The NHL Off-Season: No Rest for the Wicked

The long, arduous playoff journey has come to an end, and when the final buzzer sounded it was Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins who emerged victorious as the 2009 Stanley Cup Champions.

Make no mistake, congratulations are certainly are in order. After all, the Pens did defeat a very solid Detroit Red Wings team, and did so after falling behind in the series 2-0 after a couple of bad bounces in Joe Louis Arena. They displayed their testicular fortitude (although admittedly not as much as Nicklas Lidstrom) by not backing down and ultimately persevering when they could have simply rolled over and quit against nearly impossible odds.

Yeah, that's nice. Now get back to work, slacker!

Yeah, that's nice. Now get back to work, slacker!

But you know what? All of that is completely and utterly irrelevant. The 2009 NHL season is but a distant memory now, a faint speck of recollection drifting toward the horizon of foggy reminiscence. Indeed, Pens fans, it’s time to stop living in the past — because the 2010 season starts in just over one week’s time!

Football teams get an entire week off between games. Hockey teams get two weeks off between entire seasons.

That’s right. Party’s over. Get the Cup out of Mario’s pool, because with the Draft coming up next weekend and the insanity of Free Agency only two weeks away, there’s a hell of a lot of work to be done.

So many questions to be answered, all with a massive impact on next year …

  • In which city will Dany Heatley continue be a one-dimensional, whiny little bitch? Will Jason Spezza cry himself to sleep once Heatley is finally traded?
  • Who will the Islanders select first overall? John Tavares or Victor Hedman? Or will Garth Snow continue the fine Long Island tradition of trading away can’t-miss prospects for a dozen pucks and a sack of magic beans?
  • Which GM will foolishly overpay for the likes of Mike Cammalleri and the Sedin twins?
  • Will Vincent Lecavalier get traded at the Draft? Even if he doesn’t, he should show up in Montreal wearing a Habs hat, you know, just to mess with the Montreal media. That would be fun.
  • Will Ty Conklin sign with the Boston Bruins, since they are hosting the 2010 Winter Classic? I mean, you can’t have an outdoor game without Conklin, right? It’s in the rulebook, I’m pretty sure.
Ty Conklin loves playing in outdoor games almost as much as he loves losing in the Stanley Cup Finals.

Ty Conklin loves playing in outdoor games almost as much as he loves losing in the Stanley Cup Finals.

  • Just what exactly will Brian Burke do during his first summer with the Maple Leafs? Will he move up in the Draft? Will he sign a big name free agent? Will he make Justin Pogge cry?
  • Will any free agents actually want to come to Montreal, knowing full well they’ll have to play for Jacques Martin? Oh, wait … no free agents wanted to play for the Habs before Martin took over, either. My mistake.
  • Will Marian Hossa sign a deal with Pittsburgh, believing that they now offer him the best chance to win the Stanley Cup?
  • Will Marian Gaborik tear his groin simply by answering the phone on July 1?
  • What type of Reebok-sponsored abominations will various teams unveil for this year’s crop of alternate jerseys?
Somebody actually thought this was a good idea. And they got paid for it.

Somebody actually thought this was a good idea. And they got paid for it.

And those are only a handful of the pressing issues that teams across the league have to contend with over the next couple of weeks. Indeed, it seems as though the NHL season truly never ends (well, I suppose there is that dry patch in August when all of the big name free agents have already been scooped up and the only players left are guys like Anson Carter). But really, as a hockey fan, you gotta love it. It sure beats watching MLB highlights on SportsCentre, that’s for damn sure.

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Round Two: FIGHT!

The dust has settled and now only eight teams remain in the hunt for the greatest trophy in professional sports — the Stanley Cup. Plenty of great match-ups can be found across the board, but only one will receive that extra special level of media attention. It’s been four years in the making, but Gary Bettman finally gets his ultimate dream match-up — Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins versus Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals.

And I suppose some jerk named Malkin will be involved, too. Last I heard he won a race of some sorts. Not exactly sure what kind of an impact a runner or a sprinter will have on a hockey series, but we shall see, right? After all, the playoffs are all about one thing — unpredictability!

That being said, here are my predictions as to what’ll go down during the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs:

  • Gary really, really likes this match-up. Unless the Derby is on.

    Gary really, really likes this match-up. Unless the Kentucky Derby is on.

    In a bold move, Gary Bettman forces the NHL Board of Governors to introduce a radical new rule change, effective immediately: “In the event of a playoff series involving Washington and Pittsburgh, the two teams shall be forced to play a best-of-fifteen series as opposed to the traditional best-of-seven. No other series shall be affected.”

  • NBC will cut away from Game One before it even begins to show footage of the Kentucky Derby horses eating. No commentary, no interviews, no pre-race analysis, no betting odds … just horses eating.
  • Jose Theodore is all smiles on the bench, content that he doesn’t have to face Crosby and Malkin every other day.
  • The rink crew at the Verizon Center still won’t know how to replace a broken pane of glass in less than 10 minutes.
  • Donald Brashear returns from his suspension and score a hat trick to win the Game Six for the Caps. That, or he gets suspended again for doing something retarded because he’s too slow and untalented to actually make a difference on the ice. Flip a coin, really.
The very definition of a complete, two-way player.

