Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Holmgren gets a rock!

It’s a nice trick or treat kind of night for Paul Holmgren, the current interim Flyer GM discovers that the boss Ed Snider, has approached a league official to take over the duties of rebuilding the Flyer brand in Philly.

Holmgren claims he knows nothing of the offer to Colin Campbell by Snider to pick up where Bobby Clarke left off and right the listing Flyer squad and turn around the fortunes of the former monster of the East. The first news of the supposed job offer came from Sportsnet on Tuesday night, citing sources in Philadelphia who apparently have the ear of the Flyer’s president.

"I have no idea about that," Holmgren told The Canadian Press Tuesday.

This is not a good sign for the one chosen by Clarke, to try to move the Flyers back to their dominant position in the NHL. The Flyers Boss man didn’t even provide the obligatory “vote of confidence” in Holmgren, which is normally how a GM or coach knows that his days might be numbered. The sorry state of the Flyers so far this year is the kind of thing that attracts attention, and with each passing day the situation becomes dire for anyone with any control over the direction of the team.

While Holmgren tries to read the tea leaves in the Flyer offices, Campbell has to make a decision of his own. Does he want to leave his executive office in the NHL head office, (and rumours that he would like to be a GM have been floating around for months now) and if so does he really want to take on the task of taking the challenge of the Flyers on.

The upsides are obvious, Philadelphia has got to be one of the more desirable of franchises to try and make your own. The city is a hotbed of sports from the Eagles, the Sixers and the Phillies, the Flyers have always been in the thick of things, a symbol of a tough scrappy city that doesn't like to lose. The Flyers have a fair amount of history of their own in the city , they have faithful fans and they’ve had the will to win in the past. Return them to glory and the town could be yours.

The downsides: Fail and well, the swamps of New Jersey aren’t too far away!!

It will be interesting to see how this develops over the next few days, already the impression has been set that Holmgren now is a lame duck GM, just biding his time until Snider finds who he really wants at the helm.

If Campbell turns down the Flyers, then one wonders how fast Snider will go to a plan B, with the word out that he’s looking, Holmgren may wish to get his resume updated, he may be looking himself as well.

Nonis speaks out

Dave Nonis studied under the professorship of Brian Burke, one thing he seems to have taken from his lessons is to speak his mind. It's taken a bit of time mind you, as Nonis settled into his job with Orca Bay he seemed to keep a low profile. Even last years meltdown of Canuck playoff aspirations didn't seem to move him to much in the way of commentary.

Instead, he quietly went about rebuilding his team. He made the big trade the market had demanded when he brought in Roberto Luongo, let Anson Carter move on to what he had hoped would be greener pastures and he replaced Marc Crawford as coach. And while he seemed to take a bit too much time in showing confidence in Alain Vigneault, the results so far are certainly rewarding him for his decisions in the off year.

So now that the team seems to be on track and giving the fans hope for the season, Nonis has spoken out on the controversial issues of the NHL day. Free agency and the bizarre scheduling that sees solar and lunar eclipses as more predictable than visits of Eastern teams to the west.

At a BC Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Monday, Nonis weighed in on the free agency debate suggesting that the current system is not going to reward fans for sticking with their team in the lean years, as the young stars of today mature and then move on with free agency.

It's an issue that is the ticking time bomb for many franchises such as Pittsburgh, Washington and such, who find that they're heroes of today will cut their teeth with their current team only to be lured away with a big dollar offer at age 25.

The other contentious issue was the scheduling debacle that is unfolding in the NHL this season, the Eastern teams rarely have a night away from home, while the Western based teams find that continental travel points are rolling in. The recent tour of the Washington Capitals is a case in point, the rising star of Alexander Ovechkin will but shine in the Western skies once every three years, his talent but a mere whisper or an occasional clip from Sportcentre.

The league doesn't like it too much when their GM's rock the boat, but in this case Nonis is doing hockey fans a great service.

The suspicion is that the NHL will be forced to address the issue at upcoming meetings, perhaps giving Nonis a chance to reprise his Chamber of Commerce notes for a wider and very attentive audience.

Nonis not so free and easy

Canadian Press

VANCOUVER (CP) - The age for free agents in the NHL "is a joke" and could result in the Pittsburgh Penguins losing Sidney Crosby when he's just entering his prime, Vancouver Canucks general manager Dave Nonis said Monday.

"Pittsburgh is going to put seven years of development money into him and he can leave when he's 25," Nonis told a B.C. Chamber of Commerce meeting.

"I think if you assemble a good team, fans want to see that team stick together for more than one or two years. Our current agreement does not lend itself to that."

Nonis also criticized the NHL's current unbalanced schedule.

"I hate the schedule," he said, answering a question from the floor. "It does nothing for us.

"We should play every team in the league at least once. We all pay the same dues and right now the western teams are getting it right in the teeth for no good reason. We fly as much as we ever did and the eastern teams don't do a bloody thing."

Under the collective bargaining agreement, a player aged 29, with eight seasons in the league, became a free agent for the 2006-07 season. In 2008-09, a player aged 27, or one with seven seasons in the league, becomes an unrestricted free agent.

Crosby, the No. 1 pick in last year's draft, was 18 years old when he signed with the Penguins. By the time he's 25 he will have spent seven years in the league.

The Penguins could also lose Jordan Staal, their No. 2 pick in the June draft, when he turns 25. Pittsburgh said Monday the 18-year-old centre will stay with the team this year.

"I think we have a free agency age that is a joke," said Nonis.

Nonis told the crowd that overall he supported the collective agreement and it was good for the league.

"I think the (salary) cap is necessary to keep some teams from spending wildly," he said. "It has levelled the playing field."

In a later interview, Nonis said lowering the age of free agency could make hockey like baseball, where players shift teams every year.

"If you are a team that is struggling, it's a good thing, being able to get new faces," he said. "It helps generate interest in your market.

"If you are a team that is having a hard time holding your team together because of free agency and players are leaving, then it's not necessarily a good thing. You may lose the continuity a lot of markets enjoy."

In the past, teams looked to build over five-year cycles. Increased free agency reduces that to two or three-year cycles, he said.

"The Detroit Red Wings could have a five-year run if they did a good job of recruiting, trading, drafting and developing," Nonis said. "You could keep those players together.

"You are going to see movement among players every single year. To me, that's the worst part of our agreement. Get used to it. It's not going to change."

In an example of NHL scheduling, Vancouver fans had their first chance to see Washington's Alexander Ovechkin, last season's top rookie, on Friday. Crosby and the Penguins didn't play in Vancouver last season and won't make a trip to GM Place this year either.

When the league announced the unbalanced schedule, the theory was it would help to build division rivalries and allow for more compelling television matchups.

Nonis disagreed.

"Rivalries are built through playoffs," he said.

"I know the reasoning behind the schedule, I know why they did it. I don't necessarily agree that it is a good thing.

"It doesn't save us any time, we're not saving any money on travel and I know our fans want to see us play every team at least once."

The scheduling issue will probably be raised when GMs meet in Toronto Nov. 7.

"I think a lot of teams want the schedule changed," said Nonis.

"I think the league always wants to do what's ultimately best for all the teams. I believe they'll revisit it.

"Whether they'll change it, I don't know."

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Dogs that ran away

My friend Sean from over at seanincognito has tipped me off to a interesting point of view about Winnipeg’s former NHL hockey team, now wandering the desert of Arizona looking for a sign of better days to come.

With a woeful record so far this year and every indication that things are going to be worse before they get much better. The Coyotes travel through the NHL wilderness looking for a little love, while they look they should keep their eyes south, for from the old hometown there's not much coming their way. With a better them than us approach, Randy Turner of the Winnipeg Free Press recounts the days of the Dogs since they left Manitoba.

And while he provides a pretty solid case for absence not making a heart grow fonder, my guess is, as as bad as the Coyotes appear to be (and yes they do look that bad), they would be welcomed back to the Peg with open arms.

Mind you I’m pretty sure that the affection would not be returned, many of the soldiers (and managers too) in the current platoon of Dogs most likely wouldn’t be particularly keen on being based in Winnipeg.

After all, what better way to get away and forget about how bad you’re playing than to sit by the pool, play a round of golf or duck over to Vegas for a day or two. None of which you can do in Manitoba in a cold January.

In Winnipeg you might have to work on your hockey game, not your golf game. And that just isn’t right now is it?

