Sunday, March 23, 2014

Five points out of the playoffs, but hey look! Nicklas Jensen!

Jensen led all SEL rookies with 17 goals in 50 games last year. After a slow start
with Utica, he's living up to the hype on the Canucks' top line. (Flickr: anders-h-foto)

Back in early-February, I wrote an article lauding Eddie Lack and how his play was one of the Canucks' few redeeming stories this year. It was a post grasping for any kind of positivity in the face of a precariously-held playoff spot. Oh, that playoff spot. It was a whole fifteen games ago now that the Canucks were still ahead of both Dallas and Phoenix -- if just barely.

Although Lack's baptism-by-fire, post-Luongo, has loosened his play, he remains one of the few Canucks playing beyond pre-season expectations. And for the past couple of weeks, he's been joined by another pleasantly surprising rookie in Nicklas Jensen.


Monday, February 24, 2014

Nagano to Sochi: Canada's all-time Olympic numbers in the NHL era

Photo from olympics.cbc.ca.
Salt Lake City, Vancouver and now Sochi. In the five Winter Olympics since NHL players were allowed to compete, Canada has won gold in three of them. And while more zealous fans will tell you that we should have had all five, the best team on paper never wins a hundred percent of the time.

It can take a very under-appreciated resiliency to be the best and live up to it. To stick to sound and systematic play -- especially when it only gets you a 2-1 win against an Arturs Irbe-less Latvian team. Or just two measly assists through five games from the best player in the world.

But here we are, just barely recovered from a deprived sleep schedule and with ultimate bragging rights for at least four more years. And thank Price, because we all know how much longer four years can feel after having left Gretzky on the bench.

Since 1998, Team Canada has played a total of 31 games. That is nearly half a regular season's worth of the most scrutinized hockey known to man. Makes for a pretty decent sample size. Which makes you wonder where Sidney Crosby's pair of Olympic performances might stack up against, say...Joe Sakic's. Or Steve Yzerman's. Or where Shea Weber and Drew Doughty rank among the Scott Niedermayers and Chris Prongers of yesteryear.

One can only Google so hard until they take matters into their own hands. If there's already an all-time list out there, well, it's not in the first 10 pages of a standard Google search. Go, go gadget Excel spreadsheet. The career rankings of Team Canada players since 1998:



In an exhaustive poll of all of my friends, two out of two them predicted that Joe Sakic would be Canada's all-time leading scorer at the Olympics since 1998. Three if you include myself. And we weren't far off, but it's Jarome Iginla's 14 points that is currently the standard. His 10 goals dwarfs all others, which really tells you something about his place in his generation of scorers.

That takes you to a slew of 2014 players. With his second offensively-dominating Olympic year in a row, Shea Weber is Canada's leading defenceman in the NHL era. Five goals and 12 points in 13 games. Makes you wonder what he could do on a real, contending NHL team. At fourth and sixth overall are arguably Canada's top two players in the world right now in Jonathan Toews and Sidney Crosby. Naturally, between the two of them, they have four of Canada's six goals in the last two gold medal games. At 25 and 26 years old, the country's perpetual logjam at centre isn't clearing for at least another two tournaments (IIHF and NHL willing).

Among the more interesting stats is that with three tournaments under his belt now, Rick Nash is second only to Chris Pronger in Olympic experience for Canada. Meanwhile, Bryan McCabe, who apparently gooned his way through Turin in 2006, ranks second in penalty minutes with 18 in six games. Who else at first but Pronger again.

They seem to always make it interesting, but hopefully the IIHF, IOC and NHL can cooperate to bring more of the best-on-best that McCabe's 18 penalty minutes are made of. A little more of this wouldn't hurt either:



Go Canada, go.

-HC

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Finland: The little hockey engine that very consistently could

How many times can a team succeed before you stop calling them underdogs?

Nevermind that they have the world's most likable player in captain Teemu Selanne. (And around these parts, the most likable ex-Canuck in Sami Salo.) Or that they just won their third consecutive Olympic medal by toppling the generally-hated Team USA. In international competition, Finland has been as endearing to the hockey world as they are efficient and successful.

Which is extremely odd. Because typically, the teams that can endear themselves to an entire sport's followers are not usually the consistently successful ones. I mean, look no further than Team Canada. But in the NHL-era of Olympic competition, Finland has captured one silver medal and three bronzes, reaching the podium in four of five years. (Not to mention runner-up in the 2004 World Cup, the only other best-on-best competition in that span.) No other country can match that medal output. Not Sweden, not Russia -- not even Canada.


