Thursday, February 26, 2009

Big Bert Battles Back



Among hockey fans and the media there has been much talk of Todd Bertuzzi being the "comeback" player of the year in the NHL. While this talk is warranted based on his play this season, many media outlets describe Big Bert's season as a surprise. Who could have predicted such an unlikely season?

Regular readers of The Voice of Sport may recall a September 9th article "Flame on!! Bertuzzi Comes to Calgary" which discussed Bertuzzi's arrival on the Red Mile. Flames fans were extremely concerned with his past, referring to him as "the biggest thug in hockey" in their letters to the Calgary Herald. I raised the question at the time; will Flames fans still be writing letters to the Editor if Bertuzzi scores 40 goals and leads Calgary to the playoffs? After 60 games it would seem there is a different tune on the jukebox these days at the Saddledome.

A comment from the Calgary Herald, February 24, 2009 - "I was against the Flames decision to take Todd. However, I have seen such a turnaround of attitude from him. He definitely has shown remorse for his past action. So, I decided that grace was due for him. What a player we have!"

Bertuzzi has consistently shown remorse for his past actions (the Steve Moore incident), apologizing on numerous occasions and facing the legal ramifications. Now that he's helping their team, fans in Calgary see a "new" man and are no longer referring to him as a "thug". As Tom Looney of Fox Sports Radio often states - the winners have a thousand fathers, and the losers are orphans.

While he won't net 40 goals, Big Bert is on pace for a 20 goal/60 point season and barring a late season collapse, Calgary should hold on to first place in the Northwest Division. With a 13 point lead over 8th place Dallas, a trip to the post season and home ice advantage in the first round seems to be a certainty for the hard working Flames. Bertuzzi is fourth in team scoring with 14 goals, 28 assists, and 42 points in 55 games played; including four game winners. He ranks fifth on the Flames for average ice time - averaging 18:40 per game. On February 14th, he had a season high 4 assists in a Calgary victory over the Phoenix Coyotes.

In his third tour of duty with Head Coach "Iron" Mike Keenan, Bertuzzi is close to returning to his all-star form. Adrian Aucoin explained the relationship to Iain MacIntyre in a Calgary Herald article February 18th, 2009 - "Mike likes the way Bert plays and Bert likes the way Mike coaches, and they bring out the best in each other. It's definitely a good fit."

There is no doubt General Manager Darryl Sutter and Bertuzzi will make an attempt to negotiate a contract extension. However, with his play this season will there be enough salary cap space? The Flames are already committed to $42.6 million in salaries next season and will need to re-sign Mike Cammalleri, currently second in team scoring with 58 points. At age 34, Bertuzzi may be looking for a multi-year contract in the $3 to 4 million per year range and the Flames may be better served committing those dollars to Cammalleri (a UFA at season's end) and Rene Bourque (a UFA after the 2010 season).

The larger reason for Bertuzzi's return to form, besides the faith shown in him by Coach Keenan and Calgary Captain Jarome Iginla, is his return to good health. Lost in the Bertuzzi/Moore situation is the fact that after his trade from Vancouver to Florida, Big Bert underwent back surgery for a herniated disc. He only played 7 games for the Panthers (for GM Keenan) before he had surgery, and then became a trade deadline acquisition by Detroit; playing in only 8 games before suffering a neck injury. In the 2007-2008 season, he was off to Anaheim to be reunited with former boss Brian Burke. Playing most of the season on the third line for the Ducks, which limited his ice time, he missed 14 games due to a concussion but still managed 14 goals and 40 points in 68 games.

The gamble for the Calgary Flames last summer was not "if" Bertuzzi's past would haunt him but would Big Bert's back hold up in the rugged Northwest Division. As he stated in his first trip to Calgary, "I'm going to come out and play hockey here and let my play do the talking". Luckily for Flames fans, Big Bert came to play. Have a great sports day everyone.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Alone on the Range



The news of the past twenty-four hours in the National Hockey League is certainly centered around New York, as Nick Kypreos broke the news yesterday on Sportsnet's Hockey Central @ Noon. The New York Rangers have fired Head Coach Tom Renney and replaced him with former Tampa Bay Lightning Coach and TSN analyst John Tortorella. The Rangers new bench boss knows how to win; he is second only to Peter Laviolette for career wins by an American coach with 239 victories, he is a Jack Adams Award winner as Coach of the Year, and a Stanley Cup winner in 2004 with Tampa.

Renney was let go, along with assistant coach Perry Pearn, in a move General Manager Glen Sather felt he had to make as the Rangers continued to fall in the Eastern Conference standings - going 2-7-3 in their last 12 games. Sather is quoted in an article by Brian Compton at NHL.com as saying, "We've been thinking about it probably for the last couple of weeks." He went on to say, "I could see the team starting to slide. After the start we had at the beginning of the year and the way we were playing and moving and controlling the puck, the game just started to erode."

GM Sather was referring to the Rangers 10-2-1 record in October, and the eventual slide, posting a 2-5-3 win/loss record in February. Renney is fourth all-time in wins for Ranger coaches with a record of 164-121-42, but with only twenty-one games remaining this season and Carolina and Pittsburgh making a push for the final playoff spots, Sather was looking for a new attitude on his under-performing squad. In a Canadian Press interview, Sather explains. "Torts (Tortorella) is certainly a lot more fiery and a lot different with how he approaches the players."

