APRIL 2007 SOAPBOX ARCHIVES

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CHANGES ARE COMING TO SPECTOR'S HOCKEY.

I've mentioned in the past that there will be changes coming to this website soon, so now's as good a time as any to bring you folks up to speed.

It's been nearly 8 years since I last re-designed this website, and quite frankly, it was long overdue for an overhaul.

First, the design of this site will be brought up to date, giving it a more professional look. Don't worry about too many "bells and whistles", folks, it'll still be easy to find what you're looking for here. There'll also be a new logo and banner for the site.

I'll continue with the tradition of posting the daily updates on the main page, to keep you informed as to the new daily material appearing here.

Of course the trade rumours will remain, as will the Soapbox, Matthew Ryder's "End to End" column and the hockey links page, and I'll keep the links up for the new CBA and for Cory Brolund's Free Agent compilation.

I'll be removing the Playoff Predictions and Season Preview pages, moving those instead to my Foxsports.com blog. I've found that I prefer posting those to my blog, as it generates more responses from my readers.

The Fans Speak Out page will be turned into a message board, removing the need for folks to e-mail their commentaries to me and then waiting for me to posting them up. Now, you'll be able to make your thoughts known about your favourite team or player, or about any other NHL topics of interest at any time, which'll also allow for other readers to chime in with their own comments.

I've been approached by a few readers interested in contributing a column to this site but for now I have no plans to take on new writers at this time. Between updating this site, tracking off-season trade and free agent rumours and now contributing pre-and-post-game analysis of all this year's playoffs games for Foxsports.com, I'm simply too busy to consider taking on new writers. Hopefully, later on in the year, when things have shaken out a little more, I'll have more time to consider taking on new contributors.

As for when the new look will debut, presently I and the site's designers (Compusol) are aiming for no later than Friday, April 20th, although it could appear a couple of days sooner depending on how all the updates shake out.

I'm very excited about the upcoming changes to this site, and look forward to debuting them very soon. Stay tuned.

And Now, Please Rise for the National Anthems of Canada and the United States.

In the NHL, it's customary to rise for the singing of the National Anthems of Canada and the United States, especially when teams from these respective countries square off.

First, the Canadian Anthem, as memorably sung in spine-tingling fashion by Edmonton Oilers fans in last year's playoffs. It's moments like these that make me proud to be Canadian.

 

And the American Anthem, memorably sung by the late, great Marvin Gaye at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game. OK, it wasn't at a hockey game, but it's still the most stirring version of that anthem I've ever heard. If it doesn't send chills down your spine, then you've got no soul.

 

 

APRIL 8: HERE COMES THE PLAYOFFS.

I love hockey, specifically NHL hockey. It helps me make a living and provides me entertainment. That being said, there are some things (which you regular readers know only too well) that I hate about the NHL

One of those things is the interminable length of the regular season. From early October to almost mid-April, thirty teams battle to determine if half of them will make the playoffs.

I suppose that's better than the old system, back in the "Original 21" days, when they'd played an 80-game schedule to qualify sixteen teams for the playoffs. As one ancient scribe whose name eludes me once put it, that was akin to burning the house down to get the flies out of the living room.

Still, I find the current 82-game schedule far too long, with far too many games that seemingly have no meaning. I'd love to see the schedule cut back to 70 games, where only the top four teams in each conference made the playoffs, but of course, that's never going to happen.

So we're stuck with a long season of mainly nothing games until its final month, when the bottom feeders desperately battling for one or two of the last playoff berths for the right to become early playoff roadkill.

Oh, sure, sometimes those teams can pull off an upset of a higher seeded club, stealing a round or possibly two, before they run out of steam against teams far more talented than they.

"But Spector,"some of you will say, "sometimes one of those bottom playoff seeds march all the way to the Finals, like the Edmonton Oilers did last year".

Yes, that's true, occasionally a Cinderella team will buck the odds and scrabble their way to either the Conference or Stanley Cup finals, but then reality finally hits and they come crashing back to earth, watching a better team parade around the ice with the Stanley Cup whilst they and their fans tell themselves that it was a magical ride and how it bodes of great promise next season, promise that usually gets dashed.

But hey! That's part of the excitement of the Stanley Cup playoffs, where anything can happen! Upsets can occur! Unsung players can become overnight heroes! Where fame and glory await!

It's easy to get caught up in the excitement of the Stanley Cup playoffs, because finally, after months of nothing games, after a season that by mid-winter appears to drag along, the games have real meaning. The game finally become exciting.

