the promise of missing the postseason

It was always going to be an uphill battle for the Kings to make the playoffs this year. Sure, we had that slivered glimmer of hope at the end of January/beginning of February, given all the more potency considering historically that’s the time of year when you start wondering how much scratch you could pull down for the remainder of your season tickets (of coure, if you’re a true fan, you never finish that wonder… partly because you know the kind of hit you’d take). But in the end, the team just didn’t have the juice to cross that finish line, jump those four hurdles otherwise known as St. Louis, Minnesota, Edmonton, and – fuck me – Anaheim. I hate fucking Anaheim.

But while many people might be disheartened by getting so close and yet so far, I for one am ecstatic by the fact that our boys in black didn’t cross the threshold into postseason territory. It’s not some masochistic desire left over from last years bomb to the bottom. See, for a team as young as ours, I want them to stay hungry for next year. I want them to have seen that door crack open, see the crooked finger taunt them into coming just a little bit closer, only to have them fall down the trap door underneath the rug, slide down the chute, and end up in the Pacific division dungeon with – gasp – the Phoenix Coyotes (another team I disdain). If they know how close they got after rebuilding/rebounding from such a horrible ’07-’08 season, then the appetite to go all the way in ’09-’10 will only be fed by the feeling that it doesn’t have to be a dream anymore.

See, the Kings have already made huge strides in the organization, and while I gotta give my propers to GM Dean Lombardi, the man I really want to kiss on the mouth is head coach Terry Murray. He took a team with arguably the worst defense – worst penalty kill, 2nd worst goals against numbers with 175 – and in one season pushed all the numbers up into the top 10 – 7th best penalty kill, 10th best goals against with 139. His focus on the defensive system and the “home base” spots clustered in front of their defending net gave the Kings a solid chance to win every night, especially after the deadweight of goaltender LaBarbera was shuffled off to Vancouver (for a measly 7th round draft pick – ouch!) and Ersberg, then Quick – especially Quick – were allowed to come into their own between the pipes. The aptly-named Quick proved himself to be a formidable rookie goaltender, in a way paying off the promise that Jonathan Bernier all-too-quickly instilled in fans after twin wins last season over the “defending cup champion” Ducks (man, I still hate saying that) that quickly became distant memories after subsequent 4-5-6 goals allowed losses.

And while Quick ended this season with a winning record, it wasn’t his play that kept the Kings from moving into that 8th seed in the west. It was the lack of offense. Perhaps it was only due to the attention to defense and checking  that was installed in the previous off-season, or the push for two-way play from previous goal-scoring superstars like Kopitar and O’Sullivan (who was sent to Edmonton in a trade that will always break my heart a little – Justin Williams better earn his keep next year). Either way, the Kings failed to generate the offense necessary to overcome the 1-goal deficits of which they found themselves all too frequently on the short end.

But, again, this is good news. While your best offense is actualy, despite the popular phrase, a good offense, you can’t build an offense from the center circle alone. It’s got to come from the blue line, and with the foundation already intact, especially considering the bright young futures of  Jack Johnson, Matt Greene, Kyle Quincy and, of course, Drew Doughty – who incidentally was just named to Team Canada for the IIHF World Champions and will most likely stick around for the Olympics next year in Vancouver – the road to a full team of 20 and 30 goal scorers isn’t off the map. We’ve already got Frolov, who had a team-leading 32 goals this year. Plus, considering Kopitar, Brown and Williams all had over 30 goals a piece last year (with both Kopi and Brownie scoring in the high 20’s this year), you’ve got some big guns in your arsenal who could definitely benefit from a little more offensive support and playmaking. And the weaponry doesn’t end there. Jarret Stoll and Michel Handzus have been stepping up their play both in the goals and face-off categories. Wayne Simmonds has continued his surprise rookie streak, scoring 3 goals in his final 5 games. Oscar Moller still shows significant promise, despite the major setback after being injured during his release to play as captain for Team Sweden in the World Junior Leage Championship last December. And our blue line boys have been playing their part, too, namely with major numbers in the assist column from Quincey, Doughty and Jack.

