Few Surprises At The World Championships

It was mostly more of the same at the recently concluded 2017 World Championships held in France and Germany. For me, the biggest surprise concerned an individual, not a team. Henrik Lundqvist joined Sweden after his New York Rangers were eliminated and made a bit of a breakthrough for himself by defeating a favored Canadian team in the final 2-1. That’s the maddening thing about Lundqvist, probably the most frustrating and unpredictable goaltender in the NHL. He beats tough Montreal and then loses to lowly Ottawa. He can’t beat Gary Bettman’s hybrid teams, Europe and North America in last year’s World Cup. And now just as everyone is ready to write him off, he gets Sweden over the hump against a tough Canadian side.

The only other surprise was the disappointing showing of Slovakia, a “big 7″ hockey country that played on the same standard as the “B-level” countries. Their only victory was an overtime one against last ranked Italy. Slovakia could not even beat the other “B-level” countries it faced and finished 14th overall, narrowly missing demotion. This is a shocking finish for a country that has won the World Championship and provided most of the players for upstart Team Europe in last year’s World Cup.

But it is the same old thing that really is the story of the 2017 World Cup. Except for the bad play of Slovakia, the final 4 were a reshuffling of the “big 7″ countries. Russia defeated Finland who were trying to rebound from a bad World Cup for the bronze medal. The World Championships are composed of 16 countries, the kind of tournament that the revived World Cup should be aiming for. The tournament has the usual “traditional big 7″ countries and 9 others from the “B-level”.

There are so many “B-level” teams that they can’t help winning some games and making the second round. And there was the usual token upset game, this time by Switzerland defeating Canada. But as soon as the second round commenced, all “B-level” teams were swept out of the tournament as usual. In the 45 years since the Canada-USSR match of 1972, there has only been one single silver medal won by Switzerland in 2013. There have been no break throughs by the lesser countries to a permanent higher level in quality of play. There has been no growth of the “big 7″ to even a “big 8″ or better in 45 years. For the record Slovenia and Italy will be demoted to Division 1.

This is hardly a success for a sport whom Canadians were boasting that would become “the number 2 sport in the world behind soccer” immediately after the revolutionary success of the Canada-USSR match in 1972. All that has been done through the years is that the NHL hosts a few clinics abroad and some out-of-work coaches from all the “big 7″ countries seeking a new challenge go to a “B-level” or lower country and try to improve its prospects. It is not enough.

The only other surprise was not at this tournament, but at the Division 1 tournament held in Belfast, UK, and Kiev, Ukraine. Taking the place of Italy and Slovenia will be Austria, and (surprise, surprise) South Korea. I don’t know everything about the World Championships but next year may be the first time an Asian team other than Kazakhstan plays in the tournament. This might be South Korea’s World Championship debut.

But not only is this a momentous change, this is a direct slap in the face to Gary Bettman and the NHL who recently spurned playing in the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. Those who have an axe to grind against Bettman will certainly be cheering for the South Koreans next year, especially when they play Canada and the United States. Those creatures called “the hockey gods” (These mystical creatures, if they really exist have a perverted, ironic, and sometimes cruel sense of humor already on display in this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. They decreed a shocking loss by favorite Chicago in only four games and arranged for coaches Mike Yeo and Todd McLellan to eliminate their old teams, Minnesota and San Jose.), have stepped onto the World Championship stage with a vengeance. South Korea, dismissed by Bettman and the NHL could prove to be a real embarrassment for them.

But that is the only real thing to look forward to in 2018. Next year, I expect to see more of the same. Any real surprise would be some visionary appearing on the international stage with a real plan to improve the quality of hockey after 45 years of stagnation. Meanwhile congratulations to Sweden, Lundqvist, Austria and South Korea. They are the only notable things to comment on in this year’s tournament.

2016-17 NHL Stanley Cup Final Prediction

The third NHL playoff round has now come and gone, concluding with a classic double overtime playoff game between the Stanley Cup champions and over-achieving, heavily underdog Ottawa. I had a 50% winning percentage this time, being wrong about Anaheim and just narrowly missing going 0-2 thanks to Ottawa’s gritty play. So my record is now 11-3. I usually start off writing about teams and players who won and lost big. There are no losers in this round, so I’ll just be listing the positives.

Biggest Winners – Players

1.  Filip Forsberg

Forsberg had an exceptional series against Anaheim where he established himself as a money player who comes through in the clutch when his team needs it the most. This is a break through playoff year for Forsberg who is establishing himself as Nashville’s offensive leader, the star forward they have never had in the past. Nashville will especially need him to come through big again against Pittsburgh. He gave the kind of performance that his old team, the Washington Capitals who stupidly traded him desperately needed against the Penguins.

2.  Marc Andre Fleury

Unless Matt Murray gets injured, Fleury has probably played his last game in Pittsburgh. The surprise was that Pittsburgh has kept him and his big contract this long. His erratic playoff goaltending between the first Pittsburgh victory in 2009 until 2016 when the Penguins switched to Matt Murray was a major reason why the Penguins did not win the Stanley Cup any more and why Dan Bylsma is no longer the coach and Ray Shero no longer the general manager. His career seemed finished but he showed enough in this year’s playoffs for some team to take a chance on him next year. His 7th game shutout of Washington has probably saved his NHL career.

3.  Matt Murray

The Ottawa series proved that if Pittsburgh wants to win future Stanley Cups, Murray is their goaltender. Pittsburgh plays with more confidence knowing Murray is in the nets. He should have won the Conn Smythe Trophy last year. The Penguins are now completely his team, not Fleury’s.

