Archive for February, 2010|Monthly archive page

As the Olympic Bell Tolls; Prepping for the Big Test, and Looking Back at the Games that were

In Hockey on February 16, 2010 at 5:34 pm

—  By Ryan Wagman

At the Campbell and the Wales, both Bill and myself have chimed in on some thoughts on the Men’s Hockey schedule of the Vancouver Olympic Games that opened in tragedy and failure before we were able to gawk in amazement at sports that most of us never give second thoughts to more than once every four years. So far, I have been involved in several heated conversations about Moguls and the Biathlon, two sports I honestly haven’t a clue about. While Bill has let the world know what his crystal ball told him about the Men’s Hockey tournament that begins tomorrow night, I have yet to do more than simply comment on the team selection for the North American entrants. Until today, that is.

You may say that I am cheating, what with the first game result already in, and you wouldn’t be too far off. Not that I doubted the outcome, but the process did provide more information as far as what to expect from each team going forward. I absolutely expected the Americans to win today, but I am mildly surprised by the unconvincing nature of the victory. The Swiss only fired 15 shots on Ryan Miller in the American goal, beating him only on a bad bounce from a goalmouth pass by Roman Wick, the type of player who could use a good Olympic run to inspire a North American contract offer. That is, if he wants one. It seems that the Swiss team has a few guys who were drafted by NHL teams at one point (Wick, Raffaele Sannitz, Philippe Furrer, Julien Sprunger and others), and simply stayed in Switzerland. It’s a living, I suppose.

The Americans only managed 24 shots on the Swiss net, manned by Ducks’ stopper Jonas Hiller. I’ll have to see how they do on Thursday against Norway, but Canada probably wasn’t fazed by today’s performance. I fully believe that Canada will take Group A, with a clean sweep. Beyond their mildew performance this afternoon, I am unconvinced by the American blueline, especially after Martin and Komisarek (especially Martin, if I’m being honest) were replaced by Tim Gleason and Ryan Whitney. Team USA will finish 2nd in the pool, ahead of Switzerland, who should be favoured to beat Norway in the final match of the preliminary round and will hope to advance to the Quarterfinals.

The Russians are the class of Group B, called the Group of Death, if only because they have the strongest 3rd seed. That 3rd seed will be Slovakia, the last current member in hockey’s Big 7. The Slovaks have some big weapons in Marians Hossa and Gaborik and the biggest of them all in Zdeno Chara, as well as a pretty hot goaltender in Jaroslav Halak. But depth often wins the game, and the 2nd seed has more of it than does Team Slovakia. For those of you who thought that I was going to name Latvia, I fooled you! The Czech Republic will grab 2nd place in Group B, with a solid veteran line-up top to bottom, and an absolute game changer in net in Tomas Vokoun. Also, the Czechs may have the best washed-up former NHL’er in the tournament in Jaromir Jagr. Compare Jagr with Hnat Domenichelli of Switzerland, Ziggy Palffy of Slovakia, Peter Forsberg of Sweden, Viktor Kozlov and Sergei Fedorov of Russia and the great Patrick Thoresen of Norway. Latvia will finish 4th, proud and pointless.

The defending Gold Medal champions, Sweden are the odds-on favourites to win Group C, but if any group has an upset, it will be here. Finland, with its Koivus and Ruutus (two pairs of brothers beats one pair), pose a daunting obstacle to a Swedish repeat. Both Nordic nations have very strong goaltending (this could be a trend) and aging, yet consistent skaters. In 3rd place, I am taking Germany over Belarus, especially after two thirds of Belarus’ top line (Andrei Kostitsyn and Mikhael Grabovski) had to bow out of the tournament with injuries.

With the preliminary round out of the way, I have to stop. I have no clue how the seeding for the Quarterfinal Qualification round and the Quarterfinal actual round are defined. But I will offer my own version of seeding.

1)      Canada – the entire initial roster made it to Vancouver unscathed  – even Getzlaf! – and there are no KHL players involved.

2)      Russia – healthy, but NHL>>KHL

3)      Sweden – Even if they lose the top spot in the preliminary round to Finland, they are strong enough to bounce back

4)      USA – Miller is a great goalie, but there aren’t many slouches at this level. The team needs to gel against Norway. Has to be a statement game.

