Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Interesting Olympic Hockey Storylines

Besides some of the more obvious ones, like how will Sidney Crosby do at his first Olympics? will we see a Canada/Russia final? and can the Americans win a medal? I thought I'd mention a few of the things I'm most looking forward to finding out as the great tournament goes on.

5. Any Competition for the Women?

In the short history of Women's Olympic hockey, it's always been a two horse race between the Canadians and Americans. Both teams would always sail through the tournament, absolutely steamrolling the other teams until meeting in the final, where Canada would win a reasonably close game.

But last year saw a huge upset with the Swedes knocking off the Americans. While Canada still handled them fairly easily in the gold medal game, Sweden's win over the yanks got people talking. We're told that every year the lesser countries are catching up little by little although no one expects to see such huge strides that the Canadians and Americans will actually be challenged this time around. Many figure the Swedish win was basically a fluke.

As I'm writing this, the Canadians are a perfect 3 and 0 so far, mowing over all opposition outscoring them 42-3. Once again it seems that unless the Americans can play a great game against us, another gold is assured. But you never know. I look forward to the day when women's international hockey actually sees some parity where blow outs aren't common but I think that day is still far off. But as I said, you never know.

4. The Old Slovaks

It's strange but I haven't seen any mention of the fact that the team the Slovaks are sending to Vancouver is made up of some fairly aged forwards. Ten or twelve years ago, the book on the Slovaks was always that they were loaded up front with scorers but were thin on the blue line and had basically no one decent in goal. But these days it's almost the opposite. Now they're mostly known for having a very tough, very BIG squad of defenceman, led of course by 6'9 behemoth Zdeno Chara, who is regarded as one of the top defencemen in the world. Joining him are big bodies like Milan Jurcina (6'4, 236) and Martin Strbak (6'3, 215). Outside Chara, only undersized Lubomir Visnovsky (5'10, 185) can really be counted on for offence.

And now the Slovaks finally have an NHL calibre goaltender in Montreal Canadien Jaroslav Halak. Granted he's no star but he's a definite step up from the nobodies they used to have to count on and is used to facing tough competition.

Slovakia does boast two scoring stars in Marian Hossa and Marian Gaborik - both are good for at least forty goals a year in the NHL if they can stay healthy which makes them great scorers even when measured against stars from other countries. I mean, if they were Canadian, I think both would make the Olympic team - they're that good.

But what's funny to me about this team is that if this was 1998, we'd be talking about how much firepower they have because a handful of these forwards were playing in those days and did a lot of scoring in the NHL. Just substitute Gaborik for Peter Bondra (who is the general manager of this team). The 2010 Slovakian Olympic team features Pavol Demitra (thirty-five years old), Miro Satan (thirty-five years old - played in the '94 games and led the tournament in goals with 9 and holds the record for most goals scored for the national team with 70), Ziggy Palffy (thirty-nine years old - better than a point a game in his NHL career, which ended some years ago), Richard Zednik (thirty-four years old) and Jozef Stumpel (thirty-nine years old).

In their day, all those players were snipers in the NHL, with the exception of Stumpel who was more of a playmaker. Only Demitra and Satan are still in the NHL with Satan just joining the Bruins last month after being unsigned in any league until then. Demitra's skills are hard to measure these days since he's almost always injured. But it's fair to say all these guys have lost a step. The wildcard is actually the oldest guy, Palffy, since I haven't seen him play in years and he was always a dominant offensive player. I'm curious to see if he still has it.

It's fair to say that for the Slovaks to have any realistic shot at a medal, a lot of these older forwards will have to show they've got something left in the tank.

3. Possible Cindarella Teams
Whenever there's an international tournament of some magnitude, be it the Olympics or something else, there's almost at least one of these. Some lesser team catches one of the big boys napping or simply has every member play the game of his life and the next thing you know, we've got an upset on our hands. The Swiss pulled it off against Canada in Torino, the Latvians had a few in recent World Championships and everyone remembers what Belarus did to the Swedes in Salt Lake city in '02,

These teams never go all the way and pretty much no one flukes their way to the gold medal game, but it's fair to expect to see at least one or two games where someone like a Germany or a Latvia surprise someone, maybe even knocking them out of contention.

