Wednesday, June 25, 2014

That was one hell of a ride...

Well, that was fun.

During the Mike Johnston era we witnessed a lot of goals & a lot of wins.  The last 4 playoff runs featured more wins (59) than the 3 full seasons prior to his arrival in the Rose City (47).  This team posted a .731 winning percentage in the 5 regular seasons that began with MJ behind the bench.  Pretty unheard of for junior hockey, if not anywhere in modern sport.

Most of us are familiar with the meteoric rise of this franchise back to relevance in the WHL, but here's a great piece about MJ turning this ship around.  It shouldn't be forgotten that the Winterhawks were on the verge of either being relocated or simply folding during the dark ages.  My understanding is the previous owner (who I won't even mention his name here), who was a bartender back east somewhere, fired Ken Hodge and was going to play GM himself.  Ron Robison had to step in & force the team to re-hire Hodge in order to have some sort of hockey-man making decisions.  It was that bad.

Some fans feel that MJ is a better GM than coach, and I lean that way - if only because you have to be better at one or the other by definition.  If you look at the talent he's amassed during his Portland career - its pretty staggering.   Guys like Ryan Johansen (7th round bantam pick), Chase de Leo (9th round bantam pick),  Brendan Leipsic (6th round bantam pick) - etc etc etc.   Many WHL teams can't find a decent Euro at all it seems, and we've seen a steady procession of top shelf import talent come through here.

Johnston would argue otherwise - as he's been coaching as a profession for over 30 years.  Much of coaching is managing the players personalities & mannerisms.  It ain't gonna be easy to balance Sidney Crosby & Evgeni Malkin with your 4th line guys, but its all in the approach.

Its apples and oranges, the NHL & major junior, but think about the attitudes he's saddled up here:  Boychuck, Ross, Rattie, Morrow, Leipsic, Pouliot, etc.  You hear the phase "I'd rather try and tame a tiger than paint stripes on a kitty cat" - but that's a whole damn streak of tigers right there.  Remember what he did with Taylor Jordan as an overage?  Made him into a legit hockey player.  He handled both high-profile defencemen who left school for Portland without distraction.

I've heard that there are serious challenges in Pittsburgh right now: salary cap issues, sky high expectations, lack of identity - things like this.  After the mess that Mike cleaned up here, I'm sure the Penguins will be fine.

I have serious concerns about the future of the Portland Winterhawks.  The next time they drop the puck will be my 10th season living in Portland & following this team.  Its not an exaggeration to say that every ounce of success I've witnessed this team have comes directly from Mike Johnston.  To go from worst-to-first is a wonderful story, but the clock is supposed to strike midnight at some point.  Somehow MJ found ways to simply keep this team on top.  The Winterhawks are still stocked full of top shelf players, after 4 years of long playoff runs.  Completely unheard of at this level.

Its inevitable for this team to fall back to earth, but it seemed almost impossible under the leadership of MJ.  The next guy has some shoes to fill, alright.  We may be destined to experience the cycle of winning / losing / wining / losing that every other team is subject to - which is a day I've dreaded for some time.  Its way more fun winning all those games year after year.

Anybody got Travis Green's number?  I hear his contract is up........

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Brendan Leipsic 5 min major spear: you be the judge

In game 5 of the Portland / Kelowna series, Leipsic was given a major penalty for spearing.

Lets look at rule 62:
Rule 62: Spearing

Spearing - Spearing shall mean stabbing an opponent with the point
of the stick blade, whether contact is made or not.

Double-minor Penalty - A double-minor penalty
will be imposed on a
player or goalkeeper who spears an opponent and does not make

Major Penalty - A major penalty shall be imposed on a player or
goalkeeper who spears an opponent (see 62.5).

Match Penalty - A match penalty shall be imposed on a player or
goalkeeper who injures an opponent as a result of a spear.

62.5 Game Misconduct Penalty - Whenever a major penalty is assessed
for spearing, a game misconduct penalty must also be imposed.

They don't take spearing lightly, nor should they.  If you swing & miss, its a double minor.  Any spear that actually contacts another player and its an automatic major.  Again, I'm fine with this, but it should go without saying that not all spears are created equal.

