Something For Isle Puckheads

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - January 27, 2010
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Martin Brodeur stops a Latvia shot in the 2006 games. Expect the same in Vancouver

With the chilly winds blowing in nightly off the suddenly cool Pacific, one’s attention naturally turns to the National Hockey League.

It’s probably safe to assume that not all Honolulu residents began kicking themselves after becoming aware they’d forgotten to hit the record button, and therefore missed the latest installment of Crosby v. Ovechkin. Sad for them.

Regardless, it’s either this or continue whining about win/loss records at UH.

Ready to rebound?

After a season of broken feet, torn ACLs, fractured fibulas and middling success in the Central Division, the Red Wings are finally getting healthy just in time for a final push to the playoffs. Why this should matter to anyone outside of the arena that Joe Louis made famous is because the Wings are (with apologies to Toronto and Montreal) the biggest olive in the Original Six cocktail, and as goes the first half dozen, so goes the NHL.

While the league boasts a bankroll-bursting 30 teams, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Montreal, New York Rangers and Toronto remain the economic engine that runs the league. They are the six-team version of the BCS conferences. According to Sports Illustrated, the six accounted for 45 percent of the league’s overall sales during the 2008-09 season, while Forbes ranks them in the top seven most-valuable franchises. Only Philadelphia at No. 5 ruins it from being a sweep.

So when Detroit entered the 2009-10 season challenged with the departures of Marian Hossa and Jiri Hudler (combined 63 goals, 65 assists), who chose two years in Russia for $10 million tax-free, the defending Western Conference champions weren’t as scary or as much fun to watch. And when seven players, including Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Tomas Holmstrom and Niklaus Kronwall went down in the first three months, to go along with Andreas Lilija, who has yet to return after suffering a concussion almost a year ago, the Wings became ordinary. In the place of wily veterans (who went four lines deep) were young players still expected to hone their craft in the minors. Now that Detroit is nearing full strength, and with perhaps five of the Original Six making the playoffs, including the rededicated and conference-leading Blackhawks, the league can sigh a bit a financial relief.

End of an era.

Once upon a time, not long ago, an NHL roster just wasn’t complete without a tough guy or two - one whose sole job was to settle disputes and to generally strike fear into opponents. With rising salary costs, holding a roster spot for someone who can only offer a single hand of scoring to offset 150 penalty minutes just doesn’t make good business sense.

Now it appears that the last great practitioner of the intimidation arts may be on his way out. Last week, Montreal parted ways with the NHL’s undisputed heavyweight champ, George Laraque. Laraque, who had just logged his first goal of the season to go along with 28 penalty minutes, will remain on the roster and will continued to get paid, but he will never see the ice for the Canadians. General manager Bob Gainey said the team is making the change because the 6-foot-3-inch, 253-pound vegetarian has become a distraction and that his skills have deteriorated. Laraque claims ignorance of the charges. Whatever the real story, the likes of Laraque will never be seen again. The game just doesn’t need him. Commissioner Gary Betteman has made it his mission to place fisticuffs in the history bin along with maskless goalies and Canadian hockey teams.

And he’s right. Fighting, for all its excitement and the great memories it recalls, is a gimmick the game no longer needs. The NHL is not a league of specialties. It is one of overall excellence, where ice time is determined by the variety of skills a player brings. Laraque, like Tiger Williams, Tie Domi and Bob Probert, will be remembered fondly. But like his aforementioned forebears, he’s an extinct species.


And the gold goes to ...

Team Canada’s executive director Steve Yzerman is warning everyone to look out for the Russians at the Vancouver Olympics. They are two-time defending world champs and come loaded, especially on the front line. Team Ruskie boasts three players who can make a claim at being best in the business: Alexander Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk and Evgeni Malkin, to go along with Atlanta’s Ilya Kovalchuk (30 goals and 26 assists) and Ovechkin’s Washington teammate Alexander Semin (44 points).

Yzerman may be playing it a bit coy, considering his team hasn’t handled the Russians of late and didn’t medal four years ago. But it’s hard not to like the “Maple-sucking Iceholes,” as Stephen Colbert has lovingly called them.

Canada is so scary good that it could leave Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Mike Green, the league’s top scoring defenseman, off the roster. The trio has combined for 38 NHL goals and 117 assists this season.

But it’s not their scoring threat, which boasts three of the top-six scorers in the NHL, that makes Canada the favorites. It’s the defense - primarily the goal tending. Martin Brodeur may be 37 years old, but he’s a vacuum in the pipes, leads the league in shutouts, is third in goals against average and still more than able to take over a game. Roberto Luongo is 10th in GAA and an Olympic veteran, and though Marc-Andre Fleury has not been dominant, no team can boast a better third-place option, if that is what Yzerman has planned.

Plus, Mike Babcock returns as coach. Canada has struggled in the past, building a team around talent and not cohesiveness. Look for that to change.

Canada: Gold. Sweden: Silver. Russia: Bronze.

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