Friday, October 31, 2008

The Worst Statistic In Sports

Could any statistic in sports be less useful than the plus-minus system in hockey?

Editorial Note: Season stats used in this article are for the 2007-08 season. Career stats are current as of October 31, 2008.
For those who aren’t familiar: when a hockey player scores a goal (not counting power-play goals), everyone on the ice at the time receives a “plus one”. When a goal is scored against his team, everyone receives a “minus one”. In other words, a player on the ice for every goal in a 3-2 victory would be +1 for the game. If he was on the ice for every goal of a 6-2 loss, he would be -4.

Hockey, like other sports, has a hard time translating defensive superiority into statistical excellence. It has no sacks, steals or put-outs. So, until stats like “hits” and “takeaways” were introduced a couple of years ago, a player’s plus-minus rating was the gold standard for evaluating his defensive play.

But is plus-minus really a reflection of a player’s defensive skill? Here are three reasons to think not:

1) Typically, the league’s top players face off against one another throughout the game. First lines are often matched against first lines, especially on balanced squads like San Jose and Detroit. This spells plus-minus disaster for players like Ilya Kovalchuk (-12) and Olli Jokinen (-19), who have few high-scoring teammates. In a typical Coyotes game, Jokinen will be expected to carry his team offensively at the same time that the opposition’s highest-scoring players are on the ice; naturally, Jokinen will end up on the losing end of that equation most of the time.,. regardless of how well or poorly he plays.

2) Plus-minus reflects team play, not individual play. Teams like Tampa Bay (-46) and Los Angeles (-33) are horrid on defense, and players for those squads will naturally have low plus-minus ratings. But are we truly to believe that these teams’ defensive stalwarts are inferior to their counterparts playing for the division leaders? That is, can Jack Johnson (-19) really be that much worse Doug Murray (+20)?

3) The Dan Cloutier Effect. No matter how the defense plays, not all goalies are created equal.

What does all of this mean in real-life terms? Well, let’s look at the past few winners of the Selke Trophy, awarded to the league’s best defensive forward. I’ve matched them up with a defensively-challenged teammate for the sake of illustrating how dramatically a player’s +/ is affected by circumstances (such as defensive assignments, offensive opportunity, line selection, etc.):

Kris Draper (Selke winner): +2 vs. Valtteri Filppula: +16
Jere Lehtinen (3-time Selke winner): +9 vs. Mike Ribeiro: +21
Rod Brind’Amour (2-time Selke winner): even vs. Chad LaRose +6
Michael Peca (Selke winner): -1 vs. Sergei Fedorov (2-time Selke winner): -2 vs. Curtis Glencross: +5

Last season, of course, Pavel Datsyuk won the Selke with a remarkable +41. Datsyuk has an aggregate +110 since 2005... the previous season he was -2.

And lest we believe that these numbers are the result of statistical flukes or oddball circumstances, check out these CAREER +/ totals for a few suprises:
Wayne Gretzky: +518
Slava Kozlov: +122
Henrik Sedin: +74
Martin Straka: +67
Paul Kariya: +36
Pavel Bure: +42
Erik Cole: +9
Rod Brind’Amour: +8
Chris Drury: +7
Jay Bouwmeester: -26
Shane Doan: -29
Ed Jovanovski: -46
Trevor Linden -64
Olli Jokinen: -70

It’s pretty clear what the guys at either end of the list have in common -- their defensive ability has an inverse relationship with their career +/-.

The stats bear it out: The +/- is useless for any player-to-player comparison, even within the same pool of teammates. Career +/- is not even worth recording, because it is absolutely arbitrary.

Until the NHL can conceive of a more complex, "adjusted" statistic (the QB Rating being an example), it’s time for the NHL to ditch this dinosaur and replace it with meaningful defensive statistics such as hits, blocked shots, and takeaways.

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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Bruins vs. Flames: Stuff To Look Out For

- Streaks: Boston and Calgary both enter the game on winning streaks -- four straight dubyas for the Flames, three for the Bruins. Also, both teams carry a significant shutout streak -- 5 periods for Calgary, 6 for Boston. If this isn't a setup for a 0-0 shootout, I don't know what is.

- Motivation: Both teams play in tight divisional races, in which every point is crucial. When playing a non-conference opponent in such circumstances, teams tend to lock it down and play for the OT point. Again, if this isn't a setup for a 0-0 shootout...

- A Relief: Calgary hasn't gone to a shootout yet this season. The Bruins haven't won a shootout in 3 tries.

- No Relief: Tim Thomas gets the third straight start, suggesting Claude Julien isn't exactly "rotating" goalies any more. The ball will be squarely in Manny Fernandez's court to match Thomas' hot streak once he gets the chance. Meanwhile, the Kipper has played every game for the Flames and doesn't look like he's getting a break tonight.

- Massive Hits: Phaneuf. Chara. Iginla. Lucic. Break out the seismograph.

- Special Teams: The Bruins and Flames are #9 and #10, respectively, in PP production. Calgary is 9th on the PK, whereas the Bruins are 29th but have killed 7 straight after a slow start. Calgary is 6th in PP opportunities against, Boston is 20th. This all adds up to: don't take dumb penalties.
BONUS STAT: Bruin 4th-liner Petteri Nokelainen has the highest rate of penalties drawn per minute in the NHL.

- Lucic can see: According to WickedBruinsFan, Lucic had been playing without contacts until the Toronto game on Oct. 23rd. Good god, the man was a beast while playing blind! Since then, he's checked a guy through the glass, scored a hat trick, and conked Luongo. Good god.

Other Previews:
The Jumbotron
Stanley Cup of Chowder
Cornelius Hardenberg and the Hockey Blog Adventure
The Bear Cave

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Bruins vs. Canucks: Takeaways

- Vancouver should definitely stick with the blue sweaters. They are by far the best uniforms they have ever had, and a major upgrade over the black. Seeing Edmonton's retro jerseys on Monday and then the Cancuks in green/blue on Tuesday was like being transported back to the NHL of the early 1980s... and that felt good.

