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Thursday, December 22, 2005

Hockey night in blogtopia

We’re almost at the midway point of the season, and it’s already become quite clear why the NHL forced that lockout last year: it was all part of a plan to destroy the St. Louis Blues.

So tonight, this hockey-lovin’ blog will say a few kind words about the poor Blues before passing off to political scientist, virtuoso blogger, and lifelong Calgary Flames fan Scott Lemieux for some much-needed commentary on the New Rules and their Consequences.

Unless they win out from this point on, the 2005-06 Blues will snap one of the more curious long-term streaks in professional sports: they have made the playoffs every season since 1979-80.  Twenty-five straight years: it’s the longest current postseason streak in professional sports and the third-longest of all time.  But since they last took the ice in April 2004, they’ve lost Pavol Demitra to the Los Angeles Kings, Chris Pronger to the Edmonton Oilers, and Al MacInnis to retirement.  In other words, they lost their offense and their defense.  But they still have a building to play in, and that’s positive.

Can they win 45 straight?  Probably not.  That would be a record.

Now, it’s true that back in the 1980s, when 21 NHL franchises completed for 16 playoff spots, teams qualified for the playoffs if (but only if!) they were carbon-based.  In 1982-83, for example, the Blues went 25-40-15, and the next year they went 32-41-7—and made the playoffs both years.  Not for nothing did the late Dick Young once write that if World War II had been a hockey season, Poland would have made the playoffs.  And in all that time, they never made it to the Cup finals; indeed, they made it to the conference finals only twice—and I saw their last win in a conference final game, a 4-3 overtime thriller against the Colorado Avalanche on May 16, 2001.  (It was their only victory in that series; the Avs then went on to win the Cup.) Hence the obscure and unfunny (but well-aimed) joke:

Q.  Why is there so little drunk driving in St. Louis?

A.  Because all the bars close after the second round.

But don’t start thinking that the Blues are the poster kids for consistent mediocrity.  Beginning in the early 1990s, they put together some formidable teams, and they spent the latter half of the decade just a half-step down from the Western Conference elite of Colorado, Detroit, and Dallas.  During that time, some of the game’s best players could be found wearing a Blues uniform: Brett Hull, Adam Oates, Brendan Shanahan, Pierre Turgeon, Grant Fuhr, Curtis Joseph—and of course, Pronger and MacInnis.  Hull scored 86 goals in 1990-91, still the most productive year registered by any player not named Gretzky.  In 1996, during the couple of weeks when their roster included Gretsky Himself (on his way from LA to NY), they took Detroit to the seventh game of the conference finals before losing a 1-0 heartbreaker in double OT; but they never came as close to defeating the Red Wings in a series again, and by the time they folded in five to Detroit in 2002’s second round, the mere sight of a Red Wing insignia was enough to make them cough up the puck.

In 1999-2000 they led the league during the regular season, and goaltender Roman Turek posted no fewer than three franchise records: a .912 save percentage, a 1.95 goals-against average, and 42 wins.  But they were bounced by San Jose in the first round, thanks to some of the flukiest goals and flabbiest goaltending ever to afflict an NHL team.  In the following year’s playoffs, Turek performed magnificently as the Blues avenged the loss to San Jose in the first round and then swept the defending conference champion Dallas Stars; but in the conference finals, Turek gave up one weak goal after another, and by the time I saw him in game three, his confidence—and, just as important, his team’s confidence in him—was shattered.  Every puck that came near him was an adventure.  The Blues unloaded him when the year was over, but the damage was done, both to Turek’s reputation and the Blues’ brief run as a Cup contender.  How odd it was, I thought, for the team of Glenn Hall, Jacques Plante, Ernie Wakely, Mike Luit, Grant Fuhr, and Curtis Joseph to be done in by lousy goaltending.  (The Avalanche conference final game I attended in 2001 consisted of the Blues trying to come back repeatedly after Turek had let in goals that most of us could have stopped without pads; as fortune would have it, I was wearing a Curtis Joseph jersey that night, and every time I left my seat, Blues fans would stop me and ask if I would be willing to replace Turek at the end of the period.)

Since that brief run, the Blues have gotten worse, though until this year they had enough talent to make it to the postseason.  How bad are they now?  Let me put it this way: worse than Pittsburgh bad.  Worse than Columbus bad.  Bad to the point at which the team website has to say things like “the Blues have held a lead at some point in the game in seven of the last eleven contests.” (They went 3-8 during that span.) They won’t just miss the playoffs for the first time since 1980, folks.  They may very well wind up with the worst record in the league.  They are officially doormats.

So even though there are only a dozen readers of this blog who care about hockey, and none of those readers care about the sorry fate of the St. Louis Blues, let’s take a moment to acknowledge their passing.  And here’s hoping that they start to rebuild next year.

On the bright side, the New York Rangers look like a serious, hardworking bunch.  And Jaromir Jagr seems to have marshaled his considerable talents for the first time in years.  I can’t say any more than this, though, for fear of jinxing these bracingly fast, hungry young Rangers.

And with that, I turn you over to Scott Lemieux, political scientist, virtuoso blogger, and lifelong Calgary Flames fan, who will discuss (among other things) the NHL’s new rules and new look: the post-trap, post-clutching-and-grabbing, power-plays-a-plenty NHL.  Me, I’m in favor of it all, even the shootouts, which I opposed until I witnessed the Rangers’ epic 15-round shootout against the Capitals on November 26.  They’re really kinda fun, in a regular-season kinda way, and much more entertaining than soccer shootouts.  But then, everything about hockey is more entertaining than soccer.  What you say, Scott?

