Saturday, February 4, 2012

Postview: Pekka Rinne is Finnish for "Fuck Your Offense" Predators 3, Blues 1

First of all I'm sorry for not being able to get a preview out before the game.  Shit happens.

As for the game tonight, the Blues played the first 40+ minutes like we just had a game last night.  The Preds, to their credit, came out ready to play.  It took awhile to get their offense going, though they scored on their first shot, a power play goal through the five hole by Erat that frankly Jaro should have had.  After that though, Halak looked pretty good.  The second goal I'd put more on Petro falling asleep (though Jaro was a little over committed) and the third was an empty netter.  Between the latter two, the Preds had the majority of the great chances all night.  They gave up quite a few shots - we had 42 tonight - but most of them weren't great chances, and very few were on second chances.  Throughout all of Pekka Rinne's domination of us all year (and before), he's always given up some pretty juicy rebounds waiting to be pounced on.  Unfortunately, the clamp-down style of the Preds defense really limits those garbage goal opportunities - multiple times tonight Rinne gave the Blues a pretty good rebound chance, only to see the mustard-stained yellow shirts outnumber the white ones as many as 4:1.  That's not a great recipe for success, especially against a goalie as dominant as him.  I'm convinced you could double the size of the net and he'd still give up less than 3 goals a game - and probably shutout the Blues.  He made two Hasek-esque saves on Kris Russell in the same sequence late in the 3rd, and against any other goalie in the league - including Thomas or Lundqvist - either one go in to tie the game.

Now that I'm done fellating Pekka Rinne, the Blues did come alive in the third with tons of pressue, especially after Chris Porter's goal.  Porter, BTW, was working his ass off like his life depended on it tonight.  JK and Panger talked about how over the Break he went down to Peoria and played as much as 25 minutes a night.  I could understand why - he was probably the best Blue on the ice tonight.  Unfortunately, you're not going to get very many points on nights like that.

Although I don't think it's there yet, I'd really love for the Blues and Predators to have a real rivalry.  We both play very similar styles, it's so close geographically that Blues fans regularly make the road trip and take over their arena - there were several times tonight that Blues fans cheering drowned out those annoying ass Tootoo whistles.  This year, the Blues are 0-2-2 against Nashville, but without Rinne in net, we could very realistically be 4-0.  Hitch says that they're the only team we've played all year that has ever outworked us consistently, which makes for a very scarey recipe should these two teams meet in the playoffs.  If there's only one reason to win the division and get that top 3 seed, it'll be to make it easier to avoid the Preds in round one. 

Three Stars:
3. Chris Porter (1 goal; all over the ice; ignited the Blues so much we almost forced OT)
2. Martin Erat (1 goal; 2 assists; really worked hard in the Blues zone)
1. Pekka Rinne (41 saves; .976 SV %; just take a look at what I wrote above)

Central Division Standings as of 11:00 pm CST 2/4:
1. Detroit (losing 1-3 @ EDM after 2) 71 points, 52 games played
2. Nashville (W 3-1 vs. STL) 68 points; 53 games played
3. ST. LOUIS (L 1-3 @ NSH) 67 points; 51 games played
4. Chicago (idle) 65 points, 53 games played
5. Columbus (idle) 34 points; 52 games played

Friday, February 3, 2012

Postview: "Holy Halak!" Blues 1, Kings 0

Who knew that two teams in the top three in team goals against would combine for only one goal?  Go figure. 

The Blues started off a bit slow at first, but Hitch's defense showed no sign of rust from the break, and neither did Jaroslav Halak's left leg, which made three outstanding saves to pitch the shutout - he's fifth this year and fourth in his last seven starts.  I'll say that again: Jaroslav Halak has FOUR SHUTOUTS in his last SEVEN STARTS!  That's...uh...pretty good. 

But to say that Jaro stole two points tonight wouldn't be entirely accurate.  Sure his three kick saves (and one good looking glove save, to boot) were on great chances that the Kings probably should have scored on, but overall the Blues really controlled the flow of the game.  The shots tonight were 33-22 in favor of the Blues, but even that is a little misleading.  The Kings went long stretches without any shots, highlighted by the last 13 minutes of the first. 

