career-high 75 points in 2001-2002, as a top-line center. Ideally, he’d be more suited for a role as the Zamboni driver in between periods, but when you’re low on bodies, you’re low on bodies. I even hear Harvey the Hound is in the midst of trying to find an efficient way to tuck his tongue underneath a Flames jersey just in case.

Jokinen and Tanguay, who are poised to play on the team’s top line with captain Jarome Iginla, when healthy anyway, represent a short-term solution to what is quickly becoming a long-term problem for the Flames: annually trying to nail down one of the last remaining playoff spots in the Western Conference come April. It was a goal the team fell short of last season, but may very well achieve this year. But when the team chooses to rely on rapidly aging talent, Iginla included, Sutter’s resorting to cronyism to put the team over the top certainly won’t help matters much beyond that point.

Jokinen, at $3 million per year for two years, and Tanguay, at $1.7 million per year for one year after scoring a career-low 37 points last year with the Tampa Bay Lightning, are relative bargains. But when the Flames are playoff contenders instead of threats to hoist the Cup, the signings aren’t going to do them any good except earn the team two, maybe three more home games at the end of the season.

On one hand, the Flames are looking pretty good this year, with solid goaltending, a decent defensive corps, and a deep set of forwards. On the other, as Jokinen’s injury proves, depth is something that is easily compromised and won’t stand the test of time. If the Flames are doomed to relive past mistakes, another streak of seven-consecutive non-playoff seasons should not be far off.

Oilers Put Souray on Waivers... Again

Sheldon Souray is not only known for his heavy slapshot, but also for his numerous injuries, so here are some videos of everyone's favourite easily injured defenseman. Who wouldn't want to pay $5 million for this kind of skill?

At Least the Leafs Won't Have to Worry about Fights This Year...

The Ottawa Senators' Tim Spencer tries in vain to stick up for a teammate in a game against the rival Toronto Maple Leafs. I wonder how that worked out for him. He was cut on Wednesday from the Sens' training camp. On the flipside, it's good to know that the Leafs will be able to stick up for themselves, even if they're losing 5-0 in a game.

Rangers prospect Stepan Gets Nifty Feed from Gaborik

Derek Stepan, a top, prospect for the New York Rangers scores off the assisted kick from star Marian Gaborik on Wednesday night in a pre-season game against the Detroit Red Wings. And, might I add, it wasn't that ugly of a goal either.

The Best Highlights from Last Season in the NHL

As the 2010-2011 NHL season is about to begin, here's a look back at the top highlights from last year... a small reminder why hockey is the greatest sport on Earth.

September 29, 2010

Leighton Goes Down and with Him all of Philly’s not so Great Expectations

No general manager in the entire NHL was as busy at work trying to improve his team this summer than Paul Holmgren. Considering his Philadelphia Flyers came just two wins short of winning the Stanley Cup last spring, the rest of the league has serious cause for concern... that is if Philly’s goaltending situation didn’t remain such a joke.

No, seriously. Apparently, Robert Esche called both Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher to let them know he wanted his mediocrity back... I mean, that and his job... and a one-way ticket out of Russia. It was a very uncomfortable conversation from what I’ve been told, because both Leighton and Boucher seemed very committed to the lie that they’re actually half-decent major-league goalies. Can you say “awkward”? Now Leighton and Boucher deserve some credit. They after all were able to lead the Flyers to the finals last playoffs, but it should never be forgotten that they did it playing over their heads all the while. Going into last season, the Flyers were thought to be legitimate contenders, but that was with Ray Emery in the crease, which, in retrospect, is probably the punchline to an even funnier joke no one has thought up yet.

With Leighton out a month with a bulging disc in his back, the Flyers will move ahead with Boucher and Johan Backlund at least until Leighton returns to the line-up. Don’t be surprised if Backlund is able to wrest away the starter’s job away from both of them in the long run, not because he’s so friggin’ awesome – 29-year-olds who have only played two games in the NHL rarely are – but because he’s likely more consistent than the other two. It would be very hard for him not to be, and that’s Leighton and Boucher’s problem in a nutshell. They’re not horrible players. The Flyers just don’t know what they’re going to get one game to the next with either of them in between the pipes.