Scott Lemieux says:

Thanks—and condolences—to Michael.  I hope everyone will raise a toast to the Blues, as well as the great, recently retired Al MacInnis, the anchor of what will be—let’s be frank—the only championship a team I root for passionately will ever win [aside to nonfans: why are you still reading this post? but for those of you who are, Scott is referring to the 1989 Flames], and who had many terrific years in St. Louis as well.  (And was just a youngster when the Flames and Blues played their epic 7-game semi-final series in ‘86.) Admittedly, it’s hard to say nice things about the NHL today—I’m still choking on my own rage about the inclusion of Todd Bertuzzi on the Canadian Olympic team, thus irreparably tanrnishing a great showcase for the game—but I can come at things from a happier perspective.

[Another note to nonfans: why is Bertuzzi the spawn of Satan? Here’s why.]

In 2004, the last time there was NHL hockey, my Flames won their first playoff series since that ‘89 Cup win, and I was lucky enough to be back home to see their overtime elimination of the Red Wings in round 2.  (The students who had to sit through a lecture about the Taiwanese courts after I caught a flight the next morning may not have been as lucky.)

But last year’s finals were exciting for non-parochial reasons as well.  What was most encouraging about the finals were that the two finalists—Tampa Bay and Calgary—were both fast, highly skilled teams laden with young stars, and they played an exciting seven-game series.  (It’s too bad, as I’ve mentioned before, that Michael chose to cheer for the team that comes from a state with no outdoor rinks and in which the election statutes are apparently written in crayon by the Attorney General’s 6-year old daughter, but hey—they won!  And they’re a fun team to watch.) While I’m conflicted about the new NHL because I strongly favor the players in any pro sports labor dispute, I do think that Gary Bettman’s new rules (which, of course, hardly required a lockout to be changes) are for the most part good for the game, and I hope that the 2004 finals will indeed be the harbinger of a game that is as great as it should be. 

Before getting to the big new changes, it’s also worth talking about some small stuff that makes a difference.  For years, the NHL made some rule changes that seemed to come out of nowhere.  My favorite example is getting rid of the delayed offside, which eliminated unnecessary whistles—but, in a bout of baffling illogic, various people started saying that the new rule had prevented Canada from producing good new defensemen.  During the same period of time, linesmen became incredibly vain, taking forever to drop pucks on faceoffs of trivial importance, and coaches also began more and more delays to fiddle around with lines.  After the magnificent 2002 Olympics, at which hockey was played not only at a staggeringly high level but also with international rules that minimized these pointless delays and whistles, Bettman (to his credit) immediately instituted a series of rule changes that largely eliminated these delays from the NHL as well.  None of these solved fundamental problems, but they did improve the game, and showed that the league was willing to consider rational changes.  Which leads us to this year’s new rules.

Most of them I like a lot.  I’m not sure how big an impact the elimination of the two-line pass will be, but the threat of the long pass does seem to have opened the game up to some extent.  And while I do find games with too many power plays a little dreary, the tight enforcement of obstruction rules is a necessary evil, and hopefully as players change we’ll get the benefits without the drawbacks.  I love the new rules that discourage icings (as well, of course, as the return of tag-up offsides), and I also love the new rules on goalie equipment, which emphasize agility and reflexes rather than sheer size.  (A quick eyeball of the goalie stats seems to show that save percentages are down a bit, which is good, and also that Dominic Hasek—still tremendous at 40—is the greatest goaltender of his generation, which is duh.) Overall, it definitely the rules have improved the game, and I hope some alienated fans will check it out.

My one quibble, however, has to do with shootouts.  I don’t mean to knock soccer—I’m sure I would be a big fan if I lived in a country where it was a major sport—but I have trouble getting behind a sport that decides its ultimate championships will a gimmicky fraction of the game.  (It’s like getting to the 11th inning of Game 7 of the World Series and then deciding things with a home run derby.) And so I have to admit that I’m still not crazy about it.  But as long as it’s confined to the regular season I can live with it, and if it draws new fans to the rink or the Wood Varnishing Network (or whoever it is that’s showing their games before NBC starts up), it’s a good thing overall.

A final thing to note is that the new rules don’t matter much if the talent isn’t there, and here is where I think things are looking up the most.  The increasing influx of talent may finally be mitigating the dilution of the talent pool caused by over-expansion.  Still fairly young superstars like Vinny Lecavalier and Jarome Iginla have been joined this year by Carolina’s Eric Staal as well as Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley of the devastating Senators.  And this year’s rookie crop—well, let’s just say that (a) I’m confident after watching almost every game that Calgary’s young defenceman Dion Phaneuf (a towering, hard-hitting defenseman who already has 8 goals) is the best player we’ve drafted since MacInnis, and (b) he’s at best the third-best rookie in the league, behind Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin.  I don’t mean to deny that there are problems.  While the NHL gets a bad rap on violence vis-à-vis the NFL, the example of Bertuzzi shows that it remains a problem, and the league could probably still afford to shed a team or four.  But overall, I hope that this season, while purchased at a terrible price, will reflect a turning point for the NHL, as the surprisingly robust attendance (has a league ever increased its attendance after a work stoppage?) reflects.

Posted by Michael on 12/22 at 11:09 PM
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