Tag Archives: parise

Buying into the System

Commentators love to talk about players buying into a team system. This is especially true in hockey, where an individual player may lift the overall quality of a team but won’t single-handedly win games night after night. Having players that can be coached and instructed, and are willing to work, makes a team stronger and more resilient. Lose Zach Parise to free agency and David Clarkson steps up with Patrik Elias feeding him pucks. Roster eight defenseman and you have a chance to bring them all along. Re-acquire Alexei Ponikarovsky and he looks like he never left.

Adam Larsson’s play on the game-winning goal in the Devils-Flyers game on February 15 exemplified every one of those tenets of system play. After being scratched for most of the late season last year, Larsson found himself in the 7 or 8 spot again this year. But some smarter and more reasoned play with the puck earned him a regular rotation, and then last night he showed his true horns: Puck is cleared along the glass, he gloves it down, snaps it through a forward’s legs toward a large-bore David Clarkson in the slot where it’s tipped in for the goal. Holding the blue line and keeping the puck in the zone, and snapping the puck with direction (rather than slapping it with force) turned a possible transition play into a scoring play. This is the kind of stuff you can teach, and if the players execute, you get consistent and consistently good results.

Want to see the flip side of this? Adam Oates had a miserable system for the Devils’ power play last year, and now that he’s aiming the Capital guns, they’re misfiring. Let your quality talent free lance within the bounds of a system, or else you spend most of the season looking up at the teams that do.

Hockey Is Back

Hockey is back, and despite all of the bad feelings during the lockout, I’m loving it. Devils win, Flyers lose, Rangers lose.

I watched the Penguins-Flyers game just to bark at the Flyers in a warm up for the Devils home opener on Tuesday.

I’ve made up my first nickname of the season – the Kovulchuk-Zajac-Zubrus line shall be known as the Scrabble Line (total value 63, and only Valeri Zelepukin would be worth more than Zajac, based only consonant placement and not puck control).

It’s great seeing the big fourth line from the playoffs — the CBGB (Carter Bernier and Gionta’s Brother) line — back as the third line, and rookie Stefan Matteau anchoring the fourth line. Marty looks like the rest and late start served him well. Patrik Elias’ “skating age” is much younger than his chronological 36 and change. Zid looks stronger than the beginning of last season. Travis Zajac is still the man.

Everything hockey related is clearly rust-tinted. A line’s worth of Devils making sloppy passes. msg.com website was down for an hour. NHL’s scoreboard didn’t provide any updates for most of the evening. And some things never change – the MSG Network Islanders announcers still cannot pronounce Patrik Elias’ name properly, which is both disrespectful to Patty and their own profession.

Ryan Sutter-Zach Parise are a combined -2 in their Minnesota debut. I guess $194 million doesn’t go as far as it did pre-lockout. Maybe they’ll realize that Heatley isn’t the same kind of playmaker as Zajac or Elias.

#hockeyisback people. Loudness ensues.

Free Agency vs Loyalty

Zach Parise is going to play out his hockey days in the first state of hockey. I’m not sure of the proper nomenclature for an individual on a team that uses a non-plural name – he’s a Wild or a member of the Wild or as my Yiddish speaking relatives would say, a vilde. That’s as far as the name-calling will go; in the few days since the signing was announced I experienced mild anger and then was quickly over it.

The facts are that Parise is a great player and was a solid captain. His grit and fire during the Rangers series contributed heavily to the Devils making it to the Finals. He was a solid scorer during the regular season, and has been fun to watch since his rookie year. He was one of the guys you could count on to sign oddball objects after practice (in the days of open practices at South Mountain), and he had that homey air that made you believe what he said. He chose not to talk to the media after a particularly bad playoff game, then came back and played his heart out two nights later. Actions, not words.

It’s words, however, that stuck with me after hearing of Parise’s decision to leave New Jersey, specifically: winning, money, and family.

