2017 Quick Stanley Cup Playoff Predictions

April 12, 2017 marks the opening night of the Stanley Cup playoffs, with the hope that one of the 5 playoff bound Canadian teams will win the Cup.

Sadly – I’m not sure that it is going to happen.

EASTERN CONFERENCE-

Montreal(47-26-9, 103 points) vs. New York(48-28-6, 102 points)

The Rangers are one of the NHL’s highest scoring teams (253 goals, 4th in the league) and the Canadiens are one of the stingiest teams at (198 goals against or 4th best).

Montreal is lead by 29-year-old goalkeeper Carey Price whose season Goals Against Average, 2.23, and Save Percentage, .923, are better than his career averages.  Price’s health, the trade of P.K. Subban for Shea Weber and the firing of Michel Therrien on February 14 and subsequent hiring of former Bruins coach Claude Julien have all led to Montreal’s success.

New York on the other hand, has seen goalkeeper Henrik Lundqvist, 35,  struggle at times.  His 2.74 Goals Against Average and .910 Save Percentage have left Rangers fans wondering if the King is showing weakness.

The King is a money goalkeeper in the playoffs but so too is Carey Price.  These two have little to separate them but looking back to their March 4th match-up, the Canadiens won 4-1.  I’d like to think the Rangers could take this series but Price and company are going to have more than Lundqvist can handle.

Ottawa(44-28-10,98 points) vs. Boston(44-31-7,95 points)

Between these two Boston has the best Penalty Kill percentage and the 7th best power play percentage.  Boston is coming into the play-offs hot winning 5 of 7 in the two weeks leading up to the season finale that they lost at Washington.  Included in that span is a loss to these same Senators.

Ottawa has beaten Boston the last three games the teams have played but they went 9-10 during that span struggling against non-playoff teams Tampa Bay, Winnipeg, Philadelphia and Detroit.

Ottawa’s struggles to score and defend will likely be their downfall – especially since Boston is hot.  Ottawa’s 2.51 Goals For a game is 22 and their 2.56 Goals Against Average proves this team relies on getting timely goals and defense.  To be fair that 2.56 GAA is 10th in the NHL.

Boston will eventually come out on top but it’s going to be tight.

Washington(55-19-8,118 points) vs Toronto(40-27-14, 95 points)

I want to pick the Maple Leafs – I do but I simply cannot.  The Capitals are just that good and the Maple Leafs are in Year 2 of their rebuilding effort.  As a Leafs fan, I didn’t expect them to make the playoffs but now it’s time to enjoy the fact that it’s the second week of April and they are still playing hockey in the ACC.

I don’t see the Leafs slowing down the Capitals for maybe more than 1 or 2 games but it may be the time to see Auston Matthews’ star shine.

Pittsburgh(50-21-11, 111 points) vs Columbus(50-24-8, 108 points)

It would normally be a pretty easy pick to say the Penguins would take the series however the loss of Kris Letang is devastating.  Letang’s role in the Pens’ Cup run last season cannot be understated, his goal clinched the trophy for the skating birds.

On the other hand, Columbus brings a wild card in coach John Tortorella.  Torts and Pens’ head coach Mike Sullivan are ironically friends.  Torts brought immense changes to a team that under achieved in the prior season.

I think Pittsburgh have just enough to push past the Jackets.

2nd round – Montreal vs Ottawa

The battle of two Canadian hotbeds of hockey that will come down to goaltending – something that is always the story in the postseason.

The Canadiens are also built tougher and deeper to progress through the playoffs. Ottawa’s scoring from the blueline and struggles to score will be their downfall in this series.

Washington vs. Pittsburgh

The year that Ovi finally passes Crosby to get to the Eastern Conference Finals.  The Capitals are going to find their way past the depleted Pens.

Eastern Conference Finals – Montreal vs. Washington

Washington not only has a great goalkeeper but they have strong defense and incredible scoring.  While it may be a lengthy series, Ovi will get the monkey off his back and take his team to the Stanley Cup Finals.

Western Conference

Chicago(50-23-9,109 points) vs Nashville(41-29-12, 94 points)

The number 1 seed in the Western Conference takes on the team that just made it into the playoffs.  That being said at the beginning of the season it was questionable whether Nashville would even have the chance to make it this far.  The off-season trade of former Nashville captain Shea Weber to Montreal for P.K. Subban didn’t start off well for the Preds.

Once you put the Blackhawks in the playoffs they turn into a juggernaut.  This season will be no different.  As much as I’d like to think Subban will spark the Preds, the Blackhawks are led by arguably the most talented playoff duo in Kane and Toewes as well as the best coach in Quenneville.

Chicago will come out on top thanks to all of these factors.

Minnesota(49-25-8, 106 points) vs St. Louis(46-29-7, 99 points)

There is something to be said for a revenge win in a series and for coach Mike Yeo of the Blues there has to be some desire to beat the Wild after years of coaching there.  Yeo says his focus is not on revenge but on the playoffs but I think he’ll have his team fired up.

I’m going with the Blues.

Anaheim(46-23-13,105 points) vs Calgary(45-33-4,94 points)

Every year it seems there is one team that falls apart in the playoffs and doesn’t live up to their ranking or expectations.  For me, that team is Anaheim and the team that takes them out is Calgary.  Of course I have a thing for Canadian teams so take it for what you will.

