Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Potential issues in the next NHL CBA

After several awkward minutes, Fehr realized that
"high five me if you love escrow" was a bad idea.
So it turns out that the NBA won't be challenging the NHL's status as the only league to lose a full season to work stoppage after all. Despite dire predictions that the year would be lost, the NBA and its players managed to reach an agreement that will save most of the season.

That comes on the heels of recent agreements that saw both the NFL and MLB sign new deals without missing any games. So with three of North America's big four sports leagues having found labour peace, all eyes now shift back to the NHL. With the league's current collective bargaining agreement set to expire before next season, hockey fans are hoping that negotiations go more smoothly than they did the last time around.

So what will be the major issues in the next NHL CBA? That depends on who you talk to. As it turns out, everyone seems to have a different opinion on which issues should be top priorities. Here's a look at what various stakeholders around the NHL say they'd like to see changed in the league's next CBA:

Brendan Shanahan - Would like to increase the maximum player fine from the current $2,500; failing that, would at least like the players to stop paying it by grabbing a fistful of spare change, throwing it at me from their car window, then laughing and speeding off.

Alexander Ovechkin - I've repeatedly argued that the NHL give Russian players the chance to compete in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, although to be honest you should probably also check with some of the guys who will make the team.

Kyle Turris - Pass a rule banning pointless holdouts where the player misses two months and doesn't get anything he was asking for, or at least have someone tell my agent that you did.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Alexander Ovechkin vs. Sidney Crosby: An in-depth comparison

The NHL's two most marketable stars are back in the news this week. But while Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin are both making headlines again, it's for very different reasons.

In Crosby's case, the news is good. He's finally returned after missing almost 11 months with a concussion, and his four-point performance in his first game back already has fans wondering if he can win the scoring title despite missing a quarter of the season.

Ovechkin is at the other end of the spectrum. With his numbers declining and rumours of tension in the dressing room of the suddenly mediocre Capitals, some are starting to wonder if the 26-year-old has already peaked as an elite NHL talent.

Crosby and Ovechkin have been linked ever since they both made their debuts during the 2005-06 season, and it appears they will be for years to come. Here's a comparison of two of the league's most talented and popular young players.

Alexander Ovechkin: Has been known to get angry with his coach while on the bench and shout obscenities.
Sidney Crosby: Has been known to get angry with his coach while on the bench and shout "I'm just going to go out there and give 110%", since that's all he's programmed to ever say.

Sidney Crosby: Wears jersey number 87, signifying his year of birth.
Alexander Ovechkin: Wears jersey number 8, signifying the number of goals he needs to score in any given game before he won't automatically be blamed if the Capitals lose.

Alexander Ovechkin: Has been invited to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at games for the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles.
Sidney Crosby: Would probably be thrilled to do the same if Pittsburgh ever managed to get a professional baseball team.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Ways the Maple Leafs would be different if Wayne Gretzky owned them

The new owner gets his first look
at the Mike Komisarek contract.
The slow-moving saga that is the sale of the Toronto Maple Leafs received an unexpected jolt late last week with speculation that Wayne Gretzky could have a role with a new ownership group.

Initial reports indicated that Gretzky had been approached by one or more potential buyers. Gretzky briefly seemed to confirm that, before later backtracking and denying any involvement in a deal. Confusion reigned, with various insiders trying to interpret Gretzky's words to figure out what, if anything, was really going on. And once all the smoke cleared, it seemed like the whole thing may have been one big false alarm.

But why let reality spoil the fun? After all, the mere rumour of Gretzky's involvement was enough to get hockey fans thinking: What if The Great One were to invest in the Maple Leafs? What kind of impact would he have on one of the league's most storied franchises?

The best guess is that Gretzky's arrival in Toronto would bring plenty of changes:

  • Every Leaf fan you know would start bringing up the Gretzky/Gilmour high-sticking incident 10 times a day, instead of eight times a day like they have been for the past 18 years.

  • Any potential NHL owner who has ever publicly argued in favour of placing a team in Hamilton would immediately start getting ominous phone calls from Dave Semenko inviting them to go for a canoe ride.

  • Gretzky would use his show business connections to land Phil Kessel a starring spot on Saturday Night Live, just to ensure that somebody finally breaks his record for "most awkward SNL host of all-time".

