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.

 

Bringing Back The Nordiques Is A Blow Against Quebec Separatism

When one thinks about it closely, nobody can want the Quebec Nordiques back and be a Quebec separatist.  Nobody who wants to see the Quebec-Montreal NHL rivalry rekindled can support the Bloc Quebecois, the Parti Quebecois, or any other separatist organization and all it implies.  Bringing back the Nordiques is diametrically the opposite of Quebec separatism.  There is a good chance it may come down to a choice between one or the other.

First, consider the nature of Quebec separatism. It is the effort of a group of people who have become so alienated with the rest of Canada that they want to go their own way, preferably in their own sovereign state. Furthermore the issue takes on an ethnic taint. It is supposed that the separatists are descendants of the original settlers of New France, French speaking, who believe that their language and other rights are being threatened and can only be safeguarded in their own sovereign state where the French language and other traits that they associate with being a Quebecois will be dominant. All they want is to be able to go their own way and be left alone by what they term “English Canada”.

What is revealing and eye opening is where the strength of this movement is located. It would seem logical that this movement should be located in western Quebec, particularly in and around Montreal where most French-English interaction takes place. Interacting with English speaking people would give French Canadians ample opportunity to become disenchanted with Canada by being directly affronted and insulted by boorish, ignorant, English speaking Canadians creating bad impressions who deliberately try to exploit and humiliate them. But it is not. The strength of the separatist movement is in the center of the province of Quebec, by people who have very little contact with “English Canada”. Evidently, intermingling with English and other ethnic groups may actually forge positive bonds, friendships, a common sympathy, a shared existence, an understanding of each other that transcends both language and religion.

Surprising as this may be, it is not unprecedented. In fact it was a key element in one of the most significant episodes in Canadian history, the War of 1812. That war was an unpopular war on both sides of the border. Americans who lived closest to Canada, in New England, upper New York State, and Michigan hated it the most. They shared common experiences with their Canadian counterparts. Many had close friends or kindred on either side of the border. The people who hated Great Britain and her colony of Canada the most lived in faraway Kentucky and similar regions. It was easier to create myths, to blame a faraway people with whom they had little contact for their economic and social problems, about their bad relationship with the Indians, about anything they wanted to pin the blame on. (Note: If anybody is interested in learning more about this, I recommend reading Pierre Berton’s double volume set about the War of 1812.)

The situation in Quebec today is exactly the same. If things go bad, it is easier to pin the blame on faraway Ottawa and “English Canada”. Fears get intensified by creating myths and distorting actions by people whom they know almost nothing about and have little contact with. Quebec separatists want “English Canada” to go away.

But in 1972, Quebec City, the would-be capital of a sovereign Quebec got to try WHA and then NHL hockey and loved it. When they lost the Nordiques in 1995, they were heartbroken and have wanted their team back ever since. When they built the Videotron arena at taxpayer expense, it seemed that they had a returned team within their grasp. But the NHL does not like the prospective owner, Pierre Karl Peladeau, a known supporter of the Parti Quebecois. They do not want to be involved in any political, racial, ethnic, or religious controversy. So the Quebecor bid was turned down.

Actually Quebec separatists are now in an absurd situation. They want less contact with “English Canada” but bringing back the Nordiques will certainly increase it. North American professional sports are played by “liberals” – multiracial teams played in cosmopolitan cities – fundamentally the opposite of what the Quebec separatists stand for, a separate country that is ethnically and lingually homogenous. Reviving the Nordiques means not only inviting outsiders to play in Quebec but live there too. It is likely that minority ethnic communities, “Little Italy”, “Chinatown”, “Westmount” will form within Quebec City, exactly the opposite to what the Quebec separatists want. Bringing back the Nordiques means turning homogenous Quebec City into the type of “melting pot” city, Montreal is.

In previous articles, I have written about the absurdity of Peladeau himself. He supports the Parti Quebecois, publicly insults a member of the NHL Board, and then seeks to become a partner of this man on the NHL Board of Governors. He claims he is a separatist but then has his company Quebecor invest in Canada by buying the Sun Media Chain, giving him employees from the west coast to the east, helping his company to make a profit. Now he probably has to speak in English partly every day. And if Quebec leaves and Canada breaks up, what will happen to his profits? If the Parti Quebecois gets some of its goals, his investment is going to turn sour.

If the Quebec legislature under a Parti Quebecois government seeks to enact legislation that further restricts minority rights, that is going to make things uncomfortable for any “outsider” to own, manage, coach, and play in Quebec City. Nobody will want to live and bring their families to live in Quebec if they are going to feel threatened. The NHL and other professional sports leagues do not want any such controversies. Nor will Quebec attract needed outside investment, tourists, other international sports events like the Olympics, a World’s Fair and international conventions if they get a bad image.

It may come down to a basic him or me situation. Either Quebec gets the Nordiques and follows a “liberal” path or it remains in the current deadlocked state with the decision about returning the Nordiques to Quebec being postponed by the NHL indefinitely. Bringing back the Nordiques means opening Quebec City to new “outside” experiences and influences, hopefully that Quebecers will enjoy. And it may also be the beginning of the end of the narrow path of Quebec separatism.

