Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Impossible Perfection

The biggest single problem in the NHL today is officiating. Everyone except the NHL head office agrees on that. What is the solution? There isn’t one and everybody knows it.

The problem is the expectation level is now so high there is no human being or group of human beings who could ever officiate the fastest non-motorized team sport in the world and call each foul and make the correct call on each play. A perfectly officiated game has never occurred and will never occur. Just like a perfect game has never been played and never will.

The NHL wants the fans and media to stop talking about it because the league believes it distracts everyone from the high level of play and diminishes the excitement that the best players in the world create. In reality the excitement level can be highest when officiating is a central part of the game. It’s one of those unpredictable components of live sports which make it exciting in both good and bad was, but it is exciting.

The NHL would most like the media to stop talking about officiating because it believes the media incites the fans into their displeasure by repeatedly showing blown or missed calls and then using their expertise to explain to the common fan how bad a call it was and why. Second guessing and critiquing officiating is now almost a secondary sport unto itself but is the media, especially the broadcast media, really doing the fans a dis-service when they don’t call and or comment on all facets of the game. Especially when some of these calls or non-calls directly result in goals, wins and losses? Sometimes a bad call or a non-call really does cost someone a game and the media should not comment on that? I agree that a never ending preoccupation with officiating during a broadcast is not productive, but a fearful aversion to any negative officiating analysis is cheating the fans of the coverage they deserve.

Network TV doesn’t help in this regard. While there has never been a perfect broadcast, the level of expertise and technology in network TV has never been higher. There is very little which is missed by the cameras and often it’s in beautiful high definition where something the size of the head of a pin can be microscopically analyzed. This time of year the production trucks are filled with the most experienced and very best producers and directors in hockey and their talents bring everything to the surface for both appreciation and exasperation by the fans.

Let’s look at last night’s controversial call in the San Jose/Dallas game. Marty Turco is down and we can see clearly he did not have the puck covered and it was poked into the net. The goal was waived off by the official because he had lost sight of the puck. This morning I was listening to the debates on radio. One of them was that the official was in the wrong place on the ice. The fact is, he was in the right place and made the right call but TV is right there to magnify the fallibility of human referees. Media and the fans now have come to expect technology can fix everything. Every play should be reviewable, every foul should be called, every game should be perfect. It is both impractical and impossible.

Officials try each game to call things fair and equal. At least that’s what they say. It’s a great goal to work towards, but it’s ultimately impossible. Officials are human beings and as such are prone to the same things the rest of us are. Why do some players get away with things others do not? Why do some teams seem to get an unfair shake from certain officials? How can a coach or player expect to get a completely unbiased call from an official when those same players and coaches often scream at and berate certain officials?

If I were an official I would have grudges and historical bias towards certain players, coaches and teams based on the way I had been treated by them in the past. I like the officials in the NHL would never admit it publicly but let’s face it, it is human nature. Pretending it doesn’t exist is naive.

So there it is. The bottom line in officiating is “S___T Happens” and that will never change no matter how much technology is added to the process. Technology has only increased the fodder for our debates not decreased their likelihood.

Here is another undeniable truth. Everyone except the NHL believes officiating is the leagues single biggest problem yet the officials we have are the best in the world. It can not be called by someone else who is better. We already have the best.

Technology has shown us all the warts. We knew they were there before, but now they are shoved in our faces in high definition and everyone knows a wart under a microscope is not pretty. But when that wart is on the chin of your loving grand mother, you choose not to focus on it because everything else in that dress and sensible shoes you love so much more. Try to think of that when next you want to dump on this game and its officials. If you can look for what you really love about the NHL without focusing so much on a wart that can never and will never go away. If you can’t, just keep on bitching about things you can’t change. It’s a useless waste of emotion but its everyone’s right to waste it if they choose to.

See you at the rink.

