Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Philadelphia Flyers Goaltending Situation

When the Philadelphia Flyers entered this season, they expected that Robert Esche, who had been the USA starting goalie during the 2004 World Cup, to be their starting goalie. They expected rookie Antero Nittymaki, who was fresh off of a Calder Cup victory in the AHL to be a strong backup.

It turned out that Niittymaki did a little bit better than expected and Esche may have done a little bit worse. The two goalies basically shared the work in Philadelphia. In fact, Niittymaki had been the slightly more used goaltender (Niittymaki has 34 games played this year, while Esche has 26). Niittymaki has also put up slightly better statistics (2.95 GAA, .896 saves percentage compared to Esche 3.15 GAA, .892 saves percentage). Nevertheless, in February before the Olympics Esche appeared in 5 games and Niittymaki appeared in two.

During the Olympics, Robert Esche was a seldom used extra American goalie. Antero Nittymaki was the MVP of the Olympic tournament. He had three shutouts in the tournament, where Finland won the silver medal.

Does the Olympic success of Niittymaki ensure that he comes back to Philadelphia as the clear number one goaltender? Has a goaltender ever won the number one job for his play outside the NHL? At this point, it seems clear that Niittymaki is the better of the two goalies. He is also the younger one so he has a better upside. However, Esche is a good goalie. He has been an NHL number one goalie in the past. Will the Flyers have a goalie contreversy as they head down the stretch run?

Monday, February 27, 2006

The Petty NHL

The Olympic hockey tournament was a very good one, but it didn't lead to the results Gary Bettman wanted. Now when the gold medal Swedish team (or other teams) wants a little time to celebrate their victory, the NHL reacts in a petty manner. The NHL says that any player who is not back in time for Tuesday's games can be fined. It is the team's perogative as to whether or not they actually want to fine them.

Probably it is a poor move for any team to fine their star players who were good enough to go to the Olympics. This is an example of the NHL treating the players as low level replacement level workers and not acknowledging their Olympic accomplishments.

This situation may actually be necessary due to the salary cap problems it presents. If a team is very near the salary cap, using extra minor league players to fill roster spots for players who were not back in time for Tuesday's games may put them over the cap. This reason is why some teams have sent players down to the minors on off days and then called them back up the next day for their NHL game. In short this is a problem the NHL brought upon itself with an overly restrictive CBA and is perpetuating with their lack of care about their players.

This is the kind of issue that the NHLPA should be fighting against - if it had any value to the players.

Here is TSN's story on this issue.

Two Lessons Canada Can Learn From the Torino Hockey Tournament

At the conclusion of the men's Olympic hockey tournament where heavily favored Canada failed to win a medal, I think there are two lessons that can be taken away.

Lesson One: It is not the end of the world to not win a medal. In fact, Sweden failed to make the medal round in Nagano and again in Salt Lake City. In Salt Lake City they were upset by Belarus, a nation that was not even good enough to qualify for the 2006 Olympics. Despite that, their hockey program was not damaged beyond repair. The same hockey program that didn't win a medal in 2002 came back with a core of roughly the same players (Sundin, Alfredsson, Forsberg, Lidstrom...) and won the gold medal. That is true for Canada too. They will likely be the gold medal favorite once again in Vancouver even without some kind of commission to determine what is wrong and why Canada failed to medal in 2006.

Lesson Two: There are seven different countries (Canada, Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic, Russia, USA and Slovakia) who have the ability to go on a good run for a week and win Olympic gold. It is not Canada's birthright to win in. There are several teams they will play against who have a serious chance of winning and must be taken seriously. Even those countries that are not capable of winning the gold such as Switzerland or Latvia are capable of playing a good game and upsetting a top team. Every game must be taken seriously.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Men's Olympic Hockey Medal Round

The Men's hockey tournament in the 2006 Winter Olympics concluded today. To look back at the results, look here for the semifinals, the quarterfinals are here and the round robin is here. These are the medal round results:

Bronze - 4th game : Czech Republic 3 Russia 0 Tomas Vokoun played a strong game fof the Czechs stopping 28 Russian shots for a shutout. Martin Erat lead the way for the Czech team with a goal and an assist. Robert Lang scored two assists and Marek Zidlicky and Martin Straka also scored. The Czechs win bronze.

Gold - Silver game : Sweden 3 Finland 2 This was a very good gold medal game. It was a strong two way battle. Sweden's offence was lead by Henrik Zetterberg who scored a goal and an assist. Nicklas Lidstrom scored the gold medal winning goal and Niklas Kronwall the other Swedish goal. The Finnish goals were scored by Kimmo Timonen and Ville Peltonen. Sweden wins gold. Finland wins silver.

The tournament had individual awards as well. The tournament all star team included Finns Antero Niittymaki, Kimmo Timonen, Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu. Swedish defenceman Nicklas Lidstrom and Russian forward Alexander Ovechkin also made the team. Niitymaki was chose as tournament MVP for his three shutouts.

Here are the results of the women's tournament.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Olympics Were Bettman's Nightmare

In Gary Bettman's world, the value of the Olympics is that they promote some good hockey to people who do not always watch NHL hockey. Ideally, some of these people can be captured as NHL fans. NHL participation is seen only as a potential financial benefit for the league. Participation interrupts the NHL season - and this is a negative - that might be made up by the benefit of the increased hockey exposure.

From the point of view of a fan, the Olympics are a high level tournament. They are high level hockey played by the best players in the world. It is clearly exciting hockey. I love to watch it. I don't care much if the gold medal game turns out to be Canada vs. USA (as in Salt Lake City) or Sweden vs. Finland (as in Torino) - just as long as its a good game. I just love to watch hockey.

However, this isn't a common opinion. Even hockey bloggers who presumably are big hockey fans (such as hockey country) do not feel this way. I guess I must accept that I am a minority who despairs to ever suggest there is too much hockey.

From an NHL standpoint, they want to see USA and Canada go deep into the Olympics. This is the best possible way to promote hockey to a large fanbase. The American team appearing in the gold medal game (and possibly winning it) would be a huge financial windfall for the NHL. Unfortunately, this year the medal round includes only European teams. There are few European hockey fans who are already in North America who are not already NHL fans. The NHL has little to gain from Sweden or Finland winning gold. Even if it causes hockey to grow in Scandinavia, this won't correspond to much money for the NHL. Its a long trip from Helsinki or Stockholm to attend an NHL game.

This leads to calls to make the Olympics for "amateur players" only. Of course they have never been for amateur players. Before the NHL season stopped for the Olympics, the Russian powerhouse teams were effectively professional teams. Even North American teams often had ex-NHL players and other guys with minor pro experience. I think the main motivation for this is that people feel upset that they invested interest in the Canadian or American Olympic hockey teams, but these teams failed on them. Its an unrequited emotional investment. Its much easier to claim that Canada is the best hockey nation in the world if that theory is never tested. If the best Canadian players never play against the best in the world, then they can never lose. So I can believe in Canadian supremacy regardless of reality. If the Canadian amateur team loses, that is OK, because I can believe that our pros would have won (and there is no evidence to prove me wrong). Its a bit of a chicken's approach. I think no self respecting hockey fan should be arguing against holding high level hockey tournaments. The more high level hockey to watch, the better.

The NHL may not have the results that they want. Europeans are the better teams in the 2006 Olympics. That may upset them. It may make the short term return to the NHL a bad one. However, it is always good to increase international exposure to hockey. The countries that win will have a hockey boom. They will produce more better hockey players. This is good for hockey worldwide. It raises the level of all the games in the world. The short sited outlook toward international hockey from the Bettman regime is troubling. They have never had a longterm plan to grow the number of players worldwide. The longterm plan is to squeeze ever dollar they can out of the NHL. In some cases, this leads to conflict. It leads to urges to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs - or at least have little interest in maintaining its longterm health. That is one of the things that trouble me most about the way the NHL is run today. Having pro players in the Olympics helps with the longterm health of hockey internationally, but the NHL seems willing to pass that up if it has any immediate negatives along with it. Their ideal is that the Olympics don't stop the NHL season at all and USA is guaranteed a good run. If something close to that doesn't happen on a regular basis, they are willing to kill off NHL participation in the Olympic games.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Men's Olympic Hockey SemiFinals

The semi-finals were played today in the mens tournament at the Olympics. To see quarterfinal results look here. To see the round robin results look here. Here are the semi-final scores:

Sweden 7 Czech Republic 3 This was a balanced Swedish attack were seven different players each scored a goal. In fact, the only two point scorers (with a goal and an assist) were Daniel Alfredsson and P J Axelsson. The outclassed Czech team was lead by a goal and an assist from Vaclav Prospal.

