Saturday, January 31, 2009

Bruins vs. Rangers: Stuff To Look Out For

Too damn early: These afternoon matinees are great for young families, terrible for bloggers. I woke up at 9 CST (10 EST) this morning and realized that the Bruins game was less than three hours away. Great for hangovers, terrible for game previews.

Mini-playoffs: The Rangers jumped out to an early lead in the Eastern Conference, largely as a result of playing 3-5 more games than anyone else but have been gradually losing ground ever since. They're walking a fine line between "contender" and "first-round fodder", so expect them to treat this as -- say it with me -- a measuring stick game. The peril of playing every Eastern contender in the space of a week is that the pressure never lets up. It's like the playoffs; every other night you face a team with that "I've waited all season to beat YOU" look in their eyes.

So far the Bruins are 1-0-1 in their mini-playoffs. That gives me reason for cautious optimism in this game, as the Bruins and Rangers always go to a shootout and therefore a charity-point is usually in play.

Fernandez chatter: Here is comes again -- without doing anything at all, Manny Fernandez is becoming a distraction. Hub Hockey reports that Fernandez' "general soreness" in his back is related to the knee injury that cost him all of last season. If this is true, it might torpedo any plans to swap Manny at the trade deadline, while simultaneously making him a giant question-mark for the late season and playoffs. Meanwhile, Stanley Cup of Chowder calls for Tuukka Rask to start this game, to see what the kid's got to offer and give Tim Thomas a day of relief. If Manny's going to be unreliable from now on, I'd like to see Rask getting one out of every five starts... just in case.

Which Rangers will it be?: So far this month, the Blueshirts have been torched twice by the Pens, crushed by the Habs and lost squeakers to the Caps and Sabres. They've also picked up victories against opponents from all over the spectrum of difficulty: Islanders, Ottawa, Pittsburgh, Carolina, Anaheim, Chicago. Pressure is starting to build on King Henrik, who was awful in the third period of their previous game (after being abused in the All-Star game). I'm thinking Tom Renney's neckties are starting to feel a little tighter every night.

"Maintenance Day"?: Hub Hockey also reports that David Krejci skipped practice for what Claude Julien called a "maintanance day". Just when you thought the Bruins were finished with injuries to their top-5 forwards...

Key matchup: Scott Gomez vs. Marc Savard. Gomez is one of the few stable things about the Rangers roster, reliably scoring points while making things difficult on opposing centers. Savard will be trying to get pucks to both Phil Kessel and Milan Lucic, both of whom are trying to rediscover their touch after returning from injury. If Gomez can make life difficult for Savard, he might be able to take a big bite out of the Bruins offense.

Fight I want to see: A matchup between Colton Orr and Shawn Thornton? Yes, please!

Other Previews:
Stanley Cup of Chowder
The Hockey Blog Adventure
Wicked Bruins Fan
The Big Bad Bruins
The New York Rangers Blog
Rangers Report

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Bruins vs. Devils: Stuff To Look Out For

Another awesome matchup of Cup contenders who are red-hot and getting healthier. New Jersey has won 7 straight and are hardly missing Martin Brodeur. Boston is 6-1-1 lately and returning several key players from injury. They're #1 and #3 in the conference, so expect a tightly-played classic tonight.

Running The Gauntlet: Back in October, one little section of the schedule stuck out so much that I called it "The Gauntlet" in the season preview. We are now entering that beastly stretch, which I characterized in terms of the February road trip but actually began on Tuesday against Washington. Here's our schedule for the next three weeks, with opponents' records and conference rankings:

1/27 - Washington 30-15-4, #2 (win)
1/29 - New Jersey 30-15-3, #3
1/31 - Rangers 29-17-4, #4
2/1 - @ Montreal 27-14-6, #5
2/4 - @ Philadelphia 25-13-9, #6 (yes, we are playing the entire top 6 in order)
2/5 - @ Ottawa 16-22-7, #13
2/7 - Philadelphia 25-13-9, #6
2/10 - San Jose 35-6-5, #1 in West
2/13 - @ New Jersey 30-15-3, #3
2/14 - @ Nashville 21-23-3, #14 in West
2/17 - @ Carolina 23-21-5, #10
2/21 - @ Florida 22-17-8, #8
2/22 - @ Tampa Bay 17-21-10, #11

Those last few games wouldn't be so bad, except that they're all road games and 4 out of 5 involve back-to-back nights in different cities. An 8-5 record would be outstanding during this stretch, and would pretty much clinch the #1 seed.

Kessel Cleared: You read it right, Phil Kessel is back after less than three weeks' absence with mono. The only major question-mark for tonight's game will be Michael Ryder, who is practicing with the team after coming down with the flu last week. [update: Ryder will be returning to the lineup tonight, meaning the roster is as complete as it's likely to get until next season.]

Expected Starters: At the beginning of the season, would have you guessed that a January 29 matchup between Tim Thomas and Scott Clemmensen would have been characterized as a "goalie showdown and possible Eastern Finals preview"? Thomas continues to maintain a Vezina-like level of play, but Clemmensen has been even hotter (winning 5 straight, allowing only 5 goals in the past 4 games) and has carried the Devils in the absence of the Living Legend. Last time around, it was a 1-0 decision -- don't be surprised if fewer than 3 goals are scored in this game, even with a rejuvenated Bruins offense.

[update: Looks like Manny Fernandez's "general soreness" is indeed a reoccurrence of the back spasms that cost him a few games earlier this month. Euphemistic language aside, general soreness in the back is not a minor injury for a pro goaltender.]

Chia Pet: God, did I really just make that pun? Anyway... KPD reports that Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli has earned himself a contract extension, which is now being sorted out with management. Most of Chiarelli's decisions have been solid and he's shown a clear sense of how to build a team over time -- let's hope for at least a 3-year deal.

What Does This Game Mean For Boston?: To put it plainly, time is on our side. There are only 32 games left in the season, and we lead the rest of the conference by 11 points. The Devils are one of two teams (the other being the Caps) who have a realistic shot of catching up, and it's a longshot indeed. If Boston wins this game in regulation, they are 14 points ahead of New Jersey with 31 games left and the head-to-head tiebreaker. That is, more or less, a death-blow to the Devils' chance of stealing the #1 seed. Also, this is a good measuring-stick game against a team we're very likely to see in the playoffs.

