Friday, November 23, 2012

Here We Go Again: Calgary Invading Toronto

For a couple of cities who have hardly anything in common, Calgary and Toronto sure seemed to be tied together a lot at least when it comes to the Grey Cup.

It's also sort of poetic that the 100th anniversary of our national party known as the Grey Cup should feature not only the Calgary Stampeders but also be held in Toronto. The Grey Cup may go back 100 years but it really was Calgary Stampeder fans who made the Grey Cup come alive. All they had to do was ride a horse through the lobby of Toronto the Good's most venerated hotel--the Hotel York.
 THE place to horse around in Toronto

I'm not referring to yesterday's "incident" of Marty making an appearance in that hotel's lobby. It's a far more significant, out of the blue ride to glory after the Stamps won the 1948 Grey Cup. Even before beating the Ottawa Rough Riders 12-7, Stamps fans were already hootin' and hollerin' it up on Yonge Street and beyond. Two trainloads (yes, pre-airplane days) of fans had arrived in T.O. the week of the Grey Cup to show the staid Easterners how it was done. It also didn't hurt that the 1948 Stamps had run the table going 12-0 in the regular season (take that, '72 Miami Dolphins) in the Western Interprovincial Football Union.

Yes, back then there was no Canadian Football League yet. Besides the union in the West there were two Eastern "unions"--the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union (featuring most of the teams we have grown up with in the CFL Eastern Division) and the Ontario Rugby Football Union which included a team called the Toronto Beaches-Indians. I'm not sure what our now known as First Nations people had to do with Toronto beaches other than probably having a pretty legitimate land claim to them but they Jim Thorped it up at least for that season. After 1948 the Indians disappeared (I fully expect a Royal Commission to investigate this!) and the Balmy Beach Beachers resumed play until 1957 when the sands of Lake Ontario beaches one assumes blew them off the football map.

So when you're still calling your sport rugby football at least back East, we're not talking the nationwide appeal it has today. That's where Calgarians came in. It wasn't just the horses that showed up in the Hotel York's lobby, it was also Varsity Stadium's goalposts that the fans brought along. There's more, and it's worth reading what the Calgary Sun dug up on the legendary 1948 party at the Hotel York.

Needless to say the "modern" Grey Cup (and the impetus to create a national league although it took until 1958 for the CFL to actually form) really was sparked by the excitement generated from the perfect season of the 1948 Calgary Stampeders and its fans showing the nation that sports events are meant to be a party.

Fast-forward 23 years to 1971 and again we see Toronto and Calgary somehow become tied fatefully together. The 1971 Grey Cup held in Vancouver was to be the crowning glory for ending a 19-year championship drought for the Argos. Led by its colorful coach Leo Cahill and its even more colorful players (check out the "Engraved On A Nation" Greatest Team That Never Won episode online or on continuous repeat on TSN for more on that team), this was supposed to be the coronation of a team for the ages. One Leon McQuay fumble at the 12-yard line later and the Stamps were 14-11 champions on the rain-slick Tartan turf of Empire Stadium. X-Ray McQuay's fumble aside, the entire vaunted Argo offence was more to blame but then again this was an offence that managed barely 21 points a game in the regular season.

Suited up for the Argos

Twenty more years pass and the Argos are matched up with the Stamps in the 1991 Grey Cup. This is another star-studded Argo team put together by none other than Los Angeles Kings' owner Bruce McNall with a couple of his buddies, Wayne Gretzky and John Candy, along for the ownership ride. This time there was no unlucky Argo Bounce and Toronto's Rocket Ismail ran a kickoff back 87 yards to clinch the 1991 Grey Cup on a snowy field in Winnipeg.

Sure the Stamps and Argos have been in other Grey Cups vs. other opponents, but when they all too infrequently get matched up together something memorable seems to happen. Combine this with the teams both finally meeting up in the Centre of the Universe at the 100th Grey Cup and, well, put on your spurs and hitch up the horses, Martha, this one could be an all-time classic.
  Cowtown? This is a One-Horse Town!

