Even before the Detroit Red Wings defeated the Dallas Stars 3-1 at the Joe Louis Arena on Tuesday for their 21st straight win at home and set a new NHL record, there were many out there making it loudly known that their accomplishment was no good. After all, the two previous teams to have won 20 straight games at home did so in the good old days, when real men played without helmets and were secure enough to let games end in a tie. But because this year’s Red Wings padded their streak with a handful of wins in the gimmicky, post-lockout shootout era, the argument goes, they deserve a big asterisk.
Now, I should note our points of comparison here: The 1975-76 Philadelphia Flyers, and the fabled Boston Bruins squad of 1929-30. A true apples-to-apples comparison right off the bat. As Rob Pizzo writes, those old Bruins also benefited from a number of newfangled rule changes: “The year the Bruins set their record, the ice surface was expanded to 200 feet x 65 feet, offside was implemented, and players were now allowed forward passing in the offensive zone (lucky them!) … Should the Bruins be saddled with an ‘*’?”
Actually, the easiest way to deflate the Red Wings’ new accomplishment — and it is quite an accomplishment, especially in an era of such parity and because their All-Star goalie Jimmy Howard was out with a broken finger for the tail end of it — isn’t to complain that they can’t possibly equate to old Depression-era Bruins teams, but rather to demonstrate that they can’t even live up to their own franchise’s greatness. “Someone will say I’m parade-raining,” tweeted one Red Wings blogger, “but this is just to my amazement: Wings still have to go 12-1-1 just to tie ’96 Wings’ home record (36-3-2).” It’s an incredible stat, and it goes to show just how top-notch an organization the Red Wings have been for so long. (Amazingly, there are still ties to that 96 squad: Nicklas Lidstrom was on that team, though Tomas Holmstrom didn’t turn up until the following year.)
The Red Wings are sometimes accused of being too professional, veering on the robotic: Their locker room isn’t known to be filled with the colorful quotes that come out of, say, Boston or Vancouver. But they still manage to have their fun, and the mood these days is particularly high. On Monday, after they had tied the record, some team pranksters taped up Johan Franzen’s locker stall during a morning skate. “The good thing about Mule is he doesn’t get mad,” Mike Babcock said with rare mirth.1
There ought to be a creative-writing contest where that has to be the first sentence and you go from there.
It was reminiscent of another tape-happy moment early in the season, in which Jonathan Ericsson blocked off his stall from the encroaching media, leading Babcock to wonder if someone had died. That’s just like these Red Wings, though, isn’t it? They’re protecting their territory even when they’re just joking around.
As I mentioned last week, this year’s trade market has been practically nonexistent. Some GMs don’t think the mad dash is worth it, some don’t see too much out there for the taking, and others don’t think they would get enough in return. Some teams cling to hopes that they can somehow sneak into the playoffs,2 some would rather sit back until the summer, and others are now trying to figure out how to proceed in the wake of awkwardly timed injuries. Still, little by little, teams are loosening their stances. The Tampa Bay Lightning, who had been well out of the playoff race but then seemed as though they could possibly tiptoe back in, have now gone 1-3-1 in their last five. It’s not surprising that GM Steve Yzerman is now a little more willing to deal than he had been a few weeks ago.
Here’s a fun playoff chance chart that you can highlight team-by-team. For all the big moves that Anaheim and the Islanders have made lately, their graphs aren’t particularly promising. I think my favorite ones are New Jersey, Minnesota, and Columbus.
And then there’s the big gun, Rick Nash, who went from being the untouchable and untradable face of the Columbus Blue Jackets franchise (to his possible peril)3 to just MOMENTS AWAY, if you believe your Twitter feed, which you never should, FROM A HUGE TRADE. It’s unclear what exactly happened to change everyone’s mind — did Nash approach Columbus? Did the Blue Jackets offer him the sweet taste of freedom? — but there he is, up on the auction block, regardless.
Until now, Nash appeared poised to be a lifetime Blue Jacket.
I’m not sure I see what the rush is, though. Nash is Columbus’ franchise guy, the kind who is hard to replace with a motley package of players and prospects and picks. He’s expensive, yes, but part of what Columbus invested in was his stability. If Columbus is going to make a move like this one in the name of “rebuilding,” they need to be confident that they’re getting the best deal they can get in return.4 And the best deal might not be one that gets hurried into during this particular deadline just because.
Nash has a no-movement clause and would have to approve any transaction.