They say on the prairies that you can watch your dog run away from home for miles, seems like that’s exactly what their doing from their vantage point at Portage and Main.

Good thing we lost Jets Can you imagine paying
to watch the Coyotes they morphed into?
Thu Oct 26 2006
Randy Turner

The Winnipeg Free Press

MAYBE it was the agony etched on Wayne Gretzky's face as he watched in horror while his Phoenix Coyotes were stomped 6-1 by the Calgary Flames the other night.

Perhaps it was taking note that the Coyotes are now 2-8-2 on the season, were a pathetic 0-9 on the power play versus Calgary, and are now dead-last in the Western Conference.

Or maybe it was just being reminded that Phoenix hasn't made the playoffs since 2002, and despite considerable optimism this year -- what with the signings of Ed Jovanovski and Jeremy Roenick -- seem destined for another season of utter futility.

Regardless, it got me to thinking: Geez, that could have been us.

You know, there still remains much bitterness and a pang of loss about the departed Jets, but maybe at least one way it was a blessing in disguise.

Really, can you imagine having shelled out upwards of $12,000 on season tickets over the last nine seasons to watch THAT?

The average season ticket in Phoenix this year is US$1,300. Top-end seats are worth $2,700. All for the pleasure of watching a team now ranked 27th on the power play and 27th in penalty-killing.

Hey, you can't say the Coyotes aren't consistent.

"I think we hit rock-bottom about a week ago," lamented Roenick after the loss in Calgary. "We're just remaining there. It's something I've never seen in my life. It's utterly embarrassing."

And to think, we could have been paying through the nose for the privilege of sharing in Roenick's pain. Think of all the forests that would have been sacrificed this last decade to document a franchise with a draft record rivalled only by the Oakland Seals.
Take the year 1998, for instance, when the Coyotes selected a goaltender named Patrick DesRochers 14th overall.

Five picks later, the Colorado Avalanche chose defenceman Robyn Regehr. Three picks after that, the Philadelphia Flyers drafted forward Simon Gagné. Both Regehr, now with the Flames, and Gagné are NHL all-stars and mainstays on Team Canada.

Later, the New Jersey Devils took Scott Gomez 27th, while the San Jose Sharks, not to be outdone, selected Jonathon Cheechoo, who led the NHL in goal-scoring last season, with the 29th pick.

Today, DesRochers is toiling for ETC Crimmitschau, a second-tier professional team in Germany (No, really).

And so it has gone for the Coyotes, whose only draft function seems to be supplying the ECHL with a healthy stock of prospects. In fact, the Coyotes' only decent first-round pick, Daniel Briere, waited until he was traded to Buffalo before exploding to NHL stardom.

So if the Jets hadn't left, that could have been you breathlessly watching that same 1998 entry draft as your home team proudly selected Pat O'Leary in the third round (73rd overall), just before the Devils took a young prospect named Brian Gionta.

Last season, Gionta scored 48 goals for the Devils. O'Leary scored one goal in nine games for the ECHL's Reading Royals.

In fairness, we should point out that the Coyotes made the playoffs in four consecutive seasons after moving to the desert. Which meant you could have paid even more money to watch them lose every time in the first round of the post-season.

You could have had a front-row seat to the franchise's demise since 2002, as the Coyotes haven't made the playoffs since, all the while cobbling together a tedious 93-118-29-16 record.
You could have seen the club dismantle, dumping former Jets stars Nikolai Khabibulin, Keith Tkachuk and Teppo Numminen, to be replaced by a revolving door of underachievers and burnouts like Brett Hull, who retired after just a handful of games in a Phoenix jersey, itself another tragedy for which the Coyotes are responsible.

Think you've missed anything, Jets fans? Well, consider that every single individual franchise record -- most goals, points, assists, penalty minutes, etc. -- is still held by a Winnipeg Jet, almost all high marks established in the early 1990s.

How bad are the Coyotes? They can even drag down the reputation of the Great One. Indeed, it's like everything that touches this franchise turns to crap.

Of course, there's no guarantee that had the Jets stayed, Winnipeg hockey fans would have been subjected to -- and had to pay dearly for -- this level of spectacular incompetence. But just consider the possibility for a moment.

It's good for the soul.


They're in a desert in more ways than one
The Phoenix Coyotes' record since leaving Winnipeg:

* 1996-97: 38-37-7, lost in conference quarter-finals to Ducks (3-4)
* 1997-98: 35-35-12, lost in conference quarter-finals to Red Wings (2-4)
* 1998-99: 39-31-12, lost in conference quarter-finals to Blues (3-4).
* 1999-00: 39-31-8-4, lost in conference quarter-finals to Avalanche (1-4).
* 2000-01: 35-27-17-3, did not qualify for post-season.
* 2001-02: 40-27-9-6, lost in conference quarter-finals to Sharks (1-4)
* 2002-03: 31-35-11-5, did not qualify for post-season.
* 2003-04: 22-36-18-6, did not qualify for post-season.
* 2005-06: 38-39-0-5, did not qualify for post-season.
* 2006-07: Currently 2-8-0.

© 2006 Winnipeg Free Press. All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Three stages of Theodore

It’s an interesting line up of stories on the Globe and Mail website today. In its hockey section, right there in the section dedicated to all things Montreal, is a recap of the weekend happening of les Habitants.

They have three separate items about Colorado Avalanche goaltender Jose Theodore, each one telling a story of Jose’s lost weekend in Montreal.

The first story of note has the following headline:

Theodore excited about Montreal return

Provided from its pre game perspective, it explained how Theodore was rather glad to be back in Montreal with his new team, ready to face his former fans (and more than a few foes) for the first time since last season’s trade.

Article number two recounts the actual game itself which did not go well for the Avalanche or their goaltender on Saturday night:

Canadiens embarrass Theodore in return to Montreal

The story recounts the Canadiens scoring onslaught that resulted in an 8-5 victory for Montreal and he reaction of the crowd that were merciless in their treatment of their former hero.

The final article of the trilogy, puts the punctuation mark on the weekend with a very unsympathetic look at the fate of Theodore after his Saturday night massacre.

Theodore's homecoming a disaster

With cut lines from various Montreal newspapers all declaring that Theodore had been humiliated and romped over. It was not as one would imagine an enjoyable experience if Jose bothers to read the newspapers.

What’s that they say about going home again, something about you can’t?

Jose probably understands the concept after this weekend.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Sabres stake their claim for the hockey world's affections!

I have a friend, Mike, who is a life long Sabre fan, and despite growing up in Vancouver he adopted their expansion twins as his team and has been loyal ever since.

He was on their wagon when the French Connection came oh, so close to Stanley Cup glory in 1975, stayed with them during the darkest of years including the near death experiences and thoroughly enjoyed their ride through the playoffs of 1999 and once again last year (he no doubt found much joy at the dismissal of a team in Ottawa that I smugly had predicted great things for).

As a matter of fact he has even moved across country, locating within a reasonable amount of driving time away from the city that holds his favourite team. Now we’d like to tell you it was because he’s such a devoted fan, but actually he was more devoted to employment, the proximity of the Sabres were just a nice bonus we guess.

So being such a faithful fan of the team, you can imagine how over the moon he is at the moment, as the pride and joy of Northern New York State continue on along with their winning ways.

Monday night the Sabres made it win number nine, nine in a row in their first nine games, one win short of an NHL record. By any measuring stick they are one super hot team. They are by far the most successful blue print available for life in the “new NHL”, a fast paced, exciting team that features not one, but two outstanding goal tenders, all tucked in nicely into the NHL salary cap.

The head coach is considered one of the nicest and most competent of coaches in the NHL, the fans some of the most passionate. In a town that has seen many disappointments sporting, social and economic; the Sabres continue to give the faithful cause for hope.

This years edition is once again showing the likes of Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago and Long Island how you really should go about rebuilding and re-loading for the quest for Lord Stanley’s Holy Grail.

So far this year, they continue to dominate their opposition, undefeated thus far and now able to smite those teams that dare to question their winning ways. Monday night, the Canadiens all but guaranteed their fans a home win over the high flying Sabres and in fact one Hab, Janne Niinimaa; actually suggested that the Habs would win.

We’re not sure what the Hab players have planned for the long time followers of Les Canadiens, but after a solid 4-1 thumping at the hands of the Sabres, some apologies and forgive us bouquets need to be offered up.

