One recipe for success: Simply add more teams
The NHL’s Board of Governors will meet early next month and kick around the “realignment’’ can one more time. With 30 teams doing business between Sunrise, Fla., and Vancouver, British Columbia (3,458 miles, if you stick to the main roads), there are many ways for the Lords of the Boards to divvy up the conferences, divisions, and love-hate rivalries that keep us coming back for more, even if not that many actually keep coming back in Phoenix, Sunrise, Columbus, or even Raleigh.
One of the more frequent topics within realignment is whether Detroit should shift from West to East. Of course it should.
Those of us who remember the entertaining hate built over the decades between the Maple Leafs and Red Wings place this question in the NHL’s no-brainer division.
Original Six matchups are a distant memory - maybe not even that for a lot of new-age NHL fans - but there remains a lot of good in that institutional memory that traces back to when it was a six-team league. The Wings just belong in the East, and the league ought to make that right before the second tray of bagels and croissants gets rolled into the room on Dec. 5 at the Pebble Beach hotel.
A topic not up for discussion is expansion. It’s always easy to argue against the league getting bigger, if only because it perpetuates the alleged purists’ view that the game doesn’t have enough good players to stock the Original 30. Frankly, I don’t know why anyone is called a purist anymore, because it seems to me that the whiskey was sufficiently watered down in 1967-68 with the 100 percent increase of membership that added Philadelphia, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, and Oakland.
The traditionalists back in the ’60s warned the product would suffer, and they were right, and the dilution served to increase the leaguewide thirst for playing talent. Because of expansion, the league stopped operating almost exclusively as a Canadian-only men’s club (The Royal Order of Wood and Leather), inviting lowly Yanks to apply for roster spots.
When MikeEruzione and his fellow Team USA ragamuffins won Olympic gold in February 1980, NHL general managers and scouts finally believed the Yanks actually had game. But by then, of course, the WHA had folded and the NHL was a 21-team league, with Hartford, Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Quebec taken in as orphans from the rival league.
Purity? What do you mean, purity?
What we have now, 30-plus years later, is a 30-team league, stocked by players from all around the world (though still lopsided toward the Republic of Ontario), playing a game that most everyone says is vastly better.
I am not a purist, but frankly, I don’t believe it’s better. It is far faster. It is without a doubt more brutal and punishing and dangerous, which makes it better to market. The players are bigger and far more fit.
I prefer to say that it’s all that, and hang my tattered keyboard on the simple belief that all that only makes it different, a game that some nights I barely recognize when I think back to the days of the Royal Order of Wood and Leather. I see far less playmaking, barely any puck control or stickhandling artistry, and even less overall strategy initiated from either side of the bench, which is why I can’t agree that it’s a better game.
Although different, the game is still extremely exciting. So it works. Fans really like it, including far more Americans than anyone would have believed even in the 1980s.
By my eye, it’s much like the way the US auto industry has evolved over the last 40 years. If you put me behind the wheel of a mint ’68 Ford Mustang convertible today, I’d be happier than if you plopped me into the driver’s seat of the 2012 version. I know the current model would have far more bells and whistles, and technically it would be a far better ride. But it wouldn’t have the classic lines and feel of the ’68 model and, with the top down, heck, the same air would mess my thinning hair.
In this case, “better,’’ I think, comes down to personal taste. I simply liked the game more when it was slower, with skillful and smart players creating plays and standing out above the fray, and not everyone on the ice vulnerable every second to being turned into roadkill.
Today’s game is what it is, and with the playmaking, puck control, and strategy stripped out of it, I say it’s the perfect time to expand. What difference does it make if it’s a 30-, 32-, or even a 36-team league? Bring ’em on.
Returning to Quebec City is a no-brainer on the level with shifting Detroit from West to East. Houston, Seattle, and even Kansas City all could work. And now is the time to do it, before the league realigns the existing 30 next month, only to have to do it again as more teams are added in the next, say, 4-8 years.
There will always be an argument against expansion. But it is not from some phony purist who will contend that there isn’t enough playing stock to fill 30-plus teams.
That discussion is over, long gone, lost in the days of the Original 6, 12, 21, 26, and 30.
Given how the game is played today, there are scores of players to fill those rosters and coaches who can whip them into fun, profitable, entertaining teams (exclusive inside tip to all coaches: tell the GM to get you a good goalie).
The only argument left against expansion is strictly from a business standpoint, relating to market size, demographics, the underlying wealth of the community, what corporate base exists to buy suites and season tickets.