2. Peter Forsberg
Foppa hasn't played in the NHL since a nine game stint for the Avs in 07/08, hasn't played at least sixty games since 05/06 with the (ugh) Flyers and the last full NHL season he had was way back 02/03 when he led the league in scoring with 106 points and also won the Hart Trophy. Ever since the lockout he's battled injuries that have severely limited his icetime. And now thirty-six, he can no longer dominate over long stretches.

But Sweden's flag bearer (fitting since they put him on a STAMP for god's sake - for his Olympic Gold medal winning shootout goal back in '94) is still worth watching this time around because one of the remarkable things about him is that, even when he misses huge stretches because of injuries, when he actually plays he's still dynamite. It's a rare player indeed who can step right into high level games and perform without the benefit of practice. Since this is a short tournament and the Swedes have plenty of talent to surround him with, the potential for Forsberg to dominate and dazzle once more is definitely there and if it happens it might take him all the way to a third Olympic gold.

1. Jaromir Jagr

First of all, you can take pretty much everything I said about Forsberg and apply it here. While Jags is even older at thirty-eight (granted his birthday was just a couple days ago) he's never had the injury problems Forsberg had and was actually one of the durable players of his generation. And he's unquestionably the best player of his generation too unless you maybe want to include a guy like Dominik Hasek in that generation.

Simply put, Jagr was THE dominant offensive player of the latter nineties and well into last decade. Hell, after putting in two rather uninspired seasons with Washington where he only scored slightly above a point a game, he exploded for 54 goals and 123 points for the Rangers in 05/06. Not bad for a thirty-three year old. He finished two points away from landing a sixth scoring title. He took home the Art Ross Trophy in 94/95, 97/97, 98/99, 99/00 and 00/01.

He departed the NHL after scoring 71 points in 82 games in the 07/08 season and has been playing in the KHL where his numbers are no longer eye popping but still very good. Honestly, if he'd stayed in the NHL for a few more seasons he would have had a very good chance of retiring third or fourth on the all time points list. He currently sits at ninth with 1599 points in 1273 games.

Just a few hours ago I watched the Czechs play their first game of the Olympics against their rivals the Slovaks. After the first period I thought Jagr looked like he'd definitely slowed down. Then he scored the winning goal and set up another using his phenomenal skills on both plays. Just like Forsberg, Jagr has a great supporting cast and only has to perform for six or seven games - that could be the recipe for another gold medal (Jagr won one in 1998). Just like Forsberg, this is probably our very last chance to see a truly great player play on North American soil and maybe the last time we'll see him period.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Biggest Olympic Hockey Omissions (Non Canadian)

With the 2010 Winter Olympics just around the corner and taking place on Canadian soil, anticipation has reached a fever pitch. As these are the winter games, we Canadians are actually interested in most of the events with skiing, snowboarding, speed skating and figure skating all figuring to draw a lot of attention and expectations. But let's not kid ourselves here; this is Canada and hockey is really all that matters.

But to make this list a little more interesting I'm not going to include any Canadian players. Who would make the roster was the most hotly debated sports issue in the country for at least the past two years and the official announcement on New Year's Day drew millions of viewers. Honestly, I'm about as pleased with who made the cut as I could have expected to be as only about two players I wanted were left off. Canada features such incredible depth that we could easily have assembled two teams to send to the games and it wouldn't be unrealistic to believe that both would have a shot at a medal. I mean, just look at some of the Canadian players who won't be playing in Vancouver: Brad Richards, Martin St. Louis, Dion Phaneuf, Cam Ward, Shane Doan, Steven Stamkos and so on.

So let's look at my picks for the biggest omissions who aren't Canadian.

5. Roman Hamrlik, defence - Czech Republic

Just like Montreal Canadiens teammate and fellow Czech, Jaroslav Spacek, it is true that Hammer is getting a little up there in years at thirty-five. But while his offence has dried up over the years, the former number one pick (1992) still plays a steady defensive game and brings a lot of experience ( over 1200 NHL games, two Olympic appearances). He played on the gold medal winning team in 1998 at Nagano. His -2 rating after fifty-one games isn't great but it's not terrible on an inconsistent Montreal team and he still plays big minutes for them. He also has 6 goals as of this writing which is more than respectable for any defenceman, let alone one of his age. I guess since the blueliners the Czechs selected aren't exactly young, they felt that including Hamrlik would add too much age. But I think they made a mistake.

