Let’s Hope Sparks fly

Dear Lou

I was going to suggest exactly what Mike’s already announced, and give Sparks his first NHL start.  I don’t know if he consulted with you first, or Brendan, but it has my vote.  I know, it could be early for Sparks, and ideally you’d like him to have a dominant year in the AHL first.  That way, he knows he’s ready, instead of hoping he’s ready, as it is now.  But the message would have been awful.  He knows he’s way better than Bernie, the way he’s playing now.  And he probably thinks he’s better than James, if you take the body of his work, and not simply his recent hot streak.  The balance of risks dictates taking this dice roll now.  If he gets hot, you can ride him to success, and you may have your goalie for the future.  If he peters out, you send him back to the Marlies with explicit instructions for what he needs to improve.  Any downer is going to be temporary.  He’ll still come away glad to have had the chance.

Eyes.

Let’s Hope Sparks fly

Moving Juniors to the AHL

Dear Lou

You know the rule, as do I.  And I’m sure you hate it as much as I do.  It’s one of those deals where the NHL caved to the juniors.  It’s one of those where in some form or other, prostitutes were involved, whether actual, or metaphorical.  Just look at the wonders that William Nylander is able to pull in the AHL as a teenager.  He might be the first teenager to top 100 points.  Ever.  In a low-scoring era.  Does that portend him as another Crosby, etc?  Well, actually no.

Nylander is a great kid, and I look forward to seeing him join the team when he reaches the level where we think he needs to be.  But here’s the rub:  Not many great teens ever get to play in the AHL.  Nylander does because he came from Sweden, and never played junior here.  Had he played junior, he would be playing at a lower level, still in junior, or up with the Leafs.  It’s a terrible choice.  Have him languish in junior, not getting the kind of instruction he’s going to need, or languish on the Leaf bench, because he doesn’t know the systems, and hasn’t earned Mike’s trust.  Seeing Nylander prosper with the Marlies makes me wish Marner could do the same.  And it’s across the board.  Guys who aren’t truly NHL ready are rushed, and spoiled, because it’s the less awful choice than leaving them in junior, unable to create even more space between themselves and their peers, because they’re already so far ahead.

So when you go to your GM meetings, keep this in mind, okay?  I don’t know what stick the juniors hold over the NHL, but I fear we’re losing a whole generation of development across the league, because players are rushed along.

Eyes.

Moving Juniors to the AHL

Zero-zero games

Dear Lou

I always like to pay attention to games that go late into the third, knotted at zero.  There’s something that nature dislikes about a scoreless tie, and so they don’t happen very often.  If I had to make the guess, I’d say that the last five minutes of a previously scoreless game has the highest probability of a goal or more being scored.

Of course, what’s actually at work is that the anxiety of the moment gets ratcheted up very high at that exact time.  And that makes those with doubts show them.  More savvy competition, not only more experienced, though that is a factor, but more confident in their own superiority, knows that it’s the other team that will crack.  The less savvy competition worries, because they don’t know who it will be.

Can you make any judgments of this group, based on this one result?  I guess it depends on what you’re trying to judge.  I believe it’s a good way to judge savvy.  But then again, savvy grows as the player does.  As the team grows.  And I don’t believe you can judge their potential based on these results.  It’s only a snapshot.  But when you want to judge the depth of their self-confidence, it’s a far more telling snapshot than recent stats.  Take James.  He had a terrific game tonight against Boston.  If I say anything else to judge his work, then it is at the peril of undermining this key point.  And the guys around him, same thing.  Great November.  But they let in that goal late in the third.  They let Chara walk in, and James could not stop it.  Is it the team, or James, that lapsed?  More the team than James, but it’s a hybrid.  He could have made a heroic save at the key moment.  And this one snapshot doesn’t give you a full picture of all the moving parts.  But it is telling.  Conclusion:  The team may be improving rapidly, and James is undeniably playing excellent hockey.  But they’re not yet savvy.

Zero-zero games

HHOF is a Joke

Dear Lou

No disrespect intended to yourself, but the HHOF is a joke.  There’s debate about whether Eric Lindros is going to make it next year.  Yet he was dominant, when healthy.  If longevity was essential, then Bobby Orr should not have been elected.  Yet he was, and rightly so.  He could be entitled to run his own HHOF.