Even with 33 SOGs though, the Blues didn't have that many quality chances (or at least the Kings got the best chances, by far).  That said, Quick was great in goal for LA, and frankly deserved much better than he got.  Having seen many games like this from that perspective, it has GOT to be frustrating for Kings fans, let alone for Quick himself!  Generally speaking, I like the Kings, so I hope that they do pick up the offense - just as long as it doesn't happen through a trade that takes an option away from us. 

The Blues are back at it again tomorrow night in Nashville, the first matchup of the 2nd half between any of the Big Four, which I just now decided to call all the teams in this race to save time.  Catch on, rest of the blogosphere! 

Three Stars:
3. Jamie Langenbrunner (game-winning goal on a very Hully one-timer from D'Agostini in the 2nd)
2. Jonathan Quick (32 saves, .970 SV %, really deserved a 'W' but thankfully didn't get one)
1. Jaroslav Halak (22 saves, shutout, 4-5 very skilled saves that were by no means easy)

Central Standings as of 10:00 CST on 2/3:
1. Detroit (idle) 71 points; 52 games played
2. ST. LOUIS (W 1-0 vs LA) 67 points; 50 games played
3. Nashville (idle) 66 points; 52 games played
4. Chicago (losing 2-1 @ Calgary in 3rd) 65 points; 52 games played
5. Columbus (losing 1-0 @ Anaheim in 2nd) 32 points; 51 games played

Game #50: 2/3/12 vs. LA Kings

First of all, I'd like to apologize for not finishing up my 4-part series previewing the teams in the Central race for the 2nd half by posting about the league-leading Detroit Redwings.  Here's my analysis:

Fuck Detroit.

Get it?  Got it?  Good.

Tonight, the Blues FINALLY being the 2nd half of the season with a matchup with one of the few teams in the league as stingy as us, yet also one of the few as offensively challenged as us: the LA Kings.

Currently: 25-16-10, 60 points, 21 ROW; 2nd in Pacific, 7th in West
Top scorer: Anze Kopitar (15-30-45)
Probable starter: Jonathan Quick (43 GP, 22-12-9, 6 shutouts, .934 SV %, 1.93 GAA)

The Kings rank last in the NHL in goals per game at 2.16, but also 3rd at team GAA at 2.10 behind the Bluenotes and the Blueshirts.  Drew Doughty is a stud young defensman, but not really having a stud year.  Dustin Brown is their captain and is kind of a poor man's David Backes - ironically they were linemates in the 2010 Vancouver Olypics, along with Ryan "Tell Kelly [Backes] I said 'Hi!'" Kesler.  But at 13-14-27 over 51 games, Brown is not having a Backesian year either.  Mike Richards used to party it up as the next Bobby Clarke in Philly.  Now he's looking more like he'll be Eric Lindros minus the concussions - the "next big thing" that never became "THE big thing." 

Public Enemy #1: Jarret Stoll As this is my first game preview, I want to have this be a nightly feature - where I highlight one guy on the other team that I absolutely hate, either because of his play, the likelihood that he might get into a fight that night, or just my personal distaste.  The problem is that there really isn't anyone like that on the Kings.  The closest thing for me is Jarret Stoll, only because I always confuse him for one of the Staal brothers.  And then I forget how many there are.  It's confusing.  I promise future editions of PE#1 will be much more venomous. 

Keys for the Blues: We need to score first, because with these two teams, it's quite possible that we could have a 1-0 final score.  It's also important because we haven't played in 9 days - and Jaro, tonight's starter for The 'Note, hasn't played in 11 - which is the longest break of any team in the league.  In the time since the Blues last played, Detroit has played 3 games, Chicago 2 (and another tonight), and Nashville 2.  Luckily, between the possible 8 points we could have seen collected by the Hawks and Preds combined, only 3 were picked up. 

Tonight is one of only 13 home games the Blues have left in the regular season.  If we want to start the playoffs at Scottrade Center, we need to pick up probably at least 20 of those 26 points.  That starts tonight. 

Let's go Blues!!!

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Talk Soft and Carry a Big 'Cock: Previewing the St. Louis Blues 2nd Half

(This is part 3 of a 4 part series previewing the 2nd half for all four teams in the Central Division race.  Part 1 on the Blackhawks and Part 2 on the Predators are already up, while Detroit's will be up sometime tonight, though perhaps not until after their game.)

