The Best Defenceman in the NHL

The Best Defenceman in the NHL

Since the retirement of the incredible Niklas Lidstrom, there has been a vacancy in the National Hockey League in the position of the best defenceman. There are a ton of worthy candidates, and many of them have staked their claim with awards, acclaim, and defining moments.

Keith, Chara, Weber, Pietrangelo, Subban, Karlsson. All are excellent. But the NHL has a new best D-man, and he is showing it in these 2014 playoffs.

Drew Doughty, of the Los Angeles Kings.

doughty2Four years ago, I was taken by the incredible presence that Doughty came up with during the Vancouver Olympic Games. Just a kid (20 years old), he looked like he belonged among the very best that the world had to offer. Despite his young age, he already has a Norris Trophy nomination under his belt, a Stanley Cup, and two Olympic Gold medals. One can only assume that there will be more of these in his future.

During the current playoff run that the Kings are enjoying (but are in danger of ending, after their game 6 loss to Chicago), Doughty has shown time and again why he is nudging himself ahead of the rest when it comes to being the best. He plays incredible minutes on a strong team (around 27 minutes per game), against the toughest opposition that teams have been able to throw against him (the Sharks, Ducks, and Blackhawks). He has been an stalwart in his own end, but is also contributing offensively, to the tune of 16 points in 20 games. Pretty impressive for a forward in the tight Western conference, let alone a guy who plays the point. Nine of his points have come on the powerplay that he quarterbacks, and he has amassed 50 shots over those 20 games. He is all over the place, and his offense has never taken away from his important play in his own end.

Doughty has the ability to do everything, in all three zones. He also has size, at 6’1″ and 213 pounds, so he isn’t simply a finesse player, either. He can be tough on you.

In a league where goalies are always considered to be the playoff heroes, if the Kings win the Cup again, it would be tough to overlook his contributions when it comes to the Conn Smythe voting.

Drew Doughty is emerging from the pack of young D that are taking the league by storm, and he has shown himself to be the best that the league has to offer. Look for him to pile up more awards as his career moves forward. Scary to think that he is only 24, and he has not yet reached his prime. This is a kid that will be among the best for the next 10 years.

Shannon Szabados: Blazing a Trail

Shannon Szabados: Blazing a Trail

shannonRecently, Canadian women’s hockey goalie Shannon Szabados signed a contract to play with the Columbus Cottonmouths in the Southern Professional Hockey League. She is now one of the few female goalies who will have suited up with a pro men’s hockey team.

Szabados is already a hero to many hockey fans, especially female hockey fans, for helping lead Team Canada to another Olympic gold medal at the Sochi Olympics. Now, she is breaking down the barriers, proving that a female can play with the boys when it comes to hockey.

She suited up for the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers a while back in practice, to fill in when there were a few trades going down and the Oilers were short a goalie. Now, she is a pro goalie in a men’s league, after making her debut the other night. Sure, she may have lost 4-3, but she made 27 saves, and from the accounts I have read, it was a successful start to her men’s pro career.

Szabados is not a gimmick. She can play. This is great for her, and great for young female hockey players, to realize that there are opportunities out there. Sure, these chances are still extremely rare, but it only takes a few to prove so many wrong.

Shannon Szabados, Nail YakupovThere is a great article on Puck Daddy today about Szabados and the influence she is having on young girls who love hockey. It is quick, and definitely well worth a read.

Shannon Szabados plays for men’s team, inspires future female goalies

 

Golden!

Golden!

Sometimes, waking up at 5 AM is well worth it.

The Canadian men’s hockey team made it well worth while for the millions of Canadians who crawled out of bed at ungodly hours of the morning (or pulled university-style all nighters), by winning the Olympic gold medal with a dominating 3-0 win over Team Sweden.

The morning never seemed so sweet. Or so golden.

goldThis was a dominant performance. The Canadians went to work, won the battles, controlled the puck in Sweden’s zone. Over the course of the game, despite a couple of very good chances turned away by Carey Price, it seemed like the Swedes never really had a sniff. I feel for them, because they are a great team and probably deserved a better game, with their three main offensive forces not in the game due to injury. But that’s the way the tourney goes, and they are definitely a worthy silver medal team.

Canada, once again, can relish in the victory.

