Monday, December 31, 2007

Team Canada vs. Team Sweden Postgame/ Team Canada vs. Denmark - Pregame


Adversit

I've talked about it in a lot in my Team Canada discussions, specifically I like to talk about how a team will react to it. There are some teams that will just be so dominant they don't really have to think about adversity, especially in short tournaments like the World Juniors, but eventually, whether it's the next year or the next year, a team will face it. I think a lot of times adversity is harder to overcome if a team isn't used to dealing with it. Gretzky touched upon that idea regarding the Soviet teams of the late 70s and early 80s, he said that although they played great with a lead, if you could stay in the game you saw a different and more vulnerable team.

Going into yesterday morning's game against the Swedes, Team Canada hadn't lost in 20 straight games, had a 400 or so minute EV shut out streak and hadn't let in a goal since the gold medal game of last year. They rolled over the Russian stars in the Super Series this summer, and although the Czechs and Slovaks played them tough, neither team managed a goal against. The closest thing to adversity that Canada has faced in approximately 3 years is a scare in the semi finals against Team USA last year, and that had more to do with Canada being asleep than the USA really bringing it.

In my opinion, pretty much everything was going according to plan going into the third period against Sweden. Team Canada was up by a couple goals, had one completely dominating PK effort in which Sweden barely touched the puck and besides the fact the Swedes were getting the odd scoring chance, I never felt the Canadians were letting things slip out of hand. The turning point, beyond a doubt in my mind, came when the PKing Canadians stole the puck from the Swedes on the points, then had a 2-0 chance. Instead of calmly skating it up, the puck was miss-passed and turned into a dump in. The Swedes recovered the puck and scored on an absolute beauty point shot. Instead of a 3-0 affair, the game was now 2-1. For about 5 minutes after that, the Canadians were a complete disaster of a team.

The Swedes next two goals were either extremely flukey or extremely skillful (or a combination of both). Jonathan Bernier made an extremely difficult save on one chance, only to have puck (now behind the net) deflect off his skate as he scrambled back into position. The next goal deflected off a defenceman's skate on a play that was either a unsuccesful centering pass or a genius read. 3-2 Sweden.

Fortune smiled upon Team Canada as the Swedes received a phantom call against, already shorthanded. Canada scored on a beauty play started by John Tavares (whom I believe should be given more ice time) who made a fake spinarama pass to Turris out front who put it past the Swedish goalie, but not all the way in. Ice cold Claude Giroux managed to bang home the puck and the Canadians were seemingly back in the game.

The Swedes however, would not be denied. With less than a minute to go in the third period, and the game looking more and more like an OT or shootout affair, a series of blunders occured , almost all by players who need to be leaders on this team for it to be successful.

1. Brad Marchand gets the puck near the top of the circle in the Swedish zone, instead of getting the puck deep (as he is the high man in the zone), he dangles it towards the blueline and is overwhelmed by two Swedish players.

2. One Swedish players gets on a partial break past Thomas Hickey, however, not by Drew Doughty. Instead of letting Doughty handle it, Hickey continues to persue the Swede. Doughty also continues to persue the Swede, eventually falling (to try cut off the shooting angle?) and therefore pretty much eliminating Hickey's effectiveness. Meantime, the Swede simply skates a little past the two inept Canadian defenceman and centers the puck to a wide open player.

3. Meanwhile, Bernier, forgetting everything he's ever learned about goaltending, completely overplays the Swede being covered by two Canadian defenceman and has no real angle at the net. By the time the centering pass is made, Bernier has completely vacated his net. The puck is easily banged home.

Now there are a lot of questions about what happened in that play, but it was only a microchasm of the whole game and Canada's general reaction to a little bit of adversity. Panic. It was not a pretty sight.

Now there are a couple of positives to be taken from this experience - firstly, it wasn't an elimination game. Team Canada supporters saw a similar reaction to adversity way back in 2004 when a team consisting of a lot of great NHLers saw Team USA snatch victory from the jaws of defeat coming back in the third period after Marc-Andre Fleury banked a goal in off his own teammate.

Secondly, it should be painfully obvious now that Canada is not immortal. They've gone unbeaten for so long that perhaps they had forgotten what it was like to lose, perhaps they had forgotten that sting. That's the sting that motivated Canada to greatness in 2005, and perhaps this team can figure out what it takes now rather than wait till next year.

Today Canada will play Denmark, and they will win. Steve Mason will be starting in goal, and I believe that is a sign he will be our goalie in the elimination portion of this tournament - that misplay by Bernier at a key moment was enough for Hartsburg to believe a change was necessary.

The question now, is who will step and lead this team? In 2005 it was leadership by commitee, in 2006 is was Steve Downie and Justin Pogge who inspired, and in 2006 it was Jonathan Toews and Carey Price that took the team and put it on their shoulders (Marc Staal honourable mention). Will Stephan Legien and Brandon Sutter take this team by the collar and give everyone a shake? Will Steve Mason pull a Manny Legace and win games single-handidly? Will Karl Alzner take control of this group by shutting down the opposition and making a phsyical statement?

Or will Team Canada go out with a whimper when it comes time to face the music in quarterfinals?

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Team Canada vs. Team Czech Republic Postgame

Watching today's tournament opener, I felt there were a few different story lines at play.

In the first period, (as Pierre Maguire was oft to point out), it was all about Canadian goaltender Jonathan Bernier. Team Canada was outplayed for many portions of the first but every time Bernier was more than up to the task. Several first period Czech Republic powerplay chances were turned aside due to Bernier's excellent positioning and rebound control, and he was just an all around steady presence in the net all night, ending up with 44(!) saves and a big goose egg. He was named Canada's player of the game.

Secondly, it was all about Canada's underage players. Steven Stamkos was absolutely tremendous with the puck, making several very nice 1-1 plays; not to mention the fact he assisted on every Team Canada goal. John Tavares, Canada's 13th man, also made a couple key contributions with two power play goals. The first goal was a gift, set up by pointman Josh Godfrey, the second was an absolute snipe from a bad angle. After his first goal, Tavares launched himself onto the shorter european glass and held on ala a UFC celebration.

One has to mention the outstanding play of native Calgary Thomas Hickey. While the pre-tournament talk/hype has followed Doughty and Alzner around, it was Hickey who dominated the Czechs with his smart puck movement and positioning. Alzner looked fine and his efficient but unflashy playing style was effective - Doughty however looked extremely nervous throughout the game and made several bad plays, including a cross ice breakaway pass to the Czechs, and several fumbles of the puck.

Finally, you can't talk about this win without mentioning special teams play. Canada was tested early and often on the PK, (the Czechs spent 16:48 on the PP, nearly a period of 5-4 action) but held strong. Meanwhile the Canadians converted 2 on the PP thanks to some smart plays (Godfrey to Tavares) and some skill plays (Tavares). The officiating, for what's its worth, was terrific.

It has to be said that this was not a dominating performance by Team Canada. They looked uneasy throughout the first and without Bernier it was a potential loss. It is not the type of performance that one would expect to be good enough to win the big cheese. The bad news for Team Canada (in my opinion) is that they are not going to be adequately tested in the preliminary/round robin round. In my opinion the gold medal favorites, (Russia, USA,) are in the other division; the Czechs were beat in a lackluster effort, the Slovaks have one won medal in history, and the Swedes haven't been particularly competitive since about 1994. Of course, anything can (and has) happened, so I don't want to get too far ahead of myself.

Canada plays Slovakia tommorow at 8am MST.

Notes: It was not a good day for the natives of Pardubice CZ, as they watched Team Czech Republic lose to the Canadians in the World Junior Tournament, then they watched their local Paradubice team fall to Team Canada in the Spengler Cup. Curtis Joseph(!) got the win for Canada.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Hockey News Top 60 Since 1967 - Book Review


In 1998 The Hockey News came out with a list of the top 50 players to ever play hockey. Gretzky was ranked number 1 and Jari Kurri was ranked number 50, and in between the two 1980s Oilers stars there was a whole host of characters from the entire span of the 20th century, from ‘Cyclone’ Taylor, to Jacque Plante.