If Sather is looking for more "fire", one would hope Tortorella, a former assistant coach in New York before Sather joined the club, is bringing a large supply of kindling and matches. Several Ranger players spoke on NHL.com and the MSG Network about the events of the past day.

Scott Gomez - "the players feel 100% responsible..." and, "we've got to find a way to win."

Markus Naslund went on to say, "...we have to respond."

The players are saying all of the right things, but will it translate into a win tomorrow evening against the Toronto Maple Leafs? New York's leading scorer, Nikolai Zherdev (16G - 29A - 45pts) is one of only two players on the plus side at +2, and he becomes a restricted free agent July first and will earn a raise from his current $2.5 million salary. The trouble in New York is with the "big money" players. The "boo birds" have followed Wade Redden from Ottawa to New York. He has five more years on a contract that pays $6.5 million per year, and his 20 points and -11 is not nearly good enough. Michal Rozsival, with 3 more years at $5 million, has 28 points but is a -14. Among the forwards; Scott Gomez (5 more years @ $7.35 million) has 42 points and a -9, Chris Drury (3 more years @ $7.05 million) has 38 points and a -11, and Markus Naslund (1 more year @ $4 million) has 36 points and a -14. The Rangers have allowed 170 goals, but have scored only 151, and their 13-14-3 road record needs to be improved upon if the playoffs are to remain a reality.

There has been much speculation regarding "tampering" charges against the Rangers by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Tortorella was still under contract with Tampa, but had received written permission last June to seek employment elsewhere in the NHL. The real "tampering", if there was any, may have been regarding Lightning Assistant Coach Mike Sullivan. The Fan 590 in Toronto reported this morning that Sullivan, a former assistant under Tortorella in Tampa, has an "out" clause in his contract allowing him to join his former boss with a new team. The NHL is investigating the situation.

When a coaching change is made, teams tend to respond with a short winning streak (see Ottawa's 5 game win streak under new coach Cory Clouston), and that my be enough to hold on to a playoff spot in New York. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is an Olympic champion with Sweden, and if the Rangers stay in contention, he could steal them a round or two in the playoffs. If Tortorella doesn't make an immediate impact, the spotlights of Broadway could begin to shine on General Manager Glen Sather. If Sean Avery lands in New York again, it could be an interesting finish to the season at Madison Square Garden. Have a great sports day everyone.

Monday, February 23, 2009

How Swede it is...

The Vancouver Canucks continue their trip through Eastern Canada tomorrow evening (Feb. 24th) in Montreal, and all eyes will again be on Mats Sundin. After wins in Ottawa and Toronto, the Canucks find themselves in 5th place in the Western Conference standings, two points ahead of the surging Columbus Blue Jackets. As you may recall, the Habs were one of the many off-season suitors for the former Leaf Captain; sending Toronto a draft pick for the exclusive rights to negotiate a contract before Sundin hit free agency last July. Expect more jeers than cheers at the Bell Center, as spurned Habs fans voice their displeasure.

While the focus has been on Sundin, after 18 games in a Canuck uniform he has 6 goals and 12 points; the Sundin saga should not distract the fans, media, and the 29 other NHL teams. Vancouver is for real, and after 59 games the Canucks are 30-21-8, they have gone 8-1-1 in their last ten games, and are currently on a four game winning streak. The Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel, have emerged as a true force in the league during the final year of their contracts with Vancouver. Both are having career years at the right time, which should translate in to a raise from their $3.575 million salary. They lead the team in points; Daniel has 26 goals and 34 assists for 59 points, and Henrik is right behind his brother with 12 goals and 45 assists. With stars like the Sedins, Pavol Demitra, and Mats Sundin, the true story of the Canuck's success can be found a little deeper down the depth chart.

Alexander Burrows, of Pte.Claire, Quebec, has already established career highs in goals (15) and points (32) in his third year in the NHL. Two of his last three goals have evened the score and lead to Vancouver victories. Ryan Kesler, the Canucks first round pick in 2003, was almost a Flyer after former Philly GM Bob Clarke made an offer to the restricted free agent several seasons ago, has 18 goals and 38 points (a career high). He has begun to look right at home on the second line with Sundin and Demitra.

Two young defencemen have made their presence known on the blue line this season as well; 6'3 Swedish D-man Alexander Edler has 28 points and is proving he can play at the NHL level, and Kevin Bieksa is leading the way for Vancouver blue liners with 10 goals and 33 points. What makes Bieksa's steady improvement during his NHL career so astonishing is the fact that the Grimsby, Ontario native was a 5th round pick in 2001, drafted 151st overall. After attending Bowling-Green University for 4 years, Bieksa earned his way to the NHL, and with 93 points in 204 career games there is no doubt he's in the league to stay.

Two other young Canucks to watch for, especially come playoff time, are Taylor Pyatt and Mason Raymond. At 6'4 and 230 pounds, Pyatt is a force on the ice. He has 7 goals and 14 points this season on Vancouver's 4th line. Raymond, a former star at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, has a respectable 9 goals and 20 points in 52 games in his second NHL season.

Despite several losing streaks, and the absence of All-World goalie Roberto Luongo for several months, Head Coach Alain Vigneault has his squad firing on all cylinders and ready for a fight to the finish. General Manager Mike Gillis may look for help on the penalty kill at the trade deadline, but Vancouver has the talent and the depth in place already, and could find themselves playing hockey into June. Have a great sports day everyone.