Finland 4 Russia 0 The Fins continued their undefeated success in the Olympics so far. Antero Niittymaki got his third shutout of the Olympics by stopping all 21 of the Russian shots. The Finnish offence was lead by a goal and an assist by Saku Koivu and by Ville Peltonen. Kimmo Timonen scored two assists.

On Saturday, the bronze medal game will occur between the Czech Republic and Russia. On Sunday, the gold medal game will be played between Sweden and Finland.

To see the woman's results look here.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

What The Hell Happened To Canada?

After being the heavy favorite going into the Olympics, Team Canada was eliminated in the quarter finals. They will not even make the medal round. They will be unsuccessful in defending their gold medal.

Naturally, there is a bunch of excuse making that follows this debacle. The blogosphere is alive with second guessing. Some of it is a very good balanced well thought out address of the situation - for example Sisu Hockey. Many others are more hysterical blaming and second guessing everything including the good moves.

So what happened? Canada didn't play very well. Almost to a man, the team did not produce as well as would have been expected. If before the tournament, I told you that throughout six games, no player on Team Canada would score more than two goals, you would have likely thought I was making a stupid prediction. But nevertheless it happened. Sometimes these thing happen. Sometimes a great offence has a bad week (actually it was a bad 8 days that the tournament has been played over so far). A group of several good players can have a bad week. It happens all the time. Any good NHL team has had poor weeks in a season. Does it really mean anything? Its just hockey. Sometimes weird stuff happens and we don't need to concoct a complicated explanation for it.

Canada was a very good team. No other team in the tournament has the talent that Canada has. That talent just didn't produce this week.

Did Canada have the absolute best group of available players? Probably not. Every team that is picked has some compromises in its selections and there is always somebody on the outside looking in who might have been a better player. But lets face it, had Canada chosen Eric Staal over Shane Doan or Rod Brind'Amour over Kris Draper would we likely have seen much difference?

Canada's offence did not work out this week. Nevertheless, Canada had a great group of offensive players who had a bad week. As proof, we can look at the top 50 scorers in the NHL so far this year and assign those who played in the Olympics by team.

Canada- 7 players - Bertuzzi, Gagne, Heatley, McCabe, Richards, Sakic, Thornton
USA- 6 players - Cole, Conroy, Gionta, Gomez, Modano, Rolston
Russia- 5 players - Datsyuk, Kovalchuk, Kozlov, Ovechkin, Zetterberg
Czech Republic - 4 players - Hemsky, Jagr, Prospal, Straka
Sweden- 4 players - Alfredsson, Forsberg, Lidstrom, HSedin
Slovakia- 3 players - Demitra, Hossa, Visnovsky
Finland- 2 players - Jokinen, Selanne
19 players in the top 50 scorers were absent due to either injury or omission from their team

We see that by this metric (which for many reasons may not be the world's best metric) the Canadian Olympic team had the best offence on their team - at least on paper. We also see that the lead is not huge over any of the other major hockey powers. A poor week by a few of the offensive stars in Canada and the difference is more than made up. Of the 19 players in the top 50 scorers omitted from the Olympics here are their nationalities.

Canada - 16 players - Arnott, Cheechoo, Crosby, Horcoff, Kariya, Marleau, McDonald, Recchi, Savard, Shanahan, Spezza, Staal, Stillman, Stoll, Tanguay, Williams
Sweden - 2 players - Naslund, Nylander
Slovakia - 1 player- Nagy

Almost all of them were Canadian. This is part of the burden of having the deepest team. 22 players in the top 50 scorers in the NHL are Canadian (21 are forwards). Canada will have to have some players omitted who are better than the omissions on other teams. Aside from Michael Nylander, no team voluntarily left a top 50 scorer at home (Nylander would have been selected had Peter Forsberg not been healthy enough to play in Canada).

Could Canada have selected a couple more of these top 50 scorers to their team? Of course they could have. If they did that they would have omitted other players who are established talented NHL players. Likely it is like shuffling the deck chairs as the Titanic sinks. Its easy to second guess, but it doesn't change much.

The team that Canada had should have scored much more than they did. In any given week, some talented player will have a great week. In the Olympic week on such player has been Finland's Teemu Selanne, who is the leading goal scorer in the Olympics so far with six goals. Canada has about a dozen players with equal offensive credentials to Selanne over the last two or three NHL seasons who could have had such a week, but for whatever reason (mostly just bad luck - they tried and failed) didn't.

The NFL has a motto "Any Given Week...". This is true in hockey as well. In any given week, any of several hundred NHL players might be the player of the week. The superstar NHL players have the best chance - and tend to win it most often - but any of the players who deserve a regular shift on their team can have that great week. This week, players who are unable to make the NHL such as Yevgeniy Koreshkov of Kazakhstan, Paul DiPietro of Switzerland and John Parco of Italy scored more goals then any of the NHL stars on Team Canada. What are the odds of that? The odds are quite long, but nevertheless it happened.

The Canadian team clearly had the most depth of any team in the tournament. What exactly is depth worth? Having a deep team may prevent your team from having a player who is so hopelessly outskilled that he gets burned regularly when he plays his shift, but at the level of the Olympic teams no major teams have such players on their rosters.

Almost every hockey game I have seen in my life was won by the team that had the player or two who played the best game that day. These players may not be the best player on their team over the course of a season, they are merely the first star in the game that day. On any given day, that player can be one of many. A deep team may have a few more candidates to be the best player in a given game. However, in the major Canada games, the best player on the ice was not a Canadian. The best players in the Olympics have not been Canadian players. This is why they lost. In fact, if you made a list of the five or ten best players in the Olympics so far (I'd pick a group like Selanne, Hossa, Koivu, Alfresson, Lehtinen, Datsyuk, Kaberle, Chara, Nabokov, Niittymaki in no particular order) you would have no Canadian players. This is why Canada lost.

They have several players who have shown themselves over the course of the season to be as good or better than players on that list of 10 players on Team Canada, but they didn't show it this week.

In the end the team as a whole had a bad week. It happens in hockey. It needs to explanation beyond that. Nevertheless, people will manufacture some theories which are largely unproveable.

Most theories are like this. Canada's group of players which include several NHL captains and several other players known for their leadership ability lacked leadership. These players who have shown time and time again that they had character and knew how to win, with both NHL and international success, lacked character and didn't know how to win. This team coached by several top NHL coaches who have several coach of the year awards between them didn't have good enough coaching.

All of those are excuses, which can be used to explain it, but all of those are likely just reaches to blame somebody.

Why did Canada lose, they lost because despite having the best team in the tournament (although by a smaller margin then most Canadian fans admit) they had a bad week. These things happen. That's hockey. That's why they play the games. Should they play another tournament starting today with exactly the same team in an alternate reality, I think I would still pick Canada as the gold medal favorite. They have the most players who could potentially be the best player in any given game then any other team in the tournament. Maybe in an alternate reality they would actually succeed in accomplishing it.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Men's Olympic Hockey QuarterFinals

After playing the round robin, the men's Olympic hockey tournament moved onto the quarterfinals. Here are the results:

Sweden 6 Switzerland 2 This was the most one-sided of the quarterfinals. Switzerland was the suprise entrant in the this round and were not up to the task of the superior Swedish team. Mats Sundin lead the way for Sweden with two goals. Daniel Alfredsson added three assists. Peter Forsberg and Nicklas Lidstrom scored two assists a piece. The Swiss goals were scored by Mark Streit and Romano Lemm.

Finland 4 USA 3 This was a game that either team could have won. In the end, USA got themselves in trouble with some undisciplined penalties that lead to two Finnish power play goals. Although Finland is undeafeated so far, they are hardly the dominant imposing gold medal favorite at this point. The Finnish offence was lead by Olli Jokinen's two goals and both Ville Peltonen and Sami Salo's recording a goal and assist (Salo left the game early with an injury).

Russia 2 Canada 0 The supposedly high power Canadian offence was shut out for the third time in their last four games by Russian (Kazak) goalie Evgeni Nabokov. Alexander Ovechkin and Alexei Kovalev scored the Russian goals. Canada's offence never managed to get on track today.

