Bonus Hockey: When it needs to be more than 140 characters.

I haven’t posted since the Predators finished their season in Game Six of the Stanley Cup Finals. I wasn’t sure how other Preds fans would take my rather laissez-faire attitude. You see, to me, it was all “bonus hockey.” Hockey that honestly had no business being there, but as long as it was, you rode the wave and enjoyed it for what it was. What it was, was eye-opening, tantalizing, joy filled, and galvanizing… in addition to being incredibly lucky, well-timed, and frankly, a bit fairy-tale-ish. The Preds were solid. Quite solid for the first two rounds, a bit more mortal in round three and good enough to be competitive, but over-matched at times in the final round. All in all, a hell of a ride.

Then came the aftermath. We got jobbed! This was all the officials fault! Sissons scored (remember that name for later in this blog-piece.) and the whistle blew, and it shoulda counted, and where’s the review, and what about that goal in Calgary, and the refs hate us, and so on and so on and scooby dooby dooby…

Two weeks before the end of the regular season it was not even fait accompli that the Preds would be IN the post season. Remember that? Like the 2012 Los Angeles Kings, the team came together and went on this amazing run, spearheaded by a hot goalie (in ’12, Quick… in ’17, Rinne.) The crowds got louder and louder and all of a sudden, Nashville was center stage. Everyone was talking Nashville, talking Predators, wearing Predators garb, putting Predators signs on their lawns and in their windows. The city was galvanized. The world seemed galvanized. The Preds were Cinderella and everyone wanted to attend the ball. Writers, pundits, broadcasters alike all proclaimed “NASHVILLE IS A HOCKEY TOWN.”

Well, guess what? Nashville made strides, absolutely… but to call it a “hockey” town? To me that’s a bit to the extreme. Here’s what Nashville is (and was, and will always be:) Nashville is a PARTY town. Nashville is a COMPETITIVE town. Nashville is a SPORTS town. All of the above. Top of the list. No argument. No question. But ask some of those people wearing Preds garb, or decorating their homes or cars with Preds flags and banners… Hey, who are the players on the team? You may get a “Pekka” out of them… you may even get a Mike Fisher or a Filip Forsberg. Some may mention Shea Weber or David Legwand, but If Nashville was a hockey town, there’d be more than 10-15,000 that could name the core four defensemen (and not spell Ekholm “Elkhome” as a number do on Preds Facebook Fan boards.) They’d know what icing is, or the difference between high sticking, and playing the puck with a high stick.

So it was Game Four of the third round of the post season, and the team was deadlocked against Anaheim. Two major forwards were lost to injury by game’s end. Mike Fisher’s concussion, and Ryan Johansen’s immediate thigh surgery. Both coming after forward Kevin Fiala’s broken leg, suffered earlier in the playoffs. With the two new losses, it appeared the Preds were expected to lay down and die against Anaheim, but they made adjustments, and substitutions, and found themselves winning the next two games, allegedly both certain defeats, and moved on to play Pittsburgh in the Stanley Cup Finals. The Preds won two games, to the Penguins four. Who was credited with the game winning goal in both Nashville victories? That would be undrafted rookie Freddie Gaudreau, who had spent the better part of the last three seasons in Milwaukee. The kid had scored 9 goals in his first professional season, netting 4 in Milwaukee, and 5 in Cincinnati. The following year he scored 15 in Milwaukee. This past season, he had 25, and 3 more in the AHL playoffs, so his three in the Stanley Cup Finals put him at 31 goals this season. (Hold THAT thought.)

Then there’s 23 year-old winger, Pontus Aberg from Sweden. Drafted in the early part of the second round in a 2012 draft that included Colton Sissons and Jimmy Vesey, Aberg came to North America and got his game in order over time. In his first year, his 16 goals, 34 points were 5th on the Admirals. Next season he improved to 25 goals, 40 points, and this past season he lit the lamp 31 times in just 56 games for Milwaukee, and added three goals for the Preds. It may be too soon to call him a 30 goal scorer in the NHL, but his trajectory is not far off from that of Viktor Arvidsson.