4.  Chris Kunitz

If ever a player played the greatest game of his career when his team needed it the most, it was Kunitz who scored two goals, including the winner and assisted on the other during the double-overtime 7th game thriller. That’s coming through in the clutch. Were you watching, Alexander Ovechkin, Kevin Shattenkirk, Brooks Orpik, and Nicklas Backstrom?

5.  Craig Anderson

Anderson gave a Conn Smythe Trophy performance in every playoff round except that he can’t score. Is there a lesson there for you Braden Holtby? Anderson almost fashioned the greatest heartwarming North American professional sports story since Jim Plunkett returned from oblivion with the Oakland Raiders of the NFL in 1980. His team hung in without him while he was at home nursing his wife who had cancer and when he returned he was the key in the New York upset and nearly made a bigger one over Pittsburgh. Ottawa simply does not have enough talent, especially at forward to match Pittsburgh. He showed enough that if Ottawa can significantly upgrade their talent, he might be able to take them all the way.

 

Teams That Can Go Home Happy

 

Anaheim Ducks

The Ducks rehired their Stanley Cup winning coach, Randy Carlyle who corrected their choking problem of recent years. He got the Ducks to keep their heads during the last part of the regular season which saw them overtake the San Jose Sharks and stay ahead of the Edmonton Oilers. The Ducks then won two playoff rounds, including a 7th game at home against the Oilers where they had been choking under previous coaches. The Ducks are clearly the best team in their division right now.

Two problems for the future: Is goaltender John Gibson good enough to take this team all the way to the Stanley Cup? He showed promise in winning two playoff rounds before being put out by Nashville. They still have problems winning playoff games at home. And Nashville itself is another problem. The Predators have eliminated the Ducks two years in a row so they have their number. Before that, the Chicago Blackhawks eliminated them. So Anaheim’s problem is not its own division but in beating the best teams of the other Western Conference division. There will have to be some changes made and a good draft choice added that fills a hole to take the next step forward.

Ottawa Senators

Before the Pittsburgh series started, I wondered if the Senators would even belong on the same ice. They had already over-achieved including a mild upset of the New York Rangers. But the gritty Senators went toe-to-toe with the defending Stanley Cup champions until they lost a 7th game double-overtime thriller. Unlike new kids Columbus and choker Washington, Ottawa was smart enough to get to Marc Andre Fleury and chase him from the nets. Unfortunately, by this time, Pittsburgh’s number one goaltender, Matt Murray was ready to play and that meant no more easy games. It may well be that if Fleury had been forced to continue, Ottawa would have won the series. The difference was at forward where the Senators have nothing to match the high powered Pittsburgh offense. Credit has to go to coach Guy Boucher who devised a defense system that except for one game, made Pittsburgh play at Ottawa’s offensive level. Ottawa came closer to the Stanley Cup than was ever expected. Upgrading their offense in the off season is essential if they want to go all the way.

Nightmare Continues…

Montreal General Manager Marc Bergevin was relaxing, accepting all kinds of praises early in the season after he made P. K. Subban the scapegoat for Montreal missing the playoffs the year before and then seeing the Canadiens be on top of the Eastern Conference while Nashville was out of a playoff spot. These days he seldom leaves his office without a body guard and grits his teeth and curses while he sees Subban’s smiling face advancing to the Stanley Cup Final. If Nashville wins the Stanley Cup and Subban wins the Conn Smythe trophy, will he use the pistol that is rumored to be in his drawer before the mob with the noose and the tar and the feathers gets to him first? They’ll probably strip him first to see if he really has been wearing a Nashville jersey under his suit and if they can spot the Predator logo that is supposed to be tattooed to his butt.

Stanley Cup Final Prediction

Pittsburgh Penguins Vs. Nashville Predators

The over-the-hump Predators now face the greatest challenge they have faced in the Stanley Cup playoffs so far. They have already scored the greatest upset of the current playoff year by eliminating Western Conference favorite Chicago, a team they never came close to beating in the playoffs before in the minimum four games. But it has to be remembered that Chicago was severely hurt by the fact that all the new, young players whom they were developing showed absolutely nothing, a dark portent for the future of that team. Now the Predators are facing the Eastern Conference favorite Pittsburgh Penguins, the defending Stanley Cup Champions. Both Peter Laviolette and Mike Sullivan have won the Stanley Cup so the coaching is even. There are two reasons why Pittsburgh is the defending champion. First, the Penguins finally got championship playoff goaltending after years of bad performances by Marc Andre Fleury by Matt Murray. Second, Sullivan got everyone on the team, including star performers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to concentrate on playing good defense. Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne is just as good a goaltender as Ottawa’s Craig Anderson. He can significantly outplay Fleury but like Anderson, he won’t significantly outplay Murray. More significant is that Nashville does not have anyone to compare with Crosby and Malkin. They are the best players they have yet seen. And Pittsburgh is getting clutch performances from other guys like Chris Kunitz. The combination of Crosby, Malkin, clutch performances, good defense, return of Matt Murray is too much for Nashville. In fact it is too much for every other team in the NHL. Pittsburgh will defend its championship over Nashville in 6 games.

 

 

Huge Glut Of Lost Hockey Talent

A few years ago before I joined this blog, one of my colleagues Alson Lee wrote an article asking why talented goaltender, Benjamin Conz of Switzerland never got signed to an NHL team. The article went on to list all of Conz’s notable achievements and expressed puzzlement at why no NHL team showed no interest in him. This article gives a part answer – maybe even the complete answer to that question.

