A way to get a”head” of Basketball

Hockey has the potential to be in rarified air this winter.  If all plays out, it will be the only major sport actually taking the playing field.  And sitting pretty comfortably in fourth in those major sport standings, ground can be made in the American sports fan’s eyes.

But there are obstacles in the way and foremost among those is the head injuries.  To compare hockey against football, the other sport fighting these injuries, football is working in the right direction, while hockey is not.

While football is starting to take away games from the players, hockey is sitting idly by.  For example, notorious head-hunter James Harrison drew a suspension last season for a helmet-to-helmet hit while David Steckel hit an unsuspecting Sidney Crosby away from play and got nothing.

In this, we’ll look at the case of the Crosby hit for two reasons.  It exemplifies the head injury case perfectly.  First, it caused lots of time to be missed and was a hit that had almost no reason to occur.  Second reason is that Crosby is the face of the NHL, and to lose him hurts the league significantly.

First off, the reaction by the league is astonishing.  While I commend them for not singling any player as more important than any other and finally reacting to this one, it’s confusing that Gary Bettman wouldn’t protect his most prized player.  Not only is Crosby the most famous face, he was in the midst of a magnificent season.  He held a substantial lead in the points race and seemed to be a lock for the Hart.  Not to mention he and Malkin were going to have the Penguins be a major factor down the stretch and in the end, this hit robbed both of the potential final results.

Second is the nature of the actual hit.  Earlier in the week leading up to the Winter Classic, Crosby was shaken up and the Caps knew this, and while I don’t think the intent was to put someone’s career into serious jeopardy, this hit reeks of premeditation.  They looked to cut the head (pun intended) off the Pens and they did exactly that.  If you watch the video, the puck goes past Crosby and he turns his head back to find it and continues skating forward.  And about three seconds after the puck passes, aka when the action is well down the ice, Steckel blindsides Crosby.  The hit is jarring and nothing comes of it.

This problem really stems from the league’s inconsistency in terms of discipline.  Sometimes the league is too harsh and sometimes too lenient.  But almost never in the middle.  And it seems they pick a punishment from a hat.

My suggestion is to establish a policy much like the NFL’s.  Shoulder or forearm to the head with any inkling of intent, should be three to four games first time.  Repeat offenders would get harsher and harsher penalties. The only way to try to fix this problem is to come down hard on the players and/or teams.  Make the players think twice about going for a kill shot.

Hockey will soon find out that people don’t want just brutality and if they do, they’ll watch MMA instead.  Make the game interesting with goals, sweet saves and nifty passes, not goons chasing each other down.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good John Scott beatdown, but I’d rather see a Patrick Sharp one timer from Jonathon Toews to win a game any day of the week.  Give the people something to clamor over and you’ll make the most of this opportunity.

Free Agency: Which Teams Have Faltered Thus Far?

In the wake of July 4th, the anniversary of when my motherland declared its independence from the big meanieheads in Britain, I’ve decided there’s no better way to spend my time than to analyze the recent events regarding a largely Canadian pastime: NHL Free Agency.  Huge blockbuster trades and signings have gone down all around the league over the last few days, and this is one of the more exciting years in recent memory.  The raising of the salary cap and floor by roughly four million or so has caused several teams to scramble and sign low line players for far more than they’re worth, and big name players to get huge contracts they couldn’t have managed in the past.  I’m a world-renowned pessimist, and as such would like to christen this publication with less of a celebratory fanfare and more of a cruel, finger pointing mockery of teams in the Western Conference who couldn’t handle themselves during the hectic free agency period.