Edmonton(47-26-9,103 points) vs San Jose(46-29-7,99 points)

Welcome to the year that Connor McDavid wins the Hart Trophy and pulls the Oilers through the playoffs starting with the first round series win against San Jose.  Edmonton buckle up, you are in for a long ride.

2nd round – Chicago vs St. Louis

An immense rivalry that Chicago will come out on top thanks to their stars – but don’t believe that it’s going to be easy.

Calgary vs Edmonton

This my friends will be a dandy.  I can’t wait to see these two Western Canada teams play this series out.  However for Calgary, Connor McDavid and company will be just too much.

Chicago vs Edmonton

Did I say Edmonton fans were in for a long ride?  It’s going to keep getting longer after winning this series against the Blackhawks.

Stanley Cup Finals -Washington vs Edmonton

As much as I’d like to pick the Oil to be the Cinderella and win it all, Washington is just too much.  Ovi will get over the hump and cement his legacy as one of the best players to ever suit up in the NHL.

 

It’s Time To Stop Bitching About The NHL Refs

The fastest skater in the National Hockey League’s skills competition this past January, Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid, completed a lap around the ice in 13.310 seconds. Imagine what you can do in 13.310 seconds. By the time you’ve read to the end of this sentence McDavid has already completed his turn around the ice.
For the average fan, we miss out on that speed when viewing the game on television. Everything blends together and at times the play can be quick but most times we get used to the pace of the players. That is until the ref misses a call and we wonder how they could have missed something right in front of them?

As someone who has been a ref for high school soccer games, there’s something to be said for making sure the game is called properly but not making the game about the rules. If you stop the game for every little infraction it could be a drawn out affair. Then again if you go into the game knowing the teams have a heated rivalry it’s important to let them know you are watching and by calling them out it improves the chances of level heads prevailing.

If you ref young kids, there’s the temptation to call everything as well. The best refs can “feel out” the game and speak to the players during the game to instruct them on what is going on.
“Hey number 8, stop pushing off. If you keep doing that I’m going to have to call it.”

Even when you blow the whistle as a youth ref it’s important to let the child know what happened and how to improve. I find that children get a lot of pressure from parents and coaches (even themselves) and sometimes as a ref it’s helpful to give them a little lift.

Getting back to the NHL, when it comes to being able to skate with these guys as well as watch everything that is going on on the ice-I’m in awe. These refs are truly amazing. If you think about the fact that some of them take pucks off of their bodies with no padding and skate the entire game with no line changes-they are some incredible individuals. Not only that but to see and break down the play of men who skate at speeds close to 40 mph according to some estimates, you have to cut them some slack.
I don’t want refs to be perfect. I don’t want them to be robots that get everything right. Bad calls and missed calls are a part of sports since their creation. Turning refs into computers and every play into instant replay slows down the speed and flow of the game. It makes coaches rely too heavily on fighting with the refs rather than coaching their players.  

I know I’ve bitched about Doug Gilmour getting high sticked in the playoffs and I’ll keep bitching. This is just the way it’ll always be. To be fair, the Leafs could have done more to not be in that situation to rely on that call. Good teams recover from bad calls and no calls. Sometimes it all comes down to luck and sometimes it’s just meant to be. Sometimes the better team wins-then again you can’t convince me the Kings were better!

Learning Humanity Through Hockey

On the last day of 2016. I found myself deep in thought at 70 miles per hour headed to a hockey rink.  While mounds of snow surrounded the state highway, I bathed myself in one of Canada’s national treasures: The Tragically Hip.  For whatever reason my music shuffled to “We Want To Be It” at the right moment and my mind wandered.

Drip, drip, drip.

I imagined what it would have been like to live in Canada and be traveling an hour, like I was, to play hockey.  All around me were the signs of what I pictured life in parts of our Northern neighbor must look like.  There was snow piled on the side of the road, some cars had snow on them, it was cold and of course my car was full of my hockey gear.

When’d you get so zen?

I thought about Gord Downie and what he must have gone through when he wrote this song – not knowing he would end up with terminal brain cancer.  Downie spent so much of his life introducing Canadians (and non-Canadians) to the culture and history of the country.  Downie introduced me to a little Ontario town known as “Bobcaygeon,” the “Hundreth Meridian” as well as some of the oddest and coolest historical parts of Canada. The legend of Maple Leafs’ player Bill Barilko has always been one of my favorite stories and Downie’s “Fifty Mission Cap” made him mythical.

Drip, drip.

However, driving through New York state isn’t even remotely close to Canada.  I’ll never forget the times I’ve driven on Queen Elizabeth Way in Ontario on the way to Toronto.  I always figured that if I could drive through New York City in rush hour or navigate the East Coast of the United States I could drive anywhere but the QEW is a completely different animal.  First, driving Kilometers is bizarre to me.  I’m so used to Miles Per Hour that when you put that km/h up on the sign, I start questioning my speedometer.  Plus I know that if I speed I’m going to get pulled over because I’m the guy from out of the country. Even if everyone else is blowing past me and trust me, if you drive the QEW they are going to blow past you, I will get pulled over.  Cars will leave you standing still like you aren’t even moving.  I’ve never driven a road like the QEW and I’m not sure there is anything that compares to it.

When you thought all my dreams sucked.

