U.S. past ‘miracle’ stage in Olympic hockey (except vs. Canada)

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SOCHI, Russia – This seems to be the Olympics when everyone around United States hockey officially got sick of the Miracle on Ice. Well, it was inevitable. With the Olympics being in Russia, with famed Russian goaltender Vladislav Tretiak (who was pulled in the Miracle) lighting the torch, with my generation reaching the age of cloying nostalgia and with the U.S. men’s team looking for its first Olympics hockey gold since that 1980 team, everything pointed to overkill.*

*Which I happily participated in.

Thing is, hockey in America is nothing like it was in 1980. This was the point the U.S. hockey team kept hammering. Everything has changed. Now, professional hockey players are at the Olympic. Now, the U.S. team has some of the best players in the world. Now, the U.S. team has speed and size and depth that is the envy of almost every hockey-playing country in the world. When the U.S. team played Russia this time around, it was the Americans who were favored, and the Americans who played the villains when they got a favorable call and won in a gritty shootout.

So, yes, everybody was ready to move on from the constant reminders about a bunch of college hockey players who won a gold medal 34 years ago.

Trouble is, to get people to stop talking about the Miracle on Ice, you have to stop losing one-goal games to Canada when it matters most.

VIDEO: Highlights from Canada’s 1-0 win

The U.S. did lose another one-goal game to Canada in an Olympic semifinal Friday … this after the U.S. women one day earlier lost a crushing one-goal game to Canada in the gold medal game … this after the U.S. men lost a crushing one-goal game to Canada in the gold medal game in Vancouver, one of the most famous hockey games ever played.

To be fair, the United States’ 1-0 loss to Canada was different from the others. It felt cleaner and did not leave much room for regret. That’s because the Canadians pretty thoroughly outplayed the Americans. Was it not for some head-stand saves from Jonathan Quick – “our best player tonight,”  U.S. coach Dan Bylsma said – the score easily could have been 3-0 or 4-0.

Meanwhile the “0” on the American end of the score was more or less locked in. It is hard to imagine a team playing more suffocating defense than Canada played Friday. The U.S. power play was rendered all but useless. And other than a couple of moderate chances early and Paul Stansny’s point-blank shots in front in the second period, the U.S. rarely even threatened to score.

VIDEO: U.S. can’t find an empty net in final minute

The game was played at a high level—the speed on the ice was mesmerizing — and it was entertaining in its own way. But it really was quite a let-down from the famous gold medal game of four years ago. Well, for one thing that was a gold-medal match, while this was a semifinal just to see who would play Sweden for gold. That was a quirk in the seeding, and it definitely altered some of the emotion.*

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Then there was the quiet. Here you had the two best hockey teams on earth – two of the most talented hockey teams ever put together – and it was so eerily quiet in the Bolshoy Ice Palace. Every now and again, a hearty soul would try to start up a U-S-A chant or beg the Canadians to finish one of their numerous goal-scoring chances and then it would dissolve into stillness.

Much of the time, the arena was quiet enough to read bedtime stories aloud.

So strange … but then maybe not. No event at these Olympics brought so much pain to the host country as hockey. The Russian hockey team lost to the U.S. in the aforementioned shootout that was, for many Americans, the emotional peak of these Olympics and was for Russian fans the very symbol of fraud. A goal-ahead goal by the Russians was nullified because the cage of the net was slightly off its mooring. Russians who even conceded the point that the net WAS off still believed that U.S. goalie Jonathan Quick had been the one to knock it off. Angry fans demonstrated in Moscow. Television networks replayed the disallowed goal again and again.

Then, more disconcerting, the Russian team disappeared in a 3-1 quarterfinal loss to Finland that featured no controversy and also no life from a gifted collection of Russian players who never quite came together.

So, it is logical that there simply wasn’t much enthusiasm left for the sport. Tack on the Russians’ famous reticence – something that various non-Russian figure skaters noticed during their soundless programs – and what you had was a striking lack of energy and volume. We grow so used to the biggest sporting events being loud and the tension being almost tangible.

But Friday, early in the second period, Canada’s Jay Bouwmeester – a tough defenseman not necessarily known for his playmaking abilities – slapped a pass that Jamie Benn deflected over Quick to give Canada that 1-0 lead. And then the rest of the game just kind of melted away almost unnoticed. Those sounds you associate with a close and important hockey game – the roars for developing chances, the groans when shots slip wide, the gasps when the winning team narrowly escapes – were largely nonexistent. It was a bit like being in a Vegas casino with no clocks. Time just gushes away.