The Blues, of course, have been the surprise team in the league this year.  That is, unless you've been paying close attention the last 3 years and have been following the rise of the organization's draft picks since the lockout.  I only get to the Scottrade Center on precious few occasions, but one I did get to see a couple years ago was the season opener for the 2008-09 season against the Preds, which happened to be the first NHL game for T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund, Roman Polak, and Alex Pietrangelo, and there was definitely an air that better times were slowly but surely on the way.  Now with those four - along with David Backes and David Perron - finally becoming the players they were drafted to be (well, except for a certain Swedish center), it seems like a no-brainier that the Bluenotes are finally taking the league by storm.  The Blues marketing department has had their share of klunkers as far as campaigns go (Whosoever idea it was to call us the fans the "Last Piece of the [Stanley Cup] Puzzle" last year should never be listened to on any topic ever.), but that season they had a series of commercials (that I can't seem to find - if I do, I'll link them) with team president John Davidson in a bar having a beer with a faceless Blues fan talking about the young players and rookies (there was one for Perron, Backes, Erik Johnson, and I think one for Oshie) that ended with the tag line "Come Watch Us Grow."  It's been frustrating at times, no doubt, but it's been an absolute pleasure watching these players develop over 4+ years to become an overnight success. 

Now, all of that out of the way, as great as this team has been playing ever since Hitchcock took over, this is still not a Stanley Cup team - at least not yet. 

St. Louis Blues
Currently: 29-13-7, 65 points, 28 ROW
Leading Scorer: David Backes (16-21-37)
Top Goaltender(s): Jaroslav Halak (14-8-5, 4 shutouts, 2.04 GAA, .918 SV%); Brian Elliott (15-5-2, 5 shutouts, 1.69 GAA, .938 SV%)

Strengths: While it may not quite be locked up just yet, the only way Ken Hitchcock doesn't win the Jack Adams this year is if the Blues completely collapse in the 2nd half and either miss the playoffs or slip all the way to the 7 or 8 seed - and even then the Senators would have to keep playing over their heads the rest of the year.  One of the biggest things holding the Baby Blues back the last few years was the coaching, IMHO.  When the kids first started coming up, Andy Murray was infamous for stubbornly refusing to keep line combinations together even for entire periods, let alone let them stay together long enough to develop chemistry.  It was also very easy for one of the young guns to fall into his 4th line doghouse, otherwise known as Bergie's Room.  After Murray was fired, Davis Payne had a history with many of the younger players, having coached many of them in either the AHL or the ECHL, but overtime it became clear that he lacked the big league experience needed to reign in his veteran troops or game plan against the top teams in the West.  Ever since The 'Cock took over, however, everything has come together (other than the power play, but we'll get to that).  The Halak-Elliott netminding tandem has been dominate, but the defense in front of them has been equally impressive, leading the league in both team GAA with 1.96 and shots on goal against per game at 26.2.  The Vezina race will probably come down to Henrik Lundqvist, Tim Thomas, and Pekka Rinne, but Jaro and Ells splitting the Jennings Trophy is a very distinct possibility.  On top of that, the Blues sport the best home record in the NHL with a 21-3-4 mark.  We also have an 8-0-2 record against Eastern conference teams, the NHL equivalent of extra credit questions, since points dropped won't go to the teams you're chasing. In 5-on-5 play this year, we're a +27 goal differential, behind on Detroit and Boston (at a staggering +52!).

Weaknesses: Two words, and they rhyme with "Flower Clay."  Our power play ranks 28th in the league at a pretty pitiful 13.4%, and at times this year has had trouble even keeping the puck in the offensive zone, let alone set up quality shots.  When Hitch took over, he infamously said that he could fix the power play in "one practice."  While there have been stretches that looked like it may have started to turn the corner,  they have been few and far between.  Hopefully they had that "One Practice" over the Break.  But even aside from the PP, the Blues offense has been less than stellar, averaging 2.51 goals/game, good for 20th.  And with as good as the team defense has been under Hitchcock, the Blues 19th-ranked penalty kill at 81.7% is pretty disappointing.  And while the Blues have a well deserved reputation as a physical team that initiates the hitting, we have had a bad habit lately of taking stupid retaliatory penalties (overall, the Blues rank 25th in the league in PIM/game at 13.3).  I have absolutely no problem with sticking up for your teammates and imposing your physical will on your opponent, but the situation has to be appropriate, and that's something the Blues will definitely have to learn by playoff time, where an ill-timed penalty can easily end your season. 

