Friday, May 22, 2015

Interim Puck Talk

Though I intended not to publish another hockey post until after the conference finals are over, I am finding myself unwilling to wait, so here goes:

How's this for a strange fact? Three of the four teams in the conference finals have no Russians on their roster.

The starting goaltenders for the four finalists hail from four different countries:  Henrik Lundqvist from Sweden, Ben Bishop from the United States, Corey Crawford from Canada, and Frederik Andersen from Denmark.

Speaking of the goalies, I like that Andersen's mask pays homage to his country's most famous export by showing images of Legos. However, I don't see how anyone can deny that Bishop's mask, complete with glow in the dark lightning bolts, is the coolest of the four starters.

Coaching prediction: Guy Boucher will once again be a head coach in the NHL when next season starts. He was reportedly contacted by the Maple Leafs before they secured Mike Babcock's services, and he is now reported to be in the running for the New Jersey job.

Coaching opinion: Since Buffalo lost the Mike Babcock sweepstakes, it seems like Ken Hitchcock would be an ideal choice to groom the Sabres' talented young roster into playoff contention. He would bring Stanley Cup credibility, but could Buffalo fans bring themselves to overlook the goal that gave him that credibility?

Speaking of the Mike Babcock sweepstakes, what can be made of them now that they are over? My initial reaction is: Not much that can be called good.

You gotta give Babcock credit for playing his hand well, but when you look back at how he played it, it's difficult to believe that he cared about anything other than money.

Immediately after his Red Wings were eliminated from the playoffs in the opening round (again!) he started lamenting that their best players are in their thirties, and that there are no suitable replacements for them on the roster or in the farm system... This fed the perception that all he cares about is winning championships; and thus, it led many and sundry to deduce that he wanted to leave Detroit so he could coach a team that gave him a better chance of winning another Stanley Cup... In turn, that perception led the many and sundry to speculate that Buffalo was the perfect place for Babcock to go because of its talented young roster, high upside, passionate yet reasonable fan base -- and because its deep-pocketed owner would not underpay for his services... Taking that speculation, and the fact that Babcock was known to have been contacted by both teams, and combining them with Toronto's lack of young prospects and its reputation for organizational dysfunction, the media reported that Babcock was about to sign with Buffalo as soon as a few minor wrinkles were ironed out... Babcock allowed those stories and rumors to circulate and used them to his advantage, getting Toronto, the deepest-pocketed team in the entire NHL, to offer a salary far beyond anything anyone has ever imagined -- a salary he was, of course, happy to "accept."

Today, Mike Babcock, with all of one Stanley Cup (seven years ago) to his name, is under contract for $6.25 million per year. The next highest-paid coach is Joel Quenneville at $2.75 million. Quenneville has two Stanley Cups to his name (both of which are more recent than Babcock's) and his team is still playing for this year's Cup while Babcock's is hitting the links. Do I really need to do anything more to explain how the Toronto Maple Leafs have just fucked up the coaching market for the entire NHL?

There is no doubt that Mike Babcock is one of the best hockey coaches on Earth, but there is also no doubt that he has never coached anything other than a loaded roster. If he brings the Stanley Cup back to the city on the lake for the first time since 1967, his deal with the Leafs will prove to be a daring move of genius by the organization. If he does anything less, it will prove to be a foolish boondoggle. For the long-term good of a league that has franchises and fans in smaller, far-flung places such as Winnipeg and Columbus, I hope it proves to be the latter.

The Triplets
I don't care for the "triplets" moniker -- it makes Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat sound like toddlers -- but I love this line that plays for my Tampa Bay Lightning.

And I daresay that every hockey fan on Earth (even those who cheer for the Red Wings, Candadiens, and Rangers) has to love this line.

Since they have been playing on one line for less than a year, I am not about to say that Johnson, Kuch and Palat are the greatest line of all time. Nor am I about to say that they are in the top five of all time. But I am going to say that they are one of the most dazzling ever to watch, and one of the best in my 44 years of walking the planet.

One of the most impressive things is that they all play at the same level. Sure, the Legion of Doom was fearsome to behold, but Mikael Renberg was obviously the third banana behind Eric Lindros and John LeClair... Yes, Gretzky and Kurri torched the record books, but we all know that Esa Tikkanen (my favorite of the three) lagged far behind them in skill level... The Brothers' Line was imaginatively named, but Anson Carter had nowhere near the talent of the Sedin twins... The JAM Line gave us Joe Sakic -- plus two guys whose only contribution was that their names started with A and M... The Espo Line had goal machine Phil Esposito, but who has ever replayed highlight reels of Wayne Cashman and Ken Hodge in their minds at night?... The Sky Line featured Mario Lemeiux, Jaromir Jagr and Kevin Stevens -- but who exactly is/was Kevin Stevens?

When you watch the Triplets, you quickly see that they are all producing at about the same level. Johnson leads all NHL players in points during this postseason, with 18, while Kucherov is tied for second with 16 and Palat is tied for fourth with 13.

You also see that they improvise like jazz musicians, always knowing by intuition where their linemates are on the ice. Johnson need not look for Palat before passing to him, all he needs to do is pass and Palat's stick will be there waiting for the puck. Kucherov need not watch the puck reach his stick before redirecting it, all he needs to do is flick his wrist when he wants to and the puck will go wherever he desires it to go.

These players are the hockey equivalent of Dizzy Gillespie pushing his trumpet to a billion consecutive eighth notes while Max Roach bangs his snare drums into a percussive tizzy. Their hockey moves converge to create points in much the same way that Gillespie's and Roach's instruments converged to create great music. It is wondrous to behold.

They (we) are a weird bunch.

When a team loses, its fans blame it on its mistakes, not on the possibility that the opposing team was simply better. When it wins, its fans credit the superiority of its players without considering that vagaries such as odd bounces or suspect calls may have contributed to the final score.

In Round One of this year's playoffs, Detroit fans were outraged that Niklas Kronwall was suspended for clearly targeting the head of Tampa Bay's Nikita Kucherov. They claimed that Kucherov should have been prepared for the injury-intending headhunt. Apparently, those fans forgot how they felt and how they reacted back in the the 1990's, when their own Kris Draper was headhunted by Claude Lemeiux.

Right now, in Round Three, New York fans are calling for Henrik Lundqvist to be benched without bothering to watch the replays of the goals he surrendered the last two games. If they did review them, they would see that in most cases there was little he could have done to stop them.

And Tampa Bay fans are livid that no penalty was called when Steven Stamkos took a stick blade to the face on Wednesday, which means they must be blind to the fact that no penalty was called when he committed a fairly obvious crosscheck during the same game.

But whatever
This game is great, and the schizophrenia of sudden changes and human nature is part of the reason why. There is a round and a half of playoff hockey left to play. May it be schizophrenically awesome, and may (hopefully) it end with the Tampa Bay Lightning hoisting the silver chalice!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

No mention of the French connection? C'est une parodie!