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We’re back everyone! A hastily-written 2012-13 NHL season preview

So, not so surprisingly, I’ve been somewhat quiet around these parts and though I’d rather not go into it, there was a really good reason why. That said, on Saturday at long last the puck will be dropping on the 2012-13 NHL season and there is just a ton of stuff to get excited about, to say nothing of the premier matchups (Chicago-Los Angeles, Pittsburgh-Philadelphia, New York-Boston) that we get on opening day alone.

However, given the consequences of the NHL’s work stoppage, rather than the full 82-course serving of a standard NHL season, we’ll be seeing a slap-dash truncated 48-game menu this time around. What’s even more wild is that the 48 games each team plays will be played entirely within a span of 99 days, which means less of a developed and cohesive performance all around and more of a frenetic breakneck scramble to make the postseason, which will be played out in full.

If anyone remembers last season’s 66-game NBA slate in which it seemed like the Knicks were playing about five times per week, this will be something like that. No one is entirely sure how different teams will respond to it, and as a result of the condensed schedule certain teams one might have expected to be title contenders (the Rangers, Detroit) might fall victim to exhaustion due to age or an aggressive style of play while teams not quite ready to make the jump (Edmonton, Florida) could take advantage because of their relative youth in the shortened schedule.

The important thing to understand, however, is that with only one other example of this situation to fall back on, no one is really sure how this will shake out, though if it ends the same way, I won’t really be complaining. Either way, it’s going to be kind of hard to predict who to bet on in the horse race, but because we need to fill these column inches, here is who might be Secretariat, and who might be Zippy Chippy.… Read more...

Zach Parise and Ryan Suter can go home again

Hockey does not have “bringing my talents to South Beach” free agent bonanzas. Yes, there are teams that win championships as a result of being heavily stocked with talent and depth that rolls them to a Stanley Cup, but often those teams are built as a result of deftly scouted drafts with the occasional smart free agent signing sprinkled in here or there. Look no further than the 2009 Penguins or the 2010 Blackhawks for evidence. While free agency is a large part of hockey, the tendency, often, is for teams to lock up their prized young assets early on, or at least attempt to do so, with a massive contract that gets them paid, but keeps them in the fold through their formative years. Many stars stay with the same organization for the vast majority of their careers and few championship teams are built almost exclusively on big-name free agents. The closest team in recent memory that might fill that description is 2002 Detroit Red Wings, an astonishingly old team which had four Hall-of-Famers (Steve Yzerman, Igor Larianov, Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille), six more players that are certain to be inducted at some point (Pavel Datsyuk, Sergei Fedorov, Brendan Shanahan, Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Chelios and Dominik Hasek), two more that just might join them (Darren McCarty and Tomas Holmstrom) and two players that had already scored overtime Cup-clinchers for other teams in the previous six years (Hull and Uwe Krupp).

They were an immortal squad built on the backs of veteran acquisition and free agency in a way that is a dramatic outlier from how the NHL, generally speaking, has done business. Even that team, however, was no situation of LeBron James and Chris Bosh signing contracts as the top two free agents with the same team. Seeing the top two names on the market go to the same place is rare. Seeing them go to a small market is rarer still. And yet, on July 4, 2012, while most of us in the U.S. were prepping for our barbecues or traveling to to someone else’s, the Minnesota Wild, they of the one division title in their history, three playoff appearances all time and none since George W. Bush was still in the White House, managed to sign Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to identical 13-year $98-million contracts that will carry them both from the age of 27 to their post-retirement fishing days near the Superior Hiking Trail.

The Minnesota Wild are not a good team. Despite a surprising first half before a tumbling second in 2011-12, they are an unbalanced mixed of unfulfilled promise (Dany Heatley), inconsistent offense (Devin Setoguchi) and a whole lot of youth. And yet, somehow, some way, they took the two prizes of free agency in this offseason, Suter, the top defenseman on the market, and Parise, the top forward available and given his combination of youth, leadership, offensive production and defensive dedication arguably the most desired free agent in the history of the NHL. While the idea of the Wild attempting to lure Suter and Parise to Minnesota as a package deal had been floated for months due to the fact that both are friends, Parise is a Minnesota native and Suter is from neighboring Wisconsin, the notion had been met by most hockey insiders and fans alike with scoffing and amusement.

As a lifelong Devils fan, I personally felt as if of all the teams in the hunt for Parise, Minnesota was probably the least likely destination. Rumors that the Rangers, Penguins, Flyers, Blackhawks and Red Wings would all be hot on his trail seemed a far more likely result to anyone paying attention, and despite the rampant assumption that Parise would simp… Read more...

