Monday, January 3, 2011

This n' That - Jan 2011

I'm overdue for one of these "random thoughts, observations and tidbits" pieces so I'll make good on that now. The following is just a collection of things that I've noticed over the last while from various levels of hockey as well as some opinions on topics of the day.

Been There, Done That

Did you watch the Winter Classic? I took a pass. For me, the January 1st tradition has become as interesting as the All-Star Game, which is to say "not at all".

After sitting in the stands at the Heritage Classic and then watching the NHL try and top itself each of the last four seasons, the novelty has definitely worn off for me.

Fenway Park and Wrigley Field, those were cool, historic venues so I could get behind that. But I couldn't care less about Heinz Field and I'd much prefer to watch the Pens and Caps clash in a hockey rink than in a gimmick setting.

What's the point now? Is it the publicity and the corporate buck? OK, I get that... but do we have to have the outdoor game and the All-Star game then? Can the NHL just play the All-Star game outside and kill two birds with one stone? I guess maybe that's the point though, two stone are better than one. Unless you're a fan who is tired of these made-for-TV events.

Let's face it, the outdoor game has been done to death over the last 10 years. The NCAA started it with the Cold War in 2001 and after the Big Chill at the Big House in December, there really is no where else to go. You can't beat the attendance set there, the interesting baseball stadiums are all checked off... can we not just move on now?

Oh wait... I guess we can't because the Flames and Habs have an outdoor date in February. Yawn. Wake me up if/when the Norfolk Admirals ever get the rink built on the deck of the U.S.S. Eisenhower.

Canadian Goalie Woes

Newsflash: Olivier Roy didn't have the greatest performance at the 2011 World Junior Championship. His .875 sv% and 3.57 GAA rank him behind the goalies for Germany, Slovakia and the Czech Republic (all teams playing in the relegation round).

Mark Visentin looked awful on the lone goal on Sunday but while his .963 sv% and 1.00 GAA look good, consider we're talking about Norway and Switzerland here.

I still hold to my pre-tournament belief that the best goalie Canada could have dressed at the 2011 WJC didn't even get an invite to the December camp but fortunately, he's still eligible for the 2012 event in Alberta. I hope that next year for the goalie job Hockey Canada looks to "Great Britain".

He was taken in the 4th round by the Florida Panthers and his 2.06 GAA and .926 sv% are still better stats than the four goalie invited to camp. At 6'3 and 210 lbs, he's also bigger than the guys who got the camp call. I know he was on their short list for consideration so it wasn't a case of a college guy getting snubbed but Sam Brittain of the Denver Pioneers would have been my pick as the starter for Canada. The Calgary native played in the AJHL last year but has been one of the top goalies in the NCAA this season as a freshman.

Collegians Making Pro Impact

Speaking of NCAA success stories, I found it interesting when I noticed the rookie scoring race in the American Hockey League. The top 3 rookies in AHL scoring all come from NCAA background - Rhett Rakhshani (NYI) played at Denver, Bobby Butler (OTT) skated for the Wildcats of New Hampshire and Swede Erik Gustafsson (PHI) spent three seasons at Northern Michigan.

In fact, 6 of the top 8 rookies in the AHL came from the NCAA. You can add Cornell's Colin Greening (OTT), Ohio State's Zac Dalpe (CAR) and Colorado College speedster Billy Sweatt (VAN) to the list too. The other two players are Norwegian Mats Zuccarello (NYR) and former Brandon Wheat King Matt Calvert (CLB).

What about defencemen? Brendan Smith (DET) is a former Wisconsin Badger and Jeff Petry (EDM) played for the Spartans of Michigan State. The pair are neck and neck in scoring for first year pro blueliners.

Interestingly, it's a different story at the NHL level where just 3 of the top 10 rookies come from the NCAA. In case you're wondering, those would be Wisconsin's Derek Stepan (NYR), Kevin Shattenkirk (COL) from Boston University and Mark Letestu (PGH) of Western Michigan.

Is there a reason for this? Is it evidence that supports the theory of collegians benefiting from time in the AHL before making the jump to the NHL? That's the question, you tell me your theory.

CIS Success

While we're on the topic of collegians doing well for themselves... The University of New Brunswick has upped their domination of NCAA opponents this year. After a weekend split with Providence College, the UNB Varsity Reds now boast a 4-1 record. Aside from the Friars, UNB also beat Massachusetts, Vermont and RPI back in October.

The Canadian University program is hosting the National Championship tournament this year and are currently ranked #2 in the country behind the University of Alberta.

Numbers Game

How do you know your team is heaped in tradition? I noticed a couple of days ago that the lowest jersey number on the ice for the Boston Bruins was Milan Lucic's #17. (Greg Campbell wears #11 but he wasn't dressed). Not all of those numbers have been retired but a lot of them have:

# 2 Eddie Shore, D, 1926–40
# 3 Lionel Hitchman, D, 1925–34
# 4 Bobby Orr, D, 1966–76
# 5 Aubrey "Dit" Clapper, LW/D, 1927–47
# 7 Phil Esposito, C, 1967–75
# 8 Cam Neely, RW, 1986–96
# 9 Johnny Bucyk, LW, 1957–78
# 15 Milt Schmidt, LW, 1936–55

I remember watching some of those names and have heard of all but one but I'm sure that Al Mitchell from Lowetide and Oilers Nation can fill me in on Hitchman who I'm sure he would have known as "kid" back in those days.