5)      Finland – This is my gut talking

6)      Czech. Republic – Jagr impresses enough to get a contract offer for next season in the NHL, but maybe not for the type of money he would want.

7)      Slovakia – The health of Hossa and Gaborik is in question, both missing some time leading up to the Games

8)      Germany – The big 7 will soon extend to the big 9 with Germany and…

9)      Switzerland – I would have picked them eighth or even seventh if they had included Nino Niederreiter on the roster

10)   Norway – Oslo is beautiful. But Grotnes is way better than Lysenstoen. Grotnes has to play the rest of the way or Norway finishes on the bottom.

11)   Latvia – my Grandmother was born there.

12)   Belarus – Dynamo Minsk takes some friends on a road trip

Some of you may be wondering why I didn’t post the Special Teams for January’s end. I figured that the short month of games in February would provide a better take on the state of the game. These will be the last numbers posted before the end of the season. For a recap of my methods, click here.

Power Play Efficiency through the Olympic Break

1)  Was 373.349
2)  Mon                392.188
3)  SJ      432.981
4)  Phi    449.396
5)  Van  463.698
6)  Clm  498.022
7)  Chi    505.786
8)  Ana  506.822
9)  TB     526.511
10) LA    527.455
11) NYR 533.024
12) NJ    537.134
13) Edm 545.833
14) Car  548.913
15) Dal  551.111
16) Bos 552.361
17) Det 552.884
18) Min 558.432
19) Buf  571.071
20) Col  585.190
21) Pit   588.293
22) StL   603.447
23) Atl   610.359
24) Cal   613.343
25) Nas 615.184
26) Tor  617.256
27) Fla   619.919
28) Ott  625.147
29) Pho 653.216
30) NYI  707.343

Big gains by Washington, their lately ended winning streak buoyed by incredible success on the power play, with 17 goals in exactly 5000 seconds, or 1 power play goal in under 5 minutes of the man advantage. While the chart above may not show it, Ottawa has also improved significantly, shaving more than 40 seconds off their man advantage efficiency. On the other hand, the Atlanta Thrashers have plummeted, and Ilya Kovalchuk is to blame. Not because he was traded, but because that drop mostly occurred with him still wearing a Thrashers uniform. Since New Year’s Day, the Thrashers have scored only 9 power play goals, in over 2.5 hours of power play ice time. That sucks.

The Maple Leafs are also around 70 seconds less efficient on the power play, but I’d rather not talk about them right now, but to say that the recent big trades may go some lengths towards turning around their special teams.

Penalty Kill Efficiency Through the Olympic Break

1)  Buf   755.321
2)  SJ      745.912
3)  Bos   719.600
4)  Chi    699.226
5)  StL    698.895
6)  NYR  646.744
7)  Mon  617.524
8)  Cal    616.293
9)  Ott   610.725
10) Pit   601.415
11) Col  598.100
12) Pho 593.756
13) Det 572.000
14) Clm 560.366
15) Atl   548.558
16) Min 537.513
17) Car  524.458
18) NJ    522.389
19) Van 519.870
20) Ana 514.531
21) LA    507.750
22) Phi  506.939
23) TB    505.188
24) Fla   495.256
25) Was 483.635
26) Dal  431.756
27) Edm 401.962
28) Nas 399.620
29) NYI  395.642
30) Tor  334.098

Quick note before the Canada-Norway game begins – Buffalo has improved its penalty kill efficiency by almost 100 seconds and Ottawa has also improved by almost a full minute.

NHL Special Teams Efficiency Score Through the Olympic Break

1)  SJ      -312.931
2)  Mon  -225.336
3)  Chi    -193.440
4)  Buf   -184.250
5)  Bos   -167.239
6)  NYR  -113.720
7)  Was -110.286
8)  StL    -95.448
9)  Clm  -62.344
10) Phi  -57.543
11) Van -56.172
12) Atl   -48.199
13) Det -19.116
14) Pit   -13.122
15) Col  -12.910
16) Ana -7.709
17) Cal   -2.950
18) Ott  14.422
19) NJ    14.745
20) LA    19.705
21) Min 20.919
22) TB    21.323
23) Car  24.455
24) Pho 59.460
25) Dal  119.355
26) Fla   124.663
27) Edm 143.871
28) Nas 215.564
29) Tor  283.158
30) NYI  311.701

Toronto is no longer in last. When we revisit these scores, we will be able to see how well they foretell overall team success and how much we are differing from the traditional special teams metrics.