Minnesota Wild: Right of the bat, I’m sure people are scratching their heads on this one.  How could any team that nabbed the coveted Dany Heatley be considered in the lower classes of Free Agency activity?  Quote Greg Graffin: “It’s never really what you own, but what you threw away.”  Yes, Heater is a beastly goal scorer and Devin Setoguchi is a hot, young dude who can score, but the Wild have given up just far too much otherwise.  Their plan was to essentially give the team a fresh start by focusing on young talent, which I understand, but giving up darn near all of your veterans isn’t the wisest idea.  Granted, Mikko Koivu is one of the most underrated centers in the game today, but he is one of the few returning players I’d like to have on my team.  Andrew Brunette ran away to Chicago, Chuck Kobasew is now residing in the Rockies with the rival Avs, the solid blue liner Cam Barker signed with the now (shockingly) promising Oilers, the continually improving Antti Miettinen has not resigned, and veteran leader and three-time Cup winner John Madden is sitting on the open market.  Worst of all, they traded away a stud D-man, Brent Burns, to San Jose for The Gooch and quick, veteran goal scorer Martin Havlat for the goal-scoring mech-warrior in Heater.  In terms of raw talent, I’d rather have Heatley on my team, but Havlat is now surrounded by all stars while Heatley is left to carry most of the team on his own with only Koivu to help shoulder the load.  He had Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson in Ottawa, he had joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau in San Jose, and he’s all alone in Minnesota.  Expect a lackluster season on his part.

St. Louis Blues: This one is more due to inactivity than poor decisions.  Hooray, they managed to keep young star T.J. Oshie, but this team needs more than him.  Apart from Oshie, David Backes, David Perron, and midseason acquisition, Chris Stewart, St. Louis doesn’t have much in the way of offense, and this was a great time to bolster themselves in that area.  By signing average, low-pair D-man, Kent Huskins and Brian Elliott to back up Jaroslav Halak in net, they’ve completely failed in that regard so far.  In fact, I believe one of the reasons Halak performed so lukewarmly last year was due to a lack of support in front of him, so a big D signing would help the team plenty as well, and yet here they sit, with people like McCabe and Arnott still available.  Maybe nobody wants to play for such a woeful team?  It seems to be happening in Long Island so I suppose it’s possible, but the fact remains that here sits a mediocre team who isn’t improving during the time in which you should really be doing so.

Editor’s note: Since the posting of this, the blues took Mike’s advice and signed Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott. With these new additions, Mike removes them from the list and adds the Colorado Avalanche due the Semyon Varlamov’s injuries and Jean-Sabastien Gigure’s age.

Nashville Predators: I like the signing of young Niclas Bergfors (even if he hasn’t been living up to the potential I thought he had in Jersey), but otherwise the Preds haven’t done a whole lot these first few days.  Their blueline is overall good like always (with one of the scariest top pairs in the league with Ryan Suter and the android known as Shea Weber) and Pekka Rinne is a lanky Vezina finalist with an impressive Anders Lindback backing him up in net, but like the Blues, this team really lacks a scoring touch.  Martin Erat and Patric Hornqvist can get it done best, with Sergei Kostitsyn and J.P. Dumont chipping in occasionally, but really this team is all about the defense.  It’s been working for them all this time, so I suppose I can’t fault them for not attempting to fix something that isn’t broken at the moment, but the recent trading of promising young defender Cody Franson and former Phoenix scorer Matthew Lombardi for defenseman Brett Lebda and forward Robert Slaney from Toronto doesn’t sit well with me at all.  Franson is a decent D-man with a moderate scoring touch but the Music City is stacked on his position, so he’ll have a chance to shine in Toronto, but Lombardi could have been the scoring man they needed.  I’m well aware his only season with Nashville was shortened by 80 games due to a concussion last year, but is it really a good idea to give up on him so quickly?  Not to mention what they got in return was another D-man and some nub who nobody’s ever heard of.  Nashville isn’t a big loser here, but I’m not a fan of what they’ve done so far, adding some offense to their game could make a world of difference (I’d like to use Anaheim as an example but they went out first round to this very team so I suppose that’s kind of moot).

