Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Playoff Battles for the Leafs

In spite of all the negative attention surrounding the Leafs lately, I thought I'd take a different angle and -- god forbid -- take a look to the future of a possible playoff berth. While the Leafs have their work cut out for them, it’s not impossible for them to attain post-season play. While it may seem improbable considering the teams they must leapfrog, the recent play of the Buds suggests they got the heart to overcome such odds.

What stands between the Leafs and 8th place are the Florida Panthers, Buffalo Sabres,

Washington Capitals, and last but not least, the Boston Bruins. In order for the Leafs to be considered serious contenders for the dubious position, they would have to win atleast 5 of their last 6 games, garnering 10 pts out of a possible 12. But even that might not be enough, most likely putting them in the placing their all too familiar with, the dreaded 9th place.

However, the Leafs will need to play at their absolute best, and while their recent play without Mats Sundin and Nik Antropov has been impressive, they will need to withstand the upcoming schedule without the pair for a little longer. Consistency will be key here, something the Leafs have struggled with all season long. A huge part to their recent upswing as been the emergence of Matt Stajan and Alexander Steen, the two have displayed strong leadership for the Buds, and have produced points consistently in the past few weeks. But with the upcoming double-header against the Bruins, the pair will have to solidify themselves as the team’s leaders if the Leafs wish to even flirt with a possible playoff berth.

With all that said, let's assume the Leafs do make the playoffs. What are the possible team's they would face? Is it possible to advance to the 2nd round against any of these foes? The answer is yes. Here's your preview:

Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

Season Series: 2-2

When I think of this potential playoff match, goals are what instantly come to mind. The emergence of Evgeni Malkin in the absence of Sidney Crosby has been beyond impressive. The kid has established himself as a true first line winger and franchise player for the Pens. Once "Sid The Kid" returns from his injury, you can bet these two will be causing loads of havoc on the powerplay, and head coach Micheal Therrien will be looking to give Malkin the same kind of ice-time he's receiving now. While the Leafs can handle faster teams more efficiently this season, I highly doubt they would be able to contain their offense for an entire series. While goaltender Vesa Toskala has been great for the Leafs, his durability is still a concern considering his career high in games played was 38 before this season.

Outcome: Pens in 5 games

Toronto Maple Leafs vs. New Jersey Devils

Season Series: 4-0 Devils

If the Leafs were to enter the playoffs facing the Devils, I’d bet it would end much like the season series. The Devils play trap hockey, and magnificent goaltending from Martin Brodeur helps them perfect the style of play. The Leafs offense is anything but explosive and their defense has been mediocre for most of the season. Their only prayer would lie with Toskala, and that would be quite the challenge for the 31-year old netminder, who's played game after game for the Buds this season.

Outcome: Devils in 5 games

Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Montreal Canadiens

Season Series: 3-3 as of now

What a treat this would be, the two most passionate fan bases colliding for post-season supremacy. Whether you hate the Habs or the Leafs, we must all respect the rivalry that has evolved between these two ever since the league began in 1916. With this particular series, it doesn't matter what place both teams finish, because both clubs always play above their heads when they meet up at centre-ice --especially the Leafs. Both clubs have enjoyed great goaltending this season, but the Habs have something special in Carey Price. The 20-year old netminder will be the go-to guy going into the playoffs, and those who have watched him know that he is capable of handling his own. While the Habs have a young team, they have no shortage of leadership with the likes of Saku Koivu and Alexei Kovalev leading the charge. The key to this series would be physical play, and strong puck movement. One thing is for certain, however, if the Leafs are to beat the Habs in the playoffs, it would definitely require a healthy Mats Sundin.

Outcome: Leafs in 7 games

As you may have noticed, I did not add the Ottawa Senators to possible playoff opponents. This is due to the fact that they are now 7 points behind 1st place, and I find it highly improbable that they attain the position. But, barring a miracle, it would be an instant classic to see the Leafs and Sens gear up for another round of playoff battle.

With all that said, this could all be for not if the Leafs don't win their upcoming games. It starts tonight with the Boston Bruins.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Shedding Light on Vesa Toskala and the Leafs Future

After the recent 174-foot goal Vesa Toskala allowed against the Islanders, many non-Leafs fans may question the 31 year old goaltender, but that would be a mistake if you're not aware what kind of season he's endured with the Blue and White.

To begin, when the Leafs acquired Vesa Toskala in the summer, they were not expecting top five quality goaltending. Fact is, Toskala had been a career back-up goaltender to Evgeni Nabokov on the San Jose Sharks for most of his career. In the last two seasons with the Sharks, injuries to Nabokov gave Toskala the call as the starting goaltender, and he performed brilliantly. In fact, he played in the playoffs for San Jose that season, making it to the second round. Toskala finished the playoffs with a 2.45 goals-against-average and a .910 save percentage. However, last season there was a fierce goaltending battle between the two, and at year's end head coach Doug Wilson decided to trade one of them to have an undisputed starter for his club, clearing cap space in the process. He opted with Toskala after attempting to trade Nabokov's 5.1 million contract proved too be difficult. He was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs, a city where the scrutiny can be too much to handle for many, and often the pressure can ruin careers. The Leafs extremely critical fan base and media are constantly judging the professional athletes that represent their city, and most times, they deem unfair opinions of them. What no one was expecting, however, was the puzzling downfall of Toronto's defense. A position that was weak last season is being even more exposed this season, and it's essentially the same core.