Second Half Catalyst: The Blues have trouble scoring goals.  Also, bears shit in the woods (except for Louie, he just drops shit bombs from the top of the Scottrade Center - ask the kids at Game Time).  Assuming that that need won't be addressed this year via trade, which is looking less likely by the day, we're going to need David Perron to start scoring more goals.  It's great to see Frenchie back on the ice after all that time off, and he came back strong.  But he only has 4 goals in 24 games, to go with 17 assists.  He plays with a great energy, and his chemistry with Oshie is nearly back to where it was at the beginning of last season, but on a team where scoring is scarce, his is a spot where a point per game needs to be the minimum.  He has the skill, and it's not like he looks lost out there most night, like a certain Swedish 2nd line center that also needs to start producing more, but the bottom line is wee need goals from David Perron to keep up with the other teams in the Central. 

Trade Deadline Possibilities: Doug Armstrong has shown a fantastic knack for pulling off an under the radar, low-risk/high-reward move both in season and in the offseason that so far have nearly all paid off to an extent (Vladimir Sobotka, the Erik Johnson Trade, Kris Russell, Jason Arnott, and oh yeah Brian Elliot).  One can only imagine what kind of larceny Army could pull off with a full budget from a settled ownership situation.  The problem is that the sale of the team likely won't be finalized until after the trade deadline, if recent reports of "mid-March" are to believed (though with the track record on that front so far this year, that may mean more like early August).  To complicate matters more, this morning it was reported that the Devils will likely hold on to Zach Parise for the rest of the year, despite his pending free agency and the organization's severe financial troubles.  That would put seem to significantly raise the asking price for Anaheim and/or Columbus, should those teams choose to shop their stars.  More still, although adding Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan, or Rick Nash would immediately make them the team's top offensive player, the Blues are in less need of another big power forward (unless Chris Stewart is part of such a deal) than they are of a skilled sniper, meaning the best acquisition would be reigning Hart Trophy winner Corey Perry, who would NOT come cheap, if at all.  While we may see the Blues be active this summer in the free agent market after re-signing Perron, Oshie, Jackman, and Berglund (or...maybe not on the last one), it's looking more and more likely that we'll be standing pat at the Deadline this year.  Should the sale go through early, however, and Tom Stillman wants to make a big splash right away, the Blues will have over $66 million of cap space to work with. 

Predictions: While we obviously need more scoring, offense takes games off.  But defense and goaltending never take nights off.  As such, despite our large number of road games in the second half, the Blues will continue to contend for the top spot in the Central and the West.  However, with a big time sniper at the deadline looking pretty unlikely at this time, it'll be hard to keep up with Chicago and Detroit.  The Blues will finish 3rd in the Central and get the unfortunate draw of another Central division matchup in the first round without home ice advantage against the Blackhawks.  That's not to say that we couldn't win such a series, but it would be a battle to say the least. 

Next time on Play Like the Plagers: The Red Menace: Previewing the Detroit Redwings 2nd Half.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Ima Let You Finn-ish: Previewing the Nashville Predators 2nd Half

(This is part 2 of a 4 part series previewing the 2nd half for all four teams in the Central Division race.  Part 1 on the Blackhawks was posted this morning, while the last two will be up before games faceoff on Tuesday night.)

The Preds have always been a very sneaky team.  Most always assume that Nashville is a terrible hockey market, yet they usually do better than the Phoenixs and the Carolinas of the world (not saying much, but still something).  A lot of people often forget about them when naming the best teams in the league, but they've made the playoffs the last 6 of the last 7 years, last year finally making the second round.  Truth be told, before looking at the roster for this preview, I couldn't name more than 6 players on their roster (Weber, Suter, Tootoo, Rinne, Legwand, and Ryan Ellis) - and the Blues play them 6 times a year.  And it's not like they have a big roster turnover every year.  The Nashville Predators are the Jan Brady of the Central division. 

Still, they're only 3 points back of the top spot in the league, and going into the Break, they were red hot, including two wins against the Blackhawks to leapfrog Chicago.  How?  That's a damn good question. 