Czech Republic 3 Slovakia 1 Third string Czech goalie Milan Hnilicka played a very good game for the Czechs. Their offence was lead by Martin Rucinsky who scored a goal and an assist. Milan Hejduk and Martin Straka added their other goals. The Slovak goal was scored by Marian Gaborik.

The semi-finals will be played by today's winner on Friday, as the medal round begins. Finland meets Russia and Sweden meets the Czech Republic.

For results of the woman's tournament look here.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Men's Olympic Hockey Update

The men's preliminary rounds ended today in Olympic hockey. Here were my predictions at the outset of the tournament. Although I doubt this will remain true after tomorrow's games, it is still possible that my predicted finish order can occur.

Group A

1. Finland 5-0 This team has been the best in the tournament so far. They have outscored their opponents by a remarkable 19-2. In fact, only the Czech Republic managed to score against them. Both goaltenders that have played, Antero Niittymaki and Fredrik Norrena have two shutouts each. This strong goaltending is a suprise given the fact that their first two choices in goal, Miikka Kiprusoff and Kari Lehtonen missed the Olympics due to nagging injuries. Offensively, the line of Teemu Selanne, Jere Lehtinen and Saku Koivu has been the top scoring forward unit in the tournament so far.

2. Switzerland 2-1-2 This team suprised the pundits by defeating the top rated Canadian and Czech teams. They have done this on strong goaltending by David Aebsicher and Martin Gerber. Paul DiPietro has been their top offensive player with three goals.

3. Canada 3-2-0 This talent-laden team had a couple suprisingly poor games. They were shutout in back-to-back games against Switzerland and Finland. They should be dangerous in the playoff, as they are the most talented team in the tournament. Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo have shared the goaltending load. They have not had the offensive success most predicted before the tournament. So far, Brad Richards and Shane Doan have been some of their highest scorers.

4. Czech Republic 2-3-0 This talented team has also underacheived, but it is more easily explained given the fact that Dominik Hasek and Patrik Elias went home injured and Jaromir Jagr got hurt as well (though he remains with the team and has played after the injury). Tomas Vokoun has done most of their goaltending since Hasek left. Despite his injury, Jaromir Jagr is a top scorer, along with Martin Straka and defenceman Tomas Kaberle.

5. Germany 0-3-2 This team was outclassed in the tournament. Olaf Kolzig provided goaltending to keep them in most of their games. Tino Boos has been their top offensive player. Christian Ehrhoff played a solid tournament on defence.

6. Italy 0-3-2 This team was also outclassed. Jason Muzzatti played admirably in goal. John Parco, Tony Iob and Giorgio De Bettin were their offensive leaders.

Group B

1. Slovakia 5-0 Karel Krisan and Peter Budaj have provided strong goaltending on this undefeated team. Marian Hossa is tied for the tournament lead in points so far. Pavol Demitra, Marian Gaborik and Peter Bondra have all had offensive success.

2. Russia 4-1 Aside from an early loss to Slovakia, this team has played well. They have had the best offense in the tournament so far. Evgeni Nabokov (from Kazakhstan) has provided very good goaltending. Their balanced offence has been lead by Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk, Evgeni Malkin, Alexei Kovalev and Maxim Sushinsky.

3. Sweden 3-2 This biggest story for this team has been the health of star forward Peter Forsberg. He missed two of the five games so far, but appears to be healthy and ready for the medal round. They have had strong goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist. Daniel Alfredsson and Mats Sundin have been some of their offensive leaders.

4. USA 1-3-1 This team has been inconsistent so far. At times they have looked good. At other times they have looked very beatable. Rick DiPietro has played well in goal. Scott Gomez, Craig Conroy and Brian Rolston have been the offensive leaders so far.

5. Kazakhstan 1-4-0 This team has been outclassed in the tournament. Their only really strong game was against Latvia. They have had good goaltending from Vitaliy Yaremeyev and Vitaliy Kolesnik. Yevgeniy Koreshkov was their offensive leader, followed by his brother Alexandr.

6. Latvia 0-4-1 This team started off very well with a tie against USA, but was outclassed in most of their other games. Aleksandrs Nizivijs was their offensive leader along with defenceman Sandis Ozolinsh. Their goaltending tandem of Arturs Irbe and Edgars Masalskis put up some pretty poor goaltending numbers.

The playoff round beings tomorrow as Slovakia plays the Czech Republic, Russia plays Canada, Switzerland plays Sweden and Finland meets USA. The four winners will advance to the medal round.

For results of the women's tournament look here.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Women's Olympic Hockey Finals

The finals were played today in the women's hockey tournament at the Olympics. For semi-final results look here. For round robin results look here.

The medal round results are:

Gold-Silver Game - Canada 4 Sweden 1 Canada jumped out to a quick lead on a goal by Gillian Apps. They were up 2-0 at the end of the first when Caroline Ouellette also scored. In the second period, Cherie Piper and Jayna Hefford added goals. Sweden got on the board in the third period with a Gunilla Andersson goal. Both Hayley Wickenheiser and Jennifer Botterill had strong games with two assists a piece. Canada wins gold with a dominant tournament outscoring opposition 46-2. Sweden wins silver, which is their best showing ever in woman's hockey.

Bronze-4th Game - USA 4 Finland 0 USA jumped out to a quick lead on a goal by Kelly Stephens. Katie King added a hat trick as USA played a dominant game. Chanda Gunn got the shutout in goal for USA. USA wins bronze.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Whatever Happened To The NHL On NBC?

During the last half of the NHL season there are weekend TV broadcasts of the NHL on NBC. You would think that a Sunday morning Olympic game on NBC between USA and Sweden would be a great time to promote the show. Maybe you would have a commercial for it during an intermission. Maybe you would have something about it display on the bottom of the screen during play.

The NBC people showing the Olympics must not have thought so. They passed up a great opportunity to promote their NHL games to an audience who was already watching hockey. Are they really trying to make a go of the NHL on NBC games or is it just cheap filler between the NFL and baseball?

UPDATE- Tonight during the prime time Olympic broadcast they interviewed NFL football player Jerome Bettis. Football is not an Olympic sport, but Bettis is in Torino to watch the games. This is a cross promotion. Starting next September Bettis will join the NBC football broadcast crew on the NFL's Football Night in America. They can cross promote football that doesn't even start until next September, but they don't cross promote NHL hockey in a hockey game that occurs in hockey season.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Incorrect (But Common) Way To Determine That A Coach Is A Good One

It is a very hard sabermetrics and hockey problem to determine which NHL coaches are the best and how valuable they are to their team. How much value does the average coach add to (or take away from) a given team? In a perfect sabermetric world, we would be able to analyze hockey on the level of Bill James's win shares system in baseball (where he builds up the number of wins a player produces from his baseball stats - and a total of all the players on a team's win shares correspond very well to the team total wins). This type of system is not available in hockey, but if it were I define the best coach as the one who would produce the most win shares.

I think it is clear that, with few exceptions, coaches are less important to a team than a superstar player is. It is also clear that having a superstar player does not guarantee that a team will be a serious contender. There are examples of teams with very good goalies (ie Roberto Luongo) that have not been very good teams. There are examples of teams with very good defenders (ie Scott Niedermayer in Anaheim) that are not very good teams. There are examples of teams with very good forwards (ie Alexander Ovechkin or Ilya Kovalchuk) that are not very good teams. There should also be examples of very good coaches on teams that are not very good. A coach is usually far less valuable then any of these superstar players and if superstar players miss the playoffs, then superstar coaches should miss playoffs too (and probably with greater frequency then superstar players)

When evaluating coaches, this fact is often ignored. Because of the lack of any meaningful statistical data to evaluate coaches, people often attribute the wins- losses record to the coach. When evaluating coach of the year candidates, generally the coaches who happen to coach teams that do better than their prediction are chosen. With this method, there is nothing that is more successful at making good coach than a bunch of young players who come of age and become NHL stars at the same time (except possibly comeback years from superstar players). Clearly none of these things are directly consequences of the coach. In the coach of the year comments, Tom Renney of the New York Rangers, Peter Laviolette of the Carolina Hurricanes and Lindy Ruff of the Buffalo Sabres are picked as coach of the year candidates. I think that they are quite likely the three guys who will wind up as Jack Adams trophy nominees this year, but I do not believe that they have been the three best coaches in the NHL this season. All of these coaches are chosen by the method of picking out the coach who happens to be on a team that did way better than their team was expected to do.