Phoenix Coyotes: Keeping Radim Vrbata is a good thing, and signing Raffi Torres (as much as I don’t like him) is good for the team in terms of toughness, but the loss of Ed Jovanoski is really going to hurt.  As much as they’re going to miss JovoCop, where the ‘Yotes really lost was between the pipes.  Ilya Bryzgalov was far and away the best player down in the desert, and his recent defection to Philadelphia has left the team reeling.  In their scramble to replace Bryz, they’ve picked up Mike Smith from Tampa and Curtis McElhinney from Ottawa.  McElhinney isn’t a great goalie, but I suppose he’s a solid backup, playing the role for Jonas Hiller in Anaheim and a getting a little more time behind Elliott and later Anderson in Ottawa.  The problem is that he’s now playing backup to a guy who went from a 50/50 starter to a clear backup over the last two years with the Bolts.  Smith was promising enough for Tampa to shell out the extremely talented horse-toothed center who has made such a huge splash this offseason, Brad Richards, back a few years ago, but he’s clearly been a bust since losing his job to a quadragenarian with a mullet.  Shane Doan, the last remaining big name in Phoenix, is also past his prime and quickly approaching the end of his career, so it’s disappointing to see the team not doing a whole lot in the way of offense either.  You know your team is struggling when you’re in danger of being sold and moved, you know your team is going to suck when the only thing that Torres says when asking his reaction on signing is that he’s excited that he’ll be able to speak more Spanish down there.

Calgary Flames: I’m kind of stretching here, since in the realm of free agency, the Flames signed a grand total of one relevant player, defensemen Chris Butler.  What makes me think they’re going to be a worse team next year has more to do with what they lost.  Losing Robyn Regher costs the Flames a big presence, and while he isn’t a high profile scorer (he’s coming off back to back 2-15-17 seasons), he’s an important veteran to have on any team.  This leaves Jay Bouwmeester as the sole high profile defender since the aging Steve Staios is now a free agent, and Jay hasn’t been dangerous since he signed with Calgary.  For my money, Calgary is about to be in the same hole that the Oilers and Islanders have been trying to dig themselves out of these last few years.  Their biggest stars are reaching the end of their careers, apart from Granlund, the young guys don’t show quite as much promise as some other choice young’uns from around the league, and they’ve been on a steady decline over the last three or four years.

There’s my take on the first few days of free agency in the realm of teams that aren’t looking too hot, and I’m well aware that I’ve listed two teams that played in the playoffs last year, one of which going to the second round with both goaltender of the year and coach of the year nominees.  We’ll see about all of these things, but mark my words: Minnesota will not make the playoffs and Phoenix will crumble without Bryz backstopping them.

Toronto. The City That Should Riot

Every major sport in North America has that one team that has such a loyal fan base despite an inability to win.  In the MLB it’s the Chicago Cubs.  In the NBA it’s the New York Knickerbockers.  In the NFL, up until recently, it was the New Orleans Saints.  And in the NHL there is one team whose fan base stays solid through thick and thin and continues to sell out their arena.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are a team with a storied past in the NHL.  They are one of the Original Six teams and probably one of the most beloved franchises in all of sports.  The last time the Leafs won the Stanley Cup was 44 seasons ago in 1967, and they haven’t been back to the finals since, currently the longest drought in the NHL after my beloved Blackhawks won it all in 2010.  There was a recent resurgence for the team dating back to the early 1990s, lead by Doug Gilmour and the late 1990s and again in the early 2000s by Mats Sundin.  No doubt two of the best players of their eras, they still could not lead the Leafs to another Stanley Cup Final, despite making the playoffs 10 out of 12 seasons from 1992-93 to 2003-04 before the lock out.

One thing I’ve found funny in the recent six seasons of playoff-less hockey for Toronto is their rabid fan base thinks every free agent wants to sign with them; they are essentially the Knicks of the NHL. Brad Richards didn’t want to sign with them, and Steven Stamkos won’t unless it’s at the end of his career just for the novelty of playing for his hometown team.  I’m sorry, at this point nobody really wants to play there to win, they play there for money.

Last season, several players gave Leaf Nation hope.  Phil Kessel was the prized acquisition a couple seasons ago, but they gave up a lot for him.  Since turning 21, he’s logged three consecutive 30-goal seasons. James Reimer gives hope in the goaltender department, a position that has been a revolving door in recent years.  Experiments with Jean-Sébastien Giguère, Jonas Gustavsson and Vesa Toskala have left that position in a sinkhole.  Many young players currently on the roster show promise, including Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri, Mikhail Grabovski, Joffrey Lupul and Nikolai Kulemin.  Along with Kulemin, Clarke MacArthur had a career year last season.  I don’t see MacArthur playing as well as he did last season, but he is going to need to for the Leafs to make the playoffs.  I think there are two future stars on the blue line with Luke Schenn and Keith Aulie to go along with Phaneuf and Mike Komisarek.