The partial answer at least lies in Wikipedia when the current 2017 World Championship is selected as the topic. The article lists all the teams participating, all the results and when I last looked, the semi-finals Canada-Russia, Sweden-Finland had yet to begin. I don’t need to read the article anymore or even find out who wins the tournament to get my partial answer about Conz. The answer is in the composition of the semi-finals – four traditional “big 7″ teams competing as usual.

Over the last few years, I have written too many articles to count on this blog and others about international hockey’s greatest failure, the inability to expand hockey’s popularity beyond the traditional “big 7″ hockey powers, Canada, USA, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Czech Republic, and Slovakia. It has been 45 years since the famous Canada-USSR match of 1972 and since then the “big 7″ has never grown to even a “big 8″ or better. International hockey has failed to improve the quality of play outside of the traditional countries.

The Canada-USSR match revolutionized international hockey – to a point. Gone was the snobbish attitude of North Americans to European hockey. The closeness and caliber of the matches proved to everyone that at least in the USSR, Czechoslovakia, Sweden, and Finland, the caliber of hockey was equal or at least close to the caliber of North American hockey. It did not take long for the doors to open. Two years later, Borje Salming and Inge Hammarstrom crossed the Atlantic to join the Toronto Maple Leafs. The doors steadily widened until in 1989 when the Iron Curtain fell, it became possible for all Europeans, including Russians to join the NHL.

Today all NHL teams employ European scouts. It is now an essential part of every NHL team’s future development. But what does it mean by “European scouting”? I don’t really know but I have a strong suspicion about what it really means which explains the Conz situation.

As noted above, the USSR-Canada match revolutionized hockey to a point. Back in 1972 after the match and the desire of Canadians to see more high-caliber Canada-USSR, and other NHL Canada-European matches in the future, there were predictions and boasts that hockey would soon be the number 2 sport in the world behind only soccer. The recently revived World Cup, then called the Canada Cup would be created in 1976.

But the new developments in international hockey failed in one crucial endeavor; the quality of hockey failed to develop outside of the traditional hockey countries. Maybe the experts expected it to develop naturally, organically like it had done in the “big 7″, without help. Maybe they were just lazy, miserly and did not want to invest money in international hockey. But in 45 years, there is still the big 7 and nobody else. The current World Championship consists of the usual 7 and 9 “B level” countries. Gary Bettman symbolically recognized the lack of quality development at the revived World Cup when he created the hybrids team Europe and North America. He did not want any “B level” teams that might prove embarrassing.

Right now approximately 50 countries play international hockey, but there are about 12 countries who have been stuck at the “B level” of quality, just below the “big 7″. This group probably includes Switzerland, Denmark, Germany, France, Italy, Latvia, Belarus, Poland, Slovenia, Austria, Norway, and Kazakhstan. Over the years, the NHL hosted clinics and out of work coaches, seeking new challenges went to Europe to help develop young talent, but it was not enough.

At the World Cup Bettman and NHLPA leader Donald Fehr announced that Los Angeles and Boston would be hosting clinics in China. Commendable but hosting clinics for low-ranked China (The biggest potential market of them all. Money talks.) is not going to help hockey right now. It is getting the “B-level” countries up over the hump to make international hockey at least a “big 16″ that is going to bear the most fruit.

The clinics were as much as Bettman and Fehr were going to announce. The problem of raising the standard of play outside the traditional “big 7″ countries remains. No one has a concerted plan or announced any directive policy to correct this problem. Still worse is that probably most officials in positions where something effective could be done don’t see this as a problem at all. They are quite content with the status quo.

Back to Conz and “European scouting”. When NHL teams invest in “European scouting”, my guess is that the money is going to be spent on the tried and the true. That means most of the European scouting effort will be spent in Sweden, Finland, Russia, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. Since all the other countries are perceived as inferior, there is going to be less time and effort spent in scouting countries like Switzerland where Conz plays. One just has to look at the composition of Europeans in the NHL. The vast majority come from the five countries listed above. Scouts are not going to spend much time and money in countries outside of the five countries listed above. Players from other countries like Conz are going to fall through the cracks.

Conz is further hurt by the leagues he plays in. Since he is playing in Swiss leagues where the competition is perceived as “inferior”, his achievements are going to be diminished even further in the scouts’ eyes. He would have done better in his junior years to try and play in a league in one of the five countries or best of all, try to get a position on a CHL team in either Canada or the United States where the competition is perceived as high caliber.

Hockey has paid a price because of the failure to expand the quality of hockey elsewhere. First with the lack of development, hockey can hardly claim to be the “number 2 sport in the world” with a narrow base of just 7 countries. Second, there is no way of knowing of the money that could have been made in other countries if the prestige of hockey had been enhanced by raising the standard of play in them and increasing its popularity. And third, which borders on tragedy, the amount of talent lost, that never got a chance to be exploited is incalculable. The European equivalent of Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky may have already come and gone without anyone knowing about it.

When one combines the populations of the twelve “B-level” countries listed above, it is easy to see the possibility of a huge glut of unrealized hockey talent waiting to be developed. But nobody in a responsible position for international hockey seems to have any imagination about realizing the potential. There has to be more vision and concerted effort instead of the dull, bureaucratic, unfocused and random occasional clinics and maverick coaches of the past 45 years.

I have written many articles on this blog about the NHL making an unspoken, unofficial commitment to becoming a 40 team league within the next two decades. Inevitably the critics are going to say that the league’s product gets “watered down” with each new expansion. But there would be no talent problem if the investment was made in developing hockey outside of the “big 7″ countries. Raising up the standard of play of just the “B-level” countries would tap a huge mine of unrealized hockey talent. There would be more than enough talent to stock the ten new teams that the NHL projects in the future.

