Saturday, June 26, 2010

Rise of American Hockey

Like maple syrup and the use of the word “eh”, ice hockey has always been dominated by Canada. They dominated professional hockey while the Soviet Union dominated amateur hockey. The U.S. presence was slim, and even though the league was based in the States the country generally didn’t care enough about the sport to produce strong hockey players. All of that has changed.

It began with what Sports Illustrated called the best sports moment of the century: the American gold medal-winning Olympic Hockey team. We all know the story well, as we should. There was never a more David vs. Goliath sports story than that of the American college kids against the Soviet Red Army. The magnitude of the political and societal backdrop has never been replicated in international play in any sport. It took the entire country along for the ride, and it left a huge impression on those kids tuning in.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Taylor vs. Tyler

There hasn’t been an argument this heated since Team Edward vs Team Jacob (fitting, since these boys attended the Twilight premier last ngiht). Team Tyler or Team Taylor? Unlike the drafts of most professional sports leagues, the question in the NHL draft is “Who will be the bigger superstar?” instead of “Who will be the bigger bust?” Edmonton has undoubtedly debated this to no end while trying to decide what to do with their #1 overall pick tonight.

The choice is pretty much exclusively between Taylor of the back-to-back Memorial Cup winning Windsor Spitfires, and Tyler Seguin of the Plymouth Whalers. Hall was on Canada’s World Junior Championship silver-medal winning team (courtesy of our very own American Hero John Carlson). Beyond these two, it is not too deep of a draft this year. It has been a long time since it was as even a debate over the 1st pick as it is this year, and with good reason: both are outstanding players who will have an instant impact on their respective NHL teams.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

(Wo)men In Hockey

I am not a feminist nor am I heavily political. I am not an agitator (most of the time) and I am not one to chain myself to anything for my beliefs. I think it’s silly that women got pissed over the “Chrissy Pronger” poster in the newspaper in Chicago because there are bigger and, frankly, more legitimate issues facing women in sports and the sports industry. It’s frivolous to waste time on things like this, especially when it is hilarious because it’s Chris Pronger. However, all women do face the same problem when playing sports: men think we are generally weaker/worse at any given sport, and project the feeling that we don’t belong on their playing field/court/rink.

Hockey, unfortunately, is no different. The gap is closer in games like basketball and soccer where the rules for men and women are the same, but in hockey, where body-checking is eliminated for women (which is ridiculous on it’s own because they wear the exact same padding) it reinforces the notion that women are too weak for the men’s game. This was always in the back of my mind, but it wasn’t really shoved in my face until last week when I went to go play pick-up.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Fat Albert's Fat Attitude

The Washington Redskins are used to being in the news during the offseason. Usually it has to do with a big, somewhat controversial free agent signing. That is the case again this year, only this time, the controversy is over a big name free agent they signed a year ago.

Albert Haynesworth, unhappy with the change in defensive scheme, has requested a trade from the nation’s Capitol and refused to attend the Redskins mandatory mini camp that began today. Haynesworth claims he was promised to play a certain style and a certain position when he signed his seven year $100 million deal last summer.

Haynesworth expressed his distaste for the 3-4 defense from the beginning. Head coach Mike Shannahan allowed Haynesworth to explore trade options with other teams before April 1st, the day Haynesworth was due to receive a $21 million bonus. When Haynesworth accepted his check that day, the understanding was that he would cooperate and participate in whatever way he was instructed too.

Instead, Haynesworth continued to demand a trade and continuously skipped voluntary workouts where he was often the only player not in attendance. Now, theses were voluntary workouts, and no one was really holding anything against him at the time. We all knew he was a…um… “minimal worker.” But we were assured time and time again that once workouts became mandatory, he would be there eager to get started. That is obviously not the case.

Haynesworth’s entire attitude while in Washington has rubbed most fans the wrong way. He appears selfish and as if he doesn’t care about the team. It often seems he would rather “get his” than win. This is one of those times. What is most infuriating about this is that he took the money. He promised he would buy into the system to get his bonus, and now he’s trying to cut and run. The Redskins are currently in the process of trying to get back the 21 million dollars they paid him in April.