Who probably took his spot: I'm gonna go with one of the two defenceman I wouldn't have picked (who the fuck is Miroslav Blatak?), Roman Polak of the St. Louis Blues. He's twenty-three and only in his second full NHL season. I'll admit I don't get to see him play often (I think I've seen two Blues games this year) but to me, this guy doesn't stand out in any way. He has six less points than Hamrlik at this point and I've never heard anyone describe him as particularly gritty of defensively responsible.

4. Craig Anderson, goaltender - USA

You may think this point is moot since Ryan Miller's going to get every start. You would have a point but still, to me, Olympic roster selections are as much about who deserves to be picked as who can help the team win. And Craig Anderson deserves to be one of the three American goalies in Vancouver.

If there's one thing I enjoy, it's saying "I told you so" and this summer when Colorado, a team who was quite terrible last year, signed Anderson as a free agent I told anyone who'd listen "well, they've got a goalie now anyway". While the Panthers, Anderson's old team, once again struggled and missed the playoffs I took note of Anderson's at times amazing play, seeing highlights of brilliant saves on almost a weekly basis. I knew that if he had a decent team in front of him, he could shine. As I'm writing this, he's just minutes removed from a shutout against the Oilers, giving him his twenty-eighth win of the season in his forty-ninth game as well as his sixth shutout. He set a franchise record for the Colorado Avalanche for most wins in the month of October with ten, breaking the old mark held by some guy named Roy. Before the start of the season, no one expected the Avs to be where they are right now and their impressive record is due to a LOT of things going right. But Anderson's emergence as an elite NHL goalie has played no small part in this.

Who probably took his spot: Well, as Miller is arguably the best player in the entire NHL right now, let alone goalie, we all know he's going to be Team USA's starter. And Tim Thomas, while not having an amazing year, still is the reigning Vezina Trophy winner. So it has to be LA's Jonathan Quick. I don't mean to take anything away from the guy as he's currently piling up the wins for the finally competitive Kings but I think it's fair to say that Anderson is more responsible for his team's success than Quick is for his. Anderson currently holds a .923 save percentage to Quick's .907. Anderson deserves the nod.

3. Sergei Zubov, defence - Russia
I don't care that he's thirty-nine and no longer playing in the NHL, the omission of a guy who should be considered a legend among Russian hockey players is inexcusable. He's played over a thousand games in the NHL along with 164 playoff games winning two Stanley Cups and was a part of the flagless Russian team that last won gold at the Olympics in 1992. He's on my list of Greatest Russian Defencemen at the number two spot so you can check out more of his accomplishments there.

Through forty-nine games played for St. Petersburg SKA in the KHL (along with fellow Russian reject Alexi Yashin) he's got 39 points, good for fourth on the team and most among defencemen by a country mile. True, the KHL isn't quite as strong as the NHL but those are amazing stats for a guy his age. Not only that but the Russian Olympic team actually has quite a few KHLers on it almost making the statement that that league is on par with the NHL. So Zubov's omission is just baffling to me.

Who probably took his spot: This one's tougher as outside Markov, Gonchar and Volchenkov, I feel that Zubov is more deserving to be there than any of the other defenceman selected. For some reason they named eight defencemen and Zubov wasn't among them. How is that possible? I don't really know anything about KHLer Ilya Nikulin so I won't pick on him, I guess. So how about former NHLer and current KHLer Dimitri Kalinin? Sure, he's ten years younger but that's all I'll give him. He wasn't even good enough for the NEW YORK RANGERS defence core last year. Come on.

2. Mikael Samuelsson, right wing - Sweden

"Probably going to get in trouble for this, but they can go fuck themselves." Thus spoke the Vancouver Canuck when asked by reporters what his thoughts on being left off Sweden's Olympic roster were. They're my thoughts too, really, as much as I like Sweden and would enjoy seeing them medal again.

Before the 04/05 Lockout, Samuelsson bounced from the Sharks to the Rangers to Penguins and didn't really have an impact anywhere. But he signed with the Detroit Red Wings for the 05/06 season and, playing mostly third line minutes, set careers highs with 23 goals and 45 points. For the next four years, he fit in well on a talented team as a support player, averaging around eighteen goals and forty points a season. He won the Cup with the team in 08 and went to the Final with them again in 09, scoring five goals in each run. But this past summer he signed with the Canucks hoping he could take on a bigger role, particularly offensively.