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Less Than Perfect But Perfectly Great

The perfect player shoots...and doesn't score?

Nicklas Lidstrom will go straight into the Hall of Fame as one of the best defencemen of his generation but where do writers get the idea that Lidstrom, let alone any player, is perfect? Some writer even claimed he's the perfect human.

I'm confused by all this but should I really be? When Mark Messier retired he was hailed as the greatest leader since Alexander the Great (of the Macedonian League not the Great 8 from Russia). This supreme leader idea was created mainly from the two Cups he won without #99 and especially the Messiah moniker came about after leading the '94 New York Rangers to the Holy Grail. Of course, far be it for me to suggest any discussion of any player's career should cover that player's entire career. It never does as why let the fact that the teams Messier captained for the last seven seasons of his career missed the playoffs every single year get in the way of the myth making.

If Lidstrom is the perfect player would someone please explain to me his performance in the '00, '03, '06 and '12 playoffs.

In '00 and '06 he was either the worst (or tied for worse in '06) plus/minus player on the team. Yes, he logged the most minutes per game but maybe he should have had his ice time curtailed just a bit so he'd have been fresher those two seasons when the Avs got revenge in rd. two in '00 and the Wings got Rolosoned by the Edmonton Oilers in '06.

If we tote it up, those four playoff seasons spit out a stat line as follows:
23GP 3G 7A -11

Offensively very good even with not getting a single point in this year's playoffs but defensively is -11 considered perfection? Yes, it's nitpicking (sent your hate mail to this man) as out of a 20-year NHL career he's basically had 16 very good to great playoff seasons, but recalling my elementary school math, that still is not "perfect" no matter how you twist the New Math.

So, please, let's be satisfied by saying Lidstrom was the Jean Beliveau of his generation--pure class with a high calibre of play and enough Cups and awards to say he was one of the best. I'll even go with the Doug Harvey comparison even if this writer also overplays the perfect angle. Personally, I think Lidstrom was more like a better Mark Howe even if Lidstrom never played at an all-star left wing level early in his career like Mark did with his brother and dad.

Class--thy name is Beliveau

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Which Red Wing Model To Choose

Time to retire in Florida
I'm sure you can read all you want online on speculation as to what the Vancouver Canucks can get for Roberto Luongo (for those teams looking for a CuJo 2.0 that is) or how Ryan Kesler was hiding yet another injury during the playoffs. Let alone it seems we should all commiserate with hockey fans whose memories only stretch back to 2011 given the shocked state they seem to be in that an 8th seed had the audacity to give the President's Trophy team a Quick exit from the playoffs. (The 2010 Jaroslav Halak-led Habs upset of the Washington Ovechkins seem to have been lost to the sands of playoff time to these people...let alone the '09 San Jose Sharks who got Johan Hillerized, '06 Red Wings who Dwayne Rolosoned over and died in round one and so on and so forth back to the '71 Big Bad Bruins getting schooled by Colgate grad Ken Dryden.)

The bigger question is: Can the Sedin-era Canucks actually win a Stanley Cup?

Given the Canucks somewhat blew the 1995-97 Detroit Red Wings model, they'll have to place their hopes in following the 2004-2008 Red Wings' path. First, let's take you back to the "ancient" past of 1995 and look at the Yzerman Era Wings that finished first overall in that strike-shortened season. After a couple of years of first round exits, the Wings finally made that season's Final only to lose in four straight to the Neutral Zone Trappers (the Jacques Lemaire era New Jersey Devils).