As Simmons points out later in his article, there are more owners than coaches in the hall.  This is the case for all sports halls of fame, unfortunately, and the principal reason why they’re all bad jokes.  They exist for the edification of the fatcats, pure and simple.  I believe that one day, the HHOF will have a ten foot tall statue of Bettman, displayed like the Lenin statues were in the Soviet Union.  The inclusion of actual athletes is seen as a necessary evil, in order to aggrandize the ones who really matter.  Like Harold Ballard, one of the greats elected in the builders category.

Eyes.

HHOF is a Joke

Defending Marty

Dear Lou

I came across an otherwise intelligent blog, that appears to have been around a long time, maddeningly called “Brodeur was a fraud.”  This post in particular, argues that he was merely good, and consistent, but overall, lucky to play behind solid defense, and face fewer shots than his peers.

Marty’s lower number of shots faced, and lower save percentage, are obvious targets for anyone wanting to diminish his greatness.  I reject those claims, and I’ll explain why.  Jaromir Jagr was asked, when Marty was retiring, what it was that made him special, and he touched on it.  “When you played the Devils, you faced not only a good goaltender, but an extra half-defenceman, always playing deep in his zone.  When you tried to dump the puck in, you couldn’t retrieve it, because he’d get to it, and competently play it off to a teammate.  You were at a huge disadvantage, because you could not race the defenceman to the puck and get it off him.  The effect of that was that he would always face less shots than anyone else, and you had fewer scoring chances.”

So while we were always a very good defensive team, it would be unfair not to point out that Marty was an integral part of that defence.  But it goes deeper than that.  Marty understood that preventing a shot against was more valuable than allowing it, and hoping to save it.  And he tailored his game to that philosophy, which is directly responsible for his lower number of shots against, lower save percentage, but also fewer goals against.

Today, goalies all tend to play a passive butterfly style.  By passive, I mean they wait for the play to happen, and only react once the shot has been taken.  Time and again, you see the centering pass come within a foot or two of the post, and the goalie does nothing to intercept it.  He’s preparing to face the shooter at the other end, and hoping to stop him.  And to be fair, they’re better at it than they used to be.  But what’s the save percentage for the best of today’s goalies, against a point blank shot from the slot?  0.7?  That might even be generous.  Marty instead would reach out with his stick, and block the pass at the moment it was taken.  True, any beer-league goalie can do this, with a little practice.  But how many do, even in the NHL?  Very few.  Prevent those shots from even happening, and you have fewer shots taken against you.  But you allow fewer goals.  I know which one I’d rather have.

Another example is the centering pass, which often comes into the reach of a goalie stick.  Today’s robo-goalies will allow the pass, and set up to stop the shot.  Again, what’s their save percentage on that?  It’s not over 0.900, I can assure you of that.  Instead, Marty would tip the pass with his stick, sending it into the air, and off-course.  That’s easy with curved goalie stick blades.  Nearly all the time, that meant no shot on goal, and hence no goal.  Statistically, the play never happened, and Marty got no credit for the save.  On the very rare occasion that the player managed to bat the puck out of the air, he would usually score.  So while Marty would reduce the number of shots against, and the number of goals, he probably worsened his save percentage in the process.  But which scenario is better for you, as a coach or GM?  Fewer goals against with a lower save percentage, I would say, without hesitation.

I remember when LA beat New York for the Stanley Cup recently.  It was a goal against Lunquist that went off his pad, straight to the winger, waiting for it as though it were a pass, which it kind of was.  You bank it off his pad to where you want it to go, and count on the fact that he’ll be on the ice, leaving you the open net for your rebound.  That first shot was an easy one to stop.  It was the rebound that was the planned payoff.  Had that been Marty in net, I think he would have used his stick, and flicked the rebound up into the air.  It would have gone into the corner, and hit the glass, or even over the glass and into the crowd.  A player trying to play the rebound would have to be a lot closer, and bat it out of the air, possibly with a high stick.  What’s his likelihood of success on that?  A heck of a lot lower than playing the easy rebound.

I’ve always thought of Marty as the best not because he was the most athletic goalie, though I take nothing away from him in that department either.  He was the best because he used his brain like no other.  He understood that the trend to all-butterfly, that happened during his career, was effective at some things, but less effective at others.  And he knew that he was smart enough to decide for himself when to use it, and when not to use it.  Look at all the guys today who use it on sharp angle shots, and expose the whole top of the net, without increasing their coverage down low, where the angle makes it easy to cover the width standing up.  When there’s nothing to shoot at, the shooter often shoots wide, or tries something else and loses the puck.  Ergo, no shot on net, to bolster your save percentage, but no goal, either.  So while Jagr kind of nailed it, there was a lot more to it.  Marty’s lower shot total was to a great extend of his own doing, and those shots that were taken were inherently more dangerous.  But the balance always tipped towards fewer goals against.  Had he played like the robo-goalies of today, there would have been more shots against, probably a higher save percentage, but more goals against in the balance.  I’ll take Marty any day.