This Canadian team was maligned, as most Canadian teams are, from being under a microscope for so long. Sidney Crosby, the best player on earth, was criticized for not contributing enough offense. He scored the important 2-0 goal on a breakaway today, and has been Canada’s best player over the past two games. Even Chris Kunitz, who most people didn’t think belonged on this team in the first place, scored the defining 3-0 goal on a beautiful laser of a slapshot. Jonathan Toews, another forward who had been held goalless, put away the winner in the first period.

This was a team effort, and regardless of the plethora of NHL megastars on the roster, the Canadians played like a team. They remained committed to the team game through the tournament, especially on the defensive side of the game. They could have got nervous and broke down and tried for the offense that the crowds wanted, but they refrained, playing a well-structured game that looked impenetrable against the offensively gifted Americans and Swedes.

At times, it looked like Team Canada was just toying with them, playing keep-away in their end of the rink.

What I liked most about this team, is that they strapped on their hard hats and went to work in a very mechanical fashion. They did what they needed to do, played how they needed to play to win. They didn’t celebrate their goals too hard, or their victories too much. They just scored when they needed to and won games. All of the games. Even upon winning the gold medal, their celebration was sedate compared to the amazing anarchy of Vancouver. They had done their jobs, and done them well. Their goal was accomplished.

For an Olympics that lacked the raw excitement of a home country hosting, such as in Vancouver 2010, this was a great cap to an incredible few days of hockey, and overall, a great Olympics by Canada. 25 medals, including 10 gold. Pretty impressive for our small nation of 33 million people. We can compete with the big boys, the Americans and the Russians, as well as the other winter powers, such as the Dutch, Norwegians and Germans.

We didn’t end up with the most gold, or the most medals, this time around. But because of the men’s hockey, it feels like we won the Games.

Canada vs. Sweden: For the Gold

Canada vs. Sweden: For the Gold

Prior to the Olympic tournament, if I had to pick a winner with a gun to my head, it would have been Sweden. A deep team with great goaltending and experience on the large ice surface, it seemed like a lock that the Tre Kronor would make it to this game. Of course, Canada is always a favorite, even if they have morphed into a different team than probably any of us expected when the selections were made. Canada seemed to be a team based on steady D and amazing offense. One half of that is correct.

canadaWhile they have struggled to score goals, Canada’s defense has been second to none in the Olympics. In fact, it has been better than anyone else by a longshot. Anchored by Drew Doughty and Shea Weber, they have produced goals, dominated possession and kept opposing team chances to a minimum.

If they win the gold medal, it will be because of their defense. They have not been a team to dominate the scoreboard, yet they remain undefeated, overcoming their chief rivals in the US to get to the gold medal game.

The main difference from the Canada we expected and the Canada we have seen is that they have played a more European game, with the tight checking defense and a focus on controlling the puck in the offensive zone. This bodes well against Sweden, in my opinion.

Sweden is a formidable opponent, and Canada has to be sure to be up for this game. Beating the Americans is a huge boon, but they need to show up if they have any hope of defeating a team led by young Erik Karlsson, the standout defenseman from the Ottawa Senators. He is such an offensive force that he is leading the Games in scoring. Not just defensive scoring, but all scoring.

swedenAdd in Henrik Lundqvist and a deep roster up front, and Team Sweden very much deserves to be in this final, and has a very realistic shot at taking home the gold. This will be a tight battle, and it will basically come down to which team can figure out how to either beat the stellar D, or the stellar netminding.

I don’t think anybody is expecting a barn burner of an offensive performance, even though each team has that ability. This will be close checking, and it will be tense.

While it seems like destiny that Canada wins this game, to go along with the gold the women’s team miraculously won, it will be tough.

It will be an interesting Sunday morning. The game starts at 5AM mountain time. And bars in Alberta have been given permission to be open, and serving, during the game. Could be a messy night for a lot of people!

Give me Canada. 3-1.

Olympics: The Canada vs. USA classics

Olympics: The Canada vs. USA classics

Great week to be a Canadian hockey fan!

First off, there isn’t much to be said about that women’s gold medal hockey game that hasn’t been said already. An absolute classic. The women played their hearts out, and this needs to be considered one of the great rivalries in all of sports. They fought each other tooth and nail, and it was great to see Canada emerge as the gold medal winner for the fourth straight Olympics.