What Does This Game Mean For New Jersey?: A lot more than it does for Boston. The Devils are locked in a tooth-and-nail struggle for the Atlantic Division crown, holding marginal leads over the Rangers and Flyers with games-in-hand being an issue for both. A win would catapault the Devils into the #2 seed, but a loss could potentially drop them to #5 by the weekend. That's the difference between a home-ice series against the Sabres, and a road-ice series against Montreal.

Who To Watch: Kessel, to see if he's got his step back. Both goalies, who will probably have phenomenal games. Patrice Bergeron, who is making it look very easy to return from a concussion. Zach Parise, who is fast becoming a star power forward. Jamie Langenbrunner, who had a huge game against the Sens on Tuesday and carries a hot stick. Brendan Shanahan, because you'll miss him when he's gone.

Other Previews:
Kynch's Bruins Korner - Good thing he's not a Kings fan... I'm just sayin'...
The Bear Cave - Picks up on the Jay Leach connection.
Stanley Cup of Chowder - Noke is "questionable" with a mysterious injury. If it's mono... well, that would be gross.
The Bruins Report - Did we mention that Kessel's back?

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Bruins vs. Caps: Stuff To Look Out For

You seriously need me to tell you anything about this game that you don't already know?

#1 Bruins vs. #2 Caps: essentially a 2-game standings boost in favor of the winner.

Ovechkin vs. Thomas: Three days ago they combined to win the All-Star game shootout. Thomas stopped Ovechkin in the Elimination shootout, but AO8 won the trick-shot competition.

Here comes the cavalry: Patrice Bergeron, Milan Lucic and Andrew Ference are all back tonight. Other than rust, this should be pretty close to a full-strength game for the Bruins (who are still going to miss Kessel for a while). It's the closest thing to an even matchup that we've seen between these teams so far, as injuries were a major factor in the first two matchups.

Rask in the house: Manny Fernandez's "general soreness" is turning into "general unavailability", so Tuukka Rask is on the bench for the Bruins. If, for whatever reason, he ends up playing in this game it has the potential to be a watershed moment for the franchise.

Super sophomores: Nicklas Backstrom and David Krecji are probably the two best second-year players in the league at present. They might actually be matched up against each other, so keep an eye on that one.

Don't get attached: Kevin Paul Dupont reports that Chiarelli will be making at least a move or two before the trade deadline. Last season, that would have sounded like typical rumor-mongering by the press. This season, it's practically a stone-cold guarantee as the Bruins look prepared for a multi-round playoff run. The Bruins are practically obligated to ditch any remaining spare parts and make a try for firesale items (Nik Antropov's name has surfaced repeatedly).

The most important thing to watch: The absolutely amazing hockey that these teams are playing. Matchups this awesome are fairly rare in the regular season -- enjoy!

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Friday, January 23, 2009

This Could Get Ugly

Of the many showcase events going on this weekend, one of the most compelling is the Gatorade NHL Elimination Shootout (nice name... not). The rules are simple -- miss your shot, and you're out. The shooters keep going until only one guy is left.

Thrashers 411 brings us the first-round lineup for each of the 4 participating goaltenders, including this gem for Tim Thomas:

(4) Tim Thomas (BOS)
Eric Staal (CAR)
Mark Streit (NYI)
Brian Campbell (CHI)
Jay Bouwmeester (FLA)
Mike Modano (DAL)
Ryan Getzlaf (ANA)
Evgeni Malkin (PIT)
Alex Ovechkin (WSH)
Alex Kovalev (MTL)

Ummmm... is it me, or does that last trio of shooters look a little difficult?

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Weekend Links

If you aren't TOO pumped up about this weekend, here's some extra reading material:

Battle of Alberta - Baseball standings! In hockey, unlike baseball, a 6-game lead is solid... really solid. - How solid, you ask? Try 80% solid.

Melrose Rocks - Kevin is downright giddy at the revelation of "Flyers Sign Guy"'s true identity.

Russo's Rants - The Players' Union passed on its opportunity to reopen CBA negotiations, guaranteeing labor stability until 2011.

The Good Point - A passionate anti-fighting argument. It fails to note that a ban on fighting would take away these precious moments.

Brodeur Is A Fraud - Dismantling Marty's legacy, one post at a time. Gotta love this blog's persistence.

Bird Watchers Anonymous - Thoughts on attendance-rigging in Nashville, and what it might mean for the Thrashers.

The Red Skate - Ovechkin gets pwned by some guy in a hotel restaurant.

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Fixing the All-Star Game: Go-for-broke edition

1) Move it to the preseason

I can't claim this as an original idea, but it's so obvious that it deserves to be at the top of every list until the change is made.

Since the purpose of the All-Star Game is to generate media hype, let's play the game at a time when it will have the most media impact. The Winter Classic has fulfilled the need for a mid-season hypefest, and the second half of the season sells itself. The biggest "hole" left in the schedule is late summer: after the draft, before the preseason, and during a lull that features no major sports-world distractions.

A preseason date would do more than simply fill a gap in the NHL's media cycle. It would also allow the league to shorten the length of the season by a week, thereby awarding the Cup in late May and avoiding direct competition with the NBA Finals. Furthermore the game would feature a healthier, higher-quality roster and might even draw a bigger audience to the host city -- who takes a vacation in late January?

2) Populism > Elitism

This year's fan-voting travesty revealed an interesting phenomenon: the fans would rather see their favorite players than see the best players in action. While no-one would disparage Dan Boyle's worthiness, the majority of the viewing public would much rather see Jeremy Roenick represent the Sharks.

So, make a simple change: adjust the expectations for All-Star selection. Don't pretend that it's about selecting the league's elite -- frankly, a lot of elite players are boring. Let's make this a showcase of the league's most popular personalities.

The beauty of this is that you can actually increase the weight of fan ballotting under this system, without sacrificing legitimacy. Have a "Favorite player" vote in each city, with 100% fan voting, to select 15 players. Give the final 5 votes to the coach or media. Simple, entertaining, legitimate. What else could you ask for?

3) Fight Club

Ok, so this wouldn't happen in a million years. But then again, the idea of a popular All-Star Game is fantasy anyway, so let's go for broke. Summon your inner Don King for a moment and imagine the massive "casual" audience that would be drawn to the NHL if the weekend included a Heavyweight Championship Tournament.