How much of the New York Rangers improvement was Tom Renney's coaching and how much was the resurgence of Jaromir Jagr and rookie goaltender Henrik Lundqvist? How much of the resurgence of Jaromir Jagr and success of rookie goaltender Henrik Lundqvist are due to the way Tom Renney has coached them? Can this really be decoupled in any meaningful manner?

Similarly, how much of the Carolina Hurricane success is due to the emergence of Eric Staal as an NHL superstar and the resurgence of Rod Brind'Amour (as well as the addition of Cory Stillman and other good players)? How much of the emergence of Eric Staal is due to Peter Laviolette? How much of the great season Rod Brind'Amour is having is due to Peter Laviolette's coaching?

Similarly in Buffalo, there is a huge group of young talented players who have taken a big leap this season. This group includes Ryan Miller, Maxim Afinogenov, Ales Kotalik, Tim Connolly and Thomas Vanek. They have a hot young improving core. They also added very steady talented defenceman Teppo Numminen. Could their success be attributed to him and his steadying influence on defence? How much of the success of the developing young core on the Sabres is due to Lindy Ruff's coaching? How much of Teppo Numminen's comeback year in Buffalo is due to Lindy Ruff's coaching?

All of these are open sabermetrics questions that we cannot clearly answer, but all of them show these teams improvements are due to many factors, only one of which is coaching.

It is very hard to show statistically that a coach is a very good coach. It is very hard to show that a team's improvement is due to coaching and not other factors. It is very possible that a team that improves will improve for reasons that have nothing to do with coaching. This is especially true in cases where a coach has been with a team for several years (ie Lindy Ruff in Buffalo). There is likely no change in the team's performance due to coaching because it is the same coaching. It is easiest to show good coaching in cases where there is a coaching change, because there is a clear difference in coaching from year to year.

The best methods to try to identify good coaching come from looking at "system" type statistics. A well coached team will often show up statistically. One attempt to do this that I showed earlier this season (that I give as an example) is a reduction in goals against this season despite the NHL's goal scoring increasing. This will not find all the teams that are well coached. It will best find teams that had changes in coaching from one season to the next. In November, when I showed these numbers the four teams that had reduced their goals against were the New York Rangers, Phoenix Coyotes, Detroit Red Wings and Ottawa Senators. All have good new coaches playing good systems. These coaches are Tom Renney (Rangers), Wayne Gretzky (Coyotes), Mike Babcock (Red Wings) and Bryan Murray (Ottawa). To update this study, at the Olympic break, goals against this down this season in only one city. Only the New York Rangers have managed to maintain a lower goals against average so far this year (compared to 2003/04). Ottawa, Detroit and Phoenix have all fallen off of the pace. There are likely several reasons for this. Good coaching brought in a good defensive scheme that was lacking in previous years and the emergence of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist are probably the two biggest.

No methods like this will necessarily identify the best coaches in the NHL. Most of these studies are based on the fallacy that good coaching will make a team improve. Good established coaches who have been in a city for many years should not lead to an improvement of the team (as their coaching is no better than it was last year). In those cases the improvement is mostly due to the players on the team. Picking coaches of the year as coaches of the most improved team will make poor choices. It is this method that is generally used in the NHL. This method often prevents the best coaches from receiving the recognition they deserve. Scotty Bowman is thought by many people to be the best coach in the NHL history (if not he is likely the best coach in the time when the Jack Adams trophy was given out for coach of the year). Bowman coached for 30 NHL seasons. Only twice was he picked as coach of the year. That is a crime. Its clear he was the best coach in the NHL many more times then this, although he was not coach of the most improved team.

How does one determine the best coach in hockey? The only successful method is to watch games and see how teams are coached. There are no clear rules. There are no perfect statistical tricks. Finding the best coach is more art then it is science.

When I watch hockey, the coach I see who has the biggest effect on the way his team plays and the success that it has is Jacques Lemaire of the Minnesota Wild. Lemaire is the only coach in the history of the franchise, so its improvement will not be due to coaching change. In 2003, when Minnesota was the most improved team in the NHL and made the playoffs for the first time in their history, Lemaire won coach of the year. I argue he has been the best coach in the NHL for the last several years. Of course he is not coach of the most improved team in the NHL each of those years (and that is how the coach of the year is chosen). There are other well established coaches such as Pat Quinn and Ken Hitchcock that I think are very good coaches, though not as good as Lemaire.

There is no NHL team that has their success clearly linked to the coaching system then Minnesota. Minnesota plays in the best division in the NHL. The other teams have superstars like Jarome Iginla, Joe Sakic, Markus Naslund and Chris Pronger. Minnesota's best player is Marian Gaborik, a man who probably will be as good as they are one day, but he is yet to have a truly dominant NHL season. Minnesota has only one player who has scored over 45 points this year (Brian Rolston). They only have two more with more than 35 points (Gaborik and Pierre-Marc Bouchard). They do not have a potent offence. Minnesota has a fast hard working team defence, but they lack any star defenders. Probably Filip Kuba is their best defender, most NHL teams have more than one player of his calibre on their defence. This defensive system sets up a situation where goaltenders can thrive. Manny Fernandez and Dwayne Roloson are putting up excellent statistics, though it is largely due to the way their team plays in front of them. Minnesota does not have a top dominant team, yet in the toughest division in hockey they are fighting for a playoff berth. If you found an "average" coach to replace Lemaire, they would likely be a clear also ran.

I am pretty certain that Jacques Lemaire will not win coach of the year, because his team is not the most improved team in the NHL. I am pretty sure Lemaire will not win coach of the year because his team will most likely narrowly miss the playoffs. I am pretty sure that the coach of the year will be one of the coaches on one of the most improved teams (Renney, Ruff or Laviolette). I think there is no coach who has been more valuable to his team's success this year then Jacques Lemaire has in Minnesota. I think that is what should win coach of the year. However, history has shown that it is not the way the Jack Adams trophy is decided.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Women's Olympic Hockey Semi-Finals

After the conclusion of the round robin, the women's Olympic hockey tournament played its semi-finals today. Here are the results:

Sweden 3 USA 2 (Shoot Out) It was a hard fought game where USA took a 2-0 lead on goals by Kristin King and Kelly Stephens. Sweden responded with two Maria Rooth goals to tie it up. It remained tied and the end of regulation and at the end of overtime. The game went to a shootout. A shootout is an awful way to decide a hockey game, but due to time constraints in the Olympics it may be necessary. Nevertheless, hopefully some US fans (to whom the shootout is marketed) will have a chance to see how unfulfilling a shootout is to end a hockey game, when one is played in a high profile game such as this. Nineteen year old Kim Martin of Sweden played a strong game stopping 37 of 39 shots. She also stopped all the US shooters in the shootout. Pernilla Winberg and Maria Rooth scored in the shootout for Sweden. So Sweden wins. It is the first time ever in international play that the US women lost to anyone other than Canada. This result is good for women's hockey because it shows that it is more than just a two team game.

Canada 6 Finland 0 Finland played the powerhouse Canadian team as hard as they could. Canada outpowered the Finnish team. Canada's offensive leaders were Cherie Piper who scored twice, Gillian Apps who had a goal and three assists and Hayley Wickenheiser who has a goal and two assists. Charline LaBonte made 17 saves for her second shutpuit of the tournament. Canada has dominated. They have won their games by a combined score of 42-1 so far.

On Monday, Canada meets Sweden in the gold-silver game. They already played in the round robin with Canada winning 8-1. USA meets Finland in the bronze-4th game. They also already played in the round robin. USA won 7-3, although the game was much closer than that score would suggest.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Women's Olympic Hockey Update

The round robin portion of the Olympic women's hockey tournament has been over for a couple days. The semifinals will be played tomorrow (Friday) and the finals on Monday. It is time to update the round robin results.

Group A

1. Canada - They dominated their group winning their three games by a combined scored of 36-1. Leading the way were Hayley Wickenheiser and Cherie Piper with 12 points each and Gillian Apps with 9 points. So far they have been the class of the tournament.

2. Sweden - This team has been quite solid. They handily defeated Italy, had a tougher win vs. Russia and then lost to Canada. Their offence is lead by Maria Rooth and Gunilla Andersson.