Meanwhile the unrealized talent of the “B-level” countries and lower continues to be wasted because of the lack of vision. Players like Conz are not signed to NHL contracts probably because nobody knows about them. And until people with vision start running international hockey, players from other countries outside the “big 7″ are going to be passed over and not developed.

 

Toronto Blue Jays Got What Washington Capitals Did Not Get

In trying to explain what happened to the Washington Capitals in my previous article, I put forward the theory that the players, particularly Alexander Ovechkin, simply are not good enough, that fans, ownership, management, coaches, and maybe even the players themselves are believing myths that cannot come true. Ovechkin of course is the up-front guy. He has never had a big performance either in the NHL playoffs for Washington, nor for his Russian teams in major tournaments like the Olympics and the World Cup.

As to why it never happens for him, I don’t know. I once read that a quarterback of the Oakland Raiders, Darryl Lamonica was frightened about being hit and that all his teammates knew and that silently to themselves knew that Oakland would never win the Super Bowl as long as he was at quarterback. The problem was human fears that probably everybody has in one form or another. What is wrong with Ovechkin? A fear? Does he freeze under pressure? Does he try too hard? Does he concentrate on offense too much which means that after almost every playoff round he has a horrible plus/minus statistic? I am not there so I don’t know. Someone with some inside knowledge will have to write those articles.

Right behind him is goaltender Braden Holtby, a Vezina Trophy finalist. He was not good enough against Pittsburgh last year and this year there were two games of 3 goals on 19 shots and 3 goals on 14 shots. He was pulled in that game. Brooks Orpik and Nicklas Backstrom have been around as long as Ovechkin. Neither of them have ever been a difference maker, who have carried Washington at least to the Eastern Conference Final. And the new guy, prized acquisition Kevin Shattenkirk failed to impress, failed to put Washington over the top. All are now candidates to be traded.

Washington and Minnesota are the champion wheel-spinners of the NHL. Every year now it seems, for at least the past half-decade they have met in the Stanley Cup playoff final of wheel spinning. Minnesota’s problem can easily be explained. General Manager Chuck Fletcher signed Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, figured that was enough to be a Stanley Cup champion and has not added any significant talent since. This state of affairs finally caught up to his coach Mike Yeo who was fired when he could not take the Wild deeper in the playoffs. This year, Fletcher and the Minnesota ownership and management were punished in the worse way when the Wild was humiliatingly ejected from the playoffs in only 5 games by the St. Louis Blues coached by none other than Yeo. I have already written an article about their need to be shaken up, to have more top talent added.

But the Washington situation cannot be explained so easily. General Manager Brian MacLellan added T.J. Oshie last year and Shattenkirk this year and it still has not been enough. So it is not that ownership and management are walking around with blinkers, stuck with their heads in the sand. Washington has changed coaches too during the Ovechkin era and that has not helped either. Certain players are not rising to the occasion, to perform at the peak when they are needed the most. One just needs to see the unheralded Jean-Gabriel Pageau, of the still-playing Ottawa Senators, who has never been a star, who has low scoring statistics but a good plus/minus record, who is now coming through big when the pressure is on, when his team needs him the most, to see the kind of the player Washington has never been able to get.

So are wheel spinners always doomed? Not necessarily, and the best example that comes to my mind is the story of the baseball Toronto Blue Jays. This is what should have happened to the Capitals, what the Washington ownership, management, and coaches were trying to do, what the Capitals fans envisioned.

The Blue Jays were formed in 1977 and in 1983 fielded their first division-contending team. Two years later they won their first division title and then lost in the American championship series to the Kansas City Royals who would win the World Series. No problem. That was the new kid learning the ropes, paying his dues. Great things were projected for Toronto in the future.

But then came the wheel-spinning years lasting from 1986 to 1991, just like they have been for Washington. Toronto would win its division or just fail to do it. Somehow the chemistry of the team was wrong. Detroit, Oakland, and Minnesota would regularly fatten up on these kings of playoff chokers. Toronto would move to the SkyDome and set American League attendance records. Manager Jimy Williams would be fired and replaced by Cito Gaston. (Does this sound like the Washington Capitals?) Nothing worked.

General Manager Pat Gillick acquired an unfavorable nickname, “Stand Pat”. The fans all knew the Blue Jays were not good enough and demanded changes. Gaston was brought in and then Gillick tried a block buster equivalent trade. He sent top shortstop Tony Fernandez and slugger Fred McGriff to San Diego for Roborto Alomar and Joe Carter. It still was not enough. Then (unlike Chuck Fletcher) Gillick added more top talent. Pitchers like David Cone and Jack Morris would be signed. And frustrated wheel spinners Dave Winfield (labeled cruelly “Mr. May” by Yankee owner George Steinbrenner) and Paul Molitor would be installed as the designated hitter.

Then with this added talent came the turning point. In the 1992 American League Championship series, Oakland brought in top reliever Dennis Ekersley to mop up the Blue Jays as usual. But Roberto Alomar hit a home run and the whole Oakland stadium went silent. Suddenly the Blue Jays were no longer wheel spinners, no longer chokers, could no longer be counted on to be a loser who would self destruct, players who never came through when the pressure was on. They were over the hump. Dave Winfield would no longer carry the label “Mr. May”. Paul Molitor would be the MVP of the next World Series in 1993. Tony Fernandez would be reacquired and win a World Series.