And, let’s talk frankly for a minute about Viktor Arvidsson. In 2015-16, Arvy posted 8 goals and 8 assists in 56 regular season games for the Preds. He added a lone goal and assist in 14 playoff games, as well as eighteen points in 17 games for Milwaukee. I own the jersey in which he scored his first NHL goal. I am a huge fan. I was a believer that coach Laviolette UNDERUSED him for the better part of his rookie season. Virtually no power play time, no time with top 6 linemates, and the rap that he was too small and too easily moved off the puck to make a significant impact on the Nashville roster. Just five times during the 2015-16 season did Arvy log 15 minutes in a regular season game, and when the year was up, he tallied just one single power play point (a goal in a 5-2 loss at the tail end of March, 2016.)

At the start of this past season, these are facts: (a) Arvidsson was NOT considered a top 6 or even a POTENTIAL top 6 forward by the coaching staff or the majority of the fanbase, (b) After David Poile had signed Calle Jarnkrok to a 6 year, $12M contract at the end of the previous season, with full knowledge of the expansion draft forthcoming, the choice for Nashville was obvious: Forsberg, Johansen, Neal and Jarnkrok would be the four protected forwards, along with the top four defensemen and goaltender Rinne.

The first four games of the season saw Arvidsson in much the same role that he had the previous year. Averaging about 12 minutes a game, he found the score sheet with a goal in a loss to Chicago, and an assist in a loss at Detroit. Game five was the famous “food poisoning game,” and Arvidsson stepped up with two goals and 20 minutes of ice against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The roster stabilized a bit four days later as the club got pasted 6-1 by the Anaheim Ducks in Southern California, and Arvy was held off the scoreboard in just 13:20 of ice time. The next night the Kings hosted Nashville in a game that went into overtime, and Arvy was given just 11:51 of ice, but he made the best of it with a goal and an assist in a 3-2 OT loss. He had just a lone assist over the next six games with varying degrees of ice time, but it was a 5-0 win against the Ducks at Bridgestone where Arvy netted a pair of assists in 14 minutes of ice time that the confidence of Lavy started to kick in. Just six or seven times over the remainder of the season saw Arvy under the 15 minutes of ice time, including the penultimate game of the season, in Dallas, where Arvy delivered two goals (his 30th and 31st) and two assists in a 7-3 rout, with Viktor only needing 14:47 to get his job done. The “JOFA” line established, Arvidsson ended the season with 9 power play points and 7 shorthanded points, including 5 goals! Suddenly, two new facts were made obvious: (a) Arvidsson established himself with the coaching staff and a majority of the fan base. He had arrived, as witnessed by the huge number of shirts that joined mine in the arena on any game day, and (b) Poile was now faced with a much different decision come Expansion Draft Day: Neal? or Jarnkrok?