Coach of the Year

Who picks the coach of the year in the NHL? Who picks the other award winners? When do they do the voting? Does playoff performance have an impact? These are the questions often asked at this time of year when the 3 finalists are named in each of the NHL’s individual award categories are named.

For most of the individual player awards the voting is done by the NHL writers. Each NHL city is given a certain number of writer votes. Every NHL writer does not get a vote. It prevents certain cities from have voting dominance based solely on the fact they live in a city where there are more writers like Toronto, Montreal and New York.

The Jack Adams trophy for the coach of the year is voted on by the NHLBA. That’s the NHL broadcasters association. Only play-by-play and color announcers who a dues paying members are entitled to vote. The ballot has 3 positions on it for first, second and third place. Points are given to each position. 5 points for a first place vote, 3 for a second place vote and 1 point for a third place vote. So technically it is possible to win the coach of the year and yet not have received any first place votes as long as the coach receives enough points through second and third place nominations. To my knowledge it has never actually happened.

For both the player awards and the coach of the year award, the ballots must be in by the end of the regular season. Thus playoff success or failure has no impact on who wins the awards with the obvious exception being the Conn Smythe trophy for playoff MVP.

As I mentioned the Writers do most of the voting with the exception of the Jennings, Rocket Richard and Art Ross trophy’s which are awarded based on simple mathematical performance. The GMs’ vote on the Vezina, the Governors vote on the King Clancy.

Often we get asked why playoff performance is not taken into account for many of these awards especially the Jack Adams and the Hart Trophy as the league MVP. It is true that often coaches and special players separate themselves from the pack in the playoffs and when the awards ultimately don’t reflect that it does seem uneven when the hardware is handed out. The problem is logistics. With writers and broadcasters all over North America, the ballots are still done manually. That means a piece of paper, a pen, an envelope and a stamp. With the awards being handed out in June shortly after the Stanley Cup is awarded, there would be no way to get the votes in, counted and then arrangements made to try and get as many of the award winners at the cerimony as possible.

It is not a perfect system, but it’s the only one which works for now. I can see a day in the very near future where it will all be done electronically so there is a possibility of having playoff performance included in the decision making process. But that still would not make it all completely without controversy. Firstly this league has so many great players you could argue for 3 or 4 or 5 guys for almost every award and none of the answers would be wrong. Second you can’t take a personal proclivity out of the voting process.

I will use the Hart Trophy as the example. This is supposed to be awarded to the player who is most valuable to his team. It is not necessarily the best player in the league. If Sydney Crosby is the best player in the NHL is he the MVP even though his team didn’t miss a beat when he was injured? Is Martin Brodeur the MVP since most hockey people believe that the Devils would be average or below average as a team if they didn’t have him. He clearly is a player who is hugely important to his team. The reality is many writers don’t bother to weigh team importance because it’s impossible to judge in any non subjective way. So they just pick who they think is the best player in the league.

Another example is the Lady Bing. Nobody really wants to win this award as the most gentlemanly player but for some reason writers don’t believe a defenceman can win it. I had a discussion with a writer friend of mine years ago and I used Igor Kravchuck as an example. In the 1997-1998 season he played 81 games, had 35 points, was a plus player on a winning team in a position where you can not avoid body contact and he had only 8 penalty minutes playing about 23 minutes per game. Even though he probably would not want to win it, but how can a guy like that be overlooked. I was told he is a defenceman and they don’t win the Lady. I checked the criteria and nothing says the writers can’t vote for a defenceman, but for some reason over time, it’s been decided nobody does.

See you at the rink.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

My week with Harry and the Kids in the Prior.

I arrived back home in Ottawa on Monday after flying all day from Nashville, through Washington and finally into Ottawa. Doing the play-by-play of the Detroit/Nashville series on Hockey Night in Canada was a great experience for me because of Harry. I had worked with Harry Neale before in single games, but on a playoff series the whole crew pretty much stays together til its over. I spent most of the week with Harry, producer Larry Issac, director Jacques Primeau and host Scott Oake. The best part of all the time I spent was with Harry. When you get that much time you get a chance to prompt him on all the hundreds of stories he has from a life in hockey. Coaching Gordie Howe. His time in Vancouver and Detroit and the years of broadcasting with hall of famer Bob Cole. I must say I am shocked that Harry is not in the Hall of Fame. He should be and I believe will be and if I had a vote it would already be cast.