The shock to their left-wing lock system did not affect the Wings as much as the Canucks' loss to Tim Thomas in the 2011 Final did.  The Wings bounced back strongly in '95/96 and again finished first overall. They looked set to take that victory lap but one Kris Draper face rearranged by the Colorado Avalanche's Claude Lemieux in the '96 Conference Finals and it was Patrick Roy lifting the Avs to the Cup.
A Devil in Avs' clothing

What did the Wings do to combat this physical assault to their at-that-point 41-year Cup drought? They dumped 35-year-old future Hall of Famer Dino Ciccarelli for two cents on the dollar to Tampa to clear some roster space for a younger version of such. To get that younger, grittier scoring winger the Wings traded a coming into-his-prime Keith Primeau and 34-year-old Paul Coffey (who was no slouch at that age potting 74 points for the '95 Wings) for a power forward by the name of Brendan Shanahan. Shanny's 46 goals + nine more in the playoffs helped the Wings to the '96 Cup. Yet it was his willingness to do things like clothesline Patrick Roy during the infamous regular season 1st Battle Royale that really showed the NHL that the Wings were no longer going to have Claudes like Lemieux mess with them anymore.

Project Zack Kassian aside the Canucks need to look at that model and see that unless you can combat Dustin Brown hits with your own hits + goals in the form of a Rick Nash, no Cups for you.

Or the Canucks have to look at the other version of the Red Wings. In both '04 and '06 the Wings got upset because of insane opposition goaltending. After finishing first overall in '03/04, the Wings knocked off the Nashville Predators in rd. one. Then in rd. two they got Mikka Kiprusoffed and the Calgary Flames moved onward to the Final.

After the lockout, the following season of '05/06 saw the Wings again finish first overall only in rd. one to meet the passive trap and Rollie the Goalie on that other NHL team from Alberta. The Edmonton Spoilers, of course, went on to the Final where they copied the Flames' act by losing the Final in seven.

In the '07 playoffs Detroit got back its mojo a bit and ran to the Conference Finals where it got beat by the rough-and-tough eventual champions Anaheim Ducks.

Right now there's a furor over how the NHL, especially in the West, has gone all defensive (if you can call "let the other team wear themselves out by firing over 40 shots at our goalie" a defensive strategy rather than calling it a "we're not very good but we have a great goalie" strategy--also known as the Halak Formula 2010) what with the goalies dominating round one in 2012 . . . which, of course, apparently has never happened in the history of the NHL first round of playoffs adds Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Steve Penney, Andy Moog and a cast of tens.
 A Penney for your thoughts?

What happened after the Ducks, who led the NHL in truculence, won in 2007? The Detroit Red Wings and the Pittsburgh Penguins met in the 2008 and 2009 Finals.
So before you bemoan Canucks' GM Mike Gillis for saying he's sticking with the offence over defence jag and not going out and signing goons to take out other teams' top stars, these trends do go in cycles sometimes as short as a single season.

(Having said that, if "your" team is no longer in the playoffs, pray the Philadelphia Flyers win the Cup for all our eyeballs' sakes...or at least a team from the East as even the now-loathed-out-here Boston Bruins do score goals.)

The Wings, though, did not stand pat between 2004 and 2008. Pretty much every player over 30 in 2004 either retired, was released, traded or tried to run the Dallas Stars. The Red Wings remade almost two-thirds of their team. Of course, they had the ageless wonders in Nicklas Lidstrom and Chris Chelios to start with on the backline. They added Brian Rafalski, Nicklas Kronwall, Brad Stuart, Brett Lebda and Andreas Lilja back there.

In goal the tandem of Curtis Joseph and Manny Legace was replaced by returning Cup heroes Chris Osgood and Dominik Hasek. Surprisingly, despite Hasek starting in the playoffs, he was replaced after floundering in the first few games in round one and Osgood and his '08 playoff .930 save percentage was a key factor in the Wings' fourth Cup in 11 years.

Upfront, the Wings had Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk but in 2004 they were not quite the Zetterberg and Datsyuk of 2008. Datsyuk, as some may recall, was a struggling playoff performer as through '04 he had a measly 3 goals and 9 points in 37 playoff games. Zetterberg was only in his sophomore year in '03/04 so he had yet to even register with most Wings fans. This was still Steve Yzerman's team upfront.

