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Shawn P. Roarke

About Shawn
Shawn P. Roarke is NHL.com's Senior Writer. With nearly 15 years on the NHL beat, Shawn promises to provide his sometimes off-the-wall views on the NHL and pop culture in general on a regular basis.

Feedback
E-mail Shawn your comments at: Roarkeblog@nhl.com

Recent Posts
Cole already a winner
An award-worthy mailbag
Imitation the sincerest form of flattery

Season Archive
April 2006

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Cole already a winner

It remains to be seen if Erik Cole will return for the 2006 Stanley Cup Playoffs. But regardless of that outcome, the Carolina Hurricanes' forward already has won the biggest victory of his hockey career by returning to the ice with his teammates for Sunday's practice. The mere fact that he is entertaining a return to the game he loves, less than three months removed from breaking his neck during a regular-season game, is already the ultimate in triumphs.

Even the incredible high of winning the Stanley Cup -- a battle his team is in the midst of as Cole continues his personal climb back to health -- has to pale in comparison to Cole's ability to fight his way back from that dark day in early March when he was hit from behind into the boards by Pittsburgh's Brooks Orpik. The hit, which earned Orpick a three-game suspension, left Cole with two broken vertebrae and an uncertain future.

Paralysis was certainly a possibility, and, more likely a probability had either of his broken bones moved just a few more millimeters as he crumpled to the ice after the hit.

"How that bone didn't go ahead and enter the spinal canal is, I don't know, is lucky," said Cole. "If it had then I probably be a paraplegic."

Sunday, those words came matter-of-factly out of Cole's mouth, delivered with just the slightest hint of emotion. But, three months earlier, the potential for paralysis was overwhelming for the player.

He admits that the first hours he spent in the Pittsburgh hospital after the injury -- isolated with only his own dark thoughts for company -- were among the longest of his life.

"I just kind of sat there and wasn't really sharing anything with the nurse that was there and kind of laid there quietly and thought about things," said Cole.

Cole thought about his wife and his two young children. He thought about his future. And, then, just as quickly and just as intensely, he thought about hockey.

"Just a million different things running through your head like, am I ever going to play again, stuff like that," said Cole of the thoughts that filled his head while waiting to return to Carolina to begin his recovery.

Yes, laying in a hospital bed with a broken neck, Cole thought about playing hockey again despite hearing the words "broken neck" uttered by the attending physician just hours after his arrival at that Pittsburgh hospital.

But, how could hockey not enter the equation for Cole? It is what he does and he does it better than most anyone else on the planet. At 27, he wasn't ready to walk away from that reality, even if the mere act of walking away could be construed as a gift.

So, he suffered through balky, restrictive braces, cumbersome drug regimens and painful physical therapy by focusing on the possibility that one day in the not too distant future he could once again lace up a pair of skates, grab a hockey stick in his hands and hit the ice with his teammates -- savoring the pleasure of happily breaking a healthy sweat in the company of teammates.

That day came Sunday. Cole joined his teammates, still shaking off the disappointment of dropping Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals to Buffalo, for an off-day skate at the RBC Center.

Suddenly, and amazingly, Cole was back in his natural element, sharing a dressing room filled with easy camaraderie and hearty laughs, feeling his skates cut into the fresh ice, his ears ringing with the sharp slap of pucks off sticks and boards, his lungs burning with the cool, crisp air universal to all hockey rinks, no matter their size or importance.

"It was nice to get out there with the guys today," said Cole, an infectious smile creasing his face.

It was also nice for those guys to see their teammate again enjoying his life. Cole, like each of those Hurricanes on the ice Sunday, was born to play this game. Sure, they can, and will, do other things during their lives, but, for now, hockey is what they choose to be about.

Again, it still remains to be seen if Cole will return this year. The two-week time frame thrown about in Sunday's press conference seems optimistic, at best. Most likely, Cole will return next season, ready to begin the long trek back toward his status as an elite player.

But, while the body may have to wait, the mind certainly is already willing.

Asked Sunday if he is mentally ready to absorb that first hit in game conditions after suffering such a perilous injury, Cole could only allow his smile to grow even bigger before answering.

"Taking it?" he said. "I think I will probably go out there and look for a first hit before I let someone come into me."

Welcome back to the game, Erik.

***

The mailbag has been mighty thin these days, and I will take the blame for that. The blog has been on a mini hiatus during the crazy first few weeks of the playoffs. But, now, I am back and, hopefully, better than ever. Expect more blogs on a regular basis and don't hesitate to write in with your questions, comments and observations.