The very definition of a complete, two-way player.

  • During a TV timeout, Bruce Boudreau orders a hot dog from a vendor and proceeds to eat it while behind the bench, simply because he looks like the type of guy who would do that sort of thing. He did spend a hell of a lot of time in the minors, if you recall, and if Slap Shot taught me anything, it’s that the minor leagues are full of crazy antics and goofball shenanigans.
  • Intrepid reporters will finally reveal the truth that, yes, Evgeni Malkin is indeed the result of human-troll relations.
  • Alex Ovechkin starts at centre so that he can engage in fisticuffs with Sidney Crosby immediately after the opening faceoff of every game. Crosby eventually gets shifted to the wing to avoid being utterly destroyed before the start of each game.
Stop hiding behind the ref, Sid! Take your beating like a man!

Stop hiding behind the ref, Sid! Take your beating like a man!

  • In a marketing stunt gone wrong, staff at the Verizon Center place bullseye markers all along the end boards. Whenever Ovechkin misses a shot and hits one of the targets, one lucky fan wins a free beer. In the end, numerous people will be escorted out of the building due to public drunkenness.
  • During the final and deciding game of this series, Simeon Varlamov lets in an uncharacteristically soft goal when he allows Malkin score on him from centre ice. Amidst the shock and confusion, Varlamov then goes all “nWo” on his teammates by pulling off his Capitals sweater to reveal a Penguins sweater underneath. He then uses the referee’s microphone to state, in perfect English, that he had been in cahoots with Comrade Malkin the entire time and had actually poisoned the Gatorade of Jose Theodore in order to get him off his game so that he could take his place and ultimately sabotage the Capitals in their most crucial moment.
  • Some other teams will win some games (or not) in some other series. The NHL doesn’t care about Boston or Carolina, so why should I? Ovechkin! Crosby! Ovechkin! Crosby! Match of the Century! BE THERE!

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Ah, mid-April. Truly the most wonderful time of the entire year. The birds are chirping, the days are getting warmer, seasonal allergies have yet to launch their assault … and 16 teams are about to embark on an epic journey in an attempt to earn the right to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup.

The greatest trophy in professional sports.

The greatest trophy in sports.

Yes, tonight marks the start of the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and like a kid on Christmas Eve, I can’t wait for the games to begin. Even if my beloved Toronto Maple Leafs aren’t in on the festivities (an occurrence that has happened far to frequently in recent years), it’s still playoff hockey, and I’ll be damned if I miss out on the action (even if I’m not emotionally invested on who wins or loses). The highlight-reel goals, the close calls, the great saves, the triple-overtime nailbiters, the unlikely heroes, the unparallelled passion and emotion … it’s all amplified to a whole new level in the post-season. Quite frankly, it’s “must-see TV” at its finest.

And it all start tonight — a night where, just momentarily, every team is back on equal footing. Every squad has zeros across the board. No wins, no losses … just hopes, dreams, and potential. What you did in the regular season counts for diddly now — it’s what you do over the course of the next few weeks that really matters (psst … San Jose Sharks, I’m looking in your direction).

So, who am I picking to go all the way? Well, I’ll tell you who I’m not picking — and that’s the aforementioned Sharks. I’ve been burned too many times in the past by picking the Sharks to go deep, so screw San Jose. I say the Anaheim Ducks pull off the upset and send the regular season champs packing early.

Overall, I like the chances of Pittsburgh, Boston, Vancouver, and Detroit. I feel that those four are the teams to beat this year. The Penguins have been phenomenal since Therrien got kicked to the curb and any team with Crosby and Malkin simply can’t be ignored. The Bruins have been consistently superior all season long, with Tim Thomas leading the league in GAA and save percentage. Vancouver has Roberto Luongo, of course, but unlike recent years, it seems like the Canucks actually have a bit of offence, as well. As for Detroit, well, the Wings are the Wings. Say what you will about the porous defence and the terrible stats of Chris Osgood, but when you have the likes of Hossa, Datsyuk, Zetterberg, and Lidstrom on your team, how do you bet against them?

I’d love to see Ovie and the Caps go far, and I think they can hang with the Bruins and Pens in the East, but for Washington to have any chance at all Jose Theodore will have to bring his game to a whole new level. While he won’t run into many problems against the New York Rangers, it’ll be a different story against the likes of Sid and Geno.

Of course, my predictions could be totally wrong. In fact, they probably will be. Heck, last year I picked the San Jose Sharks to defeat the New York Rangers for the Stanley Cup, and as we all saw, that didn’t come anywhere close to happening. But the unpredictability of it all is just one more reason to love the Stanley Cup Playoffs. I mean, it could be basketball, where the underdogs never, ever win. Or it could be baseball, where the same teams make the playoffs year after year. Anything can happen during the NHL’s post-season … and I wouldn’t have it any other way (unless it results in a Carolina vs. Columbus final … I wouldn’t approve of that very much, and neither would the league itself).

