A Farewell to Arms (in two parts), and Looking Ahead

In Hockey on January 23, 2010 at 12:58 pm

1)      Cujo’s Pads

On January 12, 2010, the 4th winningest goaltender in NHL history – and the goalie with the most wins never to have lifted the Stanley Cup – Curtis Joseph, formally announced his retirement in front of a crowded room of reporters in the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. Inspired by his career, later that evening, the Leafs went on to lose 4-2 to the bottom-feeding Carolina Hurricanes on home ice. As his post-lockout career never approached the heights of his prime, many may have forgotten how good Cujo was. Returning from his enforced absence as the starting goalie for the Phoenix Coyotes in 2005-06, between the ages of 38 and 41, Joseph appeared in 145 games, which gave him an addition 58 wins (moving him from 10th all time to 4th), and raised his career GAA from 2.75 to 2.79 and dropped his career save percentage from .908 to .906.

Of course, it wasn’t all negative. He got to retire as a Toronto Maple Leaf, the scene of four of his greatest seasons both from a statistical point of view as well as team-wide, as they included his only two career appearances in the Conference Finals, losing in five to the Buffalo Sabres in 1998-99, and lasting six games against the Carolina Hurricanes in 2001-02. While that last season with the Leafs was less than stellar, he managed to leave fans of the Leafs and the game in general with fond memories through his performance in relief of the ejected Martin Gerber against Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals last March 24. In a short period of time, Joseph found the zone.

Joseph’s retirement has culled forth a lot of debate about his Hall of Fame chances, as pundits conceded his career accomplishments, but deride his chances for the lack of viable peak and post-season accomplishments. As far as the latter point is concerned, I don’t think it would be fair to blame Cujo for not getting his name emblazoned on the Cup, as his career playoff stats are even better than those of the regular season (won-loss record notwithstanding). Playing against only the better teams in the postseason, over a sample of 133 games, Joseph has a playoff save percentage of .917, an incredible 11 points better than his regular season accomplishments, and his playoff GAA is 2.42, compared to 2.79 (+0.37) over is regular season record. The difference between his playoff and regular season record compares favourably to other top peers (with Cups), such as Martin Brodeur, (GAA 0.23 lower, save% .06 higher), Chris Osgood (GAA +0.39, SV % 0.11 better) and Tom Barrasso (GAA +0.23, SV% 0.1 better).

As far as peak seasons are concerned, Joseph never led the NHL in wins or GAA, and only topped the leader-board in save percentage once (.911 as a St. Louis Blue in 1992-93). Joseph only made two All-Star Games (1994 and 2000). But he was always near the top, with 10 top-10 finishes in wins, seven top-10’s in shutouts, two top-10’s in GAA and five for save percentage. That last stat may be more telling, as Joseph tended to see a lot of vulcanized rubber, leading the league twice in shots against, and six more season in the league’s top 10. Looking at the advanced stats, Cujo sat at 66th all time in Goals versus Threshold (GVT – measuring a player’s relative contributions against an expected replacement-level player, such an AHL veteran) as of last season with 251.3. He is 13th all-time in GVT among goalies, behind historical luminaries as Patrick Roy, Dominik Hasek, Jacques Plante, Tony Esposito, Glenn Hall, Martin Brodeur, Ed Belfour, Ken Dryden, Bernie Parent, Billy Smith, John Vanbiesbrouck and Johnny Bower. Of the aforementioned who are Hall of Fame eligible, only Vanbiesbrouck is not yet in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Finally, to give a little bit of perspective to his career accomplishments, Curtis Joseph made his mark as an NHL’er after not even being drafted as an amateur. In Joseph’s draft eligible year (1985), the NHL draft ran for 12 rounds, with 252 players hearing their names called. The three most successful goalies drafted that year were Mike Richter, Sean Burke and Bill Ranford. None had the impact on game that Joseph did, Richter’s place in the hearts of Rangers fans notwithstanding. All the above taken into consideration, I think Curtis Joseph will have to write another speech of gratitude about his career in the next five-seven years as he accepts his place among Hockey’s all-time greats.

2)      Playing the Role

Competent 3rd-line forwards are necessary for any successful hockey team, but the men filling those roles rarely see the limelight, outside the Frank J. Selke, dedicated to the League’s best defensive forward. Although with past winners including Steve Yzerman, Bobby Clarke, doug Gilmour, Sergei Fedorov and Pavel Datsyuk (each of the past two years), even here, the 2rd-liner does not always get his due. So I will show a little love now to one of the best at this role in the past generation, Michael Peca, who formally announced his retirement from the game as an active player this past Tuesday (January 19, 2010). With a career line of 176 goals and 465 points over 14 seasons split between six teams (Canucks, Sabres, Islanders, Oilers, Maple Leafs and Blue Jackets), there will not be any argument about Peca’s place among the all-time greats. He never won a Stanley Cup, never scored 30 goals in a season, nor did he ever top 60 points (his high with the Islanders in 2001-02). Yet Michael Peca must rank among the all-time leaders for forwards who value was tied in with his defensive abilities. Back to Goals-versus-Threshold (GVT), which also separates offensive from defensive contributions, we can see that of Peca’s career score of +88.7 (nestled between Manny Fernandez and Bill Mosienko), 36.6 was for his defensive play, or 41.3% of his on-ice worth.

