Posts Tagged ‘NHL’

Long odds: this bookie puts the odds of Ovechkin being suspended at 50-1.

What are the odds that Alexander Ovechkin gets suspended by the NHL for his late, high hit on Dan Girardi in today’s game?  And if he does get suspended, what are the odds that it will be anything more than a symbolic slap on the wrist?

When trying to answer these questions we might look at the precedent set earlier in these playoffs by NHL Discipline czar Brendan Shanahan.

For similar hits in these playoffs, Pittsburgh’s James Neal – a 40 goal scorer this season – got a single game for two high hits on the Flyers’ Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux (coincidentally both of these players were making the Penguins look foolish earlier in the game).  Phoenix’s Raffi Torres – a player not known for being integral to his team – got 25 games for a carbon copy of Ovechkin’s hit on Chicago’s Marian Hossa.  If this kind of inconsistency isn’t enough to make betting on the Ovechkin hit a prohibitive endeavour, consider that Girardi, like Couturier and Giroux, seemed to be in good health after being hit as opposed to Hossa who had to leave the ice on a stretcher.

Given the precedent Shanahan has set, my money, what little of it there is, is on Ovechkin getting no suspension at all – as disgustingly hypocritical as that might be to the NHL’s stated desire to crack down on hits to the head.  Let’s consider the things Shanahan will likely look at: the hit itself, if there was a penalty called, who was delivered the check, and who got hit.  Ovechkin’s hit was obviously high as he left his feet and clearly made contact with Girardi’s head.  Because it was so obvious Ovechkin got a 2-minute penalty on the play, meaning that he has, under the NHL’s interpretation, already been punished for his actions.

The other considerations of who delivered the check and who got hit are what the suspension will hinge upon.  Given that Ovechkin is one of Gary Bettman’s show ponies and Dan Girardi is a talented, but fairly anonymous defenceman I highly doubt that Brendan Shanahan is going to risk drawing the ire of his boss and suspending one of the most-hyped players in the NHL.  Also, if we compare Ovechkin’s hit to those of Neal and Torres it is easy to see that a top-line player – even a repeat offender such as Neal – is treated much differently than a fourth-line player such as Torres, especially when the fourth-liner takes out a top-line player such as Marian Hossa.

Head of NHL Discipline Brendan Shanahan. This is exactly the look I imagine on his face when he tries to decide on a suspension.

Thus, from the NHL’s viewpoint the Ovechkin hit is an open-and-shut case: star player + anonymous victim + penalty called = no suspension.  Then wipe your hands, make a wishy-washy public statement, and carry on with the hypocritcal discipline system that currently exists.

However, I might be sensationalizing the NHL’s reaction a little bit.  It might be more realistic to say that Ovechkin will get a one-game, slap on the wrist suspension designed solely to deflect some of the criticism that would surely follow if Ovechkin was not suspended at all.  I can hear Brendan Shanahan now: “the NHL does not condone hits to the head and as such we are suspending Alexander Ovechkin for one game.”  But such a suspension will be the biggest joke since Gary Bettman – he of the head that resembles the basketball with which he is more familiar – was appointed as Commissioner of the NHL.

All in all, this analysis of the possible Ovechkin suspension is just a build-up to a recognition that the NHL’s discipline system is deeply flawed.  Star players get special treatment, especially those that Gary Bettman has a special interest in due to their status as poster boys of the league (e.g. Ovechkin, Crosby, and Malkin – all of whom have gotten away with suspension-worthy offenses in these playoffs).  Scrubs get the book thrown at them, especially where there are already rumblings of dissatisfaction among fans that the suspensions have not been harsh enough.  Essentially, discipline in the NHL has devolved into a numbers game.  The numbers in question being how many bums a certain player can put into seats; those who draw the crowds can do no wrong and those who are anonymous to the general fan serve as examples for the NHL to pretend that it cares about cracking down on illegal hits.

In business terms, this might seem like a sound policy: protect your prize assets and jettison the unneeded waste.  Even in the terms of an NHL general manager, you sign up your key players for as long as possible and bring in guys from the minors to replace those that are disposable.  Star players are where the value is, so why not protect them?

Gary Bettman demonstrates the decreasing patience real NHL fans have with his Commissioner-ship.

