kevin burgundy

kevin burgundy

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Late Entrants To The Calder Race

Michael Grabner - New York Islanders and Brad Marchand - Boston Bruins

It goes without saying that the NHL’s stretch drive plays a crucial role in determining each season’s Calder trophy winner. It just so happens that the 2010-2011 season won’t be any different either.

What was once considered a two-horse race between Carolina’s Jeff Skinner and San Jose’s Logan Couture has quickly changed. To quote Simon Pegg in the very underrated Hot Fuzz, “[Stuff] just got real.”

Cheap excuse to throw in a movie quote? Maybe. But it does speak truth of Brad Marchand and Michael Grabner. Both forwards  have jumped into some contention for the award in recent weeks.

(I’m not suggesting a few weeks worth of great play can win an a Calder trophy. I am suggesting that a few weeks worth of great play can get a player in that wheelhouse of discussion.)

In his last 15 games, Grabner has scored 16 goals. 16 goals. Keep in mind Nicklas Backstrom, Nathan Horton and Henrik Sedin haven’t scored that many all year long. And if that wasn’t impressive enough, 10 of those goals have come in the Islanders last six games. To put things in perspective, the Florida Panthers have scored a total of 12 goals in their last five games.

Grabner currently sits third in rookie scoring, 11 points back of Skinner for the league lead (among rookies). Couture has 36 points while Edmonton Oilers rookie Taylor Hall has 34.

It took Brad Marchand nine games to score his first goal of the season (and of his career too!). After 31 games this season, Marchand had tallied four goals and 12 points. Following the Christmas break, Marchand has scored 12 goals and 19 points in 23 games. Clearly a huge progression for the young Halifax native.

Although Skinner has a comfortable lead on the rest of the rookies (for now), players like Marchand and Grabner are really starting to come on. It’s also interesting to note that Marchand and Grabner, like Couture, have impressive plus-minus numbers (especially Grabner, who’s one of four Islanders with a plus rating).

Cheers to guys like Marchand and Grabner for making this race interesting. While I still think Jeff Skinner will end up as the 2011 rookie of the year, the race is truly on now.

Progress On The Island?

John Tavares and the New York Islanders

The Dallas Stars are having a fantastic season. Despite struggling since the NHL’s All-Star weekend, the Stars are still the top team in the Pacific Division and third in the Western Conference.

On the other side of the pond, it’s the same old story for the New York Islanders this season. They are forever struggling and destined to miss the playoffs again.

But guess what the Stars have in common with the 28th place Islanders? This might actually surprised you.

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It’s doom and gloom around the Washington Capitals these days. The team is a disappointing 5th place in the Eastern Conference and their franchise player, Alex Ovechkin, is on pace to score just 80 points this season… his lowest point total ever!

As if that wasn’t enough, various hockey pundits have claimed the Capitals Stanley Cup window is closing and closing fast during this season of horrors.

It goes deeper too. Some observers believe the Capitals must go all-in this season or their shot at Lord Stanley will be gone for years.

I realize not everyone feels this way, but frankly it’s ridiculous anyone could.

As it stands, Washington isn’t built to win the Stanley Cup with today’s roster. Sorry, it’s just not happening.

That’s not a shot at the team. They have their top line in place – albeit a struggling top line – and some very good pieces on defense, but they don’t have a solid second line center (or second line for that matter) or proven goaltending.

Thing is, all that good stuff is coming. That’s the beauty of building contending sports teams; it’s about patience, following the plan and patience. Did I mention patience? It’s clear GM George McPhee is following a pretty good blueprint with a number of key pieces still a few years away from the big club. Consider that Ovechkin, along with the rest of the Caps nucleus Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom, Jeff Schultz, John Erskine, Karl Alzner, John Carlson and others aren’t going anywhere any time soon. Also consider that most of those players, perhaps all of them, have yet to hit their primes.

Add in some developing players with great potential including Marcus Johansen (a potential solid two-way, second line center) and 2011 World Junior Championship stars Evgeny Kuznetsov (a very talented winger) and Cody Eakin. (another strong depth center). I didn’t even mention netminders Semyon Varlamov or Michal Neuvirth, two goalies who are developing nicely for the Capitals.

This doesn’t mean the Capitals can’t or won’t go on a great run this season or next. In fact that would only help them in the long term. If you ask me, the Capitals window doesn’t truly open for a few more years. Everything that’s happening with the Capitals is part of the plan. The Capitals are learning and still very young. It’s not like McPhee set out to execute a short sighted strategy that wraps up with an all-or-nothing conclusion in just three or four years. Again, patience is the key to the growth of the team and its individuals. Would the Capitals like to be playing better and winning more? Sure, but the Caps are still among the top 10 teams in the league. It’s not all doom and gloom as I poked fun at earlier.

For any fans or naysayers claiming otherwise, this is a team poised to be contenders for years to come. This is a team that hasn’t come close to its potential and development yet.

This is a team who’s window hasn’t fully opened, much less begun closing.

Taking Chances Is A Good Thing

NHL Superskills event as part of the 2011 NHL All-Star Weekend

Hockey is not a premiere sport in the United States. To be honest I’m not sure it ever will be either. While most sports fans would probably agree about that, I doubt that’s acceptable to the 24 owners of American NHL teams. Obviously they’d like to see the league and game be more popular. Can’t say I blame them either.

That puts commissioner Gary Bettman somewhere between a rock and hard place. It’s a clear, but very difficult objective for the Bettman and the NHL. As a result, the league has made significant efforts to think outside the box and do anything they can to raise the game’s profile and popularity over the last few years.