***

As a transplanted Buffalonian down here in the wilderness of South Florida I thought that hockey was left behind forever. I went to some Panthers games and was amused at the fans' mix. The game is better than ever and the NHL has finally gotten serious. They, like any successful major-league sport, have finally began to enforce the rules. Thank God! I'm 46 and still get goose bumps watching Hockey Night in Canada. GO SABRES!

Kevin O'Connor

Kevin, I'm glad to hear that you are enjoying our product. I agree with you that the game is better than ever and believe that it is the result of never-ending efforts at every level to improve our sport. The season-long emphasis placed on speed and creativity have paid huge dividends in the postseason as the action has been consistently up-and-down, often at dizzying speeds. As a result, comebacks have become the norm. Yet, even with the crackdown on obstruction fouls, the physical nature of the game has not been eroded. The second period of Monday's Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals was as ferociously played period as one is likely to see. I, like you, also live for the rare opportunities to catch a Hockey Night in Canada broadcast. OLN's decision to air Canadian broadcasting feeds in the first two rounds was an unexpected treat. With that said, I also believe that OLN's studio show is finally hitting its stride. Analysts Keith Jones, Brian Engblom and Ed Olczyk are providing interesting points in a conversational style that can please both hard-core fans and newcomers to the sport.

***

Just a quick note on my Flames. Yeah, I know they are golfing already, but we had a great season. Hell, we won the toughest division in hockey, albeit with an offense that was invisible at times. But, we do still have the best D in the league. C'mon, Regehr, Hamrlik, Lombardi, Phaneuf, Warrener, and Ferrence. With Kipper in net you only need to score one or two, but, unfortunately, that will only win you so many games. On offense we only had two guys stand out. Of course, the best all-around player in the game today, Iginla, but also Huselius. Aside from that, the rest are bums, as far as I'm concerned. I do think that Phaneuf should win the Calder, though. I watched this kid all year, and, yeah, Sid and Ovechkin got lots of points on terrible teams, but Dion stood out on a very talented blue line. The kid played like Scott Stevens at times, stepping up and playing lots on the PP. Hell, he set the rookie record for PP goals. All I am saying is it is easier for a diamond to shine when it is piled on a heap of manure, rather than buried in the rocks with the rest of the diamonds. And, as for Kipper, what else can you say, the man is a human highlight reel. Can Jagr or Thorton say that they personally won 30-plus games themselves this year? Well Kipper can, and did. No doubt in my mind the Hart winner. I was disappointed with the Anaheim series, but what are you gonna do? So now I am with both the Oil and the Sens, cause Lord Stanley must come home!

Brian In Calgary

Wow. That is a lot to digest in such a short space, Brian. And, let me just make clear that you wrote in before the Senators were eliminated by Buffalo in the second round. At least you still have a chance, and a good one, to get your wish with Edmonton. But, I would argue that the Stanley Cup is home wherever it ends up. It is awarded to the best team and, hence, it is "home" in the company of the championship players, at least until it is relocated the following June. As for the Flames, your points are quite valid. Calgary lived beautifully by the defense-first sword during the regular season and died brutally by the same philosophy in the playoffs. Although I think Anaheim must be given some credit for that as the Ducks beat Calgary at its own game, winning more low-scoring, tight-checking games than the Flames. In the end, in fact, I believe that Anaheim wore Calgary down with its physical play, something I did not see happening. Phaneuf did have an outstanding year, a Calder Trophy-caliber season. But, he will be the victim of timing this year. Both Ovechkin and Crosby had seasons for the ages and will outclass him in voting for Rookie of the Year. But, there is no shame in finishing in the show position in a field as deep as this year's rookie crop. As for Kiprusoff, he is a legitimate threat to win the Hart. But, Jagr is clearly the favorite if only because he played for a team that started the season as a much-worse proposition than the Flames. Kipper, as you point out, is surrounded by above-average D men that provided a virtually unbreachable wall around the Calgary net. Jagr had very little talent to help him carry the Rangers from also-rans to a shot at the division title that only evaporated on the last day of the season. The Flames must address their offensive inadequacies during the offseason -- and wouldn't Patrik Elias, an explosive forward already schooled in successful two-way hockey, look good in the Calgary lineup – but they have proved that they can be a legitimate postseason threat for years to come. Congratulations on a great season.

