Sunday, March 30, 2008

Battle of Alberta Postgame - The Solid Time of Change

Down at the end, round by the corner.
Close to the edge, just by a river.
Seasons will pass you by.
I get up, I get down.

Once again I'm stealing a page off of Lowetide by introducing my topic with lyrics from a song, but I think that passage from Yes' album 'Close to the Edge' gives a little insight into both last night's game and this season in general for both the Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers.

If there's one thing this season has done, it has brought the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, and yes, I get up, I get down.

For the Flames, I think this season has represented a step backwards. I don't think anyone can really argue this edition of the Flames is significantly better in any way than last year. I totally missed the boat when I predicted the end of the season for Edmonton, but I think I hit the nail right on the head when I predicted the end of the season for Calgary. They've been incredibly inconsistent, marking great games followed by brutal games, and brutal periods followed by absolutely fantastic periods (last Tuesday's game versus the Canucks in particular). Dion Phaneuf, Jarome Iginla, Robyn Regehr, Miikka Kipprusoff and Owen Nolan have played great over this final stretch. Phaneuf and Nolan in particular have been great in my eyes.

But this team just can't seem to be consistent. I've come to the same conclusion as Duncan, and MG; the Flames just aren't that good.

At the beginning of the season, a lot of fingers were pointed at Miikka Kipprusoff, and probably for good reason. But if you follow MG's blog at all, you can see his tracking of Miikka's SV%, and it has steadily improved, so I don't think you can point to that and claim that's why the Flames have been so average. I'm not sure you can even point to the top heavy leanings of this team, as Keenan barely even plays the 4th line most nights.

I don't know the reason, but the Flames just aren't that good.

Now, at the beginning of the year, if you'd have told me the Flames and Oilers would have an equal number of wins with only a handful of games remaining at the end of the year, I'd have called you an asshole and an idiot. (Why an asshole? Because I'm just that sort of person...). If you'd have told me they have done it while Stoll took two step backwards, Horcoff missed almost the entire second half of the season and Souray and Greene were replaced by Smid and Grebeshkov, well, I would've really thought you were stupid.

But here we are, and the unthinkable has happened. Watching the game last night, I couldn't help but think that these two teams are far closer in ability than most Calgary Flames fans are willing to admit. There were of course stretches w (especially in the second) where the Flames dominated, and that post at the end was pretty unlucky, but when you think about it, if Dwayne Roloson doesn't catch a pick in the ice, the game is even more out of hand. The one goal Calgary scored happened at least partly, and I would say mainly because Dwayne Roloson fell. Ouch.

And while the Oilers' have Souray's bloated contract to deal with, the vast majority of the team right now is young and cheap. Watching Fernando Pisani compete night after night I am convinced he is not overpaid, and I expect a lot of players for the Oilers will continue to get better; As an Oiler fan friend of mine said to me yesterday, there are some fun times ahead.

I think a lot of the difference between these two team's philosophies has to do with draft procurement. When you look down Calgary's roster, there aren't a lot of guys the Flames drafted. Dustin Boyd was drafted by the Calgary Flames in the 3rd round (98th overall) in 2004, Matthew Lombardi was drafted by the Calgary Flames in the 3rd round (90th overall) in 2002, Eric Nystrom was drafted by the Calgary Flames in the 1st round (10th overall) in 2002, finally, Dion Phaneuf was drafted by the Calgary Flames in the 1st round (9th overall) in 2003. David Moss was drafted by Calgary in 2001.

Take a look then at Edmonton's roster:
Kyle Brodziak - Drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in the 7th round (214th overall) in 2003.
Andrew Cogliano - Drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in the 1st round (25th overall) in 2005.
Sam Gagner - Drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in the 1st round (6th overall) in 2007.
Ales Hemsky - Drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in the 1st round (13th overall) in 2001.
Fernando Pisani - Drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in the 8th round (195th overall) in 1996.
Marc Pouliot - Drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in the 1st round (22nd overall) in 2003.
Jarret Stoll - Drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in the 2nd round (36th overall) in 2002.
Zach Stortini - Drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in the 3rd round (94th overall) in 2003.
Shawn Horcoff - Drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in the 4th round (99th overall) in 1998.
Matt Greene - Drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in the 2nd round (44th overall) in 2002.

To be fair, the Flames have identified a couple of other teams' draft picks early on; Jarome Iginla and Robyn Regehr were acquired before they had played a single NHL game. And part of the reason the Oilers have so many home grown picks playing on the roster is out of necessity.