For Buffalo with a team record set on Monday, the path now continues on, another town beckons with another chance to extend the streak. Game number ten comes up in Long Island on Thursday night, with its opportunity to tie the NHL record of ten straight wins to start a season.

My friend is realistic enough to doubt that they will go 82-0 over the course of the season, it's a thought he can share with Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller, but one tenth of the way there; this is one fine looking hockey team.

There are about 29 other cities in the league right now that would love to adopt these guys as their own. They are a team that provides a hard working ethic, combined with a powerful offence, stellar defensive play and some superb goaltending.

Even with possibly the ugliest uniforms in the league right now, there are going to be a lot of folks scrambling to have a Sabre jersey under the Christmas tree, ready to dress well as they jump on that bandwagon.

They’ll just have to remember that Mike has the number one seat there, he was there at the beginning, and it’s good to see his team reward him for years of faithful service.

Head to Head against the Cowboys in Big D?

We’re not sure what the NHL schedule makers were thinking when they put together the match ups for game number five, of week number four. But surely it shouldn’t have taken too much thought to examine the possibility of competition in each market, on any given night. Especially a Monday Night in Dallas!

They sent the Vancouver Canucks on a road trip, playing their third game of a five game trip to go up against the Dallas Stars. An interesting match up as far as hockey would go, but in the end it was not the most dramatic of the night.

Instead, the real battle of the night was the Stars against the Cowboys, and by all appearances it was the Cowboys in a landslide.

Monday night the Cowboys were home to take on their arch rivals the New York Giants, in a state where football is religion, hockey became a very apparent afterthought. With both games starting at 7:30 local time, the panning of the television cameras told the story of the night.

The Cowboys took to the field to the roar of a gigantic stadium crowd, celebrating their teams appearance on the nationwide broadcast of Monday Night Football. TSN had the game with all its NFL trappings on their channel.

Over at Sportsnet Pacific the Stars skated on the ice to the concept of family and friends’ night, with over half of the announced crowd of 16,639 disguised as empty seats.

For those Stars fans that spent the night fixated on their Boys, the Stars pulled out a close match up with the Canucks, winning their eighth game in nine starts by a score of 2-1.

The Cowboys, well they had their troubles with the Giants , dropping an error ridden game 36-22.

The Stars have made a few converts during their time in Big D, but make no mistake about it, Dallas, IS Cowboy country.

If the NHL is truly interested in battling for a share of the media spotlight in Dallas, they might want to give their hockey team an even break and not send them up against the colossus in Cowboy Silver and Blue!

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Philadelphia Freedom

One was burned out, the other tossed out. Regardless of the procedure involved, there are changes in Philadelphia and a new chapter is set to begin in the history of one of the most dominant of franchises of the modern era.

Bob Clarke called it quits explaining that he had lost interest in his job as far back as last season, the 19 year veteran GM suggested that he felt he had done a poor job of managing the team since that point, making today’s decision a necessity.

Clarke painted a picture of an almost burnt out resident of the Flyers office, in which he deferred almost all decisions to his assistant Paul HolmgrenA at the end of the day Clarke felt that Ed Snider and the organization required something more than a pass the buck GM. And so Clarke took his walk away on Sunday morning, in effect firing himself.

What’s alarming for Flyer fans is the fact that the signs of this were being recognized last year and yet the Flyers fell into the trap of ignoring the evidence at time, leading up to the mess they find themselves in today.

With Clarke’s departure, the head of Coach Ken Hitchcock was provided to at least offer something to the Flyers fans who have seen the team get off to its worst start since the 1989-90 season. With a record of 1-6-1 so far in the year, comments rumbled around the league that Hitchcock had lost the confidence of his team, the players having tuned him out seemed to be lost on the ice, making mistakes that you wouldn’t see of the most woeful of house league teams.

The question though must be did Hitchcock really lose the ability to coach at team in such a short period of time, or were the Flyers a little too quick to tie the can to his backside.

By Clarke’s own admission he had lost interest in his team last year, so that means an entire off season and the first month of this season featured a team with no discernible leadership. It was a situation that was hardly the responsibility of a head coach and surely not one that would help him in preparing a team for the upcoming season.

Only Clarke and Hitchcock know for sure how dysfunctional things became in Philadelphia in the last six months or so, but it’s a bit too easy to give the roster a pass on the responsibility slope. Likewise, the ownership needs to look at their handling of things in the last few years as well.

Whether the GM had a wandering mind or the coach overlooked a few things, that doesn’t excuse a defence that showed no interest in clearing the zone, or an offense that had troubles negotiating a proper onside play let alone mount and offensive zone attack. If the GM was bringing in the wrong type of players for a faster paced league, surely somebody up in the private boxes must have noticed that the team was having a problem keeping pace.

None of that will change overnight under the stewardship of the interim GM Holmgren or the new face behind the bench in the form of John Stevens an assistant coach, who previously coached the farm club Phantoms to the AHL championship.

They will look over a line up that has been underperforming rather dramatically in this early season. This quote from Ed Snider suggests that player changes may not be on the way anytime soon: “We have a lot better talent on the team than we've shown so far.”

And while Snider may think that’s true, it’s certainly open to debate after the first eight games of the season. If Holmgren and Stevens have any hopes of moving from interim to permanent, they had best hope that the “better talent” gets a lot better pretty fast.

It’s always easiest to fire the coach; it’s not always the right thing. Accountability begins on the rink and this year the Flyers in all departments have deferred on that requirement.

It may have indeed been time for Clarke to leave, nineteen years is a long time to run a hockey team, especially in a league that seems to redefine itself every five years or so. And frankly there won’t be many that are terribly upset that he’s become the architect of his own demise.

Likewise perhaps Hitchcock had over stayed his welcome in Philadelphia, coaching in the NHL seems to be a vocation that demands results fast.

But if the ownership group wants to see a way out of their current predicament, looking in the mirror might help. As Alan Adams says at Sports on Fox, Snider took his eye of the team over the last few years, making the decision today an insulator over poor upper managment.

Today’s announcement was the first major bloodletting of the season, a surprising development for many observers in Philly. With a few other teams struggling out of the gate, it will be interesting to see if the Flyers are once again the trendsetters or the just an anomaly in the new NHL.

Friday, October 20, 2006

If the playoffs started today…

Well ok, it really means nothing at this early a date in the NHL season. But still a slow start from the Ottawa Senators has the hometown faithful in a rather foul mood of late.

Last night, Jason Spezza felt the wrath of the Scotiabank sociopaths, as he was mercilessly booed at times whenever he touched the puck or appeared on the ice. And while an untimely give away by Spezza proved costly to the Sens, It appears to be a rather unfair judgment by the crowd, since he’s surely not the only underperforming Senator in the house these days.

Spezza who is reported by TSN to be feeling some ill effects from off season back injury took an ear full from the crowd and his coach on Thursday. But he must wonder if perhaps some of his team mates might deserve a few catcalls as well, as the Sens dropped yet another home game, this time to the Colorado Avalanche by a score of 2-1.

Part of the problem for Sens fans seems to be the fact that former Sens are making a big impression on their new clubs while the team they left behind struggles to regain the form of less than a year ago.

Two names come to mind when Sens fans look at the where are they now club, Martin Havlat who is making the Chicago Black Hawks look like a viable product once again and of course Big Zed, Zedeno Chara who so impressed his new club they made him the captain. God help John Muckler if Alexi Yashin suddenly finds some passion for the game and begins to score goals!

Much of the trouble this year so far could rest with Muckler’s handling of the off season roster moves. A scenario that was well researched and reviewed by the Ottawa Sun’s Don Brennan.

Given a chance to try and keep Chara under contract and in a Sens uniform, Muckler instead let him move on to Boston, preferring to spend that money on a goal tender that may or may not have really been needed. Muckler took a fair amount of that Chara dividend and brought in Martin Gerber as the main game day goaltender at a rather handsome salary level, despite the fact that he had been deemed expendable in Carolina.

This of course had the dual effect of letting Chara get away and treating former back up Ray Emery as some kind of unreliable pylon in the back end, despite the fact that Emery played some pretty decent hockey down the stretch after the Dom Hasek debacle. Finding a less expensive goal tender to back up Emery might have been a better move, allowing the Sens to keep a main anchor to their defence and maybe unearth another blue liner or mid range forward to help share the load.

