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Saturday, October 1, 2005

A Hockey Cynic's Guide to the NHL (Pt. 1)

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So how do you like the new NHL?

Because, after all, it's your NHL.

It certainly isn't mine any more, despite what the ads say.

My NHL wouldn't have 20 power plays a game in order to end "obstruction," only to forget about it during the postseason. And you and I both know that will happen.

But hey, there's now a tradition of having one set of rules for the regular season and another for the playoffs. Like, for example, ending those first "meaningless" 82 games with a shootout — that contemptible sideshow that ensures a winner in every game it's featured in, without a single pass being completed or a defenseman on the ice.

Why not just have them play a hand of Texas Hold'em instead?

Maybe then ESPN would have invited us back.

(Speaking of television, I'm glad Gary Bettman has continued to build on his stature as a marketing genius by creating an ad campaign that managed to offend fans, bewilder non-fans, and piss off feminists. All with a commercial that looked like it could have been for an electric razor. When is this stooge going back to Middle Earth where he belongs?)

Look, I'm not all doom and gloom. Tag-up off-sides? Awesome. Refusing a line change to a team that ices the puck? Great. That trapezoid thing for the goalies? It'll help the forecheck, but I'm not a fan of restricting the movement of any player on the ice. Legalized two-line passes? Eh, it'll be fun until the defenses adapt, or the fans get tired of watching poor 50-foot passes for three periods.

It's going to be a hell of a season. Let's take a look at it, shall we?

We hit the Prince of Wales Conference this week, and the Campbell next week. And don't give me any of that "but the season will have already started" crap. One game isn't going to give me any more insight than I already have ... unless Bertuzzi goes nuts again on Opening Night and costs himself another season.

Patrick Division


Why They Won't Win the Stanley Cup — There are three good reasons. First, the NHL has finally decided that the only to keep Jersey out of the winners' circle is to throw out the entire rulebook and write a new one. Goalies can't play the puck behind their own net? Gee, which goalie was that written for? I seriously hope Marty Brodeur isn't paranoid, because if I were him, I'd be wondering when the NHL establishes the "players whose last names contain 'odeur' can no longer were masks or pads" amendment.

Second, the Devils have a strong defense, but no longer have a leader on that defense. I like they way they've reloaded with Vlad Malakhov and Dan McGillis joining players like Brian Rafalski, Colin White, Paul Martin, and Richard Matvichuk. But out of those players, who's the lockdown guy? Who's the penalty-kill-in-overtime guy? That's where losing Scott Niedermayer and Scott Stevens hurts the most.

Third, it appears Lou Lamoriello's approach to the new NHL landscape is "Cap, Schmap." He overpaid for Malakhov and Alex Mogilny. Dumping Jeff Friesen before the season because of a numbers crunch tells me the Devils weren't ready for the realities of cap economics, which is amazing considering Lou's track record.

Worst Excuse For a Player — Darren Langdon, who came into this league about seven years after guys who scored 16 goals and earned 1,229 penalty minutes in 507 career games actually deserved a roster spot.

Worst Case Scenario — Patrik Elias returns from his bout with Hepatitis ... and ends up getting The Clap on a road trip to Toronto.


Why They Won't Win the Stanley Cup — Because retooling half your team just so you can take advantage of the legalization of two-line passes does not a Cup winner make. The Isles flipped Adrian Aucoin and Kenny Jonsson for Alexei Zhitnik and Brent Sopel. They turned Michael Peca into Mike York. They added Satan – no, they didn't re-acquire Bertuzzi. The other Satan (Miroslav). And don't forget Alexei Yashin, who might now actually have a legitimate reason to spend two periods floating around the neutral zone. On paper, this group takes advantage of the new rules. But if hockey games were played on paper, Mike Milbury would still suck.

Worst Excuse For a Player — Petteri Nokelainen. I don't care how good he is. You can't be named Petteri Nokelainen on a team that already has Janne Niinimaa and Justin Papineau. There are starving nations out there that don't even have two vowels in their name, let along, like, 40.

Worst Case Scenario — Rick DiPietro can't find consistency, and Garth Snow takes over. Only, because of the new rules, his goalie equipment is now the size of two tampons and a Brillo pad.


Why They Won't Win the Stanley Cup — Because it isn't 2048 yet.

Worst Excuse For a Player — Tom Poti. Has there ever been another defenseman who was ever just there all the time? Not good, not bad, just there? Tom Poti in Russian is Alexander Karpovtsev.

Worst Case Scenario — Messier decides to take one last shot at glory, and all of a sudden the Rangers' top line is Moose, Jari Kurri, and 45-year-old Glenn Anderson.