The start of a new season always brings a quick rush of excitement. Every team starts with a clean slate, or perhaps a better metaphor would be "a clean sheet of ice" with the start of each new season, with fresh promise and hope.

Ultimately, however, that fades as the seasons grinds on, yes, even the season's under the "new" NHL, where the games are more watchable than they were under the old CBA, but the feeling of a long grind still remains inescapable by mid-season.

The stretch drive is exciting only for fans of those teams battling to nail down a playoff berth. For those whose teams have already clinched, it's hard to get excited about how important it is finish in the top four seeds to "clinch home ice advantage for the playoffs", especially since it really doesn't make much difference.

It's only the playoffs that get me truly excited about every NHL game. From mid-April to mid-June, every game counts. Every game has meaning. Every victory and loss has important ramifications for all teams involved. Almost every player doesn't just mouth the cliche of "giving 110 percent", but actually go out and try to do just that in every game.

The only negative thing I can say about the Stanley Cup playoffs is the time of year when they occur. It just doesn't feel right to have two teams battling for the Cup in June. Hockey is a winter sport, not a late spring one.

Shortening the season to 70 games could have the playoffs over by early-to-mid May, just like they used to be in the good old days of the 1970s when I was a kid, but as I said before, that'll never happen.

It would probably make more sense to shorten the first two series to best-of-five but again that won't happen.

Regardless, it's the quality of the playoff games that will tear me away from enjoying a warm mid-or-late spring evening outside to cooping myself inside to watch those games, regardless of which clubs are still slugging it out by then.

And like the start of every NHL post-season, this one will have plenty of excitement.

We've got the usual old favourites, like the Red Wings and Devils and Stars, back again for what seems like a perennial shot at winning it all.

There'll be some new clubs in the dance this season, like the Thrashers making their first post-season appearance in franchise history. Or the Wild, making only their second. Or the Penguins, returning to the playoffs for the first time in six years.

There'll be some new faces in this year's playoffs, like Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin, Atlanta's Ilya Kovachuk and Vancouver's Robert Luongo, big stars making their first career post-season appearances.

And there'll be questions galore.

Can the Tampa Bay Lightning go far with their shaky goaltending? Is this the year for the Buffalo Sabres to win it all?

Will the Nashville Predators go deep this season? Will the Ducks make it back to the Finals for the first time since 2003?

Will this be the year the Ottawa Senators finally shake the "playoff choke artists" label? Can Joe Thornton carry the San Jose Sharks to the promised land?

Will one of the dominant teams reign supreme this spring? Or will an underdog finally win it all.

The answers will be known over the next two months, culminating in the crowning of a new Stanley Cup champion.

The long, sometimes dull preliminary round called the NHL regular season is finally over.

The real season is finally about to begin.

APRIL 4. PREPARING FOR THE PLAYOFFS.

To get you all in the mood for the upcoming "second season", here's some highlights from of Stanley Cup championships past since 1970. Enjoy!

Carolina Hurricanes Win 2006 Stanley Cup.

 

2004 Playoff Highlights.

 

Colorado Avalanche Win 2001 Stanley Cup.

 

New Jersey Devils win 2000 Stanley Cup.

 

Dallas Stars 1999 Highlight Reel.

 

New York Rangers vs Vancouver Canucks 1994.

 

Montreal Canadiens win 1993 Stanley Cup.

 

1991 Game Six Stanley Cup Finals Highlights Penguins vs North Stars.

 

Calgary Flames 1989 Championship Montage.

 

Wayne Gretzky's Championship Years in Edmonton.

 

New York Islanders Stanley Cup Win 1980 Stanley Cup.

 

Philadelphia Flyers 40 Years Video.

 

Bobby Orr Scores Hockey's Most Famous Goal.

 

AND NOW...MUSIC!

Have I mentioned how much I love the YouTube!

Anyway, here's a video by one of the greatest artists in popular music, singing one of the greatest...songs...ever! Stevie Wonder in his prime in the early 1970s, singing "Superstition".

 

APRIL 1: RANDOM THOUGHTS FOR THE LAST WEEK OF THIS SEASON.

- The following comments are not part of an April Fool's joke on my part. Just so ya know....

- Three weeks ago, I had given up hope of my Montreal Canadiens making the post-season.

They were a team in disarray falling from fourth overall in the Eastern Conference to twelvth. Their goaltending was shaky with occasional bursts of terrible. Sergei Samsonov turned out to be a whiny bust as a UFA signing. Alex Kovalev did or didn't rip his coach and teammates in an interview with a Russian reporter. Their offensive game had dried up and their defensive game was lousy.