All of which is water under the Bank Street Bridge now, where the Sens go from this point could very well determine the future of both John Muckler and Brian Murray, who suddenly seem to be dinosaurs of a very different era.

Six games in is obviously a little early to be pounding on the panic button and it’s better to stink at the start and shine at the end. But with what seems so far to be a lack of interest and effort on the behalf of this crop of Sens, the possibility of changes is always present.

The problem is this is a team that has already let a few too many blue chip prospects and actual established players get away. Past mistakes that come back to haunt the Sens every time somebody picks up a stats sheet and compares the success of those that left, with those that remain.

No Fly Zone in Philly

The season is but only a few weeks old and already there are rumblings that all is not well in the City of Brotherly love. TSN spent a good portion of its telecast of the Flyers and Lightning game on Thursday night, wondering aloud for the future of Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock.

With Philadelphia off to a horrid start and something seemingly missing on the ice, the first casualty of the coaching fraternity this season may be the guy behind the Flyers bench.

The Flyers have played of late like a team that has tuned out their coach, the embarrassment of the slaughter to Buffalo of a few nights ago, a punctuation mark on a desperate situation. The best indication of the troubles in Philly could be the situation involving Hitchcock and his goaltender Robert Esche. Esche had openly complained about playing time and his icy relationship with his coach, finally given a chance to show his stuff, Esche was greeted to the Armageddon of shots and goals dirceted by the Sabres this week. When it came time to walk the walk, Esche balked, assisted ably by a team that simply walked!

Speaking of talking, Mike Richards delivered a blistering examination of the play of himself and his fellow team mates and no one could quibble with his comments, in fact he may be the clearest thinker on the team these days.

Featuring a hands on owner who doesn’t like to lose, the current crop of Flyers are tempting fate by losing in most spectacular ways. Year in and year out the Flyers are selected as one of the top echelon teams, yet in recent years that normally translates into a playoff exit and a promise to find the missing ingredients to build a winner.

Judging by the results of the early part of the season, they must have lost a recipe book or two in the off season. With one win to show for seven games, the questions are starting to pile up. The Flyers do not seem to play with a purpose, nor any chemistry, a collection of players merely skating up and down the ice, involvement in the play an option, scoring goals not a priority and as the debacle against Buffalo proved stopping goals ain’t too high on the list either.

All of this points to change and in a city that prefers winners to losers, change had better come quick. With an owner who is less than impressed the time is quickly ticking out for any kind of quick turn around of fortunes.

The first move of the desperate was the demotion of three players to the Philadelphia Phantoms line up, including the always enigmatic Petr Nedved. All three cleared waivers before moving to the farm team across the road, nary an indication of interest from the 29 other members of the NHL lodge.

Perhaps the fact that Bob Clarke did not endear himself to his fellow GM’s in the off season will come back to haunt him. Rather than throw the combative GM a life line by way of trade, many will watch with amusement as he thrashes about in the shark infested waters of the NHL.

The Flyers lost to the Lightning on Thursday, a game that many said could determine what has to be done by Snider, Clarke and Hitchcock (if he’s still part of the big picture). Most observers say that they played a with a bit more interest than the game against Buffalo provided, but once again they faded badly when they fell behind. A worrisome trend that isn’t something normally associated with Flyer teams.

However, their first concern must be the status of captain Peter Forsberg injured during the game with a wrist injury. They will have a better idea of his situation on Friday after some tests are done.

Once they check out Forsberg’s wrist perhaps they could order up some cardiac evaluations, the Flyers don’t show much of a heart these days. It might be time to see if perhaps it’s time for some transplants.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Houston finds potholes on the road to Kitchener-Waterloo

The folks outside of the GTA (aka centre of the known universe) will not be pleased with this, the Globe and Mail’s William Houston has rejected their dream of a hockey team of their own as an unworkable situation.

But like any good Torontonian, he has a solution, and it’s simply to move the team to Toronto.

It seems that Mr. Houston has read the tea leaves and declared that a team anywhere in Ontario outside of the line of sight of the CN Tower and Don Valley Parkway, just won’t work. TV money would dry up, fans would apparently be taking to torches if the Leafs were out of their coverage area and driving an hour to Kitchener is apparently much worse than standing still on the Gardiner Expressway trying to find an exit for the Air Canada Centre.

It is all to boggle the mind, the solution is to move the Penguins to Toronto and play out of the Air Canada Centre, which is an interesting prospect if only those pesky Raptors might leave. Already considered one of the worst ice surfaces in the league, the plan would be to have two hockey teams share the rink with the Raps, concerts and world wrestling spectaculars.

Personally I think it’s just a gambit to finally get a winning team in Toronto, obviously the Penguins (and whatever they might call themselves after a move) will be competitive long before and most likely longer than the current combination of blue and white sweatered waifs plying their trade for MLSE.

So rather than face the competition, swallow them whole, shove them into less than spectacular dates and give them the dressing rooms that the rock stars trash after a show goes bad. Better yet make money off of them; it’s the way of the Leafs for years and years.

The Pens may very well leave Pittsburgh, but surely they don’t have to live as indentured slaves to one of the richest franchises in Canadian sports. Surely the folks outside the city that knows no others have a right to a little hockey team of their own. The Globe and Mail may wish to remember that there is more to Canada than those golden streets and advertisers of the GTA, there’s a whole other nation out there, most of which has better hockey teams to support as well.

With any luck there will be at least one more to join the list in the not to distant future.

Gee it's good to be back home again!

A shower, a change of clothes (oh maybe a game or two) and its back on the road again, that in a nutshell describes the Vancouver Canucks this year.

The Canucks can save some money at year’s end this season, instead of one of those retrospective DVD’s for the season’s conclusion, they can just hand out copies of those old Road Movies that Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour made famous.

Road to Bangkok, Road to Bali, Road to Phoenix, Road to Pittsburgh, like Bob and Bing and the gang these Canucks know the road and will get know it even better.

Quite possibly they have the worst schedule imaginable to start the year off, the Canucks will have played 11 of their first fifteen games on the road by the time November 4th rolls around.. Including a stretch of five in a row that will commence on October 17th, which they start after the two game pit stop that they start tomorrow night.

In fact the debut of the home season tomorrow comes after a four game road trip to the east to start the season off. It makes for an amazing amount of packing, unpacking and hotel life even for a traveling road show as the NHL .

The Canucks schedule thus far makes the much maligned 2006 CFL schedule look well thought out by comparison, and they at least had the excuse that one of the teams folded just before kick off.

While Vancouver earns the air miles and learn to love the take out meal, the Eastern squads continue in their quaint tradition of play a game and get home in time to tuck the kids into bed. With a schedule that leaves the likes of the Rangers, Devils, Islanders, and Flyers et al able to take a bus to work occasionally asking for a transfer, the bone wearying amount of travel is certainly heavily weighted against the gang from Orca Bay.

Vancouver which is inconveniently for the NHL located in a corner of the continent they occasionally overlook, has done rather well in their early games and return home to introduce NHL hockey to the Lower Mainland with a bit of skip to their stride. They come home to a public anxious to celebrate a home opener and to hear more of the band of brothers that get assigned tours of duty away that rival many military forces.

In the end things will balance out and the Canucks will be home for a longer stay, get to meet their kids and be able to have more than a TV dinner to go. Heck they may even get to take part in the many local public appearances that Orca Bay sends its team out to year after year.

Vancouver has a six game home stand starting November 6th, hopefully they aren’t too worn out from all of their out of town travel to muster a strong run at the likes of the Stars, Ducks and Flames, Red Wings, Blues and Hawks.

Judging from all the travel of late it might be worth while to change the opening theme music for the Canucks at GM Place, normally the Canucks rush out to the ice to the accompaniment of U2’s Where the Streets have no name.

But for this year perhaps they should switch to the road hammers. They seem to understand this life on the road thing pretty good!

Old Dogs, few tricks!

Wayne Gretzky’s touring old timer squad is having a wee bit of trouble getting untracked early on in this NHL season. Currently holding down the last spot in the Pacific and finding that goals against might be a slight problem in the early going, the Coyotes are to say the least finding things a bit challenging.

Wednesday night proved to be a rather tiring night for the gang, as the Detroit Red Wings put the pedal to the metal and stomped on the Dogs by a score of 9-2. Curtis Joseph found that his return to Detroit would not be assisted by any form of defence or back checking and since offence has already been proven to be a bit of a problem, Wednesday night was abandon Curtis night.

