Sunday, September 30, 2007

NHL's Poor US Presentation Utterly Shocking

I've always wondered why it is that hockey's never caught on in the states. Could it be the complexity of such a fast paced game? Or maybe because most Americans never had a chance to enjoy a backyard skating rink, much less a snowball fight, during the winter months. Now, I think I might have an inkling as to why the league gets such little respect.

It may be just preseason games, but I decided to catch some Sens hockey with the NHL Center Ice Online free preview. Sunday I sat down with my laptop and projector to watch them take on the Capitals, and was treated to the most shocking display of hockey presentation. Growing up on HNIC and more recently being treated to Sens PPV, I've grown accustomed to quality broadcasting, and that might just be the problem.

When the broadcast from the 'official Capitals network' was picked up by NHL CIO, I was treated to the most bizarre of sounds. I got to hear a midly John Goodman-y voice telling the fans in Washington to beware of flying pucks and to check out great deals behind section 101 of the rink, hardly what I or anyone else on this side of the broadcast could give a care about. As the action finally picked up, it took several minutes before commentary begun. Before it begun, I was treated to what I can only say sounded something like a man asleep in the control room being woken up over a walkie talkie and sleepily starting to flip the switches and bring the show together.

Now it was time for some real hockey, right? Only five minutes in and the Caps score. This of course lead to many replays from their official network. Unfortunately for real hockey fans, the replays of this goal and other shots continued, even as play went on. Only when they finished was I treated to a faceoff, suddenly noticing that the score was tied, 1-1. Their replays had blocked out a fine Patrick Eaves goal. It takes a real rookie, in my opinion, to boldly play replays over the real action. Unless perhaps they were trained to do this while covering baseball, where few care if they miss the pitcher digging his rut in the mound and sizing up the batter.

Banter sounds like batter, and once again nothing but disappointment was served up to me. I can admit I'm not 100% confident how to perfectly pronounce anyone's name unless they've said it to me. So maybe when they refered to Nick-you-lynn, that could have been the proper intonation and inflection. Then again, when they called out plays involving Anton Vermette, and couldn't decide whether it was Foh-lee-no or Foh-lig-no, then I start to doubt them. Then when they start telling me how many goals Alfie scored, 2, and how low that is, I recall the hat trick he scored last night, and wonder how little research these people actually do.

During the intermission, we begin hearing the announcer saying Foligno's name over and over again, talking about which goals he's ordering replayed, how long he should run the intermission show for, and telling his partner that his IM isn't working. Eventually he starts talking hockey, and I relax a bit. However, I notice I'm not watching replays, or announcers discussing things and displaying stats.
I'm watching the broadcast of the tv screen in the middle of the Verizon Center, telling me when opening night is and behind what section I can buy Caps branded items. Not only that, but my broadcast has included, during the game, items such as falshing messages I've seen on my camcorder telling me that a video timer is about to begin, a blue screen explaining video recording setup, and the visual displayed on Windows Media Player when sound without video is playing. Even the scoreboard I see on the tv isn't cut properly; the scoreboard is cut on an angle, so I can see the word 'player' above the Ottawa penalties (where you see the player number, but no name since it's cut too short).

Virtually all this happened within the first half of the first period, with only a few other elements coming out during the rest of the game. This is not broadcasting. This is unprofessional Youtube on crack, and apparently the megaphone from which all things Capitals gets broadcasted. This is, without a doubt, a huge reason why I doubt I could ever respect the way American NHL franchises are handled, and why I now give a new respect to Americans who don't support the NHL, if only because they have to put up with crap like this, when all I've really felt cheated by is Bob Cole's tardy play by play. Stand tall and proud Americans, for not putting up with this. Or better yet, become a Sens fan, and get treated right.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Fisher Signs 5-year Extension with Sens

With a full dozen players finishing their contracts this season, Brian Murray is wasting no time in taking care of business. The Ottawa Senators announced today that they have signed peerless two-way forward Mike Fisher to a whopping five year extension, worth 21 million dollars, or 4.2 million a year against the cap. This extension makes Fisher the Senator under contract furthest into the future, one year longer than the end of the last year of Alfie's option years, to the end of the 2012-13 season. Fisher and Murray are both happy to see him stay in the capital, not to mention legions of Senators fans.

While not possessing the scoring touch of Dany Heatley, Mike's got as much heart and grit as anyone else in our Nation's capital. Depending on Redden's future with the team at the end of the season, it's very likely that Fisher could take on the "A" full time alongside Phillips, although it's likely that Murray wants Redden to stick around, albeit for a much reduced price. Saving the Selke Trophy nominee from hitting the market next year undoubtedly saves the Sens some bankroll, despite how lofty 4.2 million a season seems. Comparable players this season went for similar amounts, ones without the complete grit, leadership, and two-way package Fisher offers.