That would change as the Wings swept out most of the oldster forwards (Yzerman, Shanahan, Brett Hull, Robert Lang), kept the Kris Draper-Kirk Maltby PK unit as well as Tomas Holmstrom around and added Johan Franzen, Valteri Filppula, Darren Helm (whom the Wings obviously missed after he got injured in rd. 1 this season), Jiri Hudler, Mikael Samuelsson, Dallas Drake and Daniel Cleary. They also brought back 35-year-old Darren McCarty (who had left as a free agent to sign with Calgary in '05) who managed to get into 17 games in the '08 playoff run.

Last, but maybe not least, the Wings decided their former assistant coach Dave Lewis (the man who replaced the legendary Scotty Bowman) turned out to be not really the man for the job. After firing Lewis, the Wings hired Mike Babcock who had led the extreme underdog '03 Ducks to the Final (J.S Giguere adds, "What am I? Chopped liver?").

So there you have it, Mike Gillis--a blueprint to a Cup. Whether it's finding that readymade diamond of a Shanny, somehow turning Alexander Edler into the next Lidstrom or making the Sedins younger (more on that in Part II tomorrow), you have your work cut out for you when this window officially closes in two years' time.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Stat Me Up

Finally, the real season is upon us once again--the Stanley Cup playoffs. The most exciting round of the playoffs is also about to start tonight, and you're wondering how it's all going to pan out. Especially if you're in a hockey pool you want to figure out where those upsets will come from. Johnny Canucklehead is here to help you with all that and more.

Let's have a look at the way things have panned out since the lockout in round one.

I'm crushing your head

Some experts say look at the head-to-head record. Well, if you want to be hover around .500 in your predictions that's the way you should go. Of 48 series in the 1st rd. since 2006, only 27 were won by the team who won the regular season head-to-head (or by the higher seed if the season's series was dead even).

What is more telling is regular season "dominance." If one team holds more than a three-game edge over their opponent in the regular season, the odds increase dramatically. Of nine series where this was the case going in, seven teams triumphed. Just ask the 2010 Philadelphia Flyers who as a #7 seed knocked off the #2 seed New Jersey Devils. Of course, a 5W 1 L edge in the regular season should have been a sign of the coming 1st rd. apocalypse in Jersey.

So, given this season the St. Louis Blues won all four meetings with the San Jose Sharks, you do the math. Then again the Anaheim Ducks won all four regular season games vs. the Nashville Predators in 2010-11 and lost in the 1st rd. So...grain of salt meet kernel of wisdom.

Smaller goalie equipment is an improvement

Goaltending can be a key factor in determining who advances (well, duh!). It is sometimes surmised that the fresher netminder (i.e., the one who played less games in the regular season) is often the better choice.
That has proven true 27 out of 48 series in rd. one. So no more a strong indicator than the head-to-head records.

When you look at what seems to be the breaking point of 70 games played, things look a bit different.
Of ten series where one goalie cracked that 70 GP and the other was under the 70 GP threshold, the fresher goalie's team had a 6-4 edge. Not as huge an advantage as expected but something to consider when Jonathan Quick played almost 70 this season (69 GP) and in 2010 he played 72 and lost to the Vancouver Canucks in rd. 1.


Obviously, a team with a better goals for vs. goals against on the season should be a better team. Yet sometimes a team may have a better goal difference yet not as many points to show for it due to the wonky overtime/shootout loser point rule.
Of those 48 first round series so far 33 have seen the team with the better goal difference come out on top. That's over a 68 percent success rate. In other words it's like a 112-pt season.

This year we have some very interesting possibilities in rd. 1.
Obviously, the Florida Panthers with a measly 203 GF and 227 GA are a terrible team who benefited from being in a lousy division (Yes, GM Dale Tallon did a great job putting the pieces together, yada, yada, yada, but in any other division in the NHL, the Cats are not making the playoffs). Given the New Jersey Devils are a +19 (228 GF-209 GA), it's a pretty easy series to predict that maybe the Devils might take that.