 

Hamilton’s Bungled NHL Bid

In light about my recent article about elitism in Canada,  particularly explaining why Hamilton  does not have an NHL team,  it is appropriate to remember how Hamilton lost its best chance to get into the NHL in 1990.  Hamilton had been hungry to get into the NHL since the start of the 1980s, the heyday of NHL expansion into Canada.  The NHL and WHA had merged in 1980, bringing Quebec, Edmonton, and Winnipeg into the league.  The next year, the Atlanta Flames moved to Calgary.  Of the nine major Canadian cities, only Hamilton and Ottawa did not have an NHL team.

Hamilton, located midway between the NHL franchises of Toronto and Buffalo had no problem with a fan base. In 1980, Hamilton, like Edmonton, Calgary, Ottawa, Quebec City and Winnipeg had a population between 500,000 and 700,000. Hamilton may have had the smallest municipal population but it had the best regional market of all six cities. A Hamilton NHL franchise could draw fans from as far east as Mississauga, as far south as Niagara Falls and St. Catharines, as far north as Owen Sound, and as far west as London. Besides the towns just named, the region included Guelph, Kitchener, Oakville, Burlington, Brantford and many other mid-size towns and cities as well.

The only stumbling blocks were an arena and ownership. In 1985, the arena problem was solved when Hamilton built the 17,000 seat Copps Coliseum. Its intention was obvious. Though it would be a money-maker hosting other events, the prime gain was to be an NHL team. Hamilton put its feet up and waited for the next NHL expansion and a suitable owner to appear.

In 1987, Hamilton got its first hockey reward. Most of the 1987 Canada Cup, including the final game would be played in Hamilton. It proved to an overwhelming success, with enthusiastic sellout crowds. Many times, the cameras would spot placards in the crowds, addressed to the NHL and President John Ziegler, to award Hamilton an NHL franchise. For that tournament, Hamilton was the center of hockey in Canada. It seemed the logical place to put a new NHL team.

In 1989, the waiting seemed to be coming to an end. The NHL planned to expand by seven teams before the year 2000. The first expansion would be in 1992 and Ziegler and the NHL Board were not adverse to putting more teams in Canada. Hamilton recruited a suitable potential owner, Tim Donut, headed by Ron Joyce. The NHL announced its terms, the most important being a $50 million expansion fee. In light of the recent $500 million expansion fee, the $50 million one in 1990 would have the same effect. In 2016, the $500 million fee would come across as an unrealistic price for an NHL team. Of the 16 potential applicants, only fanatical Las Vegas and Quebec would see it through to the end. In 1990, with the recent sale of the Minnesota North Stars for only $31.5 million, the $50 million fee gave off the same impression. The final payment would be due by the end of 1991 with the team to start playing in 1992.

The NHL received 11 bids from 10 cities, including both Hamilton and Ottawa. Other candidates were from Tampa Bay, Seattle, San Diego, Milwaukee, St. Petersburg, Phoenix, Miami, and Houston. Many cities dropped out without even making a presentation to the NHL. Hamilton, along with St. Petersburg were supposedly the front-running cities. But the NHL rejected them along with Miami because the bidders wanted to alter the payment schedule. The NHL was adamant. Pay the way we want you to pay or you don’t get a team. They refused to consider any negotiations. Ron Joyce and the others considered this to be poor business sense and reluctantly dropped out. Thus disappeared Hamilton’s best chance to get an NHL team. Like Quebec and Las Vegas, a quarter of a century later, only fanatical Ottawa and Tampa Bay agreed to all of the NHL terms, particularly the payment schedule. And neither of them had a suitable arena built at the time.

Looking back, there were several other good reasons to put a team into Ottawa instead of Hamilton. Ottawa, Edmonton, and Calgary would dramatically grow in population to over 1 million residents while Hamilton, Quebec City, and Winnipeg stagnated. And like with the NHL franchise in Washington which bought some political goodwill from the American government, putting a team in Ottawa bought the NHL goodwill from the Canadian government.

In recent years, the wall of opposition to a Hamilton team has grown. Buffalo and Toronto want extensive compensation if a Hamilton or other southern Ontario team is created. There has never been a suitable formula worked out like there has been in New York and Los Angeles. Thus one of the best markets in Canada and one of the best arenas (Which the city of Hamilton is willing to renovate with ironically $50 million to a more than adequate 18,500 seats), along with Quebec City has no NHL team. Attempts to move the questionable Phoenix Coyotes to Hamilton by Jim Balsille were doomed to failure.

But if Hamilton had been given a team in 1990, would Ottawa have a team now too? My guess is yes. Ottawa was one of the fastest growing cities in Canada and then there is the advantage of buying political goodwill. As would be proved, Ottawa with a proper arena and suitable owner would be a matter of time. But there should be eight Canadian franchises in the NHL right now, not seven. Hamilton was and is a perfect choice. But it lost its best chance to join the NHL again in 1990, and given the fact that the NHL caters extensively to its monopolistic Canadian franchise owners, a new Hamilton team is not even on the horizon.