The roar of battle shall flow like the mightiest of rivers.

The crys of the stricken shall haunt your nightmares until your last.

The glory won shall never tarnish.

He who falls he shall be forever forgotten.

It is after all game #699 of the NHL season. No game could be more important, no game has ever been more important. At least not until the next big matchup.

For today though we get to see the Bruins take on an upgraded version of one of the few teams to win their season series with them last year. The Rangers will get a true test of who they are, the Bruins play a style very similar to their own, and know how to win in a number of ways. There are players on the Rangers who have been to the promised land, but the team as a unit has not.

On paper there matchup couldn’t get much tighter. The two have almost identical goals allowed figures.  Each team wins more faceoffs than they lose. Their penalty kills are separated by just half a point. The top point producer for each squad is a speedy right winger, Gaborik for the Rangers and Seguin for the Bruins. Each team has a defenseman with points in the twenties, Del Zotto the rising star of the Blue Shirts, and Chara Norris winner, All Star Captain and biggest of the Bruins.  Looking at the comparative powerplays might imply more separation as Bruins boast a 4.6% better man advantage, but the Rangers take slightly less penalties. The biggest point of separation between the two is total offense where the Bruins lead the league and are out producing the Rangers by 3/4ths of a goal per game. With goaltending as good these two teams have, expect no more than a two goal game.

The Bruins have hit a patch of schedule that has left them playing poorly for long stretches of games, but have still won most of those games. The Rangers are coming in off a loss. Neither team can afford to let up off the throttle. At the end of the game the winner will be able to walk out of the building saying not only that they won, but that they beat the other team that has been at the top of the conference most of the season.

Where oh where did the sad sack Ducks go? Bruce Boudreau seems to have gotten the Ducks to know their role and roll in their lane. The Ducks have won six of eight since the start of the year with one of the losses coming in OT.  Just a hunch but I bet it has something to do with holding their shots against count down. Instead of their average of slightly over 30 per game on the season, only two opponents have broken 30 in the new year, and 3 have been held to 25 or less.

Rene Bourque, hockey goon? Well, probably not but he did drop the gloves on his first shift against the Capitals.

I’m sure he’s put eastern conference enforcers back on their heels.

The Colorado Avalanche seem to have gotten the Wonkavator to change directions again.

They’re 6-3-1 in their last 10. Does this mean we can all look forward to another season half season (or more) of Where’s Sacco’s Sack? No doubt there are at least a few ex-NHL coaches who would love to go to the mile high city.

Tonight marks the return of Brad Marchand and Rich Peverley to the Bruins lineup. One from being exiled to Siberia, the other from personal issues that had him depart the team and miss the Tampa debacle.  Undoubtedly their cavalry charge will be at least as successful as this one.

Finally with eleven games on the schedule tonight, those of you having trouble deciding what to watch:

  • Game of the night Senators Vs Sharks, two teams at or near the top and playing well.
  • Slaughter in the making: Oilers vs Blues, with all the injuries to Edmonton’s finest, there isn’t much excuse for Blues to end the night without two points.
  • Defensive Dance: Flames vs Kings, if there are more than four goals scored in this one I’ll be amazed.
  • Gong Show? The Wild vs The Maple Leafs: The Leaf’s are spiraling towards the basement in the east, and all the Wild not on the IR are busy wondering when their turn for casts and surgery is.

 

 

The first and most obvious way to replace the shootout falls in line with one of the NHL’s stated objectives: creating and enhancing rivalries. The simplest way would be to eliminate shootouts between divisional teams. No one on the world is going to complain about another seventeen minutes of Chicago vs. Detroit or Boston vs Montreal, and it neatly eliminates tie breakers in the standings at the same time. Using this networks could plan for teams the extra time accordingly. Another option is for all games from November 1 forward between two teams that enter the night in a playoff position to end through overtime play if tied after sixty minutes. This option allows for higher level play by pushing the teams to end it as soon as possible, and prevents games between basement dwellers from filling up valuable network time that might otherwise be used for society improving infomercials.

