The On Deck Circle

Where practice swings don’t exist

Why You Should Keep Watching the NHL

Posted by Blake Murphy on March 8, 2008

This article has been submitted by ex-astro physicist Kevin Smith.

Indeed there is much to be excited about in the sports world, from Tiger’s dominance on the weekends and UFC bouts, to NASCAR back up and running full throttle and baseball’s spring training, it is a great time to be a sports fan. Let’s not forget about the hockey season at hand here, however, as it seems some of us are prone to do. After an exciting trade deadline and action packed season there is still much to be excited about. But despite being so close to the playoffs, the trade deadline seems to perennially herald a decline in interest in the NHL. The wane in interest may be due to the impression that there is no value left in the season; teams are simply jockeying for playoff position. The only problem with that logic is that you could miss out on a lot of great moments, and so I present my three reasons why you should keep watching hockey with as much fervour as ever.

The Good
Let’s start off with Evgeni Malkin who, in the absence of arguably the best player in the world today, Crosby, has elevated his game to such a level that whispers about the Hart trophy are getting louder. As of Wednesday of this week, he sits second in the league in points with 89 (on 38 goals and 51 assists with a +11 rating) and has solidified himself as the best second line centre in the league behind the ridiculous number one line of Crosby, Hossa, and Dupuis (?). That is enough to make any team nervous about having to face such dynamic talent. And it doesn’t stop there. How scary is the Malkin, Crosby, Hossa power play front? We’ve yet to see it happen but there is bound to be some magic there. Malkin plays with an edge and the only thing he has to work on is his faceoff percentage - short of that, this guy is one of the best in the league.

Alexander Ovechkin, or Alexander the Great, has an almost unrivalled passion for the game with a big smile on his face and creative flashes of brilliance with him at all times. Never one to stop working, Ovechkin leads the league in shots with an amazing 355 as of Wednesday. He also leads the league with 90 points (one ahead of Malkin) with 52 goals and 38 assists for a + 14 rating. He also plays with a lot of grit and hits everything that moves; never afraid to muck it up, which luckily for us fans seems to be a trend amongst our generation’s superstars like Lecavalier and Iginla, as well. With his grit comes leadership and a team-first mentality, as indicated by his low penalty minutes (26). To sum up, Ovechkin’s got a lot left in him, so I wouldn’t want to miss a minute of this guy’s Hart candidate play and chase of the hard to come by 60 goal plateau.

Let’s look at the goaltending situation we have in the league, starting with Evgeni Nabokov. 63 games played thus far and no Raycroft Syndrome in sight – the guy is unbelievable to watch! Sixth in the league in GAA with 2.20 and tied for first in wins at 36 with Vezina stalwart Brodeur, this guy makes games exciting to watch. Speaking of exciting, how about Pascal Leclaire? First in the league in shutouts with 9, fourth in GAA with 2.15 and a .923 save percentage backing a Columbus team miles better than it has ever been, but still on the outside looking in from 12th place. This kid has helped many a fantasy owner, but much more importantly looks to be part of something special in Columbus.

The Bad
This season has been a long one when it comes to suspect play, beginning in the preseason with youngster Steve Downie’s hit on veteran Dean McCammond and lasting right up to Ryan Smyth’s scary injury last week (concussion and partially separated shoulder, maybe done for the year). This section won’t serve to glorify these incidents in detail, but rather to remind you that your favorite players are playing a game today with some players that, in my mind, lack a certain level of respect and are therefore not safe on any given night. On a separate note, there’s much more ‘bad’ to talk about that isn’t so controversial.

How about those Senators! If we were to use January 1st as our starting point for the season - get this - the Sens would be in LAST place in the East. In 29 games since the start of the New Year, the Sens are 12-15-2 for 26 of a possible 58 points. For a team that started off so well, going 25-9-4 before that mark, the fall from grace has been especially unpleasant. However, with so much talent on this team and even with the scary goaltending situation that has befallen them, they have sold out 29 straight games and are bound to pull it out of the sewer…that is, unless the Leafs somehow manage to meet up with them in the playoffs…in which case they are done – we all know that.

Well if the Senators are the East’s felled tree of Stanley Cup hopes (heh-hem, replaced by the Pens or the Habs even, dare I say?) then right on cue, the West answered in kind with the Detroit Red Wings. What happened to this powerhouse? In contrast to Ottawa, attendance is down in Mo-town and cited as part of the reason - ready yourself for this - are Datsyuk and Zetterberg (!). Thoughts are that these two superstars are too quiet and not “big-city” enough to draw a crowd. Before we all start sending hate mail to some Detroit ‘faithful,’ let’s point out that Steve Yzerman was a charismatic leader as much as he was a gifted hockey player - forever enshrined in the hearts of many Detroit fans and Canadians as one of hockey’s greats. And the numbers just are not there either: since January 2nd they have gone 14-10-3 in 27 games, for 31 of a possible 54 points and, yes, that places them out of playoff contention if the season reset for the new year. However, a team this good is going to turn it around, mark my words.

I’ll just briefly mention the Kings, Thrashers, Lightning and Oilers, and only to shed light onto their lowly lives with two words: Steve Stamkos. Probably number one in a draft year unrivalled since the ’03 entry draft, the team that gets Stamkos will certainly be made better in the coming years.

