Sunday, November 3, 2013

Avalanche 12-1, and other awesome thoughts

With their 4-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens, the Colorado Avalanche are now 12-1, matching the single greatest start to any professional sports season ever.1 The Avs have had two six-game win streaks sandwiching their lone loss... to the Detroit Red Wings, which from the perspective of the world's foremost Wings/Avs fan hybrid is about the best possible outcome. Detroit has to settle for a three-way (kinky!) tie for second in the Eastern conference, which is another way of saying they have the tenth-best record in hockey. Yeah, the East is weak... but Detroit will have to wait for their own blog entry, this one belongs to the Avs. Suck it, Wings!

At 12-1, the Avalanche are the talk of the NHL, and it's nice.2 Much has been made of the reasons behind this record—pure luck, amazing goaltending, Roy is a genius, etc, —and so today Fourth Assist is going to break down some of these theories and see what's really going on with this team.

1. Patrick Roy is the best head coach in the history of the sport.
Dis i'zakly what we plan, all along, wid a big start
to de seezon, and now I weenk at you all to show how
easy dis game is when you are Patrick Roy. Negts question?
It's hard to argue that Roy hasn't had a tremendous effect on this team. They are playing a simpler game than they did under Joe Sacco who, despite what many fans seem to think, DID actually have a "system" in place, and a fairly complex one at that. The problem was that the systems that Sacco coached seemed to be based on the type of game Sacco himself played, but the makeup of his roster was not really suited for that type of game. Roy has the team playing to their strengths, and the talent on the team is thriving.

However, it's still too early to say that Roy is a great—or even a good—NHL coach. Almost any new head coach brings a "bump" to the team, and when the team is winning every coach looks brilliant (Josh McDaniels, anyone?). It's not until that bump fades and the team faces some real adversity that you see how successful a coach is going to be long-term. Avs fans remember some pretty good stretches under Sacco, too, but in the big picture those turned out to be the anomaly. Coaching when the team is winning is easy, it's coaching in a losing streak that separates the men from the boys.

It's a chicken-or-egg question: is the team playing well because Roy is a great coach, or does Roy look like a great coach just because the team is playing well?  Is this 12-1 streak the anomaly, or not? Only time will tell. However, it's safe to say that all the evidence we've seen so far tells us that Roy is doing a pretty damn good job, and he seems much better prepared for coaching the NHL game than his skeptics—myself included—believed. Until we see how he coaches when things are going badly, the jury is still out, but initial signs are extremely hopeful.

How could you not want a guy like this on your team? ...Oh,
you mean they have to skate and move around? Never mind.
2. This is the same team as last year's other than Nathan MacKinnon, so it must be Roy making all the difference.
Even though the last section was praising Roy's job so far and so one might assume this would be included in the previous answer, since this Avs excuse is actually complete bullshit it gets its own section. I have heard Barry Melrose (among others) say this more than once, offering it as proof that since Roy has the same roster as Sacco had and is winning, that the reason for their success must be that Sacco sucked and Roy is amazing. However, this statement only really proves one thing, and that is that Barry Melrose has his head up his ass and doesn't do his homework.3

Although the core of young players is largely unchanged from last year's team, this is a very different team on the ice than it was under Sacco. David Jones, Shane O'Brien, Matt Hunwick, Greg Zanon, Chuck Kobasew, Milan Hejduk, Ryan O'Byrne, Tyson Barrie, Mark Olver, and Aaron Palushaj all appeared in over half of the Avs' games last season. That's a lot of miscast, average, or just plain sucky talent getting major minutes for last year's team, and of those only Hunwick and Barrie are even in the organization right now (Barrie lives in Roy's doghouse as a healthy scratch most nights, and the oft-maligned Hunwick is a safe distance from Roy's doghouse, living the dream in the AHL). Taking up those lost minutes have been Wilson, Sarich, Benoit, Guenin (essentially replacing 2/3 of last year's crappier-than-crap defense), Tanguay, Downie, and yes, MacKinnon.

In short, to say that this team is essentially the same as last year's team is idiotic. Give Roy the credit for what he has done, but so much dead weight was cut from last year's roster that it should be no surprise that they're playing like a different team... because they are a different team. Full props here go to Sakic and Sherman for their budget-minded yet extremely effective roster overhaul.

3. The Avalanche are just a lucky team, and they will lose as soon as they face a team that plays well against them.
There is no doubt that "luck," if you want to call it that, plays a part in sports. You play a good game and lose, you play a bad game and win. And to be sure, this 12-1 stretch includes a high percentage of games in which they played even with or were outplayed overall by their opponent, but still came away with the win. The most starry-eyed Avs fan needs to be honest and admit as much.

So, are we cool with people just ripping off
Gary Larson's entire schtick now, or what?
However, the same can be said about pretty much any really, really good team: they aren't always the best team for sixty minutes, but in those fleeting opportunities that decide games, they somehow find a way to make the play that ends up being the difference. So do we call this luck, or is it the sign of a good team? As the wins pile up, the Avs' detractors will need to come to the realization that it's less of the former and more of the latter.