As the NHL business expanded these last 40-plus years, the way hockey is played changed forever. The margin for winning/losing the Stanley Cup is very thin (see: Bruins, 2011 playoffs). Realignment is fine, but the bigger play here, probably at around $100 million per franchise, is expansion. That’s where the Board of Governors should focus their attention.
GUNS N’ RED WINGS
Detroit works on its shooting
Most clubs get away from the rink during the year and engage in non-hockey team-building events. The Red Wings, among the game’s most successful franchises the last 15-18 years, have made some interesting day trips during coach Mike Babcock’s tenure.
They have bowled in St. Louis (home to the Bowling Hall of Fame), curled in Edmonton (where else?), and fought the good paintball fight in Anaheim (living in Disneyland, like Bolivia, makes one colorful).
The Winged Wheels this year stayed close to home and spent a few hours firing guns at the Canton (Mich.) Police Department firing range with members of the FBI S.W.A.T. brigade. Some of the heavy-metal weaponry included Glock 22s, M4s, and even a 1928 Thompson submachine gun.
As one might expect, the day shooters had a blast, and we’re not just talking about the forwards in the bunch who make their living shooting at a 24-square-foot target. As for Babcock, an avid outdoorsman, he confessed to being a little jittery about being around such powerful stock.
“I’m scared of that stuff, to be honest with you,’’ Babcock said on the club’s website. “Even pistols, I’m scared of pistols. I’m a hunter, and I like shotguns, and I like shooting my rifle and all of that. But I’m also Walter Safety . . . I’m nervous around that [other] stuff. Those are unbelievable weapons.’’
As for what the whole exercise did for team-building, it appears it missed the mark, by a long shot. The Wings came back three days later and rubbed out the creampuff Blue Jackets, 5-2, then piled up six consecutive losses in which they were outscored, 22-6.
They finally found their shooting range last Saturday in a 5-0 blanking of the Ducks.
Next time they’re looking to bond, maybe just some old-fashioned duck hunting will be the way to go.
Daring to defy odds in Dallas
Some six weeks into the season, the Stars are perhaps the NHL’s biggest surprise, with general manager Joe Nieuwendyk’s budget squad in the battle for the No. 1 spot overall entering last night’s games. Top gun Loui Eriksson has pumped up the scoring volume (8-8-16 entering last night). And the Stars have gotten a serendipitous lift from Eric Nystrom, the 28-year-old son of Islanders great Bob Nystrom who started the season as a spare part with the Wild. When the Rangers temporarily ditched Sean Avery to the minors last month, it left Avery’s former club, the Stars, just short of the NHL’s mandatory salary “floor’’ (the Rangers and Stars split Avery’s pay, because he originally landed on Broadway via waivers). In short, the Stars needed to add payroll, which made Nystrom’s $1.4 million-a-year salary appealing, even if he looked like a token acquisition. Then the 6-foot-1-inch, 195-pound winger pumped in five goals in his first 10 games. Calgary made Nystrom the 10th pick in the 2002 draft after his freshman year at Michigan. He never made it with Calgary, tried a fresh start in St. Paul, and maybe now he’ll hit his stride with Dallas.
Rask on radar in Columbus?
Entering last night, Scott Arniel (coach) and Scott Howson (GM) remained in charge of the stumblebum Blue Jackets, who will be here Thursday night. A brutal start (2-12-1) for the Jax, who aren’t going anywhere until they get legit goaltending, leading to rumors that they could be after the Bruins’ Tuukka Rask or the Islanders’ Evgeni Nabokov. Steve Mason, 23, was the 2009 Rookie of the Year (33 wins, 2.29 GAA), but he can’t stop even a cough these days. Just as young goal-scorers can disappear (see: Jonathan Cheechoo), the same is true of goalies. Affable Andrew Raycroft won the Rookie of the Year award with the Bruins in 2004 with 29 wins, won a career-high 37 with Toronto in 2006-07, and has won only 31 games ever since (he’s now with Dallas).
Laraque causes stir
Big Georges Laraque says he wasn’t looking for a firestorm with his new book, “The Story of the NHL’s Unlikeliest Tough Guy,’’ but he got one with his comments about NHL players using steroids. Instantly labeled the game’s Jose Canseco, he rejected the comparison, noting, unlike baseball’s bad boy, that he never used steroids and also, unlike the former Athletics outfielder, didn’t name those who did. Laraque then told the Toronto Star’s Randy Starkman that the NHL today has a problem “with all types of drugs’’ and that he knows “100 percent’’ that some players are using HGH. His real reason for coming out with the book: As a son of Haitian immigrants growing up in Quebec, he wanted to provide inspiration to those who have to overcome prejudice to fulfill their dreams. He says he wanted it to be a Jackie Robinson-like tale. Well, he had far less of a career than Robinson did, and with his remarks on drugs, it sounds like Laraque got himself far less of an editor than he ever imagined.
