Monday, 23 December 2013

Fan throws an Oilers jersey on the ice, Dallas Eakins blows a gasket.

I have to side against Dallas Eakins in this latest contretemps for the Oilers. I get that he’s trying to defend his young players, but he goes about it the wrong way, like last time when he made it about Lars Eller, rather than the fact that opposition coaches are probably describing his team as a junior team in pre-game meetings. He’s making it personal, and he sounds defensive, even petulant, rather than commanding or inspirational.

I hope that the Edmonton press corps does its job, nay, its duty, and ferrets out this fed-up fan and get his side of the story, how much money he’s been spending over the years supporting this sad sack team, and it can’t be cheap, seeing how close to the ice he was sitting. I want him to have an opportunity to retort to Mr. Eakins’ feeble remarks (“uh…, hard workers…, oil industry…, they don’t quit…, …., . Uh…, …. Did I mention the oil industry?…”), or even better to confront him directly, and watch the Oilers’ coach backtrack and grovel his way out of it.

This is the second time the Oilers management team acts out of touch, with Kevin Lowe’s remarks last year that he knew about winning, and that certain fans weren’t welcome if they disagreed. What the fan did is a significant if symbolic gesture. Team jerseys ain’t cheap. For him to chuck it is not a stunt as much as a strong message to the team and its leadership.

Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi are struggling. Let's extend Douglas Murray for 2015.

Just as a general comment, I think it’s important to point out that Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi are not leading their team right now, we might even say they’re struggling. Nathan has eight points in 24 games, and Jarred has four in 25 games. Just to put that into perspective, Morgan Ellis, who was a healthy scratch at the start of the season, has seven points in 23 games. Drew Schistel has six points in 21 games. Yes, the Drew Schiestel. Magnus Nygren, who played part of the season before packing it in and returning to Sweden, amassed 8 points in 16 games, the 0.5 pts/game level you’d like to see from an AHL prospect before you call him up, and did that in his first season in North America.

When I listen to Bulldogs games on the radio, I don’t hear Jarred's or Nathan's name a lot, they’re not controlling the game or creating magic with the puck or making opponents look silly. They’re not dominating games, proving too strong for that level of play. It’s entirely possible that they’ll improve as the season wears on, but just as likely that they’ll continue to struggle as they mature and adapt to the pro game. They may need to start next season in Hamilton too.

So we need to temper flights of fancy, in which both Jarred and Nathan start next season with le Grand Club. We often talk about how we need to be patient with our prospects, and this is where the rubber meets the road. If our first-rounders aren’t ready, we shouldn’t force them in the NHL lineup because they ‘should’ be ready. Nashville may be the right environment to plug in a young defenceman and let him learn on the job, but Montreal, with Tony Marinaro and Bertrand Raymond and, isn’t. They need to ply their trade without the added pressure of us frustrated never-wases critiquing their every move.

So before we dispose of Francis Bouillon, Douglas Murray, Davis Drewiske, Raphaël Diaz, Josh Gorges, etc., in our collective fantasy, we might want to ensure that the young Bulldogs are ready to take over. I’m ready to believe that Douglas Murray is as poor a defenceman as the stats say he is, but I remain convinced that he brings a valuable presence to the team, and skills it sorely lacked. He complements our defensive group, as much as Tomas Kaberle and Yannick Weber did not. So I’ll make do with his deficits to benefit from his strengths, his cost-effectiveness. If anything, I wouldn’t be averse to his being re-signed for next season, as a hedge against the vagaries of Colin Campbell’s NHL, against injuries, against the kids needing more seasoning. Francis may have been wrung dry, but Douglas won’t be any less imposing next season.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

NFL 2013 Week 14: Chargers 37, Giants 14

Want a foolproof system that will make your bookie hate you?  Bet on the Chargers when they have King Dunlap dressed and healthy and starting at left tackle.  I've gone on about this all year, about what a big difference Mr. Dunlap makes, but the postulate proved true again today as the Chargers easily defeated the New York Giants 37-14.  