Getting to the rink, changing into my hockey gear and getting onto the ice for “sticks and pucks,” I realized that I wasn’t going to have a good day.  One side of the rink was full of 8 to 11 year olds, it seemed were killing it with their hockey coaches.  Center ice was full of younger kids and their fathers going from mini goal to mini goal at top speed.  Each time a kid ran into a goal I couldn’t help but imagine one of them breaking their necks but apparently they were made out of rubber.

Finally at the other end, “my end” so to speak was about five adults including myself. Taking turns shooting at a goal, we all were sizing each up until the oldest adult in a Red Wings jersey, took a cone from behind the boards and put it in the net.

“Four on four,” he shouted before pointing at a couple of the adults and a few of the 8 to 11 year olds.

I dropped down to the ice to stretch under the assumption that I would be picked for one of the teams.  As I stretched I could see one of the other players asking Red Wings jersey if I was playing.

“No he’s not playing,” Red Wings said as I finished stretching.

Was it because I was wearing the blue and white of my Toronto Maple Leafs?

Was it because I wasn’t the best skater?  I stood up, took my stick and puck past the red line near the bench and started puckhandling on my own.  From time to time I would look up and watch the rink, making sure that they knew I was there.  My new “Hamilton” Ribcore stick freshly taped pulled the puck back and forth while I avoided the young kids at center ice.

“Good play Ovie,” Red Wings yelled at one of the young kids on his team.

Apparently those young kids were much better than me or at least Red Wings thought he would rather play with them than me.  What does that say to me?  How should I feel? I come out to get better at hockey and instead of being given the chance to play, Red Wings picks little kids over me.  My heart sank.

I pondered the options: I could take it as an insult and take my puck and go home.  I almost did it too.  I stared at the rink door for a few minutes thinking how easy it would be to just skate over and leave.  If I just left I could avoid the embarrassment of being the adult standing by himself puckhandling.  I wouldn’t have the little kids out there staring at me. I wouldn’t have Red Wings skating past me as close as he could.

However, why should I let Red Wings win?  If I took my puck and went home it meant I drove an hour just to spend fifteen minutes on the ice.  It meant that someone else was going to dash my dreams.  It meant that I’m letting someone else decide whether I’m good or not.  It should be me who decides whether I give up or not.  It should be me who figures out whether I suck or not.  I can’t let Red Wings win.

I was just happy you gave a fuck.

After who-knows-how-long the game ended and I took the puck out to shoot on net.  One of the other adults called me over.

“Hey,” he said, “you are skating on the inside edges.”

“Yeah I know,” I replied, “I have a hard time with my edges.”

“Try these.”

He showed me a couple of skating moves that would force me to work on the outside edge of my blades, something that I went to a month’s worth of lessons to learn.

“I did some of these here in lessons,” I said.

“How long have you tried skating?”

“Since April.”

“I’ve been doing it for 40 years and I still do it wrong.”

If he does it wrong, well damn I’d hate to see doing it right.  This guy was skating backwards like a pro – moving every which way with the puck and smooth on his feet.

“There’s other classes you can take too, you should check them out.”

“Thanks,” I replied.

As the Zamboni came onto the ice, everyone scattered like flies and I was standing alone at the far end of the rink.  Me and the goal at the lonely end of the rink.  I just wanted to join in something but everyone was leaving – so I took the hint.

Might as well be on the moon

I got dressed and was the last one to leave the locker room – the weird guy who wasn’t a regular.  I have to admit if I knew it was going to be like that, maybe I would have reconsidered.  Between feeling like I was crap and being all alone for most of the session I could have been on a different planet.  No, it wasn’t fair, but at the same time I can choose to be better, I can choose to make myself better through work.  I’m not going to get better by taking my stuff and going home.  Had I walked through that rink door when I was left off the team I wouldn’t gain anything.  I would only lose.

It’s kinda lonesome though walking through a giant ice complex not knowing anyone and coming off a training session where you feel like crap.  I realize I’m not the most talented player and I have a lot to gain but the only way I’m going to get better is to play. I can’t help but feel like there’s a hidden message here somewhere.  I’m not sure what it is yet, but maybe in time.

Maybe the wound is too fresh, too raw and too exposed.  Maybe it’s just a matter of flat-out rivalry – Toronto and Detroit but I’d like to think that humanity is bigger than rivalry. Then again every single day we see prejudice, racism and animosity played out all over the world.  There’s no reason for us to let these issues cloud our judgement but we are humans and as such we make mistakes.  I can’t hold a grudge but I can choose to make myself a better hockey player.  I hope that one day they make themselves a better human.

From the Legion of Doom to Auston Matthews

In the “new NHL” speed, skills and stickhandling have been put on display on a nightly basis.  Players like Auston Matthews, Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid and Phil Kessel put their talents on center stage for audiences to view when their teams take center ice.

The attitude of the league is different now too.  Quick skaters with the ability to put the puck in the net are desired.  Teams used to want power forwards like Keith Tkachuk, who could bang his body around the boards and seperate defenseman from the puck while being able to bury a one-timer.

Eric Lindros was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame this year on the back of his 372 goals, 493 assists and 1398 penalty minutes.  Lindros was described as a “once in a lifetime” player who was able to impose his 6 foot 4 inch, 240 pound frame on other skaters and move up and down the ice with the pace of a first line winger.  His ability to dominate a game was what made him the first pick of the 1991 draft that the Quebec Nordiques would trade to the Philadelphia Flyers for a boatload of players, picks and cash. Although to be fair, none of what would be traded would come to equal what the Flyers got in return for the eventual Hall of Famer.