As something of a hockey purist I’m sick to death of the shootout. It’s no more hockey than the intermission shot on some goofy target in goal by a fan wearing sneakers from center ice is. It’s got nothing to do with team play. It’s got zero to do with fair what makes the game engaging or unique. The NBA doesn’t settle games that are tied at the end of four quarters with a free throw contest. I can’t imagine the NFL switching to competitive punt returns to end games.

Unfortunately we’re stuck with a farce that takes longer than playing another five minutes of hockey would. Further we’re all subjected to talking heads blithering endlessly about “the best players” needing to be the ones in the shootout. It should be noted that a great deal of the reason these talking heads are behind the microphone and not behind the bench is because they couldn’t tell the difference between “best for the job” and “best total skill package”. If Peter Laviolette wants to ramp up the physical play, he’s probably sending out not Sean Couterier but Zac Rinaldo who’s skill set, and mentality is a touch more refined for this facet of the game. So please someone save us all from another round of “why not the guy with the biggest salary” when the guy with the best shootout percentage is clearly a better choice.

While it’s a given that the shootout will continue ushering people out the door like the bad lighting and seeing what exactly your feet are stepping in at the end of a movie, it’s possible to reduce the equally noxious sensation at the end of otherwise perfectly exciting games.

Forwards:

Patrice Bergeron: A, the standard bearer for the team in both consistency and execution.

Gregory Campbell: C, slightly better this quarter than last, hampered by a broken bone in his foot but still not contributing at his peak.

Jordan Caron: Incomplete 4 games in this quarter, but did well in his refresher games in Providence.

Zach Hamill: Weighted rookie C, no goals but playing well enough in most of his games to get 12+ minutes most nights.

Nathan Horton: B-, still feast or famine, but oh what feasts.

Chris Kelly: B+ has fallen off the absurd offensive pace he was at in Q1 but hasn’t slacked off on all the stuff that’s actually expected of him.

David Krejci: A- oh, look who decided to show up. Currently riding an eleven game point streak.

Milan Lucic: A blazing along at almost a point a game, throwing the body nearly every shift.

Brad Marchand: A- slipped below the radar for a week or so but a couple big games still have him playing at a point a game for the Q2.

Daniel Paille: B+ more offense than we generally expect of him, still no penalties taken all season, good individual efforts all season.

Rich Peverley: C+ has quite a few assists this quarter, but only two goals, whatever the nagging injury and the reason he’s missing tonights game is lets hope they don’t take his level of play down further.

Benoit Pouliot: B, I’m actually impressed by how much he’s improved since the start of the season.

Tyler Seguin: C, just five of his 17 goals came in the second quarter has disappeared entirely for some games but is looking lively since being named an All Star.

Shawn Thornton: A, one minus game in the quarter, good fights has gotten some big minutes in some game and not looked out of place. A nice penalty shot and world class debater.

Defense:

Johnny Boychuk: C- has not quite been the worst of the defensemen, but is not producing offensively and is turning the puck over at a regular clip.

Zdeno Chara: A-, has covered up a lot of mistakes by certain other defensemen. Is on pace to challenge his career high in points.

Joe Corvo: D, has been an unmitigated disaster defensively in more than have the games this quarter saved only by goaltenders and defensive partners. Just about average offensively.

Andrew Ference: B+ after Chara the best defenseman of the first two quarters.

Adam Mcquaid: B very solid, very quiet play with good hitting.

Dennis Seidenberg: C-, uncharacteristically out of position on a regular basis and losing more battles right now than we’ve come to expect of him.

Goaltenders:

Tim Thomas: A- is either not responding well to a lot of time between games or has a nagging injury.

Tuukka Rask: A have you seen his stats?

The question of who will captain this years All Star squads and direct the drafting of enough talent to push three or four teams over the salary cap is unanswered. Well, likely it is half unanswered. The possibility of Daniel Alfredsson not being the captain of one of the teams is so remote it’s more likely that Alex Burrows will win fights with Shawn Thornton and George Parros in back to back games.  Logically speaking the NHL should select some other high prestige player to lead the other squad.