That's pretty much what happened too as he's played mostly on the second line and gotten a lot more power play time than he ever did with Detroit. He's currently got 19 goals and 37 points, poised to set new career highs across the board. I think about the potential rosters for other countries almost as much as I think about Canada's and every time I put together my Team Sweden, Samuelsson was there. With Mats Sundin and Markus Naslund both retired, I figured there was definitely some room at the forward position, even with Peter Forsberg attempting the whole comeback thing again. We'll see how that goes. But if Foppa winds up injured or some other forward does, I think it's safe to say that Samuelsson won't get the call.

Who probably took his spot: I think it has to be Fredrik Modin. Zetterberg, the Sedins, Alfredsson and Backstrom were all locks as scorers with Eriksson and Hornquist nice young players who can fill that role as well. As long as he can stay healthy, Forsberg is a legend and his place is secure. Pahlsson is there for his defensive ability and Weinhandl has been a great player ever since he left the NHL. Not only is Modin thirty-five but his career has practically been defined by injuries over the past three years. He was even injured at the time of being named to the roster. I just didn't think he was even in the mix. Now I like Modin and lamented when the Leafs traded him all those years ago (he could have been a good winger for Mats if they'd shown a little patience) but I have to believe that the thirty-two year old and durable Samuelsson is the better option these days.

1. Jussi Jokinen, left wing - Finland

He may be doomed to be forever known as the "other" Jokinen and you have to wonder if he'll ever get the recognition he deserves. I'm not saying he's better than Olli Jokinen because he's not but he is currently outplaying him and Olympic rosters should have more to do with how well a player is playing now than whatever he's done in the past.

The first year after the lockout, Jokinen enjoyed a very stellar 55 point rookie season playing for the Dallas Stars. He only had 17 goals and looked to be something of a playmaker. But that was overlooked by something else that was new to the league the first year after the lockout: the shootout. That year, the Stars were nearly unbeatable in the shootout and Jokinen was their secret weapon. Over the next few seasons, he was traded to Tampa Bay and his numbers fell off but he kept up his excellence in extra time. He is the most successful shooter in the history of the NHL shootout.

Last season he was fairly ineffectual and the Lightning were going no where and they traded him to the Hurricanes. In the final twenty-five games of the season he only produced one goal and eleven points. But then the playoffs started and the Canes squeaked in and managed to upset the heavily favoured Devils and then even more heavily favoured Bruins in extremely dramatic fashion before being trounced by eventual champs, the Penguins. In the playoffs Jokinen caught fire and played a huge part in the Hurricanes success, scoring 7 goals and 11 points in eighteen playoff games, including FOUR game winners.

This year he's picked up where he left off and has been one of the few bright spots on a terrible Carolina team. Along with superstar (and new captain Eric Staal - who is on Canada's Olympic team) he is the only Cane with 20 goals so far and he continues to thrive in the shootout.

He's a medium sized guy but very shifty and feisty and definitely has a flair for the dramatics considering his playoff and shootout heroics. In a short tournament like the Olympics, a player like him could be instrumental (they use the shootout even in the medal round, you know). So of course the stupid Finns, who I love, left him off.

Who probably took his spot: This one's trickier than the others. As far as forwards go, team captain Saku Koivu is a lock for many reasons as is Teemu Selanne who, while older, is their legend. Saku's younger brother, Mikko is one of the most complete players in the game today and also an easy inclusion. Lehtinen's old too and frequently injured but as long as he's healthy, he brings tons of experience, leadership and good defensive play. Carolina teammate Tuomo Ruttu is having a good year and is the closest thing to an effective power forward that the Finns have since Olli Jokinen has been terrible pretty much ever since leaving Florida three years ago. But his ability still gets him on the team, regardless of current performance. Ville Peltonen, while never a force in the NHL, is yet another veteran Finn who is admired on the same level as guys like Koivu and Selanne in his country and he probably has the most international experience of anyone so I can't leave him out. The older Ruutu brother is a unique agitator and that can be very valuable in a tournament where you're facing teams full of stars. So I'm going to say that Jarko Immonen has to go. I'll admit I know next to nothing about him but it was either him or former NHLer Niko Kapanen and I just love that guy. If it's not him, then Minnesota's Antti Miettennen, who doesn't have the offensive numbers Jokinen has and I figure was included because of his chemistry with the younger Koivu.