Lindros would use his strength and brawn to control the ice in front of and behind the net. Whether it was with intimidation or by flat out pushing opposition players, Lindros scored using his strong frame.  The game was different during his reign as a Flyer.  His line of John LeClair and Mikael Renberg were dubbed the “Legion of Doom” because they ruled the ice when the trio skated together.

It’s ironic that the one player who could be called a “power forward” is also a Flyer, Wayne Simmonds.  Simmonds however is 6 foot 2 and weighs a meager 183 pounds, imagine how much the game has changed since the time of Lindros?

Now players are tall, lean, fast, muscular skaters who are able to escape a check rather than deliver one. Gone are the days of the open ice checks of Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer who paired together on the blueline for the New Jersey Devils destroying anyone who skated over the neutral zone with their head down.

Concussions have become the buzzword in the NHL.  In the 2015-2016 season, Calgary Flames defenseman, Dennis Wideman, was hit by Miikka Salomaki, a Nashville Predator right wing.  The hit rattled him and I’m convinced as he bounced off the board, he had no idea where he was after the Predator skated away.  It appeared that the front of his helmet hit the glass at the right, or wrong depending on the definition, angle to cause a concussion.  As Wideman got up, he skated toward the Flames bench while a Predator and linesman Don Henderson came his way.  With his mind rattled, he did not take his time on the ice, he immediately began skating which I believe caused him to jumble the two skaters and think that the linesman was an opposing skater.  As he tried to get to the Flames bench he pushed Henderson down on the ice with both hands, causing head trauma to the linesman.  Wideman was ultimately suspended 10 games after his original 20 game suspension was turned over in the appeals process.

Blows to the head leading to concussions have become such a hot topic in all areas of sport, not just the NHL.  However, the NHL has become very wary of what it can do, especially after the Wideman incident.  I don’t believe the NHL did enough for Wideman in this situation though.

The NHL has long wanted to move past it’s rough and tumble image of “I went to a boxing match and a hockey game broke out” to more of a skills competition.  There are many fans who believe that hard hits and fights should be a part of hockey just like the big hits in football.  When Auston Matthews takes the ice for the Toronto Maple Leafs someone on the bench has to be there to protect the star center.  At least in the days of Wayne Gretzky, he had a guy like Marty McSorley who would take on anyone to make sure that no one would drop Gretzky with a blindside hit.

On November 5, 2016 Matthews’ teammate Nazem Kadri took out Vancouver Canuck Daniel Sedin with a blindside hit.  Sedin hit the ice with so much force his helmet popped off and his head rocked back and forth shaking his brain matter.  Sedin’s teammate Jannik Hansen flew over to Kadri and begin pummeling the Leafs center with whatever he could muster.  In a game of checking, these kinds of hits are going to happen – Kadri’s hit was deemed legal by both the refs and the league for what it is worth.

As long as these players skate fast on thin blades and give everything they have to win a trophy that’s as elusive as the Stanley Cup, there will be passion displayed on the ice.  This emotion will come out as pushing and shoving, yelling, celebrating or fighting.  Anytime you get grown men together and put them in an enclosed area, testosterone will take over.  However, in a situation like this with so much to gain and large sticks in their hands, these men are going to use whatever they can to gain an advantage.

In a way it might seem savage to celebrate fighting and the big hits that players dish out on each other.  After all we are trying to look out for the safety of one another by giving them helmets, padding and all that gear.  At the same point, we are humans who seem to thrive on violence whether it is in the news or in the movies or in our entertainment. Wars are constantly being fought across the globe no matter what day it is or what time it is, it seems humans are always in conflict.

As we evolve the question we have to ask ourselves is should our sports evolve as well?  Do we still want to see athletes pound each other? Boxing still exists and Mixed Martial Arts are beginning to break into mainstream television coverage.  When children are dying in places like Gaza and Africa sometimes we don’t realize how much violence exists in our world.  It may not be happening in front of us, but it is happening.  We turn away from Sarah McLachlan’s animal commericals because they are too emotional, we can’t imagine someone beating or mistreating an animal.  Yet, children are starving just across the border from one of the world’s richest countries on Earth.  In fact, children are starving here in the United States.

No, hockey isn’t everything, it’s an escape from dealing with something or everything for a short period of time.  For some people it’s a way of life, a way of making a living or a way to exist.  For most however, it’s just an outlet or something to believe in when life gives us a reason to be distracted from the the awfulness on the horizon.  It isn’t fair, no, to spend three hours engrossed in men with pads, jersey and skates beating each up while the world burns.  But it’s what we have for those three hours to reflect upon our own personal goals and what we can do – maybe even what we can’t do.  If nothing else, we realize that humanity is cheap when so much is on the line and we have to decide for ourselves what it is that we believe in.  Do we wish to be the aggressor, the victor, the one full of pride or the one who submits?

Auston Matthews and Humanity

Auston Matthews.

Auston Matthews.

Auston Matthews.

Auston Matthews.

Four goals in a debut NHL game.  No rookie in NHL history has every done it before.  The second goal looked like Matthews was playing a video game.  Swiping the puck from a defender and skating in on the wing and shooting.

Come on kid.  Give the league a chance.

Auston Matthews.

Get used to it.  He’s finally in Maple Leaf blue and white.  The Gardens don’t buzz anymore and Foster Hewitt doesn’t broadcast from the gondola but the Maple Leafs are forever.

I wonder what went through his mind after the game?

