Monday, January 30, 2006

Fun Weekend, but not for the slumping Sharks

Had a great weekend, despite the fact that the Sharks managed to drop another game to a Pacific-division opponent. Completely folded up the tent in a 6-2 loss to Phoenix. Nabokov was pulled after the first two goals. The question is, did the Sharks pull him because his groin is still less than 100%, or is Nabby falling out of favor? Nabokov said that he felt fine, and felt he was seeing the puck ok. Remember, I posited not so long ago that the Sharks could trade Nabokov for a blueliner. Unless the Sharks know something I don't, I beseech them to do something fast, if they in fact have playoff aspirations. If we manage to lose to Dallas tonight, then get spanked by the Ducks again on February 1 and 4, we'll be pretty well screwed. And that's not just me being pessimistic- the Sharks are bad on the road (9-14-2) and just got shut out by the Ducks last week.

Tonight the Sharks are at Dallas (1-2 this season), in another critical game. I hope the Sharks actually play with some urgency this time.

By the way, found out today I share the same birthday as the current Senior Vice President and Director of Hockey Operations for the NHL as well as both Joey Fatone and Nick Carter. Not really something to brag about.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Video Clips of Great Goals

Maybe I'm behind the times a bit here, but I just discovered People can upload video clips, and you can just do a keyword search to find interesting stuff. Everything from home videos to SNL skits to movie previews. I decided I'd search and amass some great goals that I remember, in no particular order:

I wish they had Stevie Y's 1996 blue-line slap shot against the Blues in double OT to win it, but I can't find it. Drop me a line if you have the video.

Hockey and Steroids

Time to weigh in on the whole steriods thing, and I'll mention the Bryan Berard case specifically at the end. First off, a quote from Terry Frei in ESPN:

No way. Not in this sport.

For one thing, taking to the ice with a juiced-up body isn't a significant advantage -- or any advantage at all -- for the most part, and it even can be counterproductive, given the strain skating puts on the muscles.

I hope this is a joke, but reading the rest of the article, it's clear it's meant seriously. Now I ain't no doctor (but I'm married to a nurse) but even this feeble engineer's brain can contemplate that PEDs (performance enhancing drugs) can be advantageous in hockey. Take me, for example. I'm a skinny bastard, about 5-11, 155 lbs. If I dedicated my life to hockey, and depended on it for my living, and I needed to gain 25 pounds, PEDs could help me do that with a lot less effort than going to Gold's for 4 hours a day. Would I be "juiced up"? Certainly. Would I look like Lou Ferrigno? No. I'm sure I could 'roid it up until I was 240, but that wouldn't help me play hockey much, would it? I hope Mr. Frei isn't implying that once you take steriods, you suddenly turn into some muscle-laden meathead. Steroids help you gain muscle when you work out. Change the workout, change the results.

I had to search around the web for about 45 seconds before I found Ryan Franklin. Franklin was suspended by Major League Baseball for steroid use, and is 6-3, 190 lbs. That's not real big, but can anyone argue that 6-3, 190 is worse than 6-3, 180 if you play a pro sport?

On to Bryan Berard. He tested positive, but as the AP story says:
The test the 28-year-old Berard failed wasn't part of the NHL's new testing program that began Sunday, so he will not be subject to league discipline.
To me this makes sense, done deal. You can't just apply rules after the fact.

It's hard for me to work up righteous indignation about the steriods thing, regardless of the sport. I think the basis behind all the uproar is some delusional idea that sports (especially baseball) stay constant over time, only the players change. Maybe it works a little bit for baseball, but other sports it's pretty ridiculous. No NFL lineman in the 1960's would even get a tryout today- they're all too small. You can be a 6-9 point guard in the NBA. Let's face it, the players today are better, more prepared, than players of eons past. Trancendental talent can transcend time, but in general, players are just better.

And part of being better is having more tools and knowledge of training. Like it or not, that includes steriods. It's these guys' very livelihood to be better, faster, stronger, than the other guy. There will always be someone willing to sacrifice long-term health for short-term success. I have very little faith that the cutting-edge testing methods will outpace cutting-edge chemicals. There's just too much money in the chemicals.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Pacific vs. other divisions

Tom Benjamin has a great post about the records of the different divisions and conferences on his blog. Funny, I was thinking the same thing a couple of days ago when I was examining the standings. Tom does things in his posting like compile the overall record of each division, and the number of points amassed on average per game.