The fact is that while the fair-weather hockey fan that Bettman is so desperate to keep coming to games and buying merchandise stands to benefit from this policy of letting star players play, the dedicated hockey fan who keeps the league afloat and generates revenue in the NHL’s key markets (i.e. the key markets who share revenue with the teams in the southern United States that Bettman is so keen to keep around) is becoming more and more dissatisfied with the laughable inconsistency of the NHL’s attempts at discipline.  The league has made it clear that they want to clean up head checks, but they refuse to suspend players in any meaningful way unless they are scrubs.

Despite my frustrations with the league’s inability to discipline players consistently, it wouldn’t be much of an argument that the dedicated hockey fan is getting fed up if there’s no evidence of such feeling.  However, let’s rewind to the reaction to the Raffi Torres suspension.  Coming only a couple days after James Neal’s hits, Torres’ hit was directly compared to those of Neal.  So, when Torres was given 25 games, the outcry on message boards everywhere wasn’t about the suspension being too high or too low, but rather that it was supremely hypocritical for the league to suspend Neal for only one game for two similar hits and then hit Torres with 25 games a couple days later.  Similarly, after the brawl-filled Game 3 of the Pittsburgh-Philadelphia series, the message boards were filled not with comments about the skill level on display in the game, but rather why Sidney Crosby can start two line brawls and get away with it and why Aaron Asham got a slap on the wrist for his brutal assault on Brayden Schenn.

The sentiment is that these inconsistent suspensions that favour Gary Bettman’s prized assets are ruining the game and are only serving to exacerbate the problem of headshots by making them fair game for enough who earns a big enough paycheque.  You can punish scrubs and repeat offenders all you want, but until you crack down on the stars who commit the same crimes headshots will still exist.  This is why, given the chance Brendan Shanahan has with the Ovechkin case above, I’d give Ovechkin the same 25 game deal given to Torres and show players around the league that if you don’t respect your fellow players, then you get the boot.

Bertuzzi v Moore: the ugly ramifications of player-enforced discipline.

The alternative is that you let the players police themselves.  You can remove the instigator penalty (which was a joke to begin with) and let the goons of the league enforce martial law when their stars get hit high.  However, letting the players police themselves leads to incidents such as the one that ended Steve Moore’s career at the hands of Todd Bertuzzi.  Tempers flare, safety is ignored, and blood is sought.  Eventually the retaliation, the martial law, becomes more unsafe than the initial hits were to begin with.  That’s not the kind of hockey the fans, the players, and especially the league really want.  But it is the only alternative in trying to clean up the game and cut down on headshots.

Ultimately the moral here is for the NHL to smarten up and discipline players in a consistent and appropriate manner.  Stop being scared that you’ll alienate the fair-weather fans and realize that in placating them you alienate the dedicated fans who have stuck with the league since the original Winnipeg Jets, through the expansion era, and through the lockout.  Stop talking the talk and start walking the walk with regards to cracking down on illegal and unsafe hits.  It’s pretty simple.

And while you’re at it, NHL, why not crack down on hits from behind as well?

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Isn't the maple leaf supposed to be red?

So, at the risk of jinxing it (here’s hoping), how about those Maple Leafs?

Traditionally at this point in the season I am breaking out the Leafs jokes such as “What is the difference between the Toronto Maple Leafs and a triangle? (A: A triangle has three points.)” or “What do the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Titanic have in common? (A: They both look good until they hit the ice.)”

However, the Maple Leafs have ignored the usual script so far this season and actually find themselves in playoff position heading into December.  And I’m completely in the dark as to the reason why.

On paper this Maple Leafs outfit doesn’t look much different than the one that once again managed to cause hearts to flutter up until the final week of last season in the latest instalment in the will-they-or-won’t-they saga better known as the Maple Leafs’ playoff fortunes.  The usual suspects are still there eating up inordinate amounts of salary cap space: Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, and Mike Komisarek.  Add in the newly acquired duo of Tim Connolly and John-Michael Liles and you’re halfway to the salary cap already, which is the exact same position that the Maple Leafs have been in for the past few seasons.  The management is the same too, with the crotchety duo of Brian Burke and Ron Wilson still holding onto jobs many thought they would have lost years ago.

So, in this top-heavy world of underachievers and unwanted All-Stars, what has changed between this season and last for the team known as the Blue and White?