Did he stop and look around at his teammates and think “I did something these guys couldn’t?”

Is he like that?

Or did he stop and say, “I couldn’t do it without these guys?”

I hope that he’s not one of those guys who felt like he’s the man.

“Just put it all on my shoulders I’m gonna save this team.”

But isn’t that the kind of superstar the world loves?  The fiery, ambitious young man who longs for the spotlight?  The one who calls out his teammates in press conferences and interviews because they don’t play at his level?

Is that the nature of sport?

What is it that we want from superstar athletes?  To celebrate their talent?  Or to stroke their ego?  Or do they both go hand in hand?

When we see a superstar athlete in the street do we stop and stare?  If you saw Austin Matthews would you stop and ask for an autograph?

Okay.  Maybe you might not know his face.  Yet.

But if you saw Wayne Gretzky would you stop and stare?  Maybe get an autograph?  A picture?

Or what if you had a seizure while waiting for that star?  Like the man waiting for Tim Tebow?  Imagine if the star actually helped the man.  Do you think all the stars would do it?

The same Tebow the New York Mets took so much flak for signing because critics called it a “publicity stunt.”

Sure.  Aren’t most players signed for some kind of publicity?  Michael Jordan wasn’t Babe Ruth on the diamond for the Birmingham Bulls.  If I came out the stands, the Chicago White Sox organization would not sign me to a contract.  It was because it was Jordan of course.

Tebow, because he CARES about people, stayed with the fan until help could arrive becuase he knows life is bigger than the game.  Whatever his religious beliefs, he truly believes in the wellbeing of people and at some point everyone needs to adopt that belief.

I wonder if Auston Matthews stopped in the locker room and questioned the gravity of the situation.  Did it all fly by in the blink of an eye?  After everyone left, did he look around and wonder what he just accomplished?  Or did he just leave?

Just another day at the office for him?

Some players have talked about that life changing moment going by without them soaking it in.  No time to look around.  Next thing they know they are retired and looking back on a championship or a record or a key victory with regret.

Time.

Every day we talk about it.

“What time is it?”

“I can’t wait til the weekend.”

“Time heals all.”

“Wait til next year.”

“When we all look back on it.”

Why?

All it does is remind us that time saps us of our energy, our youth, our strength and our talents.

While we look to the future we lose sight of the present.  This game, this inning, this shift sometimes we forget that one builds for the next.  Or even this day.  We get so caught up looking forward to the next.  One sun-up leads to the next sun-down and the next thing we know it’s the start of another season.  Ten seasons later we don’t know the players.  We don’t know where it all went.  There’s a 19 year-old Auston Matthews scoring four goals and a warm-hearted player dwelling in instructional league baseball that cares about people that is criticized for his intentions.  Is that the nature of sports or the nature of humanity or do those lines cross?  Maybe that’s why we like sports so much?

The Summer of Stanley Has Begun

Now that the Penguins summer of Stanley has begun, so too has the trade/free agent/draft craziness that is the NHL off-season.  Every year something happens during this time of year that makes you scratch your head in awe.  Someone signs for a ridiculous amount of money or a GM throws out a draft pick for a guy that he has no shot in signing.  Although there are also trades that are made that immediately change the course of a team.

On June 26, 2015, the Los Angeles Kings thought they were getting over the hump in hurry by trading their first round pick, goalie Martin Jones (remember him?) and defenceman Colin Miller to the Boston Bruins for Milan Lucic.  The 13th overall pick was used by the Bruins to draft 6ft 2in, 185lb defenceman Jakub Zboril from the Czech Republic.  The Bruins then traded Jones four days later to the San Jose Sharks for a first-round pick in the 2016 draft and prospect Sean Kuraly.  Jones would be a vital piece for the Sharks making it to the Stanley Cup Finals, beating the Kings and Milan Lucic on their way.

Not to be outdone, the Toronto Maple Leafs are throwing one of their first round picks out to get a young but talented goaltender.  In exchange for the Leafs 2016 first round pick and 2017 second round pick they are getting 26-year-old Frederik Andersen from the Anaheim Ducks.  From the Maple Leafs site:

In 125 career regular season games with Anaheim, Andersen has posted a 77-26-12 record with a 2.33 GAA and .918 SV%. He also holds a 17-9-2 career post-season record with a 2.34 GAA and .916 SV%. In 2014-15 season, Andersen became the fastest goaltender to reach the 26-win mark (26-5-0) in NHL history and tied the league record for the fastest to 50 career wins (50-13-5), originally set by Montreal’s Bill Durnan (50-9-9) in 1944. During the 2013-14 season, Andersen was named to the NHL All-Rookie Team after posting a 20-5-0 record with a 2.29 GAA and .923 SV% in 28 appearances. That season he led all rookie goaltenders in wins, goals-against average and save percentage — the best numbers in those categories by any rookie netminder since 2010-11.

The Maple Leafs are sitting pretty in many different areas after freeing up cap space to make a run at Steven Stamkos and in position to draft coveted “can’t miss” center in Auston Matthews.  Their young kids from the American Hockey League affiliate Toronto Marlies played well for them when called up to the big club at the end of the year and no doubt some of them do feature in the short term plans.