In the above video clip of the incident, I left it long with Kelowna's audio feed to illustrate a point: that no one knew that this major had occurred until the penalties went up on the scoreclock.  I'm right there with them - I watched the replay not seeing the spear until I was looking for it.  I'm not sure how the league will look at this, but my rose-garden colored glasses don't think its a big deal.  We shall see.

We've seen some nasty spearing incidents in the last week or so:

Different leagues for sure, but many of us remember Lucic with the Giants.  Played hard as well as partied hard.   Dude just cruises up behind a dude, all nonchalant, and sticks him in the balls.  That's a calculated move - about the worst thing you can do on an ice sheet.  He got slapped with a $5,000 fine, no suspension.  (Lucic made 4.5 million this year, BTW).

Suspend Leipsic?  Time will tell.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Corey Graham shares his thoughts on Victoria VS Portland

What we've done here is dub the Pipeline show over highlights of the game they are discussing.  Corey Graham is the voice of the Oil Kings, and is featured in this clip.

Some of - actually, most of - the things that Graham said kind of rubbed me the wrong way.  Like they said on the first Snoop Dogg record, "Get your pooper scooper, 'cause the [dudes] talkin' shit..."

I suppose that's just 'fan' being sort for 'fanatic', but I thought it would be fun to set the "celebrated like they won the Stanley Cup" line to the actual celebration. 

I am a hockey fan with a lot invested.  I am not, however, a Breitbart: meaning I don't believe in deceptive editing.   Here's my work:

The full segment of the Pipeline Show I used is right here

The Stanley Cup celebration by the Portland Winterhawks is here

You be the judge.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Brendan Burke's numbers in 2014

I finally got around to the show prep I meant to do two episodes ago for Pucklandia: our new podcast (subscribe button here).  While you're at it, follow on Twitter & befriend on Facebook to stay current.

We all know that Burke's been great in 2014, at least post trade deadline.  Some feel its the addition of Corbin Boes, others feel that Mathew Dumba has been the difference.  I feel that its a "tastes great / less filling" kind of debate - and a nice one to have.

What do Burke's numbers look like, you ask?  On January 4th of this year, he was sitting on a 3.22 goals against, and a .900% save percentage.  There's been worse in major junior for sure, but that's not exactly Memorial Cup kind of numbers.

According to the WHL website, his January totals were 1.83 / 0.934 in 8 games - which ain't bad.  February saw him go 2.33 / .912 & March looked like 1.33 / .950 - which you can live with.

If you start with the games after that January 4th point referenced earlier, his totals through the end of the season finished at 1.42 / .950 over a 12 game span, assuming my math is correct.  While not the biggest sample size, it sure seems like Burke's trending in the right direction, and the 4 games in round one demonstrated a 1.75 / .924 - which is fantastic considering how rough his game 1 was.

There's been talk about Portland's goaltending being a question mark.  Looks like its been answered to me.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

It's never as bad as it seems

These kids are disciplined.  They are driven.  They are focused.  Major junior is an elite level of hockey - the players are the best in the world, at the earliest age to identify that kind of talent & skill. They are asked to behave like professionals, and do so, almost without exception.

They are also teenagers.  Being a teen is tough, and this day and age might be tougher than ever.  I'm not sure if you were ever 17 years old, but I was being a world class shithead, and so was everyone I knew at the time.

It amazes me that we don't hear stories of adolescence gone wrong on a weekly basis.  Sure, you have things like fighting at house parties on occasion.  These are things that kids that age do.  When I was 17 often I drove too fast.  A few times I did some drinking.  Sometimes my girlfriend was involved.  Unfortunately, we've seen this combination turn deadly in WHL country.

The newest tragedy to hit junior hockey is Terry Trafford's death.  He was 20 years old, playing for the Saginaw Spirit of the OHL.  By all accounts he was a great kid, and loved as a teammate.  He had been sent home by the team for a rules violation, reportedly for smoking weed.  Do I need to point out that dudes that age smoke weed sometimes?  Five miles north of me its 100% legal to do so (I wonder how legalization has effected the 4 Washington based WHL teams approach to marijuana?).

As a good Ontario boy, he probably played hockey for 85% of his life.  The prospect of the game leaving you would be crushing.  At this elite level, they are players 12 months of the year.  This is what they live for.