There are a few strategies the NHL could use for picking the other captain:

  • Pick the player with the best name recognition.
  • Pick the player who has the most vibrant personality.
  • Pick the player from a rival team.
  • Pick the player from a small market as an attempt to boost its market share.
  • Pick a player from a big market to pander to that crowd.

The first likely means Alex Ovechkin is going to lead Team-Not-Alfedsson. Alternatively Jarome Igninla could be picked, but I don’t think they’d select captains from two Canadian cities, especially not when one of those teams rarely gets shown on national TV in the USA. Ovechkin makes sense as both the first and second possibilities logical conclusion, the only problem being he’s not particularly easy to understand for a lot of Americans.

Option two eliminates more players than it includes. As NHL36 is doomed to keep proving to us, hockey players are exciting to watch on the ice, but off the ice Ambien is in danger of losing market share in the sleep aid market. Off the top both Sedins are gone, Phil Kessel is gone even faster, and Captain Serious Jonathan Toews is laid by the wayside just as fast. Steve Stamkos and Brian Campbell make the cut simply for not freezing when a camera is aimed at them. Arguably Seguin makes the cut too as he’s largely stopped turning into one of Geppetto’s creations when he notices a camera.  With the drama of the Taylor or Tyler draft year, and winning the cup in his rookie year he might also make the cut for the first three categories.

The Senators rivals can be considered all of the northeast division, the Red Wings, and the Ducks who they lost to in the 2007 finals. Pavel Datsyuk would serve the Red Wings well, and it might be a stepping stone to his captaining the Red Wings themselves when Lidstrom eventually retires. Who knows the NHL marketing department might have more than one player from to Detroit to talk about leading up to the next Winter Classic? Perry who was a part of the Ducks championship win over the Senators and has come across well in the post Olympic internal Ducks rivalry videos is unlikely to put anyone to sleep.  Zdeno Chara as the captain of the reigning champions, a divisional rival, multiple time All Star and former Senator make sense for these reasons and more.

While Smashville’s partisans are fierce and loyal, not many people who live outside the Tennessee region get to see this team often enough. While Weber is the more obvious choice given the rising notice Suter is getting in part from his pending free agency it would present an interesting twist if he were to be picked as an All Star captain in his first appearance over his better known teammate. Dustin Byfugelin of the Jets is also on a small market team, and the extremely cynical could pick him for a multitude of reasons that have little to do with hockey or the fact that he comes across humbly, as a genuine guy with a sense of humor. Keith Yandle makes sense for number of reasons as well, he represent a team that could use a signal boost, he’s young enough he’s likely to be seen a half dozen more times at the All Star Weekend and more.

If cash is king (a shocking suggestion for the NHL All Star Game brought to you by Bell, Bridestone, Cisco, Now that’s positivenergy, Lays, Gatorade, Reebok, SiriusXM, Visa) New York City, Toronto, Los Angeles and Dallas are about as big a cities as you’ll find in the NHL. How much having a player from those cities will affect the viewership is a good question. It might add a few dozen households in Dallas or LA, but is unlikely to move numbers in the other cities. Jonathan Quick would be an interesting option as a goalie-captain, and Jamie Benn or whoever replaces him if he can’t make it would draw additional attention to a team on the rise again but going largely unnoticed.  For big hockey markets, the Flyers Claude Giroux has growing name recognition. The well traveled Marion Gaborik has name recognition in a number of hockey markets as well as his current home town of Chicago and there are very few players anywhere more skilled.

