Sunday, September 30, 2007

Commence the Invasion

I'm am skeptical of anybody who feels the need to specify the game as ice hockey, which limits my skepticism to only, oh let's say, everybody in Britain.

Regardless of what I think (a common trend among Gary Bettman's decisions), the NHL put two regular season games in sunny London, England (I'm sure London, Ontario would have appreciated them just as much).

The NHL deserves props for making them regular season games; games for points and glory and everything. Any two bit major sports league could schedule a pre-season game across the ocean, but those invariably turn out to be bland affairs that lack any real star power. This way, Europe gets to see what real hockey is like, not that Brits really have anything to compare it to.

I watched the Saturday opener between Anaheim and LA. The crowd at the O2 Stadium (owned by the same suit who owns the Kings, of course) was the real highlight. It was a regular United Nations of sweaters circling the ice. Name a hockey team, and 5 quid says they were represented by a fan. My favourite was the pair of green St. Pats one couple was rocking.

The game itself was ok. Anaheim doesn't look ready. Not having Niedermayer and Selanne will really hurt them. Their absence plus the jet lag sucker punch is going to translate into slow going early on. Bertuzzi looked eager though. This might be his comeback year.

The Kings could surprise some people this season. They ripped the Ducks apart on the powerplay, and they might finally, just maybe, cross your fingers, have found a goalie they can ride in nineteen year old Jonathan Bernier. That would be a major victory for LA, which hasn't had anything legit in between the pipes for as far back as I care to remember.

The final score was 4-1 LA, though Anaheim evened up the series with their own 4-1 victory the next day.

The league is for sure interested in more European jaunts after seeing the arena at capacity and they sure as hell can't let the NBA - the league that went from All-American to Cosmopolitan seemingly overnight and has half their teams doing European training camps as I type - conquer the old world. Word is Prague, a city that actually plays the game, might get the season opener next year. Who knows, fifteen year from now, the only place with any guarantee of not hosting a debut will be cities in North America.


Saturday, September 29, 2007

NHL Predictions, Cause Who Else Can You Trust?

It's my favourite time of year, the days right before the start of the hockey season, the days when you can really mean it when you say every team has a shot, every team could surprise us, and that this might just be the year the Leafs win. But then some jerk has to go and drop a puck somewhere and all of a sudden you realize everything your team did in the off season was for nothing and that once again the parade will be somewhere else. Well, I'm here to spare you the heart breaking suspense and give you the inside info on whether your team sucks or not. Hint: they probably do.

New York went through a time warp in the off season, transporting themselves back to a time when they could get any player they wanted simply because they had all the money in the world. Those players, Chris Drury and Scott Gomez, make the Rangers the best in the East. They weren't bad before; now they are dangerous. Welcome to the new old NHL.

In my biased opinion, I think the Sens reached their apex last year and everything now is just part of their slow, drawn out decline. It'll start with not resigning Dany Heatley, just wait. For now the Sens are the best in their division, so they'll win but mark my words, this is a broken team.

The Thrashers didn't do much over the summer, but I think the division is weak enough to let that slide. This team is still good enough to win the Southeast but winning a series might still be asking much.

Yeah, yeah, Pittsburgh is hot stuff right now, but they still have an average age of 16, so I'll cool the urge to give them the Presidents Trophy, though the engravers could probably save time by etching Crosby's name into the next ten empty spots on the Art Ross right now. Pittsburgh will be good, but the young guns are probably still feeling a little cocky over last year, which is not the ideal frame of mind.

If you didn't feel bad for Buffalo over the offseason you either live in western New York or you're the type of sick freak who skins cats for fun. First their top players bolt and then Kevin Lowe makes Tomas Vanek a very wealthy man. But Buffalo didn't get through last year simply on the strength of two players, they succeeded because they were deep like a good haiku and now they get to demonstrate it. They won't be as good, but I don't think that's saying much.

I didn't like the way Phillie raided Nashville's sinking ship, but you can`t argue with the results. Philadelphia has undergone a radical face lift, and is once again pretty enough to get invited to the ball. Goaltending seems shaky but why bet against Marty Biron? Philadelphia fans will quickly forget that they ever finished dead last in the East.