Some General Managers who have multiple draft picks are like the kid who just got their allowance.  Buffalo Sabres’ GM Tim Murray had four third round picks in this year’s NHL draft so he decided one was burning a hole in this pocket.  He reached out to Nashville Predators’ GM David Poile for the availability of un-signed college prospect Jimmy Vessey. Poile, like the store owner who knew the kid just got an allowance, took one of Murray’s third round picks for Vessey.  Poile was never going to be able to sign him and it has not been clear what Vessey’s true intentions are, other than to wait out Nashville.  On August 15, Vessey becomes an unrestricted free agent, so I am guessing Murray figured he’d plop down a pick on a chance to win the Vessey lottery.  Good luck.

We’ll see how the Leafs and the Sabres look with these two moves next year, although neither one was as close to making it to the Cup Final as San Jose was last year.  Both are in true rebuilding mode and can use as much help as they can get, but maybe both will hit home runs in free agency and the lottery.  You never know at this time of year, that’s why hockey never really takes an off-season and someone always has their eye on the Cup.

Phil Kessel Is My Hero and Conn Smythe Winner

I tried to be partial when it came to the Stanley Cup Finals and the San Jose Sharks.  During the run to the Finals, the Sharks had a little black cat run onto the ice, Jo Pawvelski as she would come to been named.  Many of you may not know the depth of my love of black cats, however my favorite soccer team is the Sunderland AFC Black Cats, also my first cat as an adult was a black cat named Madeline that I still miss to this day.  I’m very much a black cat person.

Taking that into consideration, I’ve tried not to be partial to the Pittsburgh Penguins.  I grew up watching the great “Super” Mario Lemieux and his sidekick Jaromir Jagr beat teams up in the historic Igloo in Pittsburgh.  I always liked the guys who weren’t in the spotlight, guys like Martin Straka or Mike Needham.  Guys you probably wouldn’t find on the scoresheet night in or night out, but they were the guys who skated and did the little things.  These were guys who won draws or were able to get up and down the rink faster than the others.

Looking at the 2016 Penguins and their run through the Stanley Cup Playoffs I can’t help but be amazed as I watch guys who I’ve seen play at Wilkes-Barre Scranton.  These “Baby Pens” are growing up and contributing with the big club and these “young kids” are pulling their weight.  I’ve talked about them before, but I have been pulling for these guys because it’s like seeing your hometown club try to win a championship.  Plus they’ve made the Northeast Pennsylvania area extremely proud to be a hockey area.

But there’s something else and it touches me closely.  I knew Phil Kessel because he was a Toronto Maple Leaf and I knew there was animosity from the fans his situation there.  People have made fun of his weight and the fact that sometimes he looks like he is out of shape when he gets back to the bench.  Kessel is a cancer survivor after being diagnosed with testicular cancer in December 2006.  He’s been cancer free for over 9 years and he’s battled something that no one should have to go through, whether it’s testicular, breast, brain or any other type of cancer.  As a member of the Event Leadership Team for an American Cancer Society Relay for Life, I can’t help but support Phil Kessel.  Seeing his performance this Playoff season has made me want him to win the Stanley Cup and the Conn Smythe Trophy.  I can’t help it.  He was 19 when he had cancer AND beat it.  He went to the Maple Leafs and they made him out to be fat, lazy and a coach killer.  He’s none of those.  He’s a team player who has found a home in Pittsburgh with a team that respects and values him.  Why no one has appreciated the fact that he beat cancer and continues to play at such a high level is beyond me.  It’s no easy thing to beat cancer and I’ve seen survivors and caregivers who back that up.

I’m holding out for Kessel to win the Cup and the Conn Smythe so that he can get some vindication for all the years that he’s taken crap from people about conditioning, diet and whatever else people could find to throw at him.  Kessel deserves a tremendous amount of credit for finding a way to beat cancer and stay cancer free because that is no easy feat.  I hope he accomplishes his dream.  Maybe I’ll get a Kessel jersey so every time I pull it on and step on the ice I can push myself just a little harder knowing what the man must have gone through.  My demons I’m going through learning to play hockey are minuscule compared to what he must have gone through.

