Sizing things up at midseason
Injuries have been the big story, so can we blame them on the Olympics?
The Coyotes look like the 1996 Panthers, yet a major collapse is possible
Ryan Miller has had the most impact, but Henrik Sedin is my first half MVP
The exact midpoint of the 2009-10 season -- Game No. 615 on the NHL calendar -- occurred last Saturday: a 6-5 shootout barnburner between the victorious New York Islanders and the Atlanta Thrashers at down-at-the-heels Nassau Coliseum -- the barn considered most suited for burning by pretty much everyone in hockey, but especially by itchy Islanders owner Charles Wang.
So as we take a fond look back, remember that On The Fly is a few days late (and the Islanders, with an announced crowd of 12,000-plus against the Thrashers, are a few dollars short).
In rummaging around for the perfect phrase to capture the first half of the season, we rejected Miller Time -- more on Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller later -- and Phoenix Rising because they were just a little too Mad Men and clearly not far reaching. No, we needed something more descriptive, words that linked all 30 franchises in Gary Bettman's Marching Band and Chowder Society, something that was Big Picture if not Big Idea.
After giving it as much thought as Rangers coach John Tortorella generally gives his starting goaltender, it soon became obvious that the answer was not a phrase as much as three little letters.
Yes, this was the Half Season of the MRI.
In 2009 and now 2010, MRI took its rightful place alongside PPG, PIM, and GAA in the NHL alphabet. The quintessential numbers were not Martin Brodeur's shutouts but Man Games Lost. And we weren't talking about just any men, either.
From the moment in the second period of Game No. 2 when Montreal goalie Carey Price inadvertently sliced open a tendon in Canadiens' defenseman Andrei Markov's foot, marquee players started dropping like Tiger Woods' sponsors are now. There was virtually no team immune to the raft of injuries that cut a swath through the league's top players, skewing the standings and screwing the fans.
There have been repeated attempts to connect the injury dots -- how does Markov's cut relate to Jonathan Toews' concussion to Ilya Kovalchuk's broken foot to Johan Franzen's torn ACL? -- although none seem terribly satisfying. The most prominent theory making the rounds among hockey typists is that players have been more susceptible to injuries because they have been obliged to play a large number of games in a shorter period of time due to the two-week Olympic hiatus in February. (The Rangers, for example, play 16 games in January. A year ago, they played 12.)
While On The Fly doesn't buy it -- a broken foot, like the one Daniel Sedin sustained, is a broken foot -- but the so-called "contracted" schedule does support one theory we believe in with all our soul: Whatever happens in the NHL in an Olympic year, blame it on the Olympics.
The NHL really does exist in a state of suspended animation every four years. Much of the talk among hockey's chattering classes prior to the Games is which players will make their national teams and who will be snubbed. After the cauldron is extinguished, the debate shifts to how a roster latticed with Olympians will perform in the playoffs. (In 1998, the exhausted Colorado Avalanche took a knee in the first round, but the 2002 Detroit Red Wings were untroubled, which might have as much to do with the venues -- the 10 Avalanche players had journeyed across the Pacific to Nagano; the Wings had played in Salt Lake City -- but who knows?)
When Commissioner Bettman, who once upon a time had the CBA re-opened just to ensure Olympic participation, hems and haws about committing his players to Sochi 2014 and beyond, it's mostly about owners of the American-based teams wanting to get their game back in February when the light, however refracted, shines on the league. The guess is that he would also like the first half of his season to be viewed as something more than an extended tryout for a 12-day tournament run by the IIHF prissies.
In the next CBA, Bettman will certainly have to arm-wrestle the NHLPA over the issue of NHL participation. The players crave the Olympic experience. As a chopfallen Mikael Samuelsson of the Canucks said after Team Sweden decided it had no use for his services in the Games to be played in his new hockey home, "They can go f... themselves."
The Avalanche and Phoenix Coyotes should extend Samuelsson's heartfelt advice to the staff at On The Fly, which predicted they would finish 15th and 16th in the Western Conference. (As previously noted, we ain't the Hunchback of Nostradamus.) There is still time for a stunning collapse -- for what little it's worth, we still doubt both will qualify for the playoffs -- but these teams already have far exceeded expectations.
If the Avalanche were bankrupt, the subject of a tug of war between a BlackBerry billionaire and the league, had broken with the best player in hockey history, and hired a coach late in training camp and were now playing in front of crowds smaller than the mob circling the 16th green at the neighboring FBR Open, they would be receiving more of your attention. Alas, the Avalanche isn't that team.
Phoenix is the NHL darling -- conclusive proof that coaching matters. Dave Tippett's button-down style in the desert, rather than being slagged as a yawn, is being lauded as the lifeline that saved a season if not necessarily a misplaced franchise. Certainly the Coyotes have bubble-wrapped goalie Ilya Bryzgalov while outworking, oh, about 29 of the other 29 NHL teams. The last one with such awareness of its limitations was the 1996 Florida Panthers, who woke up one fine spring morning to find themselves in a Stanley Cup Final.