The same thing goes as far as facing a team on a "good" night is concerned: some critics have said that the Avs are just meeting teams on their off-nights, and as soon as somebody brings their "A" game, the Avs will go down. This argument ignores the fact that the Avalanche has a significant part to play in how the other team looks... yes, it could be that the Avs have coincidentally just happened to face twelve teams on each of those twelve teams' worst nights of the year, but it seems much more likely that the Avs are doing something to make it difficult for teams to play their best against them.

Some luck is involved, for sure, in any winning streak, and the Avalanche are not going to finish the season with 70 wins. It remains to be seen what kind of team they will be when those bounces aren't going their way... but to suggest that it's all luck is to ignore all the good things the team is doing to appear lucky.

4. The Avs are riding hot goaltending, which is masking their glaring weaknesses.
Here I think is perhaps the Avs criticism that comes closest to the truth. The Avalanche goaltenders have been playing exceptionally well, and their stats are not sustainable. I say this only because nobody has ever finished an NHL season with the stats the Avs goalies now have.4

The biggest concern from this viewpoint is that the Avs defense—while much-improved both from the actual play of the defensemen and the overall team play in the defensive zone—is still allowing more shots on goal than all but five teams in the NHL... six if you count the Sabres.5 There is certainly something to be said for the quality of shots being allowed, and nobody who saw last year's defense and this year's defense play would argue that there hasn't been a vast improvement, but it's safe to say that defense is still a weakness and goaltending is bailing them out to a large extent most nights. It's something that's going to have to either change for the better, or it will change for the worse.

So there you have it! All questions answered: Yes, the team is different, Roy is doing a great job, they are getting lucky... but they're also really, really good. Just not good enough to beat Detroit. All clear now?

Random Thoughts:
Dater's latest foray into yellow journalism was his recent opinion that Matt Duchene would not only make a good captain, but that he SHOULD be captain of the Avalanche. Dater's attempt to say that it was only his way of praising Duchene, without any hint of slighting Landeskog, rings hollow. One simply cannot say that

1) A guy who has never been captain,
2) would make a great captain,
3) and should replace the current captain

...without it being a slam on the current captain. Landeskog was named captain very early—too early if you ask me—but he's pretty clearly got what it takes to do the job. He's been a leader and a captain everywhere he's played, and in case you haven't noticed the Avs seem to be running pretty smoothly at the moment with him wearing the "C."

Dater could easily have written an article praising Duchene's growth and left it at that, or even gone as far as to say that if the team were choosing its captain now, rather than a year ago, that Duchene would have to be considered... but he didn't write that because that's not sensational enough. Dater remains all too often a clickwhore more interested in being read than creating something that's worth reading.

Semyon Varlamov's legal issues are nothing to ignore. Not everything that happens in a celebrity's personal life needs to get dredged up and made a spectacle of... the line on where the personal life ends and the public life begins is always a good and lively debate. When an athlete cheats on his taxes or smokes a doobie or smuggles pee across state lines to hide his doobie-smoking or drives over a curb in the middle of the night after running out for lottery tickets after too many Big Gulps full of wine, there's a certain amount of "his personal life shouldn't matter" discussion that rightly goes along with that, and it usually is settled with the athlete going back onto the field and most people forgiving and forgetting what he did, while a vocal minority never let him forget it for as long as he remains in the public eye.

The offenses Varlamov is accused of are not that nature of crime... they are very serious charges with a specific victim. The team is correct to stand with their teammate and support him until the facts of the case are known and decided, but too many people are confusing the "innocent until proven guilty" mantra with "let's pretend nothing has happened until we're forced by law to confront it." Sadly, the Avalanche has been totally silent on this issue, and they risk sending the wrong message. While there are good arguments for and against whether Varlamov should be playing while this is going on, I think the Avalanche must address the issue rather than sweeping it under the carpet to deal with it later. They needn't suspend the player to make a statement about the crime... how about they donate $ to a different women's shelter for each remaining Avs home game this season? Something to show that while they fully support their player, brother, and teammate, they also support the victims of a crime very much at the center of the team's current media image.

Dater's "Daterjinx" amuses and annoys me. For those unfamiliar, Dater's twitter feed is full of bold sports-outcome predictions that inevitably go wrong, which he then calls the Daterjinx: his way of forcing the other team win because he picked them to lose. I'm equally entertained and annoyed with these: entertained because he's obviously having fun with it and there's nothing wrong with that, but annoyed that he's taken his nearly total inability to read the pulse of a sporting event (which you'd think for a sportswriter would be somewhat essential) and used it to make it all about Adrian. When he makes a correct prediction, he doesn't call it a failed Daterjinx, of course... he pats himself on the back for calling it right.