- As expected the goaltending was superb on both ends. Luongo and Thomas are opposite ends of the goalie spectrum: Luongo is composed, has near-perfect form and smacks of Jean Girard-like confidence. Thomas is scatterbrained, has no form to speak of, and has a personality comparable to the fat goalie from "The Mighty Ducks". Luongo was born in Montreal; Thomas was born in Flint. Both were superstars last night. If a 0-0 tie was possible these days, it would have been a fitting outcome.

- The Bruins were very, very lucky not to be scored upon in the final 10 minutes. After 110 minutes of shutout hockey against two playoff-minded teams in hostile arenas 3 time zones away from home, things finally started to unravel. The Canucks repeatedly took the puck from their own zone to the Boston goal crease in less than 10 seconds. "Scrambly" was a fitting description for the Bruins defense, who seemed to simply chase the Canucks around.

- On the "breakthrough" front, Michael Ryder finally pots goal #2 of the campaign. He's generated some quality chances the past couple of games but been stoned by some really good goaltending. Nevertheless, he has to produce more to justify his cap hit and ice time. Ryder just isn't a good enough two-way forward to overlook a long goal-less streak.

- Hide the children -- Milan Lucic has his game back. Few players have the natural ability to dominate a shift with both skill and physicality; Lucic does it repeatedly throughout a game. He threw several large hits, and rang a snapshot hard off Luongo's mask in the third period... leading Brickley Jack Edwards (thanks andrine) to coin the instant classic: "He conked Luongo!".

- Chara is now a team-worst -3 and has only 3 points in 10 games, all assists.

- The Bruins now have 4 points on their 3-game road trip, making it a successful venture no matter what happens tomorrow night in Calgary. This brings the road record to 4-1-2, with nearly all of those games being in distant, hostile arenas. As mentioned Monday, the November homestand should be an opportunity to regroup and make some hay in the standings -- where the Bruins are only 1 point out of the division lead (overlooking a slight disadvantage in the GP column).

Other reviews from around the blogosphere:
Stanley Cup of Chowder
The Bruins Report
Cornelius Hardenberg and the Hockey Blog Adventure
The Bear Cave
Hub Hockey
Wicked Bruins Fan
Waiting for Stanley
Canuck Nation
Crashing the Goalie
Vancouver Viewpoint

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Bruins vs. Canucks: Stuff To Look Out For

- Letdown. The Bruins played an exciting, fast-paced, emotionally gratifying overtime game in Edmonton last night. While it should do wonders for their love of the game, it might not be so great for their focus. Expect confidence and sloppiness to characterize the first period.

- Breakthroughs. Chara, Bergeron, Ryder, and Sturm are all painfully overdue for a big game. Lucic was in that boat until he put up a hat trick on the Thrashers. Eventually your stars have to be your stars.

- Offense. The Bruins had some of their best puck control of the season last night, and it led to the shutout over a very offensive-minded Oilers team. On the road, extra risks are a bit more acceptable because they can take a crowd and a team out of the game. I'd expect to see the Bruins continue to pinch the D, crash the net and take as many shots as possible.

- 4th-liners. The Canucks get a lot of traction from their 4th line of Alex Burrows (7 pts), Ryan Kesler (9) and Jannik Hansen (4). The Bruins have gotten some fine defensive games from their 4th line of Shawn Thornton, Stephane Yelle, and Petteri Nokelainen. In the second of back-to-back road games, depth is a key factor.

- Goaltending. Thomas vs. Luongo... should be the best matchup in the league tonight.

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Monday, October 27, 2008

Bruins Making Progress in 12-Step Program

Ten games into the season, it seems that the Bruins are who we thought they were -- an improving team with a solid young core and only one foot in the playoff bracket.

As we are already heading into their second Western Conference adventure, this might be a timely moment to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the Bruins' schedule. Of course, the season always begins with the ironic arrival of the circus at the Garden, so the Bs effectively start the season with a backlog of home dates... which can be an advantage if they survive a few brutal road trips.

But the really nasty stuff doesn't come around until later (see Steps 6 and 8 below). Here's how the Bruins' schedule breaks down this season, in a format familiar to longtime Boston fans:

STEP 1: Opening Road Trip -- The Bruins were 2-1-1 on a cross-continental road trip with three tough opening-night games in hostile arenas (Denver, Minnesota, Montreal).

STEP 2: Opening Homestand -- Including a short trip to Buffalo, the Bruins finished with a 1-1-2 record against two division leaders and two cellar-dwellers.

STEP 3: West Coast Road Trip -- Only 3 games, but these are all against "counterpart" teams on the Western Conference playoff bubble in a span of 4 days. It will be an important test of resilience.

STEP 4: November Homestand -- 8 of 13 games at home, and only one road game in a distant city (Chicago). Three games against Buffalo will go a long way toward determining division standings at the end of the year.

STEP 5: Southeast Division -- The Bruins play 7 of 8 games against SE teams in December, including two each against Tampa and Atlanta. These are eminently winnable, low-pressure matchups against conference opponents. Gotta rack up points.

STEP 6: Holiday Road Trip -- A beastly turn of events, taking the Bruins away from home and hearth for both Christmas and the New Year. Furthermore, the trip stretches the team from St. Louis to New Jersey to Atlanta and back up to Pittsburgh, then a rushed return home for a second game against the Penguins in Boston. This will either exhaust young emotions or bond the team... making or breaking the midseason.

STEP 7: January Homestand -- 10 of 13 games at home, with a couple of short-range road trips in between.

STEP 8: The Gauntlet -- Habs, Flyers, Sens, Flyers, Sharks, Devils. In 10 days, the Bruins play half a dozen games against teams you'd only want to face every once in a while. This leads into a 5-game southern road trip and a return to Boston including games against the Ducks, Caps and Flyers. Perhaps the Ducks and Flyers will still suck by then, but I doubt it. Februrary will be a grueling test.

STEP 9: The Home Stretch -- After their final major road trip, the Bruins finish with 14 of 22 games at home... and only one road game (Columbus) farther away than Philly. This stretch includes juicy home dates against the Panthers, 'Yotes, Blackhawks, Kings, Isles and Lightning. It also includes 3 games against Ottawa who could conceivably have a firesale at the trade deadline. Aside from playing consecutive nights at Nassau and the Aud to finish the season, this is a great piece of playoff-run scheduling.