I had a friend who became a teenage parent, which is obviously difficult.  During a rough patch with his girlfriend, he hung himself.  One of the saddest parts of this story was that she was about to approach him with the idea of marriage, but his perception was that the relationship was over, and his life was as well.

One positive of his death was that seeing how it changed the folks close to him.  I too, struggled with similar demons of suicidal tendencies in my formative years.  Witnessing the aftermath of this tragedy made me realize what suicide does to your loved ones, and they don't deserve to deal with that.  

His body was found the day after my NHL team was eliminated from the playoffs, which helped me understand that there is hockey, and there is life.  Fans like ourselves can reverse the order of those two things from time to time.

My most recent experience with suicide was a friend from Seattle hanging himself, in the spring of 2012.  This was during the opening round of the playoffs, and the funeral was scheduled for the same day as game 5 of the opening round.  Of course, there was no game 5, as Portland swept Kelowna that series.  This guy was in his late 30's, and his reasoning was over a bump in the road with his longtime girlfriend, which ultimately didn't threaten their relationship in her eyes.

What we should learn from these stories is that its never as bad as it seems.  In a worst case scenario,  perhaps it is over with you and your lover.  There are lots of people in this world, and you'll most likely find someone again.  I've been fired 9 times in the 9 years I've lived in Portland, but somehow I continue to find work.  Gordie Howe had to hang up the skates at age 51, meaning that everyone has to retire from hockey at some point.  Life doesn't end with any of these types of setbacks.

Perhaps the reason that Terry's death is so hard to deal with is that it could happen to anyone close to us.  Junior hockey is a tight knit community, and tragedies like this one & Tim Bozon's are good at bringing us together to support those who need it.  

I don't follow the OHL, and I'd never heard of Terry prior to his disappearance, yet he represents "every man" to me.  I watched Taylor Jordan get cut from his team 3 times, but he fought through it.   What are these two Silvertips dealing with after being suspended for rules violations?  When Jared Schamerhorn was sent down from Lethbridge, what went through his mind?  Terry's passing scares me thinking it could happen to any of these players, as well as countless others facing setbacks in their everyday lives.

Fortunately these issues are rare in the hockey world.  That doesn't make them any easier to deal with.  If you're struggling, there's folks who will be there for you. 

Monday, February 24, 2014

In defense of the shootout

First off, I don't like the shootout anymore than anyone else.

I do, however, believe its a necessary evil.

I watched 11 years of hockey which included ties.  Ties are terrible, and I don't think that people remember how empty it feels investing 3 hours of your life in a game only to walk away with as if it never happened - there is no winner.  You wanna go back to ties?  No thank you.  The "kissing your sister" quote always stuck with me.

One of the main criticisms of the shootout is that it is a one on one format in the context of a team game, and that's a valid point.  Breakaways are part of the game, but they don't occur in alternating instances of 6+ in the course of a night.

I don't like how we drop down to 4 on 4 for overtime - we just spent 60 minutes of 5 on 5.  If we are so exited about goals, and the 5th player is a detriment to scoring, why do we have him out there for regulation?  Some say the shootout is a gimmick, but what about changing the number of players who are eligible to take the ice, just 'cause its sudden death?  Seems gimmicky to me.

Sure, you see 4 on 4 most nights, but its usually brief and in the context of overlapping penalties, or is the result of coincidental minors.  What percentage of the season is played 4 on 4?  If you play 3 minutes of 4 on 4 per night, that's 5% of the game.  Seems about as far from regular gameplay as a series of penalty shots, if you ask me.

In life, as in outside hockey, I'm big into the concept that if you are critical of X, and argue that it needs to go away, then you have to present an alternative in order to do so.  I don't like paying taxes:  no one does.  The alternative to all of us paying no taxes means no roads to drive on, firemen to do their thing, or law enforcement to prevent us from being robbed.  That's not a realistic alternative.

So we've established that ties aren't acceptable, but we don't like the shootout.  Lets look at the alternatives.  You see 3 on 3 thrown out there - often in an unlimited format.  Again, I don't like ditching one player for minutes 60 through 65 - then you really wanna blow the horn and leave another guy on the bench for an additional 5 minutes?  The 3 on 3 advocates among us don't feel that its gimmicky, yet in the 20 years I've been watching the game I've never seen 3 on 3 play, yet I've seen quite a few penalty shots.