By the time that Wayne Gretzky had done the humane thing and replaced Joseph in the nets at the start of the third, the Wings were already far ahead and thinking of double digits.

The experiment of age and youth so far is showing some strains as veterans like Owen Nolan and Jeremy Roenick find it a challenge to get back into the groove of a faster paced and less hitting NHL. Greztky to be fair realizes that Nolan is two years off the shelf is gently easing his former Team Canada team mate into the Coyote lineup, likewise Jeremy Roenick is slowly picking up his game but is nowhere near the level that will bring a Stanley Cup bid to Phoenix anytime soon.

The Phoenix line up is definitely something from that Seventies show, besides Roenick and Nolan who were born in 1970 and 1972 respectively, the Graying Dogs feature Mike Ricci (est.) 1971, as well as ten other Coyotes who were born between 1975 and 1980, while another ten celebrated the years of their birth after 1981 and there’s even one relic of the sixties in Cujo who was a Centennial year baby! As Austin Powers would say, behave baby!

The way that the more seasoned of Coyotes are struggling so far, it’s a good thing that Brett Hull hung up his blades before the season began, if only to give a younger player, say in the late twenties a chance to break into the line up.

The rough start is going to be a test not only for the Coyotes but for their coach as well, a known competitor who must find it frustrating to see his team struggle so much in the early going. The question is will they recover and regroup in time to make things matter at the end of the season or will Wayne just pick up his skates and grab a stick and join the tour himself?

There’s a lot of wisdom and experience on that Coyote line up, sometimes though it’s a case that the mind willing but the body struggles. They aren’t the only team that is having its problems in the early going, Carolina, Calgary and Ottawa are likewise having their troubles, though few if any suspect that those problems will linger over the long haul.

The Coyotes are like the family car, it’s got some good memories and you're rather used to it, but it seems it is having a hard time getting started in the morning.

And maybe, as they learned in Detroit on Wednesday, you don’t want to take it out on the road too far or too often!

Friday, October 06, 2006

Lessons from Luongo

The Vancouver Canucks entered the 2006-07 regular season last night with a few question marks about the Dave Nonis era squad. Gone were some fairly big names and players from key positions that have some calling for a long season for the faithful a GM Place.

Jovo the anchor on the D for many seasons has moved on to the sun of Phoenix, Anson Carter weary of waiting for an offer signed with Columbus, Dan Cloutier that last great hope in the nets moved on to Los Angeles and of course there was the summers headline making trade of Todd Bertuzzi to Florida, taking Alex Auld along for the ride. Changes, changes changes, a new coach, a new style and hopefully a renewed desire to win.

The Bertuzzi trade brought Roberto Luongo to the West Coast, the latest of the goaltending saviors to arrive in a place littered with the corpses of tenders past. Thursday night, Luongo made his debut in the regular season and provided a performance that will quickly have his sweater selling out at sports stores across BC.

Simply put Luongo was marvelous, he controlled the game with remarkable saves, frustrating a Red Wing lineup and sending the crowd home early and in a bad mood to go with it. The fans of Hockeytown, normally a spoiled lot at the best of times, quickly learned that the halcyon days of domination may soon be coming to an end and they aren’t taking to that change well. Boos filtered down through the Joe as the Wings struggled to get their game untraced, only to see Lunongo shut the door whenever they did get a chance.

The Red Wings left a few questions on the ice by games end, the reliability of Hasek as their goaltender, a lack of scoring punch and some deficiencies in their own end. All of which will quickly be brought to their attention by the fans in the Motor City.

The Canucks while not as flashy as past squads had been, put in a solid sixty minute effort, hard work and attention to assignments paid off on the way to the 3-1 defeat of the Wings. The key by far was Luongo, who led by example early and never surrendered his ice as the game progressed. It could prove to be a key moment in the development of Alain Vigneault’s team chemistry. Once the Canucks are realize that Luongo is the real deal, then they should be able to take charge of games even more dynamically.

It will be a challenging season for the Canucks and their fans, no longer the expected favourite to come out of the west to challenge for a Stanley Cup, they instead will have to battle their way towards a play off berth and then make their run.

The Canucks will be relying on their new goaltender to carry the bulk of the games, it’s expected that he may see as much as 65 to 70 games this year providing he stays healthy.

If Luongo can provide the back end magic that he’s capable of they’ll be more than competitive, if the defence can help him out then they’ll be secure in the goals against, if the offence can get their game in gear they may one day be feared again.

One game in and the always popular sports talk shows on the West Coast had nothing but praise for their heroes, that will of course change as the season goes along, but one name that probably won’t have to fear the comments from line number four will be Luongo, he’s showing he’s everything that was advertised.

Vancouver 3, Detroit 1 stats pack

Leafs make a large withdrawal at Scotiabank

Coming off a season opener win over the Leafs on Wednesday night, the Senators took the opportunity on Thursday to lay a giant egg in front of their first home town crowd of the regular season.

The Sens in short looked horrible; from the goal out they seemed incapable of back checking, stopping pucks and scoring goals. The Senators who had ruined the party for the Leaf on Wednesday, gave them a gift of a game on Thursday no effort, no skills and no goals as they watched Leaf after Leaf take his turn at shooing on Martin Gerber on the way to a 6-0 blanking.

Goaltending always the Achilles heel of the Senators, proved once again to be a worrisome thing, as Martin Gerber had what many hope will be his worst night ever in a Senators uniform. With last years project of Domenik Hasek back in Detroit (and the Wings lost too by the way!); Gerber was brought in to become the main guardian for now, while Ray Emery continues to learn his ropes.

While game number two is a tad early to panic, the play of Gerber and his team mates isn’t exactly the confidence boost that the Senators fan base were looking for. Sens/Leafs match ups always provide an aural experience at Scotiabank Place, what with seemingly half the crowd cheering on the Blue and White. By then end of the game the rink was left to the Leaf Nation, the Sens fans long since off to battle the traffic home on the Queensway.

Wednesday night’s game featured foolish penalties by the likes of Darcy Tucker, Thursday, Tucker atoned for his slashing call of Wednesday, with a two goal performance. He was the kind of manic whirlwind that he can be when he doesn’t get sidetracked with the stupid stuff; Thursday he did most of his damage on a score sheet, something that has a more lasting effect than his other activities.

Two games in and the Ottawa media are already on edge, Don Brennan did a little math as the game progressed. When he was done on the abacus, he had determined that had the Sens gone after Andrew Raycroft instead of Martin Gerber, they would not only have had a pretty good goaltender, but enough money to have kept Big Zedeno Chara on the squad. A large piece of the ever changing hockey puzzle, and one who might have come in handy in the Sens end of the rink on Thursday.

It’s probably a tad early to write of the season and the current line up, but Brennan made a good point, Gerber did not look good in his two period appearance, and there is a now a hole in that normally solid Sens defence. Add on to that the anemic offence of Thursday and you’re going to have some angry Sens fans should this become the norm rather than the exception!

Toronto 6, Ottawa 0 stats pack

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Despite the words they still believe in Ontario

The ink hasn't even dried on the deal and despite the comments to the contrary, the belief in Southern Ontario seems to be that the Leafs will soon have some competition for the hockey dollar.

With Jim Balsillie's purchase of the Penguins, currently of Pittsburgh, the always exciteable hockey fans of Southern Ontario seem to be picking out china patterns and planning invitations for the debut of a relocated franchise.

Yet, during the press conference with Mario Lemieux to seal the deal, the usual NHL line was read line by line, Pittsburgh is a wonderful city, a rich hockey heritage and it's time to get a new arena deal in place.

While Balsillie didn't guarantee that the Pens were staying, the impression seems to be that once the arena issue is finally taken care of, then hockey will once again remain strong in Pittsburgh.

With one plan hinging on the participation of a company called Isle of Capri who are seeking a slot machine licence for the city, Balsillie hedged his bets by throwing his support behind their bid. The city of Pittsburgh has an alternate plan in place if things go sideways on the slots issue, but Balsillie didn't seem to offer as much support, if any to the back up plan.

The Isle of Capri option, could very well be the last gasp for hockey in Pittsburgh and that apparently comes to a head later this fall. Hockey fans of Southern Ontario should be watching the table closely, if the city folds their hand on the Isle of Capri plan then hockey could be heading north after all.

