Thursday, June 28, 2012

The wrongful perception of European NHL players

(Warning: this is a senseless rant.  If you don't like to read strong opinions, do not read on.)


Oh, you like senseless rants?  Well then, I hope you enjoy this.

Consider the following situation.

A young, talented Russian defenseman just came over to North America, and he's ready to become an NHL player.  He's been drafted by a smaller market NHL team with a roster of players he's unfamiliar with, so he refuses to sign an entry-level contract with that team.  A year goes by and now he's demanded a trade or he'll become an unrestricted free agent.  He and his agent provide General Managers with a short list of teams he'd meet with, and his list is based on teams that have players he knows and teams that he'd be guaranteed to play a certain number of minutes for next season.

That's pretty selfish of him, isn't it?  He refuses to sign with the team that drafted him?  Who does he think he is, Eric Lindros?

Of course, this situation is playing itself out right now, except the player is not Russian.  He's Canadian.  His name, if you haven't figured it out already, is Justin Schultz.

Yet nobody questions Schultz's tactics.  He's been invited to meet with several NHL teams, and he actually refused to grant teams meetings with him.  Essentially, he'll only sign with a Canadian team or the Rangers, and Toronto might be the leading candidate because his buddy, Jake Gardiner, plays for them.  But Schultz is a good Canadian boy, so let's not dare call him selfish.

Flash back to the winter of 2009-2010.  Ilya Kovalchuk is miserable, playing for a bad Thrashers team for the eighth time in nine seasons.  He turns down a pair of massive contract offers from General Manager Don Waddell, suggesting that he would not re-sign with Atlanta in the summer of 2010.  Instead, his GM went out and found a trading partner, the New Jersey Devils.  Kovalchuk went on to sign a $100 million extension with the Devils later that summer.  Kovalchuk was tagged as a selfish individual.  Why?  For not wanting to commit to a terrible team for longer than he already had?

Fast forward to this past winter.  Rick Nash is miserable, playing for a bad Blue Jackets team for the eighth time in nine seasons.  He's reportedly asked his General Manager, Scott Howson, for a trade to a contending team because he's frustrated with his situation in Columbus and at this point in his career, he wants to move on and have a chance to win.

But Rick Nash isn't selfish.  He just wants a chance to win, and that's what it's all about, right?

So what's the difference?  Kovalchuk went to a better team where he has a chance to win every year.

Now today, Sidney Crosby apparently agreed to a 12-year/$104 million contract with the Penguins.  He's not selfish.  Why is Kovalchuk for signing a 15-year/$100 million deal?  Why is Alex Ovechkin selfish for signing a 13-year/$124 million deal in 2008?

Then again, what if European players are selfish?  What if they are enigmatic and lazy?  After all, the Penguins' 2009 Stanley Cup run belongs to Sidney Crosby, right?  It's not like Conn Smythe winner Evgeni Malkin actually led his team to victory.  After all, Malkin only had 36 points in 22 games.  How enigmatic.

And how about the 2008 Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings who had just 14 European players on the team?  And how about the most talented player in the NHL right now, Pavel Datsyuk?  He only has 3 Selke trophies and 4 Lady Byng awards.  The recently retired Swedish defenseman Nick Lidstrom wasn't too bad, either.

The European stereotypes go to unbelievable extremes, and quite honestly, it's ridiculous.  What about the New York Rangers this past spring?  They struggled to score goals in the playoffs, so the Slovakian-native Marian Gaborik took the blame.  Guess what?  He posted 11 points in the playoffs, which is one more than the American-born captain Ryan Callahan.  American-born Derek Stepan had just one goal in the playoffs.

There's nobody who demonstrates more European hatred than Don Cherry, who called Dainius Zubrus "lazy" during the playoffs.  What if Zubrus was Canadian?  Cherry would love him.  After all, Zubrus is a big, power forward who kills penalties and plays a two-way game...even though he's of Russian descent.

Want more?  Of course you do.  Alex Ovechkin has 59 points in 51 playoff games.  Kovalchuk has 25 points in 28 playoff games with the Devils.  Malkin has 81 points in 68 playoff games.  Only Malkin has won a Stanley Cup.  Somehow, all three players have been tagged as "lazy" or "selfish" as recently as this past season by fans and even the media (mostly Don Cherry).

So how did this bias against European players start?  Did people knock Stan Mikita in the 1960s, Jari Kurri in the 1980s or Slava Fetisov in the 1990s?  Was Jaromir Jagr simply the lazy guy that played next to Mario Lemieux?  You know who one of the first players was that I believe changed the perception of Europeans?  Alex Kovalev.

The bottom line is that Europeans can be awesome too.  Not all of them are as beloved as Teemu Selanne or Mats Sundin, but maybe it's time to take a step back and appreciate what they're doing.  Ovechkin, Datsyuk and Kovalchuk are legends developing right in front of us, and many people are going to completely miss out on what fantastic hockey players they are because of their native country.  Obviously, some people do appreciate them, and those people are watching some pretty special hockey players.