Nashville Predators
Currently: 30-16-4, 64 points, 27 ROW
Leading Scorer: Martin Erat (11-24-35)
Top Goaltender: Pekka Rinne (28-11-4, 4 shutouts, 2.36 GAA, .925 SV%)

Strengths: One word: goaltending.  Pekka Rinne may be the most underrated netminder in the NHL.  He's been a workhorse this year, tying Craig Anderson to lead the league in starts with 45 already.  That may seem like a lot this early in the season, but if I were Barry Trotz, I'd probably ride the Finn as long as I could too.  The man is a beast, and when he's on, he can steal a game against anyone.  They also have probably the best defensive pairing in the league in Norris-candidate Shea Weber and underrated UFA-to-be Ryan Suter, along with the 2nd longest tenured coach in North American sports in the defensive minded Trotz.  They also have the 2nd ranked power play at 22.5%, helped in no small part by Weber and Suter on the point.  And once again, the Preds have been great at home posting a 16-7-3 mark in Nashville. (Get used to reading that - all four teams in this race are in the top 5 in the NHL in home winning percentage.)  It's also worth nothing that the Preds have a 13-5-4 record in one goal games, the best out of the four, so they're battle tested.  They also are a respectable 14-9-1 on the road, the only of the four to be over .500 in that category. 

Weaknesses: Despite having two of the best blueliners in the West, Nashville still gives up 31 shots a game, good for 22nd in the league (and last in the division - yes more than even the BJs), which makes Rinne's numbers all the more impressive.  They also only average 27.5 shots for a game, almost 4 full shots fewer than the closest of the other four.  Other than that, they have a lot of balance in their scoring and PK, which is a nice way of saying it's mediocre.  They rank within the middle third in the NHL in goals per game and penalty killing, although they only average 9.6 PIM/game, good for 4th fewest, which would fall all the way to 8.36 if you removed Jordin Tootoo's 62. 

Second Half Catalyst: Shea Weber is amazing.  He's very capable of putting his teammates on his back like Chris Pronger did to the Oilers in 2006, and to expect anything less would frankly be foolish.  And as impressive as Zdeno Chara's 108.8 mph slapshot at the skill competition was, for my money Weber has the best in-game shot in hockey.  Call me when Chara sends a puck through the netting in the fucking Olympics.  (Or for that matter, breaks a guy's foot through their skate with a shot in a game, like Al MacInnis once did.  But I digress.)

Trade Deadline Possibilities: According to Cap Geek, the Preds won't just have over $66 million before the salary ceiling by the deadline, they'll only be just over $7 million over the cap floor.  However, outside of the year Peter Forsberg signed there, they don't have a history of breaking the bank on outside players.  They do, however, have the 7th ranked prospect organization according to Hockey's Future, so they likely will have chips to play with should they want to add scoring help, or even a cheap backup netminder.  The biggest question, however, is if Ryan Suter stays or goes.  It's pretty odd that a team 3 point shy of the President's Trophy might be a seller, but over the Break Suter announced that he wouldn't sign an extension with Nashville before the deadline.  So with over $7 million of cap space already promised to Weber and Rinne next season, it might be pretty difficult to re-sign the American Olympian.  Should that be deemed the case, a team looking for defensive help such as Philly, Vancouver, Washington, or for a very steep price Chicago, might step up and try and poach Suter. 

Predictions: Rinne is very much capable of carrying a team for an entire postseason in the same fashion as Patrick Roy, Dominik Hasek, and J-S Gigure have in the past.  But in order for him to do that, he's going to get some rest.  If his backup, Anders Lindback (or some veteran that could come pretty cheaply) only starts 5 games in the 2nd half like he did in the 1st, the big Finn may not even make it to the playoffs.  And the way this race is going, he's going to have to do a lot better than 2-5, and in no way will his .898 SV% hold up with that many shots coming towards him. And if that offense doesn't start kicking into high gear, they'll likely finish 4th in the Central, with either the 6th or 7th seed in the West.  But if Pekka Rinne is well rested going into the first round, watch out for the biggest sleeper in the league.  Jan Brady could be out for some violent revenge.*

*Now THAT'D be a Brady Bunch movie I'd see in a heartbeat!

Next time on Play Like the Plagers: Talk Soft and Carry a Big 'Cock: Previewing the St. Louis Blues 2nd Half

Don't Toews Me, Bro: Previewing the Chicago Blackhawks 2nd Half

As every Blues fan is dying to tell you these days, the Bluenotes are only two points back of the top spot of the NHL.  Unfortunately, not only is that top spot being occupied by the (Fuck) Detroit Redwings, but we're also only a point up on Nashville and the Blackhawks.  And while you could do a little happy dance about the Hawks being in 4th place at the All-Star Break (I know I have), the truth is that any of the four top teams in the Central could very well come away with the President's Trophy, or at least the number one seed in the West, while two of the other three will probably have to faceoff in first round.  Needless to say, the stakes are high for four of the five Central division teams.