The other important part of all of this is that his teammates now resent him. Before, the ill will was mostly, if not all, in the eyes of the fans and the general public. Now his teammates are speaking out, and it’s the veterans doing the talking. London Fletcher and Philip Daniels both said that they felt it was a selfish decision that leaves the team feeling abandoned. They can’t trust or depend on him anymore, and that says more than 21 million dollars ever could.

DeAngelo Hall was the closest anyone came to actually protecting Haynesworth, saying that he was promised things when he signed here. However, even he testified to Haynesworth’s “me first” attitude. This is incredibly frustrating. This is an anchor pulling down a team that is trying to lift itself up from a 4-12 record last year.

Every other member of the team has been participating in optional practices. Everyone has been working day and night to adjust to the new system. Donavan McNabb has been possibly working harder than anyone, trying to establish himself as a leader in a new city. Veterans have been spending time grooming the rookies. Nothing but good vibes have been coming out of Redskins Park since the transformation except for anything concerning the man with the fattest contract.

He has turned himself into a cancer in this city and on this team, and he doesn’t care. He has turned himself into a problem that Redskins management is now forced to deal with. Haynesworht can’t be around to team, but with an attitude like that and a contract like he has, what team in their right mind would take him?

No one wants him here. Fans, teammates, and the press have all turned against him, and for good reason. He can't stay. It'll most likely be a hard hit to the team to get rid of him because I can't think of a single team that would want a player with an attitude like that. They will most likely end up having to release him in order to get him away from the organization, in which case they lose out on a huge investment.

If money were no object? I'd keep him and bench him. If it didn't mean paying him 60 million more dollars over the next six years, I wouldn't let him go anywhere else. I wouldn't let him play for me, either. I would make him sit there looking like a 12 girl who won't talk to her mom because she wouldn't let her go to the movies with a boy. Unfortunately, knowing Haynesworth, he would probably like that better than actually playing football.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Bears get the Capital Treatment

Last night, the Hershey Bears made AHL history yet again by setting the record for franchise Calder Cup Championships (which they also set last year at 10) at 11 when they beat the upstart Texas Stars 4-0. They took the series in sic games, lifting their 2nd consecutive Cup on home ice. The Bears are the oldest and most storied franchise in the AHL, and being founded in 1938, they are older than all but the Original Six NHL teams. The Capitals are lucky to have such a winning team as their minor-league affiliate. The Bears are the only other team in sports that dominated their regular season as much as the Capitals did this past year, setting an AHL record 60 wins and a 24-game home winning streak.

Affiliation between NHL and AHL teams changes constantly, especially as AHL teams come and go. The Capitals have only been affiliated with the Bears since 2005 (their previous affiliation was Portland, where they sent many players to play during the lockout). However, this affiliation has taken on a whole new meaning for this franchise and it’s fans. I don’t know another organization in which the fans of the NHL team regularly attend games of their AHL affiliate. Caps fans follow Hershey almost as vigorously as they follow the Caps. It’s far from unusual to see Bears merchandise at Verizon Center. The fan base celebrates Bears championships more than most hockey fans celebrate their team’s Stanley Cup championships.

What makes this affiliation more significant from a hockey standpoint is that the two teams play the exact same system. They both play with a high-powered, quick-strike offense and encourage D-men to jump into the play. The Caps’ core players have been drafted by the organization and brought up through it. When they have a need, they first look within the organization to fill it. Mid-season call-ups don’t feel out of place because it is the same system they are used to playing. When the team needed a new coach in 2007, they called up Bruce Boudreau, then head coach of the Bears. He knew the system and knew most of the players—because he had coached them to a Calder Cup championship in 2006.

When they needed to fill an Assistant Coach position, they promoted then Bears head coach Bob Woods, and promoted his assistant Mark French to the head coaching job in Hershey. It is important for them to keep things within the Washington Capitals “family”. It has helped the development for prospects as well. When they come up to fill in the Caps line-up, they know the system, so it is one less thing to worry about.