So how is it that they are so damn lovable? It can't be just one or two players' ubiquitous likability. In Finland's case, it is because, despite their track record, they come into literally every Olympics as an underdog. Especially this time around, having been without their top two centres in Mikko Koivu and Valtteri Filppula. (Simply consider how bad the Canucks' pre-Olympic stretch would have been without Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler.)

But besides being perpetually overlooked in best-on-best international competition, the mere demographics of their country would categorize them as an underdog. When considering hockey's Big Seven -- Canada, USA, Russia, Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia -- Team Suomi are basement-dwellers when it comes to national population (see table to the right).

Consider them the Ornskoldsvik of hockey countries. For the bare-bones pool of potential hockey stars they have to work with, Finland's output in international competition is paradoxically disproportionate to their population. 

Chalk it up to their coaching and capacity to play as a team. (For all intents and purposes then, chalk it up to being the tournament's antithesis to Team Russia.) Finland is international hockey's little engine that could. Without even having to explicitly defeat them, their success is an implicit insult to the Phil Kessel- and Alex Ovechkin-driven freight trains of the world.

And while vets like Selanne (43 years old), Salo (39) and Olli Jokinen (35) have turned in their final Olympics for Finland, the country's success at this tournament was largely driven by a new generation of alarmingly young stars. With 4 goals and 7 points, Mikael Granlund, just 21 years old, appears to be a lock for the Tournament All-Star Team. Meanwhile, Olli Maatta (19) and Sami Vatanen (22)'s five points apiece currently tie them with Shea Weber for third among tournament defencemen.

That said, it is abundantly clear that, led by underrated stars like Granlund, Maatta and Vatanen, Finland is an engine that will continue to quietly succeed -- even when nobody will care to give them a second thought. And we'll love them for it.

-HC



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#MyTeamCanada, BTD style

Monday, February 03, 2014

Eddie Lack: All-Rookie Team front-runner?

File:Eddie Lack Canucks.jpg
Lack is exceeding all expectations this year. And maintaining his entire
team's fading dignity in the process.

His numbers are among the league's elite. With a 2.22 GAA and .922 save percentage, Eddie Lack is tied for eighth and ninth in the NHL, respectively. Yet with a 8-8-3 record, he is one of only two goalies with a .500-or-worse record among the league's top 15 in GAA. The other goalie? Cory Schneider.

That speaks volumes. Because unlike the dispatched ginger in his tenure here, Lack has accomplished his top-level stats on what is now a truly mediocre team. The next-highest ranking goalie without a winning record is Justin Peters at 7-9-4 with Carolina.


Monday, January 06, 2014

My Team Canada, BTD style


Hockey Canada, I demand to have equal say as Corb Lund and Gerry Dee. Milos Raonic be damned. Here's my Team Canada:

UPDATE: Well, 21/25 ain't bad. It appears that Hockey Canada does hold Logan Couture, James Neal, Eric Staal or Corey Crawford in the same regard that I do.

Bo Horvat at the World Juniors: Not Canada's first-line centre, and that's okay

Horvat didn't turn in the ideal offensive performance,
but he was among Canada's best overall players.

It isn't often that Canucks fans are blessed with a Canadian poster boy for the World Juniors. In the last three years before 2014, the Canucks didn't have a single Canadian in the competition, period. (#ShouldHaveBroughtCorrado.) Between 2006 and 2011, Canucks management took a total of three Canadians in either of the first two rounds of the draft -- Taylor Ellington, Yann Sauve and Cody Hodgson.

Not only was he whose name we do not speak Hodgson (2008) the last player to even suit up for Canada at the Juniors before Horvat, he is likely the most successful Canucks prospect at the tournament of all-time. And well, we all know how that ended up for Vancouver. So with both Hodgson's infamous end as a Canuck and the team's recent dearth of high-end Canadian prospects in mind, it was with great anticipation that Horvat was earmarked as the country's number one centre.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Drayson Bowman: Vancouver's kinda-sorta hometown product

Six years after his draft, Drayson Bowman appears to be finally
sticking with Carolina. So what has that go to do with Vancouver?
(Photo: romec1, Flickr)

Back in the Memorial Cup days of the Vancouver Giants -- a far cry from the current "Under Construction" era -- I always paid a little extra attention when the Spokane Chiefs came to town. Nowadays, it's anytime the Canucks play the Carolina Hurricanes.

Why, exactly? There's a little-known fact about a Carolina winger who has very slowly started making a name for himself since being drafted from Spokane in 2007. Born in Michigan and raised in Colorado, 24-year-old Drayson Bowman also called Vancouver home for a brief period in his mid-teens.