Vesa Toskala was then thrown into the fire. He began with a sub-par pre-season, and immediately the fans and media were on his back, calling for the head of former Leafs GM, John Ferguson Junior. What many did not take into account, however, is that many goalies do not have great stats in pre-season, even future hall-of-famer Ed Belfour struggled in his pre-season debut for the Leafs a few years back. The negative attention was so overwhelming that even Doug Wilson came to defend Toskala, stating that he is a great goaltender and he's confident he'll do well in the hockey crazed city of Toronto. Shortly after this, the opening night of the regular season kicked off, a game which saw the Toronto Maple Leafs head-to-head with arch rivals, the Ottawa Senators. A difficult task considering the Senators has had the Leafs number in recent years. The Leafs lost both games against the Senators, and Toskala was once again questioned for his goaltending abilities.

While Toskala was not the goalie he is now, it's not as if the Leafs defense were helping, consistently coming up with mediocre efforts to defend their goaltender. Part of the problem was that they often left one offender in front of the net unharmed, because the two defensemen were chasing one forward in particular. Not only that, but the Leafs couldn't get control in their own zone; every game they were struggling for possession of the puck and the opposition took full advantage, making the Leafs defenders look like pylons. That's not all either, when the attackers were entering the zone, the defensemen often huddle up in the crease, screening Toskala in the process -- if they were planning to get a higher draft pick, bravo troops, bravo!

As the season progressed, so did Toskala, eventually ceasing all doubt that he is not a capable #1 goaltender. Clearly the issue was to adapt to his new team, and he did so fairly quick, covering up the defensive woes that plague this team night in and night out. Throughout the course of the season, he has consistently come up with game savers; giving the Leafs a chance to win games they have no business winning. Last season, the goaltending was a liability to the team, this season it is not.

What makes Toskala so valuable to the Leafs are his lighting quick reflexes, superb glove hand, fast lateral movement and his ability to steal games. While he is small at 5'10, he makes up for it by challenging the shooters at the appropriate times and possessing a cool demeanor. The man is fazed by absolutely nothing; he stays mentally strong no matter what the scenario, as he proved on the Island earlier this week. He currently holds a 31-22-6 record with a 2.57 GAA, a .909 SV% and 3 shutouts. Remarkable stats considering the Leafs were in the Eastern Conference basement for the better part of the season.

However, next season may once again surface some interesting decisions going into the Trade Deadline. If Cliff Fletcher is true to his word, then the Leafs will forming a much different club next season, one that will hopefully consist of young players. And with Andrew Raycroft putting up another abysmal season -- even as the Buds back-up -- all signs point that the incumbent goaltender is on his way out, thus leaving the door wide open for Justin Pogge.

With that said, you can most certainly expect that Toskala will once again be the team's go-to guy, only difference being that Pogge will be his back-up, so you can expect a shortened work load for the Finnish netminder. One has to wonder though, if Pogge delivers some solid performances will the next GM of the Leafs look into trading Toskala? The Buds would be able to acquire a vast portion of prospects, which would do nothing but help this wounded franchise. If the Leafs do decide to rebuild, then having a 23 year old goaltender in Pogge will not be the end of the world, and he can grow with the young team in the process.

Some Humor To Lighten Up Your Day 2


Thats all.....for now


Amateur Scouting Report: Justin Pogge

I had an opportunity to see the Leafs future #1 netminder tonight, as his Marlies visited Hamilton in the first game of a home-and-home, picking up a 3-2 victory in overtime. I say "future #1" with conviction after what I saw tonight. Not that there was any doubt before I got to see him in person, we all remember his great World Junior run, a tournament where he was named MVP of the gold medal winning Canadian squad.

First Impression

At first glance he looks very big, and takes up a lot of net. He is strong and powerful, but his balance and skating could still be improved. He likes to wander when playing the puck, but has a hard shot and great hockey sense. He always seems to know where his teammates are, and is able to get them the puck, even under pressure. That doesn't mean he is immune from any mistakes. A couple of times tonight he was caught hanging on to the puck for too long, and it nearly cost him.


He uses his size to his advantage, cutting down the angle very well. He is rarely caught out of position because of his power, which is a credit to his conditioning. His rebound control and reflexes both seem to be above-average, although one of the goals was scored when he got a large piece of a puck with his glove hand, it popped up in the air and landed in the net. I would write that off as a fluke because even getting his glove on the shot in the first place was remarkable.


His only downsides are his skating and balance, and they aren't even that bad. I'm really nitpicking when I say those are issues. They are just some areas he can improve at, although he is already better than most goaltenders in those areas. His maturity has also improved from last year, he now knows player's tendencies and has adapted very well to professional hockey.