The Chargers had all their starting offensive linemen available today, and they kept their best player, quarterback Philip Rivers, upright and unhurried for most of the game.  As a result, the offence rolled, piling up first downs, yards and points.

Philip Rivers, who we might have thought had lost his gifts over the last two seasons, has taken to Offensive Coordinator Ken Whisenhunt's new system like a duck to water.  The short, quick passing game is a big change compared to the big-play offence we were used to when we had Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd going deep seemingly every play, but it's perfectly suited to Philip's waning arm strength (or did we imagine that too?) and the journeyman offensive line.  

Journeyman probably doesn't apply to D.J. Fluker though.  I was skeptical with the pick last spring, since I didn't think it was wise to pick the fourth-best tackle with the eleventh-overall pick, especially one who was slated to play the right side, while we had a crying need on the left.  The giant kid has been winning me over though.  He is just massive, naturally so, with a big body through the hips and legs, but unlike other monster tackles he's not a jiggly guy with lots of fat on him.  And it shows in how he plays, he's relentless, even in the fourth quarter.  While rookies tend to fade when faced with the pro schedule for the first time, he's still going all out and still very effective.  In the run game, he just plows tacklers out of the way.  Cross our fingers, that kid will be a Pro Bowler for a decade.

Ryan Mathews is another bright spot, in that he seems to be finally becoming the running back he can be, based on his pure ability.  He didn't fumble today, and he racked up 100 yards and a touchdown.  Further, he's no longer tap-dancing behind the line of scrimmage, side-slipping and looking for a boulevard, he now runs decisively, follows his blockers, and dives into the hole, always getting positive yards.  Quite a change from the previous incarnation who used to supputate three yards behind the line of scrimmage, waffling until opposing tacklers came to harvest his collarbones.  

The defence didn't have to perform miracles, with a healthy lead early on, but it was a good sign that Cam Thomas, Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes made an appearance on the stat sheet, and were disruptive in Eli's kitchen.  Donald Butler and Manti Te'o were, probably not coincidentally, effective, racking up tackles and an interception.  The backfield, usually a black hole, made plays today, with Shareece Wright nabbing an interception at the end to seal the game.

So an enjoyable win for our Chargers, but one which in the grand scheme of things will only serve to harm our position in the 2014 draft.  Indeed, there are too many teams in front of us jockeying for a post-season berth for us to hold out any reasonable hope for playoff action.  Let's hope that we don't regret feelgood wins like this one too bitterly when our number comes up at Radio City Music Hall next spring.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Bulldogs lose 4-1 to Erie Monsters, Jarred Tinordi and Nathan Beaulieu still learning

The Bulldogs lose 4-1 to the Erie Monsters tonight, Maxime Macenauer scoring a meaningless powerplay goal late in the third for the Bulldogs to break the shutout.

For those of us who reflexively state that Nathan Beaulieu and/or Jarred Tinordi should be 'given a chance to earn the sixth d-man spot', which seems reasonable since they are the anointed ones, the first-rounders who should naturally step into important roles, soon, and who we build our succession plans around, watching tonight's game would have been instructive.  The problem is, both players are not excelling or dominating, as the Bulldogs broadcast team peripherally allude to once in a while.  These two guys should be the Bulldogs' best players along with Louis Leblanc, but their results are muted at best.  

Nathan Beaulieu has two goals and five assists in 17 games, and is -4 on the season.  Tonight during the third period, he played on the second wave of the powerplay, with Sylvain Lefebvre choosing to send out Greg Pateryn and Patrick Holland as his blueliners on the first wave.

Jarred Tinordi has 3 assists in 18 games, and granted he's not on the team to generate offence, but he's not taking over games.  He did have a big spectacular hit tonight, but was also flattened by an opponent late in the third, and chased him soon after to retaliate, with an unconvincing result, and this was while the puck was in his own zone.  He should properly have been focused on getting the puck and clearing it out, and worry about getting even at a more appropriate time.  Although maybe when the game is already lost there will never be a better time to settle a score.

