Spreading Christmas cheer
Responding to a flurry of e-mails about the NHL's All-Star balloting
Merry Christmas to everyone. I hope that Santa Claus brought you everything that you asked for.
For the 29th consecutive year, I found nothing but coal in my stocking. But judging by the bitterness that often fills my e-mailbox, many of you folks are probably glad to hear that the big fella in red left me coal again. Do you angry people have some pull with Santa or something?
With less than a week left before the NHL closes its voting for the 2004 All-Star Game, I'd like to revisit some of the points that I made in last Friday's Inside the NHL column.
Several Canucks and Devils fans wrote in upset that I mentioned that they were "stuffing the ballot boxes" for their hometown players. In what was perhaps a poor choice of words, I was actually going for the connotation of the word which means that they were actively voting. I didn't mean that they were stuffing it in the sense that they were voting unnecessarily often for undeserving players. When you look at the voting standings for the East and the West, you will see that New Jersey and Vancouver players currently occupy five of the 12 starting spots for the Feb. 7 All-Star Game in St. Paul, Minn.
Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer and Martin Brodeur are all likely starters for the East. Each of them is very deserving and you would be hard pressed to argue that anyone else is more deserving than those three Devils at defense and goaltender.
In the West, Todd Bertuzzi and Markus Naslund are ranked 1-2 among wings, with Brett Hull trailing Naslund by 10,200 votes, making it look good for two-thirds of Vancouver's Big Line. On defense, Ed Jovanovski is in third behind Rob Blake and Nicklas Lidstrom, though Jovo only trails Lidstrom by 2,436, a deficit that could easily be made up, especially with a Saturday night home game at GM Place for the Canucks faithful to rock the vote.
And Dan Cloutier is only 4,944 behind Marty Turco, though neither of them is probably deserving of the starting job. Bertuzzi, Naslund and Jovanovski are all definitely deserving of spots in the All-Star Game, with Jovo being even more worthy than three-time Norris winner Lidstrom for a starting slot if you go solely on their play this season and not their reputations.
The fans who are stuffing the ballot box in the negative sense of the word are the ones in Dallas. Turco and Mike Modano are both having down years compared to what they have done in the past and don't deserve to start. Also, Jere Lehtinen has been injured for most of the season, yet is in fifth place.
The league releases the All-Star ballot and decides on the reserves as well. I know the NHL All-Star Game is for the fans, but that doesn't mean the fans are the best qualified to decide the starters for the game. With the amount of bonuses that many players have in their contracts for making the All-Star Game or even the starting lineup, this is a process that shouldn't be taken lightly. As faithful reader Will from Helsinki pointed out to me, "it's the game that the fans want to see, not the game in which the players who've played the best that season qualify."
In a perfect world, the fans would have a say in determining the starters, but I think the best system used by the four major pro sports is that of the NFL's Pro Bowl (which also happens to be the worst of the four All-Star games). The Pro Bowl starters are selected by three different groups (fans, players and coaches), each of which count for one-third. That is fair in that it provides equal representation and eliminates biases toward undeserving, but popular players.
In an online poll conducted by SI.com over the past several days, 53 percent of respondents believed the NHL's All-Star balloting system needs a major overhaul, 32 percent feel it could use some minor tweaking while 15 percent believe it is fine just the way it is.
I will have my last-minute All-Star balloting guide early next week, in time for fans to sneak their votes in before the Dec. 31 deadline.
How did the NHL leave off a starting goaltender for a team? I haven't looked at a ballot this year, but it seems to me like at a minimum the NHL should have each starting netminder. Should the NHL have teams submit players they want on the ballot? Maybe teams submit their list by the 10th game of the season. -- Mark Kaye, Aurora, Colo.
I think each team should have a minimum of six players on the ballot -- one at each of the six positions. I would prefer having even more position players than that to give fans more to chose from, but the league has space limitations on the paper ballots and probably wouldn't want to have 12 players per team, which would result in 60 position players per conference on the ballot. Your idea of the 10th game of the season wouldn't be much different than the NHL's current start date for voting of Nov. 1. I suggested a start date of Nov. 15 last week, which would mean that most teams have about 15 games in the books, giving them ample time to identify which players they would like to hype for All-Star Game consideration.
David Aebischer is near for the league lead in wins and has a .927 save percentage, so why isn't he getting any All-Star attention or even a place on the ballot? -- Ryan Schultz, Woodland Park, Colo.
Even though Aebischer isn't on the ballot, there's a good chance that he could be named as a reserve. Assuming that Turco holds onto his lead over Cloutier, then Abby, Miikka Kiprusoff, Chris Osgood, Dwayne Roloson, Vesa Toskala and Tomas Vokoun all could be in contention for the two reserve spots. If I had to guess who the two reserves would be at this point, I would say Aebischer and Osgood would have the advantage over the other four, though Kiprusoff and Toskala could make strong bids if they can continue their solid play over the next five weeks until the reserves are chosen.