Eyes.

Defending Marty

World Cup Pre-Hype has Already Started

Dear Lou

Always fun to have a distraction in the press, to cover for our weak start.  Although some results have begun to come in, it might be best to keep it that way for a while longer.  I’m reservedly optimistic that we could have a decent second half, and build for next year, but it might not be enough to salvage a playoff spot.  If that’s wrong, then kudos to Mike, who will have made it happen.

The latest attempt, weak though it is, is from Traikos, trying to guess which teams Canada should fear in the World Cup.  It then lists a whole list of teams to occupy our concerns.  What’s funny is that such speculation is utterly meaningless in a short tournament, where a hot goalie, a weak start from your goalie, or a single play, can tip the balance.  Who would have thought that at Sochi, Canada’s closest moment to losing came against Latvia, because of their tight defense, and a single, sneaky play cooked up by Ted Nolan.  Basically, they won the faceoff outside their blue line, and next to their bench.  The player closest to the bench went off, and a forward jumped off the other end of the bench, behind Canada’s defence.  Already anticipating this, the defenceman with the puck fed him a pass for a breakaway that scored on Carey Price.  The only goal given up.  And it was close to being enough to win a game they had no business winning.  In a seven game series, nobody can beat Canada coached by Mike.  But in a single game, any team present can do it on a rare occasion.  The answer to the question:  Which team should Canada fear?   Nobody, and everybody.  You can’t play afraid when you’re the best.  But you have to be aware that anything can happen.

World Cup Pre-Hype has Already Started

It isn’t just the goalies

Dear Lou

Feschuk has done it again.  He’s now saying that the NHL can’t become a goalie-dominated league.  As if… He also doesn’t grasp the irony of having a picture of Mario in the top of the story.  This is the same Mario who, when asked years later, what it was that made him stand out so much, replied, “In those days, there was always a defenceman or two I could beat on the other team.”

And that point can’t be emphasized enough.  It’s not just that goalies have gotten better.  Equipment has made the butterfly something you could use to seal off the bottom of the net.  Back in the day, the old leather pads left a gap just below the knee, and you could slip the puck underneath.  But the whole game has gotten better, and deeper.  Now, you scour the globe for good, solid defencemen.  Mario would not have had such an easy time today.  In his day, when Wayne was also dominant, expansion had created far more jobs on the blue line than could be filled by top-rung guys.  Goals actually went up from the sixties to the eighties.  Markedly so.

If anything, the eighties should be remembered as the high scoring era, because there was no depth in the league.  The WHA was like that, in its day, and while entertaining, it was not top quality hockey.  But Russians soon started coming to the NHL.  And Czechs and Slovaks.  There were some quality players in there, and they bolstered the lineups, so that today, you can always find a journeyman defenceman far better than the mid-pack guys from the eighties.

Next, let’s talk about structure, Mike’s favorite word.  In the bad old days, Canadian hockey was about willpower and brute strength.  Then, when we nearly lost the Summit Series, and later did lose to the Soviet teams, our eyes were opened to the power of structure.  They had it, and we didn’t.  And that was still the case when Wayne and Mario tore through the league with an unprecedented scoring spree.  Ditto Brett.  But it didn’t last too long beyond that.  We learned from Tarasov, and then Tikhanov.  And we improved on it.  Mike’s structure today is the state of the art.  And guess what:  Played right, it doesn’t let even super Mario skate through the whole team and pop goals.

Crosby was so far better than his peers when he entered the league, that he could probably have been in the same class as Wayne and Mario, or at least close.  But Sid had no gaping holes to skate through, hence his lower numbers.  When he gets better, and I hope it’s soon, you’ll see the same for Connor.  Even his injury was caused because he thought he could get around that defenceman, and he could not.  He was forced into the boards, and wham!

So let’s put things in perspective.  You cannot unteach the systems of structure used today.  You can tweak rules, like maybe force the goalie to play behind the net, which will help scoring, but then it won’t resemble hockey as it has evolved.  Live with it!

Eyes.

It isn’t just the goalies