Blood in the Hudson: Rangers vs. Devils

If you grew up in the New York metropolitan area in the 1990s, the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals left a mark on you. It didn’t matter if you liked hockey or if you didn’t, but the Devils were playing the Rangers, 1940 was emblazoned into your psyche and Mark Messier was busy carving out a place there for himself, too. Of course, if you liked hockey, then it was a horse of a different color entirely. The 1994 Eastern Conference Finals in the NHL were a series with drama that was almost unmatched by any other postseason series in the history of sports. Granted, I have a particular soft spot for both hockey and this series in general, but if you look at the facts — and we will do that in a moment — there is no postseason series I have seen in any sport that has proven its equal, though the 2001 World Series comes close.

To wit:

The 1994 season is widely remembered as the campaign in which the Rangers finally broke the curse of 1940, when the team opted to burn its mortgage on Madison Square Garden in the bowl of the Stanley Cup in celebration, thereby desecrating a sacred object and sentencing the team to more than half a century without a championship. Or so the theory goes. While the Rangers’ victory over the Devils in that season’s Eastern Conference Finals is not forgotten, people often forget that while the Rangers had the second-best record in the NHL that season, the Devils had the second-best just six points behind them. Add into the mix the natural geographic rivalry of two teams that played across the river from one another, as well as a bitter dynamic for New Jersey in which the Devils played consistent ugly duckling to the big, bad Blueshirts — something that is still the case despite the Devils being the more successful franchise since 1994 by an extremely wide margin — and what lay ahead was a dream set up to a dream series.
So to recap, this is what we were presented with before that series:

— The two best teams in the NHL’s regular season by the most significant empirical metric
— A natural geographic rivalry between two teams and fan bases that hate each other
— A measure of recent history, as the Devils and Rangers had played a bitter seven-game series two years earlier
— A chance for the Devils to finally crawl out from big brother’s shadow
— A chance to reach the Stanley Cup Final, the most that could possibly be at stake between these two teams given the League’s format

This is what we got:

— A Claude Lemieux goal in the final minute of regulation ties the game before Stephane Richer scores the winner for New Jersey in double overtime in Game 1
— A Rangers blowout in Game 2
— Stephane Matteau scoring in double overtime to give the Rangers a 2-1 series lead in Game 3
— A 3-1 Devils win in Game 4 to even the series
— A surprisingly convincing win by New Jersey at the Garden in Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead
— Game 6: Messier guarantees a victory for New York on the road to extend the series, and with the Rangers trailing in the third period Messier himself scores not one, not two, but three goals to rally the Rangers and force a Game 7
— Game 7: New York takes a 1-0 lead into the final moments before New Jersey’s Valeri Zelepukin ties the game with 7.7 seconds left in regulation. At 4:24 of the second overtime, Stephane Matteau beats New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur on a wraparound to end the series and send the Rangers to their first Stanley Cup Final since 1979 and, eventually, their first championship since 1940.
… Read more...

Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 2 Preview: Late Night With the NHL

If you watch as much of the Stanley Cup Playoffs as I do, you have to be prepared for some late nights. After all, the postseason, with its potential for games that theoretically can never end is often full of overtime epics that stretch into the early morning hours, and this season’s rendition has been no exception. In fact, the first round of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs had a record 16 overtime games, with the piece de resistence being between Chicago and Phoenix, a series that saw overtime in the first five games.

So, of course, it’s only fitting that the last game of the round, last night’s Game 7 thriller between New Jersey and Florida, which didn’t start until 8:30 p.m. despite being on the east coast so as not to coincide with the end of Game 7 between the New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators, needed more than 60 minutes to be decided. After all, Game 6, too needed more than 60 minutes to be figured out, resulting in Ilya Kovalchuk’s beautiful backhand feed after noticing he had lured in both defenders on a 2-on-2, which Travis Zajac took in front of the net and deposited between the legs of Scott Clemmensen to save New Jersey’s season.

But what was surprising about Game 7 between New Jersey and Florida was not that it needed more than 60 minutes to be decided, but that it needed more than 80. Double overtime isn’t something particularly unheard of, but overtimes have ended surprisingly early this postseason. Only three of the 16 overtime games this season reached a second extra period in the first round and the vast majority of games were done within about 10 minutes. This seems to run contrary to the typical postseason overtime trend of “try to end it quickly and if you can’t settle in and lock down the neutral zone and wait for a break,” not because games aren’t ending fast on the whole but because they aren’t ending immediately and still aren’t running on forever.

No need to worry, though. The Devils and Panthers solved that problem for everyone Thursday night by keeping the sportswriters, TV watchers and schedule-makers up deep into the evening in a holding pattern until somebody scored. As someone who is, shall we say, emotionally connected to one of these teams, it was an experience that was euphoric at its end but excrutiating for the rest of the duration. After all, playoff overtime is a precarious tight-rope walk where every slight shift in weight or brief mental mistake — and those are inevitable — could mean the end of a game or a season. The playoffs are stressful. Game 7 doubly so. Game 7 in overtime triply so. A Game 7 in double overtime? You get the idea. And despite nibbling on my fingers for most of the late evening, it was an immediate and explosive relief when Adam Henrique did this.