Well, it certainly isn’t goaltending.  Toronto’s goalies have allowed 80 goals (this number does not account for empty net goals) in 26 games thus far, which is just over three goals per game.  Add in the all-important save percentage stat that reads at a rather pedestrian .901 and it’s easy to see that there certainly aren’t miracles being worked in between the Leafs’ pipes.  It’s not as though their goalies are seeing a disproportionately low number of shots either.  James Reimer, Ben Scrivens, and Jonas Gustavsson have faced on average 31.2 shots per game, which is around or above the NHL average.  They can’t make the same excuse as Detroit’s Jimmy Howard and say that his defence just doesn’t give up many shots to begin with.

Phaneuf is finally regaining some of the form that made him such a hit in Calgary.

If it’s not the goaltending causing MLSE CEO Richard Peddie to get excited for the first time in a decade, maybe it’s the defence.  Maybe the Leafs have become stingier in their own zone than those great, snore-inducing New Jersey teams of the late ‘90s.  Alas, that doesn’t seem to be the answer either as they’ve managed to give up a 26th-best total of 85 goals against in 26 games.  Of the teams currently in the top eight of their respective conferences Chicago is the only other team to have allowed more than 80 goals, with seven teams conceding fewer than 60 up to this point in the season.  This defensive frailty is hard to believe when you consider that the Maple Leafs defence core consists of a top four of Phaneuf, Komisarek, Liles, and Luke Schenn and up-and-comers in the form of Carl Gunnarsson, Jake Gardiner, Cody Franson, and Keith Aulie, the latter two being stars for Canada’s World Junior team in recent years.  Gone is the mistake better known as Jeff Finger, but the Leafs’ defensive woes still continue.

That leaves us with what I like to call the Washington Capitals Syndrome (WCS): play a firewagon brand of hockey and score more goals than the opposition to cover up defensive frailties.  Washington has used this method to great effect to not only gain regular season success, but also get their coach fired because it is totally ineffective in the playoffs.

However, as I mentioned previously, Ron Wilson still has his job and I think a lot of the credit for that has been the emergence of Joffrey Lupul as a legitimate partner for Phil Kessel on the Leafs’ top line.  Lupul has been the Robin to Kessel’s Batman this season, matching Kessel stride-for-stride in the points scoring race while playing legitimate first line minutes.  As such it is no coincidence that the Maple Leafs also find themselves amongst the league leaders in goals for with 83 goals to their tally thus far.  Unsurprisingly, if we are continuing with the WCS hypothesis, the Maple Leafs are also getting great offensive contributions from their defence with Phaneuf and Liles racking up 18 and 16 points respectively.

While I term this the Washington Capitals Syndrome and am highly skeptical of its suitableness to playoff hockey, no one can deny that it is effective over the course of a regular season.  Washington has used it to great effect over the past few seasons, winning a President’s Trophy in the process.  Of course, the Capitals have a relatively more talented than Toronto’s current outfit.  Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, no matter how good they have started the season, are not Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.  Nor are Dion Phaneuf and John-Michael Liles in the same offensive category as Mike Green.

Mike Komisarek could be the key that allows Toronto to play sound defensive hockey.

What the Maple Leafs do have in their advantage over the Washington teams of recent memory is the personnel to play a more defensive-oriented game.  Washington was forced into playing a run-and-gun style because they lacked true talent on the blueline.  They lacked a true shut-down unit that could effectively combat opposing teams and such was their downfall when the opposition stopped theirs.  The Leafs have such a combo waiting in Mike Komisarek and Luke Schenn.  Whether or not such a partnership will develop is another story though.  It will take time, especially since Komisarek is just getting back into his stride as an NHL defenceman.  If such a pairing ever coalesces into something more than a pipe dream the Leafs might be a greater contender than you’d think.

Whether or not the Maple Leafs can emulate Washington’s success in playing offensively-charged, but defensively-irresponsible hockey is one of the reasons to keep watching the Maple Leafs intently.  If they continue at the same pace it is very possible that Leafs fans will see their team in the playoffs, but it is also possible that they will crash and burn as their opponents learn to shut down the Kessel-Lupul tandem.

But that’s the danger of firewagon hockey.  You might win a lot of games 5-3, 6-5, or 7-4, but you can lose just as many 5-2, 6-1, or 4-0.  A hot goalie or tight checking can be your undoing just as easily as 4-on-2 rushes can be your saving grace.

Either way, the Maple Leafs just made the hockey season interesting, and not only because I might have to wait a little longer before breaking out my best Leafs jokes.

All statistics from www.tsn.ca as of December 4, 2011.