That is what the Washington Capitals have been trying to do. Are there any lessons for them here? Can they get over the hump and turn things around like Toronto did? Will there be the moment where the guy comes through when his team needs him the most; do it like Alomar did?

And by the way, after the Alomar home run, the Blue Jays lived happily ever after.

But the Washington Capitals…?

 

Where Do The Wild Go From Here?

Sometimes you make the gamble and it pays off, sometimes you end up like the Wild. The Wild took a gamble, signed Eric Staal to a three year deal in the off-season, They took another gamble and traded a 1st Round pick (amongst others) to the Arizona Coyotes for Martin Hanzal. As much flack as he received he scored 13 points in 20 games played. Comparatively speaking, his 20 games played resulted in a 0.65 PPG is the highest in his career. His CF% was the highest of his career at 58.6%. Yes, a lot of this is on a very small sample size, and yes, his teammates were much better than with the Wild than when he was a Coyote. But the season is done and Hanzal is a UFA. Using the CapFriendly cap comparable tool, Hanzal should get a slight raise, with my personal guess being approximately a $3.5-4M a year contract. The Wild may not be able to keep a player at that cost, as they only had to absorb $1.55M of Hanzal’s contract this year and players such as Granlund, Niederreiter, and Haula all expecting to get raises from their current RFA deals.

Looking at their draft picks, the Wild do not have their 1st and 2nd round picks, as they traded their 1st for Martin Hanzal and their 2nd for Chris Stewart. Looking at their prospects, there’s a few interesting prospects. Krill Kaprizov, Joel Eriksson-Ek, and Luke Kunin did very well in the World Juniors, and could be the core for the future. But what do they do now?

Kaprizov will remain the KHL for the next little while and Kunin and Greenway will need some time to develop. Joel Eriksson-Ek is an intriguing prospect will have to be seasoned in the AHL. The Wild are in an intriguing position. Their free agency situation will be rather predictable, with Mikael Granlund, Erik Haula, Jordan Schroeder and Nino Niederreiter all expected to earn hefty raises. With approximately $11,441,409 cap space expected, their moves will be limited to mostly depth moves.

So what’s next? The experts are unsure. The Wild came into the 2016-2017 NHL season at 30-1 odds. Our friends over at www.CanadaCasino.net have pegged the 2017-2018 NHL season odds for the Minnesota Wild at approximately 20-1 by the time the season starts. How about you though? What do you think? Think that the odds are a steal? Let us know!

Editor’s note: This article was sponsored by www.CanadaCasino.net

Washington Capitals Defeat Should Mean The End Of An Era

How much longer can this go on? How much longer will the Alexander Ovechkin era in Washington continue? The ugly truth is that it should be ended now. Cold, hard, and sober. Alexander Ovechkin cannot win a championship, at least as the leader for either Washington and Russia. And probably he can take long time loyal Capitals Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Orpik, goaltender Braden Holtby, and new guy Kevin Shattenkirk with him. Coach Barry Trotz is 50-50.

Let’s review the ugly facts. Pittsburgh was playing without its best goaltender, Matt Murray, its best defenseman, Kris Letang, and Washington even got the bonus of having the best player in the NHL, Sidney Crosby, cross-checked with a concussion and missing one game. And Pittsburgh still won.

Meanwhile Washington added T. J. Oshie laat year. They added Kevin Shattenkirk this year. And Pittsburgh still won. Not even Pittsburgh having to play erratic playoff goaltender, Marc Andre Fleury could save the Capitals. In fact Holtby outdid Fleury and gave performances that Fleury used to give Pittsburgh in the playoffs since the 2009 Stanley Cup victory. 3 goals on 19 shots, 3 goals on 14 shots. He was pulled in that game. Holtby is as unreliable as Ovechkin.

For those who believe in these things, and there may be some truth to it (especially over the long decades I’ve watched sports) there may be a hex by one team over another. For example Montreal beat Boston in the playoffs consecutively for over 40 years. Not even Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito could change it.

The problem with the “hex theory” in the Ovechkin story is that there have been many years when Washington never played Pittsburgh in the playoffs and still lost. And Ovechkin’s Russian teams have a dismal record with Ovechkin as leader. He is the common denominator. Washington has changed coaches. Ovechkin has had different Russian coaches. None could make him a winner. Management should remember that if they have a hankering to dump Trotz.

In fact Trotz in desperation, mindful of Ovechkin’s self-admitted poor play, demoted him to the third line where he could do less damage. The ugly truth is that every playoff season, Alexander ends up with a bad plus/minus statistic. That means he is actually a liability, not an asset to a team in the playoffs, both internationally and in the NHL.

It’s a sad thing to have to write this, but I have been writing about Ovechkin’s limitations for several years now on different blogs. Billed as the equal of Sidney Crosby when he entered the NHL, the first international player who could be the best player in the league, he has lots of pretty individual statistics but a horrid team record. Crosby has 2 Stanley Cups, 2 Olympic Gold Medals, a World Cup victory and a Conn Smythe Trophy to Ovechkin’s none. The score in direct playoff meetings is Pittsburgh 3, Washington 0. This so-called “rivalry” has been a dud. And it could be argued that Crosby’s colleague, Evgeni Malkin has been the best Russian player in the NHL all along. He has 2 Stanley Cups, a Conn Smythe Trophy and is leading this year’s playoff scoring.

This defeat is even worse because with all the player additions and subtractions, Ovechkin’s limitations became more clearly focused for all to see. By his own admission he was playing poorly. That he had an unrevealed injury cannot be used as an excuse either. Erik Karlsson of Ottawa is playing with a more serious injury and Crosby came back after a concussion. As noted above, Trotz demoted Ovechkin to the third line, a open admission about Ovechkin’s performances in the playoffs.