So what I’m saying here is the foundation is set. Quick is coming back, with Ersberg waiting in the wings. Doughty and Jack are holding the D. So let’s finish this remodel of the best hockey club south of San Jose (yeah, I’ll say it: I love San Jose, and I loved ’em before they got good… which happened, might I mention, under the guidance of then-GM – you guessed it – Dean Lombardi). Let’s pound in those pilings, lay up some dry wall and put the roof on this sucker. Let’s mix our metaphors and give these boys upfront some guns and a posse to back ’em up. And let’s take this pistol-packing homestead all the way to Lord Stanley’s cup. Build off the proven system and use the hunger from the disappointing finish to take us into an ’09-’10 playoff run and a ’10-’11 finals championship. And you can quote me on that.

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But in the meantime, we got ’08-’09 playoffs starting up tonight, so I’m gonna give a few cents on the current matchups. This is all western conference stuff, since I don’t have as many opinions on the east (except to say that the pittsburg/philly match-up is going to be the SHIT, and the caps are going to best the east and push their way into the finals, against… well, read and see):

1) Blackhawks v Flames – the easiest call of the bunch for me. Blackhawks have the young guns in Toews and Kane. Flames have the hot hands in Camalleri and Iginla. Hawks are getting solid play from Kabibulin in net. But the Flames’ Kiprusoff leads the league in wins. I’ve loved the Hawks since the Ed Belfour days, but, come on, I don’t think these guys are quite ready for prime time. Expect a showing not dissimilar to the freshman Penguins falling to the 5th year senior Wings last year, except a little faster. Flames in 4. Yup. They’re gonna take it in Chi-town.

2) Wings v Jackets – It may seem from the above comments that I have an affinity for the boys from motor city. In fact, I have a general disdain for the Wings, mostly because I hate the arrogance of their self-proclaimed moniker “Hockeytown”. Really? Not Montreal, or Edmonton? Is it just because you have to get an impoverished community excited enough to pay for your overpriced tickets? Whatevs. I will say this about Detroit, though: they have an intense line-up of guys to defend their reigning title of champion. Thankfully, Osgood has been more like Os-okay recently, perhaps faltering just enough to give these surging Jackets the sliver of space to swoop in for the upset. It’s their first post-season hunt, and a hungry Rick Nash I think will prove himself to be a pillar around which the rest of the offense can rally. And let’s not even begin to forget the anchor that is Steve Mason, the upstart goaltender who leads this season’s rookies in shut-outs and will most likely take home the Calder trophy for best rookie (as much as I’d like Doughty to win it). Although, man, Detroit has such a deep line-up… Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Lidstrom, Hossa, Franzen… aargh. Wings in 7.

3) Canucks v Blues – I secretly love the Canucks, and Roberto Luongo has been, as Bob Seger put it, like a rock in net (okay, I added the “in net” part). But the Blues are another upstart team that could upset their higher-seeded opponent. And the Canucks did falter quite a bit around the All-Star break, even after Luongo returned from his injury. While both teams have been pretty solid, I’ve always been a fan of Blues coach Andy Murrary since a) he coached the Kings to their last playoff appearance, and b) he reminds me of my grandfather. Now, perhaps you might say that family resemblance does not a playoff victory guarantee. I’d say, you obviously never met my grandfather. Blues are hungrier. I’m calling upset. Blues in 6.

4) Sharks v Ducks – did I mention I hate the Ducks? Never have I hated a sports franchise with such fervor and focus. They’re named after a fucking movie, for christ’s sake. And they’re just thuggish. They think they can just waltz in to Southern California – Kings territory – and just act like they own the place? Man, I hate the Ducks! Alright, back to the task at hand: San Jose just has too many weapons with too many veteran players putting in some of the best minutes of their careers: Blake and Roenick were both lackluster in their individual years down in L.A. but have found a way to turn it on up north. And Claude Lemieux still laying checks and getting in fights at the age of 43 after 6 years of retirement? I’m sorry, what’s that, son? Yeah, that’s what I thought. You sit back down and eat your Gerbers. Plus, with Marleau finally leading by example, Thornton consistently using his magic touch, and Nabi staying strong in the cage, the Ducks are going to have to rely on something other than George Parros’ mustache to get them out of this one. Sharks in 5.

Oh yeah, and while we’re on the subject of the Sharks, let’s talk Stanley Cup, because that’s what Marleau is going to be hoisting when they finish off the Capitals in 6 games. You can tell all your friends that you heard it here first.

That’s all for now, kids. Let’s rock this postseason.

Published in: on April 15, 2009 at 12:18 am  Comments (1)  
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Princes into Kings

Is anybody else excited about the LA Kings’ start of the season? Can I get a witness?

Granted, it’s early still. The season is barely two weeks old, during which time the Kings have dropped 3 and won 2 after coming back from a 2 goal deficit (almost did the same thing last night against Colorado), so on paper these guys may not look like producers. But if you’re watching the growth of this band of youngster in the span of 5 games, even through their losses, boy, I think we’re in for not just a hell of a season but a hell of a next couple of years.

I was worried when Jack Johnson ditched out early in their second game against San Jose due to what looked like a routine hard check. But when it was announced he needed shoulder surgery and would be out for the next 2-3 months, basically up until the All-Star break, I thought we were in some serious hot water. The D was the Kings’ second biggest problem last year (after their goaltending – still a sore spot, but we’ll get to that in a minute), but Jack was one of the few blue liners who could handily pull his own, frequently out-playing his seasoned line mate, Rob Blake (whom I oddly do not miss, but that’s for another entry). Now I want to give GM Lombardi his due – he’s done a hell of a job revamping the defensive team, bringing in Matt Greene and Sean O’Donnell, drafting 18-year-old scalding hot prospect Drew Doughty, and working both Jack and Tom Preissing in the off-season. But I’ve been looking to Jack as an up and coming leader and heir apparent of the Kings’ future, along with Kopitar, Brown and O’Sullivan. So him being out of the line-up for virtually half the season left some serious doubt in my mind as to the well being of the defensive line and the team as a whole.

Cut to now, with a perfect 23 for 23 killed power plays, and I’m feeling a lot better about this team. Doughty and Oscar Moller, both barely out of diapers, have really been stepping up, each scoring their first NHL goal last night. Hell, even Wayne Simmonds, who seems to have come out of nowhere, is getting into a groove after a rocky start despite scoring his first NHL goal against the Ducks last week. The young guys are starting to gel, letting the shivers in their legs harden into something more than confidence. Dustin Brown, the new team captain at 23 years old (okay, almost 24), is leading by example, racing down loose pucks, finishing hits, and wanting it more than anybody out there on the ice.

Now, back to that goalie situation. LaBarbera has not always been one of my favorite players, but I got to give him some props. When he wants to come up big, it’s really big. The times he was the #1 star of the game last season were well earned. But when you want him to come up big, when the D has a small breakdown and looks to their goalie to bail them out, that’s where the man turns into a block of Swiss cheese. Yes, everyone will say that the goal was a bad goal, not his fault, that the defense didn’t do its job – and all that is true. But the thing about being on a team is that, when you screw up, you want to be able to rely on someone else to pick up the slack. Understandably, in the case of a goalie, the stakes are certainly a lot higher since you are effectively the keeper of the scorecard. But in the case of LaBarbera, it seems like he’s never, or rarely, been able to really come up with those game-saving stops that keep the defense, and the offense, from getting too down on itself. When a team feels like it can’t make any mistakes, then that means it won’t take any risks.