Also, Columbus gets to host next year's All-Star Game.  So, you know...good for them. 

To get ready for the epic struggle this second half chase will bring, let's take an in depth look at all four teams, starting with the team on the bottom of this four-way hate-fuck.

Chicago Blackhawks
Currently: 29-15-6, 64 points, 25 ROW (regulation/overtime wins, ie, non-shootout)
Leading Scorer: Marian Hossa (20-33-53)
Top Goalie: Corey Crawford (18-12-4, 0 shutouts, 2.86 GAA, .902 SV%)

Strengths: The Hawks can score like no one's business.  When they're completely healthy, they may have the best top 6 forwards of any team in the world, skill wise.  They're tied with Vancouver for most goals per game in the West at 3.16, and that number would probably be a bit higher with a healthy Patrick Sharp, not to mention if Patrick Kane weren't having such a shittastic year with only 11 goals (not that I'm complaining, mind you).  And just like the other three teams in the race, the Hawks are dynamite at home with an overall 19-6-4 record at the UC, which is good for the second best in the league.  They also lead the league in total goals scored at home with 99, 11 more than 2nd place Boston.  

Weaknesses: You know how bad the Blues power play has been?  The Blackhawks penalty kill has been that bad.  They sit at 28th at 77.9% shorthanded, which is only the tip of the iceberg that is the Hawks defensive struggles so far this year.  They rank 20th in the league with a 2.82 team GAA - in the West, only the Avs, Ducks, and Blue Jackets have given up more, and Edmonton is tied right there with them.  For a team that scores so much, the Indians are only a +18 goal differential.  They also give up just south of 30 shots a game, and it's gotten to the point with Coach Q almost refuses to play his 3rd blueline pairing late in games.  One has to assume that those minutes are bound to catch up with Keith and Seabrook sooner or later.  On top of that, the Hawks are only 10-9-2 on the road, and 20 of their final 32 games are away from the Madhouse.  

Second Half Catalyst: If his injury turns out to be less serious than he is, Jonathan Toews should be back soon to continue what may very well be a Hart Trophy season.  However, if the Blackhawks are going to win the Central, they're going to need the other half of their premiere bromance to pick up his game.  We all know about Kandy Kane's skill, and lately he's just run into a ton of bad luck.  But with his showcase in Ottawa over the Break, he may be ready to break out and finally start putting the biscuit in the basket, which is a necessity for the Hawks.  Mark my words: if Patrick Kane doesn't finish the season with more than 25 goals, the Chicago Blackhawks will not have home ice advantage in the first round.

Trade Deadline Possibilities: The Blackhawks will have a ton of cap space come February 27th - $22 million according to Cap - and have some clear areas of need, namely a second line center (which even with the acquisition of Brendan Morrison, you'd have to think eventually goes to Sharp) and a number 3 defenseman - and if you think Stan Bowman is comfortable going into the playoffs with Crawford in the crease, you don't know who his daddy is.  Ownership has clearly favored the win-now mantra in the recent past, and the Blackhawks have the prospects to pull off a big one (the bottom two lines are filled with more rookies than Sigorny Weaver Susan Sarandon in Bull Durham), so I think it's likely we see the Hawks pursue a big name blueliner or netminder.  Given the nature of the race, it'd probably take a king's ransom to pry Ryan Suter out of Nashville, but don't count it out just yet. Some talks have linked the Hawks to Hal Gill, which...let's just say, as a Blues fan, I sincerely hope happens.  As for goaltending, there may not be much available, outside of the juicy/scary possibility of the Sabres wanting to sell off and rebuild.  It's unlikely in my opinion, but there have been rumblings that a trade out of Buffalo might be the best thing for Ryan Miller.  If Buffalo even thinks about shopping the Olympic MVP, the Blackhawks will be beating down the door to get a deal done, as well they should.  

Prediction: Between their veteran yet still youthful leadership, superior skill, quality coaching, and shittons of cap room to work with, the Blackhawks will thrive in the second half.  They may not be able fix all of their problems, however, and the amount of road games and minutes logged by their top players will hold them back enough to keep them from taking the division.  Still - and it hurts for me to type this - Chicago will finish 2nd in the Central and take the 4th seed and home ice in the first round.   