I like Carolina. This is still essentially the same team that won the Stanley Cup, and I'm willing to write last year off as an extended hangover. It's a mulligan folks. And the Southeast still isn't anything to get worked up about. The Canes are back.

Home town discount again, but this time I think the potential is there. Last year I was pretty hesitant to put my boys even in eighth, but this year it can happen. Vesa Toskala has been bad, and Kyle Wellwood will be out for a while which is not helping, but no worries. And really, even if the Leafs do tank, at least no more Fergie.

9.Tampa Bay
The big three are poised for a big year, but I'm trying to think of any one else on the team you'd need to watch out for. Defense is just ok, and that was before losing Dan "Watched Pots Don't" Boyle" and goaltending is still whatever.

10.New Jersey
I don't like putting New jersey out of the playoffs as long as Martin Brodeur reigns, but where else to put a team that lost two of its key players like they did. Jersey is no Buffalo. Sweet Lou Lamoriello held this team together admirably in the first years post-lock out, but not even his wizardry could keep it whole forever. Plus, can he keep Brent Sutter for more than a season?

The only good thing I can say about Montreal's offseaon is that they somehow found a team willing to take Sergei Samsonov. Roman Hamrlik is probably an improvement on Sheldon Souray, but Montreal still feels thoroughly average.

Props to the Caps for giving Alexander Ovechkin some half way decent players to pass to him, but this is still a one player show.

The Islanders surprised everybody by generally not sucking ass last season, but they were forced during the summer to replace most of their overachieving mediocre vets with a brand new cast of mediocre vets like it was some sort of reality tv show (Twenty strangers. One hockey team. Can they overcome their differences and learn to work as a team?). Ted Nolan can't do everything.

I don't have anything against Florida but ever since Roberto Luongo left town, what's the point? Florida feels like they might be a good team in another couple years, but for now I'm not sold.

Yeah I just don't know. The Blackhawks of the East just seem to get worse, the more they try to get better. It's probably a zen thing. Boston won't be any better this year.

Man I'm tired of betting against Detroit only for them show me up every year, so here we go: Detroit in first. Just watch now, Dominik Hasek is going to put up a .876 average, and I'm gonna look like an idiot again.

2.San Jose
San Jose continues to be that team that does everything right, but still can't get close to the cup. They have the offense, the defense and the goaltending plus lots of young talent, and now they have Jeremy Roenick to shake things up. Who knows, maybe Roenick will be the wrinkly California version of Sean Avery that sparks the Sharks to new levels of greatness. Or maybe he'll retire by November. Whatever.

Yeah their offseason said "hey guys we're getting pretty desperate," (Mike Keenan AND Owen Nolan?) but I think they are still capable of winning a division.

I hate it when players prolong their retirement decision, and Anaheim has two players protracting the process. If neither Scott Niedermayer nor Teemu Selanne return (my money's on Nieds coming back) it's hard to imagine the Ducks repeating.

I think Colorado will be back with a vengeance this year. Peter Budaj will establish himself as a number one, and Jose Theodore will play well enough to make a few dollars as a free agent. the Avs have loads of talented youngsters (Wojtek Wolski, Marek Svatos, Paul Statsny, John Michael Liles) plus Ryan Smyth. Ryan Smyth man.

I put them in essentially because of Roberto Luongo. No, not essentially: entirely. They don't have much in the way of offense and there's no reason to think that Marcus Naslund or Brendan Morrison will re-emerge as legit scoring threats. But as long as Luongo is between the pipes, they're capable of doing anything.

Four teams from the same division might be pushing it, but Minnie is certainly good enough to make the playoffs, that is, assuming they can squeeze a whole season out of Marian Gaborik. Wishful thinking?

It breaks my heart, it really does, to see Nashville like this. They lost a lot, and are now relying on a guy named Chris Mason to mind their net (strictly on the level of Hockey Names, Mason has nothing on Vokoun). They great group of youngsters that gave them so much depth have become their go to guys. No room for mistakes.