When I got home on Monday one of my oldest friends Cam Baldwin arrived from Winnipeg. His son Corbin was playing in the Telus Cup National Midget Championship in Arnprior for the Winnipeg Thrashers. The kid is 16 years old and already 6’5” and drafted by Spokane in the Western League. His team is unbelievable. The Thrashers lost one tournament game early in the season, did not lose a regular season game in Manitoba and lost just once in the regional round robin to the Notre Dame Hounds who they beat in the regional final to get to Arnprior.

After watching the games in Arnprior I found myself with a very settled feeling about where we are going as a nation with our developmental programs. The hockey at the Telus cup from these 15 and 16 year olds was amazing. The Ottawa Valley Titans are a hell of a team and had a great season and they couldn't win a game in this tournament. It tells you how good the best midget players in Canada really are.

If you want to see the kids that are coming down the hockey pipe in the next few years, you may want to check it out today in Arnprior for the semi’s and the bronze medal game tomorrow at 10am and the gold medal game at 4pm with the delayed broadcast at 6pm on TSN. These kids are fantastic and well worth the watch.

See you at the rink.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

It's Question Time

Its natural, it’s our basic hockey instinct and it’s frustrating. Trying to figure out exactly what went wrong with the Ottawa Senators this season. It is our deep desire to have the easy, clear, black and white answer to a question which is anything but black and white. We all want to be able to point the finger at one guy or one small group or one problem and say that is the reason Ottawa under achieved.

It is not nearly that simple when dissecting the Senators. This season was a collection of multiple Mis-steps. At times a crisis of confidence which went on for too long. A group of individuals who all, at some point, lost sight of the bread crumbs and could not re-trace their steps back to an elite level hockey. If I had the answers I would be the only one.

One thing is certain. Changes will happen. Some were going to happen regardless of the outcome this season. There are the obvious ones. Those who expect Ray Emery and Wade Redden to leave the franchise are likely right but it won’t stop there.

There is one thing for sure and that is Bryan Murray knows he needs to change the mix on this team but not blow it up. It as been too good for too long to tear it apart after half a bad regular season and a terrible playoff round.

Knowing Bryan and the type of teams he’s built in the past, I would expect he and assistant GM Tim Murray will try to increase the jerk level on this club. I say that in the best way. Players who opposing teams think are jerks. Look at some of the Ducks drafted by Murray. Kunitz, Getzlaf and Perry. Good players who can be jerks on the ice. Good players who are very hard to play against.

If there is one thing we can point to when analyzing this club this year is that too often they were too easy to play against. That will change and Murray won’t hesitate in that regard.

It will be a long summer of criticism and analysis but I have no doubts the style of this team will change. It will still have plenty of skill, but the jerk content will go up and that is a good thing.

See you at the rink.

Friday, April 11, 2008

It's time for Multi-Tasking.

After the Senators game #1 shutout defeat in Pittsburgh the analysis of what went wrong runs in many different directions. The powerplay, the number of missed shots, and the one I want to centre in on which is “every player has to do his own job”. The scorers have to score, the checkers have to check and the goalie has to stop the puck. With the exception of the goalie the other two are only half right.

In the playoffs multi-tasking is what often sets winners apart from losers. When Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley chase a dumped in puck and smear the defenceman into the boards, that is playoff multi-tasking. That lets the opposition know that a scorer is willing to be a checker and not just once, but every time he gets that chance. When a checker goes hard to the net and has a puck deflect off his skate and in, that tells the other team that the checker is willing to play at both ends of the ice and he has to be defended against even though he is primarily a defender himself.