When you look at home runs, Calgary arguably has the biggest, but Edmonton has scored a lot of triples (Hemsky, Horcoff), doubles (Pisani, Stoll), singles (Greene, Stortini) and a few guys that were lead offs and are still rounding the bases (Cogliano, Gagner, Brodziak). Calgary on the other hand has a one double who's near a triple (Lombardi), a single (Moss) and a couple guys who are still rounding the bases but are looking to be about a single (Moss) and hopefully a double (Boyd).

This is not to say that I don't appreciate what the Flames draft picks bring to the table, but I just think the Oilers have done an overall better job.

The playoffs are nigh, and I think we can pretty much count the Oilers out and the Flames in. However, I can't help but feel this season has passed the Flames by, while the Oilers have exceeded expectations.

I get up, I get down...

Thursday, March 20, 2008

No Touch Icing

Thanks to yet another near death incident involving an icing, the debate between touch and no touch icing has apparently resurfaced.

I won't go into the incident in detail because you can read what happened from practically every mainstream hockey media outlet. There are two main arguments for no touch icing that are oft repeated:

1. Fans don't pay to see hockey games to watch footraces in mostly meaningless icing calls
2. There is a heightened chance of injury given the vulnerable position of the defenceman in these plays.

Now, personally, I take issue with the first argument. Hockey is all about footraces, and icing plays are no exceptions. Defenceman win the race (I would bet) near 95% of the time, but it's that 5% that's really exceptional. Beating off an icing call is usually the result of a singular individual effort, no different than a great pass or a great save. You show me someone who doesn't appreciate the significance of a play like that and I'll show you someone who isn't really that interested in the sport.

I will say though that the increased chance of injury makes me cringe. A play like the one Kurtis Foster encoutered a few days ago is horrible; one of the most famous is the one where Al MacInnis broke his leg. Having a man of Al MacInnis' stature condemning the touch icing system certainly gives one pause for thought.

Lots of hockey people will give the argument that hockey is a game where people get injured, and if you take away battles for the puck you're losing the essense of the game. I think though that this could be considered a special case, much like the fair catch rule in football. The level of vulnerability seems to be heightened due to a couple of factors: the speed at which both players are racing for the puck, and two, the angle at which the two players are approaching the puck. Players aren't lunging three steps and then pivoting like in zone races, it's 3/4 length of the ice surface, sometimes at top speed going straight at the boards. Come at the puck at an angle and you'll be accused of pulling up and worse, of being 'soft.'

Bob Mckenzie wrote about a proposed solution that is currently being implimented in the USHL and it's one I could definately get behind. It brings a lot of the best of both worlds, protecting the player but allowing a puck battle to happen.

This season the USHL introduced a hybrid form of no-touch icing. It works likes this:

On any potential icing, the linesman has to make a decision by the time the first player or players are crossing an imaginary line that runs across the rink and right through the end-zone faceoff dots and hash marks, or around 25 feet from the end boards.

If the defending player is the first to hit the dots or hash marks, the linesman immediately blows the whistle for automatic no-touch icing. The player does not have to even retrieve the puck.

If the defending player and the attacking player are in a dead heat or a little too close to call, the linesman blows the whistle for icing. The two players on a collision course can immediately let up for the automatic icing.

If, however, the attacking player has any degree of advantage on the defending player, the linesman doesn't blow the whistle and allows the puck chase and potential battle to continue. Linesmen are encouraged to use good judgment. In other words, if a defender is at the dot but totally flat-footed and the attacker is in full stride ready to blow by him, the defender shouldn't necessarily get the benefit of the doubt. Play on.

I think this is a nice solution, and I think something should be done. My only issue with this proposition is that it puts more judgement in the hands of the referees, and I would bet most fans would agree with me that the less decisions the referees have to make, the better.


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Hammer to Fall

What the hell we fighting for?
Just surrender and it won't hurt at all
You just got time to say your prayers
While your waiting for the hammer to hammer to fall

Now, I'm stealing my introductory statement from the LT style of writing, and I can only say that this imitation is simply the most sincerest form of flattery. However, watching the Oilers climb the standings and put on what can only be described as a unbelievable performance, I keep thinking back to Queen's lyrics.

Now, don't get me wrong, the Oilers have truly suprised me, and my end of season predictions have been a complete bust. By any measure made at the beginning of the season, I think I can classify this run as making this season a success and keeping it really entertaining, especially compared to last year's sucksplosion.

