Gripe, gripe, gripe ... that's all you guys do. Oh, wait a minute, I keep asking you every week to do just that! Here's a look at the ones I liked the most from this week:
Pengwin7: Plus-8, plus-10, plus-10, plus-15 and plus-15. Those are the five lowest plus/minus totals for the last 40 Hart winners. Minus-7. That's Rick Nash's plus/minus this season, second-to-last on his own team.
I've been playing hockey for 25 years now. On ice, I take most pride in my plus/minus. It is a well-debated topic, but (IMO) each team's best players should be near the top of their teams' plus/minus. ... With 30 teams in the league, most of us have become "highlight watchers." We see the fancy goals, we see the flashy glove saves, we don't really focus too much on playing defense.
23 -- Even-strength goals AGAINST that Nash has been on the ice for this season. League leader. 13 -- Short-handed goals AGAINST that Nash has been on the ice for this season. League leader. Those numbers are unacceptable. I've spent about half my years playing RW, about half playing defense. On D, I praise the forwards for not allowing the opposition to enter our defensive zone and remind them that a backcheck to break up a 2-on-1 is at least as good as half a goal. It kills me that our local team (Atlanta) markets and praises a guy (Ilya Kovalchuk) who is consistently a minus player.
I am not saying Rick Nash isn't a spectacular player. I am disappointed that, at this point of the season, a solid hockey journalist considers a minus-7 player to be Hart-worthy.
My advice: Penguin7, a very strong argument on your part. I'm man enough to admit you've made a terrific case for Nash not to be the quarter-pole winner. But I'm still comfortable with my choice for two reasons. First, because my definition of the Hart Trophy is a player who is so valuable to his team, that if you took him off it, how would they fare? Through the opening quarter of the season, I believe Nash had the biggest impact on his team, playing in all facets of the game.
Second, the plus-minus statistic leaves me a bit cold at times, so much so, that as commissioner of the Toronto Media Hacks Hockey Pool, I took it out as a category when we launched four years ago. And finally, when I write these types of mock award stories, I like to pick upsets to generate reaction from the readers. Mission accomplished! Thanks for your thoughtful rant, though.
PhatFuel: Monsieur LeBrun! Bonjour!? Ca va bien? (Sorry, that's the extent of my Francais!) As a favor to us long-suffering Sharks fans, please keep the accolades low and few at least until April. We know how awesome the team looks -- during the regular season. *sobs* Because after four seasons of playoff misery, nothing else matters but bringing Lord Stanley's chalice to beautiful Northern California next spring! Please tell us our Sharks will choke as usual (blah blah blah) and that everyone's hate on the Sharks is spot on! Notice I'm hoping for reverse psychology to work. :)
My advice: It must indeed be psychological torture being a Sharks fan these days. Your team is arguably the best in the NHL, once again, but you're holding your breath until April. Honesty, nobody knows if it'll be any different this time around. But I do believe this is the most complete team I've seen from San Jose.
GM Doug Wilson revamped the bottom two forward lines, making them grittier. There's more sandpaper there, which no doubt was a lesson from the first-round loss to Anaheim last season. Evgeni Nabokov looks like a man possessed right now. I think he should shoulder a big part of the blame for San Jose's playoff loss to Anaheim. He got thoroughly outplayed by Jonas Hiller in net.
The acquisition of Dany Heatley has been nothing short of a spectacular coup for the Sharks at this point. The man is a goal machine and his chemistry with Joe Thornton is sensational. And, finally, the response from Patrick Marleau after being stripped of the captaincy in August has been, I think, one of the best stories in the NHL this season. Talk about a guy showing his character and putting the team first. Many star players would have sulked or even asked for a trade, but Marleau has responded with the best opening eight weeks of his NHL career.
You couldn't possibly be happier right now as a Sharks fan. What does it mean for April? No clue. But, as usual, I picked the Sharks to win the Cup.
kwannen: The Washington Capitals are again poised to be one the most injury-plagued teams in the league after finishing with the fourth-most games lost last year. The problem wouldn't be so dramatic if Michael Nylander and his ridiculous contract were over in the KHL right now. When (if ever) is something going to happen on this front and allow the Capitals to bring up the talent they really want to bring up from Hershey? John Carlson has been good, but wouldn't Karl Alzner be a better idea with more experience? Nyls' contract prevents that because of the salary cap. It's really getting annoying here in D.C., especially with one third of our opening-night roster not playing right now.