The process would be simple - let the players cast votes to select the top 8 fighters in the league. During the day of the Skills Competiton, hold a quarter-finals round (4 fights). During the first intermission of the All-Star Game, hold two semi-final matches -- one at each end of the ice, maybe even simultaneously. During the second intermission, let the two finalists duke it out at center ice for the title belt. Use professional boxing judges to score each fight according to punches-landed and takedowns. Watch and listen as the fans lose their minds with bloodlust and scalpers draw double the usual ticket prices.

I know what you're thinking: "No coach in his right mind would allow a player to fight three times in two days against elite heavyweights". Well, screw the coaches. Offer a $1 million purse and leave it up to the players whether to participate. Give 'em softer, tighter helmets to protect both fists and noggin. Require thick mouthguards and D.Q. anyone who resorts to cheapshots.

The All-Star Game is, at its heart, all about exposing superstars to unnecessary risk in order to create an artificial spectacle for the fans and media. The NHL is, at its heart, all about exploiting violence and testosterone in order to create a 60-minute adrenaline rush for its viewing audience. What better marriage of purposes than to reward pugilistic superstars on the game's biggest stage? It's time for the league to stop apologizing for its product and just sell the damn thing.

Bonus Suggestion: More importantly than any of the other items, it's high time for the league to resume the long-lost tradition of playing each game for a specific charitable cause. For one day a year, let's stop acting like the result of a silly game actually matters, and put the All-Stars to work to make the world a better place. It would not only promote the game in non-hockey circles, but legitimize what is otherwise the least-legitimate event in the sport.

Any other ideas? Put 'em in the comments section.

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Leafs vs. Bruins: Takeaways

All things considered, this was a good win for the Bruins. Down 2 goals to enter the third period, missing the majority of their scoring punch, heading into the All-Star break and riding a 2-game losing streak... that's when you need your best players to step up.

Three stars of the night:

Blake Wheeler - I'm going to stop calling him a "kid" before too long. He stepped up and publicly took responsibility for the Blues loss, then came out and played a key role in taking this game away from the Leafs. Big, big, big kudos to him for having that kind of chutzpah.

Marc Savard - There's an unknown highlight that you'll never see on Youtube -- with 6:00 to go in the second period, Savard completely took control of a shift in Gretzky-like fashion. Even though it didn't lead to a goal, he made four different setup passes to different players, each a no-look touch pass on the move. Then he made the key assist on Chara's tying goal. Only a few players in the world can control a game like that.

Martin St. Pierre - That penalty in overtime was the kind of thing that can get a guy sent back to the AHL, but Julien showed faith in the kid in the skills competition... not unlike his choice of Wheeler in Monday's shootout. That's great coaching, and it's paying huge dividends in confidence.

Other game reviews:
Stanley Cup of Chowder
The Hockey Blog Adventure
The Bear Cave

Also of interest:
Hub Hockey asks -- was Tim Thomas' hit on Jason Blake legal? Leave your 2 cents in the comments.
Leafs Hockey Analysis provides a fascinating, detailed look at the Bruins' rebuilding plan and what lessons the Leafs might take away from it.
All Habs is convinced that Tim Thomas is nothing but "smoke and mirrors". Here are Part 1 and Part 2 of the debate.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Bruins vs. Leafs: Stuff To Look Out For

The Bruins limp into Toronto tonight for their final pre-AllStar matchup.

Injury (non)update: All the usual suspects are still out of the lineup (Kessel, Lucic, Bergeron, Ference, Ward) and to the best of my knowledge the AHL callups are still the same (St. Pierre, Bitz, Lashoff, Nokelainen, Sobotka).

updating the update: Julien says that Ward actually will be playing tonight, since the Bruins need to get things turned around ASAP.

News out of Toronto is that Mike Van Ryn will miss the game with his continuing concussion problems (Bruins fans can sympathize) and the Leafs will also be without D Jeff Finger and LW Jeremy Williams.

Wakeup calls in the East: I don't think we have to worry about the Bruins looking past this game, considering the nature of their loss to the Blues on Monday. That cluster**** stings a little less since both the Caps and Habs were upset yesterday (by the Sens and Thrashers, respectively), thereby giving the Bruins an opportunity to actually widen their lead on the East by week's end.

Death Watch: Last Wednesday I issued an ultimatum to the Leafs -- win 4 more games in January or be moved to the "dead" list for the rest of the season. Since then they've got one win (Hurricanes), one loss (Hurricanes) and one OT loss (Thrashers). They have 4 games left in January -- the Bruins, followed by road games in Minny and Denver, and a home game against the Pens. The watch continues...

The Barilkosphere: The Leafs blogging community is probably the best in the NHL, in part because they have the coolest nickname. What pre-2004 Red Sox fans were to baseball, Leafs fans are to hockey. Losing sucks, but it sucks more when you don't care. Leafs fans, for all their bitterness and backhanded fandom, care enough to turn the whole situation on its head.

A sampling of today's Barilkosphere, with scattered pre-game items:
Down Goes Brown
Cox Bloc
Pension Plan Puppets
Just Your Usual General Borschevsky
The Wonderful World of Loser Domi
Die Hard Blue and White

Since this is the 4th meeting between these teams this season, there's not much more to say about the matchup. Here are some more links to make up the difference:

Interchangeable Parts says the Bruins are this season's "Tranny Gentleman Caller"... it's a higher compliment than it sounds.

From The Rink points out that Wideman and Chara have been the two most-productive defensemen in the league over the past 30 days.

Fluto reports that Patrice Bergeron is staying home rather than make the trip to Toronto.

The Bear Cave has a very thorough game preview.

Hub Hockey gives us the rundown of Bruins who will participate in the SuperDooperSkillz Competion. Z is the defending champ in the hardest-shot contest, but I think Savvy's got the best chance at a victory this season. If he can put a blind pass on the trailing winger's tape at full speed against a defense, he should be pretty good at nailing stationary targets.

Stanley Cup of Chowder interviews CHL ref Tom Steinel, including a direct question about the controversial high-stick review on the Blues' tying goal.

The Bastard is back.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

How Much Have Injuries Hurt the Bruins?

No way I'm going to try and crank out a preview for today's 1pm game against St. Louis -- the game would be over before I finished writing. Suffice it to say, the best team in the East versus the worst team in the West is something of a mismatch.