There are several players on this year’s squad who appear just about ripe to join the big club next year out of camp. With the Caps possibly having to pay for a 2nd line center, veteran stay at home defenseman, or maybe even a goaltender on the free agent market, they will be looking to fill in other holes as cheaply as possible. This spells a great opportunity for call-ups from the last couple of seasons to prove their worth at the NHL level. John Carlson and Karl Alzner have essentially been promised spots next year by both Boudreau and George McPhee. Mathieu Perreault and Chris Bourque will get serious looks next season, especially for Perreault with the vacancies at center. Michal Nuevirth also has a strong chance to make the team since it seems the team does not wish to sign a veteran goaltender to back up Semyon Varlamov.

While others will get a look at camp, those are the five with a significant chance of making the big club this year. After free agency opens, it will be clearer which roles the Caps are looking to fill within the organization, and that could help or hinder any of these players’ chances.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Second Line Center

As we inch closer to the Draft (June 24th) and the start of free agency (July 1st), reports have been surfacing about who is and isn’t resigning with the team they finished the season with. The Caps are no different, as news has been slowly leaking about the direction the team is headed going into next season. It appears goalie Jose Theodore, who endeared fans this season by bouncing back from the utterly tragic death of his two-month-old son with a terrific 09-10 campaign, will not resign with the Capitals. This indicates that General Manager George McPhee has decided it’s finally time to see what a Semyon Varlamov/Michal Nuevirth goaltending tandem can do.

It has been announced that Scott Walker and Joe Corvo, two depth players acquired at the trade deadline for an anticipated deep playoff run, will also not be returning to D.C. Today, Tarik El-Bashir reported that Brendan Morrison will be leaving Washington as well. This re-opens a need the Caps will now have to spend two year trying to fill: a second line center.

When Sergei Fedorov left to play with his brother in the KHL, the Caps signed Brendan Morrison to fill the void. He was cheap, and during the first half of the season GMGM looked like a genius for the deal. Morrison stacked up goals and points at levels way beyond his paycheck. Then he hit a wall (hard) during the second half of the season. It became clear that he was not quite the fit for that role.

In my opinion, the reason why it is so hard to find a second line center to fit this team is because it is hard to find someone to play with the enigmatic Alexander Semin. His communication skills are less than stellar, he can be streaky, and you literally have no idea what he is going to do. Many a teammate have been thrown offside because of his impromptu dances at the blue line. The center that can finally handle Semin on their wing is going to be the center who flourishes in that role. Brooks Laich, being the super sexy adaptable player that he is, can play with Semin. Also, Laich’s style of play is one that complements any skilled player well. The organization has put 2/3 of this line together, and the glue is still missing. It appears as though they will either use Eric Belanger, who they are in contract talks with, or go to free agency to try and fill this void.

There are two problems with this. One is that the center market is not exactly top-of-the-line this year. Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau will most likely resign with San Jose and would cost too much anyway. There are a couple of other options, but free agents will cost money and cap space, and that is one thing the Caps do not have a huge amount of.

It is possible that GMGM will try and move someone within the organization into that role. Flash was able to contribute in that role, but he is too much of a defensive liability to play center, and there is a strong chance he will not be back in Washington next year since the team is in talks for a multi-year deal with Eric Fehr. The Capitals have a few prospects who could make the jump to the big team next year in Mathieu Perreault and Marcus Johansson. However, both of these players fit in much better in a third line role. So do the Caps find someone on the market? Do they promote a prospect who may not be ready for the role? Do they stick Eric Belanger back in there and hope he gets settled in the role? When the free agent market opens many of these questions will be answered. Until then, let the rumors flow like champagne from the Stanley Cup.

Friday, June 11, 2010

World Cup Fever

Throughout my entire childhood, the only sport I could never get into, either watching or playing, was soccer (I don't consider NASCAR as a sport, for those of you who are curious). I was thrown into the rec leagues just like every other 6 year-old, but I was terrible. I was always stuck on defense because of my lack of ball skills, and playing on half of a field seemed stupid to me even then. So I quit. I joined my high school team when they needed players, and was again stuck on defense. If there was anything basketball and hockey taught me throughout my life, it was how to strip someone of the ball/puck, so that translated pretty well into soccer. But I couldn't kick hard or do any of the tricks my friends could.