The game wouldn’t have gone that far, however, were it not for the absolutely stellar play of Martin Brodeur. As we’ve noted here earlier, Marty has struggled for stretches of this season and started to look his age — an age that will reach 40 next weekend — and while the Panthers did manage a furious third-period rally that tied the game with less than four minutes left, both of those goals were the result of an unbelievable amount of pressure and maybe a little too much contact with Brodeur put on by Florida. After all, people will forget that a third Florida goal early in the third period was waived off as a result of goalie interference, but they may not forget that the Panthers peppered Brodeur with an almost absurd 19 shots in the third … Read more...

Speak of the Devils: New Jersey at the 3/4 mark

The New Jersey Devils started this season as something of a mystery and for the hockey masses of the Garden State — and elsewhere — that demand some clarity, the Devils haven’t really answered those questions. There are 19 games that now separate New Jersey from the end of the regular season and barring the unexpected it appears the team should earn a playoff berth, something that used to be an afterthought for the Devils. Of course, in a League where more than 50% of the teams make the postseason, that doesn’t really much to tell else just how good this team is or isn’t — and frankly the empirical evidence doesn’t really clear that up either. We do know a few things. We know they’re not bad, although sometimes they can be. We also know they’re not great, although, sometimes they can be that, too.

All in all, if you are a Devils fan, given that the team had a conspicuously murky future heading into this season and was coming off its first non-playoff year since 1996, it’s hard not to be fairly satisfied. After an inconsistent start of the year, the Devils have several positive things going for them. They seem to have bought into coach Peter DeBoer’s aggressive defensive style — New Jersey continues to thrive off turnovers, its penalty kill is third best in the League, the Devils easily have the most shorthanded goals in the NHL and while their average goals against per game (2.71) is not superlative, it has improved over the course of the season.

In addition to that, Ilya Kovalchuk must have been reading this blog, because he seems to have gotten the message and has thrived over the second half of the season. Right now the Russian dynamo has 25 goals and 36 assists, which puts him 11th in the League in scoring, and he seems to have taken his defensive duties on the penalty kill seriously as his three shorties this season are the third most in the NHL. Zach Parise appears to finally have overcome the recovery process from his torn meniscus a season ago, to the tune of 24 goals and 29 assists, and Patrik Elias, with 20 goals and 39 assists seems reborn.

What might be disconcerting however is that despite having a powerful trio of scorers, to say nothing of Adam Henrique being on the inside track to the Calder Trophy as the League’s best rookie and David Clarkson somehow scoring 25 goals so far this season, is that the Devils don’t have much offense beyond that. The Devils are 16th in the NHL in goals per game and their offensive struggles are a sign of some pretty glaring scoring depth. In fact, there is little offense to speak of outside New Jersey’s top six forwards. Of the 165 goals the team has scored in 63 games this season, 139 of them have been scored by just seven people.

That’s an astonishing 84% of the goals coming from just 30% of the nongoaltenders on the team.

This is not the kind of scoring depth that is the mark of Stanley Cup winners. Championship teams roll four lines that both check and score with ease and for any indication of that the Devils can look no further than their own history, as the 2000 Stanley Cup championship team was second in the League in scoring while the 2001 team, which lost Game 7 of the Final to Colorado was No. 1.

For the Devils to have a real impact in the postseason they will need to start getting contributions from their third and fourth lines — not the majority of contributions, but certainly enough to ease the burden lest New Jersey’s elite players be spent by the time they reach the second round.

The good thing is that the De… Read more...

State of the Devils: The Trouble with Marty

By all accounts, the New Jersey Devils are doing quite well relative to their expectations this season. The 2011-12 NHL regular season is roughly halfway over, and while the Devils’ place in the postseason is far from assured, they’re currently sixth in the East — a better mark than expected Cup contenders like Washington, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay. Ilya Kovalchuk, with 38 points in 38 games leads the team in goals and is playing like his contract requires, Zach Parise has overcome a slow start to put up 38 points himself, Patrik Elias is playing like he’s 26 again, putting up a team-leading 40 points, and the Devils may have uncovered diamonds in the rough both old (Petr Sykora has turned a training camp invite into 22 points) and young (All-Star rookie Adam Henrique’s numbers — 13 goals, 21 assists, plus-9 have him looking like a future star).

After some rocky beginnings, the Devils appear to have bought into new coach Peter DeBoer’s system, and his aggressive penalty kill is so impressive that New Jersey not only leads the League at 90.4%, but with an NHL-best 11 shorthanded goals in 70 opportunities (15.7%), the Devils are actually more likely to score down a man than on the power play, where they’ve scored 22 of 148 times with the man advantage (14.9%). That may say more about how bad their power play is than anything — and it is fairly bad — but the point is they aren’t handicapping themselves with mistakes, and their aggressive forecheck is creating opportunities, which are leading to wins. Need an example? Look no further than Wednesday night, when Kovalchuk displayed just how effective New Jersey can be at forcing chances off its defense.