STEP 10: The Playoffs -- TBD.

Step 11: Necessary filler for 12-step program.

Step 12: A parade to the Garden -- Hopefully not involving elephants this time.

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Top 10 Adams Division Tough Guys

A tip of the lid to Down Goes Brown for an educational rundown of the Top 10 Norris Division Tough Guys.

Never missing an opportunity to steal someone else's idea, here's my list of top Adams Division pugilists.

A little background: The Adams Division existed from 1974-93, with a variety of lineups influenced by relocations, realignments and expansion. At various times it included the Leafs, North Stars and Senators, but for the purposes of this list I'm going with the post-1981 lineup of Boston, Buffalo, Hartford, Montreal and Quebec. Each team is represented with at least one guy on the list, though the Whalers and Nords made it a little tough. For some reason that is lost on me, the Adams got rid of most of its goons during the mid-to-late '80s, so a lot of the guys on this list toiled in relative obscurity while Probert and Clark and Grimson were getting all the

Dale Hunter - Probably one of the most hated players of all time, but undeniably a tough bastard to play against. Like Stan Jonathan he was one of those scrappy little guys who would drop 'em with anyone. He fought Ulf Samuelsson 7 times, which is a small bit of redemption for his transgressions.

His years as a Cap make it easy to forget that Hunter played 7 years in Quebec, and had a key role in the "Good Friday Brawl" in the '84 Adams Division Finals.

Lyndon Byers -
Byers' contribution to the Bruins juggernaut of the late '80s was pretty straightforward... patrol around and make sure nobody messes with Bourque or Janney (Cam Neely didn't need that kind of protection). He was never really in the upper rung of elite heavyweights, but he knew his role and was always on call.

Here's a vid of LB in a vicious bout with the Sabres' Clark Gillies:

Jim McKenzie - "Underrated" seems to be the word most often used to describe McKenzie. A clean, toe-to-toe type of brawler who was really the only tough Whaler other than Verbeek.

Anyone who can stand in against the Twister is a badass in my book:

Larry Playfair - Brad May and Rob Ray did so much to define the concept of "Sabres enforcer" that Playfair is almost forgotten. But this was an old-school, bruiser of a man who would've been right at home in Slap Shot.

Here are fights 2 and 3 of his feud with Chris Nilan:

Jay Miller - Miller was a classic "goon", peaking at 20 points but reliably racking up 250-300 PIMs per season. One of the best southpaws of his time, Miller held long-running feuds with heavyweights like Nilan, Kordic and Kocur.

Here he is against Nilan... a real Adams Division heavyweight matchup:

Brad May - May was actually a somewhat useful player, coming close to scoring 20 goals a couple of times. But his role as an enforcer, especially during the time when he and Ray were both racking up 300+ PIM on the same team, overshadows his other contributions. I don't know if any other team has ever had two players with 300 PIM, but I doubt it.

May takes on Shayne Corson in this vid:

Stan Jonathan - Like a bulldog, Jonathan was pound-for-pound the meanest breed of fighter. Considered a lightweight, he stood a mere 5'8" and rarely fought an opponent at an advantage. Though he never racked up huge PIM numbers, he held his ground as one of the top pugilists of his era. He was also a pretty solid hockey player, scoring 27 goals one year.

Here's Jonathan's infamous beatdown/forced-retirement number on Pierre Bouchard. One of the most vicious fights of all time:

John Kordic - It's easy to forget that Kordic was only 27 when he died of cocaine overdose. By that time he had already established himself as a premier tough guy for the Habs. In particular he tortured Basil McRae with numerous beatdowns, going undefeated in 10 fights. He also fought Jay Miller 12 times, which again is even more remarkable when you consider that 11 of those bouts occurred in a span of two and a half years.

His nickname was "Rambo". Wicked.

Kordic vs. Miller, 1-4:

Rob Ray - God I used to hate this guy. Any time the league makes a rule specifically aimed at your shenanigans, you've moved into Sean Avery territory. In Ray's case, it was the fact that he would do a striptease before every fight, which of course made every bout ridiculously one-sided until they started requiring tiedowns. But you can't deny that Ray was one of the truly elite goons of the 1990s. There was a period when he was probably the best fighter in the league.

A great matchup between Ray and Tie Domi:

Chris Nilan - "Knuckles" was the premier fighter in the Adams Division, period. He racked up an astounding 300 career fights, taking on everyone from Paul Coffey to Bob Probert. To date, he still has the highest PIM average of any player, ever. He was penalized 10 times in one game. They had to change the rules when he got selected for the All-Star Team. He beat down Torrie Robertson 10 times.

I could go on all night. This guy was nails.

Here's Nilan taking on Stan Jonathan, two mean SOB's representing bitter rivals in a nice scrap:

Let me know if you'd have done it different...

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Bruins vs. Sabres: Takeaways

From tonight's 3-2 SO loss:

- Manny Fernandez bought himself a little more time as #1A, and looked a bit more like his old self through most of the game.

- The night's big head-to-head matchup was Vanek vs. Chara. The Mountain Man won the battle in regulation, as Vanek took only two shots and was generally not much of a factor. But Vanek scored in the shootout after Chara whiffed on a slapshot. Barring injury this will be Chapter One in a 6-game war of attrition.

- David Krejci is better than advertised. At the end of last season he was making progress in spite of consistency issues. This year he's a much more complete player, and does all the little things that make coaches smile on the inside.

- The Bruins continue to have an awful time getting the puck into the net. For the second night in a row they outplayed their opponent through most of the game, led in shots and chances, and set up numerous quality opportunities near the crease. But for the second night in a row, they were stymied by a hot goaltender and some unfriendly posts.

- The Bruins did better in the faceoff circle, with Bergeron winning 13 of 19 and almost everyone else better than .500. They still seem to lose the key draws, which takes a big toll in the long run.

- Mark Stuart continues to underperform. He has 0 points and at least 2 ill-timed penalties so far this season. Tonight his unnecessary penalty immediately following the 2-0 lead may have cost his team a win. I wouldn't be opposed to replacing him with Matt Hunwick if this continues.