***

Are the guys who do the NHL playoff schedule complete morons? You would think after a lockout year and no major TV contract that the NHL would want as many games available on TV as possible. Instead the smart marketing team at the NHL headquarters plays three games on one night so a sports fan -- not only hockey fans, because we need to expand our fan base -- could only stumble upon two games to watch. Here comes my bias, the one game you want to watch -- Buffalo and Ottawa, the most exciting series -- is not on TV. Maybe if they were resting or they were flying across the country I could see this happening ONCE but that is not the case it happened twice. The outstanding and brilliant people making the schedule decided to give teams two days rest and then have the teams play back-to-back nights so the resting theory is out. Know that I did not really research this, so I would love for you to provide me with a logical reason for which the NHL has done this bizarre schedule. I really hope that the NHL is not this dumb and that my ridiculous rant is proven to be just that a ridiculous rant.

John, Boston, Mass.

John, I am only too happy to provide evidence that your rant is, indeed, ridiculous. In the process, I plan to also remove your tongue from the cheek it was so firmly entrenched in when you undertook your diatribe. The NHL schedule makers are not morons, nor are they any of the creative insults you lobbed in their direction. They are dedicated individuals that work tremendously hard to provide the sport we all love with the exposure it not only merits, but deserves. Unfortunately, they are hamstrung by a variety of outside factors. In the case of the Ottawa-Buffalo series, the schedule had to be tweaked because the Ottawa arena was booked throughout the first weekend with non-hockey events. Therefore, it was necessary to alter the game-day, day-off, game-day routine. Also, the league's TV partners, including NBC (a major TV player in everyone else's book it seems but yours) have a say in what games are televised. Needless to say, most TV execs believe that a game involving two U.S. markets, including the huge New York metropolitan area in the case of the New Jersey Devils, would have the potential to draw more viewers than a game involving a Canadian team. That may not seem fair to fans of particular teams but it is an undeniable fact that must be acknowledged. I hope I have served to not only educate you to voice a more informed opinion, but also convinced you that the NHL schedule makers deserve respect, not scorn.

***

What do you think of road whites? I'm glad the game is back so we can once again complain about less-important things, but I think this is terrible. As a season-ticket holder, now you can go to 41 games to see your team play a team in white. No more seeing all the colored road sweaters come through. At least NCAA hockey is not following suit.

Kevin Shaw, Minneapolis, Minn.

Kevin, I can certainly see your point. The colorful sweaters are one of the first things that brought me into hockey as a young boy growing up in Boston. With the Bruins' distinctive sweaters, it was love at first sight as I believe they have one of the best unis in the game -- minus the third jersey which I have never warmed to. I can see how uniform road whites would take away from some of the romanticism associated with the various NHL sweaters, but, in most cases, there is enough secondary colors splashed on those white jerseys to make them distinctive. And, it is still the logos that count the most and those are ever-present, home or away. You are right, though, that if uniform choices top the list of complaints, the game is certainly heading in the right direction.

***

Who's responsible for the game stars selections -- Rain Man?

Bianca Privitera

Bianca, seeing as you sent this inquiry after Game 1 of the Buffalo-Carolina series, I am assuming you had a problem with the selections from that game. To answer your question, we use a revolving set of NHL.com staffers to pick the three stars each night. Generally, it is up to those on hand to update the NHL.com site after the games are completed for the night. These people have spent the night watching the various games on tap that evening and posting the game stories, so they are most intimate with the big performances from that particular day and qualified to narrow that field down to the best three. But, in the case of the Buffalo-Carolina game you mentioned, it was the only game that day. So, not only did the producer here watch the game, but he also had the luxury of drawing on the three stars selected at the arena. Usually, our three stars reflect those from the arena on days featuring just one game. Those stars are picked in different ways from arena to arena. Some franchises take a poll of attending media, while others have just one member of the media pick the stars. As for Rain Man, he was too busy shopping at K-Mart and watching Jeopardy and People's Court to weigh-in on the merits of the Game 1 stars. If his schedule allows future participation, I will be sure to let you know.

Posted by Shawn @ 2:37 p.m.


Friday, May 5, 2006

An award-worthy mailbag

The mailbag was bulging after my most recent blog entry, and not just with the usual attacks on my overall intelligence, specific hockey knowledge or general character that routinely spikes after a post that is perceived as a slight on a team or particular player.

So, I have dedicated this edition of my blog to answering some of the more cogent e-mails I have received in the past few days. Expect a another free-wheeling, train-of-thought take on the game we all love in the coming days after the second round of the playoffs get under way.

As usual, the announcement of the finalists for the NHL's end-of-season awards has struck a nerve with fans across the League. Usually, the protestations are passionate, if logic-free, extolling the virtues of favorite or hometown players snubbed in the process.