In any case, our two young princes are still struggling, still learning their craft.  They show promise, but they don't have the experience and professionalism yet to instill confidence that they could step into an NHL lineup and not be overwhelmed.  It's a long season yet, and they could put it together rapidly and improve tremendously from now until April, but if I'm Marc Bergevin, and I see Douglas Murray settling into his role and contributing to the team and improving game by game, maybe I think about extending him for another season, like he did for Francis Bouillon last year.  Francis was brought in possibly as a one-year stopgap in July 2012, and proved reliable and cost-effective, so much so that an extra year was tacked on to his contract as a reward for him and an insurance policy for the team. 

The same scenario could play out for Douglas Murray this season, the late-summer free agent acquisition who was widely seen as a band-aid while Alexei Emelin healed and Jarred Tinordi proved himself ready.  This is now beginning to look like an inspired decision.

Nothing wrong with keeping a useful defenceman in the fold to give yourself options while the kids learn their craft.  We should hand jobs to rookies not because we have one available, but rather because they show they're ready and they're better the veteran incumbent(s).

We were excited about our pipeline of young defencemen, and were worried about the best-case scenario, whereby we have too many young NHL-ready blueliners that we can't fit onto our roster.  But with Nathan and Jarred still learning, Magnus Nygren choosing to return to Sweden, Morgan Ellis struggling, and Darren Dietz having a tough start to his season in part due to injuries, we're not at best-case or even 'better-case' scenario territory.  So instead of leaving roster spots open for the kids to waltz into, let's be cautious and keep our veteran defencemen and have the youths beat them out of a job at training camp.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Game 30: Canadiens 2, Bruins 1

The Canadiens continued their recent streak of good fortune, beating the Bruins 2-1 to take the lead in the Atlantic division.  They were fortunate in that, if this had been a boxing match, and the periods were rounds, the judges would have scored it two to one in favour of the Bruins.  They dominated the first and third periods.

What tilted the result in the Canadiens direction was the continued excellence of goaltender Carey Price.  He turned away 32 of 33 shots, for a sizzling .970 save percentage, and boosted his seasonal average to .938 .  We're seeing in Carey the level of performance that has always been predicted for him, based on his pedigree, his physical gifts, his mental makeup and attitude, and his performance at the World Junior Championship, for example, and in the AHL with the Bulldogs.  Whether this is strictly a result of a player maturing into his peak years, or a convergence of factors like his wedding this summer or a change in technique due to a new goaltending coach, he started off the season strong and seems to be getting stronger as the season progresses.

During the game, he seemed solid, unflappable at times, making routine saves appear as such.  He also fought and scrambled and was lucky at times, but these were instances which reinforced the confidence he inspires recently, instead of being seen as evidence that the dam is about to breach.  Miraculous saves and lucky bounces don't demonstrate that our luck is running out, they show that he is in the zone.

Many other players drew our attention.  Michaël Bournival took a shoulder to the kisser and it seemed to stun him, he had to leave for a medical break during the first period, but even that didn't slow him down.  He was fast and furious on the forecheck, making Zdeno Chara look unsteady and foolish on a couple of occasions.  He also made a crucial block on a shot late in the third period.

Douglas Murray is winning over the Antichambre crew, or at least, convincing early skeptic Michel Bergeron that he has a role to play.  We saw very few scrums and attempts to spear a puck through Carey tonight, and none when Douglas was on the ice.  There was a notable instance when Sean Thornton was in front of the Canadiens' crease, and he had half a second to make up his mind on what he would do, the whistle having just been blown.  To help him decide, Douglas skated into the frame and took over from Raphaël Diaz, who had been fronting the Bruins' fourth-liner, and that was enough to convince the latter to turn and skate away.  Douglas did some solid work on the penalty kill, with a notable clearance, and sacrificing himself to go down to block a Zdeno Chara shot, which luckily missed him and hit Carey in the pads instead.