With Arvidsson locked into a top 3 forward spot for David Poile’s Predators, the choice was Neal’s production and term (1 year remaining @ $5M) vs. Jarnkrok’s upside and term (5 years remaining @ $2M) — to me, it was a no-brainer, and here’s where some incredibly ugly things were said within the fan base on Facebook, Twitter, etc. In a Twitter vote, 57% believed Neal was the player to be protected, but I never flinched leading the charge of the remaining 43%. Calle Jarnkrok brings far too many intangibles, and as a versatile forward who can play up and down the lines at either center or wing, his abilities made it clear to me that he was the keeper. I speak about the “culture” within the team’s room, and a cursory look at the roster shows an abundance of Swedes, Swiss and Finns. Jarnkrok and Forsberg were both acquired at a time of transition and the two became immediately close. Ekholm and Josi both became powerful NHL defensemen as part of this transition, and draft choices Fiala and Aberg added to this culture. Neal, while a very solid offensive player, and part of the team’s leadership group, was deemed expendable, though that’s where the line is drawn. If he was as essential to the team’s offense as most fans thought he was, why did Poile not choose to either sign him to an extension or trade him prior to allowing Vegas to pluck him up for nothing? Here’s a fact: Poile believes in his younger “next-tier” players. Aberg, Fiala, Watson and Sissons (as well as Gaudreau) should make big contributions to the team in 2017-18. Neal’s production (to me) was enigmatic. The guy was clearly one of the most gifted offensive snipers in the NHL for much of his time with Dallas, Pittsburgh and Nashville. BUT… everyone asks “How are you going to replace Neal’s thirty goals?” Here’s a couple of answers to that question. The first is that this past season, Neal’s thirty goals were actually twenty-three, which land closer to twenty than thirty, and his eight power play assists left him with just TEN even strength assists for the entire campaign. You think TEN assists won’t be made up by a group of forwards over the course of 82 games? You think scoring one goal in the team’s first 10 games, and two goals in the team’s last 10 games (both coming in the same game) is irreplaceable? James Neal has an amazing release. He and Los Angeles’ Jeff Carter are probably the most dangerous shooters within a split second of gathering the puck on their sticks. For SURE. It’s a treat when Neal connects on one of “those” goals, and they come in streaks, but if a player like Arvidsson could be given the chance to succeed over the course of a season, and raise his totals from 8 to 31, then let’s trust David Poile and Peter Laviolette and see what a healthy Fiala can do, what a matured Aberg can do, what a hungry Sissons can do, what a grateful Gaudreau can do… and throw in Watson, and possibly a Kamenev or a Trenin later in the season, if their trajectory warrants recall from Milwaukee. The experience gathered in the post season, playing “bonus hockey” gave us a glimpse of how these kids CAN play if given the chance. Will they all pan out? I’d like to think that they will all go on to legitimate NHL careers. Nine consecutive seasons of 20 goals or more, ala Neal? Perhaps not, but like guys who have seasons like Craig Smith usually does, the object is to stay OFF the milk carton. Play consistently with consistent line mates and keep working knowing you have something to prove, replacing a scorer as prolific as James Neal. Will Poile buckle and grab a free agent, or make a trade (that would probably include a guy like Smith) to acquire a scoring forward? It’s possible I suppose, but I guarantee he’s breathing a lot easier knowing he didn’t lose any of the young kids who were developed in the Nashville system over the past five years. The time has come for them to reprise their roles established during the playoffs, and show the NHL how strong and galvanized this team has become.

A linchpin will be the announcement from Fisher as to his status for the upcoming season, but I actually don’t doubt his wanting to return, and expect him to play a pivotal role, reprising his Captaincy in 17-18.

I expect to see:

Forsberg – Johansen – Arvidsson

Aberg – Jarnkrok – Fiala

Watson – Sissons – Salomaki

Wilson – Fisher – Smith (I don’t really expect this to be the “fourth” line)

Gaudreau, McLeod, (hopefully re-sign Harry Zolnierczyk)

Ellis – Josi

Subban – Ekholm

Weber – Irwin – Bitetto

Rinne – Saros

A TEAM I COULD MORE THAN LIVE WITH! BONUS HOCKEY ABOUNDS!

 

 

 

 

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Siriusly… The Preds are in the Cup Finals too…

Dear SiriusXM Radio,

I’ve been a subscriber to your product, XM Radio (later to merge with Sirius) for a good 10 years… maybe 11 or 12, but I was definitely an “early adapter.”

I made friends with Dan Blakely, who was an early Program Director. I was even featured on an old “call-in and maybe we’ll use your message on the air” spot that said, “When I want to see my LA Kings in first place, I just turn my computer’s monitor upside down.” — They ran with that for a while, and then the Kings won a Stanley Cup.

After Blakely exited, there was Joe Thistle, and while we didn’t become “buds,” he replied to my occasional emails, tweets, Facebook posts, whatever.

