No matter what teams look like on paper, the results are never certain.
Since the lockout ended, we have seen greater parity among teams than at any time in the last 30 years.
Just look at the Stanley Cup champions from the mid-1970's until last year. Three teams won the Stanley Cup between 1976 and 1988 (Montreal, New York Islanders and Edmonton). There were back to back winners in 1991 and 1992 (Pittsburgh) and 1997 and 1998 (Detroit). Since that time, only the Red Wings and Devils have won it twice. Since the lockout ended, we've seen four different winners in as many years.
And right now, it looks to me that we'll five different winners in as many years.
I watched the fabulously entertaining Pittsburgh-Washington game on Sunday and can't help but think that it's going to be pretty difficult to de-rail the Capitals. Looking at a team that has now won 14 straight games, I saw a few similarities to an untested, dynamic and reckless Edmonton Oiler team right before they won their first Cup.
There is that frenetic style that is difficult to tame. The Oilers would toy with opponents, putting a needed burst on here and there when they needed to in order to win. But when the importance of the games increased, so did their tempo. They made you try to keep up. They were big. They were more physical than you realized. If you scored four goals, they scored fives. There are also personnel similarities that can't be ignored. Follow along with me here and you'll this is not far fetched! Don't forget, I'm thinking of the pre-Cup winning Oilers here.
Let's start with a high risk, high reward defenceman in Mike Green. He can be erratic - as Paul Coffey could be at times - but both would play like a rover, pop-up at odd spots on the ice with the puck on their stick and make opponents have to worry about them at all times.
Wayne Gretzky was clearly on a different level - joined only in his generation by Mario Lemieux - but it was his feel for the game and his sublime passing skills that really awed me. Nicklas Backstrom plays in that role in Washington, and while I am not saying that he's Gretzky (and who is?), he is a brilliant passer and is only coming into his own at age 22.
Grant Fuhr caught right handed, was highly acrobatic, and was just developing the "big game" reputation that he deserved. Jose Theodore catches right handed, is probably in the Caps' net only because of an injury to Semyon Varlamov, but in his own acrobatic way has come off the mat and resurrected his career with a personal 10-game winning streak.
Mark Messier was an absolute brute with a predator feel to his game, whether he was looking for the big hit or pushing the dagger in with a big goal. Sound familiar? Doesn't Alexander Ovechkin have a lot of that in him? The Caps never seemed too far away trailing 4-2 and Ovechkin made sure there was life left in their winning streak with his two third period goals.
The Caps as a whole have outscored teams by an unbelievable 30-6 margin in the third period of their winning streak. Their pace wears teams down. They will take chances because they are confident that they can outscore any mistake.
And here's the stat line that shows that they have the necessary will to battle back when they trail: only one team in the NHL has a winning record when they give up the 1st goal. Yup, that's the Capitals – who are 15-6-2 after Sunday's win.
Until the Stanley Cup is awarded (of course nothing is guaranteed), the Caps have to be at the very top among the contenders.
Now one last point - there is nothing more compelling than watching Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin play head-to-head against each other. They drive each other towards incredible performances.
Kings For A Day?
I'm not sure when we'll start taking the Los Angeles Kings seriously, but it has to be pretty quick.
Trailing Detroit 3-0 after 20 minutes in on Saturday, the Kings rattled off four straight goals to win their ninth straight game. Jonathan Quick has won a league-leading 34 games and is most likely playing himself into the mix behind Ryan Miller for the U.S. Olympic team's back-up job.
We know this is a good, fast and aggressive team that is really starting to believe that it should win. The Kings have not made the playoffs since 2002 and they will end that streak this year!
1) I'll be curious to see how much Jacques Lemaire will try to reign in Ilya Kovalchuk. He has never played in a structured system before and takes among the longest shifts in the league. Now I've heard rumblings that Kovalchuk is selfish and not a winner. I played with Ilya when he first came to Atlanta and like any scorer, he wants his shots.
But he is not a bad teammate - and wants to win badly. If he wasn't concerned about winning, he would've grabbed the $101 million form Atlanta and brought out a rocking chair. The Devils will love what he can do for them. He has one of the top three releases in the game alongside Ovechkin and Semin. And (yikes!) that's a pretty good group on the Russian power play in a week or so.
2) Anton Khodobin got his first NHL win when he relieved an injured Josh Harding against Edmonton last week. He played the last 9:33 of the game - the shortest stint ever for anyone in their first NHL victory. He made his first start against Philadelphia a couple days later and stopped 17 shots in the first period en route to a 2-1 victory with 38 saves. It seems even more remarkable considering he lost 13 straight games in the AHL this year.
3) Finally, I want to pass along my condolences to Brian Burke and his family. The terrible loss of his son Brendan is incomprehensible to me. Most know Brian through his persona in the media, but he has a very generous and private side and will go to the wall for friends and family. Take a moment to think about your kids - I know I did - and realize how quickly things can change. And think about Brendan - a brave young man who was just making his mark in the world.
