After hours at the Backhand Shelf. It’s not technically after hours since me and Daniel Wagner, who will be sharing evening duties with me, also lives in British Columbia and the sun hasn’t even set yet on this rainy Monday evening.
While Justin has a wealth of experience as both a hockey player and a writer, I have little of either. Only as a member of the press did I ever catch a whiff of the tangy mix of sweat and Gatorade, and you will learn quite early on that I have little love for any physical aspect of hockey that isn’t designed solely to knock somebody off the puck and change possession.
My appreciation of hockey, and all of sports, really, is a quenchable desire to see the underdog succeed. We get into statistical and advanced analysis to find the next underdog. Martin St. Louis burning the team that cut him because he was too small in the Stanley Cup Finals is a tremendous success story, as is Tim Thomas, destined to be a journeyman minor-leaguer, jumping onto an NHL job and putting together what is the most spectacular season and playoffs of hockey we have ever seen from a goaltender.
Championing the principles of “Moneyball”, the novelization of the popular Brad Pitt movie, which is really a search for winning attributes in the most unexpected of places. The Nashville Predators and Tampa Bay Lightning both had good playoff showings last season despite having respectively the 21st and 23rd highest payrolls in the NHL.
The Lightning even managed to climb 23 points in the standings despite losing 3 goals and 15 points from one year to the next from superstars in Vincent Lecavalier and Steven Stamkos and the afore-mentioned St. Louis. Much of Tampa’s work done with new management and General Manager Steve Yzerman came through better application of on-ice systems and the re-creation of the depth forward unit, which focused extensively on team defense and not so much the traditional “grind” lines that existed under the old regime. And then they got a good goalie, which is pretty cool too.
Jeffrey Vinik, who owns the Lightning, also has a small stake in the Boston Red Sox, who, despite their late-season collapse this season, have been a perennial contender for the past decade with one of baseball’s largest research & development departments which includes statistical whiz Bill James. I have to believe that some of that thinking has shaped the way that the Lightning do their business.
As far as the Predators are concerned, they have found talent in unlikely places, typically scraping the bottom of the scrap-heap and successfully finding defensemen and goalies so that they can trade them away when they get too expensive. Dan Hamhuis, while a big part of Vancouver’s Stanley Cup run and an equally big loss in the Finals, was hardly missed in Nashville last season. The Predators know where to look for talent and can consequently get cheap guys who can play good team defense, or find 20-goal scorers from the NHL dust bin. Steve Sullivan (although he’ll play in Pittsburgh this season) became an anonymous afterthought in Chicago to a star in Nashville and Sergei Kostitsyn broke out for 23 goals last season, nearly doubling his entire 155-career goal total in just 77 games.
Unlike baseball, where there is such a big gap between the rich teams and the poor teams, the salary cap and its floor keep clubs relatively equal in payroll, although no team is secure from losing their stars. Brad Richards bolted from Dallas to the bright lights of Manhattan this summer, inking a nine-year/$60M contract with the New York Rangers. Ilya Bryzgalov left the Stars division brethren Phoenix Coyotes and signed a similar deal, nine years and $51M with Philadelphia. The salary cap has increased 25.3 million dollars since the lockout, and that kind of money hinders a team like the Predators to re-sign Shea Weber long-term, and I expect similar trouble coming to terms with Ryan Suter this upcoming season. Part of management is finding the right guys to become your new stars, new stars for fans to endlessly talk about next to the water cooler or babble about online.
So, yes. My space on this blog will mostly be about finding the forgotten players who make our league fun. The Niclas Bergfors’, Martin Havlats and Scott Gomezzes of the world who get overlooked and undersold by fans as a result of a number of factors (although given how much he makes, I don’t expect Gomez sweats about being a target of scorn in Montreal). I’ll also have more jokes than were in this long-winded assessment of two teams that I respect. Hockey is about fun and its analysts shouldn’t expect their reviews of the game to mean any more than that. I’ll use some advanced numbers in this space, but it will read more like a bathroom magazine and less like a calculator.
The comment section below is designed to vent at the writer. If, in the off-chance you read all the way to the end, feel free to add an insightful or informative post. Mine or Daniel’s posts will often be the last post of the day, so this will be a good spot to also discuss evening games, marvel over the day’s exquisite backhand shelf goals, or, more likely, to yell about your favourite team’s stupid coach and the how the stupid powerplay will never score a single stupid goal with that stupid guy on the ice.