Now, I've move to cautious optimism.

The Canadiens as of this writing has won eight of their last ten games to vault back into a tenuous grip on the last playoff spot in the East.

Why the turnaround? Quite simply, the play of their kids.

Head coach Guy Carbonneau permanently benched Samsonov, put Kovalev with youngsters like Guilluame Latendresse and Maxim Lapierre, placed Chris Higgins and Tomas Plekanec on a line with rookie callup Andrei Kostitsyn, and made another rookie call-up, Jaroslav Halak, his starting goalie down the stretch after one starter got injured and another tanked.

Carbo probably looked at how poorly his team was playing, figured things couldn't get any worse and opted to give his kids more playing time to evaluate their place with the team next season.

The results have been outstanding. The Canadiens now have a more balanced offensive attack than they did earlier in the season, no longer relying solely on the power play for the bulk of their offence, actually outscoring their opposition at even strength.

These moves seemed to rejuvenate the Habs veterans. Kovalev has rediscovered his scoring touch, whilst the play of Higgins, Plekanec and Kostitsyn has taken pressure off the Koivu-Ryder line, which in turn has bolstered their offensive production. The overall defensive game has improved, and Halak has played like a veteran between the pipes.

Even if the Habs ultimately fail to make the playoffs this season, the play of their youngsters bodes well for the future.

- The Vancouver Canucks' recent re-signing of Sami Salo gives them three blueliners each earning $3.5 million per season (Willie Mitchell and Mattias Ohlund are the others). That's a grand total of $10.5 million tied up in those three.

If that's sounds expensive, consider the Toronto Maple Leafs, who have $15 million tied up in Bryan McCabe, Tomas Kaberle and Pavel Kubina.

The Canucks have clinched a playoff berth, while the Leafs are battling with four other teams for the last playoff spot in the East.

Sure, we could cite the fact the Canucks have Roberto Luongo in goal while the Leafs have Andrew Raycroft, but as Don Cherry recently pointed out in his Coach's Corner segment, Raycroft often becomes the scapegoat for the bungling of the Leafs defencemen.

As another pundit recently noted, Salo's making less than McCabe but is the latter's equal. I'd go one further and suggest that Salo is a better all-round blueliner.

Looks like the Canucks got the better deal.

- Tampa Bay's Vincent Lecavalier became the first player this season to hit the 50-goal mark, which was a career high for him. He's also looking like the winner of the 2007 Richard Trophy as the league's top goalscorer.

Anyone still believe the Lightning will trade him this summer as a cost-cutting measure?

I'm sure any day now the rumourmongers will shift their focus from Lecavalier and St. Louis (who has a "no-trade" clause) and start beating the drums on the Brad Richards trade rumours, considering his stats don't match the $7.8 million he earned this season.

And no, I don't believe the Bolts will trade Richards either. They consider him too valuable and as one reader on my blog pointed out, the reason his assists are down but his goals scored are higher this season is because of the poor quality of his linemates.

I expect Richards' numbers will be better next season. Remember, St. Louis struggled last season in the first year of his new deal but rebounded this season.

- The Edmonton Oilers are already out of the playoff race, and the Carolina Hurricanes are teetering on the brink of elimination.

If the Hurricanes fail to make the playoffs, it'll be the first time that both Stanley Cup finalists from one year failed to qualify for the post-season the following year.

It'll also be the third time in 37 years that a defending Stanley Cup champion failed to make the playoffs. The 1970 Montreal Canadiens and the 1996 New Jersey Devils were the other two teams with that dubious distinction.

If they are eliminated, however, I expect they'll be a much improved bunch next season. Sometimes failure can be a cold slap in the face that sparks improvement.

The 1970 Canadiens would win the Stanley Cup in 1971, whilst the 1996 Devils rebounded into one of the NHL's top teams in 1997.

- Leafs GM John Ferguson Jr may have overpaid for some of his defencemen, but he's starting to finally earn some praise from the critical Toronto media for some of his other moves.

OK, so Steve Simmons was giddy over the play of muckers like Chad Kilger and Boyd Devereaux, invisible man Yanic Perreault and overpaid blueliner Pavel Kubina in the Leafs recent stomping of the defending Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes.

I'm more impressed, however, with JFJ's hiring of Paul Maurice as his head coach, re-signing Darcy Tucker to an affordable new contract, sticking with kids like Kyle Wellwood, Alexander Steen, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Ian White, and giving Nik Antropov another shot at redemption.