Razor, - Say Kovy signed the 12-year, $100 million contract and three years from now Thrashers get sold and moved to Kansas City, Hamilton, Winnipeg - he doesn't want to live there! He wants to be on a winner just like every athlete should. A winning team that has solid roots, a place where he can go and make extra money off endorsements. You know that doesn't happen here in Atlanta! Oh well, another Thrashers Captain bites the dust. Three things you can guarantee in life, death, taxes and being traded in the NHL if you are the captain of the Thrashers, as you know firsthand!
Being the Thrashers captain has not proved to be such a secure job. Kelly Buchberger, Steve Staios, myself, Kovy...the next guy should turn the job down! It is a good point about the potential of a franchise move and the uncertainty that goes with it. To me, this was about Kovalchuk just wanting out - turning down $100 million made that clear to me.
Hey Ray, What are your comments regarding the glaring omission of Tim Connolly from the roster. Connolly's a point a game player and in today's NHL. He runs the Sabres PP, he's big and strong and has a tremendous shot. Yes he's had injury problems in the past, but how can the U.S. select a player like Chris Drury (currently eight goals, 11 assists) over Connolly (14 goals, 38 assists)?
Most teams have players that are on teams that are questioned by fans. You can go through any roster at the Olympics and there are probably those same questions. I do know the U.S. likes Drury's experience on a young team, but I do wonder what they will get from him at the Olympics. Now they aren't looking for him to be on the power play, but Drury is at a stage in his career where he is best not as a top 2 line player. Don't forget, Connolly has 23 of his 58 points after the U.S. team was announced.
I'm beginning to wonder if these "no trade" contracts are good for hockey. A guy signs for big bucks and then demands the team can't trade him during the length of the contract. It seems to me that this situation heavily favours the players. I guess there is huge pressure on the teams to sign these guys and they really haven't any choice but to live with it. Some players get these great deals and then proceed to do nothing but collect nice pay cheques. It really hampers the teams to make any trades and they can only unload these guys and their salaries if the player agrees. Do you think the "no trade" clause in a contract should be eliminated?
I am constantly amazed by the types of players that get no-trade contracts. You are correct, however, that teams feel under great pressure to give players these deals to be competitive. They can't be eliminated, per se, but teams can just stop handing them out like candy. The no-trade really only works if both parties are happy. Say a team wants to move a player with a no-trade. They can make things uncomfortable for him, cut his playing time and pressure him into seeing that a move might be beneficial for everyone. I think the fairest clause would be a limited no-trade. The player gives a list upon signing a contract that contains 15 teams that he would agree to move to. That seems pretty fair to me.
Ray, great columns - keep 'em coming! I've been watching the Rangers for 11 years now, and I just can't figure it. Why does this team seem to have no heart? Inconsistent play, inconsistent effort, very little team commitment (the Gaborik fight and Girardi's non-response comes to mind) are all hallmarks of the Rangers year after year. People talk about living in NYC and enjoying all it has to offer as a possible reason, but I wonder if there is some other aspect here that we just aren't hearing about. Any insight you can offer much appreciated.
The issues you talk about have not much to do with the city I'm afraid. Look at the players that have been brought into New York since you started following. Players past their prime, paid huge money and with predictably poor results. I have been somewhat critical of the Rangers for a while, mostly for a misguided approach that just doesn't work. Think about this - who, besides the Rangers, ties up 10 years and $60 million on Wade Redden and Michal Rozsival? Or a combined 12 years and $86 million on Scott Gomez and Chris Drury? This theory has never worked and it doesn't work now. If you add in the above letter's concern for no-trade contracts, you have jammed yourself into a corner with very little escape room.
Ray, for the past couple of years I've been hearing about how the West is by far the better conference and that the teams in the West are bigger, stronger, faster...etc. However, four of the last six Stanley Cup winners come from the Wast. On that note, my question is this: What effect do you think time zones have when Eastern Conference teams visit teams from the Western Conference and vice versa? I realize that players do as much as they can to minimize the impact of time difference, but I'm not convinced that it doesn't play a significant role. Perhaps, this is why the West always seems better in the regular season but that edge seems to not exist in the Stanley Cup final (where time zones shouldn't play a big role due to the number of off days). I'm very interested to hear your thoughts on this theory. Thanks, and keep up the good work.
I do believe that it is a huge factor. I played the first 11 years of my career on the East Coast and it was a breeze compared to the travel on the West Coast. Miles do pile up and if you are the Red Wings - who have drawn the shortest of straws by playing in the Western Conference - your playoff travel alone can be a challenge. Last year, the Wings played Columbus, Anaheim and Chicago before they got to the final. Pittsburgh played Philadelphia, Washington and Carolina. It may not seem significant, but after not traveling outside of their time zone for the last three months, the younger Penguins had a large advantage.
That's it for this week, enjoy the last week before the Olympics - it's starting to get pretty cool here in Vancouver as the athletes and media start to pile in!
Got a question for Ray? Send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org!