Parise repeatedly said he wanted to win, and go play for a team with the best chance of winning. Clearly, as a leader and scorer, he can move the needle on most teams in the league, but the Wild were last in the league in scoring even after bringing Dany Healtey and Devon Setoguchi onto the top line. Winning is a function of all positions on the ice, coaching, and player motivation. Compare the Devils in the first and second halves of the 2010-2011 season.

What bothers me most about his contract is the large up front bonus this year – it’s a hedge against a player lockout, and it’s effectively betting against himself, the league and his peers in the Player’s Association. It’s equivalent to selling your own company stock short because you’re afraid it might go down — my employer (and most others) prohibit such behavior, and my personal attitude is that if you aren’t making the stock more valuable, you’re part of the problem. Even the messaging of this structure has to inject tension where compromise would be in everyone’s best interests.

The draw of family in Minnesota was clearly strong, but part of being a pro athlete is making your home where your team hangs its helmets. Hedberg asked for a two-year deal so he could uproot his school-aged kids and wife and move them to New Jersey. Comparisons to over-compensating sports fathers like Carlos Gomez (father of 100-games-goalless-Scott Gomez), or overly-important sports spouses like Veronika Varekova (the former Mrs. Peter Nedved, who refused to move to Edmonton), are obvious but misplaced – if Parise wanted to play in front of his parents, $90M buys a lot of airplane tickets, nice North Jersey apartments, and dinners with the grandkids. Minnesota is home, it’s a tremendously passionate place for hockey, but the Devils and their fans invested in Zach from the 2003 draft through his captaincy. Home can be cut from that kind of whole cloth.

I can’t dismiss what Parise did with the Devils or his skills on and off the ice. He helped me watch a Stanley Cup Finals with my college-bound son, and there was a lot of joy in the house thanks to his efforts, not just this season but through his career. It’s sad, though, when free agency pits loyalty against self, and upsetting when a team leader doesn’t follow the lead of other players who have benefitted from Lamariello largesse (Elias and Brodeur specifically). If the Wild don’t turn into a contender within a few short years, and Parise’s potential Hall of Fame career is relegated to a few statistical entries, then we can question loyalty over free agency and legacy over personality.

Not With A Bang

Every post-season ends for every team but one with a loss. When it’s a team you love, that makes it further than you dreamed hope on Opening Night, that loss hurts. It’s worse than finding out the cute girl in 5th grade thinks you’re weird. It is, in the words of the Bubba, heart breaking, and often it’s breaking younger hearts that haven’t been through the ups and downs memorialized in a Sinatra song.

What a season for the Devils. I am immensely proud of the team, and proud to have been a fan right through Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals tonight. The overcame adversity from all corners, make smart trades, gelled as a team and had fun right til the final buzzer. In my oft-quoted words from hero Willie Stargell, that is what sports is about — if you aren’t having fun, you’ve missed the whole point. We beat the Rangers and Flyers in the playoffs, showed poise in taking down the team that fired our coach, and started as a six seed in a year when The Hockey News picked us to miss the playoffs completely. As Adam Sandler would say, not too shabby.

Some thoughts and hopes to close out the hockey ramblings (at least until the trade rumors and free agency begin):

1. Sign Parise. I believe he’ll stay in NJ, because NJ believed in him when he was passed over in the draft, and he’s seen what happens to players who amble across the Hudson in pursuit of money and glory. The end up going 100 games without a goal (Gomez), getting bought out (Drury), or being booed forever (Holik). Parise has more cachet, more integrity, and more loyalty than that. He may not sign a 10-year deal, nor should he — but five years at $7M is a nice chunk of change.

2. Fix Kovulchuk. Can we please hear the truth? He’s hurt, he was coasting through most of the Finals, and tonight he looked like he belonged in my inhaler league. He should stay in NJ and get team-supervised treatment until he’s capable of skating at full strength and speed again.