That said, fuck them and the coach's mustache they rode in on!  

Next time on Play Like the Plagers:  Ima Let You Finn-ish: Previewing the Nashville Predators 2nd Half

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Why the All-Star Draft ruins the All-Star know, more than it already was

Tonight is the 2012 NHL All-Star Game in Ottawa, and for the second year in a row the rosters were selected by way of a "Fantasy Draft" where two pre-selected captains chose players for their teams one by one.  And just like gym class in middle school, the team captains only chose their friends - Team Zdeno Chara picked up all the Bruins, while Team Daniel Alfredsson selected all of the (way too many) Senators.

Like most games of it's kind, the NHL All-Star Game has received yearly flack for not being very entertaining, or for the players not taking it seriously.  Unlike most leagues, however, the NHL has a history of being proactive in finding ways to make it more entertaining, then scraping them when they don't work (looking at you, World-Series-Home-Field-Advantage-Giving Baseball ASG; though thanks for giving St. Louis Game 7 this year!).  In the 90s, the NHL decided to celebrate the growing internationalization of the league by dividing the AS teams into North American players and "World" players, thereby giving credence to Americans who consider themselves separate from the rest of the planet.  The novelty was fun for a couple years, but wore off quickly, as the league decided to go back to Western Conference vs. Eastern Conference alignment.

And for the same reasons, it's only a matter of time before the Fantasy Draft goes the way of the glowpuck or the Hartford Whalers.

 While I'm sure there are a number of general NHL fans, I don't think it's any trouble to say at least 90% of hockey fans have a specific team they passionately root for and will support in anyway they can until the day they die.  Obviously for me, that team is the Blues, who reside in the Western Conference, making me a Western Conference guy.  So in an All-Star game scenario where it's West vs. East, I have a clear connection to the Western Conference side.  Under the North American vs. The World setting, the delineation is much fuzzier, though still there, as I'm a North American.  Under the Fantasy Draft system, all lines of distinction are taken away from a fan's perspective.  So who does one root for?

You may ask, "Why not just root for the team with your team's players on it?"  That's a good thought, after all, that's most of why one would root for one's conference, right?  There's a lot of truth in that, but that line of thinking becomes problematic under any alternate ASG format, for they open up the possibility of your team being represented by both sides.  Under the North America vs. The World setting that case didn't come up too often for Blues fans, as Chris Pronger and Al MacInnis were both consistent All-Stars for the NA team, while off the top of my head I believe Pavol Demitra was the only Blue to ever make the World team (if I'm wrong there, please let me know).  Even the last two years it's been easy to chose sides that way with the Blues only having one selection both times (David Backes last year, Brian Elliott tonight).  But what would I do if I were a Predators fan with Shea Weber and Ryan Suter split up? And although there isn't that problem for Blues fans this year, what if that team also included certain players I am sworn to root against, such as Patrick Kane?  Rooting for him in the Olympics is one thing, because country trumps all else.  Even under a West/East split, there's pride taken in being a Western Conference team, just like there would be for an SEC football team.  Rooting for a team only because of the players makes the name on the back of the jersey more important than the front.

Which brings me back to the first point - by eliminating all lines of distinction from the two AS sides, the league has essentially wiped the front of the jersey blank, taking away any rooting interest any fan might have in the game.  As a Blues fan, I take pride in our franchise, our history, and our team and would support it any way I could, and some - not all - of that 'never-walk-on-the-logo' spirit applies to the Western Conference as a whole.  Sure, I may hate half of the other teams in the West, but I still take pride in the competition and superior hockey played throughout the conference, just as I do in baseball with the National League (The DH rule isn't real baseball, and every Eastern Conference NHL team that's not Boston or Philly are a bunch of pansies!).  But without anything on the front of the jersey to root for, why should I care at all? 

In another couple years or so, the novelty of the Fantasy Draft will wear off and unless the league wants to really roll the dice and take the ASG outside like the Winter Classic, we'll likely revert back to the West/East scenario, or something very similar (depending on how re-alignment goes).  I applaud Gary Bettman, Brendan Shanahan, and the NHL for really thinking outside of the box to try and make the All-Star Game more fun for the fans, but this scenario essentially takes the fan out of the equation.  Fans are supposed to cheer for one side to win, but that's pretty hard to do when you can't even chose a side.