The Stretch Run

27 Feb

Before I start rattling-off my review of the Avalanche’s season to this point, I apologize for not posting anything in a while, haven’t had much free time lately. I won’t bore you with all the details, but I don’t think humans are supposed to be this busy…but since none of it is hockey related, I’ll just dive right in.
Landeskog, Landeskog, Landeskog, I can’t say enough about the guy. Personable, overall nice guy, consistent on the ice and a geek to boot. He’s really picked it up the past 10 games and has easily been the best Av player in that span. Earlier in the season, there was a stretch of about 20~25 games in which he had only about 2~3 points, but you wouldn’t know it watching him that he was struggling to produce. He plays the same way whether he gets 9 points in 7 games or 2 points in 30 games and he sticks to it; I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, he plays more like a 5-year veteran than a rookie and totally stoked that he plays for the Av’s! If he doesn’t win the Calder Trophy, it’ll be a travesty. He leads all rookies in most stats, but the one that impresses me the most is he’s +20 (which leads all rookies). I agree that the +/- stat is deceptive, but the team’s goal differential is -8.
Ryan O’Reilly’s having a breakout year, he leads the team with 49 points and just notched his 100th career point against the Red Wings last night. He should definitely get some Selke Trophy consideration since he’s led the league in takeaways for some time, although he’s only a +3 so that may go against him. Just to give some perspective on how he’s doing this season, he scored 52 points in his first 2 seasons combined (26 points each), and he’s 3 points away from matching that. He’s a rink rat through and through, and it shows, definitely captain material at some point in his career.
The Avs also made a trade, and I’m taking a wait-and-see approach. They traded Kyle Quincey to Tampa Bay for Steve Downie, who then traded Quincey to Detroit for a 1st round draft pick and a minor league player. Kyle Quincey was playing a lot of minutes, usually alongside Erik Johnson and a solid guy. However, the Quincey we see October through December can be quite different than the Quincey we see January through April, so consistency has been an issue. Steve Downie has a well-documented history of suspensions and borderline dirty play. He has skill, that was easy to see in the 3 games he’s played since the trade, but my concern is more on him keeping it clean. I didn’t see him taking runs at players (yet), so the jury’s still out. It’ll take a long stretch of consistent, hard-working play from him to warm-up to the trade, but it’s worked out so far.
Going forward, they’re 2 points behind the 8th place Stars, so they’re right in the thick of it. Of the remaining 19 games, 7 are against other Northwest Division teams, and they’ve only won 3 games against those teams all season, so a bit of a hill to climb. The vast majority of the 19 are against teams fighting for a playoff spot, so this will be really interesting to watch. This is a big improvement over where they were at this time last season.