Yeah, I know it's his twitter feed and the entire misguided notion behind this stupid fad is that anybody's thoughts are worth reading, and so of COURSE he's going to keep himself in his own spotlight... I get that. Maybe it's twitter that annoys me?

Nope, it's Dater, using something that annoys me to annoy me. Well played, Dater.

So much to like about this pic. I like
to imagine that Foote farted right then,
just to make it extra-great.
Adam Foote's number retirement ceremony was great. I was pleased to see how many teammates showed up for the ceremony, and it was great to see the Avs do it the right way, tacky painting and all. I also thought it fitting that the team went out and won that game in a very Foote-like fashion: not necessarily graceful, not particularly dominant, and not entirely skillful, but muscular and relentless and just kind of mean.

Dr. B

1. All statistics are subject to poetic license and broad factual haziness.
2. Mostly nice, with some very, very not-nice.
3. That may be two things, actually, but Melrose would count them as 1/4 of a thing.
4. Kind of guessing on this one, but I'm pretty sure I'm mostly right.
5. This stat is actually correct, please go ahead and ignore note #1 on this one.

Friday, October 4, 2013

In first game, Coach Roy proves everyone right

When Patrick Roy was hired, reaction from Avalanche fans was overwhelmingly positive, but there were some who had concerns about his suitability for the job. Although opinions vary, people's predictions about Roy's performance behind the Colorado bench can be placed into two broad categories:

Group 1: Patrick Roy is a winner who will bring passion and excitement to the Avalanche. He will not accept losing, and his energy will be infectious. His team will play hard, and Roy will make up for his lack of NHL coaching experience by changing the culture of the team. Win or lose, the Avalanche will be an exciting team to watch this season.

Group 2: Patrick Roy is a man with violent tendencies and well-documented anger management issues. His desire to win will be overshadowed by his volatile temper and he will create a circus atmosphere around the team. His intensity may be able to overcome his inexperience coaching at the NHL level to a certain extent, but it remains to be seen if he can develop the talent on the Avalanche roster.

After the Avs' season-opening 6-1 win over the Anaheim "don't call us 'Mighty'" Ducks, it seems that we already have an answer on whose prediction is most accurate: everybody's!

The Avalanche played a spirited game. Far from dominant or mistake free, the Avs still had an energy that was able to sustain them through their sloppy spots in their own end, and created plenty of opportunities the other way. Their up-tempo style of play wore the Ducks down by the third period, and even though the Avalanche defense was often typically soft, Varlamov played a fantastic game and lost the shutout only in the waning moments of the game. All in all, it was a great debut on the ice for Roy's team.

On the other hand, despite the encouraging start on the ice, Roy still managed to make himself the center of attention. A chippy affair throughout the night, it was a knee-on-knee hit to Nathan MacKinnon (who had a terrific NHL debut) that got the Avalanche riled up at the end of the game. The typical Ducks rough stuff at the end of a blowout escalated to yapping between benches, with Roy's face getting redder and redder. It was all well and good until this moment:

That was the point where Roy crossed (or rather, jumped over with a rocket cycle) the line from "Passionate coach sticking up for his team" to "Dangerous maniac who has no concept of how adults behave themselves."

Is it possible to be proud of Roy and ashamed of him at the same time? Apparently not, as Avalanche fans have overwhelmingly pooh-poohed this ridiculous act of aggression as entirely justifiable. "It never would have happened of that glass was properly attached," many have written in Roy's defense. Oh really? Maybe that glass was properly attached, because a coach isn't supposed to be slamming up against it like a crazed chimp in a zoo?

If we're already talking about reinforcing Roy's cage to keep those around him safe from harm, we're off to a bad start here. As much as I hate to agree with Bruce Boudreau, Roy's actions were bush league. He's a coach, not a player, and as Colin Campbell said in fining Roy $10,000, it's a coach's job to diffuse volatile situations, not escalate them. Roy's passion is great... but it seems that even well past his playing days, he remains unable to see the line between his passion and a violent loss of control.

Roy's team came out and played a great game... they were not as dominant as the score would indicate, and many of the problems (especially on defense) were masked by the excitement and the energy, which can't possibly last an entire season. Still, it was a great game, a great win, and a great start to the season. People who thought Roy was the correct choice for head coach are patting themselves on the back today. However, people who were concerned that a man with Roy's famous temper and lack of control would be setting the example are no less concerned.

People ARE talking about the Avalanche today, but are we proud of what they're saying?

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Welcome back, hockey!

Another year of NHL hockey is upon us! Strictly speaking, the season started already, but since both Colorado and Detroit have their first games tonight, who really cares what happened yesterday?

The Avalanche, of course, have their big change behind the bench, as Patrick Roy takes over. While I'm not optimistic this was the best choice for the team, at least it's a new start. One reason I preferred an experienced NHL coach to Roy is because if the Avs fail under Roy, we still won't have really learned all that much. If they respond and grow into a winning team, then we will know that Sacco and/or youth was the problem the last few seasons, and our questions are answered and everybody's happy. But if they continue to underachieve under Roy, we won't know if it's the players or yet another unproven coach that is the root of the problem... and without understanding the problem, how can they hope to fix it?

