January 26, 2020

Women's Hockey and the 2020 NHL All Star Weekend

As a kid, I loved the NHL All Star game.

How could you not? It's the only chance to you get to watch the best hockey players in the NHL play together on a dream team. I used to take my hockey cards and dream up teams. Gretzky with Mario. Hawerchuk with Goulet. Bourque and Coffey on the same blue line. It could never happen, except for on NHL All Star Weekend.

As an adult you come to realize that the game is a farce. The players are not exactly trying that hard. There is little at stake and even less physicality. In fact it resembles pond hockey more than a NHL game. So I stopped watching the All Star game long ago. It's for the kids. For the rest of us, it is what it is.

On Friday night I turned on All Stars Skill Competition and found myself really quite enjoying the festivities.

The two marquee events - the hardest shooter and faster skater - were fantastic. The accuracy shooting was a little awkward but always intriguing. The grand finale was a little hokey, with the players shooting at targets from high above the ice. But it was fun.

But do you know what I enjoyed most? The 3 on 3 women's hockey game.

It was fantastic hockey with wonderful hockey skill on display. It left me wanting more. And all the talk about the eventual and inevitable NHL sponsored women's league left me wanting more. I want to see more of Marie Philip Poulin and Rebecca Johnston and Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson.

I think what I liked best about it was the fact that the game is a little bit slower. I love the breathtaking speed that the NHL is played with now, but slowing the game down a touch, where quickness is more important than all out speed, made me want to see more of it. The women's game has always been different than the men's game. It has to be different to successfully put the comparisons aside.

The only bad part about the women's game was that it was 3 on 3. The women do not play 3 on 3, so as great as it was it could have been better. The strategies involved in 3 on 3 were foreign to these athletes. You could tell they were gassed by the end of the periods, perhaps underestimating just how taxing the 3 on 3 game must be.

I really hope the NHL puts together their inevitable women's league by next season. I do believe they have a plan ready to roll out when the time is right. It's far too complicated for most of us to understand, but the NHL will continue to wait until the failure of the NWHL for legal reasons. They will continue to wait, as will most of the athletes who are boycotting the NWHL in hopes that it fails.  These hockey stars not playing for two seasons is detrimental to women's hockey. They need to be on the ice and ready to star when the NHL's new league opens. The sports market is ready for it.

January 21, 2020

Can Canucks Make The Playoffs in 2020?

Will the Vancouver Canucks make the playoffs?

Well things look decent at mid-season. The Canucks entered their All Star break in first place in the Pacific Division and on pace for 95 points. 95 points should leave them knocking on the wild card door if they don't make it in based on divisional standing.

At the beginning of the season I was skeptical that the Canucks could make the playoffs. I was on record as saying that an awful lot of things would have to go right for the team to make it. 

Now at the All Star break I'm more optimistic that they can, and it is because an awful of those things that had go to right have done exactly that.

The Pacific Division has proven to be weaker than thought. San Jose has completely bottomed out. Calgary and Las Vegas have had rough patches. Edmonton seems not quite ready to emerge despite the amazing play of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Arizona has been a mild surprise but they are very dependent on goaltender Darcy Kuemper.

The revamped defense is improved. Tyler Myers and Oscar Fantenberg have provided solid minutes, while Jordie Benn, surprisingly to me anyway, has not. But bottom line the Canucks defense comes down to healthy (more or less) play from Alex Edler and Chris Tanev (who looks the best he has in years) and Quinn Hughes.

I had said Hughes would have to have near the rookie impact this season that Elias Pettersson had last season. Hughes has done exactly that which bodes very well for the Canucks for the next decade.

Let's get back to Pettersson in a second. The blue line is improved yes, but time and time again the Canucks have been bailed out by MVP goaltender Jakob Markstrom. The Canucks have a very interesting decision to make soon given that Markstrom is a soon to be UFA and will cash in nicely. Rookies Thatcher Demko and Michael Dipietro (on the farm team) have been fantastic but neither are ready to take over. Can the Canucks afford Markstrom given their tight salary cap situation? And the Seattle expansion draft further complicates things.