3. Build a base. Retain the playoff fan base. The Devils proved that the Rock can rock. No reason it shouldn’t be like that every single game, every single season. It’s a house built for hockey, and with the clown circus (sorry, the Nets) moving to Brooklyn, it’s mostly hockey again. The Devils need to market, adjust ticket prices, and recapture that noise any way possible. The team deserves that kind of welcome even when playing the Oilers on a Wednesday in mid-December.

4. Don’t blame Bernier. This series had more bad breaks (crossbar in game 2, slow whistle on first goal in game 3) than dumb plays, and he shouldn’t be pilloried for a mistake early in a tight game. Lots of if only, would have, could have scenarios, but the fact is – the Devils played it out, and played all but the last possible home game of the year. How cool is that?

5. Sign Marty. Give him a 2-year deal and let him mentor his successor, playing no more than 50 games a year, so he’s ripe for another playoff run.

On that note, hockey people, it’s baseball season, free agency is arond the corner, we’ll be watching for Livingston native Nick Ebert at the draft, and we’ll see who gets traded, fixed, sold out, bought out and heaped with praise in the next month.

It was wonderful to watch hockey in June. And it’s only a year until the Bubba is home from college for the summer and we can do it again. I hope — for that is the lifecycle of a fan.

Four Reasons The Devils Will Beat The Rangers

I’m going to invite the evil eye and all other manners of superstitious bad karma by saying the Devils will beat the Rangers to go on to the Stanley Cup Finals (against the LA Kings, who have taken the slot reserved for “One of Gretzky’s Former Teams”). I’m fully prepared to ward off all untoward energies, having packed my playoff towel and my “Chico Eats” t-shirt to enjoy the game remotely tomorrow night. The parallels to 2000 are plentiful: I’m in a Starwood hotel, watching a big game against a hated rival, and I’ll likely be yelling at the TV. In 2000, I got a call from a Westin front desk manager asking me exactly who “Freakin’ Brylin” was and if he could do what he was doing without me hollering. We know how that one ended up (I now stay at another hotel in the Boston area).

Without further historical arcana, here are four reasons the Devils are going deep(er):

Creativity. First the sports press said the Devils couldn’t get by the Rangers’ shot-blocking. Then it was the Rangers defensive scoring prowess. And the Lundqvist meme keeps surfacing like a bad Facebook virus. The Devils are winning by being creative, and for that credit goes equally to the players and Peter DeBoer. On the first goal in Game 4, Josefson set a huge scren in front (in his first playoff game); on the second goal Parise waited for the shot-blocker to slide wide, then fed Zajac. The oft-repeated basic tenet of hockey is to create time and space – time moving with the puck, space moving without it. The Devils are doing both to control the pace of play, and more important, control the shape of play in the attack zone. Leave your feet all you want to block shots — they’ll just skate around.

Responsibility: Parise decided not to talk to the media after Game 3, then came up huge in Game 4. Everyone is focused on the job at hand, and it translates into every little detail of the game. Was I sad to see Petr Sykora in the press box for Game 4? Yes, but the decision to play Josefson was smart. DeBoer is making good calls and the team is sticking with him, his decisions and his style. Elias may not have a point this series, but he’s running the forecheck from center or left wing, driving the power play from the half boards and killing penalties. The Rangers blue line gets the press, but Bryce Salvador has the highest plus/minus rating on both teams at +9.

Poise: The Rangers lost it in Game 4. Hagelin took two dumb penalties on either end of consecutive shifts. Mike Rupp lost any remaining fans he had in the Devils Army when he sucker punched Brodeur. Tortorella can whine about picks and missed calls, but that goes out the window when he races to the glass at the end of his bench, finger wagging, to scream at DeBoer.