VIDEO: Jamie Benn’s shot the only goal

In any case, the U.S. never came especially close to tying the game, and Canada came very close to extending the lead and it was clear, on this day anyway, that there’s still a gap between Canadian and American hockey. Maybe this is as it should be considering how intently Canadian life revolves around the sport (some 80 percent of Canada watched at least part of the 2010 gold medal game).

But it is a blow for a United States still trying to move past the Miracle on Ice. Bylsma made the point after the game that U.S. hockey is at a place now where it hardly needs a miracle to win a gold medal. He’s right, of course. All the U.S. really needs is a couple more goals against Canada. Thing is, that’s the proving to be about as elusive as miracles.

Hextall deserves to see Flyers rebuild through

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This post is part of Flyers day at PHT…

If you look at GM Ron Hextall’s playing career, you might have expected the Philadelphia Flyers to continue their charming-yet-maddening run of impulsive, often-reckless moves. After all, Hextall echoed Billy Smith in goalie-stick-swinging rage.

Instead, Hextall’s almost writing the blueprint for how to rebuild a team in a tasteful way. Almost to the point where you wonder if his absence may partially explain the erosion of the Los Angeles Kings’ salary structure.

(Hextall was even rebuilding on the fly without the typical run of lottery ball luck, but that trend changed in Philly’s favor when they ended up with the second pick and Nolan Patrick.)

Let’s consider the great job Hextall is doing, even if there’s some fear that someone else might ultimately get the greatest credit if management grows impatient with this incremental approach.

Cleaning up

Hextall inherited an absolute mess in Philly, and he’s been making lemonade out of Bobby Clarke’s lemons.

Moving Vincent Lecavalier and Luke Schenn for Jordan Weal and a third-rounder felt like wizardry. The assets he managed for Kimmo Timonen, Brayden Schenn, and Braydon Coburn brought the Flyers a mix of picks, solid roster players, and financial breathing room.

Even mixed moves seem to point to better things in the future.

One imagines the Flyers getting a little more than they did when they took Valtteri Filppula off of Tampa Bay’s hands, especially since the Bolts didn’t retain salary in the process. You’d expect Jori Lehtera‘s time with Philly to be short, as the team seemingly took on his contract merely to get nice picks from the Blues for Schenn.

Prospects and picks

Hextall has assembled quite the war chest of prospects that mixes quantity with, ideally, quality choices.

Even heading into the 2018 NHL Draft, the Flyers currently hold an extra choice in the first, fifth, and seventh rounds. That’s promising, especially since they’ve already made a lot of picks.

Take a look at their draft history during the last three years.

2015: two first-rounders, zero second, two third-rounders, two fourths. Nine picks.
2016: Normal number of picks, except: three second-rounders and two sixth-rounders. Ten picks.
2017: two first-rounders, plus Isaac Ratcliffe, who was close to a first-rounder at 35th. Also two fourth-rounders. Nine picks.

And, again, they currently hold 10 choices in 2018. If the Flyers can aim those “darts” with even any accuracy, things look good for the future.

Still some problems

The troubling thing is that the Flyers don’t exactly look like a no-brainer playoff team in 2017-18. (Vote on that subject here.)

They’re standing as something of a fringe team even as they still spend quite a bit of money; they’re only about $5 million under the cap ceiling right now, according to Cap Friendly.

Still-troubling spending is part of the reason why Claude Giroux ($8.275 million per year) is under pressure. It’s not necessarily that Giroux and Jakub Voracek ($8.25M) are bad, but there are questions about one or both of them slipping, and with contracts that begin to look frighteningly long.

Combine those deals with Andrew MacDonald‘s $5M punchline of a cap hit and that’s about $21.5M on the books, just like that.

There’s a path to greater financial freedom, especially if they part ways with Filppula ($5M) and Lehtera ($4.7M). Hextall’s run of strong goalie moves continues with the cheap pairing of Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth after Steve Mason‘s surprisingly impressive run, and Philly isn’t locked into any Bryzgalovian deals in net.

So there are a lot of positives, even if it still feels like Hextall is hitting the “backspace” button on some salary cap death sentences.

Who gets to see the light at the end of the tunnel?

The Flyers boast a bounty of prospects, especially on defense; plenty of teams likely look at that farm system with some envy.

Will everything fall into line at the right time, though? Key forwards such as Giroux, Voracek, and Wayne Simmonds might see declines in the near future, to the point that Hextall must be willing to at least consider bold moves there, too.

Philly is getting close to the finish line as far as cap struggles go, which means that, sooner or later, they need to start making bigger gains toward being a stable contender. Hextall deserves to see it through, but we’ve seen more than a few examples of a GM laying the groundwork for someone else to put together the finishing touches.

Maple Leafs may look to Russia to improve defense (again)

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Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reports that the Toronto Maple Leafs confirmed that Mike Babcock and Lou Lamoriello recently made a visit to Russia, but they didn’t admit why they went.

