The NHL is back, and Americans should be happy
I can’t tell you how happy I am that the NHL is back in session. Before I make some second-half predictions, let me first continue my excoriation of the American team, and make some Olympic suggestions.With a final record of 1-4-1, the team caused enough embarrassment for our country, but then Mike Modano had to chagrin us even more by pointing fingers.He was a little disappointed that he and other players had to make travel arrangements for their families. I guess they were looking to have a good time like Bode Miller, instead of serving their country proudly. (Last time I checked, being selected to the team is not a right, it’s an honor and privilege.)But the other points he made, about the selection of the squad and the coaching, are right on the money. Coach Peter Laviolette was clueless, playing his goalie cards worse than Chevy Chase played blackjack in “Vegas Vacation.” But he wasn’t dealt a full deck to begin with, thanks to Team USA General Manager Don Waddell, who during his six years as GM of with the Thrashers has never been to the playoffs (When 16 teams make the playoffs each year, this is a considerable non-accomplishment). He didn’t choose the best American players, and furthermore, he didn’t take into consideration that they would be playing on an Olympic ice sheet, picking oafs like Derian Hatcher and Keith Thachuk who had more penalties than scoring chances. In the final period of the U.S.’s quarterfinal game against Finland, the team fought with some heart, and players like Erik Cole, Chris Drury and Brian Gionta, who had played well all tournament, were double-shifting, trying to salvage what had been an abysmal team performance during the week.As much as I enjoy watching professional hockey players in the NHL, I didn’t enjoy seeing North American players flounder in the Olympics. The flag can be motivating, but not nearly as much as the multi-million dollar contracts. Modano and other Americans don’t have their jobs jeopardized when they tie Latvia, but Latvian forwards probably get a call from President Vaira Vike-Freiberga when they beat mediocre U.S. goaltenders.
I’ve had enough of professional players underachieving. I’d rather see American college kids lose, 4-3, to Finland, then cry at a post game press conference because it was the greatest experience of their life, not because they got benched in the third period.Boys are backWith about one third of the NHL season remaining, the playoff picture is starting to develop. There are some surprises, like the New York Rangers at the top of the Atlantic Conference after having to cut their payroll by more than 150% and not having posted a winning season before the lockout. Also, there are the Carolina Hurricanes, who went from Stanley Cup Finalists in 2002, to worst NHL team in 2003, and are currently the top team in the East.And the Buffalo Sabres trail the Ottawa Senators by only two points in the Northeast, and will likely take over the division lead soon due to injury situations on both sides. (The Sabres return four players from injury, three of whom are top forwards, while Dominik Hasek is out with, you guessed it, another groin injury.) As far as the rest of the rest of the East goes, Philly, New Jersey and Tampa Bay should grab playoff spots leaving one spot open for Atlanta, Montreal, Toronto or Boston. Montreal will have to survive without Jose Theodore, and Toronto needs to find some inspiration to avoid missing postseason play for the first time since 1998. If both teams aren’t playing in May, Don Cherry may pull a Dick Cheney on Pat Quinn and Bob Gainey (Leafs’ and Habs’ coaches).When the playoffs do come, I think Cherry’s eternal prophecy that European players flounder after the regular season will not come to fruition. The extra games Europeans partook of at the Olympics – North Americans got an early ticket home – shouldn’t even affect their first games back in the NHL. On the contrary, I think the Finns, Russians, Swedes and Czechs will come back stronger than when they left.
The WestSurprise, surprise, the Red Wings are the best in the West. Since 1990, the only thing that has kept Detroit from the playoffs has been the lockout. Team Italy could play the rest of the season for the Red Wings, and they would win what is the most anemic division in the NHL. By fielding a team for the remainder of its conference games, Nashville should be the other team to make it from the Central division.While I still do not recognize the Dallas Stars as a franchise, I think they’ll be in good shape. And now, as a matter of job security, I will make a bold prediction with which Sports Editor Chris Freud (San Francisco native and rabid San Jose fan) will undoubtedly agree: The San Jose Sharks will use some wiggle room under the cap to make a trade and surge into a final playoff spot.Yes, spoiled Coloradans can again enjoy more than 82 games of Avs hockey, as has been the case ever since Les Nordiques became the Avalanche. But gasp, the Avs won’t have home ice as they face too many tough teams on the road to close out the season.Minnesota will be the only team in what is the strongest division in the NHL not to make the playoffs.The rest
Can Alexander Ovechkin get some more press? He’s better than Sidney Crosby offensively, plays solid defense, throws mean bodychecks and doesn’t complain about officiating. They both play on equally abysmal teams, but Ovechkin (70 points) is the only player on his team with more than 30 points and has an even plus/minus, while Crosby (65 points) is minus-nine. Alex the Eight will win the Calder Trophy this year, but next year, Ovechkin’s Olympic teammate Evgeni Malkin will likely bring the award to Pittsburgh.Jaromir Jagr will break the 50-goal mark, and may be in the company of four other players. If Ovechkin adds 13 more goals in his final 25 games, he’ll be the first rookie to do so since Teemu Selanne dropped 76 in 1992-1993.Don’t get in a shootout with Dallas, who hasn’t lost once this year thanks to goalie Marty Turco (Three goals allowed in 16 shots) and Jussi Jokinen (8-for-8 shooting).And we’ll how the new rules really hold up in the line of fire when the playoffs come around. Until then, let’s hope Janet Gretzky stays away from any NCAA pools.Sports Writer Ian Cropp can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 14631, or email@example.com.Vail, Colorado