"Holy S&*^! It's actually in my glove! Outstanding!"
Besides, it’s not as if the Flyers haven’t gone the journeyman route before since Ron Hextall retired. In fact, 15 goalies have played for the Flyers since that 1998-1999 swansong of his, including the ever-eccentric Roman Cechmanek. He also called and wanted Esche’s mediocrity back, because at least sucking that much would have given him three more years in the NHL. Needless to say, that horror show won’t be making its way back to North America, no matter how many Vezina Trophies he was nominated for (just the one in 2000-2001). It should also be noted that Cechmanek beat out Boucher for the starting job in Philly that season... and here we are, 10 years later. The more things change, right?

In all honesty, Philadelphia’s defense has been infinitely strengthened with the additions of Andrej Meszaros and Sean O’Donnell. The re-signing of Braydon Coburn to a two-year deal also bodes well for the team moving forward. However, trading Simon Gagne to the Tampa Bay Lightning for defenseman Matt Walker may have been an ill-thought-out salary dump. Gagne, while often injured, is more than worth his $5,625,000 hit when healthy.

It’s true that the Flyers right now have three solid lines (and now seven legitimate defensemen), and the seemingly impending signing of Bill Guerin would give them yet another underrated weapon, but essentially trading Gagne for Nikolai Zherdev (whose cheap $2,000,000 price tag may or may not make up for his egnimatical refusal to live up to his potential) is a questionable move at best.

Considering the Boston Bruins reportedly had Tim Thomas on the trade block, it made little sense to get another defenseman the Flyers have little use for. Also considering Marty Turco signed with the Chicago Blackhawks for less money than Leighton ($1,300,000 versus $1,500,000 this year), and Antti Niemi with the San Jose Sharks for just slightly more ($2,000,000), Holmgren’s reported misguided faith in loyalty as a virtue will likely come back to bite him where the sun doesn’t shine. And if Holmgren indeed kept Leighton and Boucher out of loyalty, what of Emery and the fact that the Flyers wouldn’t even have made the post-season without his 16-11-1 record last year?

Clearly, management opted to let Emery, ego and all, twist in the wind, because he wouldn’t have given the Flyers a realistic shot at winning this upcoming season. Remind you of anyone or any two current Flyers goalies by any chance? Obviously only a select few people know the nature of the conversations that took place between Holmgren and the Bruins and Holmgren and Turco’s agent (if there were any), so hindsight, even when the Flyers’ goaltending blows up in their faces, won’t exactly be 20/20. But what simple foresight tells us is that Leighton and Boucher are not the answer... unless the question is: “Who are the latest Flyers goalies to leave fans tearfully reminiscing over Hextall?”

The Flyers are a team built for the playoffs, and with the team’s revamped squad from the non-inclusive net out, they might very well win the Cup, if they are able to get back to the second season. The team’s defense is as strong as ever and can properly protect Leighton or Boucher (or Backlund) once in the post-season. But until the Flyers make the playoffs with their two eyesores in net, it will be quite the adventure just like it was last season. And it likely won’t be a pretty one. Just look at Patrick Kane’s Cup-winning goal against Leighton.

September 28, 2010

What the Islanders Will Be Missing for God Knows How Long

With Kyle Okposo and Mark Streit succumbing to shoulder injuries in the recent past, I thought it fitting to post a few highlights of the duo in action. Insult to injury? Maybe. I regret not finding a decent Mark Streit highlight of him with the Islanders (this highlight takes place in game seven of the Montreal Canadiens first-round victory against the Boston Bruins three years ago). This is still probably the prettiest goal he's ever scored, thanks in large part to a nice feed from Maxim Lapierre (of all people). As for the Okposo goal, just an all-around awesome individual effort.