This is why I’m voting to put Ersberg back in the net. The kid may be small enough to pass as a middle-schooler, but he works hard at practice and had a great finish to the season last year when LaBarbera was on the IR and former coach Crawford, in his infinite wisdom, cycled through something like 6 different net minders. Ersberg is hungry, he’s cool, and he wants to prove himself. LaBarbera has had time and time again to show he has the focus to play with the big boys. And he’s good, don’t get me wrong. But this young team needs an anchor, especially as they continue to figure each other out and push themselves to find new ways of scoring.

So despite the goalie situation, I’m very excited about this team. The front office has done a good job locking up 3-5-7 year contracts with their big young guns (namely Brown, Sully, Kopi, and Greene – hopefully Doughty’s 3-year contract will go into motion by the end of the month, too), so the base of this growing team will stick together throughout the coming years. And while my beloved Kings are still coming out of the second worst place in the entire league from last year, it may not be too early to tell that this growing team is going to be a serious contender over the next several months and years.

Published in: on October 21, 2008 at 10:26 pm  Comments (2)  
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medal count

While the first televised Olympics in history were the 1936 Berlin summer games (an event that had historical significance outside the world of broadcasting), the first broadcast by a U.S. company were the 1960 winter games in Squaw Valley, California. It was also the first time the nationalized medal count was included in the presentation of the games. For the record, the Soviet Union took 103, the US took 71, and Germany took 42.

Actually, let me rephrase that, since the International Olympics Council doesn’t actually keep explicit records of how many medals each nation accumulates during a given Olympics. Of course, you can find that information if you want: just check the IOC’s records for individual events, identify the nationalities of the medalists, and tally up your scores. But the IOC won’t do it for you. Why? Because the focus on the games isn’t about nationalistic pride. Or at least it shouldn’t be. What it is, should be, and has always essentially been about is individual (and, by extension, team) excellence in sports, having the best athletes from the entire planet challenge each other to the limits of physical ability in a constant search for excellence. Only the networks push the interest of national achievement, as if Uncle Sam himself was the coach of the women’s beach volleyball team.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the medal count was brought into the television broadcast during the cold war, the same time period where we had to differentiate ourselves from the godless commie bastards by adding “under God” into the pledge of allegiance. What does the medal count provide us except for some jingo-istic sense of nationalism, that our athletes are the best in the world, regardless of their actual sport or achievement? Honestly, who seriously cares how many medals the United States wins? Or China? Or Australia? Does that really tell me more about that particular country, either politically, socially, culturally, or economically? All it really says is “that country has more medals than the other”, which of course carries the subtext “that country is BETTER than the other.” While I sometimes find myself thinking this very thought about certain nations, our own included, I’d like to think that my decisions are based more on geo-politics or cultural mores, not whether a Brazilian can row faster than a Norwegian.

Besides, isn’t it more interesting to see how these athletes challenge and inspire themselves and each other to new heights, to seemingly impossible and insurmountable physical feats, regardless of what corner of the globe they’re from?

See, I love the Olympics. I love the notion of competition – healthy competition – pushing people to their physical best. We talk a lot about the transformative power of art and how it can provide us with a glimpse into the inner life. But how about the way sports shows us the exquisite beauty of the body and what we can do with it? To watch someone run a four minute mile, or swim 100m in just north of 45 seconds, or skate, throw, dive, fence, whatever, is, like art, a constant act of discovery. Sports are not just entertainment; athleticism is a statement on the limitations and potential of the human body and how much control the mind might have over it. And while I have a love/hate relationship with our “Redeem” Team (if I’m gonna watch basketball, I do want to see the best play), I think it’s great that the Olympics is historically an amateur event in which these star athletes only stay on the tips of tongues for a few short months every few years. I think it’s awesome that Michael Phelps is a superstar right now. The dude’s a swimmer! A swimmer! How many professional swimmers can you name? Maybe you can name a couple now, but could you three months ago? And yet he’s the one guy everyone’s talking about. He’ll probably slip from the collective consciousness a few months after the games are over, only to be revived in another four years (and most likely mentioned in 2 during the winter games). But for the time being, thanks to his incredible physique and record-breaking swimming ability, this guy is the most popular American in the world. And the best part: it has nothing to do with him being an American.

Published in: on August 15, 2008 at 6:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Salary Caps and Super Stars

For those of you who don’t know and still care, I am a hugely ardent fan of the Los Angeles Kings. I’ve followed the team since I was in my very early teens (like, way earlier than 12) and grew up with some of the best players in the game: Gretzky, Yari Kuri, Dave Taylor, and, of course, Marty McSorley. It was a sad day indeed for me when Luc Robitaille retired, almost like the end of an era. Oddly enough, I don’t think I’ll have the same reaction when Rob Blake, the last bastion of that team from my youth, retires most likely in the next two years. I can’t even say why exactly.

But perhaps you can now understand my dismay when I was reading a hockey blog by one of my favorite nhl.com writers, John Buccigross, and, in a hypothetical trade between the Kings and Penguins, he recommended that Pittsburg give up Sidney Crosby, arguably the best young player in the game, for both Anze Kopitar and Jack Johnson, along with a 6th round pick. What?! How dare he! Yes, I understand the whole thing is a hypothetical based on a rumor that Pittsburg was considering trading some of its star players to make room under the salary cap for a “rounder” team, but come the fuck on! Kopi and Jack? Two of the youngest, hottest players the Kings have drafted in the past 10 years? Yes, these are dark times for the Kings, holding down last place in the ENTIRE LEAGUE. And yes, desperate times call for desperate measures. But, I mean, these guys are the Robitaille and Taylor of the next generation! These are the players that kids who are now 10, 11, 12 are going to look up to, stick with, and get all depressed about when they retire 15 years from now still wearing a black and purple jersey.

It got me thinking about the whole notion of a franchise nowadays, a conversation I’ve had concerning various sports with several of my friends. With the rising cost of talent, the lowering of salary caps, general economic inflation, etc, it’s harder to keep backbone players – much less entire lines or rosters – that a city can really grow with and rally behind. It gets harder and harder to invest in a player, and by extension a team, when you’re constantly worried that any day they may get shipped off to Dallas, or Minnesota, or, worst of all, DETROIT. Egads. Where’s the sense of permanence? Where’s the reward for investment? It’s perhaps no wonder that fantasy sports are becoming more and more popular, because you end up following the individual player as opposed to one particular team. I suppose I could make a larger statement about how this isn’t totally surprising given the increased focus on the individual vs. the benefit of the group in America over the past 20-some-odd years. I suppose I could argue how the attainment of short term, ridiculous wealth has generally eclipsed the idea of physical achievement and long-term investment. I suppose I could bemoan the desire for the long-ball hitters at the expense of a solid, well-balanced and organically whole club. I suppose I could do all that. But I’m just talking sports here, right?

So general philosophy/wistful thinking aside, the Kings could definitely use someone like Crosby. As they stand, the Kings are a team of role players without one central figure spearheading the club. Rob Blake as captain has always been an anchor but never much of a leader. Cammalleri is a solid goal scorer but lacks the creativity and panache of a firm central player. And Kopitar, while perhaps the most incredibly skilled forward the team currently has (I once saw him score in a shootout without ever actually shooting the puck – he just deeked the goalie so bad that the puck slipped past him inside the far post), is better as a play maker and finesse player than he is a driving force the team can rally behind. Right now, the only up-and-comer I can see potentially filling that role who’s already on the roster is Jack Johnson. The kid has the promise of power and skill that, once he gets a good balance between his defensive and offensive games, might propel him into the arena (but not epicenter) of strong defensive players like Niedermayer, Pronger, and Lidstrom.

But we’ll see. Either way, I’m not getting invested, since chances are he’s gonna get traded in the off season anyway. At least he’ll always be on my fantasy team.

Published in: on March 25, 2008 at 7:53 pm  Leave a Comment