They have plenty of talent, but it never quite came together for Sacco. I like the forwards and I'm a supporter of Varlamov, but the defense looks like an accident waiting to happen, and I'm not so sure that a change of "system" is going to solve their problems. But that's half the fun of the beginning of the season: wondering how it will go and then finding out.

The Red Wings' biggest change is that they're now in the Eastern conference. It will take a while before I break the habit of looking at the Western Conference standings for them. It will also take a while for me to be comfortable saying anything about the "Metropolitan" division. Central, Pacific, Atlantic, etc. were bland and unimaginative, but at least they weren't just silly. How is Carolina more "metropolitan" than Boston? The person in charge of realignment should have thought a bit harder for about the fourth name. For that matter, they could just have as easily gone back to honoring some of the builders of the game, and named them Norris, Smythe, Adams, and Patrick, as there was absolutely nothing wrong with those names in the first place.

I do like having Detroit in the Eastern Conference now, if only because it will give me a reason to pay closer attention to that conference. Basically, an excuse to watch even more hockey, and that's a good thing. And now, I'm going to get started on that very thing.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Wings, Avs both making noise

Both of my favorite teams, the Wings and the Avs, are making noise this week... from to very different locales of course. The Detroit Red Wings' 2-0 shutout of the Blackhawks last night puts them at a 3-1 advantage in their best-of-seven Western Conference semifinals series against the top-seeded Hawks.

I had a good feeling for the Wings in their series against the second-seeded Ducks. Detroit had come into the playoffs on a hot streak. They had that cliche of "every game is a playoff game" down the stretch, and were assured of their 7th seed only on the final day of the season. I felt they matched up well against Anaheim, so I thought an upset was in order. Of course, they proved me right with a thrilling seven-game series victory. However, I had far less of a good feeling against Chicago, and really assumed things would come to a quick and decisive halt... the Wings' old rival beat them all four times during the regular season, and even though three were OT losses, I really didn't give Detroit much of a chance here.

Jimmy Howard as viewed by Jonathan Toews
(artist's conception)
Chicago is a team that lost seven games in regulation all year. They amassed 77 points in a little more than half a season... a pace which would have tied them for the most points ever scored in the standings. They are a juggernaut, such a powerful team that the best I was hoping for was a good, strong showing by the young Wings on which to build next year.

I'm happy to be wrong on this one: the Red Wings are doing more than giving a good showing, they're giving the Blackhawks fits in all three zones, and especially in net. Jimmy Howard seems to really be in their heads... as a longtime Red Wings fan, the biggest negative over the last twenty years or so has been the ability for a goalie to just shut down their typically high-powered offense in the playoffs. It's nice to see that happening for the Red Wings this time. A 3-1 series lead against a team as explosive as Chicago's is far from a guarantee, but it is certainly a great position for this quickly-gelling Detroit team to find itself.

The Colorado Avalanche have been making headlines of a different sort. A couple weeks back, they fired head coach Joe Sacco, and shortly thereafter released Pierre Lacroix from his duties as president, keeping him on as an "advisor," which I think is just the nice thing to do when you want to be rid of somebody but don't want to embarrass him by flat-out firing them. Taking his place as president and causing confusion for fans who insist he doesn't care about hockey was owner Josh Kroenke, and moving up into a more dominant decision-making position was hockey great and snow-removal not-so-great Joe Sakic. Sakic's first goal was to find a replacement for Sacco, and he found one yesterday, when he named Patrick Roy the Avalanche's new head coach.

Hey Patrick, somebody just stole your ice cream
sandwich! How does that make you feel?
I don't really like this move, for two reasons. The first reason is that as a hockey move, I think it is risky, and this is not a team in a good position to take risks at the head coaching position. Historically, star players have not made successful head coaches, and goalies have typically not made successful head coaches either... and so it follows that star goalies who've made successful head coaches are as rare as hen's teeth (Gerry Cheevers is the only Hall of Fame goalie to have even modest success as an NHL head coach). Also, while a great many successful NHL head coaches have had experience coaching junior hockey, very few successful head coaches have come straight from junior hockey to the NHL without at least a brief stop in the AHL or another professional league.

Again, these are merely historical trends, and none of it makes it a certainty that Roy will be unable to find success in the NHL coaching ranks. It can certainly happen, but in order to become a winning NHL head coach, Roy will have to buck not only one historical trend, he'll have to buck at least three. The deck is stacked against him, right off the bat... so hiring Roy as any team's head coach is a risk at this point.