I must admit to having followed his career with interest from his time as a junior. A second round selection of the Canucks in 1992, after a solid OHL season split between the Sudbury Wolves and the Ottawa 67’s, Peca, a Toronto native, entered my consciousness when he purchased a van from my Father and gave him a signed OHL hockey card to show his kids. When Peca won his first Selke Trophy after the 1996-97 season, his second full season as a member of the Buffalo Sabres, I, an 18-year old who had only rarely seen him play, applauded the award as just and proper. After all, Peca led the league in shorthanded (SHG) goals that year with six (the only time he would ever lead the league in anything), and he drove a car bought from my Father. When he won his second Selke, after the best offensive season of his career (25 goals, 60 points and a +19, with 6 more SHG), I was more jaded, but no less delighted. When he finally signed on to play with his hometown team for the 2006-07 season, as a 32-year-old veteran, I had high hopes, but we were both dashed, as Peca broke his leg and only managed to appear in 35 games, as the Leafs missed the playoffs once again.

Once we throw in the Gold Medal he received (as a teammate of Curtis Joseph’s no less…ironic?) as a member of Canada’s entry at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Peca had a nice career for himself.

3)      Notes on the CHL All-Star Game

Even though my Toronto Maple Leafs currently have no shot at drafting any of the bigger CHL names this year, as they do not hold picks for  the 1st, 2nd or 4th rounds, it is still enjoyable to see the next wave as they build up steam for this summer’s draft. Three players caught my eye at the game this week.

–          Calvin Pickard – G – Team Red/Seattle Thunderbirds (WHL) – The younger brother of former Nashville Predator’s 1st round pick Chet (also a goalie), Calvin had a few great poke checks to break up some spicy chances by the opposing team. Currently the top ranked North American goalie by the CSS, Calvin may not be selected as highly as his brother, but his level of awareness, athleticism, pro size and bloodlines leave him as one to keep an eye on. IF only just to see a few more poke-checks.

–          Jordan Weal – C – Team Red/Regina Pats (WHL) – Jordan Weal is small. The ISS lists him as 5’-8.5” and 156lbs. That’s slightly taller, and much leaner than Theoren Fleury was. Only three current NHLers (Sergei Samsonov, Francis Bouillon and Brian Gionta) are smaller. Watchig Weal reminded me of when I played rep-league football when I was 15. Although I was taller than, than Weal is now, I was also thinner. I was a 3rd-string cornerback. One day at practice, we were working on our extra-point conversion. The kicker protection unit was out against a random sample of 11 other kids, of whom I was one. One the first attempt, I squirted between two much bigger linemen (line-teens?) and jumped in front of the kicker, blocking the football with my stomach. I was proud and the linemen were embarrassed. On the 2nd attempt, the two guys I had slipped between wanted to make an example of me.  They pancaked me. With that, they assumed that I had learned my lesson and focused on their positioning for the 3rd attempt. So once again, I snuck through them and blocked a second kick with my stomach. With that, the coaches were disgusted enough to end the drill. So why does this remind me of little Jordan Weal? Because every time I saw him, he was either being horribly outmuscled on the boards, losing every physical battle, or he w3as sneaking up on people in the middle of the rink, at one point completely pick-pocketing an opposing skater, creating a great goal-scoring chance. Ranked 45th among North American skaters by the CSS, I don’t think he’ll be drafted in the top two rounds, but with another 20lbs of muscle, and sticking to the middle of the rink, he could make waves across the league.

–          Nino “Night Rider” Niederreiter – RW – Team White/Portland Winterhawks (WHL) – I don’t know if that’s his nickname, but it does suggest itself, doesn’t it? I saw a bit of him at the recent WJC, where he was the star player for the Swiss side that upset the Russians and made it to the Bronze medal match. A chippy, forward who plays the full 200’ of ice, Niederreiter seemed to be in the middle of every solid chance for team White in the first half of the game, scoring the team’s first goal. It was an impressive goal, too. He got the puck in the slot, but not so as he could immediately control it. Many players, with such an opportunity, would rush their shot and flub the chance. Not Night Rider. He created a few extra inches for himself by bringing the puck in, before firing it home, hard and accurate, through the aforementioned Pickard. As impressive as that was, Nino gained more attention before the game, with his jaw-dropping goal in the shoot out competition. If haven’t seen it yet, here it is. Style and substance. I don’t know that he needs to add much to his game before being ready for the big time. He is currently ranked 14th among North American skaters (although he is Swiss, the CSS groups players by where they play, not where they are from) in the CSS’ midterm list, don’t be surprised if he slips into the top ten on draft day.

– Ryan Wagman


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