Now on to Pettersson. He has not regressed at all in is second season. I don't think he has wowed offensively in quite the same way this year, but his output is strong. And more importantly his overall game is rounding into shape very nicely.

The importance of JT Miller's addition can not be understated, and same can be said for Tanner Pearson, too. Both have really aided the Canucks young scoring stars. Brock Boeser and, surprise, surprise, Jake Virtanen and, at times, Adam Gaudette, are proving to be exciting young pieces. 

Bo Horvat is the jack of all trades who continues to be hampered only by the continued absence of veterans like Brandon Sutter and Michael Ferland. One of these years Captain Bo will finally get his chance to shine rather than having to do all the heavy work.

The team can score, though defensively they can only go as far as Markstrom will take them. Maybe they can get guys like Sutter and Ferland and Antoine Roussel rolling for the stretch drive. Their heavy games will be needed to make the playoffs and certainly in the playoffs.

Will the Canucks make the playoffs? I am certainly more cautiously optimistic at this point of the season compared to any other point in the past number of years.  Hopefully they can do it before a summer of interesting decisions forced upon them by their salary cap mishandlings. 

December 30, 2019

Alexander The Great

Just how good is Alexander Ovechkin?

This from Steve Simmons:

The great Alex Ovechkin has had 10 seasons of 45 goals or more, which is more than remarkable in this day and age The nine active scorers who follow him – Patrick Marleau, Sidney Crosby, Eric Staal, Joe Thornton, Steven Stamkos, Evgeni Malkin, Jeff Carter, Corey Perry and Zach Parise – have had 10 45-plus scoring seasons as well – when you combine all of them together.

Here's more from Simmons

December 26, 2019

World Juniors Bring Us All Together

I love to travel.

In 2019 we went to Italy and Greece, to the former Yugoslavia and the national parks of Utah and Arizona.

If I allow myself to reminisce about the possible origins of my love of travel, I keep coming back to the World Juniors.

As a kid I loved it when Team Canada traveled to Europe. It was a glimpse into life around the world. Finland. Russia. Czechoslovakia, as it was known then. I was always fascinated by the foreign, far off lands. The people, too. The hockey players and the fans, from such different cultures and, in the days of the Cold War, our enemies, were just like us.

That's the best part of international hockey. It proves it is a small world. The athletes, the fans, the host cities are all brought together by commonalities - most notably the love of hockey.

And that's what I have learned in my travels. You can go off to amazing, foreign lands, but you look for what binds us all together.

December 16, 2019

Ilya Kovalchuk Leaves Kings

It was doomed from the start. Everyone, except the LA Kings apparently, knew that giving 35 year old Ilya Kovalchuk at 3 year/$18.75 million contract was a bad idea. Now the Kings know it too after the two sides agreed to terminate the contract.

Kovy was once a great goal scorer - and is a Hockey Hall of Fame candidate because of it. His NHL career ending on such a bad note does not change his consideration there.

But will resurface? The KHL will undoubtedly offer lucrative money, but those offers will remain until next season should Kovalchuk attempt to resurface elsewhere in the NHL this season. He almost certainly will end his career with Avangard Omsk

Is there a team that would take him? On the cheap, he could be an interesting gamble. It's not often you can find too many players with 436 career NHL goals available this time of year. If Kovy's willing to sign for near the league minimum in exchange for a chance for redemption and a chance to win, maybe there's a match to be found?

Problem is Kovalchuk brings little to the ice in the other facets of the game. He has never been a great two-way player and contenders are contenders because they play the right way. Contenders don't look to add a goal scorer who can't do much as else.

Still, you have to think teams like Columbus, Dallas (where they've had great success with Alex Radulov) and New York Islanders (Lou Lamoreillo and Kovy go back a long ways) have already had discussions about Kovalchuk.

Is Patrick Kane The Greatest Chicago Blackhawks Player Ever?

Is Patrick Kane the greatest Chicago Blackhawks player ever?

That's the question Ken Campbell of The Hockey News has posed. And he may be right.

My initial reaction was "No way!" How can he be better than the legendary Bobby Hull or, the player I consider to be the best Hawks player of all time, Stan Mikita.  After a bit more thought, Pierre Pilote's name should also be listed.