The Bruins can't complain too much about injuries when they look at the Blues' IR list. Nevertheless, there's no question that they've lost a step since the latest round of injuries (Kessel, Lucic, Wideman) took hold. Now, it's worth taking a step back and remembering that for most of the season Boston has missed the talents of solid second-line players Patrice Bergeron and Marco Sturm, as well as quality defensemen Andrew Ference and Aaron Ward. The Bruins squad which has taken the Eastern Conference by storm has done so mostly on the backs of their first (Lucic-Savard-Kessel) and third (Ryder-Krejci-Wheeler) lines, with a huge dose of support from AHL call-ups.

But there's a huge difference between losing Bergeron/Sturm (depth scoring, frequently injured), as opposed to being deprived of Kessel/Lucic (elite scoring, dependably healthy). Here's the difference it has made so far:

The Hard Numbers

The Bruins remain one of the tougher matchups in the East, but their offensive numbers have come back down to earth.

Record With Kessel and Looch: 31-7-4
Record Without: 2-1-0

Goals Per Game With: 3.67
GPG Without: 2.0

Shots/Game With: 29.8
Shots/Game Without: 26.7

Effect on Teammates

Pity Marc Savard -- one day he's skating with Kessel and Lucic on the NHL's best-rounded line, the next he's centering P.J. Axelsson and Chuck Kobasew.

Savard With: 42 games played, 14-38-54, 2.6 shots per game, +29
Savard Without: 3gp, 2-0-2, 3.7 spg, +1

Note that Savard is shooting the puck much more often, and therefore scoring goals, but that his overall production is down as he's being forced to play "out of character".

But then there are the changes that have been made deeper in the lineup:

First line:
Kobasew since being promoted: 0-3-3, 6 shots, +1
These are good numbers for a third-liner, but Kobie's lack of elite offensive skills makes him nearly useless as a scorer. 6 shots in 3 games doesn't replace Kessel.

Axelsson since being promoted: 0-0-0, 5 shots, +1
Yeah, that includes PP time.

Second line:
The line of Ryder-Krecji-Wheeler has suffered the most, since they are now effectively the first line (in terms of expectations, anyway) and are seeing much more defensive attention.

Since becoming the "first" line:
Krejci: 1-1-2 (all against Montreal), 5 shots, even
Wheeler: 0-1-1 (against Montreal), 6 shots, even
Ryder: 0-1-1 (against Montreal), 5 shots, even
Needless to say, their past two games have not been much fun for this line.

Third line:
The domino effect continues to the third line where Stephane Yelle finds himself centering the AHL duo of Petteri Nokelainen and Byron Bitz. Deprived of his veteran linemates, Yelle has had "0"s all across his stat line -- in fact, the entire line has combined for 0 points and only 5 shots.

Fourth line:
Early in the season, the Bruins had a bread-and-butter fourth line that was used to maintain a strong forecheck while the other team's top scorers frustrated themselves with scrumming in the corners and dumping the puck in from the red line. At this point the fourth line is basically a rotating carousel of AHL grinders, with Shawn Thornton as the "regular". They've had mixed results -- Martin St. Pierre scored the winner against the Isles, but made the crucial mistake on the Caps' game-winner only two nights later.

The Bright Side

Actually, there are quite a few positives to report. Neither of the Bruins' special-teams units (PP 3 of 12, PK 10 of 12) has been underperforming under the most trying circumstances. The defense has held fairly steady, giving up only 4 goals in 3 games.

And most importantly, the record is still better than even.

Word out of Boston is that Bergeron and Lucic will wait until after the All-Star break to return. In the meantime, the Bruins face two non-playoff teams (St. Louis and Toronto), and so the injuries might not have much of an effect on their place in the standings. The schedule for the next month thereafter is much tougher, so a quick return for each player will be key.

But for the time being, we're going to see how this team handles adversity. Based on last year's gritty charge into the playoffs, that might be the brightest side of all.

Coming soon: What in the world to do with the All-Star game...

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Friday, January 16, 2009

Weekend Links

Starting today, I'm going to throw a few juicy links your way each Friday afternoon. Enjoy!

The Hockey News: “But there is a way to say the right things while still looking like you give a damn." -- Jeremy Roenick offers some pointers for dealing with the press.

Hockey's Ladies of Greatness: Breaks down the many ways in which the Carolina Hurricanes suck right now. Blunt, but well-informed and worth the read.

Battle of Alberta: Baseball standings -- one of the best ways to compensate for the NHL's absurd points system. Hey, we're 5 1/2 games up on the Habs!

Brodeur is a Fraud: If you liked this week's Quality Shots analysis, you'll love BiaF's careful study of shots and save percentage.

From the Rink: I hesitate to link to this little fiasco, but it's too bizarre to pass up. More info on the Eklund-esque case of identity fraud at Lighthouse Hockey.

Red and Black Hockey: Thoughts on the Sabres/Canes rivalry that you didn't know existed.

The Good Point: Some really... different... midseason awards.

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Bruins vs. Caps: Stuff To Look Out For

This game doesn't really need any extra hype. Boston and Washington are not only on top of the Eastern standings, they're playing the best hockey in the conference of late -- only Montreal, which beat the Caps and fell to the B's in the past week, seems to be in the same stratosphere.

From a Bruins perspective, there's a bit of nervousness about this game. The Caps trail by 11 points in the conference and have played one more game than Boston, but they're coming off a convincing win over arch-nemesis Pittsburgh. Washington dealt with some awful injury problems early in the season, but it's the Bruins who are at a disadvantage in this game. Furthermore, the teams meet again in a week so this will be a statement game for the Caps -- at just the wrong time for a Bruins team that's trying to keep the ship steady through the worst of the injury bug.

Injury report: Nothing has changed -- Milan Lucic will not play against the Caps, and Aaron Ward will be out for at least a week. The Bruins will continue to lean on AHL callups to provide depth scoring and decent defense.
Meanwhile, the Caps will be without at least two defensemen in Tom Poti and Brian Pothier. Blueliner Shaone Morrisonn is expected to play. Center Boyd Gordon will be a game-time decision.

Goaltending matchup: Fluto says to expect the Tank to make his fourth consecutive start -- perhaps the reward for his 40-save performance against the Isles last night. I suspect the Caps will hand the keys to Jose Theodore, who's started 5 of the last 6, though it wouldn't be a shock if they went with Brent Johnson who beat the Bruins last time around.