But as any dedicated Devils fan could tell you, the positive signs the team has display are encouraging, but with the team unlikely to compete for a Stanley Cup this season, they are just background noise for the two biggest weights that hang on New Jersey’s shoulders. The first is Parise’s uncertain contract status, but as neither side seems to be talking during the season, with little news to report, there is little to talk about. The more prominent concern, however, is the uncomfortable process that every team must deal with eventually, that of an aging superstar losing his skills but needing a face-saving ride off into the sunset. The Devils have never really dealt with that before. It’s unusual that one of their star players remains with the team through the end of his career — particularly since New Jersey has never seemed particularly interested in cultivating “stars” — but the closest approximations the Devils have dealt with so far are the three men whose numbers hang in the rafters.

Of those three, none of them ever presented the Devils with the uncomfortable quandary. Ken Daneyko retired when his skills had clearly eroded (though not before providing an emotional boost by playing in Game 7 of the 2003 Stanley Cup Final after being a healthy scratch through the first six games), Scott Stevens had his career end due to a concussion and Scott Niedermayer played the last five seasons of his career in Anaheim. While the retirement of their numbers is warranted (though some could argue Daneyko’s place in that lot), none of them represented the awkward situation nor the titanic stature of Martin Brodeur.

No one can argue Marty’s on-ice achievements. He is the NHL’s all-time career leader in regular season wins, shutouts and games played. In his career he… Read more...

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Ilya Kovalchuk

I believe it was one of the brightest, most gifted poets of our time who gave us the immutable, profound maxim of “Mo’ money, Mo’ Problems”.

Few in the NHL can come to grips with that concept more significantly than New Jersey Devils winger Ilya Kovalchuk, a man so gifted as an offensive weapon that no one equaled his scoring prowess over his first seven seasons in the league, and a man whose contract was so controversial that it literally warranted a re-writing of the book on contacts in the League. For all of his goal-scoring gifts — and with 380 goals so far in his 10-season career, those gifts remain potent — there is an undeniable weight that sits on his shoulders considering that he has one of the biggest contracts in the history of the game.

At times that can make his rough public moments all the more brutal, as it did in New Jersey’s last game, a 4-2 loss to Carolina Monday night. The Devils had already fallen behind 3-0 before coming alive in the third period and closing to within 3-2. With the team pressing for the tying score in the final minute after pulling its goalie, Kovalchuk wheeled with the puck near the left corner of the offensive zone and attempted a pass up to the blue line where center Adam Henrique was jumping on the ice following a line change. The pass missed Henrique and cleared the zone, a happenstance that isn’t particularly rare in the game of hockey, but in this case Kovy’s feed was so unfortunately aimed that it drifted all the way to the other end and into New Jersey’s open net, sealing the game for the Hurricanes.

Those are the types of moments that cause New Jersey fans to quickly bring their palms to their foreheads, and it isn’t the first time they’ve had to do it with Kovalchuk. The Russian sniper initially came to New Jersey as the big fish of the 2010 trade deadline, an impending free agent set up for one of the biggest paydays in NHL history, who had been lost in the obscurity the hockey hotbed that was Atlanta, Georgia. With the Atlanta Thrashers unable to come to a long-term deal with Kovy, he was shipped to New Jersey in a surprising gamble for the typically stingy Devils, who thought he might be the missing piece of the fungible roster’s fourth Stanley Cup in 15 seasons. Once he arrived, Kovalchuk continued to have a solid season (he finished with a total of 41 goals and 44 assists in 76 games), but once in the postseason, the team went cold in a five-game first-round loss to the rival Flyers. That series featured Kovy, who was never used to playing with anyone else who could score, hot dogging so much on the rink that it’s a shock Takeru Kobayashi didn’t try to eat him.

The uninspiring performance left many Devils fans willing to simply let Kovalchuk walk at the end of the postseason — myself included. After all, the price paid to Atlanta in the deal, Johnny Oduya, Niclas Bergfors, prospect Patrice Cormier, a first-round pick and a swap of second-round picks, hadn’t worked out for the Thrashers as well as they wanted. The expected best player in the deal for them, Bergfors, is now with his second franchise since the deal, and while Oduya is still with the team, the team itself had such a dysfunctional ownership that they shipped up to Winnipeg as the reconstituted Jets this past offseason.

So with not that much lost and the noble Kovy experiment over and not particularly successful, it wouldn’t have been so rough to move on. Devils controlling partner Jeff Vanderbeek, however, instead saw a prize acquisition that … Read more...