The Hockey News decided to update the list which in my opinion has some advantages; firstly, it helps us get around comparing the relative value/ability of players that played in such completely different eras, such as Cyclone Taylor and Sergei Federov. At least when comparing 1967 on, we know that there was essentially equal rules throughout this time.

I enjoyed reading through the list of 60 players, and although I had certain contentions over some picks (or their placement), I think that’s the fun of a list like that. Obviously judging the relative ability of the 60 greatest players over a 50 year period there will be some disagreements, but more often than not I found myself agreeing. I’ll also admit that there is a lot of hockey history that I’m ignorant on, having not been born until the 1980s. This is another great book for those of us that are truly students in the history of hockey.

The panel of hockey experts who were consulted on the list include very respected minds like Jim Rutherford and Brian Burke, but also range to the more outrageous such as Al Strachan.

Another aspect of the book I enjoyed was the stories that the players liked to emphasize themselves. For instance, I never knew that a certain famous Oiler originally had only the goal to play the game internationally, never believing he would be an NHLer.

If you’re looking for in depth statistical analysis and highly composed arguments about why each player belongs in the list of top 60 players since 1967, then this is the wrong book. If you’re looking for a easy read that includes some fun stories with a quick synopsis of why each player is considered great, then this is the book for you. I personally enjoyed it, but would probably wait for the paperback edition to save some money.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

A Look Back: World Junior Championships 2006

Besides being a world class tournament in terms of entertainment, I've always felt the World Junior Championships gives a nice peak into the future in terms of the type and usefulness of particular players. As someone who follows Junior hockey about as closely as I follow soap operas, most of the names in the tournament are new to me, besides of course the guys that have hype follow them around like a lost puppy. This year I think we can safely say that the hype is primarily following John Tavares, the phenom who was drafted into the OHL at age 14 after being granted 'exceptional player status,' allowing him to bypass the usual minimum age of 16. He was cut from last year's junior team, the first time in his life he had been cut by a team. Last March he bested Gretzky's record of goals by a 16 year old in the OHL, scoring 71 in a season. This December he was named to the team. Despite this, the scouting reports have been a little bit mixed about Tavares; most agree that his vision and playmaking is very good, but there are a few questions about his skating, ala Brad Richards or Jason Spezza. Despite this, Tavares would probably go number one in this year's NHL Entry Draft, if he were eligible.

In the 2006 edition of the World Juniors I would have to say the hype really surrounded a couple of American kids, Eric and Jack Johnson (no relation). On Team Canada though, there was a lot of hoopla around a kid named Steve Downie, but for all the wrong reasons.

Direct from Wikipedia:

Downie was suspended for 5 games early in the 2005-06 OHL season for on-ice altercations with a teammate during practice. Downie blindly cross-checked and then fought teammate Akim Aliu during practice on September 28, knocking out 3 of Aliu's teeth. [1] The incident stemmed from 16 year old Aliu's refusal to take part in a hazing incident, which involved rookies being forced to stand naked in a cramped bus bathroom. The team suspended Downie for five games and Aliu for one, and Downie was told to undergo professional counselling. (Wikipedia)

The part of the story that Wikipedia didn't mention was how Downie was in a car accident when he was 8. His dad, the driver, was killed driving Downie to a hockey practice. In addition, Downie lost a lot of his hearing in one ear due to an unrelated condition. He was my favorite story that year.

He was a real pest to the opposition, drawing many many penalties. In the Gold medal game against the Russians he simply dominated Evgeni Malkin, both in terms of production (scoring the opener, also the winner) and in terms of the mental game. No one would ever accuse Downie of having more talent than Malkin, but his will to win that day was unmatched by anyone on either team. It was a real beauty to watch.

The 2006 edition of team Canada also brought in a couple of revelations for the Alberta teams, Calgary and Edmonton.

The 2004/2005 teams had featured Calgary's great white hope, Dion Phaneuf, doing his best Al MacInnis/Scott Stevens impressions. In the middle of the 2004 season, before the Flames glorious run to the final, a friend asked me if Phaneuf would be better than Leopold - better, I told him. He had so many tools to work with it was hard to see how Dion wouldn't be a force. I think Dion has got a little ways to go before he's truly one of the greats, but he still shows something every night that is impressive.

The 2006 edition didn't have a heralded prospect like Phaneuf for the Flames or Oilers, but as the tournament progressed, a skilled, speedy center stood out for Team Canada. Dustin Boyd was a guy I was pretty unfamiliar with, but a guy that constantly suprised me with his skill and thinking ability. He was not the prototypical Calgary draft pick - he wasn't that big, and he wasn't that strong - (to give you an idea of who the Flames were looking for, Chris Chucko was picked first for the Flames, then Brandon Prust, then Dustin Boyd).

There were some question marks about Boyd early in this season, he didn't have much of a chance to make the team with the overload of centers in the Calgary lineup. He was eventually called up, probably to shake things up, and he has not looked out of place. He has 2G and 1A in 13 games, including a real beauty against Carolina the other night, a real goal scorers goal, composure and all. He's playing over 10 minutes a game, more than Nilson, Yelle, Primeau, Smith and Godard. Boyd has a ways to go before being a real difference maker or even a regular NHLer, but he's certainly showing small flashes of brilliance at the NHL similar to what he showed at the World Juniors.

The Oilers, for their part, haven't really had a key player for Team Canada for a while. JD Deslauriers and Devan Dubnyk were invited to tryout camps but were non factors. Robbie Schremp never really made an impact with Team USA, except for causing some controversy. There was some reason to be optimistic about a speedy college player name Andrew Cogliano. Don Cherry lamented the fact the Leafs did not snatch Andrew Cogliano, choosing Tuukka Rask instead (then trading him away for Andrew Raycroft).

Cogliano was a guy I really liked as a player. Very hard working, very speedy - but one thing that he has shown in the NHL that he never showed in the World Juniors, was his finish. Cogliano in many ways reminded me of another speedy (ex) Edmonton Oiler - Todd Marchant. He was very defensively responsible, got a lot of breakaways, and rarely scored. He had 5 points in 6 games, scoring only 1 goal. Goals or not though, there was enough to like about Cogliano to think he could at least be a solid role player in the NHL.

As Edmonton fans now know, Cogliano is the real deal. He's a solid NHLer in many ways - 6G and 10A in 34 games, good enough for 4th on the team, despite being 18th in terms of icetime, playing only about 14 minutes a game. He's ranked 14th in terms of PP time, far behind the other three players ahead of him in points. He is however ranked about 14th in terms of quality of competition on the team, so the his points may be slightly inflated due to some softer minutes. The fact he has 2 SHG is extremely impressive.

Unfortunately, it doesn't look like Flames and Oilers fans have much to scout at this years World Junior Championships, however, if you want a head start in watching tommorow's stars, tune in, December 26th, as Canada takes on the Czech Republic noon MST.




Thursday, December 13, 2007

Team Canada World Junior Championships Roster Announced

Early this morning TSN leaked the news there had been some surprise cuts at the Team Canada training;

Firstly, Angelo Esposito, the man who helped lead his team to the Memorial Cup in his rookie season (playing on a line with Alexander Radulov), putting up 98 points in 57 games. He also captained the U-17 Hockey Challenge for Team Canada and won gold. But last season his stock fell steadily, and his training camp performance was underwhelming. He was cut from camp, and for the year only managed 79 points in 60 games. In his rookie year in the Q he was rated as the potential number 1 pick in the 07 draft, but by the time the actual draft day rolled around his rank had dropped to about 8th, (depending on the scouting service). He ended up being drafted 20th overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins.

He was chosen to represent Canada at the Super Series this summer, but when the time came to head off to Moscow, Esposito bailed because of a groin pull. Whether he had a groin pull or not, I will never know. Whether it was due to being out of shape or just fluke I'll never know. But I knew the impression it would make on a coach Brent Sutter - the truth didn't matter, the optics were just too bad. That same day I predicted he would never play for team Canada again. His cut comes as no surprise to me, even though I had hoped with his talent level he would be able to make a contribution.