3. Russia - After they lost to Sweden, they seemed to lose heart as a medal looked unlikely. They lost badly to Canada, but managed to defeat Italy. Svetlana Trefilova is their top scorer.

4. Italy - As host country, they got an automatic bid into the tournament. They were horribly outclassed. They lost by a combined score of 32-1. Their goal was scored by Sabina Florian.

Group B

1. USA - USA won all their games but failed to dominate. They were unable to score a lot of goals against either of Switzerland or Germany and they were losing after two periods against Finland, before dominating the third period. Offensively, they are lead by Sarah Parsons, Jenny Potter and Angela Ruggiero.

2. Finland - They looked very good in the round robin and even held the lead against USA after two periods before they failed in the third period. They seemed to not have the stamina to play with America for three periods (but they certainly could for two). Their top goal scorer was Mari Pehkonen.

3. Germany - Their only goals were in their 2-1 win against Switzerland. Michaela Lanzl led the way by scoring one goal and assisting on the other.

4. Switzerland - Their only goal was in their 2-1 loss against Germany. They were held close in many of their games with some very good goaltending by Patricia Elsmore-Sautter. Their goal was scored by Tina Schumacher.

In the semi-finals, Canada will play Finland and USA will play Sweden. The two winners will play in the gold-silver game and the losers in the bronze-4th game.

For a look at the men's tournament, look here for my predictions.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Steve Moore Sues Bertuzzi Again

Today it was announced that Steve Moore has filed suit in Ontario court suing Todd Bertuzzi and the Vancouver Canucks over the March 8th, 2004 sucker punch that broke his neck and effectively ended his career. Earlier he had filed suit in Colorado (in part because it was the jurisdiction that would have the best chance of giving him a huge amounts of money) but it was thrown out because of lack of jurisdiction. Denver judge Shelley Gillman wrote British Columbia bears the most significant relationship to Moore's claims in the judgement.

Moore is not listening to the idea of suing in B.C. At least he chose Canada this time. Ontario appears to be the choice because that is where he lives.

Moore is suing for $15 million in lost income, $2 million in punative damages, $1 million in aggravated damages. His parents who are also named in the lawsuit (Jack and Anna Moore) are seeking $1.5 million in damages.

Moore was wronged and deserves some compensation for the violent way his career ended, but he is still seeking far more money than he can expect to get. Steve Moore would have turned 27 before this season opened. A forward who is 27 who has scored 5 career goals and 12 career points is highly unlikely to make $15 million in an NHL career. There is a good chance that he would not have lasted much longer in the NHL had he reamined healthy.

TSN's story is here.

The Uncapped NFL?

Now that the NHL has a salary cap which prevents good teams from staying together for long periods of time, thus reducing fans chances of seeing dynasties and truly elite teams, it is interesting to look at other pro leagues CBA negotiations. The National Football League is the most profitable league in North America and has the CBA deal that is most owner friendly (and least player friendly). It expires at the conclusion of the 2006 season. In his state of the NFL speech, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, acknowledges the possibility that their may not be a salary cap in the not too distant future of the NFL.

It would be interesting if this occurred. The NHL owners often made unwarranted comparisons to the NFL during the lockout, claiming that its profitability was due to the CBA (its not) and would lose that argument if the new CBA did not have a salary cap.

Here is an ESPN article on this issue.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

IIHF's Nabokov Mistake

Because the elite hockey league (the NHL) is in North America, most good hockey players come to North America to play hockey. Many stay and become citizens of either USA or Canada. This would be an unfair advantage to these countries (especially USA as 24 of 30 NHL teams are American) since they would be able to dress the elite players their country produces as well as those who come to the country and become citizens. The IIHF has tried to prevent this from occurring by not allowing players to jump from one team to another. The rule is that once a player plays in an IIHF tournament for a given country (thus allowing players who have citizenship with more than one country to select the country for which they will play), they are committed to that country and will play for that country alone in future IIHF tournaments. It is a fair rule that allows countries to keep "the rights" to their players even if they travel overseas and become citizens of different countries. It allows some of the weaker countries a shot at some of the "left over" players who would not be able to play for the stronger countries and have travelled overseas themselves. Most importantly, it prevents players with dual citizenship from "holding out" on one country when another country gives them a better offer.

One set of rulings they have made flies in the face of those ideals. Evgeni Nabokov of the San Jose Sharks was born in Kazakhstan. In 1994, he played for Kazakhstan in the World Championships (they were in the C pool at the time). So by those rules, Nabokov is a Kazak in international play.

In the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, Kazakhstan did not make the Olympics. Nabokov argued that he is a Russian citizen as well and should be able to play for Russia (who did make the Olympics). He argued that when he was born, he was born into the Soviet Union, and it due to the breakup of the USSR that he was unable to be on the Russian team. He was denied and did not play in the 2002 Olympics.

Responding to Nabokov's case, the IIHF changed their rules in 2003. They said that any player who plays for 4 years in a given country where he is a citizen can change his nationality in international hockey play. This would probably still prevent significant players from changing their nationality to Canada or USA because they would have to become citizens and then play on a team in that country for four years before they would be eligible to change citizenship (in principle this could lead to somebody like Alexander Ovechkin playing for USA in the Olympics before he is too old to be a useful player - which would circumvent the intent of the rule - but it is unlikely).

Now how did this address Nabokov exactly? It is not clear. He played for three years with Dynamo Moscow in the Russian league before coming to the NHL (actually he went to the AHL before the NHL). Before that he had played for two years with Ust-Kamenogorsk, which is a team in Kazakhstan playing in the Russian league. At that time, the Soviet Union had not fully broken up. Ust-Kamenogorsk was in the Commonwealth of Independant States - which was effectively Russia at the time. So he played five years in Russia, according to the liberal interpretation of the rules. So Nabokov was allowed to play for Russia in the 2004 World Cup.

There is potential for abuse of this rule. Imagine a player is born with dual Canadian and American citizenship (for example). Imagine they play for one country in an IIHF tournament. As long as they played as a junior, collegiate or NHL player for four years in the other country then they can change citizenship to play for the other country at some point. I think that circumvents to ideals behind the rules.

Now, in the 2006 Olympics Kazakhstan is in the tournament. They would be a much stronger team if they had Evgeni Nabokov in net. It might make for one more solid team able to give good games and possibly upset a favorite. Instead, Kazakhstan has to go with Vitaliy Kolesnik in goal. He is a solid goalie who made the AHL all star game (he was a last minute replacement on Planet USA who replaced Tim Thomas who was unavailable as he had been called up to the NHL), but the Kazak team would be much stronger with Nabokov in net.

I don't like the IIHF rulings where a player from a fledging hockey nation can change nationality after he has played for his country internationally, because his team doesn't make enough international tournaments for his liking (as in Nabokov's case). It also opens up the potential for other kinds of abuses - which likely we will see in the future.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Men's Olympic Hockey Prediction

Now that the NHL is in its Olympic break, it is time to attempt to predict the order of finish in the Olympic hockey tournament.

Gold-Canada This team is the most talented team in the tournament. Any other team has players on it who would not have made the Canadian roster. As always there exist questions. How big will the distraction of the gambling scandal that involves exective team director Wayne Gretzky (or at least those very close to him). How will the depleted defence respond with Scott Niedermayer and Ed Jovanovski out and Rob Blake and Chris Pronger playing hurt? Nevertheless, this is an extremely deep team. Even the forwards who dont expect to see first line time like Martin St Louis and Ryan Smyth can be dangerous offensively.

Silver-Czech Republic In 1998, Dominik Hasek was the top goalie in the NHL. Jaromir Jagr was the top offensive player in the league. They led the Czechs to the gold medal in Nagano. Its 8 years later and Jagr is still the top offensive player and Hasek is still the top goalie. They certainly could win, but they don't have the same level of depth Canada boasts.

Bronze-USA This team is a rebuilding year for the Americans. They no longer have the talent levels that won them the 2002 silver medal or the 1996 World Cup, but they still have a good team. Look for people like Mike Modano, Brian Gionta and Keith Tkachuk to be some of their top scorers.

4th-Sweden Initially, I picked this team for a medal. However, Markus Naslund withdrew from the Olympics and Peter Forsberg remains a question mark. That is a huge blow to their offence. Henrik Lundqvist will deliver very good goaltending. Nicklas Lidstrom will be one of the top (if not the top) defender in the tournament. They still have some good scoring in Daniel Alfredsson and the Sedin brothers.