My advice: Kwannen, the Nylander situation certainly continues to drag itself out. Last week, it looked like there might be a resolution with a KHL team in Russia, but somehow that fell through. Caps GM George McPhee told me this weekend the KHL remains the target solution, but it's a delicate and difficult process. But if you're frustrated now, wait until this summer when Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom become restricted free agents.
It's becoming harder and harder for the Caps to keep all these terrific young players. That's the thing about the salary cap, you can't keep everyone. Pittsburgh found that out when Rob Scuderi and Ryan Malone left town over the past two summers. The Red Wings felt it when Marian Hossa, Mikael Samuelsson and Jiri Hudler found richer deals elsewhere this past summer. And the Chicago Blackhawks will have an interesting offseason as they are forced to unload a player or two to fit in all their big contracts.
On the flip side, it creates parity around the league with the talent being spread out more evenly, and you can certainly see that by the intense playoff races every March. Would you rather have no cap like baseball and have the Yankees (Rangers) and Red Sox (Maple Leafs) buy all the best players? I wouldn't.
Scalise007: Why wasn't David Perron's goal against the Islanders given more national coverage? That was definitely equal, if not superior, to any goal scored so far this year.
My advice: Scalise007, it was indeed a beauty, eh? Check it out here, folks. I'm guessing the reason for the lack of national coverage was the fact it was one of many games played on a Saturday night and it wasn't a marquee matchup. Or maybe people didn't believe the Blues scored at home (OK, cheap shot). But you're right, this is the goal of the season at this point.
Rusty21912: Not sure if anybody has griped about it, but I want to make sure it gets mentioned. I'm a Dallas fan, so I'm happy they won the game against Detroit, but can someone explain the "intent to blow the whistle" call? How ridiculous. Isn't this why they put replay in the game? I am all for the human aspect of sports, and I truly believe instant replay should not be a part of the game. Human error is what sports had to deal with before technology; if a call was missed, it was missed. But if we insist on having it, shouldn't it work?! Worst call I have seen this year. There is no reason why that goal should have been disallowed. The NHL dropped the puck there, and so far I have heard no reason as to why.
My advice: I also thought it was a brutal call and I don't buy the whole "intent" whistle argument from referees. And deep down, I think veteran ref Dennis LaRue knows he blew the call. But NHL senior vice president of hockey operations Mike Murphy explained what happened during a radio interview last Thursday on NHL Live, as recounted by Dan Rosen of NHL.com:
"The way we've always handled it and the way we will continue to handle it until we have a procedure change is the referee's call on the ice stands," Murphy said. "He sees the shot and he sees the save and doesn't see the puck in the net and kills the play or blows the whistle. It's not when you hear the whistle blow, it's when he intends to blow the whistle. There is a little bit of a gray area there between when he intends and when the whistle sounds.
"In this case, Dennis LaRue was clear with what he saw and clear with what he interpreted and that was, 'I had killed the play before the puck entered the net.' When we scrutinize it and go through video review, I think everybody would concede that the puck was in the net, and Dennis didn't see that unfortunately."
So, LaRue's original call stood despite the fact it was clearly a goal. My advice? Let's revisit the policy and give the war room more power in this area. A goal should be a goal.
Colonel Forbin420: Laraque is being dealt his punishment as we speak, which I can't see being more than two games. It seems totally unfair to me. Am I completely insane to think that if a player intently injures another that he should sit for the duration the injured player is out?
I know hockey is a rough game; I blew out my ACL in exactly the same type of play when I was a kid. Any play where a player injures another with his knee, elbow, stick or fists (in a non-mutual fight), the play should be heavily scrutinized. If there's one tiny bit of intent, there should be heavy suspension.
Laraque was beat by Kronwall and the best Laraque could do was toss out a leg. In my opinion, it's the second most spineless play in the game to checking from behind (perhaps a tie for second with flagrant high-sticking); it's certainly the one of the laziest plays. But, hey, who said Laraque ever had talent?
My advice: Colonel, I guess the NHL surprised you with its five-game suspension. I would have been happier with 10 games, but I can live with five. It's still a pretty stiff punishment for a kneeing incident. What's strange is that Laraque got only two minutes for the knee, although I suppose it's because during the play, he was already being nailed for a four-minute high-sticking penalty. So he got six minutes in penalties. Still, to me, it was a deliberate knee-on-knee and should have been five minutes and a game for attempt to injure. So what if that means nine minutes of power-play time for the Wings? My colleague Scott Burnside said it all in his Monday column.
IvyBasket: My beef is with the NHL brain trust that came up with the compressed team schedules this year to accommodate the Olympics hiatus. You would think that they would have tried to do this fairly across teams with respect to the number of times each team must play back-to-back games, but they have not.
Take the two Western Conference contenders, the Blackhawks and Sharks, for example. The Sharks have a total of only 13 times throughout the season when they must play back-to-back games. The Blackhawks on the other hand must play back-to-backs a whopping 19 times! The Hawks are therefore playing almost half of their schedule (38 games) in back-to-back games.
Since most people would agree that teams playing a game the next day following their last game are at a decided disadvantage against an opponent who had an off-day the day before, it's hardly an even playing field for the Hawks to have to face that situation six more times than one of their principal conference rivals. Having checked the schedules of the top 8 teams in the Western Conference as of today's standings, none of them other than the Hawks have more than 13 back-to-back dates (Sharks, Kings, Avs, Flames, Canucks, Jackets, Wings)! A couple of these teams have as few as 10 or 11. ... Why would the league stack the deck against the Hawks this way?
My advice: Many teams have schedule beefs, starting with the Vancouver Canucks, who are kicked out of their building for what seems like an eternity because of the Olympics. The Canucks play at home Jan. 27 and then don't play another home game until March 13. So, no, the Hawks don't have it the worst!
Still, your timing is interesting because I was just talking about that very subject with an NHL coach Tuesday. He can't believe how bad the schedule is this season. And I think you can probably attribute some of the litany of injuries around the league to that. But to be honest, what else are you going to do? Start the regular season in September? End it in July? The league gets hammered for having the Stanley Cup finals in June, so it is sensitive to drag out the season longer. The Olympic break is indeed to blame for the compressed schedule, and that's one of the chief reasons NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and his owners want to reconsider Olympic participation past 2010. The matter is up for negotiation with the NHL Players' Association in the next collective-bargaining agreement.
Buffaloveyou: Pierre, I am a die-hard Buffalo Sabres fan and these past three games have been excruciating painful to watch. What's going on? Miller is excellent, but he deserves his rest. Lalime is horrible; there's been rumors going around that he's out of here soon and Biron will be back. I also find myself asking if Lindy Ruff is the problem. The guys just don't respond to him consistently enough. What do you think? PLEASEEEE explain to me. I can't stand another depressing Buffalo sports team.
My advice: The Sabres have certainly shown some inconsistencies of late after a super start. The one player that worries me the most is Thomas Vanek, who has only seven goals. This is a guy who has 119 goals over the past three seasons and 40 in 73 games last season. He looks a step slower to me, and that's scary. I certainly hope he didn't come back too early from the upper-body injury he suffered early in the season. Sometimes a player's pride is his worst enemy.
On the positive side of things, the Sabres are top 10 in goals against per game and that's a terrific development. Coach Lindy Ruff has been working hard since the start of last season to tighten up a team that played too much riverboat (albeit exciting) hockey coming out of the lockout. Of course, the spectacular play of Ryan Miller is also a reason for the better defensive numbers. Ruff, my friend, is the very least of your problems. My media colleague Bucky Gleason of the Buffalo News said it best in a column last week when he wrote that GMs around the league are hoping Ruff gets fired so they can hire him the very next day. You don't make Canada's Olympic staff by being a bad coach.
pcappitelli: My gripe is with Devils fans who think their team is the best in the league. They are not even the best in their conference. The Sharks and Hawks both are head and shoulders above the Devils, and the Pens and Caps would also have to get the nod. The Devils maybe being fifth in the league is being generous. So Devils fans, quit crying that your team is the best in the league.
My advice: Devils fans have indeed been loud and proud so far this season, and I don't blame them. They had to suffer through another offseason and preseason of dire predictions for their team. It gets annoying after a while to be disrespected by other fans and media covering the game. They are not the best team in the NHL, but they'll be in the playoffs again this year. They are an amazing model of consistency.
What makes me sad is to see how passionate Devils fans are in my chats and on the message boards on ESPN.com and how few of them actually go to games. The Devils are 20th in attendance with an average of 15,210 in the beautiful, 17,625-seat Prudential Center. Perhaps the tickets are too expensive? It would sure be great to see that rink packed with the passionate fans that write to me every week.