When the Avs fired Bob 'Artley in 2002 and replaced him with assistant coach Tony Granato, they were a team that could afford to roll the dice on an inexperienced and unproven head coach. They were a team full of veterans who many thought had begun to "tune out" Hartley, and bringing in a new voice to motivate and hold them accountable was thought to be just what the doctor ordered. And what do you know, it worked... sorta. Granato's first stint behind the bench was largely a success, at least if you base it on win percentage:  Granato's 2002-2004 record represents highest win % of any Avalanche head coach. However, this Avs team is not that Avs team. This is not a team that simply needs a new voice in the locker room and a new guy to bring his own personality to the team... what we have today is a still-rebuilding team with a very young core, a team whose skills and habits are in obvious need of development. Many have said that Roy's experience in juniors will help him coach these young guys, and there is some truth to that, but the NHL game is as different from the junior game as NFL football is to high school football. The time to take a risk with a coach like Roy is when your team is already good and needs a kick in the pants to get better... counting on Roy to get this team from where they are to the next level is a big risk, and with a number of very experienced NHL head coaches looking for work, it's a risk the Avs did not need to take.

The other reason I don't like the move is that I just don't like Patrick Roy. There, I said it. As a goalie, he was great... one of the greatest of his era and of all time. But as a man, he's not somebody I'm even remotely interested in seeing succeed. His well-documented off-ice issues are not insignificant, and unfortunately they do cast a long shadow over his on-ice accomplishments. Fans seem to love the story about when he ripped a TV/VCR off the wall when a coach's strategy cost him a precious win (his team won, but Roy didn't seem to care about that). They relish trotting out this story as an example of his "competitive fire," his "passion for winning"... but in reality it's an example of a self-absorbed brat with serious anger issues.

Mission accomplished, dad!
Now, if that was the only time something like that happened, it could be looked back on today as a funny example of how the man's mind works, but unfortunately it was not the only time something like that happened. In retrospect, that TV incident was both a sign of things to come and a very troubling example of how the man's mind works. Police visited his home after a 911 hang-up and arrested him on a domestic violence charge, and the sad truth of domestic violence is that is not an outburst but a pattern—for every one time the police are called, there are typically dozens of times they were not. After retirement, another assault charge was filed on behalf of a QMJHL owner, and the straw that broke the camel's back for me was when, during a game Roy was coaching, he ordered his son to pummel another teen who clearly indicated he had no desire to fight the younger Roy. One instance of such violence can be forgiven as a mistake, but four documented instances is an issue, and a very serious one at that. Patrick Roy is not a guy with "passion" and "competitive fire." Patrick Roy is simply an asshole.

As a Wings fan, this situation with Roy allows me to come full circle and connect my feelings about him with my feelings about Todd Bertuzzi wearing a Red Wing jersey. Bertuzzi's victim may have suffered or lost more than Roy's victim(s), but I don't really see much difference in what these two men have actually done, and I certainly don't think it's fair to condemn one while exalting the other. The main difference is that the result of Bertuzzi's choices were played out on live TV and were recorded from five different camera angles, and so his apologists have very little to work with in face of the evidence; Roy's on the other hand occurred largely behind closed doors (or rather, doors that were closed before he tore them off their hinges), making it far easier for his many defenders to paint him as a guy just driven by his passions, thus fitting his abusive and violent nature into the "Saint Patrick the hero" narrative.

I personally think Bertuzzi has learned from his mistake and I don't have an issue with him continuing to play hockey, but that does not mean that he did to Steve Moore should be forgotten, and certainly must not be casually dismissed or celebrated as a product of his "desire to win." I feel the same way about Roy: I hope he's learned from his mistakes, that he's changed, and that he's got things going the right direction in his life... but nothing can or should erase these things he's done, because just like Bertuzzi, who he is today includes who he was.

With both Bertuzzi and Roy, I don't wish them ill, and I don't want them banned for life or see them to go to jail or anything like that. Ultimately, I will be pleased at their success because it will mean success for my team. But it's an embarrassment to have them associated with the teams I cheer for. I'd much prefer they were going about their business elsewhere, because even as a part of my favorite hockey teams I will not—I can not—cheer for either of them.

Originally published 5/24/2013

Avs win draft lottery!

The most exciting thing to happen to the Avalanche since Peter McNabb was called "Penis" on live TV has happened! Yes, the Colorado Avalanche—who came in as only the second-most-likely team to win the 2013 NHL Entry Draft Lottery—have won the 2013 NHL Entry Draft Lottery!!! This has to be the greatest bit of dumb luck to fall into the laps of long-suffering Colorado hockey fans in the history of the state! (I'm sorry, what did you say, Quebec? It was hard to hear you with all this shouting... did you hear the good news?!?)

With most scouts and prospect resources listing Seth Jones as the top prospect, and with most fans, coaches, commentators, and even little old ladies we questioned on the street listing the Avalanche defense as "shittier than crap," it seems a virtual certainty that the Avalanche will use the pick to select the promising 18-year-old defenseman. And what a great pick he will be: size, speed, good sense on the ice, great puck movement, great shot... everything you'd want out of a defenseman picked #1 overall. With talent like this, there's no way he will disappoint! (What's that, Erik Johnson? Sorry, can't quite make out what you're saying with all this noise. Didn't you hear? The Avs finally have a talented young defenseman!!!)