- Phil Kessel is a beast this year.

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Bruins vs. Sabres: Stuff to Look Out For

[Edit: Those following Oiler-Blogger-Gate might want to check out this interview with Oilers PR man J.J. Hebert in the Edmonton Journal. I am stunned at this man's inability to understand the difference between print media and the blogosphere. Want to know why the NHL lags behind other pro leagues in media relations? THIS is why. It reminds me a lot of the RIAA's misguided and costly persecution of online music sharers... a mistake which set them back a decade. Take heed, sports management professionals! Fans will turn on you much more quickly than you think.]

Inevitably, the Bruins and Sabres will end up shooting it out for a playoff spot this season. They finished only 2 points apart last season, and neither team has changed dramatically since May. So every time they match up, it's like a little play-in game.

- This is Versus' game of the night, so expect an audience of hundreds if not thousands.
- But seriously though, Versus has incrementally improved their hockey coverage. Like the growth of a tumor, you don't really notice it until you consider the state of things only a couple of years ago.

- Manny Fernandez gets the start again. He was solid but not special against Ottawa, especially considering he let in another softie. Tim Thomas was outstanding against the sniper-ific Pens last night. If Manny shows up with his B-game against the Sabres, this blog will officially endorse Tim Thomas for starting goaltender.

- These teams have lost only one game combined -- and by only one goal at that. The Sabres are undefeated, but lost to Atlanta in a shootout (the Bruins are better than the Thrashers). The B's have earned charity points from Montreal and Pittsburgh, but lost to the Wild (are the Sabres better than the Wild? We'll find out Thursday).

- Thomas Vanek was the Player of the Week to start the season. He's really good, and underrated. But he should not lead the league in scoring. Tonight would be a nice time for him to come back to earth.

- Buffalo has eaten the Bruins' lunch lately, especially at home. Tonight is not an insignificant test for an improving Bruins team which fancies itself playoff-material.

- The Sabres are one of the teams I really hate, along with the Habs and Flyers and Avs (the Oilers earned an honorary spot this week). I suspect that many Bruins fans feel pretty much the same way, and that Sabres fans share the sentiment. The players don't seem to care much for each other either. There is a lot of animosity in this series -- expect it to produce some venom this season. PS -- Sabres, Habs, Flyers and Avs... which one doesn't belong and why? I kid, I kid. (not really)

- PJ Axelsson will probably miss another game, which would make 3 in a row. That's getting close serious-injury territory, though everyone's mum on the exact nature of the injury. I'm predicting a groin pull -- any takers?

- A win tonight would put the Bruins only 1 point behind the currently-unbeaten-in-regulation Sabres. A loss could put them in a last-place tie with the Leafs heading into Thursday's game against Toronto. Don't listen to those tired old cliches of, "We're just trying to play 3 games at a time" and "We're definitely looking past this game". This one is big, and it will be scrappy. Good watchin'.

- Click here to watch a great anti-Sabres rant by that arrogant kid you hated in middle school, while he wears a hairy gumdrop hat.

Other Bruins-friendly previews:
Stanley Cup of Chowder
Previews from enemy trenches:
Blue & Gold

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Monday, October 20, 2008

Gaborik to Boston -- In Three Easy (And Highly Unlikely) Steps!

Since this rumor won't go away, let's address it head-on.

DISCLAIMER: I think it's quite farfetched that the Bruins would pursue Gaborik at this time. Hopefully they have learned from the cautionary tales of teams which threw the proverbial kitchen sink at a handful of individuals rather than building a deep, well-rounded team. Furthermore, it seems to me that the B's are at least 1-2 full seasons away from making a major free-agent acquisition toward a Cup run, and by that time they will probably have developed at least a couple of reliable 40-goal scorers from within. But for now I will accept the hypothesis that Pete Chiarelli considers Gaborik the next step toward Stanley Cup glory.

Step #1: Trade or waive Manny Fernandez

This is the toughest part of the equation, because there is no "ideal" option for making it happen. Fernandez carries very little trade value due to his injury history and less-than-insipring comeback effort so far this season. The Bruins would be well-served to wait until he strings together a few decent games and shop him for some kind of return in futures -- either a 2nd or 3rd round draft pick or a prospect from some desperate team. But that risks the possibility that he could be re-injured or simply melt down before the trigger is pulled... or that nobody would take the bait, in which case the only option would be the waiver wire. I believe that if Fernandez were waived he would be snatched up by the Avs, who have the cap space and the need for a decent puckstopper. In this case the Bruins would lose a $4.3 million, former #1 goaltender and get nothing in return.

Step #2: Offer either Phil Kessel or Blake Wheeler for Gaborik

Another tough decision, as Kessel and Wheeler are both excellent long-term projects for the Bruins and appear to be making large strides this season. But these are the only two players on the roster who would be suitable returns for Gaborik, carry a large enough salary ($2m+) to clear significant cap room, AND would not be considered a crippling loss to the Bruins franchise.

Step #3: Negotiate a $7m-ish/year contract

This is the biggest risk of all for Boston. The truth is that Gaborik is worth between 7 and 8 million on the open market, yet he has reportedly turned down a long-term offer from the Wild in the range of $10m/year. Conventional wisdom says that he's stonewalling the Wild regardless of their offer sheets and will take less money to play elsewhere. But as Pittsburgh found out this summer, conventional wisdom is often misguided. It's entirely possible that Gaborik, upon being traded to the Bruins, would stonewall Chiarelli as well and simply leave town as a free agent. In that case the Bruins would have traded a quasi-#1 goaltender and a future star forward for half a season of Gaborik. Bottom line: Gaborik MUST be receptive to a $7-8 million multi-year contract with Boston before any move is made.

Of course, this would have a massive long-term impact on the Bruins roster and cap situation. Gaborik and Chara would combine for a cap impact of $15m/year, and the Bruins would be squeezed against the ceiling for the forseeable future. Not to mention that if Gaborik is injured, underperforms or simply leaves town the Bruins will have lost significant futures in either Kessel or Wheeler.

The upside, of course, would be the addition of the first 50-goal threat since Cam Neely. It's much more difficult to win a Cup without at least one top-level scoring threat, so the addition of Gaborik would at least superficially signal a serious commitment to building a top-quality team.

