Best & worst of the season (cont.)
Best picture: Alex Ovechkin, Team Russia, hitting Jaromir Jagr. In this marvelous shot taken by SI's Robert Beck, you can see the loose puck in the frame. That's the hockey point of the photo. As impressive as the seismic nature of the check, Russia was able to convert that turnover directly into a goal.
Worst picture: Shirtless Blackhawks in a limousine. John Madden and Kris Versteeg, you get a pass. Patrick Kane, not you. The summer started with you and a cousin getting into a beef with a Buffalo taxi driver over a tip. The contrite young man in the sharp suit who was trotted out prior to the start of Team USA's Olympic orientation camp must have been the doppelganger of the revelerwho was showing off his pecs to the ladies in that Vancouver limo. We get it, Patrick: you're a kid who likes the life. But we're guessing you probably don't want to embarrass an employer who has a lot invested in you, financially and emotionally.
Quirkiest idea: Charles Wang, owner, Islanders. The man is a font of ideas, just not many good ones. He floated an expanded playoff format in which the top seven teams in a conference automatically qualify while Teams 8 through 15 wrestle it out in a play-in tournament. You just don't get mediocrity on display like this every day. The Arkansas-Pine Bluff System, as we like to think of it, would render the 82-game season meaningless, further diluting the product -- even the dodgy one owned by Wang. When more than 50 per cent of the league makes the playoffs, that's quite sufficient. No reprieve for bottom dwellers.
Best idea: Brian Burke, GM, Toronto. Like most of his colleagues, Burke was a stride behind the play on the issue of headshots. (Mike Richards' blindsiding David Booth changed some GM's minds, but public outcry over Matt Cooke's hit spurred the rule modifications.) But Burke's "bear hug" is brilliant. Instead of hitting an opponent near the boards, a player would be able to briefly "bear hug" the man and ride him as momentum carried them both towards the wall, a safer play that should eliminate some of the checks like the one that basically cost Boston's Patrice Bergeron the 2007-08 season.
Worst prediction: On the Fly, Norris Trophy. While the end-of-season ballots have not arrived yet, we are guessing that our preseason pick, Calgary's Jay Bouwmeester, will finish far down the track -- if he even gets on the track with a single top five vote from any member of the Pro Hockey Writers Association.
On the other hand, we are less red-faced for touting Maple Leafs goalie Jonas Gustavsson as the Calder-winner. After early-season heart troubles, The Monster settled in. Boston's Tuukka Rask and Detroit's Jimmy Howard were more successful rookie goalies, but Gustavsson is part of the core of a team that should be on the playoff bubble in 2010-11. We also don't hide from our prediction that Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis will be among the leading Hart Trophy finishers. He stands tied for fifth with 90 points. Not that it matters in Canada now -- you can't do better than a gold medal -- but St. Louis would have been a splendid fit on the Olympic team.
Worst comment: On the Fly, Olympics. After Team Canada goaltender Martin Brodeur played poorly in the round-robin loss to Team USA, we noted that he looked like a goalie past his expiration date and urged coach Mike Babcock to switch to Roberto Luongo. While Brodeur did lose the job, he did not deserve the barbs. He's among the best goalies in NHL history, the career leader with 600 wins and 110 shutouts, and so adept at handling the puck that the league basically invented the trapezoid to punish him. We apologize for being unfair to an all-timer. And when we see him in person, we will apologize face to face.
Oddest power play: Bob Gainey, ex-Montreal GM. Gainey walked away in early February, just prior to the Olympic break and less than a month from the trade deadline. If he had waited until the summer to resign, he would have given new owner Geoff Molson at least time to consider some other candidates. (Dave Nonis? Steve Yzerman? Spare us team president Pierre Boivin's piety that a French-speaker is needed for the job. You can debate that necessity of particular linguistic qualification for the Canadiens coach, not the GM.)
Given the timing, the Molson group had no choice but an orderly succession, which essentially meant that Gainey was passing the job to assistant GM Pierre Gauthier. Considering Gauthier's seniority and previous GM experience, it would have been insulting to slap him with an interim tag. Gainey not might have landed the free agents he wanted during his tenure, but this time he got his man.
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