  • Edmonton Oilers fans would feel oddly conflicted when Maple Leafs ownership signs Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle as free agents in five years.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The secret agenda from this week's GM meetings

While Burke's new acquisition was only 10 inches
tall and completely immobile, the critics had to
agree that he did upgrade the goaltending.
The NHL held its annual general managers meeting this week, as 30 of the most powerful men in the league gathered in Toronto for a discussion of various league issues.

But what exactly were they talking about? As always, the meeting was closed to the media. And while some GMs did offer brief comments to reporters about what was discussed, league policy is that the official agenda is never released to the public.

Until now, that is. DGB spies were in attendance, and they were able to pass on a copy of the full day's schedule:

9:00 a.m. - Opening remarks from Gary Bettman: "Well, at least we're not the NBA!"

9:30 a.m. - Opening remarks from Donald Fehr: "… for one more year."

10:00 a.m. - Buffalo GM Darcy Regier presents an argument in favour of stricter penalties for hits against goaltenders such as the recent one by Milan Lucic against Ryan Miller, including an ominous threat that the Sabres may now be forced to seek retribution during their next game against Boston.

10:02 a.m. - Everyone in the room tries really hard to keep a straight face at the idea that the Sabres have anyone on the roster who's going to scare the Bruins.

10:03 a.m. - Everyone fails.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Things overheard at the Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony

By the third time he ordered them to punch
an invisible midget, the inductees had begun
to realize the photographer may be crazy.
Last night saw four former NHL stars receive the highest honour the sport has to offer when they were inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Doug Gilmour, Eddie Belfour, Joe Nieuwendyk and Mark Howe will each now see their names included among the legends that line the wall in the Great Hall.

The induction ceremony capped off several days of celebration, which included the annual Hall of Fame Game, a fan forum, and a legends game. It all makes up one of the most popular weekends on the NHL's calendar, with many of the biggest names in the sport gathered to take part in the festivities.

Needless to say, my sources were there with tape recorders rolling. And they put together a list of the most interesting comments overheard during the course of the evening.

  • Wow, Doug Gilmour sure is getting emotional during his acceptance speech. Wait, what do you mean you can't see him? He's standing right in front of you, Mr. Fraser.

  • That's a great question, Mr. Belfour, I'm not sure why your plaque has that asterisk next to the mention of your Stanley Cup win. I'll ask the engraver, he's the guy over there in the Sabres jersey.

  • Mr. Nieuwendyk, how does it feel to be the only player in NHL history to have ever been traded for Jarome Iginla? You know, until next March.

  • BOOOOOOO! Oh, sorry Mr. Bettman, I saw you brush up against the Stanley Cup display and I guess it was just force of habit.

  • Come quick! Mark Howe is telling some great stories about how in the old days the Flyers would respond to a tough defence by working harder instead of just refusing to play any more like spoiled toddlers.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Beyond the 1-3-1: Other NHL team defensive systems

What's the difference between a hockey
puck and Mike Richards? The Flyers will
honor a no-movement policy for the puck.
The latest NHL controversy surfaced during Wednesday night's action. Although in fairness, "action" probably isn't the right word.

Early in a game between the Lightning and Flyers, Tampa Bay settled into their patented 1-3-1 defensive system which sees all five skaters take up passive positions in the neutral zone to break up an incoming attack. The Flyers responded by refusing to advance the puck - their defencemen simply held the puck in their own zone.

The result, predictably, was a farce. The game ground to a halt, the officials were forced to repeatedly blow the play dead, and the fans who thought they had paid to see an entertaining game made sure everyone involved knew that they weren't happy. Now there's talk that the league needs to outlaw Tampa Bay's system.

But why single out the Lightning? After all, they're not the only team that employs a specific defensive system. In fact, these days most teams have their own unique ways of keeping the puck out of their net.

Here are just a few of the team-specific defensive systems currently in use around the NHL.

Boston Bruins - Attacking forwards are met in the neutral zone by a winger who attempts to use lateral pressure to direct them towards the far boards as they cross the blueline, at which point Zdeno Chara unhinges his jaw and devours them.

Columbus Blue Jackets - Winger Rick Nash forechecks deep to apply pressure, then follows the defencemen around for the rest of the shift frantically begging them to convince their general manager to trade for him.

Nashville Predators - As soon as opposing players break into the offensive zone against Pekka Rinne, Ryan Suter and Shea Weber casually skate to the bench and let Mr. Moneybags back there handle it.