Mid-Season Review

5 Jan

We’ve reached the half-way point of the season, and the Avalanche are in pretty good position. After 41 games, they have 22 wins, 18 losses and 1 overtime loss for 45 points. At the writing of this, that’s good for 8th place in the Western Conference and one point behind the 7th place Predators. However, the 9th place Sharks, who have 44 points, have played 6 less games, and the 10th place Stars, who have 43 points, have played 3 less games. So even though they’re in the running for a playoff spot at first glance, they’re closer to a 10th or 11th place team, which is about where I figured they would end-up.
As far as injuries, they’re doing relatively well. Peter Mueller hasn’t played since the first few games in October, and I would honestly be surprised if he sees any action this season. Granted, I’m not a doctor, I don’t have any kind of “inside track” on the goings-on with Peter, but from a fan’s perspective, I don’t see much progress. He is skating and practicing with the team, but still no word on his return. Ryan Wilson is also out with a concussion that he sustained in a hit from Maxim Lapierre; last I heard, he’s also skating with the team but no word on his return either. Matt Duchene is out at least 4 weeks with a knee injury, no word on the extent or the nature of it, but this one stings a bit. Erik Johnson, Kyle Quincey, Brandon Yip and David Jones have all been out with pulled groins, all from Joe Sacco’s “bag skates” (aka “suicides” or “herbies”) in practice…he has since stopped the bag skates in practice. Johnson, Quincey and Jones have all returned and Yip remains out. At this point, no long term injuries to major players (knocks on wood).
As a result of the injuries, a number of the players have been called-up from the Lake Erie Monsters. Stefan Elliott was called-up when Johnson got injured and hasn’t been sent back down…not because Johnson’s still hurt, but Elliott has played well. He still has a lot to learn, but he’s been able to put points on the board and move the puck forward quickly. He reminds me of a young John-Michael Liles. Brad Malone was also called-up, and I definitely like his game, very close to his cousin, Ryan Malone. Solid-hitting energy guy, good in all 3 zones and pretty good hockey IQ. He doesn’t hit as hard as Cody McLeod, but has a more rounded game. Malone was sent back down to Lake Erie once Jones returned. David van der Gulik, aside from having a totally kick-ass last name, has a very similar game to Malone, although he’s a bit faster. He was called-up when Yip went out, and has played well in my opinion. I would rather have van der Gulik over Yip, but that’s for Sacco to decide when Yip returns.
Areas of concern for me are mostly Paul Stastny and David Jones, both have been under-performing. Stastny has 21 points in 38 games, which is way below his normal point per game pace. That’s not to say he isn’t capable of picking it up in the 2nd half of the season, but a bit of a disappointment nonetheless. David Jones has been a disappointment as well, although he isn’t carrying the heavy expectations that Paul is.
I can’t say enough about Ryan O’Reilly or Gabriel Landeskog. O’Reilly has already set a career-high for points (29) and currently leads the league in take-aways. If he played in the Eastern Conference, the media would be gushing about him being a Selke Trophy candidate. He’s been the Avs’ best 2-way forward and is really coming into his own. I’m gonna put it out there, I have a man-crush on Landeskog, he has continued to impress me for someone his age, he plays like a 5-year veteran in a lot of ways. He’s good at driving to the net, persistent at screening the goalie, and good defensively. He does so many little things that most people don’t notice but have a positive effect on the outcome. I forget that he’s only 19!
Overall, they aren’t doing bad, they’re staying competitive in most games and have even boat-raced a few teams. However, consistency has been an issue, which would be expected from a young team. Only Jan Hejda, Milan Hejduk and Jean-Sebastien Giguere are over 30 and most of the players are 25 or younger. I think adding an experienced scoring winger or two in the off-season would help the team, as well as hiring a full-time goalie coach, but I think any possible mid-season trades would simply be a lateral move and not really help the team.

Ode to The Rink

5 Jan

Anyone that’s known a hockey player will tell you they’re a totally different breed. For those that follow hockey or play this wonderful sport, this piece will be like preaching to the choir…or re-affirming why you fell in love with it in the first place. For those that fall into neither of these, this will hopefully serve as a window into why we are this unique.
First off, skating on ice isn’t like any other exercise, mostly because you use a totally different set of muscle groups, so the simple act of getting on the ice takes one out of their mental & physiological comfort zone. So in a sense, you enter another world, the rules of just moving around no longer apply. While you’re skating, the thoughts you’re having that you don’t know you’re having in order to skate tend to cast everything else aside…your bills, problems at home/work, etc. are taken off the stove for the time you spend on the ice.
As a result, mundane social constructs & prohibitions dissolve and the act becomes more of a meditative exercise. Granted, you’re (usually) not in the same mental state most people associate with meditation, but it’s a very zen-like activity nonetheless. Having said that, without the inhibitions of societal norms, the visceral competitive tendencies of humanity bubble to the surface more readily when a hockey player steps into the rink. It becomes a catharsis of sort, a safety valve for more inordinate behavior. So in a peculiar way, the rink becomes hallowed ground. Regardless of what else happens in a hockey player’s life, they’ll always have the rink.
Ask 500 different hockey players what they think or feel about the rink and you’ll get 500 different explanations, but every one of them will have some aspect(s) of what I’ve written here. Granted, there is so much more that lends to the nearly infinitesimal number of reasons why hockey players are so different, but hopefully this is a good starting point.