All of the talk of the Penguin purchase has once again rekindled the dreams of a second franchise in the Leaf Nation territory, Eric Duhatshek of the Globe added a bit of kindling, a few gusts of wind and some starter fluid to get the Penguin story in Motion.

Duhatschek: Why Toronto needs another NHL team
Globe and Mail Update

Thursday, October 5, 2006
E-mail Eric Duhatschek
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Now that the sale of the Pittsburgh Penguins to Research In Motion's Jim Balsillie is official, there are those who believe the National Hockey League team will survive in the Pennsylvania city for years to come; and others who think it's only a matter of time before they move north of the border.

Since the Penguins' sale was so complicated and the new arena waters remain so muddied, it is largely pointless to debate that question now. It'll be months, possibly years, before the Penguins' final resting place is decided — and there are many factors, beyond even Balsillie's control, that will ultimately determine their long-term fate.

What does need to be debated again is how ridiculously underserved the Toronto hockey market is at the moment — and why the league desperately needs to put a second franchise in the Golden Horseshoe.

If it's the Penguins, great: That would put a trio of the game's best young talents (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal) in a market that would appreciate their abilities and provide ample fan and corporate support for their attempts to build the NHL's next great dynasty.

If it's not the Penguins and it's someone else, that would be fine too.
Now, obviously, the biggest single stumbling block would be the Leafs' opposition to the move — and under NHL bylaws, they could block any attempt to enter their market on the grounds of territorial rights infringement.

This, of course, would represent just another example of the short-sighted thinking that has the organization 39 years removed from its last Stanley Cup championship, with no end to the drought in sight.

The Leafs are absolutely bulletproof in their market; it wouldn't matter if there were three NHL teams competing with them. In this world, there are two types of hockey fans — the ones who love the Leafs and the ones who hate them. The ones who love the Leafs will always support them — and they've proven that through the years, gobbling up tickets during the embarrassment of the Harold Ballard era; and continuing to demonstrate their love of the team through all the ups and downs of the decades that followed.

Red Kelly said it pretty well the other day: Leaf fans are the most loyal and knowledgeable in the game. Now, there is no tangible proof to show how smart they are, but there is plenty of evidence to demonstrate their blind fidelity to the team. When the Leafs' games are televised on Hockey Night In Canada, ratings soar. When someone else is featured, they slump.

None of that would change, even in the presence of a second team in the marketplace — and for proof, consider the example of New York, where the Rangers reign supreme, even though the Islanders were the model franchise of the 1980s and the Devils the model franchise of the 1990s.

Despite the fact that the Rangers struggled through as many hard times and down periods as the Leafs did over the period, their fan support never waned.

That's mostly because of their history as an Original Six team. As a brand, the Rangers can't be damaged, no matter how many grossly overpaid, underachieving players passed through their line-up over the years.

A second team in the metropolitan Toronto area would galvanize all the Leaf haters into one faction and presumably, put them squarely behind the new team, in the same way the New York Mets came along at the start of the 1960s to give New York baseball fans an alternative to the Yankees.

If anything, the presence of a second team in Toronto would only enhance the franchise — by adding one more natural geographic rival — and if they ever met in the playoffs, it would represent great drama, a Gardiner Expressway series between the downtown Leafs and the Mississauga-based newcomers.

Because let's face it: At a time when interest in the NHL remains lukewarm in so many cities south of the 49th parallel, the demand in five of the six Canadian cities (except Ottawa) is unprecedented All those people living from Oshawa to Oakville and spilling out into Aurora and points south and west deserve a chance to buy an actual ticket to watch an actual NHL game — and most can't do it, because the demand is so high and the supply so limited.

Maybe the most telling note of all was there on the Penguins' website Thursday morning, after the news of the sale was posted. Just above the photo of Balsillie and the details of the purchase agreement was a two-line stream of copy promoting the Penguins' next game against the Red Wings, this coming Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

It promised: 'Great seats still remain.'

Pens hope to win, as they roll up with RIM.

It’s high octane offence meeting High Tech domination, as the Pittsburgh Penguins reportedly find themselves sold off to the founder of the Research In Motion group, makers of the ever present BlackBerry communication device.

No doubt, many a Penguin fans’ BlackBerry was going off yesterday and all day today as news of the 180 million dollar sale was making its way across the internet and into the world of mass media.

The Penguins who have been on the market for a number of years have an up and coming roster, so it makes sense that they would finally find an owner of a cutting edge technology. James Balsillie, co-founder of the technology company said all the right things at a press conference today announcing his purchase of the Pens, praising the local market, the fans and history of the team. Balsillie said that he planned on owning the Penguins in Pittsburgh for a long, long time.

However, a long, long time could be something up for discussion. The Penguins currently are trying to have a new building put up in the Pittsburgh area, one with all the bells, whistles and boxes that an NHL franchise seems to need these days. So far, the project has been nothing but talk and little in construction.

Keeping in mind that Mario Lemieux kept the Penguins alive (and his retirement checks coming) in the city of three rivers all in the hope of seeing the day when that rink would be built. As Mario steps aside from the Pens, one wonders if too the Pens will eventually step aside from Pennsylvania.

Balsillie’s company is based in Kitchener-Waterloo, a growing city north west of Toronto, the story of his purchase of the Pens of course has become front page news back home, and found some traction in Hamilton as well.

TSN reported last night that the Balsillie group had put down a retainer on Hamilton’s Copp coliseum to hold the NHL rights for that building and lately there have been some rumours of plans for a new building in K-W as the home of RIM is known.

Also up for debate last night on TSN, was the subtle investigations supposedly being conducted by the Balsillie group into whether the territorial rights of Toronto and Buffalo would hold up, should they had wanted to put a team in Hamilton.

All of which seems like a lot of work for a group that plans on playing in Pittsburgh for a long, long time.

Franchise re-locations are a tricky matter in the NHL, unless of course you’re a Canadian city with a team and then apparently the need to keep a team in place isn’t quite as urgent, hello Winnipeg, Bonjour Quebec!

Still, if someone is willing to pay 180 million for an NHL franchise (new salary structure or not), eventually if they can prove frustration in their present location then how could the fellow lodge members stop them from moving even it is off to some perceived Canadian backwater.

It makes for nervous times for Pittsburgh fans, which suddenly have a kinship with those of Winnipeg, Quebec and Hartford, wondering if the team they’ve given their all to, will soon be dressed up in new colours, take on a new name and be playing in another location.

Perhaps Balsillie truly intends to operate his team in Pittsburgh and all the worry and conjecture will be for naught. But if he eventually moves the franchise to Ontario, it would certainly shake up the Southern Ontario sports scene.

The Pens are a fast and rising NHL team, with a number of exciting young players eager to taste success on the way to the Stanley Cup. Compare the possibilities of the Pens to the state of the Leafs of late and you can see why Maple Leaf Sport and Entertainment would be willing to send a battalion of lawyers off to fight the good fight.

The sale to the Balsillie group will most likely take the Pens off the relocating to Winnipeg list, a place they’ve popped up on from time to time. It seems doubtful that either they or Quebec will benefit from this sale.

But cheer up, the Pens are but one of many American outposts that have stumbled of late and may wish to recoup some cash, once the floodgates have opened a bit, perhaps another franchise hungry to grab 180 million off the table will come forward.

The only question is does anyone in Winnipeg or Quebec have the financial resources of a RIM to make a purchase like that and still make money in the smaller markets.

For Leaf’s fans the opening ceremony was nice, but about that team on the ice!

Maple Leaf fans got much of the same old, same old on Wednesday night, overpowered by an Ottawa Senator squad that controlled most of the play, scored when it counted and could count on the Leafs to take the inevitable dumb penalty or two (Hello there Darcy) to help out the cause.

The night started out nicely for the Blue and White, a fairly emotional little tribute to the hoisting of the banners of Hap Day, Red Kelly and Borje Salming to the roof of the Air Canada Centre. And for the first period they had more than a few chances to get on the scoreboard, but just couldn't score on the Sens. By the third period though, many a Leaf fan might have wished that the banners might float down to the ice, so as to provide some kind of defence in the Leafs back end.

The Sens who started newly acquired Martin Gerber in the nets discovered that contrary to the coach’s thoughts at the end of training camp, Gerber can play pretty good when the time comes. Gerber made the key stops when they were needed, facing 34 shots to keep the Leafs off of the score sheet all but once, the only goal a questionable penalty shot call for Mats Sundin who managed to put one by the Swiss guard in the Sens net.