Calgary Flames - Opposing players entering the attacking zone are told of the details of the Dion Phaneuf for Matt Stajan trade, and then spend the rest of the game standing around trying to figure out how that ever seemed like it would be a good idea.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Success stories from the NHL's opening month

"And then Ryan Smyth told me he used to have a
phone that was connected to the wall! What a joker!"
The NHL season is now a month old, and for many hockey fans that can mean only one thing: it's time to start looking for something to complain about.

After all, these days it seems like some fans love nothing more than pointing out someone else's flaws. And sure, if you look closely enough at any team or player you can always find at least one or two things that may be slightly less than perfect.

But as long-time readers know, I've never been the sort of writer who chooses to focus on the negative. So instead, let's take a look around the league and highlight some of the good news that's been on display in the early going. Consider this a negativity-free zone.

Here are some of the most inspiring success stories from the season's first month.

Joe Thornton - Showed a lot of class by apologizing to the Rangers for calling them the softest team the Sharks had played against, after explaining that he hadn't realized that intrasquad scrimmages counted too.

Ken Hitchcock - The Blues' new head coach will no doubt be wildly popular in St. Louis, a town where fans have proven to be willing to embrace a team's boss even if he's incapable of correctly operating a simple telephone.

Ville Leino - His $27 million contract with the Sabres is completely guaranteed no matter how he plays, his agent incredulously reminds him several times a day.

Dion Phaneuf - Has managed to put together an impressive season despite his recent habit of coming back to the bench after every shift, turning on his smartphone, checking for updates about the Calgary Flames, then laughing hysterically while high-fiving all his teammates.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

A brief history of player/coach feuds

"Big silver trophy, about this wide... really, none
of you have any idea what I'm talking about?"
It's getting close to holidays, but Alexander Ovechkin and Bruce Boudreau may have crossed each other off their shopping lists based on an incident that took place earlier this week.

After Boudreau decided to bench him during a crucial shift late in the game, Ovechkin appeared to react to the news by barking some well-chosen obscenities in the coach's direction. While the two later made an effort to seem like they were on the same page, that didn't stop fans and the media from speculating about a rift that could divide one of the league's best teams.

An overreaction? Probably. But whether Ovechkin and Boudreau are feuding or not shouldn't even matter, because this sort of thing actually happens all the time. The NHL has a long history of disagreements between superstar players and their coaches, and many of them were far more serious than a few expletives uttered in the heat of the moment.

Here's a look back at some of the notable star vs. coach feuds in NHL history.

November 18, 2003 - An enraged Scott Stevens accuses Devils' coach Pat Burns of not being a first ballot Hall of Famer, before later apologizing and admitting that could only happen in a world where the selection committee was made up entirely of idiots.

October 26, 2011 - Alain Vigneault's attempt to fire up his best goaltender during a private meeting in his office is ruined by Roberto Luongo constantly knocking on the door and asking "Hey guys, what are you two talking about in there?"

February 4, 1978 - Bruins' defenceman Brad Park finds himself in the doghouse after coach Don Cherry realizes his name is completely impossible to mispronounce.

December 7, 2008 - Team captain Daniel Alfredsson request a one-hour meeting with the head coach to discuss his declining ice-time, but eventually gets tired of having to start over again every fifteen minutes whenever Bryan Murray hires someone new.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Some news

Hi folks... a couple of quick pieces of site news.

First, as you may have noticed there's no new post today. Starting this week, my regularly scheduled posts will be appearing on Tuesdays and Saturdays (both here and in the Post). So check back tomorrow. My apologies in advance to readers who may now be forced to pay attention in class and/or at work.

Second, I'm going to be writing a monthly feature called The NHL's Three Stars of Comedy over at Grantland. The October edition just went live, and you can check it out here. I'll also be chipping in additional Grantland posts from time to time.

Thanks again for your continued support.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Inside Gary Bettman's annual Halloween party

It's clearly not a post-season
pumpkin, since it has a flame in it.
Scene: Last night, in a spacious home in New York. Halloween-themed music plays, as various hockey personalities wander around in costume.

The doorbell rings, and is answered by a man dressed as a zombie wearing an Atlanta Thrashers jersey.

Gary Bettman: Glad you could make it, come on in.

A man wearing an old-fashioned executioner's hood walks in.

Brendan Shanahan: Hi Gary… how's the party coming this year?

Bettman: Can't complain. A little crowded, but I guess you have to expect that when you invite the whole league.

Shanahan: You invited everybody in the entire NHL to your Halloween party?

Bettman: Well, except for Raffi Torres.

Shanahan: Good call.