What would football look like if you took 40% of the players off the field in an effort to induce a score?  In the 10th inning of a ball game you take the shortstop, 3rd baseman, and left fielder off - in an effort to keep it a team game: would we accept that?  We're already benching the shortstop, which I think is bad enough.

What are you gonna do if no one scores when its 3 on 3?  Aren't you getting dangerously close to 1 on 1 there?  I've heard one staunch shootout critic throw out an idea of a series of alternating 2-on-1's, which satisfies my criteria of having an alternative to suggest.  I'm not sure if I like that idea, but its at least something to think about.

As an American voter, I've learned to live with a lesser of two evils approach, which is why I back virtually anything that gets us away from ties.  Now, if you want to be critical of the "loser point" - you'll get more traction with that argument, in my opinion.  Gregg Drinnan will point out that 17 out of the 22 WHL teams have a .500 or better record right now, which seems statistically impossible.

We just witnessed an Olympic tournament where a regulation win was worth 3 points, an OT win 2, and an extra time loss earned a single point.  Personally, I could get behind a points system like this, as it incentivizes winning in regulation, yet doesn't strip you of a potential tie point.  This system seems to work well in MLS, which is prone to ties.

Like I said, I don't like the current system any more than you do - but I'll take it over one with ties.  I'd take a coin flip VS a tie.  I would prefer that both captains engage in a duel at center ice before I see another tie.

If you have any better ideas, I'd love to hear 'em.  In the meantime, I'm fine with a series of penalty shots and someone walking out of the rink with a "W".

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Mike Johnston: good coach?

This is a developmental league.  That goes for players as well as coaches, officials, equipment managers, etc.  I believe this is Mike Johnston's first head coaching gig - at least at a significant level of hockey.  From time to time you hear some criticisms of his work:

On a related note, here's an exchange between myself and Guy Flaming (regarding the 2014 WJC):

Here's an article by Daniel Nugent-Bowman about Pouliot playing on the top paring for Team Canada at the World Juniors:
Ekblad quietly watches how Pouliot approaches drills in practices or how he refocuses between shifts.
“You have to remember, there’s mentorship going on, but it’s going on in subtle ways,” said McGill, who works with Canada’s defencemen. “It’s not always verbal communication.” 
The guidance is paying off.
Hockeys future has a video interview with  Pouliot during the WJC tournament, which partially consists of asking him about some of the other talented kids we've been fortunate enough to see play here over the last several years.

Point being is that #51 looks to be erasing some of the criticisms of his play in the D zone, as well as the rap they don't coach that way in this town.  I'm writing this the day after Brendan Burke had a 174 minute shutout streak come to an end - and he's not doing that on his own, now is he?

Sometimes you hear things about star forwards, such as Nino Niederreiter & Ryan Johansen:

Then, on the same day, ran stories about Johansen rounding into form, as well as Nino scoring a nasty OT goal.  With those two high draft picks, you could argue that MJ did too good of a job.  

The Islanders & Blue Jackets thought both players were NHL ready for their 19 year old seasons, yet didn't play them in significant roles, which is about the worst thing you can do to a young hockey player.  There's reasons that both those teams have struggled for a long time, and these examples demonstrate two reasons why.

Mike Johnston has posted winning percentages of .632, .715, .708 in his first 3 full seasons.  He's followed that up with an .820 in his partial season (suspension) - the team finished with an .812 & a league championship.  So far this season they're putting up .731.  MJ can build & coach teams that win games.

In his first full season they got out of the first round - which hadn't happened much in the last few years here.  The next 2 seasons they lost in the finals before hoisting the Ed cup.  In a developmental league, he's been getting better every year to this point.  There may have been issues developing the right culture in his 2nd year of coaching teenagers at an elite level - that's entirely possible.  

Most of the players that work with him at this point he's had for their entire junior careers,  which you'd think would allow him to instill the values he wants them to live by.  He's presumably developed a better balance of letting the kids run, yet keeping them under the team's umbrella.  Being a peer, friend, and authority figure.  When to crack the whip, when to build the player back up.  Coaching these high end players at such a tricky stage of their lives has to be more complicated than you or I could ever understand.

If we judge WHL coaches by how their players fare in the NHL, that would make Jim Hiller or Don Nachbar look pretty poor , when I think most regard them as quality coaches.  

I'm buying what MJ is selling.