The Stanley Cup Playoffs Make Heroes

The Stanley Cup Playoffs always seem to create a hero out of someone. It becomes that special time of year where someone steps up from the third or fourth line because the first or the second line gets shut down thanks to the opposition’s coaching choices.  Unless you follow everything the team does, you may not even have heard of the guy.
It’s during this “crunch time” if you want to call it that, that diamonds are made. Sometimes these diamonds may never have their number called again. Sometimes these diamonds go on to be legends. Think back to all the Conn Smythe winners in the past, can you name them? Think back to the Stanley Cup Champions in recent years, can you name them?
Even if you can’t, what is amazing about the Conn Smythe award is that unlike most trophies it is based upon the play of an individual throughout the entire playoffs. If you lead your team to the Finals and put up a goose egg there – more than likely you are going to have a hard time winning the trophy. If you play magnificently throughout the playoffs you are probably going to be in line to be the Conn Smythe award winner. It doesn’t always go to the winning team either, five times since the trophy was introduced in 1964 it has gone to the losing team most recently to Jean-Sebastien Giguere of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim who played tremendously in net. He finished with a 15-6 record, a .945 Save % and 1.62 Goals Against Average.
What makes the Conn Smythe award so amazing though is the list of names that have won the trophy. Guys from our decade and guys from decades before us that we can only imagine seeing play in their prime. Hall of Fame players and guys who scored in places like the Maple Leaf Gardens. Guys who made key saves in the Montreal Forum. Guys who were a part of the Oilers Dynasty of the 80’s. Guys who played a part in making the Islanders the talk of the Nassau Coliseum. Guys who were a part of the Broad Street Bullies. Guys would initiate a line brawl and bring the goalies into it. Guys who would see your head down and hit you in the middle of the ice without thinking twice. Drop ’em? Hell yes, this is the rock ’em sock ’em NHL – Don Cherry style. The days of Northern NHL teams winning the Cup with some of the greatest goaltenders you may ever see backstopping them.
Of course as time has past we have seen the new generation, the new buildings with the expansions and the new equipment. The game has been influenced by an international group of players that witnessed the “Miracle on Ice.” No longer is it won by teams in the northern half of North America but Southern states are hoisting the Cup now along with those on the sunny West Coast. Playoff dates in May and June test the ability of maintenance workers to keep the ice frozen in the summer heat. The next generation of player is faster, stronger and better conditioned than those we remember. They wear lighter pads, scientifically engineered skates and use high-tech sticks. There is no more fighting. This is the new NHL. No more Montreal Forum or Maple Leaf Gardens. These are giant arenas built for bringing in the crowd and getting them to spend, spend and spend some more.
I’ve often wondered whether I grew up in the golden age of hockey with Lemieux, Gretzky, Roy, Brodeur and all. I want to say yes, there will never ever be guys like this. I know there will never be guys that stopped shots like that and there will probably never be another guy that scored like Gretz. But at the same time, what about those that grew up during Gordie Howe’s reign? They probably said the same. Can you imagine the talent that has come along since? Patrick Roy won three Conn Smythe awards, does that mean no one else ever will? Wayne Gretzky holds or shares 61 records, does that mean that no one will ever pass any of them? Mario Lemieux won the Conn Smythe award in consecutive years and is the last person to do it, will anybody else do it? Martin Brodeur holds 25 records, will anyone break them?
I can’t help but wonder while watching these Stanley Cup Finals – who will be that Conn Smythe guy? I wonder if there will be a guy that will break a record? Is there someone on the ice that will make it to the Hockey Hall of Fame? Sure there are some names that pop to mind – Thornton, Pavelski and Crosby. But we don’t know where these careers will end. We don’t know how it’s all going to play out. Hockey takes such a wild ride sometimes. It’s such a tough sport to play day in and day out. It takes such a toll on your mind and your body. I can’t imagine what these guys go through just to make it through these playoff marathons. Whoever wins the Cup and wins the Conn Smythe no doubt they’ll deserve but I’ve got my eye on a couple of guys and I’m not going to jinx them by saying their names – just know, they’ll be someone’s hero.

So Long Coach Brophy,You’ll Be Missed

Former Toronto Maple Leafs coach John Brophy passed away on Monday, May 23, 2016 in his native province of Nova Scotia.  He had been living for some time in a retirement community in North Grant, Nova Scotia just outside of Antigonish where he was born on January 20, 1933.  The former coach had spoken with a Canadian newspaper in January of 2015 about his experiences in coaching with the emphasis on his 1,000+ victories and even though some of the details were fuzzy he still had his with about him.  He won his 1000th victory with the Wheeling Nailers of the East Coast Hockey League.  Coach Brophy has more wins in professional hockey than record holder Scotty Bowman.

He still talked about the fights.  Those fights made him famous, not only as a coach but legend has it as Reggie Dunlop the movie character in Slap Shot.  Brophy was a hard-nosed hockey player who spent 20 years playing in the minor leagues of hockey spending most of his time engaging in brawls that sometimes entered the stands.  According to one site, Brophy even entered the stands to hit one fan who spit on Brophy, took the butt end of the stick to the fan’s teeth and instructed him to “now spit motherfucker!”

My memories of Brophy come from his experience at Toronto and of course the Hampton Roads Admirals, who made fighting an art form.  During Brophy’s tenure with the Admirals as head coach, 11 years, they won 3 East Coast Hockey League Championships.  The amazing thing is that they did it with toughness, grit and by beating the crap out of anyone who got in their way.  The Admirals won fans in the Hampton Roads area by bringing the type of game that was purely out of Slap Shot.  The Hanson brothers would have been proud.  I’m convinced that is why I love Slap Shot as much as I do, other than the fact it’s absolutely hilarious.

In the second year of the Admirals back-to-back championships they featured goalies Byron Dafoe and Olaf Kolzig, both of whom would go on to fight as members of the Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals respectively.  During the game they fought in, everyone on the ice was involved in a brawl. One of the most captivating line brawls that I’ve ever seen. One can only imagine they learned how to drop the gloves from Brophy himself.

Brophy was a proud man who wanted his team to be strong and be capable of standing up for themselves and their teammates.  He wanted them not to take any crap from anyone, show up for work every day and play hard.  He made tough guys like Val James and Zenon Konopka tougher.  He was extremely proud of what he did and all the wins notched.

I’ll never forget sitting in the Norfolk Scope behind the glass watching the Admirals.  I’m pretty that little short guy who was sandwiched between two large Admiral players getting his ass beat will never forget it either, although he probably won’t forget the kid staring wide-eyed at him from the first row.  Welcome to hockey kid.  Welcome to hockey indeed.  Thanks Coach Brophy for introducing me to the game, I’ll never forget all the lessons you’ve taught me.

 

Wanna Buy A Hockey Scented Candle?