Now, from time to time, I have had conversation with a myriad of guys (and gal) on the station. Scott Laughlin, Steve Kouleas, Nick Alberga, Michele Sturino, Mick Kern, Peter Berce (perhaps he replaced Thistle) have all liked the occasional tweet, and/or taken my calls on the air and we’ve talked hockey. I’ve enjoyed chipping away, 20 seconds at a time, my 15 minutes of fame. (Believe me, I use the term “fame” QUITE loosely.)

So, here we are, the Nashville Predators, the lowest ranked regular season team to squeeze its way into the NHL post-season, just two wins away from hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup. The channel is buzzing with hockey talk, interviews, special guests, and of course, calls from all across North America. I generally only listen in my car, and today I was only in my car for perhaps 45 minutes or so. I know that after the afternoon programming they had play-by-play of the AHL’s Calder Cup game, and then replays of the “Power Play,” and their guests included Kelly Hrudey and Ray Ferraro.

I just want to go on record that in the time spent listening, I NEVER heard the NAME of a Nashville player. Not once! I heard 2/3 of the Penguins roster, and at any moment I expected to learn what Pens 4th line winger Josh Archibald had for breakfast today!

Crosby came to the party. Malkin was invisible. Kessel has to shoot more. They’re missing Letang, the official beverage of French Astronauts. Daley is banged up. Schultz is banged up. Jake Guentzel wasn’t on the team last year. Dumolin is the best defenseman they have. Bonino is hurt. Kunitz. Hainsey. Rust. Sheary. of course, Murray, Fleury. Seriously, it never stopped.

How about “Phil Kessel has 30 less shots than he had last year at this time?” HOW ABOUT NASHVILLE’S EXCELLENT TEAM DEFENSE? How about a little praise for guys like Jarnkrok, Gaudreau, Arvidsson, Ekholm? I’m sure if I had listened a little more I might have heard a cursory Pekka Rinne or P.K. Subban mention, but it’s like “Well, Pekka was good in Nashville, but now he goes back to Pittsburgh.” Or, maybe we hear about the tremendous contribution to a Montreal Children’s Hospital that Subban has made. It’s MADDENING I TELL YOU.

You think there are NO Nashville stories? How about talking about the decision that Poile has to make next week at the Expansion table? Does he offer up James Neal? Calle Jarnkrok? Colton Sissons? Pontus Aberg? Austin Watson? Colin Wilson? Craig Smith? or does he pull another George McPhee Jedi mind trick and get Vegas to grab Matt Irwin in an effort to get a piece of the Nashville defensive puzzle? Kinda like in the glory days of the New Jersey Devils, when adding a guy like Willie Mitchell meant unlocking a treasure trove of secrets from Jacques Lemaire’s warchest.

Maybe we could hear a little more about Filip Forsberg, who in the past three seasons has 105 goals between the regular and post-seasons, which during a quick cursory look is more than either Malkin (103) OR Kessel (90.)

How about a little discussion about the newly 37-year-old Mike Fisher, the team’s Captain? Succeeded Shea Weber, and in his first year as the team’s leader finds himself in a Stanley Cup Final series for the second time in his career, ten years after being a part of an Ottawa team that got dismantled by Ducks whose names included Getzlaf, and Perry, two guys he helped dismantle just a couple weeks earlier.

I realize the world revolves around Pittsburgh, and satellite radio is required by law to mention the city and their hockey team at least 18 times an hour, whereas Nashville is limited to a maximum of 3 times in the same amount of time, but the predictability of the conversation today has reached a breaking point for a guy like me.

I have ridiculed Preds fans who constantly bombard Facebook boards with conspiracy theories about on-ice officials prejudice, NBC announcer prejudice, National hockey blogger prejudice, and I’ve scoffed…mightily! But, today it became crystal clear to me. These people may actually have an argument (at least about the media.) No one is giving them the kind of credit they are due. Sure there are two games  left to be won by one of these two remaining teams, and it may take three games to decide who hoists and who doesn’t, but one of those teams won it last year, and the other was barely given a chance to finish that Conference Final round after number one pivot Ryan Johansen (and Capt. Fisher) were lost to injury. No chance. Game Over. It was Anaheim that was supposed to be here for all the talking heads… and before that, it was St. Louis, and of course, when the playoffs started, it was Chicago, who were going to WIN IT ALL according to oddsmakers in Vegas! Ptui! I wish I’d placed a bet 🙂