Johnson Trade Re-examined

14 Dec

I collaborated with Jeff Ponder on this piece, and he was definitely a joy to work with. He can be found at letsgoblues.com and the host of 
stlbluesradio.com

Both the St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche will point to February 19, 2011 on the calendar and say it was a day that changed their respective franchises.

The remaining question is whether it changed for the better.

February 19 was the date that the St. Louis Blues sent defenseman Erik Johnson, forward Jay McClement and a 2011 first round draft pick to the Colorado Avalanche for forward Chris Stewart, defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk and a second round pick. Though highly questioned on both sides, the early critics gave the edge to the Blues. Just ask Avalanche center Paul Stastny’s father, Peter.

“This young team was ready to challenge, almost, for a Stanley Cup this season,” Stastny told Kelly Chase of KMOX after the trade. “They were so good. All they needed was some more chemistry, and some synergies. Instead, they destroyed the team. I mean, that was a one-way deal. Mr. Armstrong will look like a genius. I don’t know what they were thinking in the Colorado organization. I should not have said this, but I’m so, so mad what they’ve done to this team. They’ve moved the team about two to three years back again.”

Looking at the trade on paper, it was easy to see why Stastny could not keep his opinion to himself. At the time of the trade, Stewart amassed 41 goals in 113 games spanning over two seasons. Shattenkirk was in the middle of his rookie campaign, scoring 26 points in 46 games, placing him second in rookie defensemen scoring just behind Anaheim’s Cam Fowler at the time.

Of course, other factors may have made Shattenkirk expendable for the Avalanche. The development of youngsters Stefan Elliott (with the Lake Erie Monsters of the AHL) and Tyson Barrie (of the Kelowna Rockets of the WHL) made it obvious that the Avalanche could start shedding some current NHL talent as both players are close to making the jump to the NHL.

In return, the Avalanche were receiving what seemed to be a broken piece of the Blues’ puzzle. Erik Johnson was slipping down the Blues’ depth chart, registering just 19 points and a minus-8 through 55 games in St. Louis, after posting 39 points and a plus-1 in 79 games the season before. Just before the trade, Johnson was getting passed up by Blues defensemen Alex Pietrangelo and Roman Polak in ice-time, making it easier to pull the trigger on a trade.

Much like how Elliott and Barrie made Shattenkirk expendable in Colorado, the rise of Pietrangelo likely is what was a determining factor in shipping Johnson out of St. Louis.

Jay McClement had established himself as a sneaky checking center who could pull off some nice moves when called upon. Usually used as the top center on the penalty-kill, McClement had proven repeatedly that he is a proven NHL defensive player.

What has changed in these past ten months?

Chris Stewart jumped on the scene to end the last season. Notching 15 goals in the Blues’ last 26 games, Stewart looked like that perennial goal-scoring phenom that has been non-existent from the Blues since the lockout. St. Louis was buzzing heading into 2011-12 with Chris Stewart as the goal-scoring front-man.

Things have not exactly turned out that way, though.

Stewart has been the biggest disappointment so far this season in the Gateway City. While he shows flashes of brilliance in each game, he has just not produced like the organization had hoped that he would. His four goals on the season ties him for sixth on the team and his 10 points tie him for eighth on the team. These are not exactly eye-popping numbers, especially considering that the Blues are 24th in the league in goals-for-per-game. Stewart has not been what the Blues had hoped thus far.

But how about that other guy in the trade?

After seeing what Shattenkirk can do, pulling off that trade was quite the fantastic decision. Kevin Shattenkirk has been one of the steadiest defensemen all season long for the Blues, helping the team allow just 2.03 goals-against-per-game (ranking them first in the league). His plus-7 ties him for third among Blues defenseman so far this season.

Offensively, Shattenkirk has been the real deal. The 22-year old defenseman has always been recognized as an offensive defenseman and he is proving why this season. His 12 assists rank him first on the team and his 16 points rank him first among Blues defensemen. Not only is Shattenkirk producing, but his puck control in his own end and the neutral zone have been a very noticeable plus for the Blues this season. It is clear that Shattenkirk does not know of the term “sophomore slump.”

The Avalanche are about in the same boat as the Blues. One player has not panned out too well yet while the other is doing his job and exceeding expectations.