With this sudden windfall, Avs fans everywhere are clamoring to know just one thing: How would Seth Jones look in an Avalanche Sweater? Like this:

There you have it. But of course, among the hundreds of other questions you must have about prospective likely Avalanche #1 pick Seth Jones, I'm sure many of you are wondering: How would it look if the Avalanche manage to clone Seth Jones, and then put he and his clone together as a defensive pair? Like this:

(Note: Original Seth Jones pictured at left)
That should give you goosebumps, Avs fans! Naturally, your next question will be: What if the team were to clone likely future #1 Avs pick Seth Jones, convert both he and his clone to forward, and put them both on a line with the legendary Maurice "Rocket" Richard, also cloned (using traces of his saliva found on the Stanley Cup) and then signed by the Avalanche? Like this:

Pictured: Seth Jones (l), Maurice Richard (c), Seth Jones II (r)

Next up: How would it look if probably likely #1 overall Avalanche draft pick Seth Jones is the victim of a transporter malfunction which sends him to a mirror universe, while simultaneously bringing his mirror self to our universe, where he will probably likely still be under contract to the Colorado Avalanche? Like this:

As a definitely possible Avalanche #1 draft pick, Seth Jones will have multiple endorsement opportunities available. How would Seth Jones look endorsing miniature bottles of hand lotion? Like this:

That skin looks supple, doesn't it folks? With entirely plausibly #1 overall pick Seth Jones getting his face out there, he will be in high demand in Hollywood. How would it look if he were cast as legendarily smooth gambler and swindler Lando Calrissian in the upcoming Star Wars films, and posed for a publicity photo with the robot actor created by Lucasfilm to replicate the young Harrison Ford? Like this:

Now I really can't wait to see that movie! The obvious next question is: How would it look if Seth Jones and his writer friend were to descend on Las Vegas in a red convertible filled with almost every kind of drug known to civilized man, with the goal of documenting America's sad, excessive, and often violently self-destructive attempts to escape the harshness of life in the morally barren national landscape left among the twisted remnants of 60s drug counterculture? Like this:

And finally, how will definitely possible maybe #1 overall pick Seth Jones look if the Avalanche rush him into the league before he is ready, he fails to win the Norris trophy in his first two years, gets labeled a "bust" by fans and media alike, and Avalanche management decides to undertake another rebuilding process? Like this:

Yes, this is an exciting time of year to be an Avalanche fan! Too bad you fans of every other team in the league don't have this sort of excitement surrounding your teams in early May! (Sorry, it's kind of loud back there... what's that you were saying Pens fans, Caps fans, Wings fans, Hawks fans, Kings fans, Leafs fans, Sens fans...???)

Thanks for reading,
Dr. B

Originally published 5/13/2013

Red Wings' playoff streak hangs in the balance

I have been a fan of hockey since the mid 80s. I had just moved to Colorado from Utah, and somehow one of the first friends I found at my new school was a hockey player named Ross. I don't know why we became friendly, because we had very little in common (he was a jock, while I straddled the line between "quiet nerd"* and "unremarkable background high-school kid"), but he was a nice guy, he thought I was a nice guy, and we hung out. He was always talking about hockey, and so I naturally just started talking about it too. It didn't take long before I actually began loving the game rather than simply talking about it just to fit in.

The hockey Rockies were long gone, and so everybody who followed hockey and lived in Colorado had to pick a team to follow, which when I think back about it was a really great thing. Instead of a group of friends who all loved the same team, we all picked different teams, and so rather than talking about one team at the lunch table we talked about five or six. This helped me be a well-rounded fan of the game itself, rather than somebody who lived and died with just one team, and I feel I'm better for it.

Naturally, since we were high school kids, most of our favorite teams happened to be the dominant teams of the era: Edmonton, Montreal, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Calgary. Wanting to seem as cool as possible as quickly as possible, I tended to lean towards Edmonton... I figured the world's best player and a pile of Stanley Cups was a pretty safe bet, but to tell the truth I never really committed to the Oilers. Being a fan of the winner was easy, but it was hollow, too... and a part of me was a bit ashamed to go with the Oilers, when there were so many underdogs I could pull for instead.

The Flyers were in the mix for a while, because even then I gravitated towards goalies, and Ron Hextall was my man. He played the puck (Martin Brodeur gets a lot of credit for being a "third defenseman," but Hextall did it first), he took penalties, he fought, he even scored goals... and of course, he was a tremendous goalie to boot. He won the Conn Smythe as a member of the losing team, and I loved that about him. Looking back, though, I'm glad I never went all-in with the Flyers, I'm not sure if I could live with myself being aligned with Flyer fans as an adult.

There were two HUGE stars in hockey at that time: Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. The debate always seemed to be over who was the better player, and everybody had one of those two as their favorite. I figured it couldn't be that easy, could it? Were there really only two players that could possibly be considered the best in the league, with nobody else even in the conversation? This was midway through my high school years, and I remember going to the school library every week to look at the scoring leaders in new copy of Hockey News (that's how cool my school library was: they had Hockey News in the magazine section!). Without fail, Mario and Wayne were either #1 or #2 in every scoring category. However, the same name seemed to be listed third on every list: Steve Yzerman.

The year was 1988, and Yzerman was leading his team in every category and was right there with the two superstars in league scoring, but falling well outside the tight spotlight on Wayne and Mario, neither he nor his team got a lot of attention. Perfect, I thought. He scored his 50th goal on the same night he wrecked his knee and was out for the rest of the season, but that season of following Yzerman through the newspaper, reading articles about him at the library, and staying up late to hopefully catch just one or two highlights on TV, was the year I chose my favorite player and, by extension, my favorite team.

Yzerman was a great player on an improving team, but the Red Wings weren't a favorite to win much of anything. They hadn't won a Cup in decades and they were in the same conference as the unstoppable Oilers, but they seemed to be a team on the rise: they reached the conference finals two years in a row (losing to Edmonton both times) and were assembling a good group of players, including Yzerman, Adam Oates, Petr Klima, and the great Bob Probert. Additionally, they had a very cool-looking jersey which was featured prominently in a movie that had a formative influence on the high school me: Ferris Bueller's Day Off. To this day, I believe that the Red Wings have the greatest jersey in hockey, the city of Chicago seems like a lot of fun, Ferraris are the sexiest car ever made, and Sloane Peterson is a girl I would for whom I would disguise my voice and prank the principal any day.

My new favorite player went on to score 65 goals and 155 points the next season; still behind Mario and The Great One that year but career bests in both categories, and his 155 points are a total that still has yet to be surpassed by anybody not named Lemieux or Gretzky. That Wings team got bounced from the first round of the playoffs, though, and the next year, the 1989-1990 season—despite another 60+ goal effort from Yzerman—ended with the Red Wings last in the Norris division, and out of the playoffs.

1990 is the year I graduated high school, and it's the last time the Red Wings were not in the NHL playoffs. There have been longer playoff streaks, for sure... in fact, two longer streaks have ended in that span of time, one by the Bruins that was nearly 30 years and another by the Blues that reached 25. Today, however, no other team currently has a playoff streak longer than nine seasons. But even though Detroit's streak isn't particularly noteworthy in the long history of the game, there is something really mind-boggling about the realization that more than half my life has gone by since I last saw my hockey team fail to make the playoffs. In that time, they have gone from the type of underdogs I loved to pull for, to the dominant team in hockey that everybody else rooted against, with six Finals appearances and four Cup wins in that 21 year span.

Today, though, those dominant teams are in the past and the circle is complete, because for the first time in a long time, the Detroit Red Wings are going into the final day of the season fighting for a playoff spot. The Wings won the Cup only five years ago (and probably should have won it in 2009 too), but today they are back to being the underdog... and I couldn't be happier. This year's team has been devastated by injuries, unable to compensate for the retirement of one of the game's greats in Nick Lidstrom, and frankly just caught up to by a lot of really great young teams in the Western Conference, the class of which being their long-time rival Chicago Blackhawks. But even with all the excuses, these Wings are a gritty, tenacious bunch playing their best down to the wire rather than coasting into the playoffs as they have so many years before, and it's been a helluva lot of fun.

Adding to my joy is the fact that tonight, I am going to the Pepsi Center to watch my other favorite team, the Colorado Avalanche, who can actually help the Red Wings continue this streak. Yes, I am the rarest breed of all: a hockey fan who loves both the Red Wings and the Avalanche. When the Avs moved to Colorado, most local fans gave up on their "old" favorite teams—the teams they followed from afar when there was nothing here for them—and quickly adopted the Avalanche, but I couldn't give up on the Red Wings.

Yzerman was entrenched as my favorite player, by then a standout two-way center rather than the huge scorer he was before, and he was surrounded by a Murder's Row of a team including Paul Coffey, Mike Vernon, Sergei Fedorov, Vladimir Konstantinov, Nicklas Lidstrom, and Igor Larionov. The previous year, the Wings were the league's top team, only to be swept in the Stanley Cup finals to the ex-Rockies, the New Jersey Devils. In 1995-96, the year the Avalanche arrived in Denver, the Red Wings dominated the league like few teams have ever done, and transferring my allegiance at that time—right when it seemed sure to pay off in a long-overdue championship—was not an option. The Wings were my team, and there was no good reason in my mind why I couldn't stay loyal to them while cheering for the new local team as well. After the years of struggle to get to the top (only the last handful of which I had been a part of), they were finally there. But who should step in and ruin that date with destiny? The Avalanche, who had a destiny of their own to fulfill.