Overall quality of this trade for the Bruins: 7 on a scale of 10
Likelihood of it actually happening: 4 on a scale of 10

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Saturday, October 18, 2008

Oilers: "Fans are just not that important to us."

Or something like that. After reading this farewell post by one of the stalwart members of the Oilogosphere, I now have a new team to hate in the Western Conference.

News flash: People who work really hard to give your team FREE publicity are not a detriment to your organization. You twats.

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Bruins vs. Habs: Takeaways

The shootout: Nothing new to hear a diehard fan complain about the shootout, but this game really highlighted a weakness with the current format -- with only 6 shooters, the game ends too quickly. After two and a half hours of furious physical action, spectacular saves, and cut-it-with-a-knife tension, the game ended with a whimper. Here's my vote to move to a 5-shot tiebreaker, in order to extend the spectacle slightly and give it time to build its own sense of momentum.

Comeback-ability: The Bruins have trailed at some point in all three games this season. Against Colorado, they came back quickly to win. Down by 3 to the Wild, they rallied and made it a nail-biter. Last night they salvaged a charity point by scoring 3 straight against the Habs. That's good coaching, folks.

Hit parade: After playing two pretty soft games, the Bruins finally started breaking in the shoulder pads. Numerous large hits all over the ice slowed down the Habs attack and it looked like they were hesitating to rush the net. True to form, PJ Axelsson got absolutely destroyed along the boards.

Savvy/Ryder combo: Jeesh, two more goals for Marc Savard and a few good shots for Ryder. Savard now has 5 goals and an assist in his first 3 games, an inversion of his typical goal/assist ratio. Ryder picked up an A for his 4th point of the season.

Lucic continues to struggle: Looch started the game on the top line with Savard and Ryder, but got demoted quickly. Other than picking up 14 PIM, he was fairly invisible on the ice and spent no time on special teams. Might be a good idea to put him on the occasional PP to get his season started... 1 assist in 3 games is not the returns we need from this guy.

Faceoff problems: David Krejci played well, but was an eyebrow-raising 1-f0r-12 in the faceoff circle. That kind of thing will kill your chances. Other results: Bergeron struggled, winning 7 of 18; Savard won a solid 12 of 19; Yelle was perfect at 6-for-6. [correction: make that 6 wins and 6 losses for Yelle. He was still perfect on the faceoffs he won, though.]

New Guys: I was impressed with Matt Hunwick, who made some defensive errors but was creative and sharp offensively. He's making the Alberts trade look a little better. Sobotka was up to his usual grit-and-sandpaper hijinks, but had little impact.

BellForum Crowd: Perhaps the centennial celebration brought out the wine-and-cheese crowd, but the Habs fans seemed a bit more muted than usual. Other than the frenzy at the end of the first period, there was a sort of chill across the audience -- at least that's how it came across on television. Boos were there for Chara and Ryder as expected, but also for the Canadiens power play. Getting booed while ahead by 2 at the end of the second period during your centennial-celebration home opener? Yikes.

A pretty cool intro montage from this game can be found here.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Bruins vs. Habs: Stuff to Look Out For

Not that a Boston-Montreal matchup needs any extra hype, but here are a few little plotlines to consider as we go into tonight's game:

Ryder's homecoming: Lost in all the pregame centennial hoopla will be the return of Michael Ryder to the BellForum. So far he's lived up to his hype (and contract) with 3 points in his first 2 games. More importantly Ryder has clicked with Marc Savard, as each of them has made a sweet dish to the other for a goal. There will be a lot of nerves prior to gametime, and probably a lot of heckling, but Ryder has been one of the Bruins' best players and has to show up in top form tonight.

Sobotka back in the lineup: Everybody knew that Vlad the Lesser deserved to make the big-league roster, so it might be a blessing in disguise that he was called up to replace Kobasew. Sobotka, like Kobie, adds a spark to the lineup that can jump-start the Bruins out of their mental hibernations. More importantly, I would expect him to be on the 4th line with Yelle and Thornton, meaning Milan Lucic will most likely be taking on a larger role.

[update: bruinshockeyblog reports that George Laraque will make his Habs debut tonight, and Carbonneau has stated more or less directly that the intention is to erase Lucic as a physical presence. This will be a major clash of muscle, and is pretty much guaranteed to lead to a punching contest sooner or later.]

The Habs are a bunch of pricks: They're bad enough under normal circumstances, but with a large pregame ceremony celebrating a full century of being poor winners, the Canadiens and their fans will have a little extra French in their system tonight. Look for guys like Kovalev and Lang, to whom obnoxiousness is precious fuel, to have a big game.

Sweet, sweet discipline: Though nobody will say it out loud, Andrew Alberts' tendency to jump out of position had a lot to do with his banishment to Philadelphia. The Wild had some success stretching the Boston defense and forcing them out of position, and the Habs would love to catch the Bruins playing a little pond hockey. The only way the B's win the game is by playing smart, disciplined defense... keep an eye on Matt Hunwick to cause a few skipped heartbeats.

The odds are on our side: The Bruins haven't won a game in Quebec in nearly two calendar years. Tonight will be either their 100th victory or their 200th loss in Montreal. The laws of probability favor victory for the Bruins on several fronts, though probability has never been much of a factor in this rivalry.

Other preview action:
the-jumbotron has a pre-game primer including all the French you should ever need to know.

Stanley Cup of Chowder has some fun link action and vids.

Inside the Den has a nice piece on Michael Ryder's return to Montreal.

WickedBruinsFan makes it all seem very easy to understand.

The Bear Cave has all the stats you can handle, fool.

The Big Bad Bruins is having marriage problems.

Cornelius Hardenberg teaches a life lesson at the end of the post, not unlike G.I. Joe.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

New York Rangers Retirement Community, Pt. 2

Last week we took a little trip down Memory Lane, recalling the Rangers' long and colorful history of taking broken-down old hacks and using them to sell a few tickets before their hips gave out. Today we'll wrap up our retrospective with a look at the Rangers' reclamation projects of the post-expansion era.