But, that is not always the case and, this year, there were enough snubs to engender rational debate. The snubs, of course, were not intentional, but rather reflected the depth available for most of the awards. They way I usually judge these things is by trying to decide which finalist could rightly be left off the ballot to accommodate the candidates that were supposedly dissed.

And, this year, you just can't do it. Everyone on the ballot deserves to be there. My colleague, Phil Coffey takes a rational, impassioned look at this year's field in his latest edition of Ice Age.

That doesn't mean that those that were left off did not deserve consideration, but rather that they were the "victims" of the exclusivity that must be a part of the process.

Reader Eric Morin, a passionate Ottawa Senators fan,speaks for many fans with this impassioned plea for players on his team.

Okay, Shawn. So maybe I'm biased, being a Sens' fan, but how does arguably the best regular-season team in the NHL receive one overall award nominee? I understand that Detroit finished with 11 more points, but it did it in arguably the weakest division in NHL history, and the new skewed schedule gave them 44 out of a possible 48 points in divisional play.
Add to that the fact the Sens were missing Havlat for most of the season, and Phillips, Redden, Chara, and Volchenkov for most of the last 12 games, and it's pretty obvious which is the best team.
How can either Redden or Chara not get the nod over Zubov? And how does Phaneuf get a nod over Meszaros, who came within two points of being the first rookie in NHL history to win the +/- title, an extraordinary accomplishment for a 20-year-old defenseman?
I have no problem with the Hart nominees, though I'd say "Alfie" should have deserved a look, but Calgary without Kipper would be, well, out of the playoffs -- oh yeah, it is.
I'd just like to know when the NHL will start recognizing defensemen for their defensive abilities rather than constantly awarding prizes to defenders who get the most points. It seems to me that a stellar plus/minus is more important than points, isn't it? And Zubov and Lidstrom combined barely beat Redden's alone.
Cheers,
Eric Morin

It's always a pleasure to receive well-constructed, intellectual discourse on the game we all love. I only hope that my answer live up to the high standards set by Eric.

I have already touched upon Detroit's perceived advantage from playing in the weak Central Division, so I do not need to revisit that again. Suffice it to say, you can only play the teams put on your schedule by the League and divisional strength is cyclical, at best. I will also point out that Carolina finished just one point behind Ottawa in the East, and only received two award nominations.

 

So, I will tackle the Redden/Chara situation first. Both are great defensemen, among the elite defenders in the game today. Either could and should merit consideration for the Norris Trophy. But, I think the fact that they play on the same team hurt their chances as they likely split the vote among supporters. Also, others look at the numbers that all the Ottawa defensemen put up and falsely infer that such success is the product of the team's system and not individual talent. This is an accusation that has dogged New Jersey's Martin Brodeur for years. And, with all of that said, I am still not convinced that either Redden or Chara is better than the three players nominated.

As for Phaneuf getting the nod over Meszaros, I believe this is correct. Yes, Meszaros' plus-34 ranking is gaudy, but let's not forget that the Senators did score 103 more goals than it allowed and was among the most offensively explosive teams in the League. Therefore, it is easier to amass a glittery plus/minus number, as evidenced by the fact that every regular in the Ottawa lineup is even or better. It was much harder to gain plus numbers with the offensively anemic Flames, who scored 94 less goals than Ottawa. No Calgary player was better than a plus-13 and Phaneuf was only eight of that team-leading pace. Plus, Phaneuf scored twice as many goals as Meszaros and was dominant on Calgary's power play. And, physically, Phaneuf was a revelation. He led all rookie defenseman in hits with 203, 75 more than second-place Meszaros. So, in the end, I think it is clear-cut why Phaneuf is among the rookie finalists at the expense of Ottawa's brilliant first-year defender.

Finally, like you, Eric, I believe there should be an award for defensive defensemen. Scott Stevens was overlooked too often in his prime because he passed up offensive contributions to serve as the backbone of his team's defense. He deserved acknowledgement for that role. Plus/minus, to me, is too arbitrary to be the final say in a player's defensive worth. It is much like goal-against average for goalies, a stat that is skewed by the relative strength or weakness of the team around him. Never a proponent for more stats in a game never meant to be measured in numbers (other than who scores the most goals in a game), perhaps it is time to introduce a stat that measures a defender's skill at preventing goals -- perhaps a ratio of goals allowed at even strength or on the power play measured against his time on ice. It would be a formula similar to the save percentage stat that is a far better read on a goalie's overall skill.