Why They Won't Win the Stanley Cup — Well, they actually might, to tell you the truth. I'm still stunned they didn't win it back in 2004. Now, they managed to cut some old baggage with Jeremy Roenick, John LeClair, and Tony Amonte. They return Keith Primeau, who went all Claude Lemieux in the playoffs last time. They return some really strong young players in Simon Gagne, Michael Handzus, and Joni Pitkanen. They add Darian Hatcher, if he's got anything left, and Mike Rathje, who has plenty left. Oh, and they also signed some Swedish kid — I heard he had his own postage stamp once.

Worst Excuse For a Player — Donald Brashear. He's stuck on 1,999 penalty minutes. Darn ... too bad he didn't get that extra two for interference when he injured Byron Dafoe before McSorley whacked him in the noggin.

Worst Case Scenario — The only thing holding the Flyers back from the Cup is the goaltending tandem of Robert Esche and Antero Niittymaki, his understudy. Both are good, strong young goalies. But one bad series from Esche, and the Flyers fall short again.


Why They Won't Win the Stanley Cup — Because the Penguins aren't going to have a 60-minute power play. With Sergei Gonchar on the blue line and forwards like Mario Lemieux, Ziggy Palffy, Mark Recchi, LeClair, Ryan Malone, and Sid the Kid in front of him, the Pens might have as good a power play as we've seen in the NHL since the last great unit in Pittsburgh during the Mario/Jaromir Jagr/Ron Francis/Larry Murphy days. But five-on-five, and playing beyond the top two lines, the Pens are very ordinary.

Worst Excuse For a Player — Marc-Andre Fleury. Somebody get this kid a copy of "The Ryan Leaf Story."

Worst Case Scenario — Renowned hockey journalist Stan Fischler continues his unending quest to nickname Sidney Crosby "Der Bingle II," after Bing Crosby. "When asked about being nicknamed Der Bingle II," wrote Fischler in his column, "Sid drew a blank." Yeah, so does anyone who doesn't have a copy of "Road to Zanzibar" on their DVD shelf. Oh, sorry, Stan: I meant Betamax shelf.

Adams Division


Why They Won't Win the Stanley Cup — Because even if unsigned Nick Boynton comes back to the fold, the Bruins have a defense that's basically "The Golden Girls on Ice." Brian Leetch (D.O.B. Born: Mar 3, 1968) as Sophia. Hal Gill (Born: Apr 6, 1975) as Rose. Jiri Slegr (Born: May 30, 1971) as Blanche. And Ian Moran (Born: Aug 24, 1972) as Dorothy; not only because he's a little up in the years, but because if you throw a dress on him...

Worst Excuse For a Player — Colton Orr. As if Bostonian fans haven't had enough pain and frustration in their lives, now they get to watch a guy in a Bruins uniform with Orr on the back ... and he's a big, dumb checking winger.

Worst Case Scenario — Joe Thornton gives up hockey to captain the Sam Adams Lager International Barroom Brawling team.


Why They Won't Win the Stanley Cup — Because there are still players on this team that are just happy the checks clear every week. Oh, and because if their defense was the human birth cycle, they'd be a zygote.

Worst Excuse For a Player — Tim Connolly. Hasn't scored more than 14 goals in any of his four full seasons. At what point does "potential" cross over into "underachievement?"

Worst Case Scenario — They become the first people to witness their lives actually getting worse after rejecting Satan.


Why They Won't Win the Stanley Cup — Because Jose Theodore won't be able to carry this team that far, and because most of the Habs look like they just stepped off the boat from Lilliput.

Worst Excuse For a Player — Marcel Hossa, who's basically a poor man's Brent Gretzky.

Worst Case Scenario — The Canadiens can't capitalize on the NHL's new speed-friendly rules, and the League decides to toughen its rules against diving, much to the chagrin of Alexei Kovalev.


Why They Won't Win the Stanley Cup — Because there's a one-in-seven chance they'll face the Maple Leafs in the Eastern Conference playoffs. And because Dominik Hasek will never be Dominik Hasek again.

Worst Excuse For a Player — Vaclav Varada played his first NHL game in 1995, and has 162 points in 417 games. He's out for six weeks with a sprained MCL — will anyone miss him?

Worst Case Scenario — Beyond taking another prison rape from the Leafs in the postseason, the other big concern is chemistry. How will the Sens handle the Dany Heatley-for-Marian Hossa trade? Or Zdeno Chara's potential free agency? There are more than a few simmering distractions for a team that's never really been that cohesive to begin with.


Why They Won't Win the Stanley Cup — The most heartwarming story of the NHL preseason was the sudden realization by the Leafs that they are slow and old. Or, as Steve Thomas told the Toronto Sun, "It's frustrating because it is no longer a man's game out there. If I can get a 220-pound guy to fall down just by putting my stick on him, it shouldn't happen." Boo-hoo, sweetie.