It would be easy to imagine a scenario of the NHL adopting wacky changes or gimmicky promotions to generate more interest and buzz. After all, there’s a fine line between genius and insanity, and Bettman’s reputation in most hockey circles is probably closer to the latter.

But despite the pressure and ugly potential (let’s be honest – the combination of pressure and potential could be disastrous here), the NHL has emerged as one of the most forward thinking sports leagues around.

Even though Bettman and co. aren’t perfect, I think it’s time we give the NHL credit for taking chances and scoring win after win with unique and risky ideas.

Over the last few years the NHL has pushed major league sports promotion with must-see TV like the 24/7 Penguins-Capitals HBO documentary, subtle rule changes that actually improved the game, and fantastic events like the Winter Classic and the 2011 All-Star game draft. I can’t think of another sport that would try a draft like the NHL did on Friday.

While the draft could be improved for future All-Star Weekends (I could do without interviews between every selection and would love to see the draft happen on the ice, minutes before the actual All-Star game), it was ballsy and fun. I loved seeing players pick rivals, teammates etc… I loved the awkward conversation between Carey Price and Tim Thomas about Shea Weber’s “clapper.” And watching Phil Kessel get selected last created a sense of humility that’s often lost among superstar athletes. Also, he’s so easy to dislike. That whole sequence was perfect, weird and amazing all at once.

And even though I made fun of the NHL’s Research, Development and Orientation camp last summer, I don’t know another sport so open to trying out new rules and concepts to improve it’s game.

The NHL has taken chances to advance the game and it’s popularity and they’ve done it in a way that hasn’t jeopardized how fans and potential fans perceive or relate to it. They’ve walked that fine line of appeasing traditionalists while appealing to new fans.

The NHL isn’t perfect and still has a long way to go, but let’s take a step back and give credit for taking chances and doing some unique things. It’s been mostly successful and redefined how many see the NHL.

Feeling Like Gretzky

Wayne Gretzky at the Heritage Classic in 2003

I couldn’t imagine scoring 894 goals and 2857 points in any hockey league. Especially not in the best hockey league in the world.

Actually I can’t imagine doing anything that requires a high degree of skill 2857 times. Not even at a mediocre level. I think that made my head spin just thinking about it.

I realize Wayne Gretzky’s birthday was yesterday, but I had a weird thought last night while playing hockey. Or is that whilst playing hockey? Whichever it is, it’s clear grammar is one more thing I don’t do at a high skill level.

Whenever I score a goal in a not so awesome 11pm Wednesday night beer league hockey game, I get a strange feeling of nervousness. I quickly think of all the things that could have gone wrong – and believe me, there’s lots – but somehow didn’t. I almost always think “as if that actually happened.” Then my mind further ponders the odds of such an event happening again. And before I know it the ref has dropped the puck, the play has resumed and I’m just standing on the ice in a daze.

Nice one, Kev.

I couldn’t imagine having that kind of sensation 2800-plus times (minus the zoning out part). Upon further thought, Gretzky probably never had that issue. He probably never felt nervous or uneasy about scoring. Gretzky didn’t exactly score “off my shin pad beauties” like yours truly. No, no. He scored because he did exactly what he meant to do (well, for the most part – even The Great One got lucky sometimes).

Thinking about it from that perspective, I couldn’t imagine intending to score or setting up a goal, have it unfold in front of your own eyes and then think “yeah, that’s pretty much what I was going for.” (And actually mean it!). That blows my mind even more.

All these thoughts crept into my head following a “pinball-slider pass” which earned me an assist during my game last night. Of course, these thoughts put me even farther behind the play than usual. Instead of getting that nervous feeling for assisting on a goal, I’m now nervous for the next nickname my teammates label me with. Not exactly greatness on my part.

Happy belated birthday, Wayne.

Centre of Depth

Crosby-Malkin-Staal

Some NHL teams don’t have a legitimate number one center. Most teams don’t have two. The Pittsburgh Penguins have three.

This is one of many reasons the Penguins have been the envy of the NHL over the last few seasons. I guess several years of losing will get you the kind of highly capable centers Pittsburgh have in Evgeni Malkin (2004), Sidney Crosby (2005) and Jordan Staal (2006).

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As we crossed the halfway point of the 2010-2011 NHL season this past weekend, I found myself intrigued by a few of the league’s leading scorers.

Upon first glance, the usual suspects were all there – Brad Richards, Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos and, of course, Sidney Crosby leading the pack with 66 points in 41 games. Even though Ovechkin sitting at 11th in scoring is a bit of a different look this season, it’s still not terribly interesting.

On second glance, there are several interesting things about this year’s top point-getters! Let’s take a closer look at some of the league’s more interesting scorers of the 2010-2011 season:

Loui Eriksson – 16 goals, 30 assists – 46 points
Loui Eriksson represents everything NHL teams want in a player when trying to develop a true top six forward. Each year Eriksson has improved, so it should come as no surprise that he currently sits eighth in league scoring. Eriksson’s play this season is a big reason why the Stars are one of the top teams in the Western Conference. And while his great stats might be somewhat expected (considering his consistent development), it’s how he’s doing it that’s really interesting. Eriksson is a shooter and a goal scorer, yet he’s just one assist shy of the team lead held by playmaker Brad Richards. And fittingly it’s Richards who leads the Stars in goals this year. Over the last two seasons Eriksson has fired 178 and 214 shots on goal, but only has 97 shots this year through 43 games. Eriksson is on pace to smash his previous career high in assists this season too. Loui Eriksson, sniper playmaker?

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