5th-Russia Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Ovechkin will give them a formidable one two punch offensively. Their weakness will likely be defence where slumping Sergei Gonchar and Andrei Markov will be some of the leaders. Evgeni Nabokov will be the goalie, but he is not having a dominant season in the NHL.

6th-Finland This team took a serious hit when goaltenders Miikka Kiprusoff and Kari Lehtonen withdrew. They are left with Antero Niittymaki as their starter. Saku Koivu and Teemu Selanne should lead their offence

7th-Slovakia Marian Hossa and Pavol Demitra should lead their offence. They defence has gigantic Zdeno Chara. Their goaltending will had to rely upon Peter Budaj. This team has the same frontline talent as many of the other teams ranked slightly ahead of them, but is the first to run into depth problems where some of their 3rd and 4th liners may be exploited by the more talented NHL stars.

8th-Switzerland This team will rely on big goaltending from David Aebischer and Martin Gerber because they won't get much offence from the likes of Mark Streit, Paul DiPietro and Marcel Jenni.

9th-Kazakhstan Vitaliy Kolsenik has done very well in international play in the past. He will provide the goaltending. There will be little scoring from the likes of Nik Antropov and Dmitriy Upper.

10th-Germany Another team with a solid goalie in Olaf Kolzig. Marco Sturm and Jochen Hecht will not be there to help their offence. This leaves Marcel Goc and Jan Benda to try to score. They do offer a few NHL defencemen in Dennis Seidenberg, Christoph Schubert and Christian Ehrhoff.

11th-Latvia Arturs Irbe returns as their goalie. How much does he have left at age 39? Other dependable players are Karlis Skrastins, Herberts Vasiljevs and Grigorijs Pantelejevs.

12th-Italy The host team is just happy to be here, with their automatic host bid. Their few playerse that I have heard of were former AHLers (who had short shots at the NHL) like goaltender Jason Muzzatti and forwards Anthony Tuzzolini and Anthony Iob. They hope to not lose as badly as the women have, who have lost their two games so far by a combined 27-0 score.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Coach Of The Year

I think there is a fundamental flaw in the way the NHL picks their coaches of the year. Usually, the coach of the year is merely the coach of the most improved team in the standings. Although this method may sometimes pick a great coach, it is far from a perfect method. Often teams improve significantly for reasons that have little to do with coaching. Often teams will not be significantly improved despite having very good coaching. For example, once a coach is established for a few years in a city, great coaching is often taken foregranted as it exists every year in that city and any improvement or drop in the standings is due to other elements of the team and not coaching. As an example of this, in his thirty year coaching career Scotty Bowman was only named coach of the year twice. Was he not the top coach in the league more times then this? Often, the NHL was picking flash in the pan coaches on improving teams (like Orval Tessier and Bob Murdoch) over Bowman.

I expect that the leading candidate for coach of the year this season is Tom Renney of the New York Rangers. He has done a very good job with a team that is suprising many by leading the Atlantic Division. They were often picked to finish well outside the playoffs in last place in their division. The Rangers are a team that has improved siginficantly lead by NHL leading scorer Jaromir Jagr and Calder trophy candidate Henrik Lundqvist.

However, I think the best coach in the NHL is Jacques Lemaire of the Minnesota Wild. I would pick him for coach of the year. He has his Minnesota team in the playoff hunt in the toughest division in the NHL (Northwest Division) and he has done this on a team where Brian Rolston is their top scorer. Although Rolston is a solid player, most (if not all) other teams in playoff hunts have far better offensive weapons. Minnesota is not significantly improved in the standings from 2003/04, but why should they be? Lemaire has coached the team since they entered the NHL, so his coaching will not be an improvement from year to year. It is merely consistently great.

Jacques Lemaire should be named coach of the year should the season end today, but because of the poor method usually used I don't think he will garner serious consideration. Tom Renney is the the likely winner at this point, he has been a good coach, but I think Lemaire has been better.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

The NHL's Love (And Hatred) Of Gambling

The NHL is desperately trying to gain more fans in the US market. One of their strategies is to try to follow the lead of the NFL, which is largely a gambler driven league, and stamp out all ties. Each NHL game has a winner even if it requires a pointless shootout to break the tie. This makes it easier for gamblers who are not serious hockey fans to adapt to hockey. Just like in the NFL, each game has a winner and a loser. There are no ties. The problem with ties (although nobody admits it on record) is that ties made it hard for gamblers to adapt to hockey. The NHL desperately wants to gain the NFL gamblers to follow their league.

The Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers have shared profits with the province of Alberta on a scratch lottery ticket called "Breakaway to Win", that was set up at the teams urging to provide revenues that they claimed were needed to prevent these teams from moving to other markets.

Many Canadian provinces have Pro Line betting where people can buy through the lottery commission tickets where they bet (against the point spread) on NHL games. They share profits with NHL teams.

The Pittsburgh Penguins plan to build a new arena in Pittsburgh is to obtain a casino licence and use its profits to pay for a new arena.

Clearly, the NHL likes gambling. It likes the fans that it attracts. It likes the profits that is makes them. In fact, it does not prevent its players from gambling. They are merely prevented from gambling on NHL hockey. There are several cases of NHL players building up some rather large gambling debts. The players do have a "morals clause" in a standard contract that prevents them from engaging in illegal activities, but this clause is rarely if ever used.

The situation has changed with the Rick Tocchet financed gambling ring which is really hurting the NHL in the court of popular opinion especially because Wayne Gretzky (who is as close to NHL royalty as exists) appears to be implicated. This is illegal gambling, which was never officially OK by NHL rules, but the league turns a blind eye to illegal gambling if it attracts them new fans.

The NHL must react in a way to show the world their games are in no way compromised by any association to gambling. They must remove any suggestion of this from the game. They must do it in a way that satisfies members of the public who are not devoted hockey fans. They cannot live with the common perception that hockey games might be fixed.

Of course, at this point it is hard to know what needs to be done, because the story has not fully broken. It is easy to over or under react when the scope of the problem is still unclear.

The way the story is being released is a nightmare for the NHL. Things get released slowly over a period of several days. This keeps the story in the news. This keeps it in the public eye.

At this point, it appears that the Phoenix Coyote franchise has significant ties to illegal gambling, but likely not hockey gambling. There may be a few other teams with ties to this story, but none as significant as Phoenix. In order to make things appear cleaned up in the court of public opinion, it may me necessary to demand the sale of the Phoenix franchise and have the new ownership bring in a new GM and coach. It would be a bit of a shame to have Wayne Gretzky removed a bit from the NHL, but this may be the necessary move to keep the NHL looking like a legitimate sport in the public eye.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Frozen Tundra Hockey Classic

An outdoor hockey game will be played tomorrow. The University of Wisconsin Badgers play the Ohio State University Buckeyes in an NCAA hockey game on Saturday. It will be played at Lambeau Field (home of the NFL Green Bay Packers). wather reports call for snow flurries and a high of 23 Fahrenheit. It should be a great day for hockey.

I really like these outdoor games. Its a great way to showcase the game of hockey with respect for the game's traditions.

Here is the University of Wisconsin press release on the game.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Canadian Player Fails Drug Test (Not In The NHL)

The Canadian Olympic hockey team is reeling because of executive director Wayne Gretzky's possible ties to a gambling ring that was bankrolled by his NHL assistant coach Rick Tocchet. There is further news that could leave it with another off ice distraction. The Inernational Olympic Committee is reporting that a player on the Canadian long list of eligible players for the Olympics who did not make the team or the taxi squad has tested positive for a banned substance.

It is reported that he tested positive for a hair restoration product which is found in Rogaine or Propecia. This product is not a performance enhancing drug but can be used to mask anabolic steroids. The case is currently being appealed.

In January, it was reported that Bryan Berard tested positive for steroids. He was an eligible player for the US Olympic team but did not get selected for the final team. This is a more serious case for the NHL in that it steroids and not a hair restoration product he tested positive for. The NHL cannot suspend either of these players (should they want to) because their CBA only allows for suspensions from NHL tests - which makes the NHL look bad.

Likely, this player was merely using a hair restoration product to prevent from going bald and had no idea that it could be used to mask steroids. The player will likely be upset to learn that the world now knows that he is fighting premature hair loss. Nevertheless, the Canadian Olympic team does not need this bad press on the eve of the Olympics.