While traversing the chasm of a season, the hope is neither the Coyotes or the Avalanche looks down.
And the winner is...
Now, at this point of our midseason-plus-a-little review, we could make up phony awards, such as Most Disappointing Premier Free Agent: Toronto defenseman Mike Komisarek (still a U.S. Olympian, an obligatory reference); the D.B. Cooper Trophy for a player whose game is missing: second-year Columbus goalie Steve Mason; and Best Solo Act: Rangers goal-scorer Marian Gaborik -- but we will skip that. Let's move directly to the six major trophies and the leaders at the midway point.
HART TROPHY: Since José Théodore beat a deserving Jarome Iginla for the 2002 award, we suspect hockey writers are chary about voting for a goalie as MVP. In truth, we could probably pick one almost every year and not be completely wrong. Most important position on the ice, etc. But unless that goalie is Dominik Hasek-as-Gumby startling, it could be a while before another netminder crosses over from the Vezina corral.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying that Ryan Miller might have been the player with the greatest impact in the first half, but a skater likely will emerge as the Hart winner. Miller has been superb, but we like Vancouver center Henrik Sedin. Playing without favorite left winger Daniel Sedin -- have you noticed they share a resemblance? -- Henrik carried the Canucks in his twin's absence and then soared in December after Daniel returned. The playmaker that never has scored more than 22 goals in a season already has 19, eight more than San Jose's Joe Thornton, who leads him in the points race by a mere two.
Runners-up: Miller, Gaborik
NORRIS TROPHY: On a team led by Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin, Washington defenseman Mike Green is the riddle wrapped in an enigma. His numbers suggest he should be the obvious Norris leader, but his play sometimes belies it. The game last Saturday in Los Angeles, a 2-1 Kings victory, summed up the situation: Green scored the Capitals' goal on a power play but his indifference in coverage cost them on Michal Handzus' game-winning shorthanded goal.
Maybe Team Canada's snub of the rover who leads NHL defensemen in scoring and is a healthy plus player colors our perception. In any case, we are jumping (off) the Shark here -- Dan Boyle was the leader at the quarter pole -- and switching to Kings sophomore Drew Doughty, who has three winners among his nine goals.
The situation is particularly fluid now that Nicklas Lidstrom of Detroit has been downgraded to mortal, and Green, Boyle, Chicago's Duncan Keith, Nashville's Shea Weber and Zdeno Chara of Boston all could factor in the discussion before the end of the season.
Runners-up: Keith, Green
VEZINA TROPHY: This one is easy. Miller has the best save percentage and, by a tick, the best goals-against average over Bryzgalov. The trouble is choosing only two runners-up among The Bryz-er, New Jersey's venerable Martin Brodeur and Vancouver's Roberto Luongo. At the peak of their games, Luongo's best might be better than any of them, but his off nights -- see the 2009 playoffs -- are the most puzzling.
Runners-up: Bryzgalov, Brodeur.
CALDER TROPHY: The long -- really long -- and short of it is a question of position. Buffalo's pituitary rookie defenseman Tyler Myers plays a more demanding position than Islanders center John Tavares. The 6-8 Myers is remarkably nifty and a shockingly good puckhandler, but his ability to process the game and make correct decisions has left the greatest impression. Sabres coach Lindy Ruff wonders when his precocious defenseman might hit a wall, but Myers has rarely seemed flummoxed despite playing a healthy 23 minutes per game.
Runners-up: Tavares, Colorado center Matt Duchene
JACK ADAMS AWARD: The broadcasters who choose this one routinely settle on someone whose team has done better than most of them could envision during the regular season. (Curious stat: the only Cup-winning coach to take the award since 1978 has been Tampa Bay's Tortorella in 2004. Among the winners of the past decade are the now-forgotten Bill Barber of Philadelphia in 2001 and Phoenix's Bobby Francis the following year.)
At the midway point of 2009-10, history repeats itself because Tippett is an obvious choice. He's certainly had a demonstrable effect on the Coyotes, but Jacques Lemaire's exemplary work in New Jersey should not be overlooked. Actually if the Adams always went to the best coach, Lemaire would pretty much win it every year and that would be no fun.)
Runners-up: Lemaire, Nashville's Barry Trotz
SELKE TROPHY: After falling off the face of the earth since the Senators' run to the 2007 Cup Final, Mike Fisher has reinvented himself, using his speed and size -- yes, he's a bigger-than-you-think 6'1" and 215 pounds -- to become a handful to play against. He's plus-11, matching perennial candidate Pavel Datsyuk of Detroit, a more convincing argument than Fisher's 15 goals. (Remember, this isn't an award for best two-way player, but best defensive forward, a distinction that has been blurred because Datsyuk and Red Wings teammate Henrik Zetterberg are usually both.)
Runners-up: Phoenix's Martin Hanzal and Pittsburgh's Jordan Staal