The second cut was Flames prospect Leland Irving, which again, was no surprise to me (I'm great at claiming this after the fact of course). It's not because Irving isn't an alright goalie (god help Flames fans, we sure hope he's alright). I just felt, watching the Super Series, that he was the third best goaltender, behind Jonathan Bernier and then Steve Mason.

In a weird twist, the roster was announced about a day earlier than expected, and so I missed out on tonight's intersqaud game, which was cancelled. Dammit.

Here is the 22 man roster:

FORWARDS
  • John Tavares (Oshawa Generals, OHL)
  • Steve Stamkos (Sarnia Sting, OHL)
  • Zach Boychuk (Lethbridge Hurricanes, WHL)
  • Colton Gillies (Saskatoon Blades, WHL)
  • Brandon Sutter (Red Deer Rebels, WHL)
  • Kyle Turris (University of Wisconsin, NCAA)
  • Brad Marchand (Val-d'Or Foreurs, QMJHL)
  • Claude Giroux (Gatineau Olympiques, QMJHL)
  • Matt Halischuk (Kitchener Rangers, OHL)
  • Riley Holzapfel (Moose Jaw Warriors, WHL)
  • Stefan Legein (Niagara IceDogs, OHL)
  • Shawn Matthias (Belleville Bulls, OHL)
  • Wayne Simmonds (Owen Sound Attack, OHL)

DEFENCE

  • Thomas Hickey (Seattle Thunderbirds, WHL)
  • PK Subban (Belleville Bulls, OHL)
  • Luke Schenn (Kelowna Rockets, WHL)
  • Drew Doughty (Guelph Storm, OHL)
  • Karl Alzner (Calgary Hitmen, WHL)
  • Josh Godfrey (Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, OHL)
  • Logan Pyett (Regina Pats, WHL)

GOALTENDERS

  • Jonathan Bernier (Lewiston Maineiacs, QMJHL)
  • Steve Mason (London Knights, OHL)
Let the fun begin.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Sidney Show

Well, I have to say I was pretty pleased to get to see Sidney Crosby's debut game in Calgary. While the media put a strong emphasis on the matchup between Crosby and Phaneuf, it should have been on Crosby and Iginla - after all, both are far and away their team's best players.

Crosby didn't get any points but he did a lot of the things he has become famous for, crisp passes, quick feet, great hussle and domination along the boards, which I think is the major reason he isn't like Gretzky or Lemieux.

Malkin is very much an individual talent and is not a great puck distributor, but boy was that a snipe. No chance for poor Kipper.

The guy though I was most impressed with throughout the night was former Team Canada World Junior Championship double gold medalist and captain, Kris Letang. He's still an undersized guy, but his positioning was outstanding and his play with the puck was very very good. He got beat by Lombardi in OT while trying to compensate for Lombardi's speed, it lead to that great set-up for Aucoin. Later on of course, Letang scored the shootout winner.

Nothing new to report on the Calgary Flames end of things except to say that I thought Nystrom played a pretty good game both against Pittsburgh and against St. Louis, lots of energy and lots of smart plays.

Anyway, here's a selection of shots I took from Crosby's first time in town.

Forechecking

Crosby watches as Iginla gets his first of the night

Laraque vs. Godard - Laraque had a lot of shifts alongside Crosby

Captain vs. Captain

Defensive zone OT Faceoff

Another battle with Iginla, in OT

Crosby leaves the ice on his last shift, he is replaced by Malkin

Will Sam Gagner Suit Up for Team Canada?

No.

Although here is a great explanation from Gord Miller as to why that could be a good thing.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Will Sam Gagner Suit Up For Team Canada?


As both a major fan of Team Canada and of the Oilers, the answer to this question holds a particular interest to me. Sam Gagner caught my eye approximately a year ago when I attended a Team Canada World Junior tryout camp down at Father David Bauer arena. I thought that intrasquad game was a classic 'saw him good' moment for Gagner, and although he wasn't spectacular in the actual World Junior Championship, I felt he didn't look out of place, especially considering his young age.

He completed a dominating year with the Knights (playing with Chicago sensation Patrick Kane) scoring more than 2 points a game. He continued his international play with Canada playing in the 'Summit Series,' an 8 game showcase of Canadian Hockey dominance in the U-20 age group. Gagner was named tournament MVP.

It's that time of year again and the list of players invited to the Team Canada camp has come out. It's no suprise that all of Staal and Toews will not be playing for the team, but to me it's also no suprise that a decision has not yet been made on Sam Gagner. I don't think it is because the Oilers don't believe Gagner isn't contributing and so they're considering letting him get some confidence at a lower lever - rather I believe it is because the Edmonton Oilers are very strong believers in the value of World Junior Championship experience and are considering letting Gagner go despite the value he has in helping the team win.

Just a quick list of the reasons Edmonton won't send him:

1. He's already played in two international tournaments for Team Canada, and won in both. Although this year he'll be an undisputed leader and a player who is heavily relied upon in the same vein as Jonathan Toews last year, what does Gagner have to gain?

2. There's always the possibility that Gagner gets hurt during the tournament, I'm sure the team is cognizant of that fact.

3. There's no one to replace him on the big club. Although it seems the Oilers have a couple guys in their back pocket like Thoresen or Schremp, a couple of injuries and the Oilers may be forced to keep Gagner around.

4. He's making too much of an on ice contribution to let him go for any length of time. Although he statistically speaking has 0 GWG, he has four in the shootout already, and he has undoubtedly contributed to Edmonton's 7-1 shootout record. And that's ignoring his in game play, in which he's one of the ESPPM rookie leaders in the NHL.

Now a quick list of the reasons Edmonton will send Gagner:

1. What does Sam Gagner have to gain from winning? Learning how to be a leader on a winner. Edmonton has historically liked guys that have played for Team Canada; Stoll went twice, winning a bronze and silver and was named a Captain in 2002. Raffi Torres and Andrew Cogliano won a bronze and two golds respectively. Mathieu Garon played behind Roberto Luongo on a team with Eric Brewer. This list doesn't even include the guys that Edmonton has sent over to play in the World Championships; Roloson, Horcoff (x2), Staios (x2). And this list doesnt even include Ryan Smyth!

2. Edmonton might have extra bodies pretty soon. With Pisani having already returned, and Moreau coming in the next few weeks, a couple of regulars could be seeing a lot less ice time. Sure he may not be the most likely candidate (sorry Zach) but Gagner has not been strong defensively. One never knows.

As we can see, the not going list heavily outweighs the going list. MacT's thoughts on the subject are not encouraging from the perspective of a team Canada fan. However, I think the fact that Lowe is still considering the option, unlike his counterparts in Chicago, Pitsburgh, Boston and Minnesota shows just how much stock he puts in reason number one for Sam Gagner's participation. I'll end on a quote from Kevin Lowe, the man in charge of the decision.

"There's no right or wrong decision, it's what's best for the player and you have to factor in many things...it's how his confidence is, no matter how many minutes (a game) he's playing. The bottom line for us is whether we feel we can afford to lose him and, secondly, is it good for his development? If he went to the juniors, I know he'd play a lot based on the summer (junior tournament). But (Sunday) night in Anaheim in a game where a lot of guys were good, he made some of our best plays. Not just offensively producing, he makes a lot of subtle plays that experienced guys make." - Kevin Lowe on Sam Gagner


Sunday, December 02, 2007

Bizzaro World


















If you've ever read a superman comic or watched Seinfeld, you'll be familiar with the concept of Bizzaro World. In Bizzaro World everything is opposite of our shared reality. Up is down, bad is good, and of course, the Oilers are great and the Flames terrible.

Wait, that sounds a little too close to reality.