More ominously, the Blue Jackets aren’t known to draft very well, and the team has consistently mucked up player development. So why trade an established talent like Nash on a whim for a project that you might not complete? This just feels like a panic sale in a season that has been filled with unsustainable weirdness, from James Wisniewski’s eight-game suspension to Jeff Carter’s everything. And this potential franchise-pivoting trade is being engineered by the same people who have dragged the team to where it stands, knock-kneed, today. If you had a friend going through this stuff in real life, wouldn’t you stop her and tell her to maybe just sleep on it for a bit?
Lighting the Lamp: The Week’s Sickest Snipes
With 25 goals and 56 points, New Jersey’s Ilya Kovalchuk has been quietly having just the kind of season the Devils acquired him for. But he made a little more noise Tuesday night against the Buffalo Sabres when he scored his first hat trick as a Devil. While Kovalchuk’s third goal of the night may have been scored on an empty net — Zach Parise told him on the bench beforehand that “even if I get an empty-net breakaway, I will spin and try to find you,” which is pretty much what he did — considering the masterful give-and-go-and-give-again display he and Patrik Elias put on before his first goal, it’s safe to say that Kovalchuk earned every bit of his 12th career hat trick.
The Ottawa Senators’ Jason Spezza had a similar night on Tuesday in Tampa, earning the hatty with an empty-netter in the waning seconds. He, too, deserved it: that second goal looks like it’s being set up in slow motion. (A note to future opponents: Don’t mess with the Senators when their dads are in town.)
Anaheim’s Corey Perry and the Rangers’ Ryan Callahan each scored three goals apiece this past week as well. Perry, who scored 50 goals last season and earned the Hart and Richard Trophies, is fifth in the league this year with 28. And Callahan, who netted 23 last season in 60 games played, now has the same number this year through 55. (He has scored in each of the Rangers’ two games since his hat trick, including with this shoveling backhand.)
Other enjoyable offensive endeavors: Benoit Pouliot makes Chris Campoli look like Bambi, practice makes perfect for San Jose’s Jamie McGinn, and Evgeni Malkin and Jannik Hansen demonstrate the wonder of the one-timer.
Piling On the Pylons: The Week’s Worst Performers
With headlines like “Hawks leaning on each other during slump,” “Sleep tough for Jonathan Toews,” and quotes from the insomniac captain himself like “there is a moment every day when we remind each other we’re teammates, we’re friends, we’re family and we’re going to pull it together,” the Blackhawks’ recent nine-game losing streak5 is starting to sound increasingly like another old Chicago-based production: Oprah.
The league’s longest this season.
What began as a pair of losses in a home-and-home series with Nashville before the All-Star break has deteriorated into a total funk. Everyone has something to worry about: the free fall, the spotlight, the trade talk, the hot seat, the locker room lousy with losing. As we witnessed in the first season of HBO’s 24/7 when the cameras caught up with the Capitals in the midst of an eight-game slump, losing streaks create draining and defeating environments.
But while Washington may have had to endure the additional distraction of HBO crews, at least they had the luxury of having things go awry in the safety of early December. The Blackhawks, on the other hand, are bottoming at the very worst time of the year: during the highly speculative and heavily scrutinized weeks before the trade deadline. What this means is a flurry of discussion over whether head coach Joel Quenneville might be fired, what’s wrong with Toews, and whether to deal with the problems in net by going out and getting Ryan Miller in return for Patrick Kane. (Jeremy Roenick called the last part “doable,” so who knows.)
There’s no one thing that has been killing the Blackhawks; there are many. Sometimes it’s the goaltending, sometimes it’s the defense in front of it. The team’s impotent power play lately is doing it no favors, either; the reliable scorers have grown cold; players are injured. There’s always something. The one notable thing about this slump, though, is that everyone seems to be saying all the right things, thinking about things the right way, and sticking together. The team’s most recent loss, 3-2 to the Nashville Predators on Tuesday, showed much more promise, so there’s still hope. Their next few games include tilts against the Rangers (tonight), Blues, and Red Wings (in Chicago, luckily). Sometimes it’s easier to play up to big competition like that, to finally get back to, as Oprah might say, being your best self.
Taking It Coast-to-Coast: A Lap Around the League
- Speaking of pylons: It’s kind of soothing to know that, at any given moment in time, somewhere out there, Tomas Kaberle is getting swept past.