I did one other calculation, which only further confirms what Tom has said, with a little wrinkle. I generated the standard deviation of each division, which indicates the amount that data is spread in a sample. In simple terms, it tells you how far apart the rich and poor are. Not only does the Northwest have the highest average point total, it also has the lowest standard deviation, which means that all the teams are good, and close to each other.

  • Northwest: 58.6 AVG, 4.15 STD
  • Northeast: 56.4 AVG, 9.6 STD
  • Pacific: 56.6 AVG, 7.3 STD
  • Atlantic: 52.8, 14.5 STD
  • Southeast: 52.6, 12.3 STD
  • Midwest: 48.4, 18.2 STD
The Pacific, while having roughly the same average points as the Northeast, have a lower standard deviation. I would argue that this makes the Pacific a tougher division than the Northeast. The Sharks have to play the same teams on average that the Northeast does, but the worst teams are better. The Sharks don't have a Toronto or Montreal playing badly right now (despite Jan Bulis' 4 goals last night). All the teams in the Pacific are tough, and all have 50 points or more. Since the schedule is very division-heavy, this is an important factor; each team plays all the other teams in the division 8 times each during the regular season.

This sheds some new light on Detroit and Nashville, currently tied with 68 points, leading the West. The other three teams in the Midwest are Chicago, Columbus, and St. Louis, 3 of the 4 worst teams in the NHL. Detroit is 13-1 against these teams so far this season! Since Detroit and Nashville have the luxury of playing these bad teams 24 times during the season, it's little wonder why their records are so good. It's not their fault they have to play against bad teams, but it might be a harbinger of an early-round upset in the playoffs. Maybe a 1994-esque upset for the Sharks?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Sharks Own the Kings, and Power Play Stats Fun

Sharks won again last night against the Kings, 4-1. The Kings have only won one of the last 11 games versus the Sharks, we OWN 'em. The Sharks scored twice on the power play, which sounds good, but it was out of 11 chances, a 18.2% rate. Interesting notes:

  • Right now the Sharks have the median power play, 16th out of 30 teams, converting at 17.5%.
  • They are still below average, the average power play conversion rate is 17.56%.
  • Don't like statistics? Too bad.
  • The standard deviation of PP% is 2.71, which means that Detroit (25%) is 2.75 standard deviations above the mean.
  • Chicago has the worst PP% at 12.9%, but are only 1.71 STD below the mean.
What does this all mean (haha)? That's the Sharks' power play is decidedly mediocre. And that Detroit's power play is 'more good' than Chicago's is bad, and that's saying a lot.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Mario Lemieux

Mario Lemieux announced his retirement today. He had an injury-plagued career for the Pittsburg Penguins, but still managed to tally 690 goals in only 915 NHL games. He won Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992, and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1997, after his 1st retirement, when he had Hodgkin's disease.

He was a hell of a deceptive player, possessing huge size and reach, and I can't recall seeing him ever skate super-hard. Not that that is a dig- he had a mesmerizing flow to his game, and perhaps the best hands of any big man in NHL history.

So the question that Barry Melrose and Darren Pang answered today on Sportscenter is, where does he rank? Is he better than Gretzky?

It ain't even close. Gretzky is clearly better. He had a longer career, more points, more records, more trophys, more Cups. Gretz had 10 Hart trophies (MVP). Mario had 2. The one argument I heard when Mario retired the first time is that Mario averaged more points per game than Gretzky- 2.00 (1494 points in 745 games), which was unprecedented in the NHL. But Mario at that point did not suffer the inevitable trailoff that players do when they get into their mid 30s. Those stats are 1984 through 1997- 12 seasons. Let's look at Gretzky's first 12 seasons in the NHL- 1979 through 1992. That's 2142 points in 925 games, for a 2.31 points per game average. Still think there's an argument here? Gretzky had a longer career, and a longer and higher peak.