Pogge's future remains unchanged from when they brought him up from the Calgary Hitmen. Play 2 or 3 years in the AHL and gradually make his way to the #1 job in Toronto. I believe that a 3rd year in the AHL can only be a good thing for Pogge. There is absolutely no reason to rush him, especially when it is up to a lackluster team such as the Leafs. I can see him splitting time with Vesa Toskala next season, but I wouldn't like it. It's not that he can't handle it, he's just as ready as Carey Price, but he can only get better from playing in the AHL. The Leafs don't need him, and shouldn't waste him. I know for Leafs fans keeping Pogge down in the minors feels a little like Christmas Eve, but it's for the better if you wait until morning to open your present. You don't want to spoil the surprise.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Unexpected: Vancouver Canucks

*NOTE*: I am currently writing a series of blogs discussing certain teams who I think have the best chance of winning the Cup. However, these clubs consist of teams whose expectations were low to start the season, or now, right before the playoffs. So far, I've I wrote about three of these clubs, the Montreal Canadiens, the New York Rangers and the Calgary Flames.

The final team I will be writing about is the Vancouver Canucks. I know what you’re thinking, this club is not exactly struggling so it seems odd that I would put them in the unexpected list, but I have not heard analysts around the hockey world mention the Canucks to win the Stanley Cup. They are a team that will lurk in the shadows once April comes around, that is, until they make it deep into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

While the Canucks aren’t particularly strong offensively (193 GF), they have the best goaltender in the NHL with Roberto Luongo and a strong defense to accompany him. On most nights, the Canucks are saved with tremendous goaltending that repeatedly gives the offense a chance to strike back. While it has proved to be a hit and miss scenario, the Canucks have the forwards to be a threat in the opposition’s zone, they just need them to realize that.

Let’s start with the team captain, Markus Naslund. At 34 years old, Naslund is beginning to show signs of aging, decreasing in points as the season’s pass. This season, he’s failed to establish himself as the team’s best player, only being able to produce 23 G and 53 PTS respectively. However, Naslund’s presence is still a must if the Canucks wish to attain the Stanley Cup Finals. Known as a quiet leader, Naslund has gained the respect of his teammates, and rightfully so. While he is struggling to produce, his presence brings out the best of everyone on that bench, which is essential going into the playoffs.

Another important forward for the Canucks is Daniel Sedin. While he works tremendously with his brother, Daniel is a special player in his own way. Establishing himself as a goal-scorer, Daniel has great hockey sense and it allows him to find open ice. While he is a threat offensively, he is also solid defensively. However, he’s dropped in the goals and points department scoring 26 G and 67 PTS so far compared to his 36 G and 84 points last season. Still, Daniel and his brother Henrik are proving to be the Canucks top scorers, producing consistently to garner the ‘Nucks some W’s under their belt.

Where there’s Daniel Sedin, there’s Henrik Sedin close by. The brothers have formed innate chemistry together, feeding of one another’s raw skill to play the puck with precision, or snipe it past the goaltender. Henrik is the playmaker of the duo, but it’s not as if he can’t score some goals (15 so far). While both the brothers have great defensive tendencies, Henrik is more reliable in that department; mainly due to the physical edge he brings to the table. Like Daniel, he too is struggling compared to last season, but they still remain one of the team’s best players.

As far as leadership is concerned, Brendan Morrison is a huge factor for the Canucks. When Morrison is in the line-up, the Canucks are instilled with pride, determination and character. The 32 year old can produce offensively as well, recording 9 G and 24 PTS in just 35 games this season after a wrist injury set him back. In Morrison, the Canucks have a good face-off man, an excellent playmaker, and a powerplay specialist. If he continues to stay healthy, he will play a vital part to the Canucks’ success in the playoffs.

While Matthias Ohlund is out for the remainder of the season with a knee injury, he will be an important player once the playoffs begin. Ohlund has size, mobility, a good hockey sense and a blast from the point. While he has the tools to be a huge factor offensively, he struggles to find consistency in that department. However, Ohlund is capable of shutting down the best forwards in the league, and this makes him a crucial part to the Canucks’ defense core.

If there is an intimating defenseman on the Canucks, it’s most certainly Kevin Bieksa. To go along with his big shot from the point, Bieksa loves to initiate the physical aspects of his game. He is defensively responsible and his durability will be well appreciated in the playoffs. After returning from a calf laceration injury, Bieksa is beginning to play at full potential once again, and just in time.

The key to any Canucks success is the play of Roberto Luongo. He is the team MVP and league superstar. At 28 years old, Luongo is one of the game’s best for possessing great size, fast speed, perfect butterfly positioning and having the ability to steal games. In the playoffs last year he posted an incredible 1.77 GAA and a .941 SV% in 12 games. If Luongo can produce those types of numbers again, you can bet that the Canucks won’t have to worry about goaltending issues.

With this core intact, the Canucks have the potential to do some serious damage in the post-season. However, the main concern still lies with their offensive production. If team captain Markus Naslund can inspire better efforts from his troops, the Canucks will host an all-around solid group of players.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

A Little Humor To Lighten Up Your Day

This is courtesy of Number 23 of Hockeybuzz.com:

Throughout its history, the NHL has had its share of "characters," and now is no different.

We all know that John Tortorella looks like Fonzie and Sidney Crosby looks like Butt-head, but here's a few you might not have noticed...