Erik Johnson has been inconsistent. Some nights he makes the simple and smart plays and he practically dominates. Other nights, he tries to make the highlight-reel pass that usually ends up being a turnover that may also put him out of position. Up until the 14th of November when Milan Hejduk was named captain, the Avalanche had a “captain audition” of sorts and rotated 3 A’s. Johnson was on the short list of players that sporadically wore an “A,” and whether his propensity to look for the big play in some games was due to wanting to be the captain remains to be seen. It’s tough to say what’s causing Johnson’s defensive gaffes, however. In spite of an improvement in personnel, the defense as a whole is having the same troubles as the previous two seasons, which points to more of a coaching issue. It’s fair to give him a few more years before passing full judgment on him.

McClement seems to have adapted well to his new surrounding in Colorado. He fills the fourth line center role very nicely. He’s been solid so far and he remains to be a go-to-guy on the penalty-kill. Rarely does McClement make poor decisions that make fans explode in expletives, either. There is really nothing negative to say about him since he’s doing such a solid job; the Avalanche have been lacking a fourth line center with his hockey intelligence and defensive persistence for quite some time. He can step-up to third line when called upon (which has already happened a number of times already this season), but he is better utilized as a fourth line center. He’s scheduled to be an unrestricted free-agent after this season and the hopes are to have him locked up before that happens.

Of course, a full analysis of the trade will have to wait as the two draft picks acquired in the trade are yet to blossom. The Avalanche used their 11th overall draft pick to select Duncan Siemens of the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades and the Blues used their 32nd overall pick to select Ty Rattie of the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks.

As of now, both teams are facing problems with what was the marquee names of the trade while the two other skaters are fitting in quite nicely.

Only time will tell if this trend continues in Colorado and St. Louis.

1/4 Mark Review

26 Nov

This is the first of 4 reviews of the Avs’ season that I’ll be doing.

Coaching
—————–
Sacco has looked like a desperate coach in the past few weeks. Especially in recent games, he hasn’t kept consistent line combinations, which makes me wonder if it’s having a negative effect on the team. Chemistry in a line combo takes longer than one game to develop, so changing them over & over doesn’t allow for any growth to occur. Sacco has continued to prove my opinion that he’s inflexible when it comes to strategy. When the opposing team figures-out & stifles his Plan A, he has no Plan B; he just persists with Plan A, even though it’s no longer working. He’s made some questionable decisions on who to put on the ice in key situations like the last few minutes in a period of a close game. One would think he’d have the point leaders on the ice, but no. On numerous occasions, he decided on a combo that included Kobasew, Porter, Winnik and Galiardi, who are 3rd line grinders, they’re not known for their scoring ability. It isn’t like the Avs don’t have players with more talent, either. I’d say he’s definitely on the hot seat, but the bigger question is who to replace him with? I don’t think promoting either Deadmarsh or Lefebvre would be an improvement over Sacco.

Forwards
—————–
Inconsistent play across the board, with possibly Hejduk being the exception. Duchene started-out slow but looked like he was finding his game in recent weeks. O’Reilly has been pretty steady, although his play has dropped-off a bit recently. Landeskog has looked really good at times, but he hasn’t really been a liability. He’s made some rookie mistakes, but generally makes good decisions when he’s on the ice. Lindstrom isn’t making the impact I was hoping for, although that could be due to improper use of talent by the coaches. Nobody else has really jumped-out at me as being really bad or really good, just a lot of “meh” across the board.

Defense
—————–
The defense has been more solid in my opinion. Johnson tries to do too much some nights and goes for the highlight reel play instead of the simple one. If he made the simple plays every night, he’d be the best defenseman. I really like the Shane O’Brien signing, he’s kept his stupid penalties to a minimum and being effective on the ice. For me, the jury’s still out on Hejda. He’s shown flashes of brilliance some nights and a major gaffe that leads to a goal against on others. Wilson’s improved from last year, although he was asked to fill a role he’s not capable of fulfilling last year. He’s more of a bottom-pairing guy, and he’s done a pretty good job in that spot. Both Quincey & O’Byrne have been solid most nights, although they’ve had their share of gaffes like anyone.

