Sunday, June 29, 2014

NHL Draft Thoughts

This weekend was the NHL draft which is always one of my favorite events of the year. No matter how well or poor your team did this past season, you can get optimistic about the future as organizations choose players to stockpile and develop for the future.

Depending on where a team is, the excitement level is different. The Florida Panthers took Aaron Ekblad with the first overall pick. He projects to be a very solid, all-around defenseman in the NHL. The Panthers continue to acquire young talent in the draft and have a bright future ahead assuming things go as they hope...then again, that sometimes doesn't happen.

For the NY Rangers they come in after losing in the Stanley Cup Finals to the LA Kings. It was an incredible playoff run but LA was, like in 2012, an absolute runaway freight train this year. The Rangers did have chances to win games but the Kings found ways to win and and never gave up the entire post season.

The Rangers gave up their first round pick this year and next in the Martin St. Louis trade. I will not get into that discussion too much but I will say the trade was worth it. The Rangers have been stockpiling for a bit and have a solid core. But at some point, you have to make a move to try and get to the next level. Was it hard for some fans to take? Of course it was. Ryan Callahan has been a big part of the NY Rangers for awhile. But with the way negotiations were going with his contract and the abilities that St. Louis brings, you had to do it.

With no first round picks, that means a team has to get creative. It certainly isn't the kiss of death for a team to have no first round picks. Most NHL players come from later rounds and that is where teams need to find diamonds in the rough. Are most of those players going to play? No but the ability to find late round gems is important. An easy example is Henrik Lundqvist.

The Rangers made seven picks this season after coming to the draft with five. With the Rangers only having nine picks over the last two years, this was a good time to restock the cupboard a bit. Were they going to get a top flight pick? No unless they decided to trade up. But there was value in the draft this season and the Rangers have a very savvy scouting staff led by Gordie Clark. NY left the draft with three defensemen, two goalies, and two forwards. Spreading the picks around is a great way to draft as the Rangers have mentioned they will draft the best player that they think is available and don't usually go by organizational need.

One way it worked out in both directions is the drafting of goalies. I have read fans screaming about the Rangers drafting two goalies. It is time for a reality check, folks...Is Henrik Lundqvist at the top of his game? Yes. Is he unreal? Yes. Will he be around forever? Absolutely not. Lundqvist is 32 years old and certainly has plenty of good years left in him. But goalies take a very long time to develop. The only goalie developing in the system right now, with any sort of potential, is MacKenzie Skapski who is playing junior hockey. The Rangers needed more depth in the system. It makes sense. These guys are all young and at least five to six years from sniffing the NHL. In that time Lundqvist will be 38 or 39 years old. These picks are not about replacing Lundqvist because he will leave to go somewhere else...these picks are in mind for when Lundqvist retires and the Rangers have to fill that crease. Its called preparation and its the smart thing to do.

Will this draft be a success? We will not know the answer to that question for a long time. All of these players need time to develop and will not be in the NHL for awhile, barring any sort of absolute steal. The good news is that some of the players picked do have potential to be solid NHL players. Whether any turn into star NHL players remains to be seen.

For now it is on to Free Agent Frenzy and what should be an interesting July...

Thursday, February 13, 2014

And They're Off...

Obviously one game does not make an entire tournament, even one as short as the Olympics. But if you are an American hockey fan you had to like what you saw from the United States this morning against Slovakia as they cruised to a 7-1 victory. The discussion up until this point had been all about the goaltending of Team USA and who was going to assume the starting role. By the end of it, the story was the solid play of the skaters and the kind of speed the team could bring on the large ice surface. 

When it comes to a team being on the larger ice surface there is a huge adjustment for guys who have, almost exclusively their entire lives, have played on a rink that is 200' x 85'. Adding an extra 15 feet of width may not sound like much but you may have noticed that the wingers on these teams had more room than you normally would see in a NHL game or even from the last Olympics when the games were held on a NHL dimension rink in Vancouver. The extra time and space for forwards is a trap for defensemen. As is taught to those patrolling the blue line in any hockey game, the faceoff dots are your guide as to where you should be. Straying outside of those dots and you leave your defensive zone vulnerable to plays to the middle of the ice and good scoring chances for the opposition. Team USA's first three goals were direct results of play outside the dots and it ended up being the downfall of the Slovaks. Defensemen have to be aware of where they are on the ice and you have to trust your goalie is going to make stops on shots from outside the dots. 