Jacques Martin / Ratatouille

I wonder what kind of chef Martin is...

Jack McIlhargey / Waldorf

Each knows what it's like to sit in "the box."

Pierre McGuire / Mr.Peanut

But which is really nuttier?

Mike Milbury / Jughead

No arguments from Long Island, I'll bet!

Don Cherry / Clarabell

If only Cherry talked like him, too.

Rick Jeanneret / Al Czervik (from Caddyshack)

"Hey everybody, the population of Pominville's gonna get laid!"

Great job Number 23

I hope to be doing one of these every week or maybe every day but im not sure check into the site and you will be sure to find out!

Ovie's Best Friend

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Unexpected: Calgary Flames

*NOTE*: I will be writing a series of blogs discussing a handful of teams whose expectations were minimal to start the season or even now. Within these teams, I believe one will take home the Stanley Cup to their franchise. So far, I've I wrote about two of these clubs, the Montreal Canadiens and the New York Rangers.

The Calgary Flames didn't start off with loads of potential going into the season, but with each passing game the club is finding their identity, one that got them into the Stanley Cup Finals a few years ago.

They began the year entrenched with inconsistency, frustration and false hope. Personally, I had them penciled out of the playoffs as soon the doom and gloom was in full effect. But one of the main reasons I think differently now is because of the way they're turning this ship around, and finding it within themselves to perform at a new level.

Bare with me when I predict such a thing as the Flames winning the Cup, because the gears aren't in full capacity yet, and the club has some questions to overcome. For one, while superstar goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff is performing better in the last months, he needs to reestablish himself as one of the teams franchise players. He struggled from the get-go, posting one of the league's worst stats amongst goaltenders, but since then he has gone nowhere but upward, slowly displaying the skills that made him a coveted top 5 goaltender just last season. Being a big fan of "Kipper", I've always admired his concentration, sound positioning and ability to perform at new levels in big games -- something that has slipped from him a bit this season. However, things are beginning to look promising going into the playoffs, with a 5-2-2 record, 1.79 GAA, and a .948 SV% in his last 9 games, Kiprusoff is delivering the kind of goaltending that is required to win the Stanley Cup.

Perhaps the most integral part to any Flames success is that of Captain Jarome Iginla. The 30-year old, Alberta native is dominating the NHL this season, placing 3rd amongst forwards in points with 86 -- 44 of those being goals. His lethal shot, blazing speed and team character has not gone unnoticed, and he remains a fan favorite in Calgary for his efforts. In the 2003 NHL Playoffs, "Iggy" posted an impressive 13 goals and 22 points in 26 games. If the Flames want to make it that far again, Iginla will have to raise his game even more, further proving he is the ultimate leader for this team.

When speaking of impact players on the Flames, it's hard not to think of Alex Tanguay. While he has not enjoyed a productive season (16G, 52PTS), he is crucial to any kind of Stanley Cup run the Flames might embark on in April. His tremendous speed, soft hands, and creativity are what make him such a versatile playmaker. He has the potential to be the Flames second best forward, and if he can find his game, he will prove to be a valuable linemate to Iginla on the powerplay.

Kristian Huselius is adding to his break-out performance last year, the 29-year old has compiled 64 points and 24 goals this season, proving to be one of the Flames most reliable scorers. The fast, skillful playmaker showed his true potential in the 06-07 NHL campaign, where he garnered an impressive 77 points and 34 goals to end the season. If the Flames want balanced scoring, they can’t depend solely on Iginla, it's up to players like Huselius to form a reliable supporting cast.

As we all know, defense wins championships, and it all starts with Dion Phaneuf. He is a hitting machine, laying out any opponents that stand in his way. To go along with that, he possesses a big shot from the point that is capable of making him a consistent 20+ goal scorer in the NHL (he has already reached 20 goals in just his rookie season). What makes Phaneuf so special is that he is displays a remarkable two-way game for a young defenseman. While he is not perfect in his own end, he continues to improve and shows signs of becoming a Norris Trophy winner in the very near future.

Daymond Langkow is enjoying another productive season, scoring 27 goals and 60 points so far. While he lacks the consistency to be a true first line center, his two-way ability has made him a vital part to the second line. At 31 years old, Langkow implements some veteran presence to this Flames club, further stabilizing the conservative game that has brought much of the Flames success.

In Robyn Regehr, the Flames have their shut-down defenseman. Regehr displays a great hockey sense, defensive responsibility, an exemplary work ethic, and a big frame. While he is not a threat offensively, he has a fairly accurate point shot, making him more mobile in key situations. At 27-years old, Regehr will get better, and eventually establish himself as one of the game’s best defensive defenseman.

With this core intact, the Flames have a shot at winning the Stanley Cup. Playing at full potential, they can display the physical edge, balanced scoring and spectacular goaltending that it requires in the prolonged weeks ahead.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Unexpected: New York Rangers

*NOTE*: I will be writing a series of blogs discussing a handful of teams whose expectations were minimal to start the season or even now. Within these teams, I believe one will take home the Stanley Cup to their franchise.

The second team I will be writing about is the New York Rangers. They debuted their off-season with a bang last summer, acquiring the likes of Scott Gomez and Chris Drury to an already offensive core. However, opinions varied whether or not this would prove to be a success.