I'll backtrack a bit. Firstly, the Oilers aren't great, that was basically a literary device I used to try draw in interest and set up my argument. So, the Oilers aren't great, but boy does it feel that way lately.

The Oilers are 6-4-0 in their last 10, Dwayne Roloson is 3-1-0 with a .941 sv %, and 2.14GAA,

Fernando Pisani is back in the Copper and Blue

Andrew Cogliano and Tom Gilbert continue to play far beyond my personal yearly expectations,

The Stoll-Torres-Stortini line is playing some moderately effective minutes. Even chipping in with a goal against Anaheim.

Sean Horcoff continues to dominate in every way. Almost any other team in the league and he'd be on a Wheaties Box.

Hell, even Allan Rourke is looking like a player now and then.

With any luck the Oilers will actually finish ahead of the Ducks in the standings and then get the higher pick. Hopefully I haven't jinxed anything.

Meanwhile, in Yraglac, the Flames are playing absolutely terrible. The Flames top heavy lineup isn't effective in special teams at all, Miikka Kipprusoff is playing average at best, shots against are down but goals against (and in my opinion scoring chances) are way up.

This defensive group couldn't stop an alcoholic from going dry. David Hale and Anders Eriksson are not even close to NHL quality defenders (check out Eriksson's 'positioning' during the Blue Jackets OT goal on Saturday. What the hell was he doing?), Dion Phaneuf is completely overstretched in terms of responsibilities and Cory Sarich is simply not good enough to be in a true shutdown role. Did anyone catch Sarich's impression of defence against Datsyuk?

The goaltending is an constant set of implosions. Kipprusoff is only playing as bad as his teammates, but unfortunately right now that is pretty bad. A lot of the goals he is letting in are not of a terrible calibre (although some are) but he is simply not making any big saves at all. I can't blame him for that OT winner on Saturday, but a year ago he probably would have made the save.

The Flames 4th and 3rd lines have become moderately better, but the second line has become utterly useless. I don't know whether Kristian Huselius' last couple seasons were flukes or Mike Keenan has killed his abilities (actually I am of course kidding, it's Keenan) but he is not handling the puck well or putting it inthe net.

Tanguay continues to play absolutely erratically, making a terrible play one minutes and an ok one the next.

There is only one real bright spot on the Flames, and it's the same bright spot the Flames had back in the 'Young Guns' days; Jarome Iginla. He continues to outperform the competition in every aspect and still keep a smile on his face during what I can only imagine to be painful interviews. I bet he feels like Mats Sundin, and no one wants to feel like Mats Sundin.

I have often thought that this team under Keenan would either win the Stanley Cup or miss the playoffs. I think that prediction still stands.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Calgary Flames - The Missing Piece?


MG has rightly spent a good part of this Flames season complaining about 3 key problems:

1. A top heavy forward lineup
2. An ugly group of overpaid veterans taking up spots on the bottom 6 from equally capable but cheaper youngsters
3. Craig Conroy's presence on the first line

Problem number one showed a slight sign of release about 2 weeks ago for the second edition of the Battle of Alberta. Owen Nolan, spurred on by linemates Matthew Lombardi and Eric Nystrom, scored a goal and also an assist. Lombardi had a goal and an assist. Nystrom had two assists.

From my vantage point the third line has been significantly less useless since this game. They haven't always been chipping in, but it seems like their assignments have gotten bigger and they've been getting scored on less. I wondered if this had something do with Eric Nystrom's callup, and if maybe his presence had given the third line that extra bit they needed. If in fact Nystrom was making a contribution to the team's success, it could affect the severity of problem 2. First of all, I'd like to mention my argument presupposes a number of things, one of them being that Nystrom generally plays on a line with Nolan and Lombardi. Sometimes that may not be true but basically looking up his timeonice numbers would have complicated the subject more than I believed it needed to be.

Anyway, here is a selection of his behindthenet.ca numbers:

Firstly, Nystrom is playing a pretty high level of competition 5-5. Desjardins has him playing a QOC of 0.04, good enough to be tied for 4th on the team with Robyn Regehr and Cory Sarich. To put it in perspective, Phaneuf is playing 0.03 and Aucoin 0.02. In other words, it seems like Nystrom is playing the second toughest competition in Calgary's lineup, with Conroy, Iginla and Tanguay playing the toughest.

Next, his GFON/60 is 2.02 while his GAON/60 1.61, which tells us that over a course of 60 minutes, the Flames tend to outscore the opposition when Nystrom is on the ice. While we find the Flames score more goals when Nystrom is off the ice (GFOFF/60 2.15), they also let the opposition score a lot more, his GAOFF/60 being 2.27. Not bad for a guy playing quality competition.

I wish I could have tracked the Desjardins numbers for Nystrom's linemates before and after he started playing, but I can keep track of their points. Before that game against the Oilers, Nolan had 1G and 3A with a -1. Since that game, Nolan has 3G, 1A and is a +2. Lombardi had 5G, 6A and was a plus 5. Since then Lombardi has gotten 2G, 3A and is a plus 4. Nystrom, for his part, has 0G and 3A +3 since that game. His totals are 1G 3A +/-0.

I guess looking at the raw numbers, the results are a little uneven. Lombardi's totals seemed to have slowed over this period, Nolan's have stayed steady, while we're working of a really small sample for Nystrom. The true positive is that all three have been positives for the team over the last 6 games, despite the Flames only going .500. While the team as a whole has been all over the map, this line has been pretty consistent.

Of course, I'm not really taking into account special teams performance, but I think if you can get your third line playing strong 5-5 hockey, that's at least a start. So I think the Flames can officially say they've made strides in correcting a couple of the problems that MG has been harping on for a while.

I believe the third problem MG has identified is slightly more complicated than the first. Firstly, I agree wholeheartedly that Conroy is not a first line hockey player. He's lost any finish he ever had, he's not playing physically, and all in all he's just not doing a lot of good out there. MG has suggested Matthew Lombardi take his spot on the first line, and Conroy replace Lombardi on the third. Firstly, we have to ask a couple of questions as to the effect this would have.

Would the first line become better?
It's undoubtedly true that the first line would be a better group with Conroy gone. However, even though Matthew Lombardi is eating up the competition, I feel his numbers are inflated because the level of competition he's been playing has been pretty low. Lombardi's QOC is -0.05, while Conroy's has been +0.09.

Would the third line become better?
Unlikely. While Matthew Lombardi is eating up his competition and using his speed and finish to put the puck in the net, Conroy has none of the above. Although his counting numbers have been terrible, his line as at least been keeping afloat. Put him with Nolan and Nystrom and the third line is unlikely to be very useful at anything. However, there is always the chance that lesser quality of linemates could be counterbalanced by the lesser competition and Conroy brings the 'A' game.

Will the better first line make up for the worse third line?
I think this is the most important question - will the increased GF/GA of the newly minted first line make up for the worse GF/GA of the third line? I don't know. I believe MG will tell you he believes the team will be better as a whole with this change. I'm not convinced - no matter how you rearrange a puzzle it's not going to be complete unless you have the right pieces - shuffling around the wrong pieces doesn't help.

I will say I'm up for the experiment though simply because I don't think there's much of anything to lose.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Calgary Flames vs. Chicago Blackhawks - Jonathan Toews

I've been given the opportunity to observe the Chicago Blackhawks in person through both their Alberta NHL contests so I thought I would do something a little different than I usually do.

As regular readers of my blog (fictional?) know, I am a big Jonathan Toews fan. He's impressed me not just with his sublime skill (check out this clip for evidence) but also his commitment to sound positional play. For instance, not only was Toews employed multiple times in the same shootout to beat Team USA in the World Junior Championship, he was employed in the final game in more of a shutdown role. He seems to be adapting to the NHL quite well, so I wanted to see a game through the eyes of Jonathan Toews. To that end, as I watched the game I kept a running journal of significant plays made by on a shift per shift basis. I missed his first couple shifts in the game as well as his last shift in the second period, but here is my general record from a live vantage point.