Flyers dodge award
Odd fact that caught my eye last week: No Flyer ever has been named Rookie of the Year. Which of course leads to the question, “What about Bobby Clarke?’’ Nope, the irascible Clarke put up numbers of 15-31-46 in his 1969-70 freshman season and didn’t even finish runner-up to Calder Trophy winner Tony Esposito. Rangers right winger Bill Fairbairn (who, like Clarke, was a Manitoba boy) was the second choice. Flyers Bill Barber (1973) and Ron Hextall (1987) finished runner-up, to Steve Vickers (Rangers) and Luc Robitaille (Kings) respectively. The Broad Street Bullies aren’t likely to have the best kid in show this season, either, but they have some impressive kids in Sean Couturier, Matt Read, and puck-moving defenseman Erik Gustafsson. Gustafsson last weekend posted a beefy plus-6 in the Flyers’ 9-2 shellacking of Columbus, making him only the second defenseman to put up a plus-6 over the last 15 years (Ian White, then with Toronto, did it against the Bruins in January 2007). A wrist injury kept Gustafsson out of the Flyers’ game Wednesday in Tampa.
A painful sight
Very hard on the eyes: the sight of Ryan Murphy, Carolina’s top pick (No. 12 overall) in the June draft, getting crushed into the rear boards last weekend by Ice Dog Tom Kuhnhackl during a Kitchener-Niagara junior game. Reminiscent in a way of the despicable hit Randy Jones put on Patrice Bergeron in October 2007. Murphy was fumbling for the puck, head down, when the hard-charging Kuhnhackl barreled in on left wing and chopped him down, Raffi Torres-style, leaving the flashy defenseman concussed and possibly out of the lineup for weeks. Had Doug Hamilton not slipped to the No. 8 spot, the Bruins might have made Murphy their top pick in the draft. Murphy (5-11, 176) actually flashed enough skill in training camp to make the Hurricanes’ roster. But they opted to ship him back to junior, GM Jim Rutherford told the Toronto Star’s Damien Cox, to protect him from some of the NHL’s “bigger and stronger guys.’’ The German-born Kuhnhackl is a fourth-round Penguins pick and on Tuesday he was suspended 20 games for the hit on Murphy.
Ex-Bruin Michael Ryder, dormant his first month with the Stars, finally is showing pop, connecting for 1-4-5 in recent wins over Colorado and Carolina. His total shots for the two games: one. Then he squeezed off seven shots against the Capitals Tuesday and scored twice.
Hit the road
When the Bruins take on the embattled Blue Jackets at the Garden Thursday, it will be the end of their remarkable scheduling-advantage stretch, as they played 13 of their first 17 games on Causeway Street. Six of their next nine will be on the road, including a Dec. 6 visit to Winnipeg that will be their first stop to the CPE (coldest place on earth) since Dec. 31, 1995.
Tuesday night will provide the Hub’s first look at steady Devils rookie Adam Larsson, the first defenseman chosen (No. 4 overall) in June’s draft. He celebrated his 19th birthday yesterday and he’s already averaging 23:31 of ice time, placing him among the early candidates for the Calder. Last Devil chosen Rookie of the Year: Scott Gomez in 2000 . . . First-time marathoner Mark Messier, the 50-year-old former Ranger captain, blitzed through the 26-plus miles of the New York Marathon last week in an impressive 4:14:21. Upon crossing the finish line, Moose sought comfort in a wheelchair and needed his fluids topped off . . . Another ex-Ranger, Phoenix GM Don Maloney, says he has no intention of trading free agent holdout Kyle Turris, who wants upward of $4 million a year after piling up a paltry 46 points in 131 career games. Meanwhile, no one is waving an offer sheet, and Turris has until Dec. 1 to ink a deal with the Coyotes or sit out the season . . . Just thinking, but wouldn’t Rick Middleton be an interesting addition to the Boston coaching staff, you know, as a guy who once knew what the heck to do with a power play . . . You know you are in Canada when, while hotfooting through the downtown mall for the shortcut to the Air Canada Center, “Out of the Blue’’ by homeboy rocker Neil Young, is still blaring on a restaurant’s PA system at 9:30 a.m. The Southern (Ontario) Man turned 66 yesterday, and may be considering a new album, “After the Black and Gold Rush.’’
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.