The Sens who after a slow start, finally showcased their usual speed and passing, a team built to take the game to the oppositions end and keep the play there for a good period of a game. Defensively they were solid, even if that huge pillar of strength Zdeno Chara is gone, Phillips, Redden and Meszaros to name a few did more than enough to clear the zone and knock the Leafs around a bit.

Paul Maurice got to see his squad under real fire conditions, liking some of what he saw but no doubt concerned about discipline, a perennial problem for the Leafs over the years. Darcy Tucker while probably trying to motivate his team mates with some physical play, took a dumb penalty during the course of the game, leaving the Leafs shorthanded, but he was not alone as a parade of Leafs made their way to the box too often.

It’s one thing to try to play the body, it’s another to slash away not once, not twice but three times at a Sen all while a ref is standing beside you. Until Maurice can control the bone headed plays by his veterans, one wonder what he will be able to do with his crop of young and nervous rookies.

The two teams will meet each other three more times before October is over, the next match up tonight from Ottawa on CBC. We’re not sure what the pre-game opening ceremony might be in Ottawa tonight, but Sens officials should make it short. Getting the Leafs back on their heels early would be a good move for the Sens, one game down they are already ahead on the season series, a quick start and a few goals could have them pulling ahead right out of the gate in this 2006-07 season.

Senators 4, Leafs 1 Stats pack

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Drop the puck it’s Hockey season!

Wednesday night brings joy from coast to coast to coast, as hockey fans across the continent settle in for the next seven months as their favourite teams jockey for positions and a shot at the Holy Grail of hockey the Stanley Cup.

The teams have made their final cuts, they’ve assigned their line combinations and all that is left is to get that first game under their belts. While the season seems to never end when they’re toiling through the cold months (well in some cities) of January and February, there’s nothing like an opening night, with the exception perhaps of the final game of the Stanley Cup and the chance to hoist the fabled trophy.

Over at the league office, Gary Bettman took some questions from the Canadian Press on the eve of the season debut, providing his take on such issues as US television ratings, the length of Rick DiPietro’s contract (15 flippin’ years??), how he thinks year number two of the new CBA will work out, where he sees attendance going and his overall impression of the state of the game heading into 2006-07, were just some of the questions posed by Pierre Lebrun.

Canadian puck fans have a bounty of options ahead of them this season, with the CBC increasing their schedule of games, Sportsnet hosting regional games, TSN offering a wide schedule of action (including an opening night doubleheader) and even pay per view games for those with extra bucks to chase their puck.

The "experts" have made their calls, predictions from TSN, Sportsnet and Hockey Night in Canada to name a few providing the ammunition for many an office hockey pool.

So settle into the recliner, lay in the pretzels, popcorn and refreshments and set up your clicker for scan. It’s time to jump on board for the season long road trip.

For the record below is the way that your servant at HockeyNation sees the standings shaping up when the regular season will wind down next spring. Teams in Blue will be feeling blue, as they miss out on the post season chase for Lord Stanley’s Mug


San Jose
Los Angeles
St. Louis


New York Rangers
New Jersey

Tampa Bay
New York Islanders

While we're sounding like a broken record, for the record we'll once again select the Ottawa Senators and Calgary Flames to meet in the face off circle. When the final goal is counted, the Senators will be hoisting up the Cup and the parade will be heading down Bank Street.

The Goaltender’s Graveyard

Roberto Luongo takes on the cape of Superman on Thursday night, the latest, greatest hope to recapture the magic of King Richard and lead the Canucks to the Promised Land. The outstanding goaltender was acquired in that block buster Bertuzzi trade and there's a lot riding on the shoulders of the young lad from Quebec.

More than a few talented goaltenders have trolled through the Vancouver goaltender waters over the years, some find their careers crushed, their psyche damaged and the NHL but a long ago dream. Others escape with their lives and carve out a decent if unspectacular career in some other NHL outpost.

For whatever the reason, Vancouver can play with a goal tenders mind and leave him wondering what the hell he’s gotten himself in for. Indeed only the strong it seems can survive when sent off to fight the NHL wars from the front of GM Place.

Jeff Paterson with The Georgia Straight, profiled the latest of lambs offered up to the Goaltending Gods. May Roberto have a long and prosperous life in Canuck colours, or may his agent get him out of dodge before yet another curse descends on another Canuck goaltender.

Luongo looks to lift the curse
By Jeff Paterson
The Georgia Straight
Publish Date: 28-Sep-2006

The Canucks’ new goalie has swagger, but it won’t look like boasting if he delivers elite-level play Dave Nonis probably didn’t realize it at the time, but when the general manager of the Vancouver Canucks acquired Roberto Luongo in June, he didn’t just get a good goalie. He also gained a huge advantage on every opponent the Canucks will face this season and for years to come. That’s because Luongo, although just 27 years old and only six years into his NHL career, is already messing with the heads of other teams and other players.

“He’s very good,” says Rory Fitzpatrick, who signed with the Canucks as a free agent this summer after spending the past four years in Buffalo and getting to know Luongo well as an Eastern Conference foe. “Every time we’d go into Florida, that was the main topic: you know you’ve got to beat Roberto and you’re not going to beat him on your first shot. You have to get people in front, and it’s going to be a second or third shot that you’re going to score on. He’s a big guy and covers a lot of space, and he’s one of the top goalies in the league, and I think the people of Vancouver are really going to like watching him play. And I know as a defenceman, I’m loving that he’s here.”

Fitzpatrick—talking, along with other players and Canuck management, to the Georgia Straight recently at training camp in Vernon—surely won’t be alone, playing with added confidence knowing that one of the world’s best netminders is there to bail him out. And it’s not just the blueliners who will benefit from Luongo’s presence. With the departures of Todd Bertuzzi and Anson Carter, there are questions about the Vancouver hockey club’s ability to score goals this season. But simple math tells you that if your team isn’t getting scored on as often as it has in the past, you won’t need as many goals to win.

“I think it changes your mindset a little bit,” veteran centre Brendan Morrison says. “Clouts [Dan Cloutier] was an extremely competitive guy, and when he was on his game and playing his best, he gave us a chance to win every night. I think with Roberto that’s magnified just because he has the ability to steal a game every night, and there are few goalies who can do that. I think having him back there is going to provide the rest of the team with a little more confidence. He’s intimidating simply because when you look at him in the net, there isn’t a lot of net to shoot at. I think he gets in the head of opposing shooters and gives us a leg up right away.”

With all the praise that gets thrown his way, it would be easy to believe that Luongo might have trouble stuffing his swelled head into his goalie mask. There is a swagger about him, to be sure, but it brings to mind the old Dizzy Dean baseball quote: “It ain’t bragging if you can back it up.”

And Luongo can back it up.

On a bad Florida Panthers team last season, the 6-3, 180-pound Montreal native led the National Hockey League in games played among goalies (75), shots faced (2,488), and saves made (2,275), and he was in the top 10 in wins (35), shutouts (4), and save percentage (91.4%). Four times last season, Luongo made 40 or more saves in leading his team to victory, and in 24 of his 35 wins he was forced to make 30 or more saves. His crowning achievement came on December 18, 2005, when he made 53 saves and single-handedly led Florida to a 3–2 win over Washington.

The guy can play—and he knows it.

“If you don’t play with confidence, your game is going to suffer,” Luongo, the odds-on favourite to be the starter for Team Canada at the 2010 Olympics, told the Straight in a lengthy and wide-ranging interview in Vernon. “I don’t think I’m someone who’s arrogant at all. I know what I can do and I work very hard for it. It [all the shots he faced in Florida] wasn’t the best situation to be in. If I wasn’t at the top of my game every night, basically we knew we didn’t have a chance to win. But, in a way, it was kind of good for me to know that I had to be at the top of my game every night, and it kind of forced me to challenge myself night after night. I think it really improved the mental side of my game a lot.”

Now, as he plays on a Canadian team and in a hockey-mad market for the first time in his career, Luongo will have to prove that the mental side of his game is equal to his on-ice skills. The Canucks not only gave up a lot (Todd Bertuzzi, Bryan Allen, and Alex Auld) to get him, they then turned around days later and gave him the long-term, big-money contract he wasn’t able to get in Florida. So as he begins to earn his US$27 million over the next four years, Luongo knows everything he does and everything he says will be analyzed and scrutinized by the fans and media.