Respect. While in the Tortorella vein, the same coach who made a stink about DeBoer starting his scrapper line (in March) sent out Bickel, Boyle and Rupp late in the third period of a game in which they were down two goals. The Rangers have had two players suspended during the playoffs for head shots, and Gaborik received an implicit gift for not having a sit-down with Shanahan regarding his elbow to the head in Game 4. The issue of respect is more than respect for the game or for your fellow athletes; it’s about conducting yourself with a high ethical standard at all times. A number of my regular Devils fan crew have tried to put our collective fingers on what we despise about the Rangers, and I think it comes down to respect – despite a storied arena, a 85 year old Original Six history, and a penchant for buying the premier free agents every season, the Rangers never seem to exhibit respect in any way, and it surfaces as an air of superiority or above-the-law behavior that is tiring even when not echoed by Rangers fans. That lack of respect shows up when Mike Rupp punches his former team mate, or Chris Drury deteriorates so badly he is bought out of his exhorbitant contract, or Scott Gomez forgets how to score goals and make plays (that time and space thing again), or why Bobby Holik believes he is the hockey themed Albert Camus whenever he opens his mouth.

For all that is good, fun, and competitive about a simple game played by simple men: Devils in 6.

Teamwork and Accountability

We can dish out blame for last night’s Devils playoff loss all over the place: the inconsistent referees, the fact that Kovulchuk skated like he’s got a “lower body injury” (groin, hamstring, torn back), DeBoer’s line shuffles that accomplished nothing, Marty’s decision to play the puck without looking at the forecheckers, Volchenkov once again managing to take himself (stickless) and Zach Parise (borrowing a stick) out of the play. This one is way beyond blame for individual details or efforts.

The Devils lost as a team, just as they did in the Game 3 disaster. The question is: do the Devils have the team work and the individual accountability, and those things in the right proportions and blends, to win two games in a row, and make a playoff run that doesn’t end with a May Day call? As players, coaches, and trainers, when you look in the mirror, before, during or after Game 6 and (hopefully) Game 7, please make sure you can honestly say that you’re delivering on your end of the experiences we expect, we demand, and we hope for as your fans.

I had hoped, entering this season, that it would be a neat bookend to the first year in which Ben and were season ticket holders – the 99-00 Cup run, the first year he played ice hockey. In this last year regularly sitting next to me at dinner, on the couch and at games, I’ve probably over-rotated on high expectations, facing a shortly empty nest. But at the same time, sports memories from our last year in high school sit on the saddle point of experience. They are the net summation of people, places and things chosen for us by older family members, and the first events we can pick through given the independence of spending money, a driver’s license and formal adulthood.

Baseball had diminished interest for me in 1979 until my first sports hero Willie Stargell led his Pittsburgh Pirates to the World Series as I wrestled with college applications and parallel parking. Stargell united a diverse group of players; the “We Are Family” soundtrack to their pennant run wasn’t just a media post-production effect. They came together as a team, played as a team, and won as a team. Everyone did their part. Just a few months after he died in 2001, I had the opportunity to pick a jersey number of my own and I remembered my fondness for all things related to first baseman, number 8, Willie Stargell. The twin circles on my back are a continuous refresh of those memories that illustrated sportsmanship, leadership, bridging differences and taking personal responsibility for winning.

There are lifetimes of memories waiting to be created – for our families, for the Devils team’s families, for fans and potential fans across the Garden State – and two games in which to make them.

Hope For The Devils

The bad news: Parise is likely done for the year, Taormina is probably also done after ankle surgery (12 week recovery from that one, been there, done that), Salvador may have suffered a Scott Stevens-like concussion, and the team is still dead last in the NHL.

But there’s good news, for the first time since the Kovulchuk signing: 9 points in 5 games, for a 90% points attainment. Goals by the handful. Production from all lines. Defense that plays to support the wings on the forecheck and move the puck out on the backcheck. A team that doesn’t fall apart in the 2nd period.

