Friday, November 28, 2008

Early Christmas for Leafs fans?

As the snow falls here in Ottawa, I've finally resigned myself to the fact that it's almost December. The NHL is at the quarter mark, and each organization is starting to evaluate their team, creating their wish list for the month ahead. In Dallas, Marty Turco is hoping St. Nick brings his "A" game back to him. Ottawa is hoping to find a puck moving D-man under the Senator's tree. For one team in particular though, Christmas may have come a little early this year, but will it be that shinny red bike they've always wanted? This year, will they be serving turkey or duck?

When Brian Burke stepped down as General Manager of the Ducks recently, all eyes immediately turned towards Toronto and the Maple Leafs. All parties involved said and did the right things to avoid possible tampering charges. Burke would remain in Anaheim as a consultant, and all teams were given permission to negotiate a contract with him. All teams had permission, but let's be honest, this was a one horse race from the beginning.

With the announcement of an agreement in principle between Burke and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, for a reported $18 million over 6 years, and complete control of the hockey team; Leaf fans can now stop wondering "if" it will happen, and shift their focus to what will happen next. The winds of change are blowing through Toronto, and several players will be hiring moving vans in the coming months.

In the climate of today's NHL, with cap restrictions and economic uncertainty, trades will not come easily; so I would expect Burke to take full advantage of Toronto's farm team being across the street in the form of the Toronto Marlies. With no travel costs, the new GM can visit the "farm" to evaluate what he has, and if a large contract needs to be taken off the NHL books, under-achieving Leafs can be sent down to the minors, but kept close at hand. Would any Leaf fans be upset if Jason Blake and his multi-million dollar contract was claimed off the waiver wire on his way to the minors by Atlanta, or a resurgent Islanders team?

Another move Burke will use to improve the Leafs is through the U.S. College circuit. Ottawa's Bryan Murray and Burke are two of the best at finding good players, with some age and experience under their belts from the NCAA. The Sens have Jesse Winchester, signed out of Colgate University, in their lineup this season, and the Ducks have picked up similar players under Murray, and Burke. I'd expect Toronto's new GM to look for some undiscovered gems to add grit to the Leafs roster in late March or early April.

Don't expect a return of former Captain, Mats Sundin. Burke is a no-nonsense guy, and I believe the door to his office is firmly closed, despite the "he's always welcome back..." from the Leafs upper management. From my observations, I wouldn't be surprised to see Sundin with Burke's old team - the Ducks; or despite being in the basement at the quarter mark, the Dallas Stars would be a good fit for the former Leaf. Brenden Morrow is out of the lineup, and Mike Modano would have certainly petitioned friend and GM, Brett Hull, to land Sundin.

So as Ottawa contemplates a change of route for the Santa Claus Parade, Toronto is planning the parade route of another kind. They have their man at the helm now, but let's not forget there are 29 other teams in the league fighting for the right to plan the same parade. If I were an Ontario teacher, struggling to make ends meet, I might be wondering why $18 million is now in Brian Burke's bank account; after all, the only thing guaranteed in all this is the money Burke will make during this contract. Have a great sports day everyone.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Is A Three Game Suspension Enough?

The NHL's Senior Executive Vice President and Director of Hockey Operations, Colin Campbell, confirmed Monday that Montreal's Tom Kostopoulos will be suspended three games for his hit from behind on Mike Van Ryn of the Toronto Maple Leafs during Saturday's game. There has been great debate on the issue... Should there have been a suspension at all? Is it time to send a message to the players with longer suspensions? Could Kostopoulos have let up when he saw Van Ryn put himself into a vulnerable position? Is Van Ryn equally to blame for turning at the last minute? The answer to all these questions, in my opinion, is yes.

Let's examine the hit first... I honestly didn't see the game live, but thanks to YouTube, I've reviewed the "hit" at least twenty times. The Toronto D-man appears to be heading behind the net with the puck, a quick glance over his right shoulder to see Kostopoulos barreling into the Leafs end like a Mack truck, Van Ryn attempts a change of direction - and is hit square in the numbers, sending him face first into the boards. Van Ryn suffered a concussion, a broken nose, a broken bone in his hand, and lacerations to the forehead. He'll be out of the lineup 4-6 weeks according to early reports from Leaf Land. Kostopoulos received a 5 minute major penalty, was ejected from the game, and is now serving his 3 game suspension.

Should Kostopoulos have been suspended? The answer is a definitive yes... Did he break any rules? The answer oddly enough, is no... A quick look at the NHL Rule Book on hits from behind: "Rule 44.1 - Checking from Behind - A check from behind is a check delivered on a player who is not aware of the impending hit, therefore unable to protect or defend himself, and contact is made on the back part of the body. When a player intentionally turns his body to create contact with his back, no penalty shall be assessed."

Somewhere over the years, the fourth line "grinder" has been replaced by the "energy" player. Professional agitators, who are given 4-5 minutes of ice time per game and told to hit anything that moves. When an "energy" guy takes a shift and doesn't lay a bone crushing hit, he may not see the ice for the rest of the period and/or game. Van Ryn had to know it was not Sakku Koivu coming down the ice towards him; at the very least, he knew someone was coming. One of the worst offenders of the energy players is his own teammate - Ryan Hollweg, already suspended repeatedly for hits from behind.