Yes, there were questionable things happen in that game. The penalties at the end and in overtime that went against the Americans were not of the entirely obvious variety (fancy way of saying one was a terribly weak makeup call and the other was going to get called no matter what, the fact they called it cross-checking on the breakaway was laughable).

women2That ending will go down in Canadian sports history. The goals, the post, the comeback. Amazing hockey.

It was great to hear the entire school erupt when the Canadians got their goals, and make their comeback. I know how excited our staffroom was to watch the overtime at lunch. Amazing.

For the men, there is little bigger than a Canada-US game. Sure, the traditional rival of ours is Russia, but the US is the new one, since Russian hockey seems to have fallen off a cliff in recent years. The US are the enemy, our biggest challenger. Canada’s 1-0 semi-final victory was no way the classic that the women’s duel was, but with that score, it was filled with tense moments, which is strange considering that Canada seemed to absolutely dominate this game.

bennDespite our lack of goal scoring and finish, how incredible has Team Canada been at possession during these Games? Watching, it seemed like the whole game was played in the American end. Which is perfect. Now, it would be nice if we finished a couple of those possessions with some goals!

An absolute classic week, and we get to look forward to the 5AM (mountain time) wakeup call to see if our men can secure the double hockey gold once again.

Go Canada Go!

Olympics: Women’s Hockey (USA vs. Can)

Olympics: Women’s Hockey (USA vs. Can)

The way we all expected it to be, and the way that it should be. The gold medal game in the women’s hockey tournament will come down to the two world superpowers in the sport, the United States and Canada.

womenThere was no doubt this was going to be the final game that we were going to see, even with the IOC adjusting the format of the women’s tournament in order to ensure more competitive games, and avoiding the embarrassing 16-0 blowouts we have become all too familiar with over the past Olympic Games. Well, they succeeded on this point. There were no double-digit destructions, which is nothing but good for the sport that is trying to hold onto its spot in the Games.

Canada vs. the US is the fiercest rivalry and battle in the woman’s game. And we should welcome one more battle between the two teams. They did play in the round robin portion of the tourney, with the Canadians winning a close one (of course), 3-2.

These two teams do not like each other. They are both filled with stars and legends of the women’s game. They even brawled in a couple of their warmup matches before the Olympics. This game is the ultimate selling point for people out there who are not familiar with women’s hockey, and to young girls that need to see the best of the best, and that need to see that women’s hockey is a great sport, that can be as hard fought as any of the men’s games.

Best of luck to both teams, they of course both deserve to be competing for the highest honour in their sport. Let’s hope for another Canadian victory, as we have seen in the past Olympics.

Olympics: Scared of Switzerland

Olympics: Scared of Switzerland

I was listening to the post-game summary following the Canada-Finland game at the Olympics, and the hosts were discussing how neither Switzerland or Latvia (the two teams who play to decide who faces Canada in the quarter finals) pose a serious threat to the Canadians in the elimination round.

Well, I strongly disagree.

Ice Hockey - Winter Olympics Day 5 - Latvia v SwitzerlandI am scared of the Swiss.

A team that plays that solid of team defense needs to be one that is able to strike fear into the Canadian team. All three games that Switzerland has played, have all ended up with scores of 1-0 (the won two of them). That means that they already have garnered two shutouts against Olympic competition. Granted, beating the Czechs this year isn’t the most difficult of tasks, but it still says something about how well this team can play together.

And they have the most important thing: a hot goalie, in Jonas Hiller of the Anaheim Ducks. He has been playing extremely well, and this should be considered a problem for Canada.

Plus, they are a massive underdog, with nothing to lose, going against a hockey juggernaught, a team with some of the highest expectations entering the tournament.

Strangely, the Swiss have been a team that have caused Canada fits over the years, which may be surprising to many. Whether it be in the World Championships or the Olympics, the Swiss always play the Canadians tough, and we struggle to get through their stalwart defensive system. The Canadians need shots, lots of them, and traffic in front of Hiller. They need to collapse on their net, and hope for some lucky bounces. It needs to be anarchy out there, and the Canadians need to use their big bodies in order to create havok.

I am confident that this team can win. They have the best players in the world, and their confidence should be boosted after a hard fought win against Finland. By no means are they scoring like they should be, but at least they know that they can play in a tight game, which is probably what they will end up with against the Swiss. As long as they remain confident in their team, and not get rattled by the tight D and make foolish mistakes, they should be fine.

But it doesn’t change the fact that Team Switzerland scares me in this tournament.