1st Period
13:26-12:36 - Toews beats a Flame to the puck in corner of the offensive zone (OZ), centering a pass out to the opposite side defenceman on the point who decides against pinching and therefore receiving the pass

PK
11:14-10:30 - Toews wins defensive zone (DZ) draw and later on in the play clears the puck

7:03-6:17 - Toews wins draw (DZ) and later on in the shift gets a shot on in a broken play which produces a huge rebound

4:50-4:11 - Toews steals the puck from a Flame and has it stripped of him almost immediately, later on he sends a breakout pass to a streaking Hawk but it's a bit behind the play.

2nd period
PK
16:00 - 15:11 - Toews wins another DZ draw, later on he strips a Flame of the puck and clears it

13:41-12:54 - Toews loses a DZ faceoff

10:15-9:34 - Toews completes a couple of nice neutral zone passes and is effective on the forecheck

PK
8:04 - 7:06 - As Toews is covering the point Jarome Iginla becomes wide open in the slot, scoring Calgary's only goal of the game. Later on Toews has a breakout pass intercepted.

4:05-3:30 - Toews digs the puck out of the DZ corner and clears it
3rd Period
20:00-19:30 Toews clears a near miss at the side of the Hawks net. Later on in the play the puck is passed back to Adrian Aucoin on the point who promptly misjudges the pinch decision, allowing Patrick Sharp to test his 1-1 skill with Miikka Kipprusoff. Sharpe wins.

17:00-16:15 - Toews attempts to create an offensive rush with the puck, but he is easily handled at the blueline by the Flame defender

14:20-13:52 - Toews makes a nice takeaway and dumps the puck in the Flames zone before changing

12:15-11:50 - nothing significant

9:50-9:14 - Toews rushes with the puck, makes a fake dump in, steps around a Flame defender and ends up with the puck in the corner. It is later taken away from him.

7:20 -? Loses DZ draw

5:56 - 4:50 - Toews loses the puck behind the Flames net leading to a clear by the Flames

4:00 - misses DZ check high leading to a Flames scoring chance

3:11 - DZ draw win leading to a clear and an ice by the Hawks

3:00 Toews loses the defensive zone draw leading to a couple more Flames chances

2:00-1:20 - Toews' last shift. He dumps the puck into the OZ corner and then misses a pass. Later on he loses the puck in the neutral zone.

END OF GAME

So nothing spectacular from the kid but some solid smart plays and some important faceoff wins. From the naked eye it looked like Toews (and his linemates Tuomo Ruutu and Patrick Kane) drew Regehr and Sarich, while Vic Ferrari's Time on Ice shift chart confirms it (at least on even strength). Up front it looks like Matthew Lombardi, Owen Nolan and Eric Nystrom were given the task of competing with Chicago's top line, and I have to say, they did a pretty good job. Toews and Kane were neutralized for the whole game, I would say one mediocre scoring chance.

The Flames once again got beaten by a team with lesser names playing smarter hockey. I think that's all I'm going to say about that for now.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Underperforming - Jarret Stoll


Before the 2006 playoffs began, and before everyone had counted out the Edmonton Oilers in their series vs the Detroit Red Wings, I entered a playoff pool. Against all conventional logic I picked 3 Edmonton Oilers, starting with Chris Pronger, but ending in Jarret Stoll. He was coming off a 22 goal 68 point season, but most of all I felt that Jarrett Stoll was a true hard nose player who would thrive in tough situations. I believed the playoffs would be Jarret Stoll's time to shine. He scored a couple of game winning goals including a beauty double OT winner versus Detroit. I feel he proved me right.

His strong play continued into last season. In 51 games he had 13 goals, 26 assists and by all accounts he was really starting to play well. Desjardin's on ice/off ice +/- (click here for the explanation of on ice off ice +/- ratings) had Stoll +/- rating of +.94 which was good enough for 100th in the NHL and 3rd on the Oilers (behind Tjarnqvist and Smyth) until he was concussed a couple times in a couple games and Stoll's season was prematurely ended. His quality of opponent (QOO) was +0.07.

I thought Stoll looked good in his pre-season matchup against the Flames at the Saddledome, but he just hasn't been the same player this season.

He is currently a -9 (excluding tonight's matchup) and he had 1 goal until his 2 goal effort in Minnesota the other night. Including the goals against Minnesota, Stoll is not even on pace to ice his shortened goal output of last year. But it's not just about the goals Jarret Stoll is not scoring. His defensive presence, originally the strongest part of his game, has disappeared.

Desjardins has his current on ice/off ice +/- rating at -2.09 (QOO -0.04) which is good enough for 22nd on the team. 22nd! Not only is his on ice/off ice much worse than last season, he's playing against lesser opponents.

There's little doubt that Stoll's concussion has at least some part in his severe drop off in play. Whether he is still experiencing minor symptoms (doubtful) or has lost his confidence (maybe) or just lost his timing (likely).

If it's post concussion symptoms then the Oilers and Stoll are flat out screwed.

If it's a confidence issue, then I can't imagine there is better medicine than his inspired (if not flukey) effort versus Minnesota.

If it's timing, then patience is the key. I have no reason to think that given time Stoll won't get it back. Right now that appears that it is coming along. His play is starting to normalize, and as of this instant, his checking line (including Torres and Stortini???) has kept the Sedins off the scoreboard.

I think the fact MacTavish has blatantly simplified Stoll's game could be helpful. I like David Staples assertion that "He needs to walk before he can run, hit again before he can truly dangle. He needs to get his confidence back by doing a simple task that he is capable of doing -- checking. Otherwise, he hurts his team."

I personally believe Stoll will find his game, but the Oilers, and especially fans, need to be patient with him. After all, I don't think they've got much to lose, he certainly can't play much worse.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

What The Hell Is Going On With Dan Ryder? Seriously.

Came across this Fanhouse post about the mysterious disappearance of Dan Ryder today. MG has already had at least one post about this and I have just let it go until now, but has anyone considered Ryder and Walz eloped together?

Though I will say, maybe this whole event has something to do with Micheal Ryder's less than stellar start to his season.

This is a strange hockey season, I wouldn't recommend any post SCF fishing trips.

Underperforming - Steve Staios


The Edmonton Oilers went into the season on a hope and a prayer and 20 odd games in the results have not been suprising. The horrid end to last season is slowly but surely creeping into this season and the Oilers are looking more and more like a lottery team every week. Despite the bright play of several youngsters (Cogliano, Gagne, Gilbert, Brodziak) some veterans (Horcoff, Hemsky...check out LT's post for more on EVP/60 numbers, Horcoff's blow me away), the Oilers are still bottom of the NW conference and are probably soon going to be bottom of the league.

The problem (besides lack of depth and top end talent) is that some of the veteran players the Oilers count on the most are having very sub par seasons. The tri fecta of suck (I'll continue with this in the coming week) begins with my man Steve Staios.

Now in my estimation Staios has historically been one of the Oilers most steady defenceman. He's never been capable of top line minutes but he's been that guy that you can count to make the smart play, handle his own defensively, and once in a while come up with a big offensive play, whether it be a nice pass or very rarely, a big goal. Either way, he could be counted on.

Last night's game versus the Flames included a classic example of what's going wrong with Steve Staios this year. He makes an awesome play to get a low hard shot on Miikka Kipprusoff, as a result of the scramble and rebound Kyle Brodziak gets a spectacular chance to score, however, Kipper gets the paddle out and makes an equally spectacular save. The puck comes out to Staios' point.

Here Staios has a decision to make; he can either accept the fact the offensive chance is over, back off and cover the advancing Flames player, or he can try pinch the puck and keep the play alive. Staios chooses the latter and loses the puck battle. He puts a hard check on the Flames player, but it's pointless - Matthew Lombardi and Owen Nolan are on a 2-1 against Smid and they put it away. That's a TSN turning point if I've ever seen one.

Now in Staios' defence, I think he looked over to the opposite side and saw Owen Nolan streaking, but also saw Kyle Brodziak streaking behind him. That's a speed race Brodziak wins 9/10 times, at least I bet that's what Staios was thinking.