It turns out that they were scoping out KHL defenseman Igor Ozhiganov, who plays for CSKA, according to Johnston and others.

Ozhiganov, 24, did not go drafted. He does, however, have some interesting NHL connections. For one thing, he suited up for the same team that Nikita Zaitsev did, so that experiment has already worked out quite well for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

As you can see from the tweet above, Ozhiganov will play in the KHL through 2017-18. That’s impressive due diligence from the Leafs’ brass, although you wonder if such maneuverings might put the defenseman higher on the radars of other teams hoping to add depth to their bluelines in the future.

Raw Charge notes that Ozhiganov is a buddy of Tampa Bay Lightning star Nikita Kucherov, who definitely sings the defenseman’s praises. Even with Mikhail Sergachev in the mix, the Bolts are a group that will probably want to bolster their mix (especially in the uncomfortably likely event that Dan Girardi disappoints).

Either way, NHL fans will need to wait at least a season to see what Ozhiganov is capable of … and where he lands.

Devils give Jimmy Hayes a shot with PTO

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The New Jersey Devils have made dramatic moves to improve their forward group over the last few years, but even with Taylor Hall, Marcus Johansson, and Kyle Palmieri in the mix, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

With that and the Devils’ recent struggles in mind, it only makes sense for GM Ray Shero to be open-minded to “reclamation projects.”

Perhaps that will be the case with towering forward Jimmy Hayes, then. The Devils announced that the winger has been invited to training camp on a PTO.

Look, there’s no doubt that Hayes has frequently struggled to make a difference at the NHL level. Not that long ago, he broke a 35-game pointless streak.

Still, it’s probably fair to give him an incomplete grade instead of a failing mark from 2016-17. After all, there are only so many players who can produce much offense when they’re receiving 9:14 TOI per game.

Hayes went from averaging 15:09 per contest in his best season (2014-15, when he scored 19 goals for Florida) to 13:50 TOI with Boston in 2015-16 and then that new low last season.

So, no doubt about it, Hayes’ stock couldn’t get much lower.

We’ve seen fringe guys become valuable assets after getting clean slates, including with bigger forwards. Zack Kassian resurrected his career following some significant struggles, just to name a recent example.

The Devils could use another NHL-caliber forward, particularly with valuable center Travis Zajac slated to miss a chunk of 2017-18. Maybe Hayes can be part of the solution.

No need for Flyers to rush Nolan Patrick after injury-plagued year

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This post is part of Flyers day at PHT…

It wasn’t long before Nolan Patrick began lighting up the Western Hockey League.

Two years before he was even selected second overall by the Philadelphia Flyers, he had scored 30 goals in his first full season with the Brandon Wheat Kings. A year later, he had 102 points, vaulting him into the position as the likely No. 1 overall pick for the 2017 Entry Draft.

Dating back more than a year, however, Patrick has been sidetracked by injury.

He underwent sports hernia surgery last summer. He played in only 33 games for Brandon this past season and couldn’t play for Canada at the World Juniors. In June, just prior to his selection by Philly, he had another operation — an abdominal surgery, the Flyers later announced — with a window of four to six weeks before he could resume full activity.

The Flyers had only a 2.2 per cent chance of winning the first overall selection, yet they still made a massive move up the board when the lottery had concluded. The first pick would come down to Patrick or Nico Hischier, who worked his way into the conversation for No. 1 overall as his QMJHL season continued.

In the end, the lottery-winning Devils took Hischier and Patrick fell right to the Flyers.

In Patrick, the Flyers get a center that stands at 6-foot-2 tall and 198 pounds, and is capable of producing significant numbers offensively — at least that’s what he showed in junior. Even if his 2016-17 season was hampered, Patrick still managed 20 goals and 46 points.

“And then playing and not being a 100 percent. I didn’t play one game this year feeling [like] myself. I’ve got the summer to get where I need to be,” said Patrick, per CSN Philly.

“My skating was kind of bugging me throughout the season. I needed to get my conditioning back to where I wanted it to be. I did as much as I could, but I wasn’t pouting about it.”

Patrick turns 19 years old next month during training camp and will look to make the Flyers for this upcoming season. Given everything he’s dealt with over the last several months, it would be, despite the talent that made him a top prospect in the draft, unreasonable to place lofty expectations on him right away, as he makes the transition into the NHL.

Having him healthy and ready for camp is a good start, but there really is no need to rush him along, particularly if it’s at the expense of future gains.

“We’re looking at the big picture here,” said general manager Ron Hextall earlier this summer, per the Courier-Post. “We’re not looking at next season. We’re looking at hopefully the next 10 to 15 seasons. We will do what’s best for Nolan long-term.”