The problem of such an open admission is that it makes Ovechkin harder to be traded. The most obvious solution it might seem is to trade him to a contender where he might be “the last piece of the puzzle”. The problem with this is that when one scrutinizes Ovechkin’s playoff record, he becomes someone to be avoided. Why would any contender want to get an aging player, with a huge salary, who consistently fails to come through for his team when he is needed the most? There are no records of Ovechkin – and for that matter Backstrom, Orpik, and Holtby – being the difference maker in the playoffs. I have no memory of Alexander playing so well that it can be said he put his team in the next round.

From the NHL’s viewpoint, the best thing that Ovechkin can still do is sell tickets. So the best place for him to go is to a city that is not worried about icing a winning team, but increasing attendance. The Capitals do not want to trade him to an Eastern Conference team, so that rules out Carolina, the New York Islanders, Florida, and Columbus. So by default, the best place for Alexander to go is the Arizona Coyotes.

Before concluding this article, it is wise to put things in perspective. I, the critic, the blog writer, am telling maybe the truthful thing that Alexander Ovechkin and the others are not good enough and have to be traded for the good of the Washington Capitals. But it must be remembered that I am talking about humans. NOBODY likes to be told that they are not good enough in their job. It means the end of their of the dreams, their hopes. It means an admission of failure, hurt pride, which is hard to swallow. Being traded means having to move to a new city. What about their children’s education, their friends? They get uprooted and lose them all.

I don’t like writing an article like this. I’d rather believe in “All You Need Is Love” by the Beatles, where everybody wins and gets in. But Ovechkin chose sports as his profession, where sometimes one player is chosen to win consistently and another is chosen to lose consistently. That is the ugly side of sports, part of its nature when a person chooses that occupation. Ovechkin’s career closely resembles Marcel Dionne who also never made it to even a conference final. They would be fully justified to go to a bar together, order a beer and then sob in each other’s arms.

Writers go through a phase too. I don’t dislike Alexander Ovechkin. But you start out saying, “Wait until next time”. Then it is, “He still hasn’t done it.” Then it becomes “When is he going to show something?” Disillusionment comes. Now it is, “He is not what they say he is.” Finally it becomes, “He should be traded.”

If things had gone the way happily ever afters go, I would be writing, “They finally overcame…” “At last he rose to the occasion…” “They overcame adversity and past history…” “At last, over the hump…”, etc. (That last line can be said about this year’s Nashville Predators.) But as the second President of the United States, John Adams said when he was defending in court, the British soldiers being tried for the Boston Massacre, “Facts are stubborn things.” So I can’t write any of that.

Sometimes the story has a happy ending. Phil Esposito was consistently overshadowed in Boston by his teammate Bobby Orr, until the 1972 Canada-USSR series when he, probably more than any other player saved Canada’s bacon. It was the type of performance under pressure that Alexander Ovechkin has never given in any playoffs for either Washington or Russia.

 

2016-17 NHL Third Playoff Round Predictions

It’s half way through the playoffs and I went 4 for 4 in my second round predictions, including an Ottawa upset of the New York Rangers. My overall record is now 10-2, the only serious blot being the Chicago debacle. Like every other playoff round, some teams and players won and lost big, meaning that there is more significance for them than for others who won or lost. As usual I’ll start with giving my view about the significance of the second round before concluding with my two third round predictions. In no particular order…

Biggest Winners – Players

Pekka Rinne

Rinne was always a good goaltender but his team never had the talent until now to do much in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Predators have finally done something they have not been able to do before. First they eliminated the Chicago Blackhawks and now the have reached the Western Conference Final for the first time. How good a goaltender is Rinne? We are about to find out.

P. K. Subban

There has to be some inner satisfaction for Subban who was singled out by Montreal general manager, Marc Bergevin as the main reason for Montreal missing the playoffs the previous season when goaltender Carey Price was hurt. For a while this season, Montreal was on top of the Eastern Conference, Nsahville was out of the playoffs and seemed likely to miss the post season. Subban was playing with a bag over his head. But now Subban is going farther in the playoffs with the Predators than he ever did in Montreal which can only sit, wring their hands and watch him play after being eliminated in the first round.

Jean-Gabriel Pageau

The Ranger Destroyer. Sometimes an unknown, unexpected player emerges during times of crisis. Such is the case in this round of Pageau who at least in the Ranger series, gave Ottawa something they haven’t had for a long time, a real threat on the forward line, someone the opposition has to stop. You also like a player who comes through when they need him the most. He only had 33 points during the regular season but significantly an excellent plus/minus statistic. The question is can he continue this excellent play against a tougher opponent in the third round for over-achieving Ottawa.

Marc Andre Fleury

If Pittsburgh had lost, he would have made the Biggest Losers list. But thanks in large part to coach Mike Sullivan’s ability to get the entire team to commit to playing good defense, starting with last year’s Stanley Cup victory, Fleury who has looked horrible many times in the playoffs since the first victory in 2009 has been able to hang in. That he posted a shut out in game 7 when he needed to do it the most speaks volumes.

Biggest Winners – Teams

Nashville Predators

They are going places and doing things they never did before. First they humiliatingly eliminated the Western Conference Stanley Cup favorite, the Chicago Blackhawks, a team they had never been able to beat in the playoffs before in only 4 games. Now they got over a second hump and are on their way to their first Western Conference Final. Suddenly Nashville is a hockey town. Everybody is talking about the Predators. Regardless about what happens in the next round, Nashville has taken some significant steps forward.