You might note that the shot-callers in New York were a little more cautious about taking huge risks during the 1980s and early 1990s, but once the money started flowing in the late '90s the discipline went out the window and next thing you knew they were swapping high-priced assets that had virtually no actual value... wait, what were we talking about?

Phil Esposito - Little to say about Espo's days as a Ranger that New York fans haven't already kvetched about. The Bruins, sensing a decline in their franchise forward's game, traded him for Brad Park and Jean Ratelle in a league-altering deal. Though Esposito was still an elite forward -- he led the Rangers in scoring in every full season he played there -- the critics smelled blood and neither Espo nor the Rangers ever really lived the trade down.
Milestone Achieved in the Wrong Sweater: In 1979 Esposito became the second player, after Gordie Howe, to score 700 career goals.

Bobby Hull - "Wait a minute... Bobby Hull never played for the Rangers!", you say. Not so fast... while he never played an NHL game for the Blueshirts, Hull suited up with them for 4 games as part of the super-obscure, slightly-embarrasing Dagens Nyheter Cup in 1981. This preseason tournament, named after a Stockholm newspaper and pitting NHL teams against unpronouncable Swedish clubs, was an early effort at putting roots in Northern European markets (sound familiar?). There is virtually no record of these games online -- perhaps for the best that this unfortunate attempt at a comeback is not remembered by posterity (are you listening, Petr Nedved?).

Marcel Dionne - In a sad postscript to his career with the Kings, Dionne delivered an ultimatum to GM Rogie Vachon in 1986: either improve the quality of the team or trade Dionne to a team interested in winning. Vachon shocked the hockey world by calling Dionne's bluff, cynically trading the Kings' greatest player to the painfully mediocre Rangers. Dionne managed 30 goals the following season, but trudged through his experience in New York and finally retired in the IHL.
Milestone Achieved in the Wrong Sweater: In 1988 Dionne became the third player, after Howe and Espo, to score 700.

Guy Lafleur - Perhaps the saddest attempt at a Rangers-style "comeback" is that of Lafleur, who was already enshrined in the Hall of Fame with an untouchable reputation when he decided to give it one last spin in 1988. Inexplicably, Lafleur left the Canadiens organization in favor of a brief stint with the Rangers, where he scored 18 goals in 67 games before suffering a knee injury. Lafleur mitigated the damage and signed with the Nordiques for the next two seasons, scoring a total of 24 goals in Quebec City before mercifully retiring for good.
Milestone Achieved in the Wrong Sweater: Played his 1000th career game as a Ranger.

Jari Kurri - Though he established himself as the greatest Finn of all time in Edmonton and Los Angeles, Kurri went through a late-career "utility" phase that probably eroded his legacy to the bandwagon fans of the late 1990s. It began in 1996, when he was traded from the Kings to the Rangers in anticipation of a deep playoff run. As it turned out, the Rangers won only 5 playoff games and Kurri immediately signed a contract with a team called the Mighty Ducks (at the time this was like your prom date sneaking out the back door of the gym with Rick Moranis).

Wayne Gretzky - Nothing says "Late 1990s NHL" like Gretzky signing with the Rangers. As part of a bizarre scheme to reunite the 1988 All-Star Team, the Rangers acquired Gretzky in an offseason signing with the aim of pairing him with Mark Messier, Luc Robitaille, and Pat Lafontaine. But the aging Gretzky no longer dominated, scoring only 9 goals in his final 70 games with New York. Though it sold a lot of jerseys and provided a bigger stage for the career-records phase of Gretzky's career, this career move provided a sad microcosm of all that had gone wrong with the franchise and the league.
Milestones Achieved in the Wrong Sweater: Considering Gretzky owns nearly every significant career scoring record, it goes without saying that nearly all of them were accomplished as a Ranger. These include the all-time records for goals, assists, and points.

Pat Lafontaine - Nobody likes playing hockey in New York State like Pat Lafontaine. The only player ever to spend his entire career playing for the three NY teams (the Isles, Sabres and Rangers), Lafontaine spent 67 games in the blue jersey in 1997-98. It was a strange move, considering Lafontaine's career was cut short by recurrent concussion problems, which arose from a dirty hit by the Rangers' James Patrick in the 1990 playoffs. Lafontaine clearly did not remember the incident, or he would also have remembered a crowd of Rangers fans trying to turn over his ambulance on the way to the hospital. Ironically, Lafontaine's career ended after he collided with another Ranger, this time a teammate, and was forced to retire.
Milestone Achieved in the Wrong Sweater: Lafontaine joined the 1000-point club as a Ranger.

Esa Tikkanen - Rangers fans remember Tikkanen most fondly for his key role in their 1994 Cup run. But let's fast-forward 5 years -- after playing less than a full season each in St. Louis, New Jersey, Vancouver, then back with the Rangers, then Miami, then Washington, and then back with the Rangers again, Tikkanen found himself in the role of quintessential journeyman-refusing-to-hang-'em-up-before-it-gets-embarrassing. Considering he didn't score during his 32-game stint with the Rangers, the only imaginable upside to this signing is that he could talk trash in several languages on the subway.
Milestone Achieved in the... um, Right Jersey?: I will go out on a limb and say that no other player has ever had three separate tours of duty with the Rangers, interrupted by stints with other teams.

Theo Fleury - One of the great hockey tragedies of the past 20 years is the career of Theo Fleury. The like-able, diminutive forward couldn't outrun his problems with substance abuse. His career took a swan dive after the turn of the century, and he found himself in the league's most tabloid-oriented market at just the wrong time. Amid chants of "Crackhead Theo" from the fans at Nassau Coliseum, Fleury struggled back up to the 30-goal plateau before simply burning out. He finished his career in Europe.
Milestone Achieved in the Wrong Jersey: Scored both his 400th goal and 1000th point, and played his 1000th game as a Ranger.

Pavel Bure - As part of a bizarre scheme to reunite the 1998 All-Star Team, the Rangers acquired Bure in a draft-day deal with the aim of pairing him with Eric Lindros and Theo Fleury. Bure's career never really recovered, and he scored only 31 goals in two seasons for the Blueshirts before calling it quits.
Milestone Achieved in the Wrong Sweater: You realize how much potential Bure left on the table when you see that he played his 700th career game as a Ranger, two games before retiring.