Still though, I just can't help but wait for the Hammer to Fall. I think this whole thing is just one big playoff dink tease, as CIO so succinctly put it.

Now, unbelievably, the path to the playoffs is actually within the Oiler's hands, their last 8 games are against divisional opponents. Running the table on even one of those teams might be enough to make the playoffs. Unfortunately the Oilers divisional record almost completely accounts for the current separation between the Oilers and the rest of the NW division playoff hopefuls. The Oilers' 9-13-2 divisional record pales in comparison to Colorado's division best 15-8-1. Every other opponent is at least 3 games over .500.

Now, the Oilers are probably most likely to tank these next 8 games, and if so, well, that's just life. This team shouldn't even be competing in the race, let alone challenging for a podium finish. This is like the Jamaican freakin bobsled team in 1988. But like LT has said, it seems like this team is too young or ignorant to realize they're supposed to lose.

Hey, at worst, this season ends up like the last 6-7 preceding it besides 05-06. Regular season suckage followed by a very late season playoff push that ends up just short or just past success. I think most smart fans would have been pretty satisfied if at the beginning of the season someone had offered them 8 games left in the season all against divisional opponents with a 5 pt playoff separation.

Not only that, but this season, and it's been harped on in most of the Oilogosphere, has had a lot of suprise positives. Sam Gagner has been far more effective this season than I would have ever expected, Andrew Cogliano has got more of a scoring touch than I ever would have given him credit for, Robert Nilsson is looking like a legitimate skill guy...holy crap there's a lot to look forward to.

I think if there's one thing the run should prove is MacT's coaching ability. MacT was the first one to admit that good goaltending makes you look like a good coach, he claimed that's why the Oilers beat the Wings in 06. I beg to differ, I believe a lot of times good coaching makes your goaltender look good (or at worst a good defensive structure). Look at the Toronto Maple Leafs and their goalie woes over the last few years: here's a hint guys, it aint the goalies, its the defence...then look at the goalie successes of the Minnesota Wild. It's not a suprise that goalies continuously flourish on some teams and continuously fail on others.

In this case, I think MacT has simply done a nice job with the cards he was dealt. This team had every reason to fold the cards, but a little trade by Lowe to get Gleneration X (the new Stempniak) and all of a sudden the Oilers have an alright pest/shutdown line, Nilsson and Gagner step it up, and MacT gets top notch efforts out of the rest of the guys.

Whether the hammer falls or not, it's really been quite the ride.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Trade Deadline: Losers

Pittsburgh Penguins

I think the Penguins went ahead and did everything I said would be a bad idea in terms of trade deadline strategy. The Penguins are a team that started the year very slowly but are now in a tight race for first in the Atlantic division. Even with Crosby out of the lineup, the team has seen a new leader step up in Evgeni Malkin.

Now, with 20 odd games left in the season, the Penguins are not only faced with the task of reinserting Sidney Crosby in the lineup and shuffling around 20-25 minutes of forward ice-time a night, they also need to shuffle around 20-25 minutes a night to slot in Hossa.

Now, obviously, this is the sort of 'problem' most GMs would love to have; too much talent. But I think it's legitimate. A good hockey team isn't an all star team, its a team with the right players to accomplish certain tasks. A good team also has good chemistry, and chemistry takes time.

To add to that, Hossa's rent a player price was far too high.

Colby Armstrong is a useful 3rd line (who, according to Pierre Maguire, had 'unbelievable chemistry' with Sidney Crosby, though I think a doorknob would have great chemistry with Crosby) player who can play with a physical edge, just ask Patrick Eaves.

Angelo Esposito is kind of a wild card; Esposito is undeniably talented but he's looking like a Robbie Schremp variety of player - lots of talent not a lot of heart.

But adding in the first rounder as well?

I wouldn't have given up all that for few games from Marian Hossa, a guy who isn't even considered a playoff performer.

Pascal Dupuis was part of the deal - he had a pretty nice season in Minnesota about 5-6 years ago when he scored 20 goals on a goal starved Wild team. He's a tenacious guy, stats wise probably comparable to Erik Christensen, so we'll call that a one off.

The only way this trade is a success is if the Pens make it to the conference finals. That is the litmus test.

3:11 pm, Tuesday February 26, 2008
Pit Acquire:
Marian Hossa, Pascal Dupuis
Atl Acquire:
Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, Angelo Esposito and a draft pick


Knowing how much it hurt just to watch that I can only imagine how much it actually hurt.