Signing Fisher also sends some interesting messages. The first and most important message is this: in choosing to sign Fisher first, ahead of scoreboard babies Heatley and Spezza and the rest of the squad, Murray is showing that players who give their heart and soul to the team every night will always reap the rewards, without having to try to extort or bargain their way there. Now look at the flip side, back to the part where we want to have a 23 man roster next season. Including Fisher, the Sens have now locked up 10 players for 27 million dollars, averaging 2.7 million dollars each. To lock up the remaining 13 we'd like to have, we have less than 2 million to spend on each of them. If we sign Heatley to an extension, worst case cost of 8.5 million, that would give us just over 1.2 million to offer the other dozen. If we were to sign Spezza on top of that, we'd be the Tampa Bay lightning, filling out the rest of our roster with league-minimum players.

So what's going to happen? My guess is that Heatley will get the nod over Spezza. While Spezza's no slouch, comparing their numbers prior to pairing up, it's Heatley who's proven his mettle on his own. Heatley also differs from Spezza in that he can play a full season, can take and can dish out a hit, can kill penalties, and can deal with the hardest of demons. My guess is that this will be Spezza's last season with the Sens, barring some kind of gift discount to the Sens offered by the dynamic duo in order to stay together. Most likely, we will see ourselves the proud new owners of four first-round draft picks. If we're lucky, maybe one of those might just be able to nab us John Tavares.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Sens Prospects Choke After Successful Rookie Tournament

Yesterday marked the culmination of the four-day rookie round robin tournament, hosted by the Florida Panthers in Kitchener, Ontario, and featuring our roster of rookie Sens prospects, along with those from the Leafs and Penguins. After a 2-1 loss to the hosts on Friday, the Sens Trounced the Leafs Saturday 4-2, and blanked the Penguins on Sunday 3-0, giving them the best record heading into the finals on Monday against the rookie Pens.

Alas, as I can tell you from first-hand experience, the Pens filled themselves up thoroughly with bloodlust, and gave the Sens a thorough drubbing. The first period started with a fight immediately after the opening faceoff, between the Pens' Aaron Boogaard and the Sens' Brett Gallant, spilling off some of the tension from the frustrations of games past. Before the period was even 2 minutes old, the Pens' Dustin Jeffrey scored on Brian Elliott, who had been the centerpiece of our only two victories. Sens prospects have been reportedly gritty, with hopes of stocking our dressing room properly to avoid another Stanley Cup Final like this one just past. Despite this, it was the Penguins who layed down all the board-battering and mind-numbing hits throughout the game. It wasn't until the first period was nearly half over that the Sens managed to get some spurts of offense past the Pens blueline, but they were few at best, and ended the period down 1 - 0.

Enter the second frame. Once again, this time within the opening 3 minutes, the Pens scored, this tally coming from Joe Jensen, putting the Sens in a 0 - 2 hole, which Matt Caria widened to 0 - 3 at the end of the second period. Into the final period, and Alex Grant and Jensen's second goal gave the Pens the ultimate payback for Sunday. Only thanks to a late tally by Ilja Zubov saved the Sens from being completely shutout. At least we beat the Leafs, right?

Leaving the Arena, I pondered why it was that our boys failed after having done so well beforehand. Some things were obvious. There were the many dumps that worked so well back in June for the big boys, only a tight Pens line blocked any Sens from rallying around to catch the puck on the other side, along with some stellar efforts by Penguins rookie goaltender John Curry to keep the puck from sliding around behind his net. Often the Sens seemed a tad unaware of where their teammates were, evident in the third when calls of 'Zube!, Zube!" failed to egg highly touted Ilja Zubov into passing the puck to open teammates in ideal scoring positions. I say once again that the absence of Sens hits was brutal, and the ability of the speedy Pens to plant them flawlessly even more brutal on top of that. Add the constant coughing up of the puck to poke-checks and more giveaways than at a new car dealership, and its no wonder than Murray and Paddock never flinched or blinked after the goals, just observing steadily and patiently.

Despite their falling apart in the final, the prospects did give Murray and Paddock a good show. Brian Lee steadily improved day by day, while Alexander Nikulin and Ilya Zubov put forth a great show most times. Cody Bass certainly earned his 'C' in my opinion, staying calm and working hard at all times. There will be some challengers for the remaining spot on the Sens roster.

The way I see it, one prospect shined brighter than the rest, and stands a good chance of impressing during exhibition games and maybe even cracking the roster this season. An odd thing I noticed during the game. After the second period, I paid attention to the teams leaving the ice. There were a few boys leaning over the hallway where the players exited the rink, hoping for a brush with future NHLers. As the Sens passed under the seats and by the boys, only a couple gave the boys a punch. The Pens? Fully 14 gave the youngsters props. Same story heading out for and returning from the third, with a couple more Sens props, and so many Pens props that I couldn't keep count. But one Sen did catch my eye. During the game he gave it full bore over and over again. Always he pushed to get in position. Always he raced to get back on defense when the Pens held the puck. He even had a good breakaway late in the game, chased closely by a lone Pen, and getting a good shot on goal before being felled and crashing into the boards. That man walked onto the ice, fiddling with his helmet strap with his free hand. Yet, having no free hand, he still gave props to the boys, hand, helmet, head and all. Hockey, like all great sports, doesn't just build character, but also works very well to reveal it, and in that moment, as many others during the game, it revealed very well the strong and highly prized character that lies within Sens prospect Nick Foligno.