- Another day, another coach who can’t take another day with Dustin Penner, who has scored only five goals this season and who has been a healthy scratch for the team’s last two games.6 “Work your ass off, then you get a chance to play again,” said a fed-up head coach Darryl Sutter on Tuesday. “If you don’t, you don’t.” Asked later if that meant Penner was headed back to square one, Sutter responded: “When you’re told to work your ass off, that is square one.” Adding injury to insult: The two minor league players who got called up in lieu of Penner both scored goals in Saturday’s win over Dallas.
- Here’s a fun game: Unscramble these words to learn about all the fun things that happened in a certain hockey game last night! fans booed he was hit in the face that was overshadowed by as Boston defeated the Canadiens 4-3 Tyler Seguin scored allegations by several Bruins another questionable low hit in a game by Brad Marchand when with the puck Montreal the winning shootout goal Zdeno Chara and “classless”
- A couple of notable entries in the league ledgers this week: Edmonton Oilers defenseman Andy Sutton, who many believed might be a trade deadline dangle, was instead re-signed by the Oilers to a one-year, $1.75-million contract. Boston’s Johnny Boychuk earned a three-year deal worth just over $10 million. Mike Comrie, husband of a very pregnant Hilary Duff, announced his retirement. (Greg Wyshynski penned an appropriate send-off.) The week’s biggest transaction by far, though? “The Winnipeg Jets announced they have traded forward Riley Holzapfel to the Anaheim Ducks for forward Maxime Macenauer.”7 This trade happened on Monday and caused me to lose around an hour of productivity as I sat giggling at the reactions on my Twitter feed. My favorite: “BREAKING: Sharks trade Shilly Pendersnoot to Nashville for rights to Waldo McNimbleberry.”
- In the 15 games they played prior to Saturday’s matchup with the Philadelphia Flyers, the New York Rangers managed to score just three power play goals in 40 tries. They matched that total this weekend in Philadelphia when they converted on 3-of-7 man advantages to help boost them to a 5-2 victory. (New York has won all five games this season against Philadelphia.) Ryan Callahan scored midway through the second period off a power play setup that zigzagged from Brad Richards to Marian Gaborik to Michael Del Zotto and was finished by the Rangers captain — the second of the three goals he scored against Philly. Three days later, the Rangers broke out the same play in their 3-0 win over the Boston Bruins, and it was identical right down to Callahan netting what would ultimately go down as the game-winning goal.
- Bad timing: Two teams whose play this year has failed to meet preseason expectations announced this week that they’ll be upping ticket prices next season. The LA Kings announced they’d be “rescaling” their ticket pricing scheme,8 noting that some seats may actually become cheaper, while Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis wrote in an e-mail to season ticket holders that most seats at Verizon Center will become pricier next season. “It certainly has been an interesting and challenging year from the outset,” he wrote, “but I guess that’s what makes sports such an exciting and unpredictable entertainment option.” I guess so!
- The trials and tribulations of Alex Ovechkin continue. ESPN.com’s Pierre LeBrun mentioned in his “Rants” column on Tuesday that he recently asked an NHL scout to rank the league’s biggest Russian stars. His response: “Really close between Datsyuk and Malkin, they’re 1a and 1b, then it’s Kovalchuk, and Ovechkin a distant fourth.” The words of an anonymous scout may be easy to ignore, but the opinion of someone like Olaf Kolzig, the Capitals’ celebrated former goaltender and teammate of Ovechkin’s for three years, may carry some credence. “I think part of it is he’s feeling a little not as loved as he used to be. He brings that on himself sometimes,” Kolzig said. “He just has to get back to being the way he was in his younger days and maybe not get wrapped up too much in the rock star status that comes with being Alex Ovechkin.”9
- Michael Farber profiles Brad Marchand in Sports Illustrated and explains how a bender kept him out of the official team Stanley Cup DVD.
- James Mirtle filed the following tweet from Maple Leafs practice: “Asked Mikhail Grabovski if he was testing out a new stick today at practice. ‘Yeah and tell Easton to screw off.’ Then he walked away.” If Grabo took out the “and” there, he’d have a pretty decent six-word NHL story. Not quite on the level of “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn,” but there’s plenty of Toronto games left to come up with something equally devastating.
- I enjoyed this video of Dion Phaneuf knocking out three Calgary Flames in one shot.
I have to say: I had mostly assumed all the Penner piling-on was a bit overdone and melodramatic until I went to a couple of Kings games live. The only way I can explain his performance on the ice is that his uselessness had its own presence, like when a particularly overmatched substitute teacher walks into a room and you just know. Just about every time I scoffed in frustration over a missed puck, an out-of-position setup, a flubbed shot, I would look up and there he was: no. 25 lumbering around before me. Penner. It’s impossible to watch a Kings game without balling your hand into a fist at least once and hissing his name, Newman-style. He’s basically the precise opposite of Jeremy Lin.