Enjoy the Olympics!


Game Blog – Bleacher Notes from Tuesday Night in Leaf Nation

In Hockey on February 3, 2010 at 7:21 pm

Wednesday, 02.03.2010 / 8:09 PM
Ryan Wagman– on special assignment

Toronto – Sitting four rows from the top in the Southwest corner of the arena, with an oversized Canadian flag in front of Dougie Gilmour’s banner, but with a clear view of those honouring Frank Mahovlich, Borje Salming and Syl Apps, I can hear the house announcer mention that Christian Hanson is now on the roster – called up to be the 12th forward, while Jeff Finger is the odd-man out once more on our relatively crowded blueline. The new Leaf acquisitions are debuting tonight, while the Devils are taking advantage of an away game against the team currently projected to finish last in the Wales (Eastern, for the neophytes among you) Conference to give Martin Brodeur a much-needed break ahead of the Olympics and start backup Yann Danis in goal.

As Dion Phaneuf is called out as part of the starting lineup, the almost-full audience lets out a lusty welcoming applause. More than a few Devils’ jerseys in the crowd tonight, including my seat-mate and good friend, Rafi, who lent me his Leafs jersey as a sort of bet-hedging protection scheme.

1st Period

4:40 – The hometown Buds open the scoring relatively early, on their first real scoring chance, as Nik Kulemin slots in a rebound from newcomer Fredrik Sjostrom’s (pronounced Shoe-strum) shot. I have railed against Rickard Wallin since he began his NHL comeback, but he did well on this play, digging the puck out from a scrum along the boards and inside the blueline to allow Sjostrom to drive the net. The three might make for a productive two-way third line. Phaneuf has had a few shifts and the break in the action allows me to reflect on the physical nature of his game. Did the applause get his blood up?

6:51 – Phaneuf tries to pinch the puck in at the blueline and loses, so he does the wise thing and starts a scrap with his Devil counterpart Colin White. The gloves drops and the crowd goes wild. “Dion, Dion…” I have to believe that he set out to make a good first impression on his GM and the Toronto fans, and he has. The city that embraced Tiger Williams and Tie Domi will always embrace a heart and soul tough guy who can fight and play, something I’ve documented before. It is hard to say who “won” the fight based on fisticuffs alone, but Phaneuf won the battle, as White took an additional two-minute penalty, giving the Leafs the first power play of the game. As is becoming more and more prevalent among Leaf power plays, nothing came of it. (The Leafs’ power play efficiency has dropped from 1/538s to 1/637s since January 1).

Before the big trades over the weekend, I had begun to notice that most Leaf rushes saw the Buds controlling the puck along the perimeter of the offensive zone, and firing many off-angled shots, perhaps contributing to their low goal totals. The rarely went up the middle, either shots from straight ahead or puck-carrying attempts. Now that three of our top nine forwards are gone (guess which one I’m not including…), they seem to be struggling even more in that regard, with numerous pass attempts from the centres down low out to the blueline escaping past the pointmen and killing the so-called opportunity.

13:27 – Another fight. This time, 4th-liner Jay Rosehill (yes he can fight, but I have misgivings about the rest of his game) squares off against the longest name in hockey, Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond. The fight lasts longer than the penalties will, as Rosehill and the aristocrat performed an icy waltz across the rink.

17:20 – The Leafs fully kill their first penalty. Like their power play, this has been a sore point for the Blue-and-White all year, with (by far) the worst penalty kill in the game (1PPGA/317s, a full 50 seconds less efficient than the 2nd worst team – the Oilers).

In the intermission, I get to thinking about the type of crowd who sits up top, as compared to those who sit closer to the ice, where I sat last week. As most Leafs fans know, ducats are hard to come by without means or connections. I have neither, and the loss to the Kings last Tuesday (Jan. 26) was the first NHL game I have attended in over 10 years. In any case, the people sitting up top were much more fun.