Divisional realignment: Caps fans are beginning to make serious pleas for a relocation to the Atlantic Division. They have a point -- their rivalries with the Pens and Flyers have become much more significant of late, and Ovechkin needs to be on the Madison Square Garden marquee as often as possible. Unfortunately, the Southeast Division is already so weak that it's hard to imagine a world in which they aren't buoyed by the Caps. BUT... if the Isles are indeed prepared to move westward, keep an eye on this possibility.

Home cookin': Only the Sharks and Bruins (by virtue of 1 fewer game played) have a better home record than Washington. What was once an echo chamber has become a nasty road destination, as the Bruins found out on 12/10 -- the last time they lost a road game.

Who to watch: The Wheeler-Krejci-Ryder line. Shut out against the Isles, these guys can't afford to have an off night against the Caps. Look for Julien to put them in a position to get quality chances as often as possible.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

How The Bruins Win

There are a lot of strange stats in hockey, such as Rod Brind'Amour being near the bottom of the league in +/- or Thomas Vanek leading the league in goals with only a few assists.

Here's a stat that might really surprise you:

Boston's winning percentage when outshooting the opposition: .619
Boston's winning percentage when outshot: .864

That's right, the Bruins are 30% more likely to win a game in which they take fewer shots than the other team. But they aren't alone in having this bizarre advantage. When outshot, the Sharks have a .857 rate of victory; the Rangers see a 20% increase in their likelihood of winning; Buffalo and Columbus are both at .500 only when they see more rubber than the other team.

But Anaheim takes the cake; they are more likely to lose when taking more shots, and more likely to win when being outshot.

What's going on? How is it possible for a team to gain an advantage from being dominated by their opponent? It's beyond this humble blog to try and analyze each unique data set, but we can certainly get some valuable insight from the Bruins' results this season.

Quality vs. Quantity

In a nutshell, the Bruins win because they take better shots rather than more shots. In fact, their defensive system practically invites high-powered opponents to send volleys of rubber toward the Bruins goaltender -- so long as those shots are easily stoppable.

Earlier this season, I pointed out that the Red Wings' puck-possession system struggled against the Bruins' defensive shell. This was largely the result of the Wings settling for low-percentage chances early in the game, which had the effect of cancelling out their puckhandling creativity and rebound control. The Wings outshot the Bruins 30-19 in that game, including a dominant 15-5 during the second frame, but Boston walked to an easy 4-1 win. We saw much the same from Montreal on Tuesday -- a 17-9 shots advantage early in the game translated to a 3-1 loss for the Habs.

Finding the Sweet Spot

Teams that succeed against Boston do four things:

1) Control the puck in between the circles. Not just for lazy backhands, but for bona fide scoring chances.
2) Screen the goaltenders with heavy traffic at the front of the crease.
3) Capitalize on rebounds.
4) Prevent the Bruins from doing each of these things at the other end of the ice.

On any given play, the Bruins protect the slot with hulking defensemen such as Chara, Stuart and Ward -- not to mention the defensive prowess of forwards like Axelsson, Krejci and Yelle. On offense, slick puckhandlers like Savard and Kessel can break down individual coverage while widebodied Lucic and Ryder create havoc in front of the net.

The sum of these advantages is that the Bruins can safely allow their opponents to exhaust their offensive opportunities by settling for long-range, sharp-angled shots; meanwhile Boston will pass up such shots in order to get one quality opportunity from in front. To control the slot against Boston requires a very high level of skill and discipline, which is why the Bruins have only 7 outright losses in 43 games so far.

Crunching the numbers

All of this is fairly intuitive for those who know hockey, but it's remarkable to see it play out in the box scores. Of the Bruins' 11 total losses this season, 8 came in games in which they took the majority of shots on goal (one of the three exceptions was an SO loss to the Rangers). On the other side of the coin, the majority (19 of 32) of their wins have come in games in which the Bruins were outshot.

Let's look at a specific example: Tuesday's game against Montreal. In this analysis I'm going to use the ESPN Gamecenter feature which tracks the location and result of each shot during the game. Go ahead and click on the link to view the shot chart.

Now, time to use your imagination -- we need to define a "quality shot" (we'll call it a QS). As far as this analysis is concerned, that means a shot from the slot. We'll draw some basic boundaries to define the slot:
- Imagine a line connecting each goalpost to the nearest faceoff dot (it should run at a 45-degree angle to the goal line).
- Imagine a line from each faceoff dot to the top of the circle.
- Finally, imagine a line connecting the tops of the faceoff circles.

The resulting polygon should look a little like the "rewind" arrow on a remote control, or perhaps a sideways "house". We're going to call this the Quality Shot Zone; anything outside this area is either too far away or at too sharp an angle to pose a real threat to an unscreened goalie.

Now, click through each period of the game and look where the shots occurred. Montreal took 17 total shots in the first period, but only 6 QS; Boston had 9 total shots, with 3 Quality Shots and 3 marginally outside of the boundaries of the QSZ for a total of 6 QS. Score was 0-0 after one frame.

As the game wore on, each team pressed to get higher-quality shots. In the second period, Montreal took 8 QS, scoring once. Though outshot overall in the period, Boston took 9 QS (including Chara's borderline-QSZ shot which was deflected by a Hab at the top of the crease) and scored twice. In the final period, Boston outshot the Habs 5-4 inside the QSZ and scored another goal.

Total shots: 35-29, advantage Montreal
Quality shots: 20-18, advantage Boston
Goals inside the QSZ: 3-1, advantage Boston

This example mimics the pattern we've seen all year -- and remember, Montreal is one of the league's tougher opponents. Try the same exercise for Boston's wins against the Hurricanes and Senators; using QS analysis, the outcome of each period becomes pretty easy to predict.

More examples

At risk of overkill, here's a QS analysis for each game since the New Year:

Total shot advantage: Pens, 32-26
Bruins: 21 QS for 3 goals
Pens: 20 QS for 2 goals
Result: Bruins win 4-2

Total shot advantage: Bruins, 31-25
Bruins: 18 QS for 2 goals
Sabres: 9 QS for 4 goals
Result: Sabres win 4-2, truly a case of taking advantage of your opportunities!