All salary cap numbers from www.capgeek.com as of December 4, 2011.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have never been blessed with outstanding I.Q. in the hockey operations department.  However, it’s taken until now to realize just how low that I.Q. actually has been over the course of time.

Roberto Luongo could have been a Maple Leaf...thank God it didn't happen.

In 1996, Mathieu Schneider was traded from the New York Islanders to the Toronto Maple Leafs, along with Wendel Clark, for Kenny Jonsson and the Leafs’ first-round pick in 1997.  At first glance this doesn’t seem like that stupid of a trade for the Leafs, but – much like the recent Phil Kessel trade – the value of a first round pick is not to be underestimated.

In this case, the first round pick turned out to be the fourth-overall selection that the Islanders used to select Roberto Luongo, who turned into one of the top starting goalies of his generation.  The big mistake the Leafs made was passing on a bona-fide franchise goalie of the sort that they haven’t had since before I was even born.

That brings me around to the actual topic of this post: the value of goaltending in today’s NHL.

You’ve heard all the cliches about how championships are built on goaltending or how teams build from the net out and for the most part they’re true.  I challenge you to show me the Stanley Cup-winning team that did not receive great goaltending on their way to victory, even if said goaltending came from someone that was completely unheard of before the playoffs began.

The last couple of years would seem to undermine such a theory.  Fewer teams are using an out-and-out number one goaltender.  Fewer goaltenders are earning mega-bucks contracts.  Teams are stocking up on B-level goalies to interchange throughout the season.

Some may conclude that this is an indication that the value of the goalie is declining.  Teams are less inclined to pay big bucks for a top-notch goalie because they feel that the money is better spent on forwards or defencemen as they feel such are more valuable in the chase for Lord Stanley’s Cup.  As such, goalies are seen as being more expendable.

The greatest goalie of all-time, Dominik Hasek.

That’s pretty bad news for people who grew up in the era of Patrick Roy, Martin Brodeur, Dominik Hasek, Ed Belfour, and Curtis Joseph.

However, I would argue that the trends of the past couple years point to just how valuable goaltending really is.

Let’s start with the premise that the goalie is the most important member of the team.  I know that such an assumption could result in a rather circular argument, but assuming that general managers also start with the same premise will help explain the trends that we have seen.  The second premise that we need to acknowledge is that there are 82 regular season games plus a possible 28 games to come in the playoffs.  This represents a total of 110 games.  Thirdly, it is a fact of the game that goalies get injured, lose form, or simply need a rest.  These premises are inarguable.

What these three premises amount to is the fact that in order to have the best chance of winning the Cup, a team must get good goaltending every game out of the entire 110 possible games.  If goaltending is the most important factor towards winning it would behoove teams to ensure they have good goaltending every game of the season.

Now, in the modern, salary-capped NHL, teams can really only devote a certain percentage of their salaries towards goaltending.  Even with the emphasis on getting top-flight goaltending, NHL rosters have room for 23 players and teams would be rather foolish not to fill those rosters out.  Based on a per-player division of salary cap money, teams can afford to spend approximately $8.217 million on goaltenders (based on 3 goaltenders at $2.739 million per player).

The question is: how is a general manager to divide up this money to give his team the best shot of winning?

If we go back to premise three – that goalies get hurt, have off-days, etc – then it would seem that the historical strategy, that of investing all the money in one high-priced superstar, is rather flawed.  For instance, what happens when a team’s $6-8 million investment comes up lame with a pulled groin?  What happens when said investment has a stretch of bad games that causes the team to lose morale and confidence, leading to a long losing streak?

Niemi is a perfect example of teams diversifying their goaltending assets.

Today’s general managers are taking a different approach.  They are diversifying, investing in multiple goaltenders in the hope that at least one will be able to produce the goods at any given time.  Let’s look at the Chicago Blackhawks as an example.  They won the Cup on the back of Antii Niemi’s great playoff performance.  (Coincidentally, their opposition in the finals – the Flyers – used a rotating carousel of goaltenders to get there.)  Niemi was a relatively unknown quantity before that playoff run, but proved to be a shrewd investment on the part of Stan Bowman and his predecessor Dale Tallon.  But when Niemi’s contract ended, Bowman refused to give Niemi a new, inflated contract on the basis that he had several young, inexpensive options (not to mention the albatross contract he was saddled with in Cristobal Huet) on hand.  One of which, Corey Crawford, turned out to be a pretty good player himself.