“It’s part of the job,” he says. “I’ve dealt with it when I was part of Team Canada and we had it every day. It’s something that comes with the territory, and when you know what to expect, it’s not a big deal. I’ve already been asked about the ‘goalie-graveyard’ thing about 10 times, and that’s part of the past. I know guys want to bring stuff like that up, but it’s time to put it to rest and move on. I think everyone knows what I’m capable of and I know what I’m capable of doing, so there’s no reason to bring that subject up.”

The Canucks made the trade to acquire Luongo to erase the memories of the 18 guys who’ve played goal here since Kirk McLean left town in 1998. Luongo and his backup (whether it’s Wade Flaherty or someone else) will make it 20 goalies to wear a Canucks uniform in the past eight seasons. To put that in context, with Martin Brodeur as their starter and backbone, the New Jersey Devils have used seven goalies in that same time span and won a pair of Stanley Cups. There’s something to be said about stability in goal.

“You know that you have a piece of the puzzle that you can build from, and that’s what we talked about when Roberto became available to us,” says Canucks assistant general manager Steve Tambellini, who had firsthand knowledge of Luongo’s ability from time spent together with Canada’s 2004 World Cup team and the 2006 Olympic squad. “The decision was made quite quickly that we were going to do what it takes to get this piece in our organization. We’ve told Roberto that we’re going to work with him and build this team from him out. So our job is to make sure that we have the right supporting crew, because we know we’ve seen him in action, we’ve seen him in pressure, we’ve seen him come in and back up Marty Brodeur and win in international play. He’s won gold medals; he’s been in World Juniors. Now his goal is that he wants to be in the National Hockey League playoffs.”

That is, really, the last knock remaining on Luongo. Six years in the NHL and he has yet to suit up for a postseason game. Certainly he didn’t stand a chance as a rookie on a terrible New York Islanders team back in the spring of 2000. But in five years in Florida, despite his best efforts, Luongo wasn’t able to lead the Panthers to the promised land. He’s here now, though, and ready, he says, to do whatever is needed to get the Canucks back to the playoffs. And even though he doesn’t have NHL playoff experience on his otherwise impressive hockey résumé, Luongo is convinced he’ll be ready for the rigours of a postseason ride.

“There wasn’t any more pressure situation that I’ve been involved in than the World Cup when I hadn’t played a game and then got thrown in the semifinal. So I’ve played in high-pressure games. Unfortunately, I haven’t played in any playoff games, but that shouldn’t be looked at as something that is solely my fault,” he says of the five consecutive Florida flops. “It’s a team game, and you need 20 players on the ice to get there.”

It was the Panthers’ inability to reach the playoffs, combined with a volatile front-office situation, that led to the end of the line for Luongo in Florida, where he and wife Gina had just built a house. Attempts to sign a long-term contract extension proved fruitless, and on the eve of the June draft, with the hockey world here in Vancouver, Mike Keenan stole the spotlight by dealing Luongo to the Canucks in the biggest trade of 2006. To this day, Luongo claims to have no ill will toward Keenan, but he says he didn’t think Iron Mike would move him so quickly.

“It was a shock at the beginning, but in the end I think it’s a good move for my career. It’s a great hockey city, and I think we’ll have a great team here and it’s a great organization, so I think it’s a step in the right direction for my career,” says Luongo, who’s been traded once before in his career. But that was back in his bachelor days, and this move, he admits, didn’t sit all that well with his wife of two years, a lifelong Florida resident.

“It was hard. She’s never left home, not even for college or anything like that. She’s always been around her family, and she’s close to her family, so it was something that was hard for her at the beginning. Now she’s getting used to the fact that she’s going to leave, and she’ll be able to go back to Florida whenever she wants,” he says. “It’s a bit like Jovo’s wife [Ed Jovanonovski’s wife, Kirstin] used to do when she was here. She’s going to have a lot of family come visit, so it’s going to take some time to get used to, but we’re going to try to surround her and get her used to the fact that she’s not at home anymore. You know, we’re going to ease into it slowly.”

The Luongos are settling into a Yaletown condo that will serve as home base during the hockey season, but they’ll head for Florida as soon as the year is done. And although he’s busy with hockey’s hectic schedule throughout the winter, the Canuck netminder and his wife will find time to take in the latest movies, one of the things Luongo does to unwind and something the couple enjoys doing together.

“Also, in my spare time, I like to play on-line poker—but only when my wife’s not around,” Luongo says with a laugh. (He also claims to have kicked a nasty habit earlier in his career of watching Days of Our Lives as part of his game-day routine.)

Blessed with talent few others have on the ice, Luongo can also say something only a handful of other plays can, and he can say it three different ways. Where many of his colleagues have enough trouble with one language, Luongo is fluent in three: English, French, and Italian. And he makes no secret of the fact that all are important parts of who he is as a person.

“When I was a kid, my dad strictly spoke only Italian, so when my dad was around we spoke Italian, and with my mom it was English mostly with a little bit of French,” he says. “Then I went to French school growing up, so it was a bit of everything—mostly English and Italian when I was a kid and then when I started school, French kind of took over. Whenever I go back home to Montreal, it’s still the same: when my dad’s there, we speak Italian, and when my dad’s not around, with my brothers or my mom, it’s a bit of English or French, a word here and a word there in each language. It’s important to me. I grew up with all those languages and I want to keep them.”

Luongo is the oldest of three brothers, all of whom played goal. Although 22-year-old Leo didn’t last in net, 20-year-old Fabio did his best to follow Roberto. In fact, Fabio was the first Luongo to spend time in this province, playing the 2004–05 season for the Williams Lake Timberwolves of the British Columbia Hockey League in pursuit of his dream that has now faded away due to injuries.

Roberto started his hockey career as a forward and played centre until he was 12. And for a kid growing up in Montreal, with so many good French-Canadian netminders to emulate, Luongo wasn’t drawn to the position by Patrick Roy, as so many of his peers have been. No, Luongo says he was fascinated by the performance of Grant Fuhr during the Oilers heyday in Edmonton.

“He was my idol and he’s the reason I became a goaltender,” he explains. “I watched him on TV, and those great glove saves is what really attracted me to be a goalie in the first place. You know, watching him as a kid, I was always in amazement.”

Now it’s Roberto Luongo that 12-year-olds are amazed by and trying to be like. But in order for them to be like their hero, kids playing the position have to be durable— extremely durable. Luongo has been a workhorse the past three NHL seasons, playing no fewer than 65 games per season. From December 10 of last year through March 15, Luongo appeared in 35 consecutive games for Florida, winning 17 of them and tying five others. And although no exact number of games has been determined for the upcoming season here in Vancouver, Luongo wants and expects the heavy workload to continue. Judging by training-camp chatter, it sounds like Luongo will play in the neighbourhood of 70 games this season.

“I know a lot of people expect a lot out of me, and that’s great, because I expect a lot out of myself and I’m my biggest critic,” says Luongo, who points to his height and his glove hand as his strengths and who admits that puck-handling is an area he continues to work on. “For me, I want to go out there and perform every night and give this team a chance to win every night. Anything short of that is going to be disappointing for myself, and you’ll see it on nights after games when things didn’t go maybe the way I wanted them to for myself, you’ll see that I’m not very happy with myself. I’m a very competitive person, and I want to be at 100 percent every night.”

That cheering you heard the night the Canucks acquired Luongo wasn’t just from his new teammates or hockey fans in Vancouver—the entire Eastern Conference was thrilled to see him go.

“As an organization, we’re pretty happy to see him out of the division,” Atlanta Thrashers head coach Bob Hartley was quoted as saying at the time of the deal. “No disrespect to Todd Bertuzzi, but he only plays 20 minutes per game and Roberto Luongo plays 60 minutes.”

So it seems that although the Canucks addressed one of their biggest needs with the off-season addition of Roberto Luongo, they also gained a whole lot more than just a goalie in that trade. Not only do the Canucks’ Western Conference foes now have to deal with the reason for Hartley’s happiness, but Vancouver has a guy they’re counting on to be the difference on many nights for many seasons.

And they’ll start finding out for sure on October 5 in Detroit.

Jeff Paterson is a sportscaster and talk-show host on Vancouver’s all-sports radio, Team 1040.