Or you could just let the fans have their choice. Revolutionary as it would be to let the casual fans who the whole weekend is aimed at have a say, it might just make the most sense. Tim Thomas is the only player voted in from a team not playing in Ontario. He’s been to the All Star Game before, has name recognition as part of the Olympics, two time Vezina winner, Stanley Cup Champ, Visa commercial star, and Conn-Smyth Winner. Better still, his quiet quick with won’t overshadow Alfredsson in what could prove the Ottawa titans last visit to the All Star game. Dion Phaneuf, former Calgary Flame is from that other Ontario team, the largest city in Canada and is enjoying possibly the best season of his career. If the rumors are true that the Leafs will be squaring off with the Red Wings at the next Winter Classic it gives the Leafs a bridge to recognition for hockey fans outside the northeast.

To me however the most intriguing option for the weekend is going with the Other Swede. Erik Karlsson got the most votes of any All Star. He’s a rising star in the NHL as a whole and leads all defensemen in scoring. He’s a good skater who may introduce some defense to the All Star game by swiping a few pucks at center ice and dishing to his teammates. More, with Alfredsson having spent his whole career with the Senators it would provide a nice transition from one star to the next for the Canadian capital city team.  For the rest of the continent and viewers around the world the drama of watching the two compete and seeing who drafts which teammates would add a little bit of spice to draft that would be hard to get in any other way.

A staple of the Boston Bruins, perhaps even more than the “Big Bad Bruins” image, across the last several generations has been the quality of it’s defense. Park, Orr, Bourque and now Chara have anchored the blueline in particular and the franchise at large for far longer than I can remember. The supporting cast has included some high quality players who have gone onto success in other uniforms like Hal Gill who was key to the Penguins winning a Cup over the Red Wings and current Assistant General Manager and Head of Player Development Don Sweeney. It’s also included a number of players who had very short careers, none worth naming.

Most frustrating to some is the number of men who have been what can be politely termed “enigmas” and more accurately called players with erratic work ethic and highly varied attention spans. The Bruins roster currently contains three defensemen who defy observers the ability to easily quantify them. Over the course of their careers they have been good, bad and indifferent in no predicable pattern. Two of the three were part of the Bruins cup run last spring and were at apogee. The third was acquired this before the start of the season to fill the roster spot vacated by Tomas Kaberle.

First up is Joe Corvo. When Kaberle was not renewed, it was not entirely unexpected. Who his replacement turned out to be was. During his tenure here the most positive general assessment of him was that he didn’t turn the puck over nearly as often as people feared. I’ll go further and say he looked average defensively. Given his reputation as a soft, offensively minded puck mover that’s a compliment. Corvo, who was acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes who signed and have since traded Kaberle has been more effective offensively, but much, much worse defensively. His passes to the opponents have been every bit as accurate as the ones to his teammates and almost as frequent. Worse, despite the Bruins powerplay being noticeably more effective than the one he was employed on last year for the Hurricanes, he’s on pace for less points.  Given that the Bruins spent a fourth round pick on him, I guess they got what they paid for him. At least he’s an effective fighter.

Johnny Boychuk is in his third full season in with the Boston Bruins. Having passed the 200 game mark that has long been the standard for learning how to play in the NHL, it is safe to say he is what he is. On top of his more than two hundred regular season and playoff NHL games he had an extended career in the AHL where he piled up 373 games and won AHL defenseman of the year in 2009. The problem with the soon to be 28 year old is that he has regressed defensively. Offensively he’s likely to post his best NHL numbers this year, assuming Julien doesn’t bench him and he stays healthy. He’s considered an offensive defenseman by most and some will call him a two way defenseman. The problem is that he’s not displayed any particular gift offensively, or defensively. This season despite being part of the leagues number one offense he’s ranked 115th for defensemen in points. By comparison, Andrew Ference who is a defensive defenseman first and plays fewer minutes is ranked 57th in points for defensemen. His ill advised offensive pinches and turnovers have cost the Bruins on more than one occasion.