Now let’s get to the acquisitions for the free agency of 2011-12 season.  Is Tim Connolly the center that Kessel has been waiting for?  Connolly can be a point per game player, but he’s had constant injury problems.  I see both guys around 80 points this year.

There were two other trades that saw defenseman Robert Lebda and prospect forward Robert Slaney shipped out for defenseman Cody Franson and winger Matthew Lombardi from the Predators.  The second trade brought in defenseman John-Michael Liles from the Avalanche for a 2012 2nd-round draft pick.  I like both trades and the signing for the Maple Leafs.  If Lombardi can recover fully from the concussion he sustained last year that made him miss almost the whole season, I see him having a good year alongside Kessel-Connolly or Grabovski.  Liles gives them the puck-moving defenseman they needed after the Tomas Kaberle trade; the only difference is Liles doesn’t pass up a shot like Kaberle does all too often. I really like Franson, as he’s a very solid defenseman.

So the question is, “Will the Leafs make the playoffs this year?”  My answer to that question is no.  They aren’t ready yet and the teams that were around them also made acquisitions that made them better.  Would I be surprised if they make it?  No, I wouldn’t be surprised, but Leafs fans, don’t hold your breath.

Free Agency Busts in the East

Free agency, it’s an exciting time of year for the avid fan. It comes just a few weeks after the champions have kissed the trophy and a city has celebrated. It comes just days after the NHL Entry Draft and just three months short of opening night.

As exciting as it is, it’s also a telltale sign of which teams will have the best chance at contending in the upcoming year. Some teams do absolutely nothing, others go crazy, yet still, some just mystify you with how much they seem to fumble in the offseason. I’m here to focus on these mind boggling blunders of the Eastern Conference this summer.

Before I do so, keep in mind that free agency doesn’t just mean who you signed, it’s who you didn’t sign, who was signed by another team, and what players and draft picks you’ve traded. For some teams, all they need is a tough guy or a goalie, for other teams, you might as well buy a whole roster. Without any further conversation, here are my five free agency busts of the East!

Toronto Maple Leafs

They really haven’t done much in free agency, which alone doesn’t mean too much, but unlike Boston, who won the Cup, they don’t really have anything going for them. For a team that finished 10th in their conference, they haven’t seemed to want to get better. The only moves truly worth noting are the signing of Tim Connolly and Clarke MacArthur. With James Reimer in net, and Jonas Gustavsson as his backup, Toronto seems to feel secure with their goaltending, I could argue against that, but I’ll simply say, “fair enough.”

Moving onto the forwards, I’ve already mentioned MacArthur and Connolly, which are decent pick ups, but they just don’t have any true star players. Since I went there, the names there aren’t that bad at all, but no one truly sticks out. There is no real Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, or Ilya Kovalchuk on this team. I can give them a break as they were one of the many teams lobbying for Brad Richards, but that’s still no true excuse. When it comes down to it, Toronto really could’ve used some room up front and there were definitely more than enough offensive talents out there. They have about $8.6 million in cap space (Capgeek.com), which is more than enough to land you a solid top six forward.

Toronto is relatively adequate with their defense, Dion Phaneuf heads this group and truly sticks out. They also have Mike Komisarek and John-Michael Liles. Toronto really should’ve tried a little bit harder to make improvements to their team. Even with the most of the offseason to go, Toronto just does not seem like they want to win and seems to be stuck in mediocrity.

New York Rangers

This is one that is bound to get some criticism. Yes, they signed Brad Richards, but is he really worth that much? For another team that seems to dwell in mediocrity, you’d expect much more than just one big signing. Each team plays with twelve forwards, six defensemen, and two goalies, not one Brad Richards.

The Rangers might just be the biggest free agency bust of the year. They signed Brad Richards, but Brandon Dubinsky, Brian Boyle, Michael Sauer and Ryan Callahan have all filed for salary arbitration. Usually, deals are struck before arbitration is reached, but not always. The one saving grace in all of this is that even after signing Brad Richards, they have roughly $16 million in cap space (CapGeek.com).