Now, on to the rest of the mailbag:

Hi Shawn,
I enjoyed reading your recent blog "Imitation the sincerest form of flattery." I have been a huge New Jersey Devils fan for 13 years now, and it's really nice to see someone saying good things about the team I love.
I have a question for you. Why do the media hate the Devils so much? Why is it that the Devils are "boring" when teams like Edmonton, or even the Rangers, play the same "trap" and still be praised that they play "stifling defense" blah, blah, blah? As a Communication major in college -- I'm graduating in two weeks, woo!! -- I really want to ask why the media does not show respect to such a great organization like the Devils.
Thanks,
Hiroko Yuki

 

Thanks for the kind words, Hiroko, and congrats on your impending graduation. Best of luck in the post-college world. I will give you one piece of unsolicited advice, perhaps the best piece of advice I ever received from my father. Do what you love, no matter what it is. You are young and you can afford to work for passion, rather than money. The financial reward will come on its own, in due course. You will have to work for the next 45 years or so, therefore you might as well enjoy it while you can before family obligations require a switch of professions based solely on financial considerations. Fortunately, I am still able to support my family by doing what I still love 15 years after graduating. I consider myself extremely blessed and wish the same for you and your fellow graduates.

As for the Devils, I think it is fashionable, and often easy, to denigrate the organization and its players. The Devils do not operate like many other teams, they are not in the market to promote themselves or their players. They are only in the market to win, and apply principles that make that a reality. It makes the team more difficult to cover from a journalistic viewpoint as access is not as forthcoming as it is with other teams. Also, the team does not draw as well as it should for all the success it has enjoyed. That leads to the assumption that they are unpopular among fans and makes the franchise an even easier target for negativity.

In New Jersey's case, it is all about the team and not individuals. As a result, it is a team that appeals most to those who like hockey because of its team nature and blue-collar work ethic. A well-executed cycle or flawless positioning in the defensive end will never be as flashy as a breathtaking end-to-end rush or high-scoring, fire-wagon hockey. It takes an understanding and an appreciation of the fundamentals of the game, fundamentals often forgotten at the highest level because of the unbelievable skill level of today's players, to truly appreciate what the Devils have done for the last dozen years. Plus, it is always easy to attack a powerhouse, no matter the sport. That also works against New Jersey.

My advice to you, Hiroko, is to continue to embrace your team and not worry about the opinions of outsiders. You have found something that appeals to your sense of beauty -- discipline, unity, collective effort, well-earned success, whatever it may be -- and that should be cherished as it is among the rarest gifts fans can expect in return for their loyalty.

Good article in the last blog, however I'd like to know your view on the Elias situation. He will be an upcoming free agent, and with talk of the new salary cap and all the CBA bells and whistles, do you think he will pull a Scott Niedermayer? It was written that Elias is shopping for a new agent, and after his comeback and strong play thus far in the playoffs, I'm sure he will be getting a bit of a raise. How do you think Lamoriello will play his role? Do you think he should do whatever it takes? Would Elias settle for less? Please, enlighten.
Rob

An Open Letter to Mr. Lamoriello:
Please, please Lou do all you can do to sign Elias before he goes into free agency. I'm quite sure Lou already has a handle on things. But, Lou in the past has let guys go if they put up a little fuss about the team or the franchise's ways. Patrik, as any Devil fan will tell you, is an awesome offensive threat on a defense-first team. To lose him would be devastating, although I'm sure Lou has something up his sleeve. I really would hate, hate, hate to lose Elias, I'm tired of seeing other home-grown Devils doing great jobs in other hockey towns!
Greg Kappmeier

Elias is the biggest factor facing the Devils once the playoffs end. Teams will certainly make a run this summer at Elias, one of the top-10 forwards in the game today. But, the Devils have the benefit of the new CBA, which will limit how outlandish the offers can be. Surely, some team -- perhaps the Rangers or the Maple Leafs -- will throw a max-cap offer Elias' way. But, the Devils can match, and likely will. Then, it will be up to Elias to make a decision for his future. My initial feeling is that Elias will stay, as he seems to enjoy being a leader on this team, a fact that may be acknowledged by him being named the next captain of the club if he remains. Regardless, Elias' future will be among the main stories during the summer and will certainly cause some unrest among Devils fans still smarting from Scott Niedermayer's unexpected departure last summer.