For the US, they certainly had their moments in the defensive zone where things broke down a bit and the Slovaks were able to get some chances. What was encouraging was just how mobile the defensive corps of Team USA is. In the last Olympics Team USA had names such as Mike Komisarek, Tim Gleason, Rob Scuderi, and Ryan Whitney selected to the roster (albeit Komisarek never got in because of injury). While all of them are solid defensemen in the NHL they are not quite as mobile as some of the other American defenders who have joined the ranks this year. Guys like Ryan McDonagh, Kevin Shattenkirk, John Carlson, and Cam Fowler have all made the team partly because of their mobility on the ice. Without that mobility, your blue line is going to have a tough time on the large surfaces, especially on the big ice. 

Now American fans shouldn't be thinking the gold medal is coming back to the USA right now. Slovakia did not play a very good game and got real sloppy at times. They lacked a strong offensive and defensive effort for the most part. Could Team USA do this to a team like Canada, Russia, or Sweden who are deeper defensively and have some high offensive power? Possibly but its not likely. What certainly won't be a question is if Team USA can skate with other teams and that is half the battle. We will see how the line combos change throughout the tournament and how Team USA will handle a strong team like Russia (who got a bit of a scare from Slovenia) on Saturday. But I don't think Team USA could have asked for a better start to their tournament and certainly have plenty of positives to build on.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Seriously? A Response to Peter Gammons

Well hello there, folks! Yes it has been awhile since I wrote something up on here but I felt that a response was needed to something I read this morning that I thought a simple tweet or Facebook status would not do justice.

No doubt you have seen the highlights of last night's Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames game. If not, you can check it out here. In a nutshell, Flames Head Coach Bob Hartley decides to start his tough guys for the game and, as only fair and I think he should have done, Canucks Head Coach John Tortorella responded by putting his team's equivalent out there. Obviously, by the highlight, things escalated rapidly. It didn't end there as Torts was at the Flames locker room at the end of the first period trying to seemingly get Hartley for what he did. Check it out on TSN here. In the end, Vancouver got the last laugh with a 3-2 shootout win.

So what got me to write about this? One of my biggest pet peeves as a sports person is when pundits of another sport chime in and make dumb comments about another sport they have no involvement with. I'll admit I have done it myself in the past and I'm sure other people have as well. It can be a foot-in-mouth moment where you make yourself look bad.

Of course, there is a bit of a difference when Average Joe or Jane fan does it and when a respected journalist and sports reporter does it. This time it was ESPN's Peter Gammons, one of the most respected sports journalists in the American landscape for his work on baseball. Apparently he saw the highlight of last night's brawl and decided to tweet this morning:

As a hockey person, I am used to people ragging on it and its shortcomings. Hockey is behind the NFL, MLB, and NBA (although maybe not basketball with this recent article) in the grand scheme of things. I'm not disputing that.

The issue that happened with the hockey game last night was because of what happened on the ice. Did it spill over? Yes. Things get out of control and they can spill over. I have personally been apart of and seen some epic spill overs in hockey during my time as a team staff member.

 One reason that fighting is allowed in hockey is because of the emotion that comes out in a highly physical game. As much as people may hate fighting in hockey, it has a place in the game. The staged stuff is going away but there are instances where a fight serves a purpose. That is the short, short version of my opinion on fighting.

But let us take a look at baseball Mr. Gammons. Is baseball without incidents of violence? How about these? Or this? Or this when a 70+ year old man was thrown to the ground? There are plenty of other examples out there I could grab off YouTube. The point I am making here is don't think baseball doesn't have its incidents of violence that can make it look foolish at times.

Secondly, you called hockey a "minor" sport. Revenue wise? Yes hockey is minor compared to baseball. But it was not too long ago back in the 1990s that attendance was a major issue and the most important factor in bringing back the fans was players who were using performance enhancing drugs. Whether it was Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa's home run race or Barry Bonds chasing records fans flocked to the ballpark to see guys hit home runs who normally were not hitting the levels they were hitting. It got to the point where Congress needed to get involved to try and figure out what was going on. And now some of the most talented players in baseball history will more than likely never see the inside of the Hall of Fame because of it.

Now what am I saying by pointing all of this out? I am NOT saying that hockey has not had or doesn't have problems now. Every sport does. Every sport has bad incidents and press. It comes with the territory of sports. I recognize that. The easy way out of this is to talk about NHL Lockouts or hits to the head or fighting or goons or whatever you want to bring up. Guaranteed someone throws the link of Mike Milbury hitting a NY fan with a shoe at some point here.

All I am saying is that someone as respected and knowlegable about the sports landscape as Peter Gammons should just think about the context from which he is speaking. I love the game of baseball and I think it is a great sport. But when you are a baseball person and start picking out problems of other sports, just remember that "America's Past Time" has had some of the biggest problems in sports in recent memory.