Then again, if his name was Justin Schultzov, he'd be viewed as a selfish...

Friday, June 22, 2012

2012 NHL Off-season Guide, as written by bloggers

Well, the 2011-12 NHL season is just a memory now, and we're headed for another long hockey-less summer.  Before the hockey world completely shuts down for the summer after July 1st, I wanted to put together the second annual off-season guide post, as written by hockey bloggers from as many teams as I could find.  I found 25 bloggers (including myself), and most of them sent me a piece about their team, so here's your guide to the 2012 NHL off-season.

ANAHEIM DUCKS (written by Steve Palumbo - @StevePalumboNHL)

2011-12 Recap - The Anaheim Ducks went south faster than, well, ducks in the winter. Although they have a young team, they were led in scoring by 40-something winger Teemu Selanne. That alone should give you an idea of why the season went so "fowl." Despite the a talented group of forwards headed by 50-goal scorer Corey Perry, captain Ryan Getzlaf and Mr. "I hate New Jersey" himself Bobby Ryan, the Ducks couldn't find enough consistency on offense to win games. Combine that with the rapid demise of offensive-defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky, throw in a splash of wonky goaltending from Jonas Hiller and you have yourself a recipe for failure. It wasn't until a coaching change and a flip of the calendar, did they team start to resemble an NHL franchise again. 

Free-Agency - The Ducks have most of their important pieces locked up through the upcoming season. The biggest question mark being the future of Selanne. It's obvious this guy is no ordinary old man. He can still skate circles around the youngsters. Question is, can he peel himself away from the fun times in Finland for another 82 games? Oh, and there was that whole thing about some college defenseman, but I can't quite remember his name at this moment. Expect the Ducks to try and add capable veteran depth up front. 

Draft - The Ducks will get to pick 6th in the upcoming draft by virtue of losing many, many games and missing the playoffs. Don't you love consolation prizes? Having already been shot down by a defenseman they drafted it only makes sense for the Ducks to draft another...defesenman. Mathew Dumba should fall to Anaheim. Maybe this time they can actually lock him up before he changes his mind. 

2012-13 Outlook - It's hard to imagine a group with this much talent stinking two years in a row, especially with Selanne back in the mix. Bruce Boudreau will have a full year to recreate the late season magic of 2011-12. Plus, let's not forget that their neighbors just up the 5 freeway will be spending the summer parading around Tinsel Town with the shiniest trophy in all of sports. That should be motivating enough for at least 2 or 3 extra points in the standings. It's the other 12 or 13 points they missed the playoff by that I would be concerned about. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

2011-12 NJ Devils player report cards

As another part of my 2011-12 NHL season in review, I'm taking a look at each Devils player's 2011-12 season.  For those players heading into free agency this summer, I'll weigh in on whether or not I think the player should be re-signed.  For everyone else other than Eric Boulton, they're probably coming back next season.

Johan Hedberg - #1
Season stats: 27 games, 17-7-2 record, 2.23 goals against average, .918 save percentage, 4 shutouts

Historically, the backup goaltender to Martin Brodeur never played much.  He'd usually get five starts over the course of the entire season and come in to relieve Brodeur from time to time, but for the most part, he'd just a benchwarmer.  That all changed during the 2008-09 season, when Brodeur missed 50 games with a torn bicep.  Since then, the backup goaltender role in New Jersey has become more important (mostly because they actually get to play games nowadays).

This was Johan Hedberg's second season with the Devils.  He won his second straight player's player award at the team awards in April, as his value to the team was apparent on and off the ice.  On the ice, he put up tremendous numbers, and allowed Pete DeBoer to not over-work Brodeur.  Hedberg also carried the team early in the season when Brodeur missed some time with another injury.  Without the strong play of Hedberg, the Devils' Stanley Cup run may not have been possible.

Grade: A

Hedberg is everything a team could ask for in a backup goaltender and so much more.

Contract status: Unrestricted free agent

Should he stay or should he go?

Hedberg should stay.  DeBoer should do exactly what he did this season with these goalies next season.  Brodeur and Hedberg have become one of the better goalie tandems in the NHL, and they combine to just 79 years old!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The series that was: looking back at Devils-Kings

I've decided to use the main page for some of my Devils opinion posts over the coming days.  I'll be looking at individual performances this past season and I'll put my fictional GM hat on and preview the off-season, followed by a special league-wide post, with the help of some of the best bloggers in the NHL.

Well, the season is now over.  For me personally, there's a number of emotions running through my head right now.  I'm extremely disappointed at the result of the Stanley Cup Finals, yet I'm proud of the Devils and encouraged at the future of the team.  I'm a bit saddened, knowing that this group will never play on the same ice again, but I understand how the business of sports works.  But this was a very good season.  The Devils accomplished a lot this season.  They missed the playoffs just one spring ago.  This year, they were a bounce or two away from winning the Stanley Cup.  Not bad.