Other teams, including the Toronto Maple Leafs, Washington Capitals, and Detroit Red Wings have also employed such a tactic (albeit with varying results).

In saying that, teams would still be foolish to pass on a potential Hall of Fame goaltender as the Maple Leafs did in 1997 (Luongo may not be Hall-bound, but his first few years in the league sure pointed in that direction), even if it will cost them a large chunk of salary.

After all, good goaltending is the most valuable commodity in hockey and great goaltending gets you in the Hall of Fame.

There comes a point in the career of most aspiring hockey players where you realize that you just aren’t good enough anymore.  You realize that the level of play has exceeded your meager skill-set and that this is the highest level of hockey that you’ll ever play.

You sit in the dressing room after the game, sweat dripping from your matted hair.  Your jersey, shoulder pads, and helmet are strewn over the bench beside you.  You feel distraught, your dreams slowly fading.  All around you your teammates are talking about the game, about the sick deke, the goal scored, or the hit delivered.  But you just sit there, knowing that you, unlike those for whom the dream remains alive, have reached the pinnacle of your hockey career, that your skills just aren’t good enough.

However, it’s not the end of your hockey career.  At least, not if you so choose.

There is still another path open to you: that of the fighter, the pest, the enforcer.  At one point, the players that fill these roles were top-liners, but eventually they hit the peak of their skills and were forced to reinvent themselves to remain in the sport they love.  It was either that or get a real job…

No one starts out wanting to be a fighter.  No one starts out wanting to spend their career annoying opposing teams.  People want to score; they want the spotlight.

Derek Boogaard: he's had more penalty minutes than the population of Vatican City.

But, for the players that are to salvage their careers by becoming fighters, this kind of transition happens fairly early in their career.  When players get to the major junior level and/or the American Hockey League they have already transitioned from being a good hockey player with a tough side to being a tough guy with a hockey side.  Take Derek Boogaard as an example.  He played 147 games in the Western Hockey League before being drafted by the Minnesota Wild.  During that time he scored a measly 21 points, only three of which were goals.  He did have a whopping 670 penalty minutes in the same time span.

These stats clearly point to a player who has decided that their career path lies in a different direction than that of Sidney Crosby or Henrik Sedin.  Heck, Boogaard even promotes this kind of reinvention to young kids through the fighting camp he runs with his brother Aaron.  He teaches young kids to fight, giving them the skills they’ll need to reinvent their careers at a young age and encourages them to use those skills.

The hockey player has become two different species.  There is the player who actually plays the game, regardless of being a first- or fourth-liner.  These players’ sole focus is to play the game, to score or prevent the other team from scoring.  Then there is the fighter, whose job is to, well, fight.  They aren’t there to play, except when the puck accidentally touches their stick.  Through reinvention, the defining traits of each species have been separated and distilled to forge the two specialist styles we see today.

But whatever happened to the player that could do both things effectively?  What happened to the Bob Proberts of hockey that could use their hands to score both goals and TKOs?

The reinvention of the hockey player has become less about adding additional skills to fulfill different roles within the game and more about becoming an entirely different kind of hockey player altogether.  And the Boogaard school will only continue that trend.  Kids will learn at a much younger age that it is better to specialize in one area of the game (i.e. fighting) and make it to the big time than develop an array of all-round skills and be stuck playing second-tier hockey for their entire lives.

This isn’t a good thing.  We are teaching people to sell out.  We are teaching them to compromise and become something different in order to salvage a tiny shred of their dreams.  Instead of nurturing them to become better people or learn positive skills that will help them achieve their full dreams we are giving them the directive that if at first you don’t succeed, go become someone else and then try again.

From this pattern of reinvention we get hockey players who sit on the bench for 50 minutes of a game, skate around looking for a fight for five minutes, and then spend the remaining five minutes in the penalty box.

What we don’t get are players who can skate around for twenty minutes scoring goals and then beat the snot out of the guy who just slashed them.

This sh*t happens, so get used to it.

People get hurt in hockey.  People get checked into the boards by big men flying around on skates.

But that doesn’t mean that for every injury in the NHL that results from a body check the checking player should be suspended.  It sounds ridiculous even to say it.  You wouldn’t give Scott Stevens a suspension for making a legal hit on Eric Lindros as he cuts across the blueline with his head down, would you?

Yet that is what we’ve come to in today’s world of hockey.  We’ve become so intent on policing headshots and preventing injuries that any time a player is injured, whether the play by which he was injured was legal or not, we scream out for a penalty or a suspension.