The Ugly
If Don Cherry is right (and he always is) you cannot win hockey’s ultimate prize if you aren’t willing to play hard nose hockey – not just fighting, but playing with a big chip on your shoulder. I ask you, what team in the West doesn’t play that way? Find me one of the top ten teams in the West you think isn’t as tough as any in the East (hold your objections, I’ll get to Boston and Philly shortly) and I’ll show you a hundred hits that suggest otherwise. The West is stacked with talent and has a scary ferocity about them; they are the juggernaut in the battle for the cup. But I wonder if these teams will beat each other into oblivion so badly that the one who emerges will limp into the finals against an Eastern rival who coasted, relatively speaking, of course. The West are ugly, nasty men that are out for blood but I wonder if that will be their undoing, and the remaining weeks in the season will prove to set the tone for the epic battles soon to follow – you don’t want to miss this!

Who in the East can compete? Well let’s just say it’s any team’s Cup to win but realistically I like the Pens, Habs and Bruins. The Bruins, you say? It may seem hard to understand given their numbers over the last 27 games are 16-8-3 for 35 of 54 possible points, which isn’t much better than the Wings. Difference is that despite the embarrassment two games ago (a 10-2 loss at the hands of the Capitals) this team has guts and pounds out wins. If they’re streaky at all, they are so regarding wins, not losses, which transfers well into playoff success. And they are mean, I mean, this team enjoys fighting and roughing up opponents like no one else in the East save for maybe Philly, though I don’t like to include a team with what seems like as many man games lost to suspension as to injury (dramatic emphasis, not fact, re: Gagne). The Habs need to grin and bear the criticism from the league over the Huet departure, but so far they have shown Price can be the man. My favorite though has to be the Pens, who, despite Pierre McGuire’s disapproval on trade day and the subsequent injury to Hossa, have actually made their team a lot better, and that says a lot for a team already boasting Crosby, Malkin, Sykora and Gonchar.

One last little thing to watch for in this category would be the spoiler. Nothing is as ugly to a Leafs fan as last year’s Islanders playing their way into the playoffs on a shoot- out (thank you Wade Dubielewicz and Scott Clemmensen – it was a combined effort to ruin my afternoon). With the awesome draft year coming up it would be easy to assume that some teams are playing for positioning, but that’s only if you’ve never been part of a team before. No athlete throws what’s left of a season, not to mention their pride, for a draft choice. You can take that one to the bank. The rest of the season belongs to hard hitting action and teams trying to save face, positioning themselves as a team about to make the turn, letting all the chips fall where they may. It is us, the fans, who will reap the benefits of watching intently the final weeks of the season as well as the playoffs, as there is so much left to be decided - who wouldn’t want to be a part of it?

This article has been submitted by ex-astro physicist Kevin Smith.

9 Responses to “Why You Should Keep Watching the NHL”

  1. kevin Says:

    hey, i went with some of the more obvious choices for this article, but let’s start discussing some of the other names you feel could lay under the headings good, bad and ugly. in that order: domenic moore/jonathan cheechoo/jared boll, perhaps?

  2. Blake Murphy Says:

    I liked the article a great deal Kevin, it got me excited to watch some playoff-stretch hockey. One thing I disagree with, though:

    “With the awesome draft year coming up it would be easy to assume that some teams are playing for positioning, but that’s only if you’ve never been part of a team before. No athlete throws what’s left of a season, not to mention their pride, for a draft choice. You can take that one to the bank.”

    No athlete? Did you not watch the NBA last year? I hope that statement was just supposed to cover hockey, or at least exclude basketball, because the opposite of that story is about to begin for 8-10 teams in the NBA.

  3. stu Says:

    Athletes might not throw games, but GMs definitely do.

    As for soft teams in the West, two words - Red Wings.

  4. Ian Says:

    The wings are just cruising to the playoffs because they’re bored. Wait until they get the avs in the first round. They’ll be back and the Joe will be full. I still don’t see them getting by Anaheim or San Jose though.

    And also note that the ducks have the oilers first round pick because of the Penner signing. Watch them win the cup AND get Stamkos.

  5. Blake Murphy Says:

    Nice point with the draft pick change, Ian. It stinks of the 49ers giving the Pats their 1st this year since they thought they’d be great this year. Stamkos for Penner? Hmm, figure in the finances and I bet Edmonton regrets that one.

  6. kevin Says:

    gentlemen, great point by ian but wrong on two fronts; ducks will not repeat and the oils won’t finish up in last - garon is playing for his career and, despite being depleted, they are not the worst team and therefore not the first in the race to the bottom.

  7. Blake Murphy Says:

    Hey, I know I could probably look this up and should probably know anyways, but does the NHL implement an NBA-style lottery for draft picks, or do they use the NFL’s reverse standings only technique? Thanks.

  8. Ian Says:

    Yes there is a lottery system. As far as I know it’s like the NBA, you can move up a maximum of four spots. I’m pretty sure Chicago moved up from 5th to 1st in last year’s lottery to get Kane.

    Kevin, I completely agree that the oilers will not fall to the bottom but because of the lottery they still have a good shot at giving the ducks a great pick and maybe even number one. I really like Drew Doughty who was awesome in the world juniors so if they get either of the top two picks it will definitely make them forget about losing Penner. And I definitely think they’re looking good to repeat. I’ll take them against any other team if you’d like to put a little ODC friendly wager on it haha.

  9. Donnie Says:

    Great article Kev although as has already been pointed out, if the Oiler’s finish bottom five and win the lottery, they basically traded Stamkos for Penner. Despite that, I doubt the Oil will sit bottom 5 in the league when you look at schedules. They are only 3 points back from 20th in the league and have games in hand on all but the Blackhawks. What ever happens, the race for the playoffs or the simply the race for the standings, its gonna be exciting given how tight all teams are in points.

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