Can the Canucks get over the line with their entertaining play which may not have enough substance for the playoffs? I have become a big fan after spending a lot of time in their fair city. -- Rohan White, Melbourne, Australia
Vancouver always has a couple of stretches where they put it together for nine or 10 games at a time and really look unbeatable. As long as one of those times comes in April, May or June, they stand as good a shot as any other team. The Canucks are currently ranked 18th on the power play at 14.7 percent, so getting on a roll on the man advantage in the playoffs would enhance their Cup chances. Naslund and Bertuzzi had just five combined power-play goals this season after tallying 49 last season. If Vancouver can find its groove and begin to dominate again on the power play, it could have the substance to match the high level of entertainment value.
Who do you think would make a better hockey player, Jared from Subway or Johnny Cochran? -- Adam Krepack, Los Angeles
I have to assume that you were near the bottom of the pitcher of egg nog when you wrote this one, Adam. Jared is too skinny to play hockey now, and Cochran talks too much and would end up in the box for unsportsmanlike conduct because he'd argue every call. I've always thought that plump purple McDonald's character Grimace would make an excellent goaltender. Even with the 38-inch height restriction on goalie pads, Grimace would fill up almost all the net and leave little room to shoot at once he goes down in the butterfly.
Do you think the Penguins have any chance at winning the Cup this year? No, seriously. With the financial strain the Pens are in, and their continued decrease in revenue, it seems there is no solution: no money to pay quality players, no fans to support them. What will the answer be? Will Mario eventually move the team out of Pittsburgh? Or if they get a new arena, will that be enough to breathe life back into a ragged organization? -- Eric Tallant, High Point, N.C.
Eric has either been drinking egg nog with Adam, or he's been living up to the name of his hometown by smoking some wacky tobacky. No, the Penguins have zero chance of winning the Stanley Cup this year. It's hard to win the Cup when you regularly get routed 7-2 during the regular season. They will likely be eliminated from playoff contention in early March and then will begin praying to win the draft lottery and thereby the rights to select Russian superstud forward Alexander Ovechkin. If the Penguins don't win enough support for a new arena in Pittsburgh, then the team may be forced to relocate. And on Christmas Day, incoming Allegheny County chief executive Dan Onorato said that if the team wants a replacement for Mellon Arena, it will have to seek funding from private sources.
If no arena deal is reached, Mario Lemieux and his group would probably be forced to sell the team. As evidenced by the situations in Buffalo and Ottawa last season, the NHL would likely try as hard as possible to find local ownership that would be in favor of keeping the team in the Steel City, but it's unlikely that ownership group would be willing to pony up their own money for a new arena if the taxpaying citizens of Pittsburgh don't want to do it themselves. That would leave relocation as the only other option, which would be terribly sad, because Pittsburgh is a great hockey city.
Hasn't Doug MacLean been given more than a fair chance? -- Pete Smith, Columbus, Ohio
MacLean has opted to take a very slow-growth approach to the Blue Jackets, building through the draft and going after second-tier free agents to fill in the team's holes. The Jackets have drafted pretty well, with Rostislav Klesla, Pascal Leclaire, Rick Nash and Nikolai Zherdev as their four first-round picks in franchise history. Klesla is coming along slowly but is already an adequate NHL blueliner. Leclaire had an awful 2002-03 season in the minors but has rebounded this year and is back on the team's radar screen. Nash is one of the best scorers in the world at age 19 and has crazy skills that should turn him into one of the three best all-around players in the league within the next two years. And Zherdev has shown flashes of his playmaking brilliance on the ice, while trying to deal with his dicey off-the-ice military situation back in Russia.
So MacLean's draft record is pretty good. What he's done with the team behind the bench since taking over for Dave King last season is debatable, but considering that MacLean holds the title of President/General Manager/Alternate Governor/Head Coach, that would mean that majority owner John H. McConnell would have to fire him and replace three positions, since alternate governor is pretty much just an honorary title for the NHL board. In other words, it's not happening unless the Blue Jackets really hit the skids and finish poorly.
When is the NHL going to take into account how many miles a team has to travel when making up the schedules? Which team travels more miles than the Red Wings during a season? Time zones are killers to players and fans. -- Glennis Lapham, Tecumseh, Mich.
The NHL already does take travel into account when making out the schedule, and Detroit doesn't rank anywhere near the top of the list of teams that travel the most miles. Though no official stats are available on this, Western Conference teams get hit harder than those of the East because of the massive geographical spread of the teams in the West.