Total shot advantage: Bruins, 28-24
Bruins: 15 QS for 0 goals
Wild: 12 QS for 0 goals
Result: Wild win 1-0

Total shot advantage: Sens, 30-22
Bruins: 14 QS for 5 goals
Sens: 15 QS for 3 goals
Result: Bruins win 6-4

Total shot advantage: Bruins, 32-30
Bruins: 16 QS for 4 goals
Canes: 15 QS for 1 goal
Result: Bruins win 5-1

Total shot advantage: Habs, 35-29
Bruins: 20 QS for 3 goals
Habs: 18 QS for 1 goal
Result: Bruins win 3-1


Of course, QS isn't a foolproof statistic. Above you can see a few games in which other factors were obviously at play -- Boston played a sloppy and uninspired game on 1/3, failing to take advantage of a 2:1 QS advantage, while Backstrom played a brilliant game on 1/6 to deny all 15 Bruins QS opportunities. And then there are power-play differentials, screened shots from the blue line, and of course the goaltending wizardry that we see on a nightly basis.

But if we're looking for a macro-scale explanation of how the Bruins can continue to win despite being outshot most of the time, this is it. By intentionally allowing opposing teams to control the non-QS areas of the ice, the Bruins can dictate the terms on which they play defense... and in turn they can transition quickly into a deadly attack which virtually ignores shots from the corners and points.

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Shawn Thornton on "Time Warp"

This isn't exactly breaking news, because the episode is three months old, but I don't remember hearing anything about it when it happened.

Shawn Thornton makes a guest appearance on Discovery Channel's "Time Warp", a show dedicated to super-slow-mo video of high-speed events. Sounds like an odd concept, until you see it in action:

Note to self: ask Santa for super-high-speed camera next Christmas.

I haven't found any video of Thornton's guest appearance, in which he demonstrates the power of a professional slap shot, but you can browse a bunch of clips here. In Shawn's segment, you get to see not only the bend of the stick, but the torque in the shaft as it twists to snap the puck toward the net. He then tries an old-fashioned wooden stick to see if the new composite shafts are indeed superior.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Wednesday Morning Miscellany

Because "miscellany" is one of the best words out there.

Bruins love, Pt. 1: Of TSN's Top 10 Plays of the first half, three involve the Bruins -- the Lucic glass-shattering hit, Thomas' save against the Devils, and Wheeler's sick 1-on-5 goal.

Death Watch Update: Down Goes Brown is waving the white flag on the Maple Leafs' season. He makes a strong case, given their most unseemly implosion over the past ten games, for moving them to the "Dead" portion of our Death Watch. Toronto is now nine points out of a playoff berth (38 points), trailing Pittsburgh (46), Florida (46), Carolina and Buffalo (47). Before the end of January, they play the Pens, the Bruins, the Thrashers, and the Canes twice (plus a couple of interconference games). This makes a playoff run unlikely, but not out of the realm of possibility.

Ultimatum -- Toronto must win at least four of these games or be moved to "Dead" status.

Bruins love, Pt. 2: Puck Daddy gives out three stars each day. After last night's game, the Bruins took stars #1 AND #2. Jumbo Joe got #3, making it a sort-of-but-not-really trifecta despite several other important games going on.

Should I Stay Or Should I Go?: Blueland Outsider came up with this nifty little conversation-starter, which is probably more engaging when nearly every member of your franchise is on the "go" list. Never afraid to steal someone else's idea, I offer this sample of Bruins conundrums:

Sturm - Go. Everyone loves Das German, but let's be real. $3.5m for 25 or fewer goals a season is wasted cap space. It's harsh, but... if he wasn't having injury problems it might be different. With so many RFAs coming up this summer, it's salary-dump time.

Bergeron - Stay. At least long enough to see whether he's still got it.

More to come.

Bruins love, Pt. 3: Last night's game is the front-page story on,'s NHL section, and a double-item on Puck Daddy. Habs fans continue to whine about a three-minute power play that "decided the game" in the second period, which pretty much proves we're in their heads. Sweet.

Drinking Game: View From The Cheap Seats has a nice little Caps/Pens drinking game. If the Pens get their shit together and make the playoffs, they'll almost certainly be somewhere in the 6-8 seed range -- if they draw the Caps, there's a possibility you could have 7 drinking games in a two-week period! There MUST be an equivalent to this for Bruins/Habs.

A little perspective: At this point we've got a nice cushion for the #1 seed in the East -- but the season's only half over. Ask Ottawa what half a season of good hockey gets you.

Starting yesterday, we began the single most important part of our season schedule. In our next 13 games, we face four powder-puff opponents: the Isles on Thursday, the Blues and Leafs next week, and Ottawa on 2/5.

The other nine opponents are, in order: Caps, Caps, Devils, Rangers, Habs, Flyers, Flyers, Sharks, Devils. That would be all five teams chasing us in the standings and all significant Eastern playoff contenders, plus the Western favorite. Our record against this group will decide whether we need to defend our playoff positioning in March, and send a very loud signal to the rest of the league as to whether we're prepared to actually win a round this spring.

And we get to do it all without Kessel.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Providence vs. Hamilton: Stuff To Look Out For

It's a battle of the M.A.S.H. units tonight in Boston. The NHL's most active rivalry will be missing, oh, a few names you may recognize.

Injury rundown
Boston: Phil Kessel will be out for about a month with mono. Patrice Bergeron is skating but has no timetable for return. Marco Sturm is done for at least the regular season with knee surgery. Milan Lucic has simply been AWOL for the past several games (hopefully he didn't share a water bottle with Kessel). Andrew Ference is getting closer to returning from his broken leg. Manny Fernandez is out tonight with an unspecified injury, but expected to return soon. Shane Hnidy took a puck in the face but is expected to play with a visor.

Montreal: Carey Price will sit with a "lower body injury" (aka groin pull). Saku Koivu is close to returning from a foot injury, but won't play tonight. Alex Tanguay could miss up to 6 weeks with a bum shoulder. Christopher Higgins also has an injured shoulder, but won't come back until after the All-Star break. Mathieu Dandenault is out indefinitely with a broken arm. Georges Laraque is still out with a groin injury.

Montreal's been dealing with their injury issues for a bit longer than Boston, so their callups have had a bit more time to gel with the rest of the team. Prospects like Kyle Chipchura and Matt D'Agostini have become quasi-regular players for the Habs, while Max Pacioretti and Yannick Weber are still finding their place on the roster (Pacioretti has been skating on the top line).