Eric Lindros - You just knew this one had to happen. Once the league's most feared player, Lindros was an empty shell by 2001 due to numerous concussions and an open feud with Flyers management. After sitting out much of a season, he finally pressured a trade to New York for a boatload of top prospects and earned nearly $10 million per season with the Rangers. Though he looked to be on the right track with 37 goals his first season in New York, his game eroded quickly and his 8th concussion sealed the deal. After building a veteran squad around aspirations of a Lindros-led juggernaut, the Rangers cut ties in 2004.
Milestone Achieved in the Wrong Sweater: Lindros scored his 800th point with the Rangers.

Jaromir Jagr - To Jagr's credit, he waited three years before delivering on the inevitable "off-ice sideshow" routine that we all expected. He dominated early in his Rangers career, scoring 54 goals in his first season -- before dropping off sharply to goal totals of 30 and 25. By the end, we all knew what was coming... Pouty Jagr replaced Determined Jagr and next thing you knew, he was off to Europe to (presumably) finish his career. All things considered, he left his bridges relatively intact compared to his exits from Pittsburgh and Washington.
Milestone Achieved in the Wrong Sweater: Jagr scored his 600th goal with the Blueshirts, and left the team only one point short of 1600.

Brendan Shanahan - The eminently respectable Shanahan has resurrected his career several times over, so it was no surprise to see him end up on 7th Ave. Though he's certainly lost a step as a sub-30 goal scorer, his biggest obstacle is simply whether the Rangers can afford to keep him on the roster. As of the second week of this season, Shanahan remains unsigned and rumors are beginning to swirl that he'll soon find his way across the Hudson to finish his career in the grazing meadows of Newark.
Milestone Achieved in the Wrong Sweater: Tied the record for most career re-inventions, having been a cornerstone player in no fewer than four franchises.

Future Rangers Prospects: Mats Sundin is looking for a team....

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Friday, October 10, 2008

Good Signs of Things to Come

When Tim Thomas woke up in a waterbed covered in whisky and urine this morning, these were the fuzzy memories that cycled through his head:

- Blake Wheeler laying Darcy Tucker flat on his ass, then scoring his first career goal in his first career game.
- Marc Savard making a nifty (almost)no-look pass to Michael Ryder, who buried it like a guy who can score 30 goals.
- Patrice Bergeron being stoned on three brilliant opportunities, yet still managing a 2-point game.
- Phil Kessel whirling around the ice like a dynamo, or a guy trying not to be traded.
- David Krejci not missing a beat since last season.
- Aaron Ward shattering the glass with a slapshot.
- Zdeno Chara taking one decent slapshot all night, and ringing it right off Savard and into the net.
- Chuck Kobasew being an X factor, and picking up 2 assists.
- Dennis Wideman scoring a +3.
- Chara blocking 6 shots.
- Andrew Ference getting 6 takeaways.
- Milan Lucic throwing 5 hits in 13 minutes.
- Despite all of that, Thomas having to make 35 shots to preserve a crazy win... the first time the Bruins have won an opener since Steve Shields was the #1 goalie.
- Some twat from Def Leppard inverting the Stanley Cup, possibly with Satanic significance.

He's pretty confused about that last memory, which might have had something to do with the crusted blood on his nose, but Timmy Tom will sleep easy tonight knowing it's turning out to be a damned fine road trip already.

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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The New York Rangers: Hockey's Golden Parachute since 1926

Every NHL franchise has an indelible image that summarizes the "spirit" of the team. For Montreal, it's the steely eyes of Maurice Richard on the attack. For Philadelphia, it's a gap-toothed Bobby Clarke breaking some Russian ankle. For Boston, it's Bobby Orr's famous leap... or perhaps a lunchpail guy like Espo or Neely driving to the net.

For the New York Rangers, it's a geriatric Lester Patrick standing in net, looking curiously akin to Reggie Dunlop and giving us an idea what it would be like if there was a Seniors Tour in the NHL.

For over 80 years, the Rangers have provided late-career opportunties to declining stars. For most of that time, they've been hoplessly inept on the ice yet have remained one of the league leaders in merchandise sales. Coincidence? You be the judge. Today we begin a rundown of the Rangers' long and colorful history of reclamation projects -- whose Rangers experiences are typically overlooked in their biographies, out of a sense of decorum. Even a seasoned hockey fan might be surprised at a few names on the list.

Due to the overwhelming amount of material I discovered in the course of this project, we'll focus on pre-expansion players today and move to the post-expansion era later this week.

Howie Morenz - The "Babe Ruth of Hockey", Morenz was instrumental in defining our concept of a star hockey player. Often given credit for inspiring the formation formation of the Bruins and Rangers franchises, he spent 11 brilliant seasons in Montreal before age and injuries soured his reputation with the fans. Shipped to Chicago in the league's first mega-trade, he was eventually benched and finally sent to New York, where he scored only twice for the Rangers in 1935-36. Thankfully, the Habs had the grace to re-sign Morenz before a leg injury cut his life short the next season.

Doug and Max Bentley - Long before the Sutter Brothers owned the NHL, the Bentleys were a Chicago hockey institution. Both Doug and Max are Hall of Famers, and between the two of them earned three scoring titles, 6 All-Star Team appearances, a Hart Trophy, a Lady Byng, nearly 500 goals and the title of "Top Hockey Player in Chicago for the First Half of the 20th Century". Late in their career, after Max had won a Cup in Toronto, the Bentleys reunited for a final tour in New York -- scoring only 16 goals combined and finally exiling themselves to the WHL for the rest of their careers.

Doug Harvey - Ask a real hockey old-schooler who was the best defenseman of all time, and you'll likely hear Harvey's name enter the conversation. After winning 6 Norris Trophies and being elected to the All-Star team 11 seasons straight, Harvey became one of the early casualties in the movement for a Players' Union. Canadiens management were so upset by Harvey's attempt at organized labor that they dealt him to the lowly Rangers. Though he won another Norris in New York, Harvey's career went into a pitiful decline as he had no other career prospects but to continue playing hockey -- New York was the first of 6 NHL and AHL teams Harvey would sample before retiring in obscurity with the Blues.
Milestone Achieved in the Wrong Sweater: Harvey's 7th Norris stood as a record until Bobby Orr won his 8th.