There was an article in the Herald today by Jean Lefebvre about Steve Staios where Staios discussed his mentoring role with Ladislav Smid, but he mentioned how he struggled with balancing his leadership role, helping his young cohorts prep for their games while still preparing himself.

Now, I don't think the problem is that Staios is playing too tough a minutes. According to behindthenet.ca he's mid pack in the Oilers defensive depth chart in terms of minute toughness. (from toughest to softest - Grebeshkov (who is actually getting statistically eaten alive), Gilbert, Smid, Rourke, Tarnstrom/Staios, Greene, Souray and Pitkanen). Maybe it's the fact MacTavish has showed such little confidence in a guy that has been so good for the Oilers for so long that has Staios' confidence a little thin, maybe he's trying to do too much.

I don't know specifically what the problem is, I just know he can and needs to be better if the Oilers are to have any success.

Behindthenet.ca QOC numbers/rankings in bold on the below table.

DENISGREBESHKOVDEDM371514.0630.64-1.32 0.11
TOMGILBERTDEDM772016.4628.69 1.07 0.07
LADISLAVSMIDDEDM51115.8528.48 1.04 0.02
ALLANROURKEDEDM524 9.6933.72-1.10 0.01
DICKTARNSTROMDEDM231715.5729.62 0.96-0.05
STEVESTAIOSDEDM242017.2327.93 0.27-0.05
MATTGREENEDEDM21313.1333.01-1.48-0.08
SHELDONSOURAYDEDM44616.1630.09-1.52-0.08
JONIPITKANENDEDM25817.0828.62-1.14-0.14

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Nothing in Particular + Ladislav Smid or Sheldon Souray

It's status quo in Albertaville today so just a couple news stories I wouldn't mind touching on:

Best Hall of Fame Year Ever?
Two Battle of Alberta stars were inducted into the Hall of Fame yesterday, as Mark Messier and Al MacInnis were joined by Scott Stevens and Ron Francis. How good is this Hall of Fame bunch? So good that the 2nd all time assists in a season (6th all time) and 12th overall, 15th overall in regular season points, and he hasn't even been mentioned. Not to mention this guy.

Jarome Iginla is truly a great hockey player, but when asked I've always said Al MacInnis was the Flames best ever. He's 31st all time in regular season points (holy shit that's unreal) but he was the best Flame when it mattered the most; the spring of 1989.


Eric Lindros in the Hall of Fame?
Look, the precedent has been set that longevity is not a necessity for HOF inclusion. Mike Bossy, Bobby Orr, Ken Dryden, Cam Neely... If Lindros had quit at the height of himself, there would be no questions asked; give him credit, he gave it everything he had, probably much more than any reasonable person would have.


I think a lot of people have forgotten just how good Eric Lindros was - for those who forget, go back and watch the old Rock 'em Sock 'ems - you'll be shocked at how good he was because I bet your memory of him (like my own until I watched the tapes) was distorted by how his career ended. Even Bobby Clarke thinks this guy should make the Hall.

You say the guy never won anything? 1 Canada Cup, 1 Olympic Silver, 1 Olympic Gold and two World Junior Golds. Not to mention the Hart and Lester B. Pearson.

Enough said.

Flames Fan Turns 100
Alice Mcgowan was at the Dome Saturday, catching a game for her 100th birthday. Seriously, this woman is awesome. On the news tonight she was questioning Keenan's ability to relate to the players, and also mentioning the Flames looked better against Minnesota because they were shooting LESS. A woman who appreciates a puck control style offense...is she taken??

Ladislav Smid is a Better Defenceman than Sheldon Souray
Firstly, we're going to be working with a small sample here, so my conclusion may be questionable, but hang with me.

5-5
We'll start with 5-5 quality of opponent, which according to 'behindthenet.ca' (which I admit I don't fully trust), Ladislav Smid has been playing against a higher quality opponent than Sheldon Souray. Smid's GA/60 is 3.26 with a GF/60 3.73, while Souray is 3.09 GA/60 and has a GF/60 1.24. I think that speaks for itself. Moving on, Smid has played 8 games and is a +1, while Souray played 6 games and is a -3.

We also have to take into account penalties, which I think we can all agree, lead to goals against. Smid has 2 minutes worth of penalties, while Souray has 9 minutes. Do the math for penalties/60.

4-5
Smid's GA/60 is actually only 2.06, better than his 5-5 average. Not to mention he on average plays more PK minutes than any other Oiler per game at 3:47. Souray's GA/60 is 6.06, even though he only played 3:25 of PK time per game. Neither have been on for a SHGF.

5-4
Souray's GF/60 is 2.14 while Smid's is 0.00. Smid happens to average only 39 seconds of TOI/G on the PP while Souray lead all Oilers with almost 5:00 minutes per game, at 4:52. I haven't sorted Quality of Teamates while on the PP, but I'm willing to put money Souray's was higher.

To conclude, I sort of felt that when Souray went out and Smid came in the Oilers defence actually had an opportunity to improve. I believe these statistics prove me at least partially right, and I challenge other Oilblogosphere sites to compare some of the other 'fill-in' guys versus Souray. I wonder if we can justify giving Tom Gilbert Souray's 5-5 minutes at the very least.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

A War of Ineptitude




Going into tonight's edition of the Battle of Alberta, both the Flames and the Oilers are on 4 game losing streaks, but each team is on their losing streak for their own specific reasons.

The Oilers are a team lacking in high end talent and depth. They have an injury decimated defensive group and have had a couple of key veterans (Moreau, arguably Pisani) missing since the beginning of the season; what this adds up to is essentially the Springfield Falcons plus a couple of diamonds.

Now, honestly, I don't find watching the Oilers particularly frustrating. My expectation for every game is a massive loss, and oftentimes the Oilers make it at least close. If anything the Oilers are throwing fans some heartbreakers.

They have a few bright spots which have been mentioned by pretty much everyone in the Oilblogosphere, but a quick rundown:

1. The youngins - Sam Gagne has expectedly dropped off in terms of production but certainly Andrew Cogliano looks consistently good. The real diamond for me is Tom Gilbert who continues to impress by doing the little things right.

2. Sean Horcoff and Raffi Torres - Sean Horcoff continues to be a very good 2 way guy, and Raffi Torres, while not producing as much as some would want, has shown more consistency than ever before.

The Flames are losing because they can't pull their shit together in virtually any area of the game. The Flames PK is a mess, their defensive zone coverage is absolutely horrendous, their best defenceman is playing like an AHLer, and they seem to be doing everything in their power to sabotage their own efforts. In terms of top end talent the Flames are stacked but their defensive group, while mainly healthy, is terrible from positions 4-6.

They are an unbelievably frustrating team to watch. There are too many times where I watch plays and I am shaking my head at the idiocy taking place on the ice. I expect mistakes from a rookie laden team like the Oilers, not a veteran team like the Calgary Flames.

If I were a betting man, I'd bet on the Flames. They still have the superior roster and who knows, once in a while they pull it together and play a good hockey game. But I suspect this game will not be won by a good team, it'll simply be won by the team that is the least terrible on the night, and for my money, that could be either one of them.

It might be an entertaining hockey game, but I doubt it will be very sophisticated.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Is This the Best Flames Team Since '89, or the Worst?

I sometimes cannot honestly tell whether to laugh or cry when I watch the Flames, although I did a bit of both watching them at the Saddledome Thursday night vs. the Red Wings.

Whenever I watch games I like to think about the storylines going into the game and it usually helps me decide how I'm going to approach this blog. MG did a nice piece about game strategy in terms of line matchups, and I had the idea of writing a column comparing this edition of the Flames to the team that won it all in 1989 (not trying to tempt fate or anything.) I was also considering examining my claim from last year that the time to win is now - it's possible the Iginla-Regehr-Kipprusoff extention has changed that and we're back to being patient again. But as the game wore on I realized I have to ask what the hell is going on with this team...again.