Now that my shoulder or arm -or whatever the hell it is- is healing I’m starting to think back to my experience with the younger generation at the rink recently.  A time where if I could be graded on plus-minus I think all my shifts were a minus and even as one of the oldest players on the ice I had less experience than the 10 year old boys who could skate, pass and shoot better than me.  Gooooo team!

But I keep getting reminded that it’s a learning process.  I can’t remember what it was like when I was learning basketball.  I don’t remember what it was like when I was learning soccer.  Well I hated learning how to play soccer when I was really young.  I must have been 10 or 11.  “Why use your feet?”  Always asking the coach.  “You have hands, why can’t I use my hands?”  It seemed so dumb to me.  I ran when we they were taking kids to soccer in summer camp.  I would hide in the gym and shoot basketball.  They wouldn’t find me until after soccer was over.  I was so quiet when I was little no one would miss me.  Plus I was tiny and kept to myself.  They didn’t care what I did.

So I didn’t learn how to play soccer until I was much older.  Probably a teenager.  I heard about indoor soccer and I heard that they need goalies.  “Where do I sign up for that?”  I know it’s not really learning about soccer, but I’m playing some sort of soccer.  I had a couple of friends in school who had played since they were young and they tried to show me how to dribble and shoot.  That was hilarious.  If there was an aircraft carrier I could score on it but a goal, not so much.  But put me in net in indoor soccer and I’m going to give you everything I got.  Interestingly enough, it felt a lot like playing goalie in roller hockey, minus those annoying roller blades.  Plus the indoor soccer ball was huge and fluorescent green, you couldn’t miss it.  Although I did miss it more than a few times.  I’m not Gianluigi Buffon.

I do remember what it was like when I was learning T-ball.  Yeah I played that for about a year or two.  My fondest memory of playing that involved me in center field watching a ball come my way and me not wanting to play it for fear of dropping it and the coach yelling.  The coach was always yelling.  I never did anything wrong and the coach always yelled.  Hell I was only about 8.  But here was the coach, blah blah blah.  Like the teacher on Peanuts but louder and meaner.  He only wanted his kid in center.  All I wanted to do was bat but all the ball wanted to do was go by the bat.  Everything was upside down.  I couldn’t catch and I couldn’t bat and I got yelled at.  Plus I don’t think my dad was very happy with me.  I think he wanted his son to play for the Yankees or the Washington Senators.  Yes I know they don’t exist anymore.

The more I’ve tried to skate I’ve looked back on these experiences and I’ve thought about those guys I’ve watched for years on television and in person in various arenas from Madison Square Garden to Air Canada Center to Mohegan Sun Arena to Norfolk Scope to the Richmond Coliseum.  I’ve wondered about the paths they’ve taken to get to the levels they did.  I used to dispute that Gretzky was the greatest hockey player of all time because of all the crap with Leafs.  But after all the time I’ve spent on the ice, I can’t deny it.  From 1978 to 1999 he scored  894 goals 1963 assists and 2857 points.  I know how hard it is to even skate.  He even won four Stanley Cups.  I know some guys don’t even win one.  I was fortunate to grow up at a time when I could watch him play.  I never realized how fortunate until I got older.  I know there will never be a guy like him.  Ever.

It’s been stepping onto that ice with all the equipment that has brought me the “feels.”  The smell of the ice.  The feeling of camaraderie.  Knowing how tough it is to keep your balance.  Knowing how tough it is to play against guys older than you.  The skills to keep up with younger kids.  Let’s not forget that during Gretz’s younger years this was a rough and tumble league.  You can bet even though he had guys watching his back he still had the opposition take a run at him.  There’s always the bumps and bruises no matter how many pads you wear.  I can bundle up like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man but I’ll still probably take some lumps and be sore.  Hell I’ve already proven that.  No matter how hard I try not to fall I’m going to fall.  The ice is just like trees, it’s very unforgiving.

It’s sad that hockey players never get the respect that they deserve.  For many years I never gave Gretz the respect he deserved.  But it’s not just respect personally but financially too.  I know baseball players play a 162 game season but they don’t hit each other like hockey players.  They aren’t conditioned like hockey players.  For that matter most athletes don’t go through what hockey players do.  Between the hitting, the skating, the agility, the strength and the willpower.  Hockey players fight through the injuries to be there game in and game out.  You always hear that hockey players are tough.  But they don’t earn that much in comparison.  Take for example the following:

Highest earners by sport:

Hockey  – Sidney Crosby 16.5 million (because of a 12 million dollar salary with 4.5 million in endorsements)

Baseball for 2016 season– Zach Grenke 34.4 million (appeared in 32 games in 2015, all of this is salary)

Basketball – LeBron James 64.6 million (20.6 million salary, 44 million in endorsements)

Football – Aaron Rodgers 22 million

On salary alone, Crosby still lags behind everyone in a sport where teeth get knocked out on a regular basis, players get hit in the body with 100+ mile per hour pucks and smelly gloves always end up in someone’s face.  Trust me they are smelly.  There is no way to describe it.  Until you get out there, wear gloves for a while, throw them in a bag, put that bag in the back of your car for a few days and then put them back on- you have no idea what that scent is.  It’s a new fragrance for Yankee Candle – Hockey Glove.  Sadly though, I don’t see this changing anytime soon.  Until hockey gets more kids playing it than football or basketball, this salary will always lag.

All I know is it is a tough sport and I’m headed out to the Yankee Candle store to pitch my new idea.  Wish me luck.