The Nashville Predators are the story here, and every time you remind us that Matt Cullen had a bunion on his #3 toe, or although Kris Letang had his neck operated on, there’s still a faint glimmer of hope he could play in Game 7, or that Carter Rowney and Carl Hagelin are so fast that the old two-niner, Phil Bourque sometimes confuses them with an Amtrak Nor-easter that leaves Penn Station at 6am and arrives in Bahsten 15 minutes before it left. It’s MADDENING. Holy Maatta! Takin’ It To The Streit! Here’s the real news.

Peter Laviolette has done a brilliant job. Phil Housley and Kevin McCarthy are two GLUE guys. Pete Weber is the best radio play-by-play guy left in this season’s arsenal. Terry Crisp no longer has the tie collection he had in Calgary. I am a season ticket holder who is paying 113 dollars to see a game that the guy sitting next to me is paying almost 4,000 dollars to see. THAT’S NEWS. No outdoor game (yet) – A great presentation at last year’s All-Star game, and now a BRILLIANT Stanley Cup Final. Sure, you’ve made cursory mentions of the fans, the noise and the presentation, but barely a peep about a guy named Aberg who spent most of the year in Milwaukee. A guy named Irwin who couldn’t even MAKE a Boston Bruins 2015-16 team that ran through 193 defensemen between the pre-season and the ensuing games that followed. A guy named Zolnierczyk which is obviously Polish for GLUE. A guy named Smith who spent more time on milk cartons this season than he did in box scores. TALK ABOUT NASHVILLE. If you don’t, I may have to call you at some point today, because I can probably come up with 20 more line items that all add up to what the REAL story is!

 

Preds Fans: SHUT UP… and stay LOUD!

Face it, Preds fans… you’re on the national stage now. Barry Melrose says it’s the MOST entertaining place to see a game. He’s NEVER had more fun! They are all there, to a tee… every writer, announcer (save for the one moron from KDKA in Pittsburgh who tweeted that both Columbus and Washington were louder) EVERYONE  is on the bandwagon du Nashville, and if the series goes back to Pittsburgh tied, no one will forget the devastating swing in momentum caused by the crowd’s insistence to set the Predators alarm clocks to WAKE UP at the beginning of period two in game three.

Sure Nashville outshot the Pens 12-6 in the opening frame, but it was Pittsburgh who seemed to have a lot of the momentum, and thank you Pekka Rinne for taking a page out of Archie Bell’s playbook, and “tightening up” after the goal by Jake Guentzel less than three minutes into the contest.

Speaking of Pekka, here’s your first shut up. OK, is everybody standing? If you thought Pekka Rinne would be Coach Laviolette‘s choice to start game three, SIT DOWN. Now, the rest of you, and there are quite a few… WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU THINKING? Forget the fact that you pay this guy 7.5M to stop pucks, and he has for over a decade. Forget the fact that your backup goaltender hasn’t seen actual game used rubber from the start of a game for about two months. Forget the fact that after the Chicago series, after the St. Louis series, and after the Anaheim series, one man consistently saved the bacon at the Monell’s buffet of Preds hockey life… that man is Pekka Rinne, and if you BELIEVED crap like “he can’t win against Pittsburgh, he’s NEVER won against Pittsburgh,” well, NOW he has. And, he will again. Maybe even three more times. Then how foolish will you have looked? Hell, how foolish do you look now? Juuse Saros is a hell of a prospect, but nothing more. You wouldn’t have been calling for Carter Hutton, or the guy who made the opening night roster as the backup goalie, who you ALL had faith in when he won the job (cough, Marek Mazanec)… Learn something about hockey culture. To a MAN in that dressing room from the Head Coach to the guy who picks up dirty socks and jock straps and throws ’em in the wash, PEKKA RINNE is the man called upon AT HOME to bring the cup closer to Nashville.