As I just mentioned, MG wanted to look at the matchups - in the end, I don't think it really mattered. For one, every goal against was with a unique defensive group. Sarich and Ericksson on for 1st goal against, Phaneuf and Aucoin for the second, Ericksson and Warrener on the third, and Sarich and Regehr for the fourth. While there was no clear statistical trend, a couple defenceman stood out for all the wrong reasons.

Anders Ericksson played simply terrible on just about every shift. His positioning and decision making are horrendous and he was definately the Flames worst defenceman. The real suprise was how bad Robyn Regehr looked brutal. His +1 rating belied the fact he was often out of position and more often than not made bad outlet passes or simply couldn't handle the puck at all - he was Tony Amonte on defence.

Now, MG posists that (based on Desjardin's numbers which I don't fully understand) Phanuef is doing a better job at suppressing opposition scoring than Regehr. This is potentially true, but I also think there is a question of opponent quality. While Phaneuf is playing more minutes, Regehr's minutes more closely mirror the minutes of top players on the opposition, leading me to believe Keenan is trying to match Regehr with the opposition's best. Phaneuf is getting softer minutes which allows him to play longer and take advantage of his offensive instincts.

Up front, I often wondered (aloud) if Owen Nolan would ever win a puck race. Sure he drew a couple penalties, but he always looks like he's at a standstill out there. This was a guy that played for Team Canada in 2002 (although on the worst line with Lindros and Smyth). Does Nolan even have a purpose when out on the ice? Is there a reason shouldn't just sit him?

Mike Babcock got outcoached by MacTavish in 2006, but I don't think he's been outcoached since. Because of this, I don't think the matchups mattered much - Detroit simply outthought the Flames throughout the whole game. This looked like the 2007 playoffs all over again, with Detroit simply shutting down passing lanes and using their forecheck to cause turnovers. It doesn't help that the Flames basically do not have a defenceman capable of moving the puck, but it was a weakness that was certainly glaring on Thursday. And while hapless Flames fans intoned their team to 'at least hit somebody' Detroit moved the puck too well to let that happen. Except for the first 7 or so minutes in the first and 5 minutes in the third, the Flames were severly outclassed. Sure the Flames had a couple bad breaks in terms of posts or bounces, but this game was an illustration of the lack of consistency in the Flames game.

Is this the best Flames team since 89? Maybe on paper, but that's about it.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Calgary Flames vs Colorado Avalanche Post Game Report

Watching the Flames play the Colorado Avalanche last night I have to admit; I was a little impressed.

After seeing this team sleepwalk through many nights, the Flames actually looked like a contender- for about 55 minutes.

OK, so Tanguay took a(nother) bad offensive zone penalty that forced the Flames to give one up, and sure, Dion Phaneuf chose a incredibly inopportune time to pinch in deep in overtime, but there were a lot of positives.

1: Improved PK
The penalty kill looked better than I've seen it in years. A steady forecheck, combined with better defensive zone positioning forced the Avs into bad passes and an ineffective powerplay for most of the night. As mentioned, the Flames gave up the tying goal on a with about 5 minutes left in the game, but it was scored as the PK expired. Every PK is going to give up some goals - but the Flames really eliminated a lot of chances.

2: Decreased Opposition Chances
Despite Sarich and Regehr both being a -2 (the only problem with killing off that penalty is that it artificially deflated their plus minus for the night) I thought they played a very good game. Sarich in particular made multiple excellent defensive plays, cutting off passes through the slot and laying some nice hits. It made me not regret his signing with the team.

3: Increased Offensive Chances
I could not understand why Theodore got the start ('he beat us last game' was one fan's explanation when I asked about the logic, 'ya,' I replied, 'that 4.00 GAA that night had to impress the coaches...') but Theodore stole the game because in all truthfulness, the Flames had multiple quality scoring opportunities on a very consistent basis. A quick whistle and some bad luck is the only thing that separated the Flames from a couple more goals last night, and sometimes that happens.

Really, 3 mistakes sunk this game for Calgary:

1. Tanguay takes yet another bad offensive zone penalty. High sticks a guy in the throat and then complains as if it's a bad call. Not quite Alex...

2. Dion makes a bad pinch; When Sakic and Smyth are on the ice, you need to know where they are- and they shouldn't be behind you.

3. Aucoin can't play a 2-1. Granted there was another mistake that caused it, but Aucoin needed to either; (a) force the pass to Smyth (b) force Sakic to shoot by cutting off the pass to Smyth. He did neither.


As an aside, it was nice to hit the Dome again last night, as it always is; some sights and sounds from the game:

20,000 people booing Mick McGeough

Two guys behind me booing Smytty all night, calling him a crybaby etc., only to have him score the OT winner

Me wearing my beauty Team Canada Smyth jersey, the fan behind me joking, why'd you wear a Yannick Perrault jersey?

Recalling last year's Oiler/Mick McGeough incident when Ryan Smyth told him 'you're wrong Mick,' and tapped McGeough with his stick because Smyth talked to him in the same sort of fashion during a TV timeout, the conversation ending with another stick tap.

Charlie Simmer picking Flames players 1 and 2 in the 3 stars and Joe Sakic 3rd, despite the Flames losing

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Oilers 5 Man Units

As per this post I promised to come up with some potentially successful Oilers line combos (MacT is a fan of mixing it up, so why not?) Here I suggest pairing the tough minutes guys on offence/defence together, the soft minutes guys together etc. Obviously it'll work better at home than away, but is there really anything to lose? Here's the diagram:At least hope is completely snuffed out right away and we don't have to drag on the painful death...

Luck or Perseverance

The Flames played yet another game I was unable to watch last night, which perhaps makes me unqualified to comment on it, but I will anyway because I'm accountable to no one. And besides, I've admitted it so technically I'm not doing anything wrong.

I was...disheartened, to say the least, when I found out the Flames were down 0-3 last night. It made me wonder; Did we look good on Saturday because the team is coming together, or because the Flames played the Oilers who to no ones suprise are completely hapless. I thought I had my answer when the Minnesota Wild, the misers of the hockey world (both in GF and GA) had an early 3 goal lead.

And Kipper was booed to boot.

But Iginla and Co. (officially Tanguay and Langkow on this night) took over. That's the thing about this group, the part of this team that has kept the Flames-blog-o-sphere so interested and given us our (so far) false hope. This team, regardless of it's weak coaching and poor defensive group (at least the bottom half) have so much fire power that it has the potential to win any game.

The fact that Minnesota hadn't lost in regulation yet this year (or lost ever when leading by 3 goals according to MG). The Wild had the Flames in perfect position, this should have been a walkover.

Now, don't get me wrong - I'm not sold. The Flames teased us all last year with this sort of play - greatness one day, embaressment the next. And hell, even though the Flames were the first team to beat the Wild after trailing by 3, my position on streaks is that they're all due to be broken eventually. A team has won 31 in a row, it just seems more likely they'll lose that 32nd game. And even though Kipper wasn't stellar, it helped that Niklas Backstrom was probably worse.

But I'll say this about the team - they're keeping me intrigued.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Dustin Penner Sure Does Suck


I’m going to preface this by saying last night’s edition of the Battle of Alberta was actually pretty good through the first two periods (and I didn’t get to see the 3rd). Edmonton looked pretty good even though they were mostly in the game thanks to the Flames taking bad (but legitimate) penalties. At 1-1 an Oiler fan watching with me said ‘at least the Oilers are in the game,’ and I replied, wait till it’s even strength. I think the minute the Flames killed that PK the game turned and Langkow and Iginla took over.

Huselius continues to be the most sublime Flames player since Theoren Fleury and Mike Keenan has yet to trade him. The Flames are 4-3 and quite honestly look better than this time last year. At this time of the year though it’s still the Oilers who are the more intriguing story.

Sam Gagner’s time with the club this season could be running out, but he has probably done just about everything to stick. He’s been a good player on a bad club who are running out of options. His first goal last night was the result of good position and some hard stretching by Sean Horcoff. Hell, even Matt Greene made a nice play (and had a good hit on Kristian Huselius in the game as well, a guy who is elusive to the best of defenceman).