Meanwhile the Bruins have been racking up frequent-flier miles this week, sending Matt Lashoff back to Providence and recalling Martin St. Pierre, Byron Bitz, Martins Karsums, and Kevin Regan. Goalie phenom Tuukka Rask was recalled for one game and sent back down in order to get playing time instead of riding the pine.

Got all that?

Lines? We don't need no stinkin' lines: To say the least, it's going to be a hectic night for Claude Julien as he has to completely reassemble his lineup and try to manage line changes on home ice. It's a fool's errand to try and predict what he'll do, but here's a shot in the dark at what the B's lines might look like:

Axelsson-Yelle-St. Pierre

Yikes. This is starting to feel a lot like last season. But then again, if it weren't for last season's injury issues we wouldn't have discovered guys like David Krejci and Looch. Que sera sera.

Wait, some players will actually be available?: Among those actually able to dress for the game, expect the Bruins to lean most heavily on Marc Savard, Krejci and Zdeno Chara for production. One of the advantages to having good centers is that they can make nearly any linemate into an offensive contributor. Look for Kobasew and Karsums to charge the net hard and take advantage of Savard's playmaking wizardry, and Krejci's #1A line to get some extra ice time to continue their torrid streak.

As for Chara, the Bruins simply need him to be a threat from the blue line. With reduced skill in the forward ranks, Chara's slapshot can give his teammates a little extra breathing room and ideally set up some rebound opportunities. Whether or not he tallies on the scoresheet, Chara needs to have an active game.

Goalie matchup: Looks like it'll be Tim Thomas vs. Jaroslav Halak. Goalies can be the difference in a close game, etc.

The big picture: Winning a rivalry game is great, but there's more at stake in this game. The Bruins and Habs are two of the hottest teams in the league, and separated by 10 points for the division title. It's a safe bet the Bruins are going to come back down to earth soon, so a 6-game lead would be a very reassuring cushion against the Habs' winning ways. If Montreal takes this game, the pressure on Boston will ramp up significantly. Also, the hot Capitals (who lost to the Habs the other day) are still pushing to catch up to the #1 seed. The winner of this game gets a lot of marbles.

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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Warren Buffet, Preds fan.

"Be fearful when others are greedy. Be greedy when others are fearful." -- Warren Buffett, world's smartest investor.

Sign of the times: On Frozen Blog recounts the latest developments in the never-ending prattle over NHL relocation, expansion and/or contraction. As usual, pundits and "insiders" from the Great White North insist that any (or, in their best-case fantasies, every single one) of the Sunbelt franchises could make the decision to cut their financial losses and head northward to a "traditional" market. Presumably, this would involve renaming the team the "Jets" and signing Teemu Selanne.

In previous seasons, this cause celebre was bound up in a pointless mish-mash of discussion having to do with old-time rivalries, talent dilution and market demographics. The theory went something like this: hockey belongs in places where you might die of hypothermia.

But the market crash has blown this concept into epic proportions, with pundits coming out of the woodwork to speculate that it is now literally impossible for the NHL to sell its product in such hockey-wastelands as Atlanta and Miami. Here's the doomsday equation:
1) Hard-hit areas such as Florida cannot support a team with gate revenues.
2) Hard-hit ownership groups can no longer afford to wait on markets to develop.
3) The values of the American and Canadian dollars have changed drastically this decade.
Quotes like the following:
The upside for Canadian fans is that those economic woes could mean another team north of the border as owners look to the game's hotbeds as an economic salve. -- Kevin McGran in the Toronto Star

It's not shocking to see this turn in the discussion, considering there's long been a conservative movement afoot among Canadian fans resentful of the Americanization of the NHL. The economic crisis provides the perfect combination of fear and greed to fuel an argument that the league should simply stop trying to survive in sunny locations, and retract back into its previous strategy of northern-market-saturation.

But let's take a step back from the hysteria and think about this rationally.
-In the past 15 years, two Canadian franchises have relocated (Winnipeg and Quebec) and three more (Ottawa, Calgary and Edmonton) have been on the death-watch for economic reasons.
-In the meantime, two teams in traditional American markets (Pittsburgh and Buffalo) have filed for bankruptcy, while another (Hartford) relocated.
-Furthermore, at least two others (the Islanders and Devils) are failing at the gate but being floated by lucrative dealings on the business side.

So let's not get too hasty about the game's "hotbeds" being a magic bullet for the NHL's revenue problems.

What we're seeing are short-term answers being proposed for a long-term solution.
Fifteen years ago it seemed like a slam-dunk investment to put a team in the southern United States; and in markets that boasted a competitive team, that investment was fruitful.
Five years ago it seemed that half of the Canadian franchises might be doomed; Finals runs by each of the aggreived franchises put those rumors to rest.
Today it's come full circle -- the Sun Belt is being characterized as barren ground, and Canadian cities as a sure bet, at least until the next market cycle proves all of those assumptions wrong.

"Be fearful when others are greedy. Be greedy when others are fearful."

Just as Bettman's expansion bonanza of the 1990s proved to be a case of too-much-too-soon, it makes little sense to simply slash-and-burn fifteen years of market cultivation in the name of hockey tradition. Atlanta, Phoenix, Tampa and Miami are in the top 16 television markets in the United States; Hamilton, the largest available Canadian market other than Quebec City, is smaller than any of these and shares its television market with Toronto and at-risk Buffalo. Where's the sense in swapping one risky market for another, at an enormous expense?

For once, let's learn from the past. Instead of pursuing the obvious, ill-fated strategy of tagging along behind market predictors and putting teams in today's hot markets, the NHL should take a step back from the current depression and think about where it would like to stand in 20 years. In that time, franchises like Atlanta and Phoenix will surely figure out how to ice a team worth paying for (Step 1: Fire Waddell) and in the meantime they will cultivate a full generation of born-and-bred fans. They might still be the least-dependable American markets, but they'll give the NHL continued national recognition and television coverage instead of allowing it to regress back to a provincial B-sport akin to golf and figure skating.

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Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Death Watch

Mirtle has released his annual playoff push standings, which gives us a simplified window into each team's playoff chances as we head toward the finish line.

The great thing about these standings is that it allows us to officially begin a Death Watch for the teams who aren't going to make the cut. On the flip side it can give us a pretty good idea who has already unofficially clinched a berth -- though last year's Sens proved that home-ice seeds can't be predicted until at least March.