As of today, they sit at 6th place in the Eastern Conference (37-24-9) and 5 points from 1st place. Much of their success has come from rock solid goaltending and reliable defense. While Drury and Gomez are not deemed failures, there is no player on their roster that has enjoyed a spectacular season offensively. In fact, not one player has a point-per-game, Gomez being the closest with 66 points in 70 games.

However, head coach Tom Renney has found an effective strategy for his forwards, separating his star players throughout three lines to form a good mix of offensive and defensive responsibility. The Rangers have potential to be an explosive team offensively, but they are currently struggling in the goal scoring department. If some of their key players can get back on track, the Rangers will be a complete team with minimal flaws aside from team character.

Imagine what a rejuvenated Jagr would do to the Rangers offense and team in general. He has only accumulated 18 goals and 59 points this season, quite low considering he won the Art Ross two years ago and posted 96 points last year. Don't be mistaken, if the Rangers are going to win anything this season, it will be because of this man. When he's on fire, so are the Rangers. And while he makes questionable decisions in his own end, he more than makes up for it if he's sniping goals and creating plays like used to.

A big reason as to why I think the Rangers have a good shot at the Cup is mainly due to their goaltending. "King Henrik" has had two Vezina Trophy nominations in the past two seasons and is capable of stealing games on a nightly basis. He displays a cool demeanor, quick reflexes, an incredible glove hand and perfect butterfly positioning. He has posted a 32-21-7 record to go along with a .910 SV%, 2.30 GAA and a remarkable 9 shutouts. As we all know, goaltending is the most crucial aspect to make a run for the Stanley Cup, and the Rangers don't have to worry about that.

A player who cannot go unnoticed for his efforts is Brendan Shanahan. At 39 years old he continues to be a force offensively, scoring 22 goals in 62 games this season. Serving as a veteran presence, he is an excellent mentor for players like Brandon Dubinsky and Nigel Dawes, displaying emotion and aggressiveness to his game. With an old-school wrist shot at his disposal, "Shanny" is a keeper once the playoffs come around.

In the off-season, many analysts questioned the Rangers' defense, and whether it would be enough to withstand the 82-game schedule. As you can tell, that criticism has ceased. The Rangers' defense has not been outstanding, but they have displayed a reliable, simple strategy. On most nights, they go unnoticed by viewers, and this is not a bad thing. It means they are doing their job and are not getting caught in their own zone with bad defensive decisions.

Going into the playoffs, you can imagine the Rangers won't be discussed as Cup favorites or even making a significant run. I think that's false, if the Rangers can polish all facets of their game to new levels, they will be a force to be reckoned with. While they have had problems with motivation and team character, it appears as though it builds stronger with every game, and once the playoffs start it's up to the players to redefine and strengthen it to new levels.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Wanted: Fresh Ideas for Increasing Scoring

Night after night on Sportscentre, hockey fans across North America are seeing 5-4, 4-3, or 4-2 games. Even with goal scoring on the rise (5 players have legitimate shots at 100 points this season) we all know it's only a matter of time before someone chimes up about how we can increase scoring in the NHL. I really don't think it's needed based on the statistics, but ideas are still being thrown around. Shrinking goalies, expanding nets, and allowing more curved sticks have all been suggested as ways we can go about doing that. None of these ideas are the "perfect" idea. There are clear flaws in each of them.

Shrinking goalies may work to an extent, but I fail to see how it will have a drastic effect on goal scoring. Some of the flaps on the pads, extra material on the pants, and extra pieces on the gloves can be eliminated, but goalies will cope. Suggesting a significant drop in equipment size couldn't be more wrong. People who suggest that fail to realize that the players who are taking shots are bigger and stronger than ever. Combine that with the composite sticks, and it's a deadly combination. If a puck catches you in an awkward spot, you could break a rib easily (See: Luongo earlier this year) I even asked Cedrick Desjardins of the Hamilton Bulldogs about it in an earlier interview, and he feels the same way. "You can try to change the equipment on the goalie instead, but make sure he is still safe." It's a valid point because goaltenders are not just "playing the system" like some fans believe, they honestly do not want to get injured. Wouldn't you want the most amount of protection possible if you were throwing your body in front of 100 MPH slap shots?

Now, expanding nets is a whole other situation. We've all seen the pictures of the net with the enlarged corners, you know, the ones that make every hockey purist cringe. They tried these out in some rookie camps a few years ago, but the amount of goal scoring didn't seem to change. In fact, it went down, and I quote Cedrick again "I tried it at rookie camp with Montreal, in Toronto, and they had the bigger nets but the scores were still, like 3-1, 2-1, so it wasn't a big difference. They were a little bit bigger, but it didn't change it that much." To some, the thought of changing the very fabric of the game, a 4x6 net, is insane. Not only would it piss of the purists, it would reduce the quality of goals scored. Shots high blocker would start to be scored on a more than regular basis. It's not physically possible for a goaltender carrying a stick to bring his blocker up that high in a split second. Who wants to see guys step over the blue line and just wire it high blocker? The butterfly style has caused players to find highlight reel ways to score goals, which is only a good thing for the league.