Two of my good friends are very into soccer, so they would get really exited about the World Cup (as does the rest of the world, I guess). However I, like most Americans, honestly couldn't care less. We are not a soccer-fanatic country. We're just not. And because we're not, our team usually isn't very good, so no one watches. In the last week, however, I have allowed myself to get caught up in World Cup Fever. The problem is I don't know anything about soccer except you can't use your hands and the diving skills of these players would make Dan Carcillo feel like he belonged back in juniors. So I'm pretending it's most of the events in the Olympics: an opportunity to drink in the middle of the day and chant "U-S-A!" I encourage you to do the same .

Also, these guys aren't too hard on the eyes, even if they are losing ;)

Bottom line is that soccer is the world's game, whether we pay attention to it or not. Just because it's not a major American sport or something that we as Americans are particularly good at, that doesn't mean that it's not important. This attitude is why so much of the world hates us (well, that and the Jonas Brothers). Let's prove them wrong and join the rest of the world in celebrating one of the premier global sporting events, even if that means we are losers for once.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


Last night was easily the most highly anticipated night in D.C. sports in recent memory. Only the Redskins’ Super Bowl games could even hope to surpass the kind of hype that was directed toward 21-year-old Washington Nationals rookie Stephen Strasburg leading up to his first start in Major League Baseball. Not only was the entire city talking about a team that endured 100 losses in each of the last two seasons, but for the first time in a long while national attention was directed toward the District for a positive reason: to witness the beginning of an era.

Strasburg took the mound to vociferous cheers from the standing-room-only crowd that pack themselves into Nationals Park like sardines. They waited, and as they held their collective breath, Strasburg threw the first major league pitch of what should be a long and prosperous career: and it was a ball. Cheers for the wunderkind quickly morphed into boos for the umpire. Strasburg threw a ball inside, and a ball outside before McCutchen hit into a lineout.

Getting that one out was all Strasburg needed to get comfortable. Once the first hitter was out of the way, he settled in. He got Walker to groundout before striking out ex-Nat Lastings Milledge for his first major league K. That would be the first 14 K’s he would earn on the night in 94 pitches throughout 7 innings.

The game would not be without struggle, as Strasburg allowed 4 hits. The low point of the night would be in the fourth inning when Young hit a 2-run homer that landed in the first row of the seats in center field. After that home run, Strasburg really locked in. He only threw 7 balls the rest of his outing, while striking out 8 batters. He struck out the final 7 batters he faced.

The team had originally said that Strasburg would be limited to 90 pitches and 6 innings, but after retiring the slid in straight strikeouts, and at only 80 pitches, Riggleman decided to send him back out for the seventh inning. The team, which was behind 2-1 at the time, took this as an opportunity to make the night even more memorable for the kid and the crowd: they wanted to give him his first win. In the bottom of the sixth, the Nationals scored three runs to be ahead 4-2 when Strasburg went out to finish his outing at 7 innings.

If this was a glimpse into the future, then the future is looking very bright for baseball’s worst teams the last two years. Strasburg not only matched the hype, he found a way to do the impossible: exceed it. This kid is very, very good. And should his arm hold out, he will be for a very, very long time.

Monday, June 7, 2010

A Changing of the Guard

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to celebrate the death of the worst team in baseball, the 2008/2009 Washington Natinals Nationals. There were few things in life as consistent and reliable as you blowing three-run leads, committing two errors, and generally finding any possibly way to lose. It was refreshing to know that when reality seemed to turn upside-down, we could always count on you to lose. You didn’t discriminate. You lost to the best and worst alike. You lost to rich clubs, you lost to poor clubs. You lost when the weather was bad, you lost when the weather was perfect. If you scored 10 runs, you always allowed at least 11. That kind of consistency is hard to find, and with teams as bipolar as the Wizards and the Redskins, we Washington sports fans appreciated it.

Now your existence is finally starting to pay off. Back-to-back 100-loss seasons have delivered us Steven Strasburg, Drew Storen, and Bryce Harper. Seeing this light at the end of the tunnel, the team has been over-achieving in 2010 in anticipation of these superstars riding in on white horses as their saviors. Your 2010 version is a mere 4 games under .500, and despite the last few games, there is hope for a win when they bring a lead into the 8th or 9th inning!