OK, you can all stand up again, start cheering. Let’s talk about faceoffs. Oooh, they’re so important, right? Who won faceoffs last night? Crosby (15 of 26), Cullen (12 of 20), Rowney (7 of 12) and, for the good guys? the number one faceoff man the entire night… for BOTH teams… COLTON IS A SISSONS! Yup 11 of 17, almost 65%… Fisher? 10 of 21, Jarnkrok 6 of 18. Throw in Malkin’s 2 of 9 and that’s where you can take advanced analytics and put them somewhere neatly besides the first four letters of that word. Out the door. Preds dominate the game and lose more faceoffs than they win… but the KEY wins. Ah, yes. Sissons is a monster, and will continue to be because he has great hockey lineage, and In the face of a debilitating injury to number one center Ryan Johansen, has stepped up and done a job that has produced goals, assists, faceoff wins, and solid work on the cycle, down low. Let’s hope George McPhee is busy watching Filip Forsberg and crying in Martin Erat‘s beer.

Let’s talk for a minute about James Neal. Some of you think I’m nuts when I say he will be exposed in the expansion draft, but the numbers indicate that it has to be that way. However, don’t think I don’t think that David Poile is doing some voodoo-magik to keep his team in tact. There will be some very tempting names on the Preds protected list, but while I wouldn’t expect to see any of the “high priced” Nashville forwards (Neal – 5m, Smith, Wilson – 4m) on the Knights opening night roster, I do think one of those three can easily be flipped for more assets come Entry Draft day. Neal, of course, is the juiciest proposition, but he has just the one year left on his deal, whereas Wilson and Smith each have a few. Then there’s that extra layer of Sissons, Watson and Aberg… tempting, no? I digress, but it had to have been sweet to get on the scoresheet last night with such a key goal. Neal is a solid weapon in the Preds arsenal, but each team, in the Stanley Cup finals, or not, does lose a player to Las Vegas, and the intrigue is building to a feverish crescendo.

Good to see Laviolette come to his senses and go with speed for game 3. The addition of Zolnierczyk and Parenteau didn’t tell a huge story in the box score, but their play was spirited and error free for the most part. Expect to see them remain in the lineup for game 4. Duh.

One guy I’m sorry hasn’t had a sniff is Miikka Salomaki. Chatting about him last night, as to his future with the Preds moving forward, I can only say that this injury year came at a tough time, with so many Preds forwards taking steps towards full time employment in the NHL. Not sure how it shakes out for 17-18, but you know Fiala will be ready for full time duty (when healthy) and a number of RFA’s should be tendered deals (Gaudreau, Aberg, Watson) and then, on top of that, throw in names like Kamenev, Trenin and even a potential surprise like Emil Pettersson… it’s going to be a very crowded camp with competition for the few spots remaining on the roster.

So, here we are, Nashville, center stage, and all the fan whining about poor officiating, Chicago bias, St. Louis bias, Anaheim bias, Pittsburgh bias, East coast bias, throw it all out the door or window. Put your catfish where your mouth is and EAT THIS ALL UP. Everyone loves Nashville. Hockey fans across North America… Hell, hockey fans around the WORLD have adopted our home team, and here’s the deal. They are HOCKEY fans, so this little town called Smashville is now unavoidably the place to be early in June as the 2016-17 season is winding down. Locally, we still have to endure the idiot behind me in Section 207 who yells “SHOOT IT” every time a Preds player has the puck in the offensive zone. We still have fans who think a rookie goalie should supersede a veteran at the most crucial time of our playoff lives, and just for good measure, we still have fans that believe Shea Weber > P.K. Subban (and I’m sure his breath is better, too) but ultimately we have been forced to grow up quickly and know that anything a bandwagon local doesn’t know about hockey, he or she makes up for it with an enthusiasm and an excitement that is so contagious that even Barry Melrose thinks this is the greatest place on earth. Today, it is! Go Preds!