 

Ottawa Senators

If Nashville is the over-the-humpers, Ottawa is the over-achievers. They caught a break in the first round when they played probably the only team they might be favored against, the Boston Bruins. But eliminating the Rangers was a significant upset. The two players who they needed the most came through big for them, goaltender Craig Anderson, and defenseman Erik Karlsson. And unexpectedly they got a significant contribution on the forward line from emerging hometown hero Jean-Gabriel Pageau. Like Nashville, no matter what happens in the third round, they have taken a significant step forward.

Biggest Losers – Players (And Coaches)

Henrik Lundqvist

The Jekyll and Hyde of NHL goalies became Hyde again at the wrong time. He eliminates tougher Montreal in the first round and then gets beaten by upstart Ottawa in the second round. He let in wrong goals at the wrong time just like he did against Europe and North America in the World Cup. His time to win the Stanley Cup as a starting goaltender is starting to run out. He joins the goaltender, he eliminated in the first round, Carey Price, as a net minder with a real question mark over his head about whether he really is a good Stanley Cup playoff goaltender.

Alexander Ovechkin, Brooks Orpik, Braden Holtby, Kevin Shattenkirk, Nicklas Backstrom

The gang at Washington failed again, hopefully for the last time. This team needs to be torn apart and built again. It simply is not good enough. What has to happen before people realize this? I’ll break this down even further.

1a & 1b Brooks Orpik and Nicklas Backstrom

These two can be easily disposed of. They, along with Ovechkin have been around the longest and like him have never had a playoff series where they were the difference makers. All you have to do is compare them to unknown Jean-Gabriel Pageau (see above) who without hype came through when his team needed him the most. Did Washington beat Pittsburgh because of them? Has there ever been a playoff series where Washington won because of them? The ugly truth is that they are not good enough and have to go.

1c Kevin Shattenkirk

He was supposed to be the prized acquisition of the trade deadline from St. Louis, the desperate trade that General Manager, Brian MacLellan made mostly at the request of Alexander Ovechkin to put Washington finally over the top. Like Ovechkin, Orpik, and Backstrom, he failed to distinguish himself. The difference maker, the player who got Washington over the hump never occurred. What is even more galling is that his old team in St. Louis dumped him and his huge salary to get cap space, and the Blues instead of folding, rallied and did almost as well as Washington without him and other significant talent losses during last year’s off season. St. Louis now has a chance for the future while Washington is now a team with large salaries for players who do not win.

1d Braden Holtby

He cannot beat the highly questionable playoff goaltender, Marc Andre Fleury, never mind Pittsburgh’s top goaltender, Matt Murray. When I made my predictions for the second round, I said that Washington had to get Fleury to be his usual horrid playoff self and be pulled from some the games. Pitted against the real thing, Holtby out-Fleuryed Fleury, and gave performances of 3 goals on 19 shots, and 3 goals on 14 shots (He was pulled in that game). This series should prove once and for all that Washington cannot be a champion with Holtby as its goaltender. Incredibly he is somehow a contender for the Vezina Trophy.

1e Alexander Ovechkin

I have listed this group from least worst to worst of the worst, and this series instead of enhancing him is probably the series in which Ovechkin’s over-rated status has most clearly been brought into focus. When drafted by Washington, he was billed as the equal of Sidney Crosby. He has lots of pretty individual statistics but horrid team records both in the NHL with Washington and internationally with Russia. Almost every playoff year, he ends up with a horrible plus/minus record, meaning in spite of all his offense, he is actually a liability for Washington in the playoffs. Like the others listed above he is no difference maker, the player who comes up big when the pressure is on, when his team needs him the most. By his own admission, he was playing poorly in this series, and coach Barry Trotz, finally dropping his belief in the myth of Ovechkin, in desperation demoted him to the third line where could do the least damage. The ugly truth is that it should be over in Washington for Ovechkin, he should be traded, and a new era begin.

Todd McLellan

Ever notice that Todd McLellan’s playoff record is very similar to that of the undistinguished Bruce Boudreau of Minnesota? Like Boudreau, his teams never do much in the playoffs. They beat weak playoff teams and nobody else. Right now everybody in Edmonton is rejoicing because they are back in the playoffs after a decade and won a playoff round against declining San Jose. But I, at least am going to file this defeat in the back of my mind with an eye to the future. McLellan’s team came up short again against a true contender. His playoff record should be closely noted next year.

Biggest Losers – Teams

Washington Capitals

There is only one big team loser in this round and we all know who it is. Washington has yet to make it to the Eastern Conference Final, never mind challenging for the Stanley Cup during the Ovechkin era. And don’t say, “Oh they played tough Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh.” There were many years during the Ovechkin era when they did not play Pittsburgh and were upset by other underdog teams. The Pittsburgh-Washington “rivalry” is itself a dud, a myth. Washington is actually Pittsburgh’s home away from home. (3 of Pittsburgh’s victories were in Washington.) Pittsburgh has had more trouble in the past in the playoffs during this era with Tampa Bay, New York Rangers, Ottawa, Boston,  Philadelphia, and Montreal. Pittsburgh played without its best defenseman, its best goaltender, and Sidney Crosby for one game and they still won. The Crosby-Ovechkin comparison is a mismatch. I’ve broken down a lot of reasons for Washington’s continued defeat above. The bottom line is that this team has never been good enough and now needs to be completely torn apart and rebuilt with players who can come through in the playoffs when they are needed the most.