We assume that because someone is injured that the play was dirty and therefore deserving of suspension.  That thought relies upon the assumption that the game is safe to begin with and that in the regular course of a game no one will get injured if they play by the rules.

Personally, I blame Matt Cooke.  I could blame Cooke for a lot of things because I really don’t like the guy, but in this case the blame lies firmly at his feet after his dirty hit on Marc Savard.  His blindside elbow to the head knocked one of the most skilled players in the league out of action for the rest of the regular season.  Cooke went unpunished for what was unquestionably a dirty, cowardly hit.  This prompted a harsh backlash by fans and players alike for the league to crack down on headshot-throwing felons like Cooke.

The bottom line is that the Cooke incident set off a chain reaction that has led us to the point we are at now.  From that point fans looked for headshots – the true marker of which is whether or not the player is concussed in the aftermath – and came down harshly against the players who injured other players by throwing elbows to the head.  That sentiment then evolved to any other kind of injury and now when players get injured through being hit by another player in any way people cry out for suspensions or create lynch mobs to hunt down and castrate the offending party.

For those of you who don’t believe this, take a gander at the current discussion surrounding Zdeno Chara’s hit on Max Pacioretty.

On one hand you have the people who are inherently biased because of what team they cheer for.  Bruins fans see nothing wrong with the hit and some of them attribute rather feminine qualities to Pacioretty despite the fact that he was concussed and fractured some vertebrae (seriously, I’d like to see you keep playing in that condition!).  Montreal fans have made Chara the most wanted man in all of the Montreal area, considering the hit he delivered to be full of reckless intent to injure.  The Montreal side is calling for blood, obviously angry that one of their players has been knocked out of action for a while – and the awkward construction of their home arena makes it even less easy to swallow.

On the other hand you have the non-biased, such as TSN’s Bob McKenzie (who I normally agree with on a lot of things), who in trying to view the situation objectively have found themselves advocating for punishments based on injury alone.

The logic to this position is easy.  Injuries are bad, no matter how they are caused.  They detract from the on-ice product which has effects upon both the financial and physical aspects of the game.  Less injuries are ultimately better for both the league and the players themselves.  Due to the ever-present possibility of freak injuries, it is impossible to cut all injuries out of the game.  Injuries to players that happen as a result of actions of other players are not freak accidents and are preventable.  Therefore, it makes sense to cut out any and all preventable injuries, including those that result from actions of other players.

It also helps the argument when a player, in this case Pacioretty, decrys the act by which he was injured shortly after being declared unfit to play for the forseeable future.  It worked wonders for the crusade against headshots when Sidney Crosby vented immediately after his run in with concussion (although it didn’t work wonders for his image as a whiner or the NHL’s image of only caring about its stars).

However, that viewpoint is patently wrong.  You can’t penalize or suspend players for every injury that is a direct result of their actions.  You can punish them for injuries that are a direct result of their intentions or for injuries that are a direct result of obviously illegal plays, but not for injuries that are a direct result of legal plays.

If you start punishing players for legal plays only in the cases where a player is injured, then you create a double standard of punishment.  Suddenly a play becomes illegal in some cases and legal in others.  Even the standard to which an action is deemed to be illegal fluctuates based on the referee or league disciplinarian that is presiding on any given day.  Simply put, a fluctuating and uncertain standard is not standard at all.

It makes no sense to judge players by one set of rules up until a certain point and then, because of some random coincidence, judge them by another set later.  In order to bring some sanity to the situation the league would have to either make the play itself illegal, in which case much of the aggressiveness of hockey might be lost, or accept that injuries do actually happen by coincidence.

And injuries to happen by coincidence.  A recent study shows that 8% of all NHL injuries are complete flukes.  That doesn’t include injuries that happen during the course of play or through body checks.  When those injuries are added, the number of coincidental injuries moves above 50%.  To make every play that leads to these injuries illegal would effectively neuter the game of hockey.  It might not take away the aggression fully, but it would change the game beyond recognition.

Therefore, everyone needs to realize that injuries do happen.  We need to realize not to overreact when we see someone taken off in a stretcher or hobbling to the dressing room.  Sure, we don’t like or want to see players hurt – especially our favourites – but such is the state of affairs in hockey and we need to accept that without going completely overboard.

We all love the aggression in the game, so grow up and stop whining when someone gets hurt because of it.