The Stars are one of those teams who at first glance don't look like they should be all that good, and yet still manage to put up 100+ point seasons. I think that will end this year. Is it time to start looking for a replacement for Mike Modano yet guys?

Chicago could so easily make the playoffs, let's be clear on that. They are an improving team, which is probably the first time in fifteen years you can say that and mean it about Chicago. They're still relying on a whack of young guys though, so maybe some caution is necessary. Bill Wirtz is dead though, kind of poetic, as if his old heart couldn't understand or fathom how his hockey team was improving under his watch.

11.St. Louis
Another rapidly improving hockey team, St. Louis should challenge for the playoffs this year. They probably won't make it, but if their strong finish to last season was any sign, things are going to get better in Missouri.

12.Los Angeles
LA has a lot going for it. They have a great core of young players like Mike Cammallieri and Anze Kopitar and even a young goaltending stud in Jonathan Bernier, plus Marc Crawford's hair. Unfortunately, instead of being content to let their promising pot simmer, they tossed in a bunch of free agent effluence that will just dilute the recipe. Either way I don't think they'll being making the playoffs, but at least get your plan straight, you know?

13. Columbus
So Columbus is rebuilding again, but that's not really accurate because there was nothing really built to begin with. Ken Hitchcock as coach will help, and you can't imagine Rick Nash being much worse than he was last season.

A couple of years ago Edmonton looked poised to make next step to being a great team. They were flush with talented youngsters, any one of which was liable to break out any moment. Shawn Horcoff. Fernando Pisani. Raffi Torres. But then the team hit a hiccough as all of the young guns stalled and all of their free agents sought as much distance between them and the city as possible. Business as usual in Edmonton.

Phoenix is not a good team. No offense, no goaltending, and a very young defense mean it's only going to get worse before it gets better for Wayne Gretzky. A lot worse. Which is stupid because that's what everybody's been saying about the Coyotes for years and it's still just as true today as it was five years ago. Nothing is rising from these ashes any time soon.

And for a finale, some even more poorly informed predictions: Art Ross to Sidney Crosby, Rocket Richard to Crosby, Hart to Crosby, Selke to Crosby, and in a surprising and unprecedented coup, both the Norris and Vezina to Crosby.

I'll give the Stanley Cup to Ottawa, because we all know the only way to guarantee a team missing the Cup is to predict their winning in September. Suck on that Ottawa.


Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Pre-season Whatevers

The Leafs are doing their pre-season thing and the question of who will play with Mats Sundin has taken on a level of ridiculous speculation. Is Jason Blake the player that Mats has been waiting for for the past decade, the player who will convert every one of Sundin's sweet Swedish passes into pretty goals and career numbers and save us from another year of no playoffs? Yes, apparently, if you want to listen to the hype.

Me personally, I have my eye on Nik Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky. Hah, no I'm serious. This is their year. When Antropov is healthy, and come on, there's no way he can spend any more time on the DL, the guy is due, anyway, when he's healthy, he's actually got some game. Just watch. And Poni, well, did you see his breakaway goal in Edmonton? Poni is a workhorse.

The Leafs won their game in Winnipeg against Phoenix today, a game that was probably scheduled to shut up people in the Peg who still want their Jets back. C'mon, nobody wants the Coyotes. Alex Steen picked up a goal which was a nice tribute to Daddy Steen and Andrew Raycroft got the win which is just nice anytime.

The Leafs also brought Simon Gamache to training camp, and this guy is supposed to be hot shit over in Europe and the AHL, though if there's any room in the bigs for him probably depends on how well he translates his game. The Leafs are also guaranteeing a pre-season start for Scott Clemmensen who had the NHL's easiest back up role last year working behind Martin Brodeur. If I can be petty here, it was Clemancy who lost the final game of the season last year for New Jersey to the Islanders, which gave New York one more point than Toronto and the final playoff spot. If I can summarize, the Leafs failure last year can be blamed entirely on Scott Clemmesen.
I hope his ass gets shelled.


Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Hockey Lit 101

A book that should be on every discerning hockey fan's bookshelf is Peter Gzowski's The Game of Our Lives, and if it's already there, it could probably do with a re-reading.

It goes like this: back in 1980, Gzowski shacked up with the Edmonton Oilers for an entire season, and when he was done, he wrote a book, a book that is not only a tribute to the players and team that would in a few years go on to be one of the greatest hockey teams ever assembled, but also a loving and glowing monument to all that is great and wonderful about our game.

It hearkens back to expansion era hockey, when the scores were high and the salaries still low. I wasn't alive for any of this, so it's all fresh and exciting for me, and interesting to see how the hockey players of yesterday are the management of today. Bob Gainey, Doug Risebrough, half a dozen Sutters to choose from and many more current boardroom members crowd the Gzowski's pages. Foreigners were still soft; the Islanders were the best thing on skates; Gretzky was just twenty; Kurri couldn't speak English; Messier was just a bundle of unfocused, raucous energy; Coffey was a shy wallflower and Glenn Sather was still just as dominating as he is today. It's like a kids show that never got made. The Baby Oilers.

The book is even more so poignant and apropos these days because of the real life parallel occurring in Pittsburgh as we speak. It's impossible not to draw the parallels as you read between the Oilers of yesterday and the Penguins of today. Gretzky and Crosby, both calm and more down to earth than they have any right to be. Both are surrounded by an explosion of youth ready to burst out. They called Gretzky the Kid, back in the day. I didn't know that. The Waynderful One. They didn't call him that one, but they should have.

Read this book if you ever need a reminder of why hockey is great, why we put up with hockey teams in Florida and owners who don't care and all the other bollocks that gets in the way, why it's our game, the game of our lives.


Dem Blueboids Ain't Gots It

Ok, the Blue Jays are done, after entering September at least pretending to be in the wild card hunt and then going an ugly 5-9. So what about next year?

JP Ricciardi says he likes his team, for all their problems on the field, and that he likes his manager, for all his problems in the dugout. In essence, the '08 Blue Jays are going to resemble the '07 version mighty closely.

Ugh. JP blames injuries for the bird crap the Jays have been spitting out this season, says this season doesn't really represent what the Jays are capable of, and as such, everybody gets a second chance! Whoooooo! Hey guys, forget that we've had our full roster since the beginning of August and forget that we've put up the lowest staff ERA in the AL for the last two months, and still only managed .500 ball, forget all that. Just try again guys, because the most important thing is that everybody gets a chance and nobody feels bad! Winning isn't everything, eh guys?

John Gibbons isn't a bad manager. But he's not a good one either. Logic dictates that after two completely uninspiring season in the dugout in which his team has shown all the determination and drive of a broken down golf cart, the Jays should be looking around for somebody new. No hard feelings to Gibby, but come on, where's the passion?

But Gibby's going to get another year because JP Ricciardi has one more year. I think it's fair to say that JP has lost Toronto's goodwill. It doesn't help that he treats us, the fans, like we are a minor nuisance that are somehow inconsequential to the job he is doing. Remember when he lied about BJ Ryan's injury?

One more year of flush payroll and mediocre results should lead to JP, and Gibbons with him, being fired. One more year...


Sunday, September 16, 2007

New Leafs Duds... Are a Dud

Yeah, well they could be worse right? I mean, they could have numbers on the front, or TORONTO spelled out for us across the chest or a bright red Ontario flag on the sleeve or god forbid another stripe or two.

They really do need stripes along the bottom to anchor the whole thing, the home darks especially. Otherwise it's just...a wall of blue. I never thought I could feel so passionately about the need for horizontal lines anywhere, but here we are.

At least Tucker seems to like them.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Who Signed J.R?

San Jose did. Prediction: Roenick scores his five goals, hits five hundred and retires citing the changing nature of the game and that he has realized that he can no longer keep up with the youngsters anymore, at which point he is signed by NBC so that he can utilize his one remaining asset: his mouth. I love JR and all, but it's painful to watch a guy like him hobble around the ice. Retire, please?