Teams That Can Go Home Happy

The St. Louis Blues lost significant talent during the off-season, fired Stanley Cup winning coach Ken Hitchcock, traded top defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk and still won a playoff round and put up a good struggle against Nashville. They did not go as far as they did in the playoffs last season, but considering all the negative changes, their season has to be considered a success and now they have cap space and a new coach with potential to build a good future.

And of course Edmonton, after being exiled from the playoffs for a decade can celebrate a triumphant return and a first round playoff victory.

Consolation Prize

The New York Rangers improved from last year, advancing to the second round of the playoffs. And on the very day they were eliminated by the Ottawa Senators, they were awarded next year’s Winter Classic outdoor game against the Buffalo Sabres. But I think they would rather trade that game for an opportunity to keep playing in this year’s playoffs…

Still No Answers…

The NHL playoffs are now half way over and the NHL has made a significant decision about the Olympics, announced they would play regular season games in Europe again, and have now set up next year’s Winter Classic outdoor game between the New York Rangers and the Buffalo Sabres. But the three most important issues remain unresolved. Will the New York Islanders get a new arena? Will Quebec get an NHL team? And where will the Arizona Coyotes play?

The End Of Agony/The Humiliation Continues

Two teams, the Montreal Canadiens and the Minnesota Wild were suffering this second round because of the St. Louis-Nashville series. Minnesota refused to significantly upgrade its team during Mike Yeo’s period of coaching which led to his inevitable firing. Minnesota’s punishment was to be humiliatingly eliminated by the St. Louis Blues in the first round in only 5 games, coached by none other than Yeo.

In Montreal during the off season last year, General Manager Marc Bergevin was looking for culprits who failed to respond during the previous season when goaltender Carey Price got injured and caused the Canadiens to miss the playoffs. He zeroed in on P. K. Subban and traded him to Nashville for Shea Weber. For a while he triumphed. During the early part of the season, Montreal was on top of the Eastern Conference while Nashville was out of a playoff position with Subban and the team playing badly. But Subban got the last laugh. His Predators are now going to their first Western Conference Final while Montreal sits on the sidelines, eliminated with home ice advantage in the first round by the New York Rangers. Bergevin, who was taking bows for his shrewd trade earlier now has to grit his teeth and smile and try to explain things.

For both Minnesota and Montreal, the humiliation will be remembered after this season is over. For Minnesota, at least, they do not have to watch Yeo still coaching the Blues in further playoff rounds. But for Montreal the anguish and frustration will continue…

The Start Of A Beautiful Rivalry?

Edmonton with Connor McDavid is the team of the future. But right now, their best playoff rival is the Anaheim Ducks. They had a thrilling 7 game series this time. Is this the start of an era where we will see many intense Duck-Oiler playoff series in the immediate future?

Stanley Cup Playoff Predictions

Eastern Conference

Pittsburgh Penguins Vs. Ottawa Senators

When Sidney Crosby made his playoff debut, it was against Ottawa who at the time, iced the best team they ever had since their reincarnation, led by Daniel Alfredsson which defeated Pittsburgh and made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final where they lost to Anaheim. Since then it has been all Pittsburgh in future playoff meetings. It should be the same again. Pittsburgh simply has more talent than Ottawa, particularly at forward where Ottawa has nobody to compare with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. On the other hand, Ottawa has the best defenceman, Erik Karlsson and Craig Anderson is a better goaltender than Marc Andre Fleury. Will we see Pittsburgh’s top goaltender, Matt Murray in this series? And mysteriously, Ottawa again has a winning record against Pittsburgh this year, just like they did against Boston and the New York Rangers. One of their victories was when Fleury was in the nets for Pittsburgh. Again, the only chance for Ottawa is to do what Columbus and Washington failed to do and make Fleury revert to his erratic playoff self. Craig Anderson has to significantly outplay him. That will be tougher to do because since last year, Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan got the team to commit to playing good defense which was probably the main reason Pittsburgh won the Stanley Cup. This series may be closer than I think it is and I’d love to predict an upset, just like I did for Ottawa against the New York Rangers. But I am too much of a realist this time. It is the end of the line for the over-achieving Senators. Pittsburgh in 5 or 6 games.

Western Conference

Anaheim Ducks Vs. Nashville Predators

This is a rematch of last year’s first round playoff series which the Predators barely won in 7 games. This is going to be a really tough series to predict. There have been significant changes since last year. Nashville, playing in its first Western Conference Final, has added P. K. Subban and Ryan Johansen. For Anaheim, the most significant change was the dumping of mediocre playoff coach Bruce Boudreau, and the rehiring of their Stanley Cup winning coach, Randy Carlyle. So who has made the most improvements? The coaching is even. Both Carlyle and Nashville coach Peter Laviolette have won the Stanley Cup. How does the unknown John Gibson of Anaheim, who has responded extremely well so far match up with Nashville’s goaltender, Pekka Rinne? Nashville has a psychological edge because they beat Anaheim last year. But Anaheim did not have Carlyle who steadied the team down the home stretch in the regular season, overtook San Jose and beat off Edmonton’s challenge. And then in the playoffs, the Ducks eliminated Calgary with authority in a hard played 4 game series, and then beat off Edmonton in a 7th game at home where they had been choking under previous coaches. Anaheim has home ice this time but that has meant nothing to the 8th seeded Predators. Nashville is the new kid on the block who have been doing things in these playoffs that they could not do before. Anaheim has lots of experienced pros who have been corrected from their choking habit by Carlyle. What do I do? Flip a coin? It won’t be an upset if either wins. But I’ll continue to believe Carlyle’s coaching and Anaheim will win in a series that goes the full 7 games.