What's more interesting is the Nashville Predators and the Detroit Red Wings series. Maybe Detroit is too old. Maybe Detroit is not a great road team (after being a terrific one last season). Yet Detroit not only outscored the Preds; they also have a better D.
  • Nashville 237 GF 210 GA +27
  • Detroit 248 GF 203 GA +45
Twice before the Preds have flopped in the 1st rd. as a higher seed. The 2012 team comes in with huge expectations given the impending free agency of their top two defencemen (the restricted free agent Shea Weber and unrestricted Ryan Suter) and the additions at the trade deadline of Paul Gaustad, Hal Gill and Taylor Swift. High expectations can often equal huge upset loss. Can you say the entire playoff history of the Washington Ovechkins?


Defence wins championships. Really? Does defence alone really win championships?
Sure the Stanley Cup is littered with tales of goaltenders acting like Gumby on skates leading teams to Cups but what to make of the 2009 champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Crosby Malkins were 17th in goal against average yet tied for second in goals for.
The 2006 Caroline Hurricanes were tied for 18th in GAA, but 3rd in GF.
Sure, there are Cup teams like the Red Wings of 2008 who led in GAA but even they were also 3rd in GF.

So when some bobblehead on TV goes on about the penalty kill, the shot blocking or the need to tighten up on D, remind yourself that you still have to score goals to win playoff hockey games.
The team with the better goals for triumphed 33 out of 48 times in rd. one from 2006 to 2011.

Now if you look at the 17 1st rd. series where the lower seeds had more GF than the higher seeds, the lower seeds won ten of those. Last year we saw the Tampa Bay Lightning (238 GF) upset the Pittsburgh Penguins (238 GF) who were without Sidney Crosby. Despite Tampa being only a miniscule +7 in goal difference vs. the Pens' +39. Guy Boucher that 1-3-1 out the door. Tampa actually carpetbombed the Pens in Game 5 8-2 on Pittsburgh ice! Any team with Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier is one that can and should score.

So keep an eye on the Ottawa Senators and their 249 GF vs. the New York Rangers 226 GF. In fact, explain this one when you check the Rangers seasons out:
2010-11 233 GF 198 GA, 93 pts, seed #8
2011-12 226 GF, 187 GA, 109 pts, seed #1

So the Tortorella Fellas gave up 11 less goals but also scored seven less goals this season. Even the new math says that's just a +5 improvement in goal difference. That equalled a 16-point jump to the top of the Eastern Conference? I guess it did.

Defensively they blocked tons of shots again this season, but I'm not so sure this is a Stanley Cup winning strategy let alone one to get out of the 1st rd. After all, you run the risk of getting players injured blocking shots that Henrik Lundqvist seems more than capable of doing without breaking any bones. The Strangers might want to spend less time blocking shots and more time creating ones on the opposition's goal.

On that note everyone should all spend more time scoring.
Enjoy round one!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

If You're Concussed,
The Jury Is Out

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Hated And Overrated

The Vancouver Canucks may not have won a Stanley Cup yet, but they have proven that the team can top player polls by being voted (by Mark Recchi!) as the most hated team in the NHL as well as the most overrated. Most Canuck fans here would probably say more like the much loved and underachieving given the adoration and lack of Cup success.

The fact that the Canucks now even register on other NHL players' and fans' minds is a plus as for most of the team's existence it was basically too irrelevant and mediocre for much of the league to even notice it over 40-plus NHL seasons.

So here we are in 2012 and the Canucks are actually relevant and, if not great yet, at least good enough to warrant attention. Are spider pigs flying?