The most worrisome of the treacherous trio is Dennis Seidenberg. Last year he was the breakout star of the Bruins. Thomas had a resurgence, Marchand was a close second but the German defenseman was the heirloom sword cleaving offensive rushes with unseemly ease. In the playoffs he ratcheted his play up still further. While the media (justifiably) focused on Tim Thomas, if there was an award for defensive excellence it would rightfully have his name on it. But that’s not been typical of Seidenberg in his career. Drafted in 2001 he spent most of the next season in the Flyers lineup, regressed to the AHL the next year, was jettisoned to the Coyotes and spent most of his NHL time a marginal depth defenseman. The Bruins are his fifth team, and he’s played more than 75 NHL games just once since being drafted. Injuries have played a part in his journeyman career, as have time with franchises on extremely limited budgets. But one has to ask which is the real product, the guy we saw in the playoffs last spring? Or the one who this season is getting caught out of position with dismaying regularity. All players have a peak they hit and then quickly or slowly edge away from. Is this fatigue? It it his defense partner? Or are the three wrist injuries,  injuries to both knees, concussion and broken leg taking their toll?

There is just over a month before the trade deadline. With the goaltenders covering up many mistakes for these defensemen Peter Chiarelli and Cam Neely may just look to tweak their defense sooner rather than later. Both Boychuk and Corvo are unrestricted free agents this summer. Many would move one or both of them between now and the deadline rather than lose them to free agency over the summer or accept pennies on the dollar for trades at the draft, assuming its possible to do so then for either. Perhaps it’s just fatigue and a day or two off allowing Steve Kampfer, David Warsofvsky or Kevin Miller a few reps at the NHL level is the balm for what ails them. Whatever the solution is if it isn’t employed soon the Bruins who sit just one point above the Ottawa Senators heading into today’s action could find themselves looking up at someone in the standings for the first time in a long time.

One of the consistencies of the Chiarelli regime in Boston has been him pulling off trades and free agent pickups that no one expects. With the exceptions of moving Kessel and the even more talked about, rumored, and agitated for Kaberle trade most of his acquisitions have been very under the radar. Adam Mcquaid, picked up for not much. Boychuk, Kelly, Peverley, Kampfer, no bank heists needed to fund these pickups either. Joe Corvo, one fourth round pick sent south, To varying degrees these trades have all either worked out well or at worst not been a detriment.

But if ask anyone if they expected Aaron Ward to be traded back to Carolina or Derek Morris to be either picked up or traded away less than a season later, most people would just say no. This year the major speculation revolves around the forward lines and who can and can’t be parted with. The consensus pick for who was being dangled as tradebait has been Zach Hamill, he of the fairly watery 2007 draft class. With all the players who ill hit free agency, and barring his most recent game Hamill’s solid performance this year highlighted by a glaring inability to look out of place on a Stanley Cup champion roster, its hard to leave the Everett Silvertip alumni along on that pedestal.

Another addition to the “we can probably get something useful for him” list has been former Rimouski Oceanic star Jordan Caron. He’s a big body, he’s defensively responsible, and he’s recently displayed some willingness to stick up for his teammates. Unfortunately he’s a touch lacking in confidence, and has not been able to stick in the lineup.  A change of scenery where a team paid him the compliment of pursing him might all that’s needed to turn him into a regular top six contributor.

What has me questioning either Caron or Hamill as the most likely candidates for trade are some facts that come together neatly. First, Zach Hamill was (like half the forwards in the Bruins system) drafted at center but was shifted to wing. Second, in two recent appearances after time on both left and right wing, Hamill was slipped back to center. Third, a recent player poll that listed Chris Kelly as one of the most underrated players in the NHL. Fourth, Kelly being one of those pending UFA’s the team has to deal with. Fifth, Claude Julien putting Hamill at center between Peverley and Kelly in a recent game.

The last one may not seem like much, possibly just a nagging injury to Kelly, but Peverley has also played some center under Julien, with Hamill only having one or two games under his belt at pivot in the NHL it was shocking to many observers. Of the three Kelly could be a nice safe rental, Hamill is in the last year of his entry level contract, and Caron has another full season on his entry level deal to acclimatize to the system of anyone who picked him up.