Obviously the Montréal Canadiens are in a similar boat with the plethora of retired numbers in their franchise. Oddly enough, neither team has retired #6.

'Bust-amaki' Making Noise

Edmonton Oilers fans will never forgive the organization for the 2002 NHL Draft where the team selected Finnish forward Jesse Niinimaki with the 15th overall pick. After a serious shoulder injury and a failed 24-game stint in the AHL, the Oilers cut their losses and took a compensation pick in exchange for not signing Niinimaki. That pick turned into Jeff Petry so all's well that ends well.

But checking up on Niinimaki's current status revealed something pretty surprising. After coming off a career year in the SM-liiga last season where he had 14 goals and 34 points in 55 games, the Tampere product is actually lighting it up this year. He's just shy of a point per game as he currently sits with 32 points in 35 outings. That's good for 5th overall in league scoring and while he's 10 points back of top spot, he's just 2 points away from the 2nd rung on the ladder.

When he was drafted Niinimaki was 6'2 and about 170 lbs... maybe. Now he's listed at 6'2 and a hair under 200 lbs and clearly the physical maturation and nearly 10 years of bouncing around from the AHL to Germany, Austria and lower Finnish leagues have finally paid off for him.

He'll probably never get a sniff from a NHL team but credit where it's due, Niinimaki appears to have come a long way.

Quick Hitters

- Michael St. Croix's snubbing from the CHL Top Prospects game is a shame. If he's not the first guy called to be an injury replacement (assuming there will be one needed) then something's wrong.

- I chatted very briefly with Jordan Eberle on Sunday before the Oil Kings game. He says he expects to be off for "maybe a week or so" with the injured ankle. That's what you call dodging a bullet - the former Regina Pat has been one of the few shining lights in an otherwise dismal season for the Oilers.

- Yes it's with the New York Islanders but Rob Schremp is actually doing OK this year. He has 14 points in 22 games, roughly the same scoring production and pace as Oilers veteran center Shawn Horcoff. However Schremp was always negatively type cast by critics as a "power play specialist", only 3 (21.4%) of them have come with the man-advantage. I never really got the whole "all his points come on the power play" slight against him. It seems to me a power play goal is worth the same as a regular strength or shorthanded one.

Just out of curiosity I looked at the breakdown for 3 big name players to see if their point production is balanced between even strength and power play: Jarome Iginla has scored 28.6% of his points on the power play. A whopping 46.4% of Mike Cammalleri's production is with the man advantage. Sidney Crosby's split comes down to 29.2%. (Horcoff by the way... 33.3%).

That wasn't meant to be hard hitting investigative journalism, I'm sure power play time per game comes into affect here, I was just curious. But if Schremp's point production isn't based largely on the power play... does he deserve at least a little bit of credit? Or is it just that he's playing on the Islanders so you can't take anything away from his stats? Again, you tell me.

- I was really sad for Jaden Schwartz when I heard the news that he'd broken his ankle at the WJC. For a family that has gone through so much hardship this year (and still is), the WJC was probably providing a nice distraction for he and his family.

- Oiler prospect Martin Marincin's 4-game suspension ended his World junior experience. I wondered if he'd stick around Buffalo or if he'd return to Prince George and get back to action with the Cougars. I checked into it, turns out the suspension would be effective in the CHL as well so he couldn't get back and play anyway.

- Jordan Weal has 51 points in 39 games and he hasn't played a single shift this year with Jordan Eberle. Can we start to give the L.A. Kings 3rd rounder a little credit now?

- Kootenay Ice goalie Nathan Lieuwen is undrafted and unsigned. At 6'5 and having a career year in Cranbrook, I won't be surprised when someone offers him a deal.

- One reason the Edmonton Oil Kings are much improved over last year: They have 3 guys around the 20-goal plateau at the midway point of the season. In 2009-10 they didn't have anyone score 20 the entire year.

- Kamloops forward Dylan Willick has been blogging with us this season. It's his draft year and while it's sometimes hard for the 2-way character guys to get some press, Willick's getting it lately. He's got 5 goals in his last 7 games, 3 of them game winners.

- With Dylan Olsen leaving (flunking out?) Duluth and signing with Chicago, I wonder if the Medicine Hat Tigers have put in a call to the Blackhawks. They hold the rights to the former Camrose Kodiak and would surely like to add someone of Olsen's pedigree to their line up for the second half. Sounds like it's a moot point anyway as it's been reported that the blueliner will head to Rockford of the AHL.

- Last year Canada lost the gold medal game to the Americans and a lot of fingers were pointed at the goaltending duo of Jake Allen (STL) and Martin Jones (LA). It's interesting to note that right now, the top two AHL goalies for both save percentage and goals against average are... you guessed it: Jake Allen and Martin Jones.

There Oiler fans, don't give up on Olivier Roy just yet.


Alan said...

Funny, one of the usual selling points used by the pro-college people is that players are more pro-ready when they come out of NCAA because they're 22, 23 years old, physically fully mature, and have been playing against other 21, 22, 23 year old men for the last few years. Compared to major junior kids, who turn pro at 20 and have spent the last few years playing against teenagers.

Now it appears those 22, 23 year old NCAA grads could actually use some time in the AHL first? Where the major junior players have already been for a couple years and are moving into the NHL at 22 or 23?


Guy Flaming said...

Sorry Al, couldn't resist. But for the record... what did you call him back then?