Goaltenders
—————–
Varlamov has looked shaky some nights, but he’s also been left-out to dry for stretches. There’s no question in my mind that he’s really talented, just a matter if he can sustain over an entire season. Giguere’s been good when he’s played, and very capable of taking the starting job if/when Varly falters. It baffles me that the Avs don’t have a full-time goalie coach for Varlamov. Considering his age and the price the Avs paid to get him, why wouldn’t they have a fully accessible goalie coach to work with him??

Overall
—————–
From the start of the season, I knew that at best, the Avs are a bubble playoff team, they don’t have the talent to challenge the top-8 in the conference. However, it’s one thing to lose, but I don’t see 100% effort every night from a lot of the team. If they can’t turn it around and start playing better, I see a major change of some kind (trade or coaching change).

Leadership, Anyone?

10 Nov

Right now, the Avalanche are looking very much like a rudderless ship, and I think this is due to not naming a captain before the season started. However, that decision wasn’t without merit. Aside from Milan Hejduk, nobody was a clear-cut favorite when the season started. Even then, I don’t think he’s “captain material.” He’s very soft-spoken, definitely not a “ra-ra, let’s go” kind of guy, nor does he have the propensity to keep other players accountable. So they decided that Stastny and Hejduk will keep their A’s and rotate a third. Now we’re seeing the effects of that. They’re in a slump right now, they’ve lost 4 in a row, have 1 win and 5 losses at home, and it’s times like these when the captain would get everyone back on the same page and back on track.

What’s happening now reminds me of a scene in Stripes (re-watch it if you need to, this posting will still be here when you get back). It’s the night before their graduation of Basic Training, and they’re struggling to get it together, resulting in a tussle. Bill Murray breaks it up & gives that great “we’re Americans” speech. Only thing is, the Avs don’t have that guy to make a speech like that…even if they did, he couldn’t use that speech, since they’re not all Americans, but anyway…so they’re stuck as this rag-tag group of hockey players trying to do what they can individually.

The only player I can think of that embodies what hockey teams look for in a captain is Ryan O’Reilly. If you look-up “rink rat” in the dictionary, you’ll find his picture next to it; he’s always the first at practice, the last to leave, and finds new ways to hone his skills. Along with Landeskog, he’s also been the most consistent player on the ice. I have yet to see him take a shift off and consistently makes the simple & smart play in all 3 zones. I’ll be honest, I’m not the best at scouting hockey players, but if I’m noticing it, I’d bet vital parts of my anatomy that everyone in that locker room is noticing it. In my mind, he’s already setting an example as far as practice regimen, preparation and persistence during the game. Without knowing how he interacts with the other players, but from what I *do* know about him, I’d give him the C.

Ridiculous!!

4 Nov

Two stories I have to comment on, they both involve the Phoenix Coyotes, coincidentally enough.

The first one shouldn’t have been a news story to begin with. Before I say anything, can we all agree that Halloween, a holiday in which we wear costumes, was this past weekend? Ok, during said weekend, Raffi Torres dressed as Jay-Z and has fun at a party, and the media went crazy. Just judging their reaction would make one think he left a bunch of bananas & a picture of a chimp in the stall belonging to a black player. I know racism is still a touchy subject to a lot of people, but this knee-jerk reaction’s a little much.

The other involves Kyle Turris. Word go out that his salary demands are 3 years at $4 mill per. Now in case you hadn’t heard of him before this, you’re not alone. He isn’t exactly what you’d call a “top-6 forward.” Ever since he was drafted in 2007, he’s played 131 games in the NHL, and has spent most of his time in the AHL. In those 131 games, he has 19 goals, 17 assists for 36 points. Now James Van Riemsdyk recently signed a deal worth $4 mill per, and he scored 40 points last season and nearly matched that in the ’09-’10 season….and Kyle Turris wants as much money has JVR’s making!!??

Sure, I could say Turris needs to get his head examined, but what about his agent for backing this kid up? He’s only hurting himself, though, since he can’t play at all this season if he doesn’t sign by 1st of December.

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