Captain Crosby

Of course Sidney Crosby needed to be the captain of Team Canada’s Olympic Hockey Team.

He is the best hockey player in the world. He is the face of the NHL. He is a Stanley Cup champion. He has won Olympic Gold before, from that little overtime goal that may be the most memorable moment for an entire generation of hockey fans in Canada.

Photography by Kristian Bogner Copyright 2011. All Rights Reserved.It is definitely possible to debate Crosby as our captain. He has had a history of whining to refs, but that was before he matured in to the player he is now. There is also Jonathan Toews, who has won two Cups with Chicago, and presents himself in the stoic manner of other Canadian legends, such as Steve Yzerman and Joe Sakic. But is seems natural that Crosby is the choice, simply because he is the best. Over the years of being scouted and being a phenom from an early age, he has been saddled with pressure to perform since he was a kid. And nothing will change as the team heads over to Sochi, Russia, to attempt to defend our gold medal on foreign soil, on the much bigger ice that gives our guys fits.

There is no debate from me on this choice. Crosby is the perfect captain for us, the natural leader of this team. Along with him, I really like the selections of Toews and Shea Weber as his assistants. A great group, all with tons of experience.

Hopefully enough to help lead us to gold once again.

Quick Thoughts: Team USA Olympic Hockey Roster

Following the Winter Classic game in Detroit today, the US announced their Olympic hockey team for the upcoming games in Sochi, Russia. Immediately, we look to the players that didn’t make the cut, such as Bobby Ryan, Erik Johnson, Jack Johnson, Kyle Okposo, or my most surprising omission, Keith Yandle.

usa-hockey-2014-jerseysHere are the players (from cbssports.com):

Left Wing: Dustin Brown, Max Pacioretty, Zach Parise, James van Riemsdyk. A little bit of everything here. Brown is tough, Parise is fast, and Pacioretty can finish. I like this group.

Center: David Backes, Ryan Kesler, Joe Pavelski, Paul Stasny. Backes has become a favorite of mine, and there is good toughness here with him and Kesler. Not sold on the Stasny pick. It seems like the high point of his career is past him, and he is no longer an offensive force.

Right Wing: Ryan Callahan, Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, TJ Oshie. Love the inclusion of Oshie. Kane is one of the best, and Callahan has grit and leadership.

Extra Forwards: Derek Stepan, Blake Wheeler. This is where it is surprising that Bobby Ryan didn’t make the cut.

Defense: Cam Fowler, John Carlson, Ryan McDonagh, Justin Faulk, Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin, Ryan Suter, Kevin Shattenkirk. Big youth movement here! I like these picks, although Orpik sort of sticks out like a sore thumb to me. It’s important to have defensive-minded players, but it seems to me that Orpik isn’t the best at doing this. I foresee him struggling on the bigger ice in more wide-open situations. Not a ton of size and definitely missing some angry with these picks, but that’s not the most important thing on the big ice. The team was going for speed, and they will get it with these D. There will be a ton of pressure on these young guys, and it will be interesting to see how they react. The worst-case scenario is that they do poorly, but Team USA is set up for the next couple of Olympics with this group able to grow together.

Goalies: Jonathan Quick, Ryan Miller, Jimmy Howard. No surprises here. Won’t be surprised if Miller comes in and takes over the starter’s role. He still has a ton of fight left in him, and has been doing his best in a bad situation in Buffalo this year. Plus, a big Olympics could boost his trade value even more. A little concerned with the Quick injury, but he will be back on the ice soon enough and will be able to get plenty of action in before going to Russia.

Overall, I don’t know that this team has near the same depth that Canada will once it reveals its roster. But something the US has been good at doing in the last couple Olympics is put together good teams, not necessarily just a collection of the best players. With this team, I feel they will be in the running for the medals. The US always seems to step it up, even when they are not expected to (see 2010 Games in Vancouver). I don’t see them as a gold medal threat, but I can easily picture them playing for bronze. Really, this tourney comes down to who has the hottest goalies (and I will call Finland as being a good dark horse pick, because their goaltending situation is amazing). Most glaring weakness for me is on the back end, and that could expose their goalies a little too much in such a short tournament.They also seem that they will struggle to score goals, because outside of Kane and maybe Kessel, they lack some true snipers. There is plenty of grit up front, and we will see how that works out for them.

Only a few weeks and we’ll get to see!