My confidence never wavered.

First it was the fifteen-year, $100 million contract.  Next it was the awful start to the season with the worst plus/minus on the worst team in the league.  And with each of those things came the whispers of “He’s overrated, I would never have given him that contract,” “He’s not a team player,” or “Only players like Crosby or Ovechkin should make that kind of money.”

But I never lost confidence in the fact that Ilya Kovalchuk is a top-tier NHL player on par with the Crosbys and Ovechkins.  I never lost confidence in Kovalchuk’s ability to be a team player.  Now that both Kovalchuk and the New Jersey Devils are in the midst of an 11-game points streak and an 8-game win streak respectively, my confidence is being rewarded.

So now the question remains: why did Kovalchuk and the Devils start the season so slowly?

The answer is simple: Gary Bettman and the league administration got in the way and disrupted the preparations of both the team and the player.

Every NHL player and every NHL team go through a lot of preparation for each prospective season.  From the moment a player is signed to the moment the first puck drops in October is all about preparing for the upcoming season.  Every moment is vital and any disruption has the potential to affect a player’s performance during the season.

So when Kovalchuk resigned with the Devils on July 19th for 17 years and $102 million both sides thought it was time to get down to business: Kovalchuk was the last piece in the Devils’ puzzle and Kovalchuk had a contract that fit his desire to finish his career in New Jersey.

However, it was not to be as the very next day Gary Bettman and the league voided Kovalchuk’s contract, claiming that it circumvented the league’s salary cap.  What ensued was a two-month struggle, including an independent arbitrator, that left both Kovalchuk and the Devils without any certainty going into the new season.

By the time the Kovalchuk contract saga was resolved, with the aforementioned 15 year and $100 million deal, it was September 4th which left just 17 days before the Devils’ first preseason game on September 21st.

Any NHL team will tell you that 17 days is not long enough to prepare for a new season, especially when you consider that the Devils had to figure out how best to utilize Kovalchuk and Zach Parisse, another top left winger.

As you might expect, the Devils’ season didn’t start well and neither did Kovalchuk’s.

You might wonder at this point why I point the finger firmly in the direction of Gary Bettman and the league.  “They’re just doing their job to make sure everyone plays by the rules,” you might say and to a certain extent you’d be right.

But the league administration went much farther than just policing the 30 teams and keeping them in line with the Collective Bargaining Agreement.  After all, Bettman and his cronies let the Vancouver Canucks, Philadelphia Flyers, and Chicago Blackhawks sign Roberto Luongo, Chris Pronger, and Marian Hossa respectively to similar contracts in the past two or three seasons without a hint of voiding any of those contracts.

These contracts, including the one signed by Kovalchuk, feature a largely front-loaded structure whereby the player is paid a hefty sum in the first few years of the contract and by the end of the contract – usually when the player is over 40 years old – paying the player near the league minimum.  While the number teams pay against the cap is calculated as an average amount over the entire length of the contract, this structure provides a few benefits to teams looking to protect themselves in the future.

First off, by extending the length of the contract, teams are able to lower the cap hit attached to the player even though they will likely actually be paying them more than the cap number.  This allows teams to spend more money on other players and build an all-round better team.  Secondly, this structure allows teams to buy out these players at the end of their contracts at minimal cost to the team.  The cost for a team to buy a player out is a percentage of the remaining salary to be paid to the player.  Therefore, a player who is only owed $2 million is much cheaper to buy out than a player owed $20 million.

The key to this situation lies in the fact that Kovalchuk’s contract will make him the highest paid player in the league from 2012-2017.  At the peak of that period—during the 2016-2017 season—he will make almost $2 million more than any other NHL player.  With Kovalchuk’s original 17 year contract, that number would likely have been higher.

This fact directly contradicts Bettman’s approach to promoting and popularizing the league.  Since the end of the lockout, Bettman has set his stock by two players: Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin.  They feature in most NHL promotional materials and, as some would argue, get treated differently by referees and league disciplinarians.

It would make sense then that when these players are in their prime years—25-30 years old—between 2012 and 2017 that they be the highest paid players in the league.  For it to be otherwise would say that there are other players who are more valuable, which can be translated to mean better.

The NFL understands this principle, which is why quarterbacks are the highest paid players, and Tom Brady and Peyton Manning the richest among quarterbacks.