Raphaël Diaz played the kind of game I was hoping for from him at the onset of the season.  Especially with the Magnus Nygren experiment now stalled, this is a welcome blip on the radar, and we can hope that it's the start of a trend.  Maybe he's finally settling in with Douglas Murray, or maybe the contract talks are having an effect (did Marc Bergevin lowball him, and light a fire?), but we saw flashes of the player we expected, in the better-case scenario at least, in that he was dependable defensively and creative and dangerous offensively.

On one sequence, he covered Chris Kelly in his zone, and bodychecked him behind the net to neutralize him.  This was not a punishing blow or anything, but an effective play that will make his coaches smile.  He then rushed the puck up the ice and created a scoring chance, and this was the kind of rushes he's shown the last couple of years that have been strangely absent this season.  On another sequence, he took a couple of dangerous shots at the net, and again this aspect of his game has been lacking.  Finally, in the third period he set up the winning goal by Max Pacioretty on a pretty play when he drove the net and deked around a sprawled Tuukka Rask, almost potting the goal himself.

Alexei Emelin continued his solid play, and may have exorcised some demons by putting a solid hit on Milan Lucic along the boards.  Alexei landed on his butt as a result, but his limbs were intact, and that must have helped his confidence.

Lars Eller also laid a crunching hit, on Gregory Campbell to boot, and was solid and dependable all game long.

George Parros was a presence that possibly cooled the Bruins' baser instincts, and even took a pretty good shot on net, although he went high glove-side, the scorer's equivalent of fool's gold.  Georgie, there's a reason there's all that room, all that net to shoot at, it's the goalie setting a trap for you, hypnotizing you with what seems like a can't miss option.  Next time, at least freeze the goalie before trying that.

David Desharnais won an honest-to-goodness puck battle along the boards with Jarome Iginla late in the third, while protecting the slim lead, and that flies in the face of the truism that he's too small to be effective in the defensive zone, and that he gets knocked off the puck too easily.  I don't know if he's playing more confidently due to his recent successes, but he did the same things he used to do, which is get way low and wide in his stance so that the big Bruins winger couldn't get a good lick on him or lever him off the puck.  He then used his quick stick and smarts to shuffle the puck along the boards for a few precious seconds before he squirted it loose to Josh Gorges, who was able to easily clear the zone.

And finally, Canadiens fans could take some schadenfreude in how poorly Zdeno Chara played.  I challenge anyone who states that he's still one of the Top 5 or even Top 10 defencemen in the league to watch the game and see his many gaffes and mistakes.  Poor shifts followed bad shifts which came after catastrophic shifts.

Brendan Gallagher started off the festivities early in the first while forechecking and racing him to a puck in the corner.  Brendan braced and 'pre-hit' him, then finished his check after the puck was gone.  Not that it affected Mr. Chara physically, but it may have set the tone.  Michaël Bournival forechecked him to great effect, stripping him of the puck on a couple of occasions.

Mr. Chara also looked bad against Lars Eller on one sequence, during which he initially gave away the puck, then bobbled it when it came back to him, which led to a Lars scoring chance.  He then was too immobile to corral the puck on the rebound, or catch up to Lars who skated away easily with it.  It was like dessert for the soul.  In advance of the main course, of the win.  Cue the angel choir.

Oh, and he was on the ice for the Tomas Plekanec goal, having started the whole thing with a giveaway.  His ineptitude during and expression after were priceless.

If he's a top defenceman with such a fierce shot, why are they putting him in front of the net on the powerplay?  Doesn't that raise a question as to how effective he is on the blue line?  It's not like the Bruins don't have a bunch of big bodies to put in front of the net, they have options, yet they waste this Norris Trophy-candidate as a forward to screen the goalie?  Really?

It wasn't all sunshine and roses for Les Glorieux though.  We saw a curiously disjointed powerplay, with forwards going offside when our defencemen were trying to gain the zone.  And again, Tomas Pekanec went on a two-on-one during a penalty kill with Travis Moen, and chose to shoot instead of passing.  It's almost like he doesn't trust Travis to bury the puck, or send it back with a pretty pass.