Ferguson's had to endure the calls for his firing from the Toronto media since he took over as Leafs GM, but I believe it would be a mistake if Leafs ownership dumped him after this season. Slowly but surely he's putting his mark on this team, one that could pay big dividends down the road.

- The Globe & Mail's David Shoalts recently reported of troubling signs ahead for the Atlanta Thrashers.

"The Globe and Mail obtained the NHL's private statistics on net gate receipts, ticket giveaways and paid attendance from the start of the season to Jan. 31. They show the Thrashers were among the league's worst in every category."

Moreover, management is suggesting this season is a critical one for the franchise, that if they fail to make the playoffs or go deep in the post-season it could have an adverse effect on future attendence for the club.

That explains why GM Dave Waddell's pre-trade deadline moves had the whiff of panic about them.

If the draft picks and prospects he shipped out for quick-fixes like Keith Tkachuk and Alexei Zhitnik turn into quality players for the St. Louis Blues and Philadelphia Flyers (especially Braydon Coburn, the promising young blueliner dealt to the Flyers for Zhitnik), that could spell disaster for the club's future development.

Which, in turn, means more potential trouble at the gate.

- Allow me to cite several reasons why the Los Angeles Kings are going to become a very good hockey club in the near future.

Anze Kopitar. Alexander Frolov. Mike Cammalleri. Dustin Brown. Jack Johnson.

That's a solid foundation of budding young talent to build upon. Now if management can improve the team's overall defensive game next season, the Kings could be a playoff contender.

- The Kings aren't the only team I foresee making significant improvement next season in the Western Conference.

The St. Louis Blues and Columbus Blue Jackets have shown a lot of promise under their new respective coaches, Andy Murray and Ken Hitchcock. Depending on their off-season moves, these two teams might also challenge for a playoff berth next season.

- The Florida Panthers will once again miss the playoffs. Look no further for the reason why than former GM Mike Keenan's stupid decision to play hardball with goalie Roberto Luongo, ultimately resulting in the disastrous trade that sent Luongo to Vancouver for damaged goods Todd Bertuzzi, average goalie Alex Auld and average d-man Bryan Allen.

This ranks as one of the worst trades in NHL history. Keenan has since tried to pin the blame for this deal on Luongo and Panthers management, but the bottom line is, he's the one who made this trade. There's no dodging his responsibility in this.

It'll now be up to GM Jacques Martin to fix the problem between the pipes and his options appear limited. He could re-sign his current tandem of Ed Belfour and Auld, try to land an upgrade in a free agent market lacking in quality goaltending depth, or offer up one of his good young players as trade bait.

Keep an eye on forward Nathan Horton's contract talks with the Panthers this summer. He's a restricted free agent but has expressed unhappiness with the direction of the Panthers. If he threatens a holdout or demands a trade, he could be an important bargaining chip to land that quality goalie.

- The NHL has opted to pass on an offer from the Russian Ice Hockey Federation to stage a revival of the Summit Series.

The league is more interested in working out a new transfer agreement with the Russians, and obviously this rejection was made with that in mind.

Even if that wasn't a factor, even if there were a transfer agreement between the two sides, I wouldn't recommend or endorse another "Summit Series" between Canada and Russia.

As more than one pundit has noted, such a series nowadays lacks the impact of the '72 series. The Russians were the Soviets then, the Cold War was at its height, and Soviet players were unknown in Canada. There was considerably more emotion about playing the Russians during the Cold War, when it was seen as more of an ideological battle than as a hockey series.

Nowadays the emotion would be lacking from such a series. Canada's hockey rivalry with the Russians is a more friendly affair. Russia's best players are as well known to Canadians as our best players are.

Put simply, the interest simply wouldn't be there amongst hockey fans, especially American hockey fans. Time has passed and taken away much of the emotional edge such a series used to generate.

There's a generation of Canadian hockey fans who never experienced those Cold War hockey matchups, whose biggest international hockey memory is Canada finally winning Olympic Gold in 2002 over the United States. For them, Canada's epic hockey battles belong to ancient history, holding no special place in their hearts.

For them, a revival of the Summit Series would be seen as a trip down memory lane for their parents and grandparents; more wallowing in the past by Canadian baby boomers.

Best to let those of us who lived through the Cold War hockey matchups between Canada and Russia to have our memories and to relive them via our DVD collections.

- "Blades of Glory", starring the over-rated and unfunny Will Ferrell and that dude who keeps reprising his "Napoleon Dynamite" character, opened this weekend. For a funnier figure skating flick, check out the following short, "Circus on Ice", courtesy of Mystery Science Theater 3000.