Cogliano had a couple more good chances, and I thought he looked good with Hemsky (who really needs to bring his A game sooner rather than later).

There is one question that keeps running through my mind though; Why does Dustin Penner suck so bad?

Or perhaps more specifically, why did Kevin Lowe believe he could play the tough minutes and succeed?

Here is a guy who by all accounts cannot skate very well, cannot handle the puck very well, and who has very average instincts. He is downright bad at the transition game and is not great at finding open ice in the offensive zone.

I suppose there is no real answer to this question besides Lowe was desperate to keep his job and running out of options. I guess the plan worked for Lowe anyway.

MacTavish made some comments at the beginning of the year about possibly playing Horcoff on a shutdown line rather than on the top line, but so far I see little evidence of that idea being put into action. I haven’t been specifically keeping track of Horcoff’s opponents, but last night he was playing with Sam Gagner, and there is no way Gagner is on any type of shutdown line.

Right now the Oilers don’t look terrible, they really don’t but they aren’t finding ways to win. I think MacT’s time (rightly or wrongly) is running out and it’s time to play with some ideas.
What about 5 man units, stabilize the team a bit and give the guys out their some chemistry and a definitive role.

I’ll examine possible units next time.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Lies We Tell Ourselves

There has always been a debate among NHL observes about which division(s) in hockey are the strongest and which are the weakest. I myself have personally espoused the view that much of the eastern conference's recent success in Stanley Cup Finals (past year excluded) is that the eastern based teams tend to have an easier road to the final and are therefore more rested and are more likely to win. But the last couple of years I have heard many sportscasters (and fans alike) claim that 'the NW division may be the best division in hockey.' I would like to take a look at the current veracity of this claim.

Let's start with the best team in this division. Who is it?

That's the point, there's certainly no obvious answer. Right now we'll start with Minnesota simply because they're in first place right now.

How well has the Wild done over the past 5 years? Jacques Lemaire has unquestionably done a great job with the team he has - but historically speaking, that's the best that could be said about the Wild. One post season loss in the Western Conference Quarter Finals is as close as they've ever got. Last year they lost in 5 games to the Mighty Ducks in the Division Quarters, and the two years in between they didn't even make the playoffs.

The Wild have consistently been a good but not great team (as if memory serves me had a similar start to their season last year) and they have a lot of good but not great players. Gaborik traditionally spends long portions of the season hurt and the Wild spend a large portion of the season scoring 2 goals or less. Being consistently difficult to play against does not mean the Wild are a top tier team. Not enough has changed this season to convince me the Wild are a top tier team, yet they are still arguably the best in the division.

The Canucks are arguably next (or at least equal) to the Wild. Roberto Luongo consistently gives the Canucks a chance to win. The Sedin twins have already come what Brian Burke imagined when he drafted them and their defensive group is steady if not impressive. Fill that out with a very good coach (or at least a smart one) in Alain Vigneault and the Canucks are a pretty good team. Their offense is shallow but they have enough guys to play tough minutes it's not a deal breaker - until you play teams who don't have that problem - Carolina, Anaheim, Detroit, etc. Again, I don't think many people would argue with me and say Vancouver is a top team. In my opinion, Vancouver and Minnesota suffer from the same flaw - good but not great.

This brings us to Colorado - great offensive team; Sakic, Hejduk, Statsney, Smyth, Wolksi, Svatos, Brunette etc. Their defensive group is alright - Hannan, Leopold, Liles, - again, it's a good group although not overwhelmingly great. But their goaltending is questionable at best. Jose Theodore has been Mr. Implosion since the lockout, and Peter Budaj is simply inexperienced. They've got a 3.00GAA this season (including tonight's come from behinder versus the Flames) and besides tonight are either blowing away the weaker teams (5-1 over Columbus) or getting smoked out themselves (4-1 loss vs the Blues and 4-0 loss vs the Predators). The Avs may suprise a few people, but their team seems very young and inconsistent, again, not what I would call a top tier team.

The Flames are a whole enigma unto themselves. Great offensive group (although weaker 3rd and 4th lines) and geat goaltending. A terribly inconsistent defensive group and terribly inconsistent efforts. Witness tonight's game vs. the Avalanche. The Flames blow a 4-0 lead and lose in the shootout. The follow up 3 straight opening losses with a win over Dallas and then blow out the Predators. Who knows what is going on with this team.

As for the Oilers...well they just aren't a good team anymore. They're gonna make other teams work for it most nights, but lets face it, there isn't any particular reason to rank them above the Chicagos, Columbus' etc anymore.

I would say the top of our division, the Canucks or Wild are comparable to say, Dallas, who has both Anaheim and San Jose in their division who are arguably better. I sure as hell wouldn't want to play in the Atlantic conference. You have Brent Sutter and Martin Brodeur in NJ, Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal in Pittsburgh, Jagr, Gomez, Drury and Lundqvist in NY, Briere Gagne and co. in Philadelphia and finally, the Islanders...well ok they're no good but at worst they're comparable to Edmonton and at best comparable to the best in the NW.

Let's face facts, fans of NW division teams telling themselves it's ok they're team is doing poorly because they play in the toughest (or at least a tough) division no longer cuts it. The NW division is not what it used to be.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Raffi Torres


Possibly the most inconsistent Oiler on the ice game in and game out. Has a terrific shot and can score at key times (see WCQF Edmonton vs. San Jose Game 3). Is the best hitter on the Oilers and one of the best in the NHL, when he does it, but is not consistently physical enough. Sometimes has shifts where he plays like a chicken with his head cut off.

Reports are that Raffi dropped most of his bad off ice habits and friends to focus on training and winning. Needs to be a better even strength player for the Oilers this season if the team is to have any success, but I also believe he should get more PP time. Is lucky enough to often shotgun for Jarret Stoll and is one of many ex World Jr. Championship alumni on the team.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

New Season, Same Result

So we're two games into the Calgary Flames 2007-2008 season and I feel like I've seen it all before. Don't get me wrong; last night's game vs the Canucks was wildly entertaining, and there were in fact some positives.

Cory Sarich's play was much improved. Sarich looked lost against the Philadelphia Flyers (especially on the PK where he positioned himself below the goal line to stop a player who was above the goal line.) Against the Canucks Sarich made a simple but nice play for the Flames first goal, was physical and just overall made better decisions. He finished the game with a goal, +1 and was second only to Dion Phaneuf in ice time.

Robyn Regehr inexplicably played only about 20 minutes to Dion's 28 minutes. Dion played awesome and after the game remarked to the Fan 960 that (referring to the penalty he took in OT) it was 'a bad time to take a penalty.' In my opinion the problem may have been that Phaneuf played about 4 minutes in OT - he could have been a bit fatigued.

Aucoin was off and on and a seatmate remarked that Aucoin was 'like a box of chocolates.' Fill in the rest yourself but I think an astute comment.

The penalty kill still doesn't look good. This is a problem that has plagued the team for the better part of a season - the Flames play a passive collapsing box that refuses to assign coverage to the slot. So not only are points constantly able to push towards the net, rebounds are in general unrecoverable and passes through the slot are unimpeded.

The most distressing issue that continues to plague the Flames (besides the rookie glass ceiling which MG has been appropriately vocal about) is that we are continuing to find ways to lose. Calgary looked awful initially against Philadelphia but eventually pulled it together..until a Zyuzinesque play happened and the Flames found a way to lose again. The Flames looked great initially against the Canucks - the Flames dominated physically, carried the play and even grabbed the league. A lackadaisacal 2nd period put the Flames behind the gun again and after clawing their way back into the game in the third, and then tapdancing over the Canucks in OT, they made one mistake and instantly fell apart.

The Flames were one faceoff win/ice away from bringing the Canucks to OT. But they once again found a way to lose.

I will say though, it's been (and is going to be) entertaining.