I may be the only person in the building tonight who won't feel conflicted if an Avalanche win puts the Wings in the playoffs. Detroit controls its own destiny: a win against Dallas, and the Wings are the 7th seed and earn a one-round reprieve from the mighty Blackhawks. Should Detroit lose in regulation, however, they would need a Columbus or Minnesota loss to clinch a playoff spot, most likely the 8th seed. So today, I get to cheer for the Avs knowing that their win counts double for me, and keeps a remarkable run of success for the Red Wings intact for one more improbable year.

Dr. B

Originally published 4/27/2013

*— "Quiet Nerd" is a subset of the full-on "Revenge of the Nerds" nerd. An entry-level nerd, the Quiet Nerd is one who abhors pocket protectors, thick glasses, and acne; may or may not be any good at trigonometry; and occasionally enjoys outdoor activities apart from astronomy. Yet much like a full nerd, the Quiet Nerd gets good grades, enjoys computers and robots and chess, and in the absence of a nerdier target will occasionally get shoved into lockers or made to sing an embarrassing song while standing on a lunchroom table.

Diary of an E League goalie

Hi. My name is Dr. Brainsmart,* and I am an E-League goalie.

First, an explanation of terms. In the hockey league I play, there are four divisions, labeled "AB" through "E." A-league (strictly speaking, it's a division within a league, but we just call them all "league") is typically a checking league made up of college-aged kids who have played since they were infants and who will basically wear you completely thefuk out in about one shift, leaving you wishing you could just catch your breath long enough to allow you to throw up. B-league is (or was) what they called "Intermediate," which basically just meant guys who were a little too old to fit in with the A-leaguers anymore but could still smoke pretty much everybody else... but there apparently aren't enough A and B league players in northern Colorado to create two separate leagues, so they've been combined into a single "AB" league. C-league is "Advanced Recreational," with D-league being described as "Recreational."  Finally, E-League is the "Novice" division, which despite the name does include some players with a lot of experience, just not enough to bump them up into the next division.

Being an E-League goalie usually means one of three things: either (1) you are a person who's never played hockey before, (2) you have played hockey at some level but have never played goalie before, or (3) you have played goalie for a while and are no longer a beginner, but have been talked into playing with beginners because they don't have anybody from categories (1) or (2) to choose from. I fall into that third category... I have never been, and will never be, good enough to play in AB league, but I rate as an average C league goalie and a pretty decent D league goalie... yet at the moment, I'm a E-League goalie.

While there are plenty of adults looking to learn to play hockey, there are a couple reasons why there aren't really a lot of adults just begging to learn to play goalie. It is a position with a lot of built-in difficulties for the beginner. First, and probably foremost, it's scary. There aren't many positions in sports in which the task is to stand in front of people whipping a hard rubber disc at you. Now, no beginner player is going to be zinging Pronger slapshots at you (in fact, attempted E-League slapshots and their aftermath are often a source of amusement for the rest of the players on the ice), but that doesn't make it any less scary. And even a fat, old E-leaguer who's never skated in his life can accidentally get ahold of one, and it doesn't have to be traveling at 100mph to leave a nice bruise.

Another thing that prevents a great number of people from jumping in to beginner goalie is the cost of the equipment. Hockey is a sport with a fairly high startup cost... if you're joining a softball league, you can go get some shoes and maybe some batting gloves and you're all set, and with basketball you don't even need the gloves. Tennis requires nothing more than a racket and the right shoes, and if you want to take up golf, you can get a used set of clubs fairly cheap and play in your sneakers until you get good enough to invest in the fancy stuff. Hockey, though, requires the works from day one, and the shopping list doesn't exactly include a lot of items you're likely to have just lying around the house: helmet, shield, shoulder pads, elbow pads, gloves, pants, shinpads, and of course skates and a stick. It adds up fast, and even buying used gear one can spend $500-$1000 in the blink of an eye. When you consider that a goalie blocker/glove combo and a set of entry-level leg pads can easily be $1000 all on their own, we're talking about a significant investment before that fat, old E-Leaguer even takes his first wobbly shot at you.

Coming into this winter season, I had made the decision to skip a year of hockey altogether. Too expensive, games too late at night, and too much wear and tear on a body that seems to be aging at an exponentially hastening rate all of a sudden. So when, like every year, I received the email from our league practically begging for goalies willing to play in E league, I ignored it. I also ignored the next, more desperate one that explained that for the four teams they had planned, they'd only had one goalie sign up. And when a good friend who had volunteered to captain an E-League team contacted me asking if I'd play, I politely declined, explaining that I'd already considered it and made my decision.

But eventually, they made me an offer I couldn't refuse: half price on this season's registration fees (a $200+ savings), a credit towards half of next year's fees, and a promise to be on a team with that one friend, my cousin, and my sister. So at the end of the day, I had learned that -- much like the mafia -- you can get away, but you can't stay away from E-League hockey. They keep pulling me back in!

Originally published 4/25/2013

*. The author does not hold a PhD; "Doctor" is an honorary title, much like the one bestowed on Colonel Sanders, the Red Baron, and Queen Latifah.