There was likely no single cause for the Devils’ first half collapse, nor a singularity pushing them forward with 40 games to go. Clearly, Langenbrunner wasn’t a great fit as captain – not that he’s a bad player, or the team was bad, but there was a mismatch (I quit two jobs for the same reasons; great outfits with smart people and good outputs, but not a good fit for me). Some of my root cause guesses (back in November) about training and conditioning weren’t that far off, according to Lemaire’s assessment of the team when he arrived. And maybe everyone had overly high expectatoins without any statistical evidence to support MacLean. It’s hard to assess his capabilties based on a short tenure in the AHL, especially when several players on that team were developed by his predecessors (Example: Kurt Kleinendorst. He has a great eye for talent and what to do with it, as a coach and a scout).

But I have hope. I’ve changed my deathwatch on the sidebar to an upwardly mobile ticker: points out of 8th place, and less snark in the stats below. With 36 games to go and 23 points, they’re looking at needing to go 28-9 or better down the stretch (figuring the #7-9 teams will play about 0.500 hockey, give or take a few games). In attainment terms, that’s 78% or more of the available points. It’s not impossible, but it’s far from likely. A 90% run rate in the last five games gives snowballs a brief chance in the Devil’s Den.

How Not To Start A Season

The Devils are off to their worst start in 27 years. As far as I’m concerned their 1-4-1 record is an overstatement. They’ve lost five games and haven’t won a game in regulation yet this year. Their inability to score goals is a sign that something is very wrong with this team, and with the talent that was paid for this summer, it’s not pure capabilities.

Kovulchuk is out of place on the right side. He belongs on the left side. The very pretty goal he scored on Friday night came on the left side and involved footwork, stickwork and a slick wrist shot, all from his preferred angle of attack. Part of the reason Kovulchuk is turning the puck over more than shooting it is that he’s not used to that side of the play. Move Elias to right wing (Elias has played all three forward positions, with success, in the last few seasons), and use Parise and Kovulchuk as left wingers. Why is this so hard for Maclean? Is it any wonder the top line isn’t producing?

The power play seems better than last year, but still miserable. If guys are standing around, nothing will happen. You either create space by moving without the puck or create time for the play to develop by moving with it.

Brodeur needs to be told he’s 38 years old and cannot play back to back games. He looked miserable last Saturday night in the second half of a weekender, and he looked just as bad tonight. This is the test of a coach – get Brodeur to behave like a team member and not a spoiled, selfish player.

Light a fire under Langenbrunner to start leading by example, or rip the “C” off his jersey. And trade him. Anywhere for anything, just to remove the cap hit. Josefson was skating with purpose, finishing checks, and moving on every shift. Langenbrunner lollygagged back to the puck during a 5 minute major power play last night. If he’s not going to skate fast and start the play, nobody else will either. Have a closed door meeting. Better yet, just stop the nonsense that started during last year’s playoffs. It’s horrible to watch, and it sends the wrong message to his teammates, the fans, youth hockey players, and just about everyone else.

For all of the ownership’s self-congratulatory noise about their “Jersey Tour” this summer I haven’t seen one thing to improve attendance. Where are the day-game cheap tickets (if there are tickets left for Capitals games, you can buy them for $10 once the puck drops)? Where are the promotions to get first-time fans to the Rock? Where is the fan outreach? Stupid in-game production where fans start cheers are annoying at best, and do nothing to fill the 5,000 empty seats a night. Friday night you had your choice of seats in Section 118. There were maybe 14 people there, and nothing but empty rows above them. What message does it send to the players when they look behind the opposing goalie and see black chair backs?

This season started going down hill when ownership insisted on doing the Kovulchuk deal. Don’t get me wrong; I’m thrilled he’s a Devil and think he’ll gel well with the team over the next few weeks. But running a professional sports team isn’t about doing a “big deal” like a Wall Street bank or law firm. It’s not about attention and being a Master of the Universe. It’s about building a winning team and a winning tradition, so that you have a fan base that passes on loyalty, pride and respect for the team like family heirlooms.

