Thursday, March 15, 2018

Almost in the rearview, Part Two

Like I said in my March 12th post, I think that enough of the NHL regular season has passed that I can go ahead and start commenting about it as if it was already over. Especially when you consider that patience is a virtue of which I am not in possession. So like David Coverdale once sang when he fronted Whitesnake: Here I go again!

It's no secret that Alexander Ovechkin is a sniper who can pile up goals. Unfortunately, due to Washington's playoff struggles over the years many people fail to realize and/or appreciate just how great a scorer he is. Unlike with most people who are called "great," that word truly does apply where Ovechkin is concerned.

In the outdoor Stadium Series game between Washington and Toronto on March 3rd, he notched his 40th goal of the season by one-timing a Tom Wilson pass into the net behind Frederik Andersen, making him only the sixth person in NHL history to have nine seasons of 40+ goals. Then, three nights ago against Winnipeg, he potted the 600th of his career and became only the 20th player in NHL history to reach that milestone.

Making Ovechkin's accomplishment even more impressive are the facts that his entire career has been during the era of the best league-wide goaltending the NHL has ever known, and that he summited this peak in only 990 games (only three other players have made it to 600 goals in fewer than 1,000 games, and their names happen to be Gretzky and Lemieux and Hull).

Ovechkin leads the league in goals this season, and if he doesn't relinquish the lead this will be the seventh time he has won the scoring title. On top of which, he is an 11-time All-Star. On top of which, he has thrice won the Pearson/Lindsay Award as the league's "most outstanding player" and thrice won the Hart Trophy as its player "judged most valuable to his team."

Since he is 32 and having this spectacular a season (already besting his final numbers from last year) it is more than fair to assume that he has lots of gas left in his tank -- which means his already glittering numbers are likely to become much shinier in the coming years.

And for those who see the lack of championship banners in Capitol One Arena's rafters and want to use that as a reason to claim Ovechkin doesn't deliver in the playoffs, think about this: His average points per playoff game over the course of his career is .928, significantly better than Mike Modano's .830 and very significantly better than Teemu Selanne's .677.

'Tis time for the naysayers to shut up and give the man his due.

And while we are on the topic of thirtysomething Russia-born superstars, can we talk about Evgeni Malkin? He has won the Ross, Hart, Pearson/Lindsay, Calder, and Conn Smythe -- to say nothing of those three Stanley Cups -- yet the fact that he's played his entire career on the same roster as Sidney Crosby means that he never quite escapes Crosby's shadow and seldom gets recognized as the world-beater he is.

This season is no different. Malkin started slow -- which is not unexpected when you consider that he's "on the wrong side of 30" and hasn't had a full off-season since 2015, thanks to back-to-back Stanley Cups and an intervening World Cup -- but ever since the calendar flipped to January 1st he has been on a vision-blurring tear, cranking out points at a clip of 1.7 per game and climbing all the way to within two goals of Ovechkin for the top spot in the goals race (42 to 40) and two points of Nikita Kucherov for the top spot in the total points race (91 to 89).

On top of that, his defensive game has been as solid as an iron door, with his line often getting sent out against opponents' top lines -- not simply because it can match them where speed and shooting are concerned, but because it can actually shut them down. Consider that in a recent game against the Stars, Malkin & Co. were matched against Dallas's uber talented Seguin-Benn-Radulov line and basically neutered it, forcing it to finish the night at minus-3 with its only goal coming on a 5-on-3 power play.

Not coincidentally, the Penguins' fortunes have risen astronomically during the same period that Malkin has surged. Prior to January 1st they were treading water and on the fringe of the playoff picture, despite being the defending champs; but today they are tied for first place in the Metropolitan Division and looking very capable of winning a third consecutive Cup, which is something even the Gretzky-Messier Oilers could not accomplish.

As with Ovie, 'tis time to give Geno his full due.

Resetting for real
That the New York Rangers won't be winning the Stanley Cup this year is not a shock. That they decided to tear the whole house down and start anew kinda is... and that they were candid about it is downright refreshing.

Let's start by saying that the Rangers have not had a bad season. On February 8th they not only had a winning record but were within two wins of a playoff spot, in a season that still had two months left to play. Yet it was on that day that they sent a letter to season ticket holders which read thus: "Today, we want to talk to you about the future... As we approach the trade deadline later this month and into the summer, we will be focused on adding young, competitive players that combine speed, skill and character. This may mean we lose some familiar faces, guys we all care about and respect... Our promise to you is that our plans will be guided by our singular commitment: ensuring that we are building the foundation for our next Stanley Cup contender." (emphasis mine)

And man, did they mean it. The day before the trade deadline they swapped out Rick Nash (to the hated Boston Bruins, no less) and on the deadline they dealt their best defenseman (Ryan McDonagh) and second-leading scorer (J.T. Miller) to Tampa Bay, with the meat of their return being prospects and upcoming draft picks.

Here's the thing: The Rangers' goal is not merely to "make the playoffs" or "be competitive," but to win the Stanley Cup. They took a strong stab at it this decade, making sure the best goaltender of his generation is a Ranger For Life, fielding a good team in front of him, reaching the Cup Finals in 2014 and returning to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2015. But they came up short, and then their roster started to age and its salary cap ramifications started to ramify, and then it became clear that their team, as constructed in anno Domini 2018, was simply not capable of winning it all.

So rather than tinkering fruitlessly around the edges and trying to put a Band-Aid here over a Band-Aid there, the organization decided not to delay the inevitable but to go ahead and blow it up right now and start over. The sooner you throw out the old crops and plant new ones, the sooner the harvest will come, right?

Rangers fans might not enjoy sitting through a few down years, but they have to appreciate that the organization told it to them like it is, and they have to appreciate that it aims to win it all. By being up front with the fans instead of insulting their intelligence like some franchise owners do (hello Mr. Melnyk!) the Rangers are sure to keep their season ticket holders loyal and engaged when their win totals sag.

Maybe the rebuild won't work, but the status quo definitely wasn't going to work, so props to the Rangers for taking action instead of whistling Dixie. Maybe some other franchises (hello Montreal!) will learn from their example.

And I have other things to comment on, but I'll save them for the next installment. Until then, have a good one.

No comments: