Tag Archives: clarkson

The Kovulchuk Konklusion

Apologies for abusing my minimally competent knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet, but I’m at a loss for a more respectable post title.

[Updated/Edited July 22: OK, only #4 is right. Kovulchuk is the A-Rod of the NHL, and should be pilloried accordingly. Yes, his “retirement” helps the Devils out of a cash flow problem now and in the waning years of the CBA, but basically, he’s a selfish, greedy player, now demonstrated on and off the ice.]

Kovulchuk is going back to Russia. His contract is void, with 11 years left on it. After all the strum und drang over the terms and conditions, the final cut was foreshortened by a decade: he’s leaving early.

Here is my purely speculative thinking on the situation. I know nothing, I am merely attempting to read the tea leaves left in the Russian room (even my word ordering fails at punnery here). Below are my stabs at four explanations, in what I think are the likely order; there may be more than one reason in which case they are presented with Gartner-esque probabilities of 0.5, 0.3, 0.15 and 0.05.

Explanation #1: Kovy really wants to go back to Russia, to represent his home country in the Olympics, perhaps to raise his family there, or to be with his own family. Sometimes Occam’s Razor slices the news along the simplest explanation lines. The impact on family, particularly an ex-patriate family, cannot be underestimated in professional sports. Based on my 38 seconds of more than arms’ length interactions with him, Kovy has strong family feelings (I write that looking at the signed t-shirt I received for supporting Kovy’s fundraising for the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv families). Petr Nedved’s wife nixed a centering role in Edmonton, and Janet Gretzky brought the Great One out of the Great White North. It happens, and we should respect it.

Explanation #2: He’s hurt, and the nagging injury that slowed him in the 2012 Cup Finals hasn’t fully healed. Rather than facing a potential “unfit to play” issue, everyone saves face through retirement, and any injury spectre doesn’t impact his future signing ability with the KHL. “Retirement” is another way of saying “I cannot play at the level the fans and I expect, and I’m going to stop instead of not playing at 100%.” If this is the case, Kovy should be held up as an exemplar of good behavior, of proper sportsmanship, and of being one of the only athletes who actually do something good for the fans. There are precedents for athletes retiring for non-sports reasons. Kovy could well be the anti A-Rod.

Explanation #3: The team is facing such a cash flow problem that it can’t be sold “as is”, and removing the Kovulchuk contract is the only way someone with an operative hockey operations plan will buy the Devils from Vandebeek. I’ve alternately thought this was the first reason, given the post-draft timing and recent rumors about the impending sale. Sadly, if there’s even an element of truth to this explanation, then the Devils will replace Kovulchuk with someone from my beer league (contract value: -$420, we pay to play).

Explanation #4: He’s the A-Rod of the NHL, with all invective, derision, and scorn heaped upon him. I really don’t think this is the case; he’s a significantly harder worker, a better team player, and a more honest and less self-centered person than that. Turning your back on what you wanted — a $100M+ contract in a major market with a contending team — doesn’t make sense unless there are complicating factors.

Rueing Clarkson’s departure doesn’t help; Clowe and Ryder will replace Clarkson with proper coaching (watch him as a Shark, not a Ranger — Tortorella managed to even make Brad Richards suck). Time for the Devils to invest in some up and coming talent — who heard of Matt Moulson before last year? And if the Devils front office wants to regain some fan cred, why not offer 75% off jerseys (basically: at cost) if you trade in a Parise, Kovulchuk, or Clarkson sweater for a Schneider, Henrique, Elias, Clowe, Ryder or M. Brodeur?

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.

Three Reasons The Devils Can Win The Cup In Seven

It’s time for another list, albeit a shorter one.

The Devils have shown poise, confidence, endurance and and work ethic that has already broken two of the sports medias “facts” – that teams up 3-0 wrap up quickly and that the Kings can’t lose on the road. Both are false. More importantly, successive hockey games in the finals are dependent trials; the results of one most definitely depend on the previous result. It’s called momentum (you can call it luck, or the bounces, or hockey deities, but it’s the result of playing with momentum).

1. The Devils have momentum. It’s simple now: Win one game in LA, then it’s a single game for the Cup. They only have to focus on Monday night.

2. The Kings look tired and are making plays out of frustration or with bad judgement. Salvador’s game-winning goal came when Nolan turned toward the boards, not into the play. Look at the way Henrique blocked shots at the point, and compare to Nolan sliding board-side to give Sal a clean look. Combine with Clarkie’s screen and it was an ugly goal, but a well-played goal. LA has yet to play more than five games in a series, and nothing with this pace. It will catch up to them. The high sticks, late penalties, and bad hits are a sign that there are bad cogs in that previously fine-running machine.

3. The Devils are having fun. You could hear the whooping in the locker room post-game. This is a team that is playing for the pure love of the game, to give 110% every shift. Best comparison: 2004 Red Sox, and Damon’s “we’re just a bunch of idiots having fun” comment.

Look at the fans wearing big moustaches, or the signs in the stands, and the number of people going flat-out nuts for every playoff game. The fans are having fun too, and if it comes down to Game 7, we have the noise advantage.

Five Reasons The Devils Can Knock Off The Flyers

The Devils can knock off the Flyers, probably in six or seven games, because they have the right ingredients with the right blend at the right time.

1. They do the little things. Clarkson’s Game 2-winning goal doesn’t happen if Elias doesn’t poke-check the puck away from his man on the half-boards. It’s not on the scoresheet, but that play turned a Flyers breakout into a goal-scoring chance for the Devils. Elias, Greene and Henrique have been executing the small area game very well.