Team management being who they are, I can’t imagine them going into the post season without finding a veteran depth defenseman somewhere as an insurance policy. Equally of note, the team does not possess a second round draft pick this year. This years draft class is replete with young men who can be expected to play a top three role in the NHL right thorough those first two rounds. Given how few players in the Bruins system project in that range, both a draft pick and some playoff insurance are likely weighing heavily on the minds of the Bruins brain trust.

10: Your All Star selection is unfamiliar even to your fans.

9: Even Kourtney and Kim Kardashian think your roster has had too many men in it.

8: The biggest story of the week for 14 weeks running is the injury report

7: You went to the conference finals last year, get beat by the Carolina Hurricanes 5-2 in your own barn and it’s not even news.

6: You beat the Detroit Red Wings for the fourth time in a row and people point to that as a sign of a problem with a team that’s won more games at home than you have all season.

5: You look at the standings and wonder if maybe, just maybe Dustin Penner might help you score more goals.

4: You were last season’s NHL MVP and a guy who’s been playing in the NHL since before you were allowed to cross the street yourself has to decline and lobby on your behalf for you to get to the All Star game.

3: Your owner is already saying that injuries are the cause of your season turning out the way it is and is swearing your Coach and GM will have jobs all season.

2: Your fourth line is looking forward to getting all the extra time ice time against the Bruins once the game gets out of hand in the second period.

1a: Your general manager trades your best pure scorer between periods in a one goal game.

1b: Your teams broadcasters are already practicing pronouncing Nail Yakupov.

While there are numerous stars not going to the All Star game because like Kris Letang or Jordan Eberle they are injured or like Lidstrom or Selanne they declined, there are some players who didn’t make it simply because they were deemed less entertaining than players who are better than them this year. I know most people who follow the NHL closely think (not without justification) that the All Star Game is indeed a farce, and I’m among them, but the skills competition and other events are a lot of fun and that’s why I’d like to see some of them go. Some as participants on the ice, and well, a few others just because.

Radim Vrbata has 21 goals for the Coyotes, which puts him ahead of Daniel Sedin, he’s also got five powerplay goals, and has actually scored shorthanded, something  Sedin has yet to do in his eleven seasons.

Patrice Bergeron, more points than Alex Ovechkin, has won in the playoffs, plays in all situations and owns a cup clinching goal.

James Neal, burst on to the scene this year with Crosby out of action and carried the team through the first third of the season, with 21 goals only five players have scored more.

Scott Hartnell, love him or hate him he’s having a great season. With 19 goals he’s got more than Ovechkin, Seguin, and Alfredsson who will all be there.

Kris Versteeg, the now well traveled winger has taken his talents to southbeach Sunrise and parlayed them into more points than at least half a dozen of the names on the roster, and he’s a great rapper.

Loui Eriksson see all the reasons above for any of these forwards. He’s kinda a big deal.

John Carlson is hands down the most well rounded defenseman on the Washington Capitals, his numbers are as good as Lidstroms and he’s got a much less defensively sound team around him.

Jared Cowen, despite the hectare of guys playing in Ontario already should be there, either as a Young Star, or full fledged All Star. The latter is a stretch, but no more than some of the players actually named.

Mike Smith is 8th in overall sv%, only two of the guys ahead of him have played nearly as many games as his 33, and Carey Price is 24th on that list.

One of the things that could liven up the event would be having a few players take the place of officials, and do the judging, interviews and commentary on the game and skills.

Shawn Thornton and Paul Bissonnette spring to mind as the perfect garrulous guys to cover the skills competitions and provide color commentary during the game.

Despite some dippy coach who taints things with his mouth wanting him anywhere but in his locker room, Sean Avery would be an unparallelled choice to interview arriving players, coaches and officials on the runway. He can talk the game, the players and the fashion and do all three naturally.

As the ultimate on ice officials; Brad Marchand and Ryan Miller. Neither is a bit shy about sharing their opinion, and (assuming any) the calls they made could be quite engaging. As an added bonus of Marchand being in the building him and Versteeg could have a free style battle.

Official Astrologer: None other than Ilya Bryzgalov.