The real question is where Mario ranks in the annals of the all time greats. To make a baseball analogy, it's a Sandy Koufax problem. What do you do with a guy who didn't have longevity, but a short-lived brilliance? In my mind, peak production counts, but so does longevity. There's also the inevitable stickiness of comparing players in different eras. How do you compare Lemieux with Howe or Richard? Richard had more points. The best thing about sports is arguing about stuff, so here's my top 5 skaters in order:

  1. Wayne Gretzky. No comparison. I don't know if there's every been a player in a major sport that's been more dominant during his career than Wayne.
  2. Gordie Howe. 25 years in the NHL counts for something, along with being #2 in all time goals. More points, trophies, and Cups than Lemieux. And I don't count that whole "played in 12 different decades" farce he conducted in the 70's, 80's and 90's.
  3. Bobby Orr. Indisputably the best defensemen of all time, and revolutionized the defensive position. Suprisingly, he played in fewer games than Mario, but still won more Harts, along with 8 straight Norris trophies (best defenseman).
  4. Mario Lemieux. Tough one between him and Orr. Managed to win 2 Hart trophies even though he played in the Gretzky era.
  5. Maurice "The Rocket" Richard. First 50 goal scorer, and in a time where scoring 40 was amazing.
Comments are enabled, so let the flames begin.

What's a few months between friends?

Ok, so I've been terribly derelict in my blogging duties. It's certainly not attributable to my lack of hockey fandom, as I've watched more games this season than any other. Since we are at about the halfway point of the season (Sharks are 3 games past at the time of this writing), let me give my Sharks roundup for the first half:

There's no doubt in my mind that the Thornton trade made the Sharks a helluva lot better, and quickly. The line was until recently Thornton, Cheechoo, and Ekman, and whenever they've been on the ice, they've pretty well dictated play. Cheechoo has since been moved (demoted?) to the Marleau line, but I think he'll be back. And while I think that Marleau has the ability to be a first-line center, matching up against the opponents' best defensive pair rendered him not completely useless, but certainly mediocre. Marleau centering the second line provides the Sharks with maybe the best 1-2 center combination in the league. Although admittedly Alyn McAuley had a career year last year, he seems largely ineffective this year, and would be my biggest offensive disappointment. I didn't get to see him play much in Toronto, and perhaps he's just assumed his old form. Mark Smith's grittiness and good wrist shot has been a nice surprise.

Clearly the weakest aspect of the Sharks right now. Tom Preissing, who has the best +/- on the team (+12) is back, but has been out recently with injury. Scott Hannan was near the bottom of the league in +/- for the first quarter of the season, but is now at a more reasonable level (-3). The Sharks miss Mike Rathje more than they thought they would, and trading Brad Stuart didn't help. The defensive corps is just too inexperienced in my view to lead the Sharks deep in the playoffs, and maybe to the playoffs at all. Ehrhoff, Fahey, Gorges, Murray, and Preissing all have 100 games or less of NHL experience. Davison has only 110 games. Scott Hannan and Kyle McLaren, while probably top-4 defensemen on nearly any NHL team, are not enough.

Special Teams:
The power play was the worst aspect of the Sharks' game early in the season, and the most positively affected by the Thornton trade. Putting Marleau at the point on the power play has also helped. The Sharks were in the last 3 or 4 teams in the entire NHL for PP% in November, and now they are middle of the pack. The last few games the Sharks have taken too many penalties, which completely cost them one game (Phoenix) and almost another (LA). Giving up 5-on-3 advantages for one minute or more is bad news when your kill is in the bottom half of the league.

Traditionally one of the Sharks' biggest strengths, but injuries have hurt. Both Nabokov and Toskala missed quite a big of time, but we got to see Nolan Schaefer step up in late October (5-1, 1.88 GAA). Both Nabby and Toskala have been a little shaky, but they've both turned in good quality starts in January. I'm not concerned.

Looking Forward:
The Sharks might make the playoffs with their current roster, but given the quality of the West right now, it'll be a tough battle. They've been bad against division opponents, and continuing this trend will certainly eliminate a lot of hope in January; they play 4 more division games, and 4 in February. Unless they are much better than .500 in those 8 games, they'll be pretty much out of the playoff picture by the Olympic break. Since Nabby will be an unrestricted free agent next year, and both Schaefer and Dmitri Patzhold are playing well in the minors, look for the Sharks to deal him for a good stay-at-home defensemen in the next month. Names I've seen so far are Brendan Witt, Martin Skoula, and Eric Weinrich. Since Skoula is on the Stars now, and Turco is playing so well, I'm pretty sure that won't happen. Doug Wilson will not make the "Kipper to Calgary for a bag of pucks" mistake again. I'm hoping the Sharks don't trade a quality goalie like Nabokov for a solid defenseman in the twilight of his career, like Brian Leetch or Sergei Gonchar.