Go Streit to Jail, Do not Qualify for Playoffs, Do not Collect $200

The way he’s played, one would think defenseman Mark Streit’s New York Islanders teammates would treat him better. Hell, at least the pain from a swift kick to the crotch wears off eventually, but, instead, forward Matt Moulson opted to go the less-travelled route and illegally cross-check him into the boards during practice, thereby sidelining him for as much as six months.

Now, Streit will never be confused for a most-valuable-player candidate, at least not in the NHL. Of course, if we’re talking peewee, forget about it. He would school those kids as if he was a truant officer and they were playing hooky instead of hockey. But that’s true of most NHLers... except maybe former Islander Mike Comrie, but I digress.

Still, as far as Long Island is concerned, Streit’s potentially six-month-long stint on the long-term injured reserve list has quashed whatever playoff hopes his team might have had. That’s because, while he will never win the Hart Memorial Trophy, Streit is the Islanders’ heart and soul, bar none.

Sure, the team has high hopes for John Tavares and, realistically speaking, the team’s playoff aspirations largely depend on whether or not goalie Rick DiPietro is able to stay healthy long enough to be able to average out his salary per goal allowed instead of just per save, but, all things being equal, Streit is the only star the team has. Literally. He was the only Islander to play in the all-star game in 2008-2009 (there was no mid-season classic this past season).

While Streit will likely never replicate his 62-point season with the offensively gifted Montreal Canadiens from a few years ago (a team that had seven 50-point scorers), his 56 and 49-point campaigns with New York have been just as impressive due to the lack of competent talent around him (who needs friends, when you’ve got teammates like Moulson?). That being said, this could have been a year that the Islanders surprised a few people and, if Tavares’s development jumped by leaps and bounds, maybe made the playoffs.

Without Streit, barring a trade for the Vancouver Canucks’ Kevin Bieksa, who would still be about as fitting a replacement as Danny Trejo was to Chow Yun-Fat all those years ago, the playoffs are a distant dream. Considering Bieksa’s injury history, that analogy is probably as apt as any other.

"We're supposed to be replacement killERS, not killed, right?"
Even the rumoured return of Mathieu Schneider to the island is a crazy notion best left for ABC and its crack team of highly skilled (or just plain high) writers. The bottom line is that Schneider is about as equipped to man the point on the power play at his age (41) as he to drive. His last kick at the can was last season, and he spent a significant portion of it with the Manitoba Moose in the AHL for a reason. The last time I checked, the world already had a former Canadien playing for the Moose well into his golden years, and even Mike Keane realized it was high time to retire.

Even with a blue-line bolstered by the likes of Bieksa or Scheider, and the recently acquired James Wisniewski and Mark Eaton, the loss of Streit turns the Islanders’ defensive corps from a lower-tier NHL-calibre one to one more fit for the AHL. Milan Jurcina has never been able to catch on with a major-league team for a reason. Meanwhile, Bruno Gervais is one trade to a good team away from a demotion. The same goes for Jack Hillen and Andrew MacDonald, who may not be old, but still belongs on the farm. Don’t even get me started on Radek Martinek.

"I think I see the light, Doug. Do you?"
As for the team’s forwards, while characterized by youth, it’s the elderly statesman who serves as captain, Doug Weight, and the overwhelming desire to get him to change his first name to “Dead” just for kicks, that best sums up its capabilities up front. One foot in the grave is how the team’s playoff chances looked a week ago. With Streit gone, get your shovels.

Reports are conflicting as to just how long Streit will be out, but if it’s for any significant length of time, three things are almost foregone conclusions:

1)     Moulson feeling really, really, really bad all season long.

2)     DiPietro praying for an injury to get out of playing for his defenseless team.

3)     The Islanders getting another lottery pick at next year’s draft.

September 27, 2010

The Wild Is to Hockey What Wild Wild West Was to Movies

America’s Wild West was renowned for big-dollar-driven gold prospectors, action-packed shootouts, and impressively fast draws to match. The Minnesota Wild of the NHL’s Western Conference is conversely known for its lack of big-name talent, boring style of play, and recently broken sell-out streak.