If we’re going to keep Kovulchuk with his $102 million price tag, other players have to go to keep the team balance. That means ownership has to tell Lamariello that White must go, even though White was a big part of two cup teams — 8 seasons ago. White looks miserable next to Taormina. He’s not helping Urbom, and he takes stupid penalties because he’s not in the play quickly or strongly. Ownership has to get Langenbrunner to either step up or step out, because he’s exuding negative leadership. That’s the hard work of running a team, and it’s everything that the big press conferences isn’t. But it’s time the Devils got a team effort from the front office to the box office.

Kovulchuk Is A Devil

I’m flat-out delighted that Ilya Kovulchuk will be a New Jersey Devil for the next 17 years. The last time I was this happy was when Elias signed a 7-year deal assuring he’d play in New Jersey until the Bubba graduated from high school. Kovulchuk might be the first player that we cheer through four generations of my family: my parents, me, our kids, and with the length of this contract, possibly some grandchildren. Don’t tell my kids.

Kovulchuk wears #17 in honor of Valeri Kharlamov, whom he was only able to watch on tape, sitting with his father. It’s a story I wouldn’t mind telling to some new leaves in the family tree.

Blogging during the press conference now being streamed on the Devils website

Parise, Brodeur and Elias sitting in the front row, talking like it’s the first day of school and they’re all discussing what they did on summer vacation. Kovulchuk looks relaxed, he’s making jokes, and he said quite simply “there is unfinished business from last season.” He admits to being nervous, and he’s joking from the stage. It’s hard not to like this guy. “I’ll be a Devil for life”. Jersey does that to you.

Do Stan Fischler’s questions add value or only repeat the obvious? I think the question answered itself.

Here is some of my own thinking about this 17-year deal: The Devils are thinking long-term, and are building the value of this franchise. Every playoff game played in the Rock earns the Devils about $1 million (16,000 tickets at an average of $50 plus concession sales net of operating costs). If the Devils play five more playoff games over the next few years, the team could eat the end of this contract and still be ahead on operating margin.

Powe, Right In The Smacker

Once again Princeton University graduate Darroll Powe put one past Marty, and that’s what it took to unravel a pair of winning streaks. Powe scored on opening night as well, seemingly deflating the Devils out of the gate. Tonight’s goal wasn’t the turning point (it was Van Riemsdyk’s goal that Marty didn’t see in the 3rd), but it definitely showed which was the ice was tilting.

The problem with streaks is that after a while, people pay more attention to the statistics than to the end goals (playoffs, player development, fan attraction, financial management). Better to pick up points consistently than to be streaking one way or the other – averaging 1.25 points per game (or about a 63% points efficiency) is usually enough for a good playoff seeding. I’m not upset the streak of away wins or consecutive wins ended, as the Devils were close to 90% point efficient. You’re going to lose games, although I wish they weren’t to the Flyers.

Much more concerning to me: Darroll Powe basically walked onto the Flyers. Here was a kid playing less than an hour’s drive from the Rock, and the Devils didn’t chase him? He looked like he had the Devils defense scrambling for half of the last three minutes of the game tonight, simply forechecking strongly enough to keep Brodeur in the net. Madden and Rafalski were the oft-discussed “undrafted” players; the Devils draft has produced some huge winners (Parise, Bergfors) but their ability to spot talent outside of the fresh-faced set should be just as good, and it hasn’t produced in the past five or six years.

Even more concerning: schedule compression. Devils lost in their third game in four nights, and fourth in six nights. That’s incredibly tight game timing, and it’s a result of taking a few weeks off for the Olympics. I’m betting it’s one reason there have been a rash of serious injuries to marquee players, and it should be a sign of caution for the banged-up bodies (Niedermeyer, Pandolfo, Martin, Oduya, Elias to a lesser extent, Langenbrunner to a bit) to focus on strong, rather than fast, returns.

[ad#Google Adsense]