Thursday, January 24, 2008

Geno Malkin and the need for better thinking about hockey

First, a few AHL thoughts before I delve into the meat of this post.

Steve Downie, yay or nay?
The man is a terror, in some ways in the best sense. He is scoring points: eight in a nine-game stretch, which is a ++ for a guy labeled by scouts as a projected third-line agitator. And he is, of course, a pain in the ass. He thumbed Jason Blake in the eye and punched him while he was in the grasp of the referee. He fought Dave Clarkson of the Devils (video below), cut him (possibly with this visor), knocked out a tooth, and then, apparently, tried to rake his eye like an old-time wrestler.

Would you want him on your team? Would I want him on the Islanders? My impulse reaction: no. The grinder/fighter players I've enjoyed through the years have been the likes of Aaron Asham and similar players. We all have a tendency to overrate their value to their respective teams, but I always enjoyed the true middleweight fighting/checker. When Asham made Matt Barnaby cry, and I was in attendance, it was a highlight of my life as hockey fan. But (but but), am I (are we) being honest? Chris Simon comes to mind, and there's a decent argument to be made that Downie is far more valuable to the Flyers than Simon is to the Islanders (when either is allowed to play). I wasn't happy about the Hollwegg thing, but a lot of that unhappiness stemmed from not wanting the team to get the Goon label, not wanting to watch ESPN for the next 12 days, and not wanting anyone affiliated with the Rangers (or their fans) to have any reason to feel, even for a moment, self-righteous. When Simon stepped on Ruutu's big toe, I shook my head in agreement when The Mullet said Simon could have hurt him if he wanted to, and didn't, and laughed when Jaroslav sent an e-mail that said, "Chris Simon should not be taking time off to get his shit together. He should get a medal for stomping Ruutu."

We read enough, and hear enough from the hockey media about players "on the edge" when Simon or Downie find their way onto the news. And we hear a lot from pundits who share the opinion of Kelly "a message to you ... quit" Hrudey on HNIC's daily radio show: A league featuring a reserved spot for the true fighter is far preferable to a league loaded with pests such as Downie and Hrudey's personal boil, Sean Avery. Really? You'd rather have Eric Godard than Sean Avery -- Godard having membership in the 1 pt. club?

So Steve Downie, yay or nay? I'll stick with nay, because I think it's more than likely he'll either cripple someone or bite off a finger (shades of Hatcher?) before this is through. And don't forget, he's the kid who tried to brain someone in what I recently heard described as the "lawless Canadian Junior Leagues." But there's a part of me that knows were Downie to find his way to the island, I'd be telling the people I worked with that "no, this isn't worse than the Bert Toosery thing, he only cost this guy his hearing in his left ear, and the guy can still walk."

Anyway, that's hockey.

A few of Downie's finest (with the final word for Grapes):

The Reappearing Case of Geno Malkin, and dumb hockey thoughts
If msnbc is writing aboat Sidney Crosby, we've got cultural penetration. Let's all thank the weather gods for snow at the Winter Classic, and for thus bringing Crosby into the national light, and then, for thus resulting in expanded coverage of his injury.

Once the "when will he be back" story was comprehensively covered and speculated upon, the attention of the media was turned to a seemingly rejuvenated Evgeni Malkin who (you read it here first) was thrust back in a centreing role on the Penguins, and also thrust into the role of replacing Jesus. Ned Braden can sympathize. HNIC just-before-dark radio tackled the issue this week, with the needlessly employed Cassie Campbell dumbing things down for an audience learning too much from Jeff Marek. Each expressed some interest in Malkin's revival. And Cassie, because she is wrapped in the myopic culture of the Canadian hockey lockerroom, commented on Malkin's displays of "emotion" vs. the Caps (and also Ovechkin's, but he is coming close to being considered by the Canadians to be something other than of Russian origin), which were out of character for what she expects of her Russians, despite being born a year after the overrated, ultimately embarrassing Summit Series. We have reached a point, methinks, at which it is incomprehensibly stupid to characterize any of hockey's foreign players as possessing certain characteristics common to the group as whole, simply because there are too many foreign players, and they've been here too long.