Based on Mirtle's standings, here's how the Death Watch shakes out so far*:

Islanders - Expect the Fishsticks to go into firesale mode during the month of Feburary. They're done and have nothing to compete for except Tavares.
Thrashers - Nothing has gone right for this franchise since the lockout, and this will simply be another wasted season. They have no chance at winning 2/3rds of their games from here on.
Lightning - One would think that a team stocked with high-end talent and lots of veteran grinders would have a shot at the 8th seed. Not the case with this dysfunctional group.
Blues - They were a darkhorse to begin with, and didn't get a break all year. Without Kariya they don't stand a chance.
Senators - The Sens' current 8-game road trip has only added nails to their coffin. They're 1-for-6 with games still to play in Buffalo and Boston... and their final 6 games of the season are all against playoff qualifiers plus a season-closer at rival Toronto.

Kings - Here's where things get interesting. Los Angeles would have to put together a 26-18 finish in order to reach 90 points, which is a bare-minimum threshold for playoff qualifiers. That's a tall order, but the Kings roster is stuffed with great young talent -- they lack only a hot goalie to have a chance at a playoff run. We should know whether they belong on the "dead" list in about two weeks.
Stars - They've been better since Avery's suspension, but Dallas is still inconsistent and lacks a playoff mojo. Having to play three games each against Detroit and San Jose could seal their season.
Blue Jackets - The time is now for Columbus, which plays ill-timed games in Detroit and Washington this week. Currently, they're only a point out of 8th place. They have a favorable late-season schedule, but are a flawed team and will need a lot of help if they don't pick up a few major upsets.
Maple Leafs - The Team That Wouldn't Die is somehow still in contention for a playoff seed. Could they go 27-18 down the stretch? Not unless they make a major trade for a true #1 goalie. Would you put it past Brian Burke?

Panthers - Believe it, this motley crew could actually make the playoffs. Don't forget their hot run at the end of last season that briefly resurrected hopes of postseason hockey in Miami. They've already ripped off a similar streak this season, and since the New Year have demolished the Pens and tied the Habs.
Avalanche - Colorado has just enough top-end talent to keep pace and wait for someone else to slip. The Avs beat the Wings twice in December, and also served up victories over Vancouver, Nashville and Minnesota. If they can consistently win games against other bubble teams, they'll stay in the playoff equation until the final weeks.
Predators - The Other Team That Wouldn't Die has a tough road to travel, but they could be the club that inexplicably sneaks in the back door. Trotz gets 100% out of his spartan roster, and the Preds still have three homestands of 4+ games left to play. A 26-17-1 finish is not out of the question. However, their current losing streak has to be reversed immediately for them to have a chance.

* Based not only on standings and Mirtle's calculations, but also their darkhorse potential as measured by upcoming opponents, likelihood of a firesale at the trade deadline, injury problems, team history and quality of coaching.

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Bruins vs. Wild: Stuff To Look Out For

Bruins look to get back on a winning track tonight against Minnesota. The media will make a big deal of the fact that Boston hasn't lost two regulation games in a row this season. Or they will make a big deal of the fact that the Wild have picked up at least a point against Detroit and San Jose in the past week.

One thing you can count on: when Jacques Lemaire and Claude Julien go head-to-head, it's not going to be an offensive exhibition. The last time the Bruins played a defensive-minded opponent (New Jersey) they won 1-0. Expect that kind of game tonight.

The Wild have a pop-gun offense -- Owen Nolan is somehow leading the team in goals per game -- and they just learned that Marian Gaborik has effectively quit on the team. Their best hope for making the playoffs is to hold their opponents even, capitalize on mistakes and take advantage of the charity point.

On the other hand, they have some of the best names in hockey. Owen Nolan, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Marc-Andre Bergeron, and Colton Gillies are hockey names if I've ever heard one. Cal Clutterbuck, Nick Schultz and Brent Burns sounds like the top of a batting order. Derek Boogaard, Marek Zidlicky and Krystofer Kolanos are just wow.

The Bruins' goalie duel is the most remarkable I've ever seen. It's insane to characterize Tim Thomas as a backup, considering he's made a pretty solid case for Vezina consideration, but the fact is that Manny Fernandez has been the better of the pair in the past month or so. Julien has been fair about playing the hot hand, so look for Manny to get the start tonight against Niklas Backstrom, another Vezina darkhorse who's coming off a shutout. All three of these gentlemen are in the top-7 in both GAA and save percentage.

Bad News: Looks like Marco Sturm will be joining Patrice Bergeron on IR, while he undergoes knee surgery. No timeline on his return, though one would have to think April would be an optimistic estimate. Between Bergeron and Sturm, the Bruins are missing most of a solid second line (60 goals between them) and are wasting an $8 million cap hit. This is definitely going to have an effect on player movement at the trade deadline.

Good News: Aaron Ward will be a gametime decision, on the mend from a charley horse. Hopefully he'll actually finish this game. Also, Andrew Ference is getting closer to returning.

Bonus item: The Wild are the only NHL team with an undefeated record (4-0) in Boston.

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Sunday, January 4, 2009

I hate to say "I told you so"...

... but then again, that's what makes blogging so darn fun.

I admire the way the Minnesota Wild have built their team over the past few years. A conservative, team-oriented approach has brought their franchise a lot of success without the need for over-the-top contracts or foolish gambles.

But is there any reason whatsoever for them to have encountered this situation? Gaborik is shutting himself down for the next three months, despite pleas from team management for him to return in the nearer term. Basically it boils down to this:

Fragile player

Selfishly speaking, Gaborik is making the right move. Another injury to his glass hip could make him a Peter Forsberg. By shelving himself now, he might be adding years to his career. And maybe, just maybe, he'll inexplicably come back later this season as a player who actually wants to help his team win.

But prima donnas don't change their stripes. Gaborik has never shown the tenacity or resolve of a champion, and has spent the past calendar year stringing the Wild organization along through contract disputes and rehab sessions. Now it looks like they won't even be able to get a marginal return when he leaves this summer, as his surgery will keep him out of action until after the trade deadline.

Gaborik should've been unloaded months ago. He doesn't play defense, he's not a team player, he's injured on a regular basis, and he has only one 40-goal season on record. Now he's intentionally choosing to screw the Wild out of any chance at getting compensated for his departure. He's the sum of all the nightmare scenarios that run through a GM's head late at night.

Which leaves us all to wonder: what was Doug Risebrough thinking?

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