Needless to say, luck and a bunch of other things don’t seem to be on the Wild’s side this year. In a span of just 20 days, the following has happened:

1)     The aforementioned sell-out streak ended at 409 games.

2)     Supposed-number-one-center-of-the-future James Sheppard got put on the shelf for four months after an ATV accident, further off-roading his by-now inauspicious career path.

3)     Back-up goalie Josh Harding tore his ACL and MCL after Saint Louis Blues forward Brad Boyes collided with him, bringing new meaning to the saying: “Bad Boyes, Bad Boyes”. Apparently, all Harding is gonna do is likely miss the entire season.

4)     Leading goal-scorer Guillaume Latendresse confessed to the media that he could envision himself returning to the Montreal Canadiens later on his career, despite his having just signed a two-year, $5-million contract with the Wild. He added, as if to convince himself, that his head is really “in Minnesota”.

I’m sure it serves as little consolation to Wild fans that these events all took place in the pre-season, during which the games mean nothing.

In fact, the ended sell-out streak is proof positive of that and that the team’s fans have become fed up with a team that has regressed in recent years and has deemed it perfectly alright to dress an entire team of glorified third-liners, with the possible exception of captain Mikko Koivu, who was initially projected as one himself before he exceeded expectations and became a bona-fide star.

As for Martin Havlat, he still has to earn his six-year, $30-million deal, because the 54 points he notched last season are about as impressive as Sheppard’s uneventful career thus far. Despite being taken ninth overall in the 2006 draft, Sheppard’s looked more like a wide-eyed sheep caught in the headlights than a herder, or anything else coming close to resembling a hockey player. And I thought haggis was foul.

Meanwhile, back to the original point, it’s not as if his or Harding’s injuries will magically heal come the start of the season. Sure, Harding’s just the back-up and the team’s hopes still rest on the shoulders of Niklas Backstrom, but, even so, Harding was a potential number-one in the making who could have served as trade bait to any one of the countless teams bound to need help in the crease later on this season.

And then you have Latendresse, apparently so in love with his hometown that he seems to forget that that’s where he was booed incessantly for his lack of effort and eventually earned the nickname Fatendresse. Maybe Latendresse has turned over a new leaf and acknowledges he could have tried harder in years past. Maybe he realizes it could have been worse and fans could have substituted the “esse” in his name for “ass” as well. Hell, maybe he was just humouring the Montreal media as, it should be noted, he was just responding to a hypothetical question from a reporter asked during his team’s pre-season visit there.

Whatever the case, Latendresse has much more important things to worry about, starting with trying to justify his new contract. Chances are the overstated scoring binge he went on last year (25 goals in 55 games, while very good, doesn’t even amount to 40 over a whole season) was a fluke seeing as he had never scored more than 16 before. This newfound identity crisis should, at the very least, be put on the backburner along with his overinflated ego born out of all-too-quick comparisons to Guy Lafleur early in his career. As he should know firsthand, chants of the name “Guy” can easily change to ones of the word “guy”, as in “just a”, in a flash.

"Who's going to notice, here in Montreal?"

When all is said and done, Latendresse isn’t the only one suffering from a lack of a properly defined identity. At least when Jacques Lemaire was the team’s head coach, the Wild knew what they were: a hard-working team that didn’t have enough talent and had to play the trap to succeed. Now, under Todd Richards, they are a team that has even less talent that doesn’t know how to play the trap properly. They may still work hard, but so does a strip club’s B-list talent working the midday shift. At least the strippers have primetime to aspire to. For much of the Wild, this is as good as it’s going to get.

Additions Eric Nystrom, Matt Cullen, John Madden, and Brad Staubitz aren’t going to be able to check their way onto the scoresheet enough to make a difference. Ditto for Cal Clutterbuck who’s essentially a one-trick pony. It also remains to be seen if Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Brent Burns can put their concussion problems behind them.

The Wild are a mediocre team. In what will likely be a tough Western Conference once again, if the Detroit Red Wings, who annually find a way to contend for the conference championship, are the good, the Wild, who used to be able to win ugly, will just be bad... and miss the playoffs by a wide margin.