We also saw Max Pacioretty get sent off for a two-minute boarding penalty, which was disputable since Max hit Dennis Seidenberg on the side, rather than clearly from behind.  Further, Dougie Hamilton seemed to hit Brandon Prust squarely from behind, an apparently much worse hit, but Chris Lee being one of the referees officiating the game, it went unpunished.

All that remains now is for us to savour this win, and for our focus to not wane in advance of Saturday's game against the punching-bag Sabres.

Brendan Gallagher is not an 'instigator' or a 'pest'.

I hate the equivalence people are making of Brendan Gallagher to Brad Marchand.  Sure, they're both small-ish forwards, and both can score, but that's where the similarities end.  Brendan is relentless and always buzzes around the opposition net, and digs for the puck until the whistle blows.  As a result, he gets more than his share of crosschecks and facewashes, and unimaginative hockey analysts have labelled him a pest.  He's nothing but, in fact he's a gentlemanly player and good guy who works very hard.  He's not the 'antagonist who gets under your skin', like so many are trying to peg him as, to hammer the square peg into the round hole, since every player must fit into an archetype: checking forward, playmaking centre, defensive defenceman, puck-moving defenceman, ...

Meanwhile Brad Marchand has no honour, he cheats and lies, he spears and slew-foots and goes for opponents' knees, and does so because he has a legion of Orcs to save his bacon.  He gets under opponents' skins because he's a creep and a thug and cheapshot artist and a yapper.  I wouldn't want him on our team, despite the goals.  And the thing is, his conduct, fostered and encouraged as a Bruin, would be unacceptable in Montréal.  He might have had a shot if he'd played here to be a decent player that you can respect.  Instead, he wallows in the cesspool that the NHL excretes by its refusal to clean up the game, and to showcase its stars rather than the pluggers and fourth-liners and assorted other Don Cherry favourites.

Also, Brendan Gallagher is a class act from a good family who's a great ambassador for the team and was universally liked when he played for the Giants.  Meanwhile, we know what a dirtbag Brad Marchand is, and the stories circling around him in Boston and from his home town.  

So let's stop the comparisons between the two, they're demeaning to Brendan and they cloud rather than illuminate the issue.  Brendan Gallagher is a fine young man and a reputable and respectable hockey player.  Brad Marchand is anything but.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

George Parros should hit Zdeno Chara, again and again and again.

If George Parros plays Thursday against the Bruins, which should be a given, for if he doesn't then why did we bother trading for him, but anyway if he does, I'd want the coaches to do with him what the Leafs did with Colton Orr in the playoffs last spring.  They had him 'shadow' Zdeno Chara, as it were, in the offensive zone, and whenever he had a chance, when the puck was near the Bruins d-man, hit him with a clean bodycheck.  Or dirty, whichever.

The rationale is sound: Colton Orr isn't really able to contribute anything in the offensive zone, in terms of being in the right position, make or accept a pass, get a shot on net, etc.  What he could do was be near Zdeno Chara, and when the puck was in the area, lay a bodycheck on him.  Now, he often whiffed on the check and ate glass, or ended up on his butt, just because he's big doesn't mean he's as strong or solid on his skates as the Bruin, but he's in the ballpark in terms of size, so Mr. Orr actually played an effective role in that series, in that Zdeno Chara's head was on a swivel the whole game.  He's not used to being hit, because normal-sized players get hurt when they try, it's useless, so he's gone years playing without fear and with his head down, but a big boy like Colton Orr can jar him.  That got the Bruins D-man off his game, you could see him be frazzled, hurry his plays with the puck, get agitated, frustrated.

Zdeno Chara used to be a hard nut to crack, but he's getting older, not as strong and certainly not as mobile as he used to be.  Let's have George try to hammer him a couple of times, that's something he can do, and with the other forwards we'll keep doing what we usually do against him, which is skate circles around him and make him look confused and ungainly, and wail like Chewbacca when we score a goal or two against him.