2. Bryzgalov lost the nerves contest. Bryz started looking shaky handling a puck in front of the net, and shortly after that Larsson went top shelf on him; a few bouncing pucks didn’t take Larsson off his game. I don’t think the Rock needs to filled with fans wearing bear masks or carrying boxes from Build-A-Bear Workshop (although that would be really funny), but keeping Bryzgalov thinking is to the Devils’ advantage. Philadelphia can’t put their other Bob-lehead in net; the Devils owned him this season.

3. Matching lines and hitting hard works. Briere was -3 in Game 2, mostly because Larsson and Volchenkov, along with Henrique’s line, were pounding him and Giroux with regularity. The fact that Wayne Simmonds went flat-line stupid at the end of Game 2 indicates that frustrations are high.

4. The fourth line has stepped up. When you can roll four lines your top two lines are more productive. And the Devils’ fourth line has been outstanding through the playoffs.

5. You add by subtracting a negative. Kovulchuk wasn’t at his regular performance level, and finally resolving his status make everyone else’s job more clear. The Devils have shown they can stick to a system and work through adversity.

What else do I want? I’d like Sherry Ross to stop making inane comments and then repeating them ad nauseum. I’d like the NBC commentators to listen to Doc Emrick to hear how play by play can flow beautifully without comments that sound like Ross cast-offs. I’d like to understand how an obstruction penalty can be called after the horn has sounded (end of Period 2, Game 2) when there’s no movement in on-going play with which to interfere. And I’d like Bryce Salvador to score another goal.

Devils’ End

It’s just about four weeks since the Devils’ season ended and I’m finally rational enough to write rationally about it. I think this was the most uneventful, non-season in the decade I’ve been a season ticket holder, and therein lies the problem.

Lou signed Ilya Kovalchuk, but Lemaire couldn’t figure out how and when to manage him, and how and when to let him freelance, so an opportunity was wasted.

When veteran players were hurt (Clarkson, Martin, Elias) the young guns from Lowell played well, and the team had a fine November. The fire and energy seemed to disappear after Christmas. In particular, Paul Martin looked like he was afraid of contact, puck control, speed, and possibly the groundhog’s shadow after he returned. Disappointing, and you wonder what the deeper root causes are for such a tail-off in performance.

Whatever happened between White and Langenbrunner at the start of the season didn’t do much for White. I’ve never seen a veteran defenseman stand around, miss his man, and generally be useless in defensive situations. And then Lemaire put him in front of the net on the power play, which sums up Lemaire’s attempts at coaching this team. During the last game versus the Flyers, the Devils spent an entire power play passing the puck along the perimeter, without anyone moving to create space, or create time to a shooting lane to open up. When someone with a USA Hockey Level 2 coaching card recognizes this problem, you have a huge problem on both sides of the bench.

After the first of the year, the Devils just looked like they were mailing it in. Inconsistent play, random defense, and the constant juggling of lines and player head games were disgraceful. You can’t blame just the coach or the GM or the players; it’s a combined team effort from the front office to the guy who drives the Zamboni on the practice surface. Everyone has to want to win, and has to work like that every single day. Perhaps the Devils have just become complacent; playoff apperances and division titles are nice and everyone collects paychecks with a reasonable summer vacation. Look at what Mike Cammalleri has done in Montreal, where he came in with a great attitude, a love for the game and the city, and pissed off at some previous employers: They’re in the Conference Finals and Cams is leading goal-scorer in the playoffs. That’s what wanting to win does.

The fans don’t like this. The players shouldn’t like this. And I’m pretty sure that the Devils money-losing season means that the ownership doesn’t like this. I’m expecting wholesale shakeups in the off season, and the signings of Tedenby and Josefson are great starts. What they lack is a coach that will let the captain lead the team, and an intimidating presence like Stevens, and some mutual trust between players, coaches, and leadership. We can only hope that we’re able to see beyond our current, collective impression of the Devils and let the youngsters lead the way to an improved state.

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Hell Week For Rookies

It was a rough day to be a Devils rookie, or someone who wants to be a rookie on the big squad. The Devils booked the ice at South Mountain today from 8:30 AM until deep into the afternoon, and then they took another sheet for the dinner hour. When I popped in around lunchtime, most of the regulars had already departed, and it was a crop of somewhat familiar faces doing breakout and two-on-two drills: Rod Pelley, Dave Clarkson, Mike Mottau, Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre (of double-hyphen semi-fame, sporting #37), Petr Vrana and Mike Pandolfo. Could have sworn I saw Kurt Kleinendorst with a whistle along the boards. It was the “best of Lowell and Trenton” show, with a mix of some guys who have bounced between the ECHL, AHL and NHL.

These guys worked hard today. It’s rare to see professional athletes, at any level, look tired. By 6:00 PM, the four blueliners left skating on the big rink at South Mountain were dead tired. And probably equal parts dead and tired. While they were skating, showering, skating some more, having a healthy lunch and skating still more, I managed to get in most of a day of work, run a dozen errands, and wrap up loose ends for the youth hockey home opener tomorrow night. Anyone who gets a spot on Sutter’s team has most definitely earned it.

While the Newark practice facility remains under construction, the Devils have camp running at South Mountain, open to the public and with the usual assortment of well-wishers, autograph seekers and random skaters. It’s a great feeling to have the horn and tails grace our ice sheets, one more season. As camp opened yesterday, the team signed just about every promotional item the club will need to stock for the coming year: pictures, programs, pucks, souvenir sticks, and perhaps someone’s younger sibling. Check out the photo shoot of the great inking (not just a reference to Colin White’s guns). I am still laughing at the players dressed in jerseys and shorts, or sport coats, ties and shorts. Reminds me of 8th grade graduation pictures, when we were assured that the world would only see us from the waist up in the final product.

After some of that fashion show, maybe the 10-hour skate wasn’t so bad.