I'm a Rangers fan from Austria, and not just because there is now an Austrian hockey player in the Rangers organization, but because I have been a fan of the team ever since being interested in ice hockey. I found your answer to Ludovic Dujardin's question in the last blog quite interesting, because I think it's somehow applicable to the Rangers post-Olympics situation, where they found themselves in quite in a slump. After they got to the top of the division -- though I believe it to be somewhat the result of weak performances of Philly and New Jersey -- they were pretty sure to make the playoffs and the misery began. Losing the third spot pushed the Rangers over the edge and into the hole they dug for themselves throughout the last ten games! After that it was all misery and the sweep really hurt every true Rangers fan!
Would you say it also was complacency that destroyed the Rangers playoff hopes? After achieving the only goal set through so many playoff-less seasons, it seemed there was nothing left to achieve and being swept was the consequence for a team being satisfied with only making the playoffs.
Now what's left for me is enjoying the rest of the playoffs and keeping an eye on Buffalo, since patriotism commands me to put some hopes in Thomas Vanek!
Richard Silhavy

Richard, I do think that complacency played a part in the Rangers' demise. More than one player admitted afterward that the team seemed to lose its way after clinching the playoffs and reaching 100 points. In a way, it is only natural to rest on your laurels at that point. But, the competition jumps a notch in the last month of the regular season before jumping another notch for the playoffs. New York, for many reasons was unable to make that jump.

Injuries played a part, the wear and tear on the team's Olympic players was also a factor, as was the fact that opponents started taking the Rangers more serious in the second half of the season. Still, the team has laid a good foundation on which to build going forward. Just as importantly, it learned some valuable lessons in what it takes to play successful late-season hockey.

When Tom Renney was coach of the Vancouver Canucks, he at first seemed the intellectual, diligent young coach the Canucks needed. After a few months, his sophisticated explanations and philosophies began to wear thin. He seems to talk a better game than he plays. I don't think he was the "worst coach ever," as Esa Tikkanen described him, but the Rangers would do better with the other ex-Canuck coaches - either Marc Crawford or Pat Quinn.
Martin Christ

Martin, I have to respectfully disagree on your point that Quinn or Crawford would be better fits on Broadway. They are the type of big-name coaches that have not been able to get the Rangers over the hump in the past. Quinn is at his best with a veteran, big-name roster, something the Rangers are trying to divest themselves from. Crawford, meanwhile, missed the playoffs with a roster that was more balanced and talented than New York's. Renney is the coach this team needs, although like the players, he has to be ready to excel when the stakes rise late in the season. I think he was thoroughly out-coached by his rivals down the stretch and was unable to tactically handle the problems the Devils posed in the first round. But, he is smart enough to learn from those painful lessons and come back better prepared than ever.

Unfortunately, imitation will not be part of the equation in New York. Just look at the Knicks. Some people have the Midas touch, others have the Dolan touch. If you look back at the Dolan family's track record in professional sports you will look back on a history void of any success. New York will be no different.
By the way, have you changed colors? I see some blogs identifying you as a Ranger fan! How about them Bruins? Sean R. O'Donnell

 

Sean, I don't believe that the Rangers are doomed to failure. They have willingly spent money in the past, albeit often on ill-advised players that could not fit into the team's grand scheme. However, that is starting to change now and the Rangers are more of a team now that the past collections of superstars that have failed for the most part in the last dozen years. I believe a culture of winning and accountability is in its formative stages at MSG and will flourish under Renney in the coming years.

As for my "fandom," it is a moot point. In my job, I am asked to be as objective as possible and I strive to do that. As a result, I do not favor any team. Usually, any time I write a positive story about a player or team, I am labeled a "fan" of that team in the eyes of the public. That is the furthest thing from the truth. Sure, I have players and teams that appeal to my sense of how hockey should be played, but I try to judge every team and player with a blank canvas heading into the exercise of writing about them. I like to think that I succeed most of the time, but fans will often label writers as "fans" of teams, players and styles because it is the easiest thing to do when my opinion either diverges or dovetails with what they believe.

Posted by Shawn @ 3:46 p.m.


Monday, May 1, 2006

Imitation the sincerest form of flattery

The New York Rangers certainly have a fine blueprint for the course they want to chart this summer as they try to build on this year's return to respectability.

In fact, coach Tom Renney admitted he has spent the past week looking at the franchise he hopes his team one day emulates -- the New Jersey Devils.

No, Renney is not foolish enough to take his collection of big-name, offensive stars and turn them into the "interchangeable parts" that have been at the heart of New Jersey's dozen-year run as a hockey powerhouse. Rather he wants his Rangers, whatever form the team takes going forward, to embrace his still-evolving system in the same way New Jersey's players have relied on the "Devils" philosophy to get them through tough spot after tough spot during their run of greatness.

