Monday, August 20, 2012

Untitled: The thoughts of a hockey fan

I'm not real sure on a title for this. So I called it, "Untitled: The thoughts of a hockey fan." As August nears conclusion with no solution to another potential lockout causing more heartache and headaches, I just don't have it in me to write about a dull topic. One side will never be satisfied. There's not much more to add.

As someone who listened to Program buddy Chris Wassel interview Spectors Hockey's Lyle Richardson on the very depressing issue, it was numbing. They painted a gloomy picture with basically, a remote chance that the two sides will work out a new CBA agreement by Gary Bettman's September 15 deadline. Donald Fehr is a tough negotiatior who may have learned from the '94 baseball strike. The NHLPA will lose again because there's no other choice. I don't foresee a long work stoppage because there's too much at risk. The Winter Classic which pits Original Sixes Detroit and Toronto against each other should bring the sides closer. Right now, figure the first month to be wiped out. If we're lucky, we'll have plenty to be thankful for if you catch my drift.

In the mean time, I will stick to what little hockey discussion we have which is predictions, projections, fantasy hockey rankings and overall. Lately, I've been on a Russian kick over at New York Puck. Since I upgraded into the 21st Century with an iPhone, I've linked up Alexei Cherepanov video tributes along with other Russian hockey players. Somewhat astonishingly, it'll be four years since the young Russian the Rangers selected in the '08 Draft tragically died during a KHL game for Omsk Avangard. Maybe it's all the free time but I can't help but wonder how things couldn't been different for the Ranger organization if disaster was prevented. Of course, who knows if Cherepanov would've ever played hockey again.

When you draft as talented a kid as him, you're not fearing the worst. You're dreaming. The highlight reels of Chery17 showcase his supreme skills. A player who combined fast skating with slick moves and a quick release. He also went to the dirty areas to score. Something highlighted in a strong second effort finish against Sweden. Cherepanov had flair. It's a shame he's gone so soon. Worst of all, I can't imagine how his family is dealing with the loss of their son. Even all this time later, it never goes away. When tragedies strike such as the devastating Lokomotiv flight crash that wiped out an entire team, the pain is always with us. For the families who lost their husbands/fathers, it's indescribable. My heart goes out to them.

Pavol Demitra was the most notable former NHLer who was lost. One of my favorite European players. His best years came with St. Louis after Ottawa gave up on him. The skilled Slovak developed into a dependable scorer who was part of some good Blues teams that never could get over the hump. In over eight years, he tallied 70-or-more points four times while eclipsing 30 goals during three seasons. His best campaign came in '02-03 when he finished with 93 points, including 36 markers and 57 helpers. The most goals he ever scored were 37 in '98-99 when the club made the Western Semis. Following the '04-05 lockout, he spent his final five NHL seasons with the Kings, Wild and Canucks before going to Russia to play for Yaroslavl Lokomotiv ('10-11).

Though he never won any major awards aside from a Lady Byng for most gentlemanly player in '99-00, Demitra was a very good playmaking pivot who made teammates better. He could play in any situation including on the penalty kill where late in his career, he had five shorthanded goals with LA in '05-06. A career mark which beat his previous high of four nine years prior with St. Louis. In 16 NHL seasons, Demitra played in 847 games tallying 304 goals, 464 assists for 768 points. That included half a dozen years of 60+ points. In fact, 10 of 16 seasons saw the underrated Slovak register at least 50. A credit to his consistency.

The three-time All-Star was a fixture representing his native country Slovakia taking part in three Olympics including a final swan song in Vancouver 2010 where he also finished his NHL career. At 35, Demitra played with the enthusiasm of a teenager turning back the clock to score three goals, seven assists and 10 points in the Winter Games. I've seen plenty of clips of Demitra coming down the right wing to finish off a Marian Hossa feed that led to a great celebration. There's also a nice congrats from current Blueshirt Marian Gaborik, who probably wouldn't be here if not for the contributions of Demitra and other greats such as Peter Bondra and Miroslav Satan, who also was part of that Olympic team.

All this time later, there's something cool about seeing stars in the twilight of their careers performing as well as they did under such a big stage. Whether it's Jaromir Jagr getting the best of Martin Brodeur or Brodeur outperforming Henrik Lundqvist, it shows how much pride these athletes have to still compete at the highest level. Representing your country is something special. As we saw again with passion exhibited during the London Games, the Olympic spirit is alive and well. It's why no matter what happens with the upcoming CBA which eventually will get done, I hope there's Olympic hockey over in Sochi 2014. It wouldn't be the same. 

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Atlantic Division Preview: New York Islanders

John Tavares and Evgeni Nabokov lead the way for the Islanders in 2012-13.