I like the idea of allowing bigger curves to an extent. Unlimited curves should not be allowed, like some have suggested. We don't want to make it so that players can roof the puck with the flick of a wrist (and it would completely eliminate the backhand) but, the rule should be lessened year after year until we find the appropriate curve limit. But again I am forced to ask the question, will this really have a huge effect on goal scoring?

That's where you, the reader, comes in. I want to hear about some fresh, new ideas for increasing scoring. Everyone is sick of the ideas that have been thrown around for years, now show us something new. Don't suggest something that the league would never go for, but something plausible that people may have over looked. Lets hear it!

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Unexpected: Montreal Canadiens

I will be writing a series of blogs discussing a handful of teams whose expectations were minimal to start the season or even now; within these teams, I believe one will take home the Stanley Cup to their franchise. I am beginning with a team that was doubted from the get-go, the Montreal Canadiens.

After missing the playoffs in the 06/07 campaign, the Habs tweaked some of their woes by dipping in the UFA frenzy, acquiring D Roman Hamrlik, F Tom Kostoupolos and F Bryan Smolinski to bolster their club. Analysts, and fans alike, thought the subtraction of Sheldon Souray would cripple a strong power play, rendering them to the Eastern Conference basement. What made this prediction even more convincing for many was the fact that the Habs got rejected from superstar Daniel Briere, so the second-tier UFA's just didn’t seem like enough. But what many forgot is that the Habs host a strong core of youngsters, and the acquisition of Carey Price to their goaltending would surely add more stability between the pipes.

Well, as of today, the Habs sit second place in the Eastern Conference with 38 wins in 70 games for 85 points. The reason for such success is mainly from the break through performances from the young guns. Tomas Plekanec is atop that category, he currently holds 27 goals and 63 points for second on the team in scoring. His speed and two-way ability is what makes him one of the Canadiens top players. While he is crafty and creative in the offensive zone, he plays almost as well in his own end. He doesn't hit the opposition like teammate Mike Komisarek, but he uses his incredible hockey sense to shut-down offenders down with tremendous stick work. In only his 3rd NHL season, his play shows great potential to be an impact #1 center. While he is behind Saku Koivu on the depth chart, he is now the true #1 on this team, centering a deadly line beside Andrei Kostitsyn and Alexei Kovalev.

Another young player who is making a big impression is Andrei Kostitsyn. In only his second NHL season he has posted 21 goals and 45 points so far. What is so impressive, however, is that he can keep up with top line minutes playing alongside Plekanec and Kovalev and barely show signs of slowing down. One of the main reasons the line shines of speed and creativity is that all three players hold similar traits. It's a scary thought when you consider that Plekanec might have the worst hands on the line. While Kostitsyn doesn’t possess a strong two-way game, he has lots of room to improve in his own end. Every once in a while you will see him throw a big body check too, that is encouraging for the future.

The other Kostitsyn is not too shabby himself. Sergei Kostitsyn was a mid-season call-up, and after displaying raw ability in the offensive zone, the Habs couldn't send him back. Much like his brother, he lacks strong defensive play, but he makes up for it with creative playmaking and a knack for being at the right place at right time to finish a play. In a nutshell, he is exactly like his brother, displaying all the same positives and negatives. Look for them to be paired together in the near future.

While Christopher Higgins has not enjoyed a breakthrough season like the others, he is still developing nicely and shows signs of becoming a Chris Drury type player. In 70 games this season, he has 21 goals and 43 points. He has struggled at times during the season, much like his line mates, but his potential is uncanny. What makes Higgins highly touted in my eyes is his nose for the net and willingness to use his body to finish a play. To go along with that he is responsible in his own end, making him a valuable two-way forward. In Higgins the Habs have a potential 40-goal scorer and considering he has a big heart towards the game, I am excited to see his play come playoff time in a few weeks.

On the back-end, we have Mike Komisarek. Known as a stable defender and monster hitter, "Komi" has upped his game this season, flirting with top-end rankings in almost all defensive stats. Hits, blocked shots, he does it all. A crucial part of his game is his mean streak, if the Habs are in the thick of things, you can expect Komisarek to make sure his teammates aren't getting pushed around. While he rarely translates that with fists, he uses huge body checks to make his statement.

Then there's Carey Price, the now undisputed starting goaltender for the Habs. Touted as the next Luongo by many, he is enjoying a spectacular rookie season, posting a .913 SV%, 2.77 GAA, and 16 wins in 32 games. His big frame and clutch performances helping him along the way, the Habs are expecting him to carry them throughout the playoffs, hoping for a Hamilton Bulldogs repeat. If there is something I noticed about Price this season, it's that he is gradually getting better. His stats are slowly climbing by the game and his problem of letting in the occasional soft goal has slowed considerably. After goaltender Cristobal Huet was traded to the Washington Capitals, Price raised his game to another level, fully feeling the effects of being a starting goaltender in the NHL. If the Habs are going to win the Stanley Cup this season, it will be because of this man.