During the intermission, Rafi and I went to the lobby for some refreshments. A boy around 8 years old saw us chatting, me in Rafi’s Leafs jersey and Rafi in Devil red, and was shocked. He asked me, completely confused, how we could be friends if we liked the same team. I tried to explain to him that there was more to life than your hockey team, but he wasn’t buying it. I asked him what he did in the summer when the hockey season was “over,” and he replied that he played summer hockey. I was wrong. There is nothing in life outside of hockey.

2nd Period

2:23 – Tyler Bozak brings the puck up the middle (sounds good already, doesn’t it?) and pushes the puck to his left and towards the net towards Alexei Ponikarovsky, drawing Danis over to the left. Poni the pony bangs it off the goalie and the rebound goes up the middle to a streaking Phil Kessel. With Danis out of position, Kessel makes no mistake, firing the puck through the middle of the net, bulging the twine. The Leafs are in front by a pair. I accept that Ponikarovsky will probably be traded soon (I’m guessing Pittsburgh for a 2nd rounder and maybe a mid-level prospect), but his work with Phil Kessel proves that Kessel needs to play with a big guy. When he was paired earlier with Bozak and Kulemin, the trio were frequently outmuscled and Kessel scored a solitary goal in 15 games. Bozak may be alright as his centre, but he isn’t big (6-1”, 180) and plays small. Maybe Hanson will get the opportunity once Ponikarovsky is dealt.

3:33 – The Leafs are put down a man once more, as Rosehill trips old man Deam McAmmond earning a two minute breather away from his mates. And the Leafs miraculously kill another penalty. Sjostrom and John Mitchell (a poor man’s Matt Stajan – I know how pathetic that sounds) carry the penalty killing load.

At this relatively early stage of the game, Jean-Sebastien “Jiggy” Giguere has not really been tested. The Devils have taken 13 shots through 28 minutes of action and Giguere has displayed solid positioning, challenging the shooter when possible, but not being pushed too hard.

14:09 – Not only are the Leafs killing penalties, but they make the Devils pay for their own misdemeanours. Lee Stempniak, near the left point, passes the puck to Francois Beauchemin standing right by the blue line, with a direct line in front of him to the goal. He uses his skate to push the puck slightly forward, steps towards the goal and rifles a low slapshot through the goalie and into the net. From the middle. Either Yann Danis was screened, or he simply isn’t very good. Or both. Maple Leafs – 3; Devils – 0.

17:09 – Giguere finally gives the fans his own personal reason for their enthusiasm. After stopping a Dainius Zubrus wrister from 17-feet out, the puck gets to Travis Zajac to the goalie’s left, with Jiggy seemingly out of position. No matter. Giguere lunges to his left to make a brilliant save. Phaneuf clears the puck for a quick Leaf break. They get called for offsides releasing the boo-birds.

Between that stop and the end of the period, there were five faceoffs. Mitchell took one (he won it) and Wallin took the other four – he lost each one. He’s currently at 45.9% on the season. I’m not really sure what he brings to the table.

3rd Period

At the starts of both the second and third periods, Rafi notes that the fans with the best seats in the house – the fine folks sitting in the Platinum section behind the benches and the penalty boxes – are entirely absent from their seats for the first few minutes of action. 17 minutes is not enough for peeing and sushi.

With the Leafs leading by 3, the third period is a duller affair. The Devils outshoot the home team 12-5, but nothing looks too challenging. Most interesting is that the Torontonians are so used to losing, (myself included) that we don’t accept victory until it is over. The 3-0 lead was still secure with 6 seconds to go before the house erupted in cheering.

The big debuts were capped off by each newcomer getting a star. Sjostrom got the 3rd, Phaneuf (“Dion! Dion! Dion!”) took the 2nd star, and by  becoming the second Leaf goalie to ever post a shutout in his debut, Giguere took the 1st star.

Of course those stars are symbolic, but after a small sample of one, most of Toronto is pretty happy with Burke’s trades. The Maple Leafs looks better, tougher and smarter. He gave up a lot of quantity (30% of his active roster), but their contributions will be replaced. Stajan was decent on faceoffs and put up a lot of points when he was teamed with Kessel, but relatively little on other lines. White, a personal fave, is a solid #4 defender, with solid offensive touch and grit, but prone to clumsy giveaways. Hagman had great hands and a wicked backhand, but was one of the main culprits in the Leafs’ reliance on the perimeter game. Toskala, Blake and Mayers will not be missed at all.