Last season, the Islanders finished 34-37-11 with 79 points finishing last in the Atlantic Division and 14th in the Eastern Conference. It was another retooling year under Jack Capuano, whose club endured some growing pains before recovering. Perhaps expectations were too high for a team that didn't have enough scoring or defense.

One of the issues that's plagued the Islanders has been Rick DiPietro's health. Fortunately, Evgeni Nabokov decided to play on Long Island instead of causing more headaches. The veteran netminder was solid in his first year for the Isles, winning 19 games while posting a 2.55 GAA, .914 save percentage with two shutouts over 42 contests. Even with Garth Snow removing DiPietro from the injured reserve due to the CBA, Nabokov is expected to carry the burden. You can't expect much from youngsters Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson, who are still in the development stage. Our guess is as good as anyone's on what DiPietro has left. If the Isles are to be taken seriously, they need consistency in net. At 37, Nabokov can't be expected to start over 60. Even that's a stretch.

Aside from goaltending, the Islanders need stronger support for top scorer John Tavares. In his third year, the 21-year old former first overall pick improved from 29 goals and 67 points in '10-11 to career highs in goals (31), assists (50) and points (81). Most encouraging was his minus-six. An area he struggled in. JT91's stronger skating and magic touch soon could put him among the game's best. If he can get off to a better start in '12-13, the sky's the limit. Consistency will be the key. He and sniper Matt Moulson (36-33-69) have formed a dynamic duo with both combining for 67 of the Isles' 203 goals. They accounted for a whopping 33 percent. If you include former Islander P.A. Parenteau (signed with Colorado), the cohesive trio connected just under 50 percent of the team's power play goals (Moulson-14 Tavares-7 Parenteau-6). As a team, New York totaled 45 including five from Frans Nielsen and three apiece from Kyle Okposo and Mark Streit.

With Parenteau cashing in with the Avalanche, Snow gambled on former 40-goal man Brad Boyes. He once totaled 76 goals and 137 points over two seasons with St. Louis. The trouble is he hasn't been the same since with the Blues dumping him on Buffalo where he frustrated Western New York. In an injury riddled '11-12, he had only 23 points (8-15-23) over 65 games. At 30, can a player with his skill set really be done? Boyes isn't overly big (6-0, 204) but has something to prove on a one-year contract. He has to do better with Tavares. The Isles need him.

Aside from Boyes, it's up to ex-first rounders Okposo and Josh Bailey to perform. They've been around too long to go through prolonged scoring slumps. Even with better finishes, neither cracked 50 points. Capuano needs a consistent second line. He knows what he'll get from Nielsen, who's developed into a solid player who's a third liner on a contender. The jury's still out on Michael Grabner (54 goals in 2 years). Second seasons are usually tough. I'd put more stock in the gifted Grabner lighting the lamp than either Okposo or Bailey. He's more of a finisher. At least Bailey became a fixture on the penalty kill netting a team best three shorthanded goals. Sooner or later, Okposo has to fulfill his potential. He once scored nine power play goals. Only three of 29 the past two seasons (117 games) have come on the man-advantage.

One area Snow addressed was team toughness, adding defenseman Matt Carkner and enforcer Eric Boulton to a roster that features Matt Martin. Martin is the Isles' toughest player who can not only fight but also contribute as his seven goals and seven helpers suggest. He finishes every check and is a great teammate. Like Devil David Clarkson, he needs to become more disciplined. There's no reason why he can't double that output. With Carkner around and Boulton, he can become a better player under Capuano. The kind who'll be a pain in the ass for foes.

Aside from adding Carkner to beef up the blueline, he also went out and got Lubomir Visnovsky. Even though the offensive-minded vet is having an arbitrator decide if Anaheim violated his no-trade clause with the Slovak entering the final year of a five-year deal originally signed with Edmonton, expect him to be an integral part of a D that has Streit, Andrew MacDonald and Travis Hamonic. Visnovsky's experience should prove instrumental in allowing the organization to ease prospects Ty Wishart, Matt Donovan, Calvin de Haan and Aaron Ness along. If they're lucky with health, the top five should include Carkner, meaning two spots are up for grabs. Defensemen take patience. How they're handled could prove pivotal to the club's future.

The Islanders will also keep a close eye on 2011 first round pick Ryan Strome, who one day could fill a void as back up for Tavares. Strome is very talented with great wheels and vision. He's only 19 and shouldn't be rushed like Nino Niederreiter, who must be handled differently in his third pro year. El Nino has great two-way potential along with physicality. The forgotten man looms large. David Ullstrom should be back.

Other kids include Casey Cizikas, Johan Sundstrom and Brock Nelson. On paper, depth isn't a problem. But it's still a long-term project with the Islanders in the best division. The Devils, Flyers, Penguins and Rangers are all better. Is this the year they make a dent? Stay tuned.

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