To go along with a strong core of young players, the Habs owe some of their success to the veterans, who have mentored and crafted the youngster to what they are. I'll start with Kovalev, the Russian native has re-surged this season, showing signs of his New York Rangers days. He is the leader of the Habs, placing first in team scoring with 73 points and 30 goals so far. His creative plays and outstanding hands is what makes him so dangerous, whether he snipes it from the slot or passes it to his line mates Plekanec and A.Kostitsyn, it doesn’t matter, you better be prepared.

A player who has enjoyed a break-through season is Andrei Markov. All who have followed the Habs knew he had it in him, and it appears the departure of Sheldon Souray, making him the pillar on the power play, is just what the doctor ordered. With 14 goals and 54 points this season, it's hard to find negatives about Markov. His shot has improved tremendously, and combined with his accurate passing it makes him a major threat offensively. His defensive game is superb as well, he is not afraid to throw the body every once in a while and he plays a responsible and consistent defensive game.

UFA acquisition Roman Hamrlik has displayed a strong game as well this season, proving to be one of the Habs most valuable players on defense. While he has not garnered a ton of points this season (4 goals, 23 points) his defensive game is sound. His veteran presence has been nothing but beneficial for players like Komisarek too, backstopping one the Eastern Conference’s best defensive squads. It's no coincidence that the Habs went on a slump when Hamrlik was injured, only to find themselves back on track when he returned.

It's hard not to mention Koivu when speaking of any Habs success. While he is not posting numbers he did last season, his leadership and dedication to the Habs is unquestionable. Whether you notice his presence on the Habs or not, you can bet they would be a different team without Koivu in the locker room. While his flame may be starting to dim, the Habs must hold on to Koivu in the coming years if they wish to grasp Lord Stanley with this young squad.

A big part of the Habs success is the power play, and that is no secret. That's why it's so hard to not mention the underrated Mark Streit, who has posted 50 points and 12 goals so far this season. While he is not dependable in his own zone (-10) he has tremendous hockey sense in the offensive zone and sets up players beautifully from blue-line or from anywhere in the zone really -- which why he was often used as a forward on many nights.

Make no mistake, if the Habs core of players raises their game to a new level once mid-April comes around, I'd be very comfortable in predicting them to raise the Stanley Cup. What we must take into account however, is that much of the Habs success comes from the youngsters, and once the playoffs start it's a whole new level of play for them. The Habs will have to make a huge statement in the first round, and much of that will have to revolve around consistency and durability. Beyond that, anything can happen.

The Race for the Calder Trophy

In roughly one month, the blazing turbines of a rookie race -- which is unfortunately getting ignored from the media -- will cease. Let'€™s meet the candidates who will most likely raise some eyebrows for grasping the "Calder Trophy".

Patrick Kane: The 19-year old Buffalo native debuted his NHL career with the Chicago Blackhawks. Initial expectations were that Kane would follow in the shadow of the highly touted Jonathan Toews, but that proved to be false. Kane has emerged as the perfect line mate for Toews, feeding of each others raw skill to play the puck with precision, or snipe it top corner. But with a mid-season injury to Toews -- including roughly 5 other regulars -- Kane was counted on to carry the load, and that's what he did. What makes Kane such a tremendous player is his superb vision, prodigious puck-handling skills, and his playmaking abilities. For months he was the leader in the rookie scoring, just recently getting his 57 points surpassed by Washington Capitals rookie Niklas Backstrom, by 1 point.

Niklas Backstrom: The 4th overall pick in 2006 has emerged as one of the Washington Capitals best players. At 20 years old, he is finishing off a tremendous rookie season centering phenom Alexander Ovechkin. However, do not let such a fact cloud your judgment on him. Backstrom has worked for the opportunity, and he’s now taking full advantage of it. He currently leads the NHL in rookie points with an impressive 58 points. His playmaking abilities combined with maturity beyond his years gives a strong indication that Backstrom may very well walk away with the Calder.

Jonathan Toews: If it were not for a mid-season injury, Toews would be your Calder Trophy winner. He currently holds the best PPG amongst rookies with a .88 (18 G, 43 PTS in 49 games) and if it were not for the injury he would finish with the most goals as well. Toews is a product of solid, dependable two-way play. He is responsible in his own end and hockey sense and offensive creativity is uncanny. With a core of bright young players developing in Chicago, here is your franchise player.

Carey Price: With Cristobal Huet finding his way on the Capitals, Price is now the undisputed starter in Montreal. Sitting atop the Eastern Conference, the Canadiens are backstopped with a tremendous goaltender in the making that is experiencing the hype of the NHL's most hockey crazed city in just one season. What makes Price such a highly touted prospect is his solid positioning, clutch performances, smooth puck handling abilities, and a huge frame (6'3, 225 lbs.) among other things. In 31 games so far this season, he has posted a .913 SV%, 2.76 GAA, and 16 W to go along with 1 SO. What we must take into consideration is that Price is just 20 years old. The average age of a goaltender making an impact in the NHL is around 25 years old. This should play a huge part in deciding the Calder Trophy winner.

The winner will emerge within the list above in my opinion. Some dark horses may erupt near the end, like Peter Mueller or Erik Johnson, but if I was a betting man (which I'm not being a Leafs fan -- unless it's against them) I'd go with the before mentioned.