For those Canuck fans thinking it's the biting, diving and need for tires to be pumped as to why the team is hated and overrated, so we give you the Top Ten real reasons why the Canucks make others' blood boil:

#10 Lapierre's Crazy Rocket Richard Eyes
After Bitegate between Alexandre Burrows and Patrice Bergeron, Maxim Magazine decided to
invite a certain Boston Bruin to bite his glove, but that is not really what makes opponents' blood boil. It's those crazy eyes of his. So scary, kids!
Girls, shield your eyes from the Maxim Man

#9 NoFunCouver
Patrick Kane had to rent a limo and take off his shirt to have any fun in this city. 'Nuff said.
In Chicago, I can snag the babes with my shirt on

#8 Why Is GI Joe Doing The Play-By-Play?
I have no idea what it is that once anyone seems to take over the "Hockey Night In Canada" play-by-play seat they forget all about being a pro like Danny "a cannonading drive!" Gallivan and start to become more like a Bob "I'm expected to know non-Leaf players?" Cole. G.I. Joe's twin, Jim Hughson, has long given up actually keeping up with the play at all and veers off to offer analysis while lack-of-color man Craig Simpson enables him. G.I. Jim also has become obsessed with player's full names in the few attempts he tries to do the play-by-play. You ask now where did the man who stole G.I. Joe's noggin get his start? That's right--as the Vancouver Canucks' play-by-play man.
"Ryan Kesler to David Booth. Niner that."

#7 Free Willy, Please!
The Canucks have gone through a myriad of "interesting" logos from the stick in rink to the downhill skate and now back to the revamped stick in rink on the third jerseys. Yet it's the Free Willy logo that probably drove the right winger Mark Recchi to hate the Canucks so much. It's eco-friendliness wrapped up in a corporate blanket. Truth in advertising, I think not given that Orca Bay no longer is in the picture.

#6 Round And Round We Go
I turned on a hockey game and the Tour de Sweden broke out! What the Sedins do is drive opponents and fans crazy with all that cycling and one-touch passing. We now know Tim Thomas's actions spoke for all goalies--they hate those exercise bikes they are forced to ride after every game and don't like the Sedins reminding them of that.

#5 The Sartorial Splendor
Sure, the Canucks have gone back to their original blue, white and green color scheme for their uniform but often in the crowd you can spot the odd Halloween outfit. Although psychologically sound, the Flying V jersey seared so many eyeballs in the '80s that it's impossible until a Cup is won for this image to disappear. (Or we could pull an AFL Denver Broncos and burn all the Halloween jerseys in a ceremonial funeral pyre.)
The horror! The horror!

#4 Location, Location, Location
Being on the Left Coast of Canada seems to rub everyone the wrong way. The Vancouver is the "most beautiful city ever invented" propaganda seems to have worked too well. Just to clarify: Our city beaches do not have bikini-clad babes and six-pack ab surfer dudes during hockey season? Also, "our" mountains are geographically outside the city's borders. To update your database, Vancouver is rain, bike lanes, more rain, leaky condos thanks to the rain, and showers in the morning changing to rain late evening following by light precipitation overnight...but we do offer decent microbrews and a wide variety of tasty street eats now. Anyway, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Irashaimase! Red-hot Japa dogs!

#3 It's Not Easy Being Green
The Green Men creep out NHL tough guys with their glass-climbing handstand antics. Plus their skintight lycra frightens the entire fashion industry.

#2 Too Many Pretty Boys
Ever since the days of Trevor "good in the community" Linden, Kirk McLean's large cranium and cute and hunky icon to many, Pavel Bure, the Vancouver Canucks seem to corner the market on good-looking hockey players. This tradition continues with Ryan "the Body" Kesler , Mason "too cute for words" Raymond and the angelic features of David Booth. That's right, fans, no Nose Face Marchands allowed here!

#1 Riot Central
Just for those who don't understand the dynamic of the Lower Mainland (or Metro Vancouver as the third jerseyers call it), the vast majority of rioters were not actual residents of Vancouver. It has been well documented that many came from a land called Surrey. Now ridicule for most things Surrey is built into Vancouverites' DNA mainly because Surrey is the Hoboken to our navel-gazing metropolis. That's if Hoboken had a population base that was over a million and a level of weird crimes that sold what few newspapers still sell here locally.