But then I started thinking about the other great Hawks. Denis Savard - oh what a wonderfully comparable player for Kane. Both have so much sizzle, but Kane has those Stanley Cups. Keith Magnuson - a proud Hawk but ultimately not a truly great player. Doug Bentley? Bill Mosienko? Charlie Gardiner? All have legitimate cases, but at some point we have to draw the line between the modern era and golden days.

Bottom line - it seems crazy to suggest any Hawks player will ever be better than Bobby Hull or Stan Mikita. But maybe Campbell is right and Kane has a really good case. I'm not sure where I sit on this one, but I'm open to it. Let's let Kane finish his career first.

December 15, 2019

Raise A Glass For Thirsty Michael DiPietro

I find myself cheering for the underdog when it comes to Canucks prospect Michael DiPietro.

DiPietro is one of the upper echelon goaltending prospects outside the NHL. He was a dominant goalie most notably with Windsor and, late in his junior career, with Ottawa. He was also a regular with Canada on the international scene. He has a reputation as a great kid with only his work ethic being bigger than his smile.

The Canucks drafted him 64th overall in the 2017 NHL draft, but he remained a bit of a long shot because of his size. He is a rare goalie who is "just" 6 feet tall. Nowadays NHL goalies could be NBA guards, that is how tall they tend to be. When I was a kid a 6 foot tall goalie was considered to be a pretty tall goalie. Now guys like DiPietro look tiny in the net. He is at an immediate disadvantage because he just doesn't occupy as much space as so many goalies do nowadays. Shooters could feast upon that.

But that's not really why I'm cheering for him. I cheer for him because of the way he has to play to compensate for that lack of size. Instead of blocking shots, he needs to be an athletic puck stopper. If he's going to be successful in the NHL, he's going to be spectacular in the process.

Another reason you have to cheer for the kid is because everyone felt so bad about what happened to him in his NHL debut in the 2018-19 season. It seemed every Canucks goalie in the system ended up in the hospital on the night February 11th, 2019. The Canucks had to call up DiPietro out of the junior leagues on an emergency basis to face the high flying San Jose Sharks. The Sharks shellacked the poor kid 7-2, although it was one of the weirdest nights for any NHL goalie in recent memory. There were some crazy bounces to say the least. Everyone in the building - even the Sharks - felt bad for the kid.

DiPietro turned pro this season and has been exceptionally strong in his AHL rookie season with Utica. Lately he's been back with the Canucks, soaking up a more positive atmosphere than his first go around. DiPietro has been backing up Jacob Markstrom in recent games as Thatcher Demko has suffered a concussion. Work hard in practice. Travel with the team. See what it takes to be a NHL pro first hand. But the Canucks really did not want to have to use DiPietro in game action.

That changed on December 15th, 2019 against the Las Vegas Golden Knights. The Knights were clearly the better team on this night, amassing a 5-2 lead when Canucks coach Travis Green decided to relieve Markstrom of his duties in net for the rest of the night. Not that this game was on Markstrom by any means, but Green knew he had to save Markstrom for a busy schedule heading into Christmas. So he gave DiPietro the net for the final nine minutes of the game.

I was just about to stop watching the game, in all honesty. The 5-2 goal was the final nail in the coffin for a Canucks team that looked horribly overmatched much of the night. But I had to watch the rookie goalie in net, and was hoping the hockey gods would treat him much better this time.

DiPietro play really well, stopping six of seven shots including a real doozie off of William Carrier. The kid was doing alright, though the always cagey Max Pacioretty beat him late in the game while expertly using the defenseman as a screen. It was one of those goals that I don't know if many NHL goalies would have stopped. You know, unless you were six foot seven and the puck just happened to hit you.

The one thing I noticed about DiPietro - the kid sure was thirsty. He was drinking from his water bottle at every stoppage of play. I found it funny, but good on the kid. Thrust into an unenviable situation, he's trying to find his routine to make this as normal as possible. So what if the big bad Vegas Knights are shooting on you. If you can find your groove, you'll quickly just get lost in the game and play as though it's just another game. It seemed to work for DiPietro for the most part.

The kid is going to be alright.