SHARKS AND THE DIVISION RACE
Welcome to the dog days of the NHL season. The All Star game is in the rear view mirror and the trade deadline is still a week away. It’s been a rough stretch for the Sharks who have points in only 4 of 10 games this month and on the mega road trip they have 3 points so far out of a possible 12. All of the sudden a .500 road trip sounds pretty good.
The upside is that the Sharks still have 24 games to play, almost a third of their season. And they remain on top of the Pacific Division tied with the suddenly charging Phoenix (8-1-1 last 10). With the LA Kings 3 points behind San Jose, it’s looking like a three team race for the division crown. Phoenix beat LA last night for their final regular season matchup. Then down the stretch in March and April the Sharks face both the Kings and Coyotes three times each. Therein may lie the season, at least from the standpoint of winning the division. And in the Pacific Division this year if you don’t win it outright you’ll be in a dogfight to get into the post season at all.
The NHL trade deadline is Monday, February 27. There’s always a lot of rumors surrounding the deadline and this year is no different. Columbus may end up trading Rick Nash (LA is considered a possible destination) or they may wait until the off-season when they can interest more teams. And that’s the thing about the trade deadline. More often than not it fails to live up to the hype because blockbuster trades are rarely done in February.
Today’s NHL General Managers build their teams over the summer with the draft, free agency and trades. And this coming summer will be especially challenging because nobody’s really sure what the new collective bargaining agreement will present in the way of obstacles and opportunities. I wouldn’t expect many huge deals between now and Monday.
As one prominent GM recently said, “There’s always big named bandied about but ultimately, it’s about veteran depth. You want someone who’s been in the league, someone to give you more depth. Realistically, there might be 20-25 trades leading up to the deadline, and most of them are going to be secondary players. If you’re going anywhere in the playoffs, the nucleus needs to carry you. You’re not going to make a trade now that’s going to change the whole fortune of your team. You bring in somebody in to complement.”
HOCKEY DAY IN AMERICA
This past Sunday was Hockey Day In America. It’s a day set aside to celebrate the game, not just the NHL. My hockey day was indeed a celebration. I was able to step away from the Sharks road trip and visit my son in Chicago where he was playing in a High Performance Hockey League event. It’s a league for 16-year-old AAA players and it involves the best teams in the country. My son Michael plays for the Dallas Ice Jets. On Saturday night they knocked off the highly regarded Team Illinois of Chicago for their biggest win of the year up to that point. The next morning they lost a heart breaker to the Chicago Young Americans but Michael had his finest day of the season scoring three goals and capping off the hat-trick with a breakaway goal.
Then on Sunday afternoon, in one of the most thrilling hockey games I’ve ever witnessed, the Ice Jets led the 8th ranked team in the USA, Shattuck St. Mary’s 4-2 with just under 2 minutes to go (Hahn scored on another breakaway!). Shattuck then pulled their goalie and promptly scored two quick goals to tie the score. Then with just seconds to go the underdog Ice Jets got a lucky bounce and scored the winning goal and took the game by a final of 5-4. It was an amazing day for the players, the coaches and the parents. It’s a Hockey Day in America we won’t soon forget!
RANDOM THOUGHTS ON THE NHL
The recent announcement that the 2013 Winter Classic will be played between Detroit and Toronto already has me pumped up to see the HBO 24/7 annual 4 part series leading up to the game. Mostly, I’m looking forward to seeing Ron Wilson in action behind the scenes and also seeing him needle the Toronto media.
When the Sharks acquired Dominic Moore
from Tampa last week, San Jose became his 9th different stop on the circuit. It also produced an amazing stat. Moore is the only player in the league that can walk into any one of the 30 NHL dressing rooms and find at least one of his former teammates playing there. In San Jose that player is Brent Burns
whom he played with in Minnesota.
Watching the St. Louis Blues approach to the game against the Sharks recently reminded me of the old New Jersey Devils. Boring. I fully respect that Ken Hitchcock has to coach a style that compliments the players he has on his roster. And you can’t argue with the success they’ve had since ‘Hitch took over. But doesn’t it say somewhere that professional hockey is an entertainment product? Yes, the Devils won Stanley Cups with their lock down style but they had trouble selling all of their playoff tickets because win or lose it was dull hockey.
At the other end of the spectrum the Washington Capitals are finding out that you can’t win with too much sizzle at the expense of substance. The absence of their best player, Nicholas Backstrom, and their best defenceman Mike Green have been huge blows for sure. But the Caps goal of winning a Cup with Alexander Ovechkin riding shotgun seems to be in trouble. “Ovi” is still a very good player but he’s not the force he was 3 or 4 years ago and while his individual skills are exceptional the jury is out as to whether or not he makes the players around him better.
I’d put money on GM Steve Yzerman and Lightning owner Jeff Vinik turning things around in Tampa, sooner rather than later. Yzerman is stockpiling draft picks he’ll use to bolster a core of players that includes Steve Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Victor Hedman. On the business side the renovation of the Tampa Times Forum has made that arena a fun place to be with it’s outdoor terraces and pre-game concerts. But for some reason I just get the vibe that Vinny Lecavalier won’t be there when the Lightning make noise again in the playoffs.
We don’t get to see them enough, and until realignment goes through that won’t change, but the Carolina Hurricanes are fun to watch. Nineteen year olds Jeff Skinner and defenseman Justin Faulk both scored against the Sharks last week and could be huge stars in the league in a few years. Provided that Eric Staal’s first half slump was a one time occurrence, the ‘Canes in front of former Conn Smythe winning goalie Cam Ward should be relevant again soon.