Bernie Geoffrion
- Few hockey fans realize that Geoffrion, one of the pioneers of the slapshot, finished his career in New York after a spat with the Canadiens organization. After being passed over for the Habs captainship, Geoffrion retired for two seasons. In Foreman mode, he joined the Rangers and posted two respectable but obscure seasons before taking over as coach -- an experiment that lasted less than a season.
Milestone Achieved in the Wrong Sweater: Geoffrion's 393rd goal as a right wing was second only to Maurice Richard at the time.

Terry Sawchuk - Sawchuk, whose life seemed consumed by problems with quitting, was by far the most decorated goaltender of the pre-expansion era. Having already achieved nearly every conceivable honor available to his position, Sawchuk played an embarrassing season with the Kings before returning for a last hurrah with the Red Wings. That should have been the end of the story, but Sawchuk signed on with the Rangers the next year. As fate would have it, this decision would lead to his death as the result of a drunken brawl with Ranger teammate Ron Stewart.
Milestones Achieved in the Wrong Sweater: Sawchuk's 447th win set a mark not equaled for 30 years; his single shutout as a Ranger set a career record that still stands.

Tim Horton - This one seems to really piss off Leafs fans, in much the same manner as Orr's trade to the Hawks is a painful memory for the Bruins faithful. In an unsurprising sign of things to come, the Leafs dumped their greatest defenseman on the Rangers in a pure salary-clearing move after 18 years and 4 Cups. Horton scored only three goals in two seasons with the Rangers, then made pit stops in Pittsburgh and Buffalo on the way to becoming better known for his great culinary contributions to Western culture.

Later this week: Players of the post-expansion era.

Tonight: At long last, the puck drops on the 2008-09 season. Bruins vs. Avs on Versus.

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Thursday, October 2, 2008

Rask Leaves Camp Disappointed (that the Bruins aren't being sold)

Quick updates today, as we draw ever-closer to games that count:

- Sadly, Jeremy Jacobs is not interested in selling the Bruins. So much for my proposal that the Federal Government bail out Jacobs by purchasing the team and selling it to someone who gives a rat's ass.

- Four more players were sent back to Providence: Tuukka Rask, Matt Lashoff, Jeff Penner and Martin St. Pierre. Rask and Lashoff will be on the short-list for a callup to the NHL, and Penner might see a little ice time later this season. St. Pierre is an AHL lifer.

- Gabe and John at the Jumbotron put together a player-by-player preview for MYFO that will make you far more intimate with the Bruins' roster than you really would've wanted.

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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Bruins Training Camp: Top 5 Storylines

1) Two's company, three's a crowd
Coming into camp, we knew that Tim Thomas and Manny Fernandez would be fighting for the starting spot in goal. What we didn't know was that Tuukka Rask would emerge as the leading contender.

As if it's not complicated enough already, the Bruins are now operating with a 1A/1B/1C goalie tandem. Thomas and Fernandez have both looked rusty at times, while Rask appears cool and confident against big-league snipers. It's unlikely that the Finn will find himself in the driver's seat before the New Year, but he's giving Bruins management a good reason to take a Habs-like approach to their goaltending controversy.

2) Trade coming down the tracks quotes Pete Chiarelli as saying there is a "better than 50 percent" chance that the Bruins will make a salary-clearing trade in the next few days. Phil Kessel's name is being floated as a possible piece of trade bait, though I suspect there would be a minor revolt in the fanbase if Kessel were traded so early in his development. Peter Schaefer, on the other hand, is probably keeping a packed suitcase handy -- if Chiarelli can't find a trade parter, waiving Schaefer wouldn't be out of the question.

[update: The Boston Herald has dropped Marc Savard's name as a possible casualty in a blockbuster trade. This would be not only shocking, but senseless for a host of reasons -- Savard nearly led the league in assists last season on a defensive-minded team, Patrice Bergeron is still a question mark as #1 center, the Ryder/Savard combo would be gone, and frankly it just doesn't make sense for the Bruins to make a blockbuster trade right now.]

3) Lucic struggles
Milan Lucic is all the rage in Boston these days, with Cam Neely comparisons being thrown about quite liberally among the fans and media. So the big winger's lack of production in the preseason might be a damper on the hype -- perhaps it wasn't such a good idea to assume that the 19-year-old would enjoy a Hall of Fame career before being crippled by Ulf Samuelsson.

In 4 preseason games, including an 8-3 thrashing of the Habs, Lucic has one secondary assist. That's not exactly top-line production, and suggests that extra defensive attention might become a factor in the dreaded sophomore season. Keep an eye on Looch's development, because it will figure into expectations not only for this season, but the Bruins' long-term outlook as well. The Bruins Hockey Blog suggests we might still be a year or two away from seeing the "real" Lucic.

4) Wheeler rolling
A counterbalance to Lucic's struggles is the encouraging play of Blake Wheeler. The young winger, who ditched the Coyotes organization to play in Boston, has been turning heads with a goal and three assists so far in the preseason. By all appearances, Wheeler has earned at least a brief opportunity to impress at the NHL level, probably displacing Jeremy Reich as a 4th-line winger. As a #5 overall pick in 2004 (just behind some guys named Ovechkin, Malkin, Barker and Ladd) Wheeler was expected to be a future All-Star -- perhaps we're seeing a turning point in Bruins history. The Bear Cave details Wheeler's chances of snagging a roster spot.

5) Ghosts of Injuries Past
Like the goaltending issue, this storyline has been played to death in the media already. Nevertheless, B's fans will be on the injury watch for the first several weeks of the season to ensure that several key players are able to recover from the injury-riddled 07-08 campaign. The Bruins Hockey Blog reports that Zdeno Chara is expected to suit up tonight in Montreal, testing his injured shoulder for the first time this preseason. In the same game, Manny Fernandez will continue to work on his recovery from IR, and of course Patrice Bergeron will be on the watch list all season to ensure he's not the next Lindros.

Fortunately, the Bruins don't face the Flyers until February.

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