An interesting stat about Macenauer, per Cam Charron: he leads rookie forwards in penalty kill time; number two is the much-heralded Flyers rookie Sean Couturier.
One half-season ticket holder was disgruntled for more don’t-want-to-be-in-any-club-that-would-have-me-as-a-member reasons: “I’m almost insulted my tickets were only raised three dollars per ticket. I have really good seats.”
The imagery of the “rock star status” led me to reread my favorite Ovi article, written by Michael Idov. I’d forgotten that it contains such a fun fact: The Florida Panthers repeatedly tried to draft him in 2003, arguing that while his 18th birthday was two days short of the draft age cutoff, he had lived through enough leap years that it really didn’t matter, man! Amazing. (Here’s a great HFBoards thread on the subject, which contains this gem: “Why do I keep hearing about this Ovechkin guy? What’s so special about this player?”)
Chirping Like a Champ: The Best Mouthing Off
The early 2011 merger of Comcast and NBC Universal brought together channels ranging from USA to CNBC to E! to the P. Diddy of them all: the NBC Sports Network, née VERSUS, née the Outdoor Life Network.10 Several months later, when this brave new entity signed a 10-year network and cable deal with the NHL, I had a feeling we would be in for two things: a drastic increase in player marketing, and a lot of sweet, sweet synergy.
Comcast’s buildout of its sports media business has been in the works for quite some time: the OLN-to-VERSUS change was made following a failed 2004 attempt to buy Disney, which was essentially an attempt to acquire ESPN.
So far, we’ve seen both. While it may not seem like the efforts to make players more recognizable and relatable have totally blossomed, there are green shoots: the comedic stylings of Corey Perry in a Honda ad, an intrusive day-in-the-life show called NHL 36 that started out lame (the Patrick Kane episode) but has become pretty good (the Nicklas Lidstrom episode), and some sort of BlackBerry thing that I’ll believe when I see. It’s a start!
As for intra-media-conglomerate synergies, the most interesting will come when the playoffs begin and the networks need to make good on their promise to broadcast every single playoff game on a national channel.11 Last week Steve Lepore noted that a commercial during a Super Bowl pregame show showing the logos of networks that are part of the NHL package included CNBC, suggesting that some of the early-round playoff games will air on that channel. I love that idea — it would certainly turn some late-working finance types into hockey fans, and who better to target as new fans than those who have that kind of expendable income?
NHL COO John Collins has been saying for a while now that he wants to turn the Stanley Cup playoffs into something akin to March Madness, and at this year’s Winter Classic MillerCoors CMO Andy England told Sports Business Daily that “building the playoffs into something like a two-month version of March Madness is something we have very much bought into.”
But there was even more company love in play on Sunday, when Mike Milbury suddenly narrated a “Dogs of the NHL” segment that dovetailed nicely with the upcoming Westminster Dog Show set to air on USA.12 I can only imagine the Jack Donaghy-style back-patting of the young executive who came up with that cross-branding opportunity. Milbury’s “three dogs” were Jeff Carter (a Chihuahua), Alexander Semin (a Basenji), and Ilya Bryzgalov (a French Poodle).
Can’t wait to see how they’ll incorporate properties like the Golf Channel (“Milbury’s Mulligans”) and programs like The Voice (Milbury spinning around slowly in a giant space-chair) this spring.
Milbury began talking by discussing Jeff Carter as a Chihuahua: “It’s a lot of yipping and yapping and not much scoring.” Does the breed have a big rep for not scoring? I would have defaulted to casting some sort of insulting/geographically inaccurate Latin Lover stereotype myself, so good to know. He goes on: “Scott Howson thought he got a premium bird dog, and instead it’s a Bowser.” Are Chihuahuas even bird dogs? And is that a Mr. Magoo reference?? Because if so, I’m beginning to think that Milbury wrote this entire segment himself, unassisted. Anyway, Semin is a dog that has no bark (he proceeded to score a goal six minutes into the next period), and then, randomly, Bryzgalov is quickly and cryptically described as “a French poodle who’s actually Russian.” That last one makes the most sense to me, I guess: If I were casting someone to voice the part of a Russian disguising himself as a French poodle for some short film or cartoon, Bryzgalov would be a top choice.
To be honest, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this segment. I would do anything for an oral history of the creative process behind it.
And just blacked out for awhile?
Beleskey can rage!