Personally, I am not comfortable even picking a winner, because I believe all of them have a significant shot at the Calder Trophy. Letting this intriguing story play itself out is what ultimately does it justice.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Habs........Rise To The Top

At the beginning of the 2007-08 NHL hockey season almost all NHL analyst and sports magazines and rankings had the Montreal Canadiens out of the playoffs. Their placements were between 15th spot in the conference all the way to 12th. Most people called them "an up and coming team for the future," others just called them too young to compete among the elite teams in the league. Almost all of them said in the next three years we will become a great team, but until then we were just average.

That was all the motivation the Habs needed. They found a first line in the Kovalev-Plekanec-A.Kostitsyn line and have solid goaltending with youngster Carey Price. Their defence tandem of Komisarek and Markov have helped out a ton, and in the words of Pierre Mcguire, Komisarek has been a "MONSTER". The addition of Roman Hamrlik at the beginning of the year had led to a steady defence with yet another youngster in Ryan O'Byrne helping the case.

One of the few minuses you can find are the fact that 2 of the players we acquired as free agents have not performed to their potential and are sitting in the press box as a waste of money. Tom Kostopoulos one of those wastes has showed some bright spots such as sticking up for his teammates, but he does not provide much (if any) scoring that is needed. Smolinski has not done a lot, and with hot forward Mikhail Grabovski coming in he wont get much playing time to prove anything. Do I really have to mention Brisebois?

Our coach, Guy Carbonneau, is in my opinion one of the most underrated coaches in the league. He is also a big reason to the success of this year. I think the fact that at the beginning of the year Carbonneau and Gainey sat down with their *STAR* Alexei Kovalev and had a chat about the upcoming season and I believe that is the thing that lit a spark under Kovalev's backside.

I believe that my team, the Montreal Canadiens, are a Stanley Cup Contender, but I also think "NEXT YEAR IS THE YEAR" of "THE CH".

Ovie's Best Friend

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Digging Woes from Management

This blog is specified between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Pittsburgh Penguins -- two teams that have felt the cold and unfair hand of management stamp down on decisions, exiling the General Managers. It is a process which can end a GM’s tenure quite easily. The management sees an opportunity, exploits it whether or not the GM sees fit, and the repercussions always fall squarely on the GM regardless.

In JFJ’s case, for example, is a man who was pulled down to the muck because of MLSE, despite his flaws in decision making. A few years ago -- when things were becoming amuck for the Blue and White faithful -- JFJ proposed a rebuilding plan to the upper management in hopes to ice a competitive team in the near future. His idea was shot down, thus forcing him to acquire players like Jason Blake, Mark Bell, Eric Lindros, Jason Allison, and Andrew Raycroft just to name a few. As you know, this type of thing does not project a team forward but rather guides them on a linear path, whatever their goal might be. In the Maple Leafs case, that goal was mediocrity, and boy oh boy did they nail it! In the past two seasons, the Leafs have missed the playoffs, landing in 9th place both times. This season appears to hold the same fate for the Buds, but I suppose anything can happen in the NHL.

The point is, JFJ lost his job because MLSE felt that the team was going nowhere and needed a seasoned veteran like current Leafs-GM Cliff Fletcher to blow it up. There is something terribly wrong here. If MLSE would of followed through with JFJ’s initial plan, I wonder what the discussion would be involving the Leafs now days? Maybe speaking of the latest prospects that are tearing it up in the minors, or perhaps discussing the potential of a core a youngster on the Leafs. Instead, we have rants from some of Leafs Nation claiming that Mats Sundin has “let this team down” by not waiving his no-trade clause. It’s funny how that works, considering Sundin was hailed a hero 6 months ago.

Don’t blame JFJ entirely for the abundance of no-trade clauses on this team either. Sure it was partly his fault, but we must remember that he did not plan such a questionable stance for the Leafs to begin with. He worked with what he had, and was forced to propel them to the post-season, or just making 8th place, whichever you prefer. Because of the ignorance of MLSE, JFJ lost his job.

A similar situation could reside with Pittsburgh Penguins-GM Ray Shero. Coming into the NHL Trade Deadline, Shero had plans to buff up his club heading into the playoffs. What he did not have plans for, however, is unloading a core of youth for superstar winger Marian Hossa. An all or nothing deal if you think about it. I fail to understand how the Pens will be able to lock-up all key players in the summer without going over the Cap. Especially considering Evgeni Malkin is finishing off a monster season. Regardless, Pens manager Mario Lemieux thought it would be a great addition to their club, so he enforced it upon Shero. And you can full well expect the repercussions to land on the GM should the deal be deemed a failure.

So with that in mind, it would appear there is a good chance that Shero’s job may be teetering from the result of this trade. This is no ordinary trade either, it’s huge. Fans of the Penguins will be calling for blood if the likes of Angelo Esposito, Erik Christensen, Colby Armstrong and 1st round pick are all unloaded for nothing. Guess who takes the blame?

When the position of General Manager is awarded to an individual, it should ensure full autonomy. The decisions enforced by management should be changed to suggestions, thus implementing fair game for the GM. This would lay both the praise and blame on the individual, and like life teaches us, we learn from our mistakes and from our accomplishments – isn’t this how every job should be?