Now, they have some time to figure this all out, and if they can strike a deal with Callahan and Dubinsky at least, I may be able to forgive them for their terrible start to free agency. The problem is that they still need to add a couple more defenseman to fill their roster out even if they re-sign Sauer. They’re just another team that hasn’t really tried to fix their problems and looking towards one player won’t help them out.

Philadelphia Flyers

This one is just weird. Remember when I said some teams just mystify you, Paul Holmgren has made his team the one to do that this year. I don’t understand why sending away one of your alternate captains and your captain is a good idea. Sending one is excusable, but two of three, what are you thinking?!

However, the Flyers have made some nice pick ups. Signing Ilya Bryzgalov is probably one of the best moves by any team this offseason. This doesn’t excuse them from the bust category though. After all, they’ve lost or traded away about a third of their team.

As of today, the Flyers no longer have Ville Leino, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Sean O’Donnell, Brian Boucher, Dan Carcillo and Darrol Powe. Not every single one of those players is vital to a winning team or even a household name, but you’re talking about losing a third of the roster.

Guys like Powe, Carcillo and O’Donnell are mainly role players and are replaceable, but it’s hard to justify sending away both Carter and Richards. Yes, they Flyers did sign Jaromir Jagr and got Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek for Carter and Richards, but it’s really hard to say they’ve improved their team much, if at all.

Tampa Bay Lightning

I put Tampa Bay on my list because, like Philadelphia, I feel that they haven’t done enough to keep their team or make it any better. In particular, they have yet to sign Steven Stamkos. There seems to be some buzz about possible offers, but no solid information yet. This isn’t quite the end of the world, but if they want to remain a contender it is a must.

They’ve also lost some strong forwards in Simon Gagne and Sean Bergenheim. Not only that, but they have only 10 forwards on their roster if you include Stamkos. The Lightning have some grit to their lineup, but I think they need just a little bit more finesse and from someone who can play a top six forward position. Holding about $15.5 in cap space (CapGeek.com), Tampa Bay can still have a great offseason. To do this they will need to re-sign Stamkos and fill up their holes at forward, but so far they just haven’t done it yet.

New Jersey Devils

The Devils really haven’t done much at all this offseason, which is part of the reason I have them on this list. This one isn’t as simple as the rest, the Devils missed the playoffs last year, but they also had one of the best runs by any team last year. From the start, you can’t exactly say they are a horrible team. Although, Ilya Kovalchuk has handicapped them a bit with his monster contract.

With that in mind you don’t expect them to make many moves, but you expect more than almost nothing at all. The main reason I am including the Devils is Zach Parise. Unfortunately, Parise missed almost all of last year with an injury, otherwise the Devils could’ve saved themselves from such a hellish start to their season. I believe Parise is an absolute necessity to keeping this team afloat. As with Stamkos, Callahan, and Dubinsky, it is early in the offseason and these players will all sign soon enough, but you can’t wait around forever.

The Devils are a team that even though they struggled last year, they had it rolling from about January to March and were almost unstoppable. Prior to the offseason announcement of the raising of the salary cap, things looked to be quite rough for New Jersey this year. Call it a resurrection of sorts for the Devils. They sit just under $8 million cap space left (CapGeek.com), which should be enough to sign Parise, but they still will need to roll with a couple scratch players to fill out their roster and one more forward.

They still might want to make some moves to give them breathing room, but it shouldn’t be hard at all for them to do so. With a signed Parise, the Devils won’t have any true issues, but it would be nice to see a little bit of shuffling by them as well.

It’s not to late for any of these teams to turn things around as it is early in the offseason and free agency isn’t even a week old. This is time that is most essential to maintaining a solid team or fixing the sometimes gaping holes that exist. If you can’t make it through the offseason, you’ll be hitting the driving range come mid-April, and trust me, you don’t want that.

Welcome to Hockeymania

Welcome to my new brainchild, the Enforcers of Stanley blog. With the help of my friends, I hope to inform the masses of news in the world of hockey. The first piece is written by Tony Augsburg about the storied Toronto Maple Leafs franchise. I hope you enjoy not just this post, but the rest of this blog. Thank you for reading and taking the time to learn about the great game of hockey.

Sincerely,

Bill Hopkins, Editor-in-Chief