Here is TSN's article on the story.

UPDATE: It was Jose Theodore of the Montreal Canadiens who tested positive for a hair restoration product, which he claims to have been taken for years and to be unaware that it was banned by the IOC.

Gambling And The Court Of Public Opinion

While it is far too early to assess the impact of the Rick Tocchet gambling scandal because many of the details are still not known, it has already had an impact in popular opinions of hockey. In USA, most people are not hockey fans. They hear about the game when it makes the front of their newspaper (not the sports page). This gambling scandal made the front page of the paper. They see a scandal of unknown proportions that has ties to one of the few hockey people they have ever heard of (Wayne Gretzky) both in that it is his assistant coach being charged and in that his wife Janet Jones is alleged to have placed a large number of bets in this gambling ring. Regardless of how things actually are, that will be the image that gets stuck with them.

In order to try to distance themselves from the gambling problems, some Pittsburgh Penguin players who had been named as gamblers (Mark Recchi and John LeClair) are threatening to sue Philadelphia TV staion WPVI, the Delaware County Times and ESPN who all mentioned their names as probably gamblers in Tocchet's gambling ring. Here is a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article on this topic.

It is sad that in a rush to judgement, several speculations as to which players may be involved got published. Players who were not involved in gambling, but may have a professional tie to Rick Tocchet from his playing days are instantly seen as guilty in some eyes. That is not fair.

UPDATE: In a further blow to the NHL, the Newark Star-Ledger is reporting that the New Jersey state authorities have wiretaps of Wayne Gretzky and Rick Tocchet discussing the betting ring. There is no report at this time that Gretzky was involved in any gambling although his wife Janet Jones is alledged to have made over half a million dollars in bets.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Sedins Hitting Their Stride

The 2005/06 season in the NHL has been a changing of the guard season with a large group of talented rookies hitting the NHL. There have been many other younger players who are establishing themselves as stars as well (for example Eric Staal). One example of this is in the Vancouver Canucks offence. In years past, it has been dominated by Markus Naslund and Todd Bertuzzi. Markus Naslund is going to miss the Olympics to rest nagging injuries that have kept him from being dominant. Todd Bertuzzi has not been as physically or offensively imposing since his suspension from the Steve Moore hit. Vancouver's offence has not skipped a beat. It has been led by Henrik and Daniel Sedin recently. In fact since the beginning of 2006, Henrik Sedin has tied for the league lead with 23 points (he is tied with Marian Hossa of Atlanta). Daniel Sedin is only 2 points back with 21 points. This exactly is what Vancouver had hoped for when they made several trades to secure the 2nd and 3rd picks in the 1999 draft to pick the Sedin twins.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Rick Tocchet Gambling

Rick Tocchet, the Phoenix Coyotes assistant coach (he took over the head coaching job for a short period of time when Phoenix coach Wayne Gretzky took a leave of absence when his mother died) has been served a criminal complaint for financing an illegal nationwide American sports gambling organization. He has been charged with promoting gambling, money laundering and conspiracy. Also charged was New Jersey state policeman James Harney. It is alleged that over a forty day period, more than 1000 bets for over $1.7 million were made. It is alleged that at least 12 NHL players and other people closely associated with the NHL have placed bets (no names have officially been released so I wont speculate as to wo they are despite the fact that many reports and guesses of who they might be are available on the internet). There is no claim at this point that anyone bet on hockey.

The problem with gambling by people associated with pro sports (aside from the fact that it is illegal and may lead to prison time for the people convicted) is that it leads to these players associating with organized crime. Should a player owe a lot of money or other favors to the organized crime members, they may be pressured to fix NHL games. If this occurs it is a major black eye on the NHL that could ruin its integrity permanently.

However, if sports betting is run legally by the state much of these problems do not exist. Thus I support state run sports gambling. It already exists, why not legalize it and take the profits from organized crime and allow it to be taxed?

As for Rick Tocchet, he goes from being a promising assistant coach who has a very good chance at earning a head coach in the near future to someone facing criminal charges who will likely never be given another NHL coaching position at any level.

Here is TSN's story on this topic. Here is a TSN story about why this police investigation might be awful for the NHL.

The NHL Does Not Own The Stanley Cup

There are still a few unresolved issues from the 2004/05 NHL lockout (for example the method of salary cap calculation is still being negotiated). One potentially significant one is the ownership of the Stanley Cup. In 1892, Canadian Governor General Lord Stanley of Preston donated the cup to be given to the Canadian amateur hockey champions. It was originally a challenge cup (like a boxing title) where the champion accepts a challenge from a top contender and they play a series for the cup. In time it became the prize for a series between the eastern North American hockey league champion (eventually this became the NHL) and the western North American hockey league champion. As time passed, the NHL was the only major hockey league left standing so their champions won the cup. In 1947, there was an agreement by the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association to hand over its trusteeship to the NHL. Because of this, the NHL has claimed ownership of the Stanley Cup. They have claimed that only NHL teams can challenge for it.

When the lockout occurred and the Stanley Cup was not awarded this position became challenged. Many people though that if the NHL was not going to award the cup, somebody else should have a chance to play for it. A few groups were organized including Free Stanley and Justice for Stanley.

The Justice for Stanley group is headed by Gard Shelley and David Burt of Toronto. They challenged the NHL's ownership of the Stanley Cup in court. A last minute settlement of the court case was established between this group and the NHL. The NHL agrees to spend $100,000 a year for five years on hockey leagues for women and underprivelaged children and the NHL acknowledges the fact that if it does not operate in future seasons, the Stanley Cup can be awarded to an non-NHL team.

Should another lockout or NHL stoppage in play occur, it will still be a battle to get the Stanley Cup awarded, but a precident has been established.

Here is TSN's story on this issue.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Lady Byng Leader

In December, I picked Jason Spezza as the Lady Byng trophy leader. Since then, Spezza instigated a fight which significantly increased his penalty minute total (he had only 2 at that point and now has 27 pims) and missed some time to injury. He is no longer the leader for the award. Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings now has more points and less penalty minutes then Spezza does. Datsyuk leads Detroit with 59 points and has only 12 pims. Among players who played their entire season in the West Conference (Joe Thornton who started the year in Boston does not count), only Alex Tanguay of Colorado has more points. The Western Conference has been the lower scoring conference but not due to lack of talent. Its harder to score in the west. Those players who are the western scoring leaders are underrated because they are often unnoticed in the NHL scoring leaders (since they are dominated by east players). Datsyuk is one of the players who has lost the most recognition because of this. He is having a very good year and he is playing a very sportsmanlike game. He is very worthy of the Lady Byng trophy, should his season complete the way it has started.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

NHLPA Wants Salary Cap Reduced

The NHLPA is not doing well. While most players ignore politics and blindly follow its recommendations, those thaty are politically active are divided.

By accepting the new CBA, the NHLPA stopped standing up for the players and gave many concessions to help the owners at the expense of the players. It has made some wonder why the NHLPA exists.

At first it looked like their big concession was the salary cap, but in fact it was actually escrow. With escrow, if the owners agree to pay out greater than a given percentage of defined revenues in contract negotiations then the players get the excess deducted from their paycheques and given back to the owners. Effectively, this can make the dollar figure in the salary cap meaningless and the dollar figure in a player's contract meaningless. A player negotiates for a given figure in his contract, but never receives that amount of money because ownership knows in advance he will have to pay some of it back in escrow.

If the salary cap rises faster than revenue (which is quite possible since it is negotiated that it will be assumed that revenues increase by 5% annually) then salaries won't actually rise. Escrow will rise. The players will wind up giving back more of their negotiated salaries and this will lead to unhappiness with union head Ted Saskin.

In an attempt to reduce escrow payments (and not increase player salaries), Ted Saskin (the union head) is proposing that the salary cap get reduced in the future. This is done in order to try to keep Ted Saskin's job. This is a public relations game. Players are more upset with large escrow payments then they are by limits in how much money they can make. If escrow payments are large, then players tend to get upset with the union.