Worst Excuse For a Player — Eric Lindros should not be playing in this league. He's one shot to the head away from a lifetime of drooling into his Hart Trophy while watching tapes of the '97 Cup Finals. And Jesus, man, could you stop picking teams that everybody fracking loathes? I say quit hockey and dedicate one year to Habitat For Humanity for each season you played with the Flyers, Rangers, and Leafs.

Worst Case Scenario — Losing Ed Belfour for the season, which would mean Mikael Telqvist steps into the blinding, scalding spotlight in Toronto. Yikes!

"The South Begins at K Street" Division


Why They Won't Win the Stanley Cup — Because as good as Kari Lehtonen might be in goal, the Thrashers don't have enough quality defense in front of him to make a sustained run in the postseason. But boy are they loaded up front, especially if Ilya Kovalchuk puts down the vodka and heads back over the pond at some point.

Worst Excuse For a Player — Bobby Holik. Okay, he's actually a pretty good player and will help this team by knocking somebody's teeth out now and again. But have you ever heard this guy talk? I actually do a wicked good Holik impression. Basically, take whatever your Ah-nold impression is, raise it up an octave, speed it up a bit, pretend you have a stuffy nose, and instead of using periods at the end of your thoughts, use the transition "and you know."

Here, try this sample:

"Da Devilz are a team dat I tink I could play for again if I wanted to and you know dat deh are a team dat I plate for when deh won da Stanley Cups and you know dat deh are a team dat gave me da chance to play for da Cups and you know dat..."

Worst Case Scenario — I was going to make a joke here about Marian Hossa and sports cars, but let's not go there.


Why They Won't Win the Stanley Cup — There's, like, a gazillion reasons, but let's focus on one. The 'Canes' goaltending situation is going to be a mess this season. Cam Ward isn't ready for the starting job. Martin Gerber, like GiggyPuff Marshmallow Goalie, was the product of a defensive system in Anaheim. Unfortunately for Gerber, the Carolina defense is like pureed bananas. (Because his name is Gerber, see — like the baby food. I'll shut up now.)

Worst Excuse For a Player — Oleg Tverdovsky. An offensive defenseman who doesn't generate much offense or play much defense. Go figure!

Worst Case Scenario — The Panthers move to Vegas first.


Why They Won't Win the Stanley Cup — Because this team is just flat-out weird, man. At one point before the lockout, it seemed like every line was populated with European and Russian forwards, mixed in with some no-name North American players here and there. Now, GM Mike Keenan has thrown Joe Nieuwendyk, Gary Roberts, Martin Gelinas, Jozef Stumpel, and Chris Gratton into the mix. Yet despite all of those veterans, 26-year-old Olli Jokinen is the team captain. Then there are the defensive enigmas named Mike Van Ryan and Jay Boumeester, and Roberto Luongo, a brilliant goalie who is also a bitter goalie after losing his arbitration case this offseason.

Worst Excuse For a Player — Eric Cairns is such a big lunkhead. He's like Zdeno Chara, without the charisma.

Worst Case Scenario — The Hurricanes move to Vegas first.


Why They Won't Win the Stanley Cup — Forget, for a moment, that the Bolts are the defending Cup champions. Forget about Brad Richards, Vincent Lecavalier, and Martin St. Louis. Forget about Dan Boyle and Pavel Kubina. Forget about the fact that this team remains one of the most balanced, yet explosive, in all of hockey. Forgetting all of that, I ask you: do you think this team will win more games with Nikolai Khabibulin between the pipes or a tandem of John Grahame and Sean Burke?

Thought so.

Worst Excuse For a Player — In theory, Vaclav Prospal should have a breakout year in this offense. But you just have the feeling he's never going to get over that 18-22-goal hump he's been stuck on for the last three seasons.

Worst Case Scenario — What can be worse than winning the Cup and then having to wait over a year to raise the banner?


Why They Won't Win the Stanley Cup — Allow me to save us both some valuable time — they just won't, okay?

Worst Excuse For a Player — Ivan Majesky, a defenseman, failed his training camp physical. What was it, a pop quiz? Also a good sign: he's been in the NHL for three seasons, and this is his third team.

Worst Case Scenario — The Caps don't win the lottery.

SportsFan MagazineGreg Wyshynski is the Features Editor for SportsFan Magazine in Washington, DC, and the Senior Sports Editor for The Connection Newspapers of Northern Virginia. His book "Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports History" will be published in Spring 2006. His columns appear every Saturday on Sports Central. You can e-mail Greg at [email protected].

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