I'm sure my inbox is already filling with e-mails - "Well Voice, how do you suspend a player for the play that technically didn't even warrant a penalty?"... It's a question of respect. When you have an opposing player in your sights, is it necessary to obliterate him and leave half his face smeared on the glass? An opponent can be taken out of the play without putting him into the first row of spectators. Now that "hits" are a recorded statistic used in contract negotiations, the respect level has dropped among players. Just eliminating an opponent from the play, but not hitting him, could cost you money down the road. So why not level him?

As TSN's Pierre McGuire has stated repeatedly, and I used to think he was an alarmist; someone is going to die on the ice someday right before our eyes. We should all hope this never happens, but the NHL has an obligation to do more than just hope for the best. Besides the obvious trauma to the families involved, a league struggling to find its place in the American sports landscape and without a proper U.S. television contract, could find itself with no fans and enough lawsuits coming at them to bankrupt the league. The NHL can't say they were not warned, and a 1 or 2 game suspension does not demonstrate a serious attempt at changing the level of respect that appears to be lacking at this time.

Personally, watching the video footage of the Van Ryn hit, one thing in particular kept catching my eye, time after time. In the ensuing scrum that followed the hit, as Leaf players tried to get hold of Kostopoulos to defend their fallen teammate, nuclear deterrent, Georges Laraque was on the ice for Montreal - and he did not get involved. Instead, he stood to the side, looking down at Van Ryn and the Leafs trainer, with obvious concern on his face. He was in the scrum for a second or two, but decided to turn his attention to the fallen Van Ryn, and his gloves stayed on.

Last night, while watching the Habs versus the Senators, Ottawa's Chris Neil and Jarkko Ruutu attempted several times to taunt Habs D-man Mike Komisarek into fighting. Each time, Big Georges, the nuclear bomb, only had to skate into the conversation and the Ottawa players moved along... If the reigning Heavyweight Champ of the NHL knows when to pick the appropriate time to lay out an opponent, why can't the fourth line "energy" guys get the message? Have a great sports day everyone.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Devil's in the details...

Apologies to regular readers, thank you for your e-mails - yes, I am alive...I had to take some necessary time off, hopefully for the last time, due to health issues... Another NHL season is underway - let's get right into it.

My well researched NHL preview is still sitting on a shelf somewhere, and not online; with the season already started - who needs a preview? However, just for the record - I have Dallas and Detroit meeting in the Western Final, Detroit wins... and, Montreal versus the New York Rangers in the Eastern Final, New York wins... Detroit takes the Stanley Cup for a second year in a row.

One of the biggest NHL stories this year has to be coming out of New Jersey. Martin Brodeur had successful surgery Thursday morning on his injured left elbow and will be sidelined for three to four months according to GM Lou Lamoriello and the Devils in a press release. With Brodeur close to becoming the all-time wins and shutout leader in the NHL, the timing of the injury could have sent New Jersey into a tailspin; they gave up twenty shots to Buffalo in their first period without the legendary goaltender, but now seem prepared for life without Marty, at least for a few months. Currently, the Devils are 6th in the Eastern Conference with 16 points after 12 games. Many wonder, where will they be in four months without Brodeur?

In my opinion, the Devils will be right were they are now, fighting for 5th or 6th place in the Conference. This is Lou Lamoriello's team after all, and although names such as Stevens and Neidermeyer have moved on from the defensive corps, is their a more frustrating team to watch then the Devils? Well, maybe Minnesota - but they have Gaborik - for now... This is also a team coached by Brent Sutter, and we all know the work ethic of the Sutter family and their teams - the grit and determination are unmatched. While having a weak penalty kill so far this season, Bryce Salvador is the only minus defensemen on the team, at -4; they are also near the top of the League in goals against, allowing only 30 goals this season.

Which brings us to Marty Brodeur's replacement, Kevin Weekes. The Toronto born Weekes, was drafted by Florida in the 2nd round of the 1993 NHL Draft and has made numerous stops around the NHL in Vancouver, New York, and Carolina to name a few. When Brodeur was first injured, several experts immediately had the Devils suddenly missing the playoffs. It has only been a few seasons, but it amazes me how quickly we forget - as fans and media. Prior to the "Lock-out", Weekes was the number one in Carolina, and he posted some very respectable numbers for the Hurricanes as their starter. In 2002-2003, Weekes played in 51 games with a 2.55 GAA and .912 save percentage. He played in 66 games during the 2003-2004 season, posting an identical .912% and lowering his goals against to 2.33. It would not be a surprise to see similar numbers in New Jersey for Weekes now that he has inherited the number one spot.

A familiar face will be sitting at the end of the bench as back-up goaltender to Weekes, as Scott Clemmenson returns to the NHL after starting the year on the New Jersey farm team in the AHL. After playing most of last season with the AHL's Toronto Marlies, posting a solid 2.44 GAA and a .910 save percentage, the 31 year old Clemmenson will be a dependable back-up for the Devils. One thing that is certain, both net minders bring years of experience to the team, and although not future Hall of Fame members as Brodeur will be one day, they will get the job done in New Jersey's defensive system.

It's great to be back - Have a great sports day everyone!