That to me was the most glaring deficiency in Ottawa’s game #1 performance outside of the obvious failings of the powerplay and the number of missed shots. Ottawa or any other team won’t go far in the playoffs if the players are not willing or able to multi-task.

On the problems with hitting the net, one of the biggest reasons is testosterone driven. Too many players want to put the puck right through the goalies chest. My good friend Kevin Haime (the award winning golf pro) once told me that you should try to hit the ball consistently at about 75% of your hardest swing. Always ripping at the ball makes for poor accuracy because you are concentrating more on power than balance.

I believe hockey, especially in the composite stick era, is more about balance than pure power. The best shooters are the ones who can combine both, but for most other players getting the puck to the net should be more important than trying to blow-out the back of the net. Clearly that method is not working.

I watch Nick Lidstrom in Detroit and rarely does he blow anyone’s doors off with his shot, but it almost always hits the target and if he doesn’t score the rebound becomes a chance for a team mate. The most important thing is, he forces the goalie to make some kind of save. It goes back to what we all learned in Novice hockey. It is never a bad play to shoot at the net. Its a great play if you hit the net.

See you at the rink.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

What's in a banner?

The Pittsburgh Penguins clearly have their hearts set on a banner and why wouldn’t they. There is no banner handed out for finishing first in the regular season unless you win the Presidents Trophy and they had no chance at that. In their final regular season game against Philadelphia they showed no desperation at all to supplant Montreal for first in the east. Crosby was a healthy scratch and many of the players who saw powerplay time in that game rarely get that time in games that matter. It appeared more than obvious they were playing for a match up. They wanted Ottawa in the first round and they played poorly enough to get it.

Ottawa is considered by virtually everyone as the easiest opponent in the first round in the east. They did not tear it up down the stretch. They still have problems in their own end and the injury losses of Alfredsson, Fisher and Kelly make Ottawa the team on paper that everyone wanted to face. The Senators were considered favorites to return to the cup final not so long ago and now are thought of as the walk over opponent. That’s how quickly this game can change.

No one wanted to face Washington as they ended the regular season as the hottest team in the NHL with 9 wins in their last 10 games and with the hottest scorer in the league in Alexander Ovechkin. This is the same team which was dead last in the NHL for 15 days this season and did not get a playoff spot until the second last day of the season.

What this tells me is that all we know is that we don’t know much. Remember this is the same league where the Oilers a few years ago made the playoffs on the last day of the regular season and then somehow got to the final. This is the same league where Detroit was the virtual wire-to-wire point’s leader in the NHL and won the Presidents Trophy as the league’s best team over the run of the regular season, yet most of the prognostications are that either San Jose or Anaheim will come out of the west.

This is why you have to love the new NHL at least in this regard. There are no sure things. Teams beat the odds all the time in this league. Just look at the east as a whole based on the pre-season predictions from many of the expert panels. Most predicted Boston, Montreal and Washington wouldn’t even make the playoffs and yet all 3 are in. In 9 of the last 10 years a #7 seed has beaten a #2 seed in the first round. That would be a shock wave upset if Ottawa were to be the 10th team in 11 years since many are predicting Pittsburgh will win the east.

Montreal, Pittsburgh and Washington are now the sexy picks as the teams most likely to come out of the east, but defence is usually what wins playoff series and the Rangers are the best defensive team in the east but they are facing the 2nd best defensive team in the east in New Jersey in the first round.

For Ottawa the best thing for them is all the talk. The more the media keeps telling the Penguins they will sweep and in fact the Senators wont even win a period the better it is for Ottawa. With all the talent they have, they still have very little playoff experience amongst their best players and what they have is mostly bad. Experience counts for a lot in the post season.

I am not going to say Ottawa should be the favorite and I am not going to predict an Ottawa upset, but those who think this will be a walk through series for the Penguins should just keep telling Pittsburgh that. Its Ottawa’s greatest weapon.

See you at the rink.