Monday, May 30, 2016

Weekend report: The calm before the storm

We're just hours away from the puck dropping on the Stanley Cup Final. We've made it through the long offseason, and the useless preseason, and the only slightly less useless regular season. We've made it past three rounds of the postseason, most of which were hard-fought and entertaining. We've run through all the storylines, made our predictions and clich├ęd our way through media day. Now it's time to settle this thing on the ice.

The matchup between the Penguins and Sharks (which we broke down in detail in yesterday's preview) is a good one. It doesn't bring much in the way of history, and after a few years of the league lucking into having at least one giant TV market in every final, this one may not draw the sort of numbers it deserves. But it will be fun. And if you're a neutral fan, one whose team is already long gone, that's all you can ask for.

I mean, if you can't get excited for a final that pits Joe Thornton against Phil Kessel, then I don't know what to tell you. Over the years, those two have become the poster boys for hockey's growing obsession with the "just can't win with him" narrative, constantly hammered for being the sort of player that wilts in the big moment no matter what the numbers actually say. Now they're both here, both playing great, and one of them is a few days away from a skate with the Stanley Cup. Will that be the moment that finally kills the narrative off? Of course not. But it will shut up it up, if only for a moment or two, and we'll all be thankful for it.

Get ready for hot takes if the next trophy Crosby raises isn't the Cup. –Photo by Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

This is also a matchup between two captains who couldn't have taken more different paths to this moment. Sidney Crosby has been the chosen one since his early teens in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia—the kid who was tagged as the next Gretzky or Lemieux before he could get a driver's license. And for the most part he's lived up to it, establishing himself as the best player of a generation. But he'll be facing the playoffs' leading goal-scorer in Joe Pavelski, a seventh-round pick who was too small and couldn't skate.

It's a matchup between two goaltenders who'd never started a playoff game before this year. San Jose's Martin Jones is in his third NHL season, the first two spent as a little-used backup. And he's the experienced one in this series, facing a kid named Matt Murray who's trying to turn his Steve Penney story into a Ken Dryden one.

It's the blessed franchise that always seems to have the next big thing fall into its lap vs. the cursed one with the history of heartbreak. It's two coaches who've both been on the job for less than a year. It's Malkin vs Marleau, Letang vs. Burns, and Metallica vs. D-Generation X.

And maybe most importantly of all, it's a matchup between two teams that aren't afraid to show off a bit of speed and skill and personality and yes, even fun. It really is still possible to win that way in today's game, even in an era where scoring stagnates and everyone seems to want to look and play the same. We're constantly told that the NHL is a copycat league; with these two teams in the final, we should probably hope it's true.

It's going to be fun. If we're lucky, it will be fun for seven games. As a fan, that's just about all you can ask for.

Top Five

Celebrating those who've had the best week.

5. World Cup rosters—Friday was the deadline for the eight World Cup teams to fill out their rosters for this September's tournament. And, of course, that means that hockey fans get to play our favorite game: Find The Snub. There were plenty to choose from.

Team USA didn't pick Phil Kessel or Kevin Shattenkirk. Team Sweden made some perplexing blueline choices, including leaving John Klingberg off the roster. Team North America (i.e. The Young Guns) didn't invite Alexander Galchenyuk. And as always, Team Canada left the most talent at home, as you'd expect given that it had the most to choose from. But some of those names are still surprises, including Corey Perry, Taylor Hall, Kris Letang and P.K. Subban.

The stacked Canadians will always have snubs, but it was still surprising to see this guy left off the roster. –Photo by Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Those last two are especially perplexing, since Team Canada found room for Jake Muzzin, a reasonably good defenseman who's certainly never been considered a Norris contender. But there's a reason for that, as we'll see in the next section.

4. Handedness—Which side did Bobby Orr play? Paul Coffey? Ray Bourque? There's a good chance you're not sure, or at least had to think about it for a minute. Because for a long time, hockey fans never worried about which side a defenseman played, or which hand he shot with. They were just defensemen, two on the ice at a time, and dividing them up any further seemed unnecessary.

But in recent years, the distinction between left-handed defensemen and right-handed defensemen has become almost as important as that between left and right wingers. And at some point, Team Canada decided that splitting the blueline between left and right shots was absolutely crucial. It's why it found a spot for Muzzin, who shoots left, but not Subban or Letang, who shoot right. Team Canada is not alone; any roster discussions around NHL teams these days always seems to touch on who shoots from where.

If you feel like a defenseman's handedness was something we went from never mentioning to obsessing over, well, you're not wrong. One study indicates that this has only really been a concern for NHL teams over the last few years. Many trace its rise to Mike Babcock, who makes it a point of emphasis for any roster he fills out, including in his gold medal-winning stints with Team Canada. Chalk it up as just one more evolution of the game.

Still, it seems odd to think that a balance between lefties and righties would be enough to make up for the gap in talent between Muzzin and Letang or Subban, especially since defensemen used to be expected to be able to switch sides as easily as centers switch over to the wing for these tournaments. Team Canada has smart people running the show, and if it wins gold, then none of this will matter. But if not, Muzzin will join the club with guys like Rob Zamuner and Lyle Odelein as odd picks on teams that didn't get it done.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

No comments:

Post a Comment