Repeated high draft picks are slowly filling gaps in Nationals’ lineup, and once Strasburg takes the mound tomorrow night, it will end one era and begin another. This team will immediately command more respect in the closest division in Major League Baseball. Hopefully the presence of Strasburg will pick this team up. I’m not saying Strasburg should be a leader, in fact, I think it is more important to have Ivan Rodriguez catching him and help complete his development. What I mean is that hopefully the team will feel they need to play better for Strasburg. Ideally, they will feel the need to play better and not let their pitching down. They will want to support a young player who will hopefully be a part of their franchise for a long time.

Whether they play like it or not, this Nationals team will never be the same after tomorrow night. Expectations will be higher, stakes will be higher, and (hopefully) their performance will be higher. Adding another starter to the rotation is something the Nats need, especially considering how inconsistent this bullpen has been. Maybe it’s exactly what they need to get out of this funk. Answers will being to come tomorrow night, and while it would be ridiculous to expect a sudden flip of the switch, it is not to think that the tide will begin to turn. This team will never be the same, and hopefully that change is for the better.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Game 4 Recap

The Chicago Blackhawks were unable to get solid play when needed, and it opened the door for the Philadelphia Flyers to tie the Stanley Cup Final series up at 2 heading back to Chicago on Sunday.

The often praised defense of the Western Conference Champions was no where to be found last night, and the chemistry that usually ignites this explosive offense was also M.I.A until it was too late. In a play that would be a microcosm of the entire game, Mike Richards stole the puck from Niklas Hjalmarsson while Tomas Kopecky was in the penalty box on a questionable high-sticking call. After Richards stripped Hjalmarsson of the puck, he batted a quick, shifty backhander into the net on a shot that caught goaltender Antti Niemi by surprise. He opened the scoring less than five minutes into the game.

Penalties were a major issue for the Blackhawks, and although they only allowed the lone Richards power play goal, their star offensive weapons were kept off the ice during six penalty kills. However, even while on the ice, the normally potent Blackhawks offense seemed to disappear. Passes were forced and made too often, and juicy rebounds were left open for the Flyers to clear.

Hjalmarsson would again be the main culprit of a Flyers goal when he failed to clear the rebound of a bad-angle Claude Giroux shot and Matt Carle jumped into the play to deposit the puck into an empty net. Michael Leighton would let in a Patrick Sharp floater with 1:30 left in the first period, but the Flyers scored again before the period ended when Giroux was left open next to the net. He put a Kimmo Timonen pass into the back of the net while Niemi was positioned at the edge of his crease for Timonen’s shot. After that goal, the spirit was taken out of the Blackhawks.

The second period was scoreless and uneventful, as was the first half of the third period. Niemi continued to make spectacular saves to keep his team in the game, and his team contuned to return the favor with a defense with holes the size of Texas and constant turnovers. For 40 minutes in the middle of this game, the Blackhawks left their goalie out to dry, and that is probably the most disappointing aspect of this loss.

The Blackhawks would need a 5-on-3 with 8 minutes to go in order to spark their offense. They tried to make the comeback, but fell just short when Duncan Keith failed to control the puck at the blue line, allowing Jeff Carter to ice the game with an empty netter with 36.6 seconds left in the game. The final score was 5-3.

The Philadelphia Flyers played exactly the kind of game they need to in order to win this series. They were opportunistic, they forced Chicago to slow down their game, and they were tough while being disciplined. Chicago is still searching for a way to let their stars break out, although the line of Dustin Byfuglien, Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Kane was much better tonight than it has been throughout most of this series. Byfuglien was still silent, and actually had a couple of egregious giveaways, but Kane and Toews controlled the puck in the offensive zone and kept pressure on both the Flyers’ defense and goaltender. They primed to break out.

Game 4 is always a momentum swing in a series, and last night was no different. Instead of being up 3-1, the Blackhawks’ overall sloppy play allowed the Flyers’ fans one last chance to see their team play inside Wachovia Center. Now they must try to take the momentum they began to build in the game’s dying minutes back home to the United Center and win what is now a best-of-three series.

A team is not in trouble until it loses at home, and while the Flyers must steal a game in Chicago, the Blackhawks only need to win out at home in order to lift their first Stanley Cup since 1961.