A topic of greater interest might be Michel Therrien's continued mishandling of the Penguins. Is it a great surprise that Malkin can play? Is it a great surprise that a giant, nearly immovable centreman with finishing skills, passing skills, and some "edge," might ought to maybe possibly could be smart and good enough to play some centre? He doesn't need Crosby drawing defenders' attention away to shoot open goals. A player whose greatest strength is his short game, so to speak, should thrive with a combination of some decent-enough two-way winger and a floating finisher (or, as the journalist and general practitioner of hockey wisdom, Douglas Schneider, said today, "one of those table hockey guys who just spins in a circle waiting for the puck"). And, when Crosby is healthy, you have two lines that can score, and you don't need to spend 40 min. a night dressing up Jennifer Love Hewitt in Claude Julien's flannel pajamas (if her ass is too big for this country, I'll be an ex-pat by playoff time).

Maybe I'm wrong, maybe not. But it sure beats talking about how neat it is to see a Russian express human emotions.

More dumb thoughts: Bruce Boudreau called into the show. He's doing a helluva job in Washington, D.C. I considered taking the Caps on NHL 08 and trying to rejuvenate them for a Cup run, but I like Bruce Boudreau so much, I thought he'd do a good enough job in real life that my video efforts would somehow feel lacking. It was a good decision. Instead, I use the Wild and run two forecheckers all night, giving Jacques Lemaire heart pain he can't explain.

Ovechkin comes up in the HNIC conversation. Marek comments on the hit Ovechkin tried to lay on Malkin in Monday night's game (see below post for highlights), and asks Boudreau which part of Ovechkin's game is more valuable to the team, his scoring ability, or his physical play. Boudreau says, "they're about equal." End of conversation. Goddamn.

I've spent some time online researching what I would (and other people since 2004 or '05) call hockey's version of sabermetrics (for the uninitiated, or at least those who actually work whilst at work, sabermetrics is the statistical study of baseball performances, of which a watered-down version was heralded in Michael Lewis' Moneyball, is often credited to Bill James and his fantastic Baseball Abstracts, and is kept alive on hundreds of web sites, most notably Baseball Prospectus, and my personal favorite,, and I've discovered two things, the latter of which is no surprise. The first is that statistical analysis of hockey performance is in its infancy. The second, which may help to explain the first, is something any hockey fan who studies other sports likely already knows: Hockey is such a fluid, chaotic, team-oriented, and ephemeral game, it is very difficult to create meaningful numeric structures to explain what is happening, or what has happened, on the ice.

(jeebus, as I write this, the effing Bs have gone up 4-0 on the Isles. Anything short of a Deb Kaufman pole dance at the intermission is going to send me to the Rangers game to root for the Thrashers. Lucic is a beast.)

But I know, even though I cannot yet find a statistical way of defending this or expressing it, that Ovechkin's superb ability to score goals, an ability very, very few people in the world possess, is far more valuable to the Washington Capitals than his ability to run into people, sort of like Steve Webb. Now, I don't expect Bruce Boudreau to come out and say this, because he probably understands there is marginal value to be gained from Ovechkin's physical play, especially if it is controlled enough it doesn't take away from his ability to score. So he, and thus the Caps, stands to gain from encouraging Ovechkin, and his teammates, to keep popping people. But why, oh why? doesn't Jeff Marek (who is, by far, one of the best hockey gabbers in the business) ask him what the hell he's talking about? Another example, not necessarily related but equally as soft, occurred during tonight's show when Marek asked an NHL goon (more on this later) if the new extension of the Vs. contract was exclusive, and if ESPN could elbow into the picture (a good question, one of high interest for me). The goon told Marek this wasn't the appropriate time to discuss the issue, it was a time to celebrate. Marek moved on.

Goddammit Jeff! I am a hockey fan, as are you, and that is a tremendously important question to those of us south of border. And you let him off the hook. I want to know. And, I want to know why Bettman's flak for the day said "the NHL have provided Vs. with great content, and they have given us a good product in return." (I would, and will, argue it is less than good, but that's a different fight.)

Ok. I will close on a positive note, keeping in mind the recent commitment of The Mediocre Among Us to do the same: I love the NHL Network. Thank you. "On the Fly" is the Anti-ESPN, and for that I offer congratulations, thank yous, and a promise to buy a new Islanders cap before the summer.

Good night. And I leave you on a happy note. Check out The Maven at the 1:49 mark.

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