The salary cap calculation is ridiculously complex and the information is well hidden from most fans. For the current season, revenues were estimated at $1.8 billion. The player's share was 54% (this number is negoatiated and revenue dependent). That means that each team can pay out $32.4 million ($1.8 billion * .54 divided by 30 teams) to the players. But that is not the salary cap. There is a salary range. Teams can exceed the middle value by a given amount or be below it by a given amount. In the future, these amounts will become the same, but in order to allow the teams with lower payrolls to slowly bring up their payrolls, the current salary floor is lower from the "middle value of $32.4 million" then the cap is above it. This season the cap is $39 million ($8 million higher than the average value). The current salary floor is $21.5 million this year. Here is an explanation of how the salary cap works in the NHL.

Inevitably, most teams will pay more in salary than the "middle value" and come closer to the salary cap. Thus, under most circumstances, players will give back significant amounts of money in escrow payments. That is not happening this season because the revenue prediction was lowballed. The actual NHL revenue is about $200,000 higher than projections. Thus escrow payments are small. In the future (as soon as next year), the revenue projections will be based upon current ones so it is impossible for them to be as lowballed as they were this year. According to current revenue projections, the salary cap will be around $46 million next season. The middle value will be $38 million. The salary floor will be $30 million. Most likely escrow payments will be large as well.

Since the large escrow payments will make players unhappy, Ted Saskin wants the salary cap reduced. Instead of the cap and floor being $8 million above and below the middle value,, one proposition is that the range be only $5 million above and below the middle value. This would make a salary cap of $43 million and a floor of $33 million. He hopes this would prevent teams that pay close to the salary cap from overpaying the "player's share" by as much and thus reducing escrow payments. It looks like Saskin is also proposing that the salary floor be lowered as while as the salary cap. He is proposing floor figures well below its currently expected value of $30 million. This would further reduce escrow payments.

Thats right. The union wants the salary cap *REDUCED*. The ridiculous union is in the position of asking to lower the salary cap. Is that really the best the union can do? Are they really that impotent? The current union is weak - which is situation normal in history of the NHLPA.

The players don't need a union like this. It doesn't do them any good. It is merely looking out for the union head by reducing the anticipated public relations problems they will have in the future.

Here is a TSN story on this article with a very different slant on the issue.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Penalty Minute Leader

Sean Avery of the Los Angeles Kings leads the NHL in penalty minutes and he leads by a large margin. He has 195 penalty minutes so far this year. Second is Chris Neil of the Ottawa Senators who has 129 minutes (Avery has over 50% more penalty minutes).

Avery has received a lot of press for some of his stupid comments and racial slurs but not nearly as much for his huge penalty minute lead.

Taking a lot of stupid penalties and leaving your team short handed frequently is a bad thing, but when you draw a lot of retaliation penalties and draw players out of their game as they try to attack you (instead of defeat your hockey team) is a positive result. More often then not, Avery is a persistent agitator drawing players off of their game.

Avery is a solid NHL player. His 28 points have him tied for 7th in scoring on the Los Angeles Kings. He plays a game on the edge of control and "gets under the skin" of his opponents. This makes him very valuable to the Kings. In most Los Angeles games, he is one of the more obvious players on the ice. You have to notice him and you have to take his presence into account when you play against the team.

Avery is the kind of player that everybody hates, unless he plays for their team. That is one of the "supreme compliments" a hardworking player can earn. I have a lot of respect for Sean Avery and what he does. I think its overdue for somebody to sing his praises as a valuable hockey player.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Too Much Hockey

I hate to address this problem, becauce in my ideal world as a hockey fan, I would like it if high level hockey played by the best players in the world was available to be watched seven days a week every day of the year. I would like to be able to watch high level hockey in the middle of the winter, spring, fall and summer. I cannot get enough hockey.

This neglects the fact that the best players in the world are real people. Playing an NHL season at a high level takes a huge toll on their bodies. They need time to recover once the season is completed. Playing out training camp, exhibition games, an 82 game schedule plus the playoff tournament each year, year after year, is very hard on a body. It is hard mentally. It is hard physically. It is even harder when inevitable nagging injuries occur. It is hard when players have to keep playing and cannot rest themselves until they are 100% again. It is even harder when we throw in other tournaments like the Olympics for the players to play in.

As a fan, the Olympics are great. Its even more days of high level hockey played by the best players in the world that I can watch, but as a player the Olympics can be draining because its even more days of high level hockey played against the best players in the world.

There is a growing list of players including Markus Naslund, Miikka Kiprusoff and Kari Lehtonen who are skipping the Olympics not because of serious injury, but rather because they need a break and will have an opportunity to rest nagging little injuries. This is a symptom of how hard it is on the human body to play as much high level hockey as NHL players do.

So what should be done about this? As a fan, I want to see the best players in the world playing in the Olympics. I want to see the best players in the world playing in the NHL as well. It would be possible to reduce the number of regular season games in the NHL season to reduce player's workloads. A minimum suggestion is given by Eric Duhatschek that the NHL reduce its regular season by 8 games (from 82 to 74) in Olympic years. I see this as a happy compromise that the NHL should consider (but probably wont because less game dates would cost them money).

As a fan, I am looking forward to seeing the best players in the world play the Olympics. I want to see if the Canadian Olympic team can defend their gold medal. I want to see if the US Olympic team can defend their silver medal. I want to see if any of the other European nations can upend them. Most of all I want to see a good tournament played by the best players in the world. I don't want to see a situation where several of the best players in the world beg off due to overwork.

NOTE: The Globe and Mail (Eric Duhatschek) article requires registration. Bugmenot.com can help with this problem.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

AHL All Star Game

Last night the AHL all star game was played in Winnipeg. Team Canada defeated Planet USA (players from the rest of the world) 9-4. The rosters for the game can be found here.

Some of the more successful players in the game were Martin St Pierre (in the Chicago system) and Don MacLean (in the Detroit system) who each scored 2 goals for Canada. Nathan Paetsch (Buffalo system) added three assists from the Canadian defence. John Pohl (Toronto system) added two goals for the Planet USA team. The co-MVPs of the game were goalies Wade Flaherty (Vancouver system) and Yann Danis (Montreal system), they each allowed one goal on thirteen shots in their period of action.

This game is a combination of future NHLers, career AHLers and players stuck in the minors because their salary is above $75,000 and their team is reluctant to put them on re-entry waivers.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The Importance Of McCabe To The Leafs

Bryan McCabe is having a very good season. Currently, he is the second highest scoring defenceman in the NHL with 49 points in 43 games (he trails Lubomir Visnovsky). He has the highest points per game among NHL defencemen. Before his recent injury (he missed nine games with a groin injury), I was picking him as the Norris trophy leader. Due to his injury, I am now picking Wade Redden.

However, there are a lot of people who doubt that McCabe deserves this kind of credit. They doubt his defensive prowess. This line of logic is likely part of the reason that McCabe was left off of the Canadian Olympic Team.

McCabe has been arguably the best offensive defenceman in the NHL this year. He is also solid defensively. He does not get sufficient credit in part because of his playing style. He sometimes cheats up the ice a bit to try to join a breakout attack and when he guesses wrong and the attack does not happen, his mistake is obvious to even the casual hockey viewer. Despite this, he a very solid positional defensive player the majority of the time.

One good proof of McCabe's value to the Toronto Maple Leafs is the way the Leafs have played when he is out of the lineup. The Leafs went 1-8 (with one of their losses an overtime loss) when McCabe was out of the lineup. He came back from injury last night for the Tampa Bay game which was a 3-2 shootout loss and McCabe didn't make much of an impact. It may take a couple games for Bryan McCabe to get in his full stride after missing nine games, but when he does I expect he will be an important part of the Leafs turn around. Toronto is currently holding the last playoff spot in the east conference and I expect will be a playoff team with McCabe playing a big role.

I think that Bryan McCabe is one of the better defenders in hockey today. I think he would be very valuable to the Canadian Olympic team. I think he is the best available power play point man for the Canadian team (and if they call penalties the way they have in the NHL that will be very important). I think he will not be a defensive liability, despite the common opinion to the contrary. I think that most hockey viewers (and the media) tend to be slow to recognize when newer players become stars. I think McCabe is at that star level and though the recognition may come in the future, he deserves it now.

Bryan McCabe has been one of the best defencemen in hockey this year (and 2003/04 where he made second team all star) but his recognition has been slow to arrive. He is one of the top contenders for the Norris trophy and very deserving of a spot on the Canadian Olympic team, but many people have yet to realize that. He is very valuable to his team. In fact Toronto has had significant struggle when McCabe is not in the lineup.

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