Kovalchuk’s contract represents a threat to Bettman’s stable order and this is why I blame Bettman and the league for Kovalchuk and the Devils’ slow start to the season.  Without this threat, Bettman wouldn’t have the motivation to void Kovalchuk’s contract, since he didn’t void similar contracts in the past.

Without Bettman’s antics, we would have seen a vastly different Ilya Kovalchuk and New Jersey Devils to start the season.

**All player salaries and contract information courtesy of http://www.capgeek.com.**

Well, I was planning on doing a big NHL trade deadline day recap, detailing the winners and losers on deadline day.  I was expecting to be breaking down how Brad Richards or Ales Hemsky would fit into their new teams or how the Toronto Maple Leafs traded away their next three first round draft picks for a career third-liner.

What I didn’t expect was Dustin Penner being the biggest name to move on deadline day.  I didn’t expect my own Atlanta Thrashers to be one of the biggest wheelers-and-dealers of the day.  And most of all, I didn’t expect Brian Burke to go the entire day without pulling the trigger on some move.

So there will be no big analysis of which teams dramatically improved their playoff chances and which teams positioned themselves well for the “get-better-quick” sweepstakes that the NHL draft has turned into.  However, I will say that I was shocked to see Dustin Penner net a return of a first-round draft pick (let alone an additional third-rounder and prospect Colton Teubert).

I am going to do a winners and losers analysis of another kind concerning deadline day: Canadian sports network TSN were the big winner and the general hockey fan the big loser.

Earlier today, TSN announced a record viewership for their deadline day program Tradecentre.  The multi-panel show, which featured detailed analysis of not only what deals went down, but also what each team’s needs and position was coming into the deadline, registered roughly 2.6 million unique viewers over its eight-hour airtime.  It peaked at 524,000 viewers at the 3pm deadline and averaged 268,000 viewers across the day.  TSN asserts that this represents a 42% growth over the previous year’s broadcast.  You can add on to this the roughly 80,000 people who contributed to Jay Onrait’s deadline day blog.

So, if we put those numbers into perspective, 268,000 people spent 8 hours of their Monday morning and afternoon watching TSN.  That’s 2,144,000 hours that viewers tuned in to TSN’s deadline day coverage.  That’s a really good sign for TSN, given the relative bore that was the trade deadline.

With a lot of moves happening in the week or so leading up to the deadline, only 16 deals were completed on deadline day.  These trades involved 35 players and 12 draft picks.  That averages out to a trade every 30 minutes.  Last year’s deadline produced 31 trades, meaning that a trade was completed approximately every 15 minutes.

Another item of note is that most of the trades that took place on Monday were not of the blockbuster variety.  That Dustin Penner was the high water line speaks volumes about the rest of the deals that happened.  There were no deals that involved big name players; the deals were mostly teams swapping depth players for either draft picks or other depth players.  None of these deals could be said to capture our imaginations quite like previous deadline day moves such as the Ilya Kovalchuk sweepstakes of last year, Olli Jokinen moving to Calgary in 2009, or the Marian Hossa deal of 2008.

As such, it all adds up to TSN winning while the rest of us hockey fans lost.  For our over 2 million hours of investment, we got very little return while TSN was able to show a dedicated viewership that will likely result in some lucrative contracts to air commercials and translate into more people watching other TSN programs.

I must add that this wasn’t TSN’s fault in the slightest, unless you count having knowledgeable analysts, insiders, and former NHL players counts as rigging the deck in your favour.  Unlike NHL General Managers who directly pull the strings on deadline day, TSN just sat back and let our desire for up-to-date information and detailed analysis take them to record highs in viewership.

On the other hand, our desire for information and analysis is exactly why hockey fans lost.  Our expectations going into deadline day were heightened by the action of previous years, last year in particular.  We expected fireworks, with teams blowing up rosters, shedding salaries, and playoff contenders stocking up for a run at Lord Stanley’s Cup.  Instead what we got was a damp squib (no offense Dustin).  Hockey fans invested time that we could have spent doing other things such as working, caring for our families, or – in my case – being a good university student.

I guess the moral of the story here is that trade deadline day in the current NHL isn’t what it used to be and we, as hockey fans, shouldn’t treat it as such.  While we tune in and give TSN record audiences, we should be prepared to spend the day listening to Bob McKenzie and Pierre McGuire speculate about deals that will never happen.  We should be prepared for days when Dustin Penner is the hot commodity and the Atlanta Thrashers are one of the most active teams.

Or we could just watch something else…