Monday, March 8, 2010

Marc Savard and Hits to the Head

Just as it took a season-ending hit to the knees of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in the 2008 season opener to alter NFL rules regarding low hits, could it be the injury of another Boston-area pro athlete that causes the NHL to enact rule changes regarding hits to the head?

On Sunday, Bruins center Marc Savard was on the receiving end of either an elbow or a shoulder, depending on whom you believe, from Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke after Savard had released a shot, leaving himself in a vulnerable position in which he could not protect himself. Savard, who was removed from the Mellon Arena ice on a stretcher, said today that he blacked out for 15 to 20 seconds and the Bruins have diagnosed him with a concussion.

As it happens, NHL general managers are meeting in Florida and the subject of whether or how to change rules regarding hits to the head already sat on the agenda. At a previous meeting in November in Toronto, the general managers were unable to agree on a solution.

Could the timing of Cooke's unpenalized result in a rule change? Eventually, I believe the general managers will begin to look at Savard's injury in the same way that the NFL perceived rule changes it has made to protect quarterbacks and in regards to hits to the head. NHL GMs could debate the minutiae forever -- is the player on the receiving end of the hit at fault for having his head down, etc. -- but in the end I believe it will come down to a business decision.

NHL general managers are, after all, businessmen -- ask any player who has ever negotiated a contract with one -- and the newer strain in vogue in the NHL in terms of hiring GMs is that they tend to be younger or more educated or both. Boston's Peter Chiarelli attended Harvard and worked as an agent. Toronto's Brian Burke and Washington's George McPhee both have law degrees. Pittsburgh's Ray Shero, Minnesota's Chuck Fletcher and Chicago's Stan Bowman, while their fathers were accomplished, if not legendary, old-school hockey figures, also hail from a younger generation who did not come up through the former player route in the way that former old-school Flyers general manager Bob Clarke and ex-Bruins man Harry Sinden did. Dallas' Joe Nieuwendyk played at Cornell. I could go on and on.

Eventually, I believe, the general managers will see that hits to the head are bad for business just as the NFL saw that protecting the knees (and heads, under prior rule changes) of one of its marquee stars like Brady was integral to its business. How many fans wanted to tune in to watch Matt Cassel instead of Brady on a Patriots' schedule that had many nationally televised games on it?

Savard might not be Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin, but he's one of the game's elite passers. In the four seasons prior to this one, only San Jose's Joe Thornton totaled more assists than Savard's 269. And his team is in a dogfight to make the playoffs. With 18 games left, Boston sits uncomfortably in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, two points up on the New York Rangers.

The Bruins also happen to be the NHL's lowest-scoring team at 2.31 points per game and Savard is their top offensive player. He is tied for third on the team in points with 33 because he has missed 23 games with two other injuries, a sprained knee and a broken foot. A two-time All-Star who has led Boston in points for the three prior seasons, he has averaged 0.80 points per game this season. That's more than Bruins' points leader Patrice Bergeron's 0.68 per game.

So if you were Chiarelli and Bruins coach Claude Julien -- who called Savard "our best player" after Sunday's game in calling for Cooke to be suspended -- how would you like your post-trade deadline chances to make the playoffs now that Chiarelli decided that the price to pay to add scoring was more than he wanted to pay? If the Bruins don't make it in large part because they can't score, what would owner Jeremy Jacobs think of the niceties of the hits-to-the-head debate as he's missing out on playoff revenue and his team once again yields the local media spotlight to the Celtics' postseason and Red Sox's regular season?

Just as the NHL saw the careers of premier stars like Eric Lindros and Pat LaFontaine diminished because of concussions, it does not need to lose anymore -- or any player for that matter. In the end, the issue involves player safety, which should create an outcry from the NHLPA.

At its essence, a body check's reason for being is to separate the man from the puck. That can still be accomplished without concussive hits to the head.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Who Should Start In Net This Weekend?

Normally, I tend to post when I feel like I have big, meaty issues to weigh in on, but since the Thrashers are hot and interest seems to be on the increase, I think it would be interesting to discuss which goalies the Thrashers should start in their two games this weekend.

They play back-to-back games less than 24 hours apart. That makes it a virtual certainty (especially with so many games remaining in so few days) that Ondrej Pavelec will earn one of the starts. On paper, the more critical game is against Tampa Bay, which trails the Thrashers by three points for the Eastern Conference's final playoff berth and has played one more game. It's one of those "four-point games," in the hockey lingo -- a regulation win by Tampa pulls them within a point of the Thrashers and a regulation win by the Thrashers puts them five points ahead of the Lightning. Five points at this juncture of the season, with what would be 18 games left and three teams over which to climb, is an awfully uphill struggle.

It can be done, but only by going on a hot streak, which the Lightning definitely are not on. In a 2-2 game with Philadelphia in their first game back after the Olympic break, the Lightning surrendered five goals in the third period and got drilled 7-2. Then they lost in regulation 5-4 to Washington last night. (That's 12 goals in two games for those of you counting at home as they prepare for a Thrashers team that has scored 10 in its first two since the break.) Coach Rick Tocchet's bunch has lost five in a row and are 4-6 in their last 10.

Meanwhile, the red hot Carolina Hurricanes, owners of the NHL's third worst record, visit town on Sunday having won seven in a row. Remember: This team played in the Eastern Conference finals last season and suffered through an injury to their starting goalie and top player, Eric Staal, earlier in the season. Now both are back.

The Canes have outscored their opponents 29-12 in those last seven games and haven't scored fewer than three goals in a game and haven't allowed more than three -- which they've done only twice -- in that span. Also, four of those victories have come against the East's third- (Ottawa), fourth- (New Jersey) and fifth-places teams (Buffalo, twice).

So what do you do? Play your de facto No. 1 goalie, Johan Hedberg, who has started nine of the last 12 games, at home on Sunday or in what is, on paper, the more meaningful game -- even if it is on the road? So John Anderson's strategy is either to go for the easier points (Carolina, on paper) or for the more meaningful game.

But if Tampa Bay continues to implode, those strategies could be one in the same: He could start Hedberg tomorrow in Tampa in the hopes of dealing a potential knock-out blow to the Lightning while possibly picking up the easier points -- even though it's on the road and the Lightning have outplayed the Thrashers in the season series so far (The Thrashers are 1-2-2). Then Anderson would be playing with house money when he comes home on Sunday. A regulation loss to Tampa, on the other hand, could make the strategy potentially more high-risk.

That, as they say, is why Anderson gets paid the big bucks.

Looks like Anderson rendered this post moot by saying that Hedberg would start on Saturday and possibly again on Sunday. Regardless, these are the thoughts he must have weighed when making his decision.

* * *

Oh, one other thing: Kari Lehtonen got his first playing time last night with the Dallas Stars, allowing two goals on 16 shots. Apparently, he'll make his first start on Saturday against Pittsburgh. Sort of a sink-or-swim moment, I suppose.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Thrashers and the Ewing (Kovalchuk?) Theory

I never read Bill Simmons's column on, if at all, until I met my friend Joe Rauch back in 2007. Maybe this had something to do with the fact that Joe is a big NBA fan and I've always followed hockey a lot more than I do the NBA, which seems to be Simmons' favorite league to write about. (It also might have something to do with my aversion to Simmons' initial "Boston Sports Guy" persona, seeing as I was a fan of New York sports teams -- owing to my birth in that city and my father's rooting for New York teams -- even while growing up in Massachusetts.)

So it was Joe who first mentioned to me Simmons' "Ewing Theory."Actually, Simmons credits his friend Dave Cirilli with inventing the theory, but I'd say that Simmons is probably a little bit better known. Simply elucidated, the theory states that college and pro superstar Patrick Ewing's teams always played better without him -- a truism for almost all superstar-dominated teams.

I started thinking about how this might apply to the Atlanta Thrashers after they defeated the Florida Panthers 4-2 on Tuesday to go 3-1-2 since trading Ilya Kovalchuk. Could it be that the Thrashers will be better without the best player in franchise history than they were with him?

Remember, it's just a theory, not a law. But the more I started looking at Simmons and Cirilli's theory, the more I found how well it suited the Thrashers. Two crucial elements must be in order for the theory to apply. They are (and I'm excerpting now):
  1. A star athlete receives an inordinate amount of media attention and fan interest, and yet his teams never win anything substantial with him (other than maybe some early-round playoff series).
  2. That same athlete leaves his team (either by injury, trade, graduation, free agency or retirement) -- and both the media and fans immediately write off the team for the following season.
This is the 2009-10 Thrashers in a nutshell. The way Simmons describes the theory, the season doesn't necessarily have to be the following one. His prime example is that of the 1999 NBA Eastern Conference finals when Ewing went down with a torn Achilles tendon in Game 2. The Knicks won three of the next four games to win the series against the Indiana Pacers after the Knicks had been written off. Another example includes the Tennessee Volunteers when they won the 1998 NCAA football title the year after Peyton Manning graduated without ever having done so.

The central point of the Ewing Theory is that when teams have a superstar, the rest of the players tend to stand by passively as bystanders waiting for said superstar to do his thing. I first started thinking about this in relation to the Thrashers when I wrote a story for last week about the state of the team coming out of the Olympic break.

Forward Jim Slater, who played on the same teams as Kovalchuk for five seasons, said of Kovalchuk, "Maybe we relied too much" on him. Goalie Johan Hedberg agreed. Coach John Anderson basically did also.

In some ways, it's a case study on different methods of how to build a team. Shortly after the Thrashers traded Dany Heatley in 2005, a player said to me, "Now they just need to get rid of the other guy" -- the other guy, obviously, being Kovalchuk. A philosophical debate ensued about whether it's easier to win with a team built around superstars or one built, in this player's words, with a team of all $2 million players, a salary about 33 percent above the NHL average at the time.

At times when I have searched my mind to find successful examples of the mythical team of $2 million players, I end up settling on the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes who won the Stanley Cup -- lots of above average players who meshed together flawlessly. Of course, the team of $2 million players is an impossibility -- an ideal, really -- that would necessarily have to have some exceptions to exist in the real world. For the '06 'Canes, Eric Staal, one of the NHL's top forwards, and Rod Brind'Amour would represent two of those exceptions. But a look back at the team's defense would hardly reveal greatness. Bret Hedican was the 'Canes' No. 1 that year. Aging Glen Wesley, Frantisek Kaberle, Anton Babchuk, Niclas Wallin, Aaron Ward hardly represent as a collective anything near the backline of the great Montreal Canadiens of the 1970s.

That Carolina team rolled four lines and got contributions from everywhere. In their very brief run of success thus far without Kovalchuk, the Thrashers are doing the same. Defensemen like Pavel Kubina are scoring. Two forward lines are scoring (Evander Kane-Slater-Colby Armstrong, which was why Armstrong was not traded at the deadline; and Bryan Little-Nik Antropov-Niclas Bergfors), as is the power play.

If the Thrashers can maintain this level of play, they will have a better than average chance to make the playoffs. They hold three games in hand on seventh-place Montreal, which they trail by two points; and stand one point behind the New York Rangers, who are tied for eighth with Boston, while holding two games in hand on the Rangers.

The Thrashers also have a favorable schedule with 13 of their remaining 21 games at home. They are getting solid goaltending from Hedberg and, for the first time in their history, the strength of the team is its defense.

If they make it, another chapter could be written in the history of the Ewing Theory. Maybe hockey fans will come to call it "The Kovalchuk Theory."