"It's all about trying to grow a team properly," said Renney, just minutes after his team saw a 100-point regular season trumped by an ugly four-game sweep at the hands of the hated Devils. "There's an ebb and flow to that. It was certainly a great season and we are happy with that. We're not at all happy with our playoff performance. But it's all, believe it or not, a part of growing up and part of becoming what we want to be at the end of the day.

"It's tough, it's real tough. But, we'll learn from it. It's supposed to hurt and maybe we'll learn from it for next year. We're trying to build a winning culture here that will stand the test of time."

Renney, who spent a few minutes of his post-game autopsy extolling the Devils, is right in identifying his team's main rival as a role model in the team-building exercise.

New Jersey has adopted nobody-is-bigger-than-the-team, the-best-offense-is-a-good-defense approach espoused by GM, and now coach, Lou Lamoriello, who demands hard work and character before even skill.

Those players play that system as effectively as they can, working hard on every shift at executing their jobs and nothing more. To continue my poker analogy from the last blog, they then let the chips fall where they may. Such a steadfast, structured approach takes luck out of the equation in the long run and, as a result, the Devils end up raking in the chips from a big pot more often than not.

That is why New Jersey has won three Stanley Cups since 1995, almost annually being among the favorites to still be standing come June.

New Jersey star Patrik Elias said it best after Sunday's Game 4 against the Rangers, explaining that the players play for each other and have learned through the years to count on the guy in the next stall in the dressing room to do his job.

That trust is something the Rangers still need to learn. Too often, they expected a few key guys -- Jaromir Jagr, Henrik Lundqvist -- to carry the load. There were regularly too many passengers and not enough drivers for the Ranger bus down the stretch and into the postseason.

But, Renney insists that will change. The foundation was laid this regular season and now the Rangers will build on it, finding their own way to continued success.

Jagr, who will likely face surgery to tighten up his dislocated shoulder (originally hurt in Game 1 and re-injured on the first shift of Game 4), says his team might be just a few free agents away from competing at the highest levels.

"I think management is going to make some changes -- they probably see what we need to get better," Jagr said. "It's kind of tough to get from a team that didn't make the playoffs for seven, eight years, to be a Stanley Cup champion. That would be a miracle, and not many people believed that we could do it.

"We made progress. I think we made good steps, but that's what the organization has to do this summer. This is a new league, and there's a lot of free agents. I feel like we are two, three guys (away) -- if we can get two or three very good guys, you never know."

Free agents are always a nice quick fix, but a long-term system is the answer. Renney needs players that will follow his edicts without question, foot soldiers like Jed Ortmeyer and Ryan Hollweg, who just happened to be among the team's hardest-working and most-effective players this series.

A Jason Strudwick, relegated to seventh-defenseman status for the playoffs, may not be as sexy as a Sandis Ozolinsh or a Tom Poti, but he is the type of player that can be given a role and will execute it without the threat of high-risk deviations from the plan. Those are the players the Rangers need, complementary type role players that can strengthen the whole collectively in a way beyond the scope of highly skilled individual players.

That has been the Devils' secret all along.

The system fits their players, and, now, after years of trial and error, the players fit the system, as well. It works so effectively now that stars like Scott Stevens, Ken Daneyko, Alexander Mogilny and Scott Niedermayer can leave without collapsing the team's rock-solid foundation.

New Jersey put that secret on display for four games against their most-bitter rival this spring. Now, the onus is on that rival to learn from it and absorb the valuable lessons to be gleaned by its exposure.

***

The Rangers-Devils series brought about a lot of e-mail from fans on both sides of the Hudson River. While many of the comments were game-specific and are no longer applicable, a few made the cut to lead this blog's mail bag. There were also other comments from around the playoffs worth posting.

Shawn, what's your take on Tom Renney's comments regarding the referee's penalty calling and alluding to the Devils as possibly diving in some instances. Any substance to the claims or is he just trying to motivate his team.
JN in NYC

My take on Renney's comments, both then and now, is that they were made by a desperate coach looking for any advantage he could in a series that was quickly slipping away from his team. Renney dropped the bombshell, if it can be called that, during the long layover between Games 2 and 3. He suggested at the time that New Jersey players were turning into pucks along the boards to draw boarding penalties on what should have been legal checks. Yet, at the time of his speech, there had been all of two boarding penalties issued against his team -- a Game 1 hit by Michal Rozsival on Jay Pandolfo and a Game 2 neutral-zone hit by Chad Wiseman on Jamie Langenbrunner. At the same time, Jaromir Jagr had drawn a Game 1 boarding call against Colin White by doing much the same thing Renney railed about in his between-games rant. Renney was clearly playing the referee card used by so many coaches in the playoffs, but, this time, it had little effect on a New Jersey team that refused to be bated into a war of words.