Indeed, mid-April is the most wonderful time of the year. Let the games begin!

Who will lift the holy chalice this year?

Who will lift the holy chalice this year?

Playoff Parity and the NHL’s Worst Nightmare

In the “new” NHL (which is hardly new anymore, given that it’s nearly four seasons old now), practically any team can make the playoffs in any given year. While this may lead to some truly exciting playoff races (and this year is no exception), it also means that any team can make it to the Stanley Cup Final.

And that’s bad news for the NHL.

If the Montreal Canadiens continue their downward spiral and miss the playoffs this year (which would be ever so delicious, to be honest), it would mark the first time ever that there wasn’t a single Canadian representative in the Eastern Conference / Wales Conference playoffs. Instead of Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal, the playoff spots would go to ’90s expansion teams and clubs from non-traditional markets such as the Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes.

Meanwhile, in the Western Conference, it looks as though all three Canadian teams have a good chance of making the playoffs. However, unlike the East, which can fill out the rest of its playoff spots with established clubs such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, etc., the Flames, Oilers, and Canucks could be joined by teams such as the Columbus Blue Jackets, Nashville Predators, and St. Louis Blues, all of which are in the thick of the playoff race for the final few berths in the West.

Now I’m not here to bash the “southern” teams, as I’m sure that the fans of teams such as the Thrashers and Coyotes are just as passionate as the ones in any other city (although the financial and attendance woes of these teams shouldn’t be ignored). But the fact that so many expansion teams could make the playoffs this season — a season that has seen only a couple of teams really stand out above the rest of the pack — is simply not good for the NHL.

Consider the following Stanley Cup scenarios:

Canadian Team vs. Canadian Team: All of Canada would watch and CBC would smash all known viewership records. However, only a few die-hards in the States would actually watch the final series. Really nice for Canada, but ultimately bad for Gary Bettman and the NHL.

Canadian Team vs. American Team: Most of Canada would watch (as the last Canadian team standing is suddenly labelled “Canada’s Team” and becomes last bastion of hope to bring Lord Stanley home). Depending on the team, American viewership would be decent (but not fantastic). Not the best possible scenario, but acceptable for everybody involved.

American Team vs. American Team (Option A): If it’s two American teams with a solid history, a large fanbase, and exciting players, everybody wins. First of all, it gets Americans to tune in — last year’s Cup-clinching game between the Red Wings and Penguins was the most watched NHL game in the U.S. is nearly 30 years. And while such a series might not be as highly rated in Canada, last year’s match-up proved that a Stanley Cup Final without a Canadian team will still be watched in Canada (an average of 2.3 million viewers tuned in to CBC to see Detroit win it all, slightly down from the 2.5 million that watched Anaheim decimate Ottawa the year before). What can I say, we Canadians appreciate good hockey, regardless of who is playing.

American Team vs. American Team (Option B): Pittsburgh vs. Detroit is all well and good. But what happens if by some fluke the top seeds are sent packing early and the Stanley Cup Final is played by two American teams from non-traditional markets with little in the way of star players? Would you watch hockey in early June if it was the Columbus Blue Jackets vs. the Florida Panthers for the best trophy in sports? Or how about the Carolina Hurricanes vs. the St. Louis Blues?

Excitement!

Excitement!

I’m guessing the viewership for such a series would be embarrassingly low in both the U.S. and Canada. While Gary Bettman would probably be all smug about it and hold press conferences touting the tremendous success of his expansion teams, he’d be saying it through gritted teeth as the NHL head office tries desperately to market a Stanley Cup Final that absolutely nobody in North America would give a damn about. Americans wouldn’t watch because of the lack of a big market team, and Canadians wouldn’t watch because of our inability to comprehend the fact that a city that doesn’t get snow could win the Stanley Cup.

Just imagine … no TV ratings, no media attention, no interest, no hope. This would be the NHL’s worst nightmare. And it could easily happen.

Edmonton went from just squeaking into the playoffs as the eighth seed to being just one win away from the Cup in 2006. Who’s to say a team like the Panthers or Predators can’t do the same this year? Given how close the standings are this year and the fact that parity has made it so that any team can pull off a win on any night (just look at the Islanders’ recent shutout of the Red Wings for a good example of this), it’s not a stretch to say that any team, regardless of where they’re ranked, could go the distance.

Sorry Preds fans, but for the good of the game, let’s hope that doesn’t happen. The simple fact of the matter is that the NHL doesn’t get enough support as it is in the United States, even when its showcasing big market teams like the Flyers and Rangers on NBC. Having teams such as Columbus or Nashville in the Stanley Cup Final may help those markets and bring joy to a small number of fans, but in the end it would be like giving yourself a manicure when your arm’s about to get amputated due to arm cancer.

Or something like that.

Excitement!

Excitement!