And, in particular, the teams on the West Coast take it on the chin the most, often logging two-hour-plus flights to play divisional games, such as Vancouver traveling to Colorado and Minnesota, and any of the California teams flying to Dallas to face the Stars. That doesn't even begin to take into account the longer road trips that Western Conference teams have, as it's not uncommon to see them have seven- or eight-game East Coast trips to cut down on the number of times they have to fly East during the season.
What do you think the Blues chances are in the playoffs this season? Can they be called legitimate Cup contenders? -- Chris, St. Louis
I'm not the most popular fellow in St. Louis by virtue of how Blues fans think I treat their team in the Power Rankings on a regular basis, but any team that has the highest winning percentage in the league nearly three months into the season has to be considered a serious Cup contender. Osgood has been tremendous, but his Achilles' heel has been giving up bad goals at inopportune times in the postseason, so St. Louis will need Ozzie to avoid the big postseason blunder.
Why is it that the NHL can't see that the best answer to the trap would be getting rid of the two-line pass? With all the talk of widening the lines and making the nets bigger, I believe that doing away with the red line would open the game up more, with longer passes leading to more scoring chances. Am I wrong here? -- Will, Dorchester, Mass.
I think that would definitely be one of the quick fixes the NHL could try, though I'm interested in seeing the results of the experiment with the wider lines that the AHL is going to conduct over the next month. I love what the no two-line offsides rule has done for international hockey and college hockey, and I think it is certainly worth experimenting with in either the AHL or in the NHL preseason.
While Jean-Sebastien Giguere has talent and everyone goes through slumps, his equipment is still way too big. Last year's finals showed a split of him and Brodeur, and it magnified the differences in size. Giguere has the most unnatural look for a goalie. What needs to be done more to get this Stay-Puft Marshmellow Man goaltending equipment under control? -- Sean O'Reilly, Kitchener, Ontario
In defense of Jiggy, he passed a preseason equipment inspection and also passed a surprise in-season check by official NHL goalie checker Kris King. Even though Jiggy's gear is legal under the newly adopted guidelines, I believe the NHL needs to crack down even further on the size of goaltending gear. The best goalie in the league (Brodeur) gets the job done with 34-inch pads, so why do the other guys play worse them him with bigger pads? And the argument that big goalies like Garth Snow and Roberto Luongo need bigger pads is folly, because Brodeur is 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds yet makes it look easy with his relatively small pads.
Will Ron Francis perform better as he has done in the past or is the future Hall of Famer ready for retirement? -- John Francis Brown, Bayonne, N.J.
When I spoke with Francis in September in preparation for our Hurricanes team preview, he gave every indication (without actually saying so) that this would be his last season. With the slow start that he has had to his 23rd season, I'm sure that has confirmed to him that his game is slowing down and that he won't be back for a 24th season. Of course, an owner's lockout could make that decision an easy one for Francis. In addition to being one of the most underrated players on the ice, Francis is underrated off the ice with most of his charitable works and kind acts being done well out of the view of the media. I expect Francis will have one last offensive flourish in the second half of the season once the Hurricanes settle into Peter Laviolette's system a bit more.
My friend and I have an ongoing argument over secondary assists given out in the NHL and hockey in general. I see secondary assists as perfectly legitimate in game that is unlike most others. My friend cannot understand why they are given and thinks that they are a blatant example of point inflation. He thinks it obscene that a player can get a secondary assist while being on the bench when a goal is scored. How does the NHL justify giving out secondary assists? Who is right here? -- Andrew Hoekstra, Ann Arbor, Mich.
I will toe the line of neutrality and fall somewhere between you and your buddy. I agree with your point, Andrew, that secondary assists do give scoring in hockey a unique flavor, but they can also unnecessarily reward someone who in all honesty had no effect on the play which led to a goal. Just a few weeks ago, the assistant PR guy for a Pacific Division team asked for a scoring play late in a game to be reviewed in an attempt to add a secondary assist for a defensive defenseman who was struggling. The officials reviewed the play and did add a secondary assist. Perhaps the team's head coach asked for this to be done in the hopes that his blueliner would be rewarded with a point and that would help bring him out of his slump, but it came across as selfish and petty.
Who do you think will win the Pacific Division? Or like me, do you not have a clue? -- Andy Ball, Newcastle, England
I'll be honest, I haven't a clue who will win the Pacific. If I had to guess at this point, I'd say the Kings. But if the Sharks get hot, they could take the title, and the Stars and Ducks can't be counted out yet either. But once Los Angeles gets Jason Allison back in the lineup, it could be a scary team to face down the stretch. What I do know is that you live in one of the neatest places on Earth. My love for Alan Shearer and the Magpies is immense and I'd love to drink a brown ale along the Tyne with you anytime, Andy.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.