You are a complete MORON if you think the Rangers have a chance in hell! IF there is a Game 5, it will be nice to advance at home. May your Rangers miss another seven postseasons!
Mike Traficante

Mike, I may be a complete moron in many regards, as I have exposed with a few of my brain locks when it comes to facts in earlier blogs. But, in this case, I am innocent against all charges. I merely stated the reasons the Rangers could have gotten back into the series. That is, last time I checked, why they played Games 3 and 4 at Madison Square Garden instead of just giving the Devils a walkover into the second round. Also, the Rangers are not "MY" team. That honor belongs to the Dolan family and GM Glen Sather, who are far more qualified than I to do those jobs. Finally, before calling others names, you might want to check your math. It was nine years (2006-1997) -- not seven, as you suggest -- between playoff appearances for the Blueshirts. Enjoy the rest of the playoffs.

Just surfed across your blog and enjoyed it quite a bit. I, too, commute into NYC and love a thick and juicy N.Y. Post. Do you see Primeau returning for these playoffs?
Dan Marcus

Dan, thanks for the compliment. The Post does have just about everything a reader needs to tackle the mind-numbing commute into the city on New Jersey Transit. Easy-to-digest overview of the news, Page 6, fantastic photos and opinionated sports coverage. A winning combo, to be sure. Although I must admit I was somewhat dismayed by the gratuitous and unprovoked shots the paper's hockey columnist took at New Jersey forward Grant Marshall during the latter half of the series. It went beyond the pale, in my opinion. As for Primeau, no I don't believe he will be seen in the first round. It is too risky a proposition as the return of Jagr proved to be for the Rangers in Game 4. I doubt you will see Primeau at all in these playoffs, even if the Flyers rebound and advance against Buffalo. He has not played any hockey and would struggle to catch up to the pace even if his post-concussion issues were to miraculously evaporate in the coming days.

Hi Shawn,

I'm a French hockey fan. First of all, I'd like to thank you for the quality of your English and your analysis. I have been learning English for six years, mostly by reading your articles. I'd like to thank all the NHL.com columnists. You guys are doing a terrific job out there.
I'd like to know your point of view on this:
Don't you think that the Detroit Red Wings' 124 points in the regular-season is not a good indicator of the team's real worth. I think Detroit won the President's Trophy because it is in the weakest NHL division. We can consider that the 48 points Detroit could win in the inter-division games against those teams are easier to earn than in the Northwest Division where the leader, Calgary, barely passed the 100-point mark and where even fifth-ranked Minnesota had a good season. Detroit is a Stanley cup contender and a delight for a hockey fan, I don't put that into question. But I don't think its domination in the regular season will be as easily established in the postseason.
I think Buffalo or Ottawa will win the Stanley Cup this season.

Ludovic Dujardin

Thank you for your compliments. I will pass them on to my co-workers. We like to think that we deliver an entertaining, thought-provoking product, but it is always nice to hear it from the readers. Also, I wish I could say that I have mastered the French language as well as you have English. Sadly, however, four years of high-school French have rendered me still incapable of carrying on a conversation. Although, my minimalistic French did allow me to get directions to the Montreal Forum during one of my favorite college road trips. So, all is not lost.

As for the Red Wings, I think playing in the Central hurt their playoff preparations, but cannot take away from their regular-season accomplishments. You play the teams on your schedule and win as many games as you can. That's all you can ask for from a team. Plus, Detroit did win 33 games against non-divisional competition, which is nothing to scoff at. But, I think the absence of meaningful competition on a nightly basis, especially after Detroit ran away and hid with the division and conference titles, allowed the team to become somewhat complacent. Now, it has struggled to find that extra gear against an opponent that has been playing playoff hockey for the better part of a month already. The fact that Detroit is facing elimination against the eighth seed is not, in my opinion, the reflection of a weak regular-season schedule, but rather the result of a team that has been into its finishing kick since the middle of March. But, don't write the Red Wings off just yet. If Detroit can find a way out of this current predicament, they will spell trouble for the West's remaining teams going forward.

Posted by Shawn @ 4:22 p.m.



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