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Overreactions: All-American Prospects Game

027_WEB_Prospects20140925_mediumThursday’s All-American Prospects game at First Niagara Center was nice. It wasn’t great, but it was nice.

The third edition of USA Hockey’s showcase of draft eligible prospects, held in Buffalo for the second time after an affair in Pittsburgh, ended with Team Grier (led by the Sabres legend) defeating Team Olczyk (led by noted horse racing fanatic) by a score of 6-3.

But a couple big name coaches weren’t the story. The story was Jack Eichel, the hotshot prospect who’s going to be the not-so-terrible consolation prize in the Connor McDavid sweepstakes next April.

Eichel, the Boston University freshman who is a sure-fire top-2 pick in next summer’s NHL Draft, was conspicuous throughout the night. Tallying one goal and one assist, the eyes were clearly on him, and not just because he’s a dead ringer for Lindsey Buckingham, notably of Fleetwood Mac.

No, Eichel was the main attraction on the night, and he didn’t disappoint. He was dynamic with the puck, showing great poise and vision, setting up Jeremy Bracco for an early goal, and then a fine finish late in the third to win him the MVP. He’s going to be a fantastic NHL player, and if the Sabres do their job and finish dead last this season, it’ll be alright if it’s not their logo getting pulled out of that envelope belonging to the #1 overall pick.

Some thoughts:

  • It’s great that the Sabres have gotten this event going and will be hosting again next year. Before then, they really need to re-evaluate how they market it. With 16,000 season ticket holders getting free tickets, more being given away and likely tepid individual sales, they announced just over 7,000. I doubt there was that many in the house, and the lower bowl looked so bad that 300 Level ushers were telling fans to move down to the 100 Level. It’s a cool event that should be really interesting. They just don’t seem to know what to do with it.
  • One way to engage fans more? Get the players’ junior/college teams involved. Get some awareness for the junior system in the United States. Build the context for the depth of the American game. If you beat people over the head with the fact that Eichel is playing at Boston University or that other top prospect Noah Hanifin is at Boston College, maybe people will make a point to tune in if they’re on television. Build the demand. Even if you’re the Buffalo Sabres, you’re better off if people give a shit about hockey.
  • Biggest improvement from the 2012 game to the 2014 game? Uniforms. Game looked clean, players seemed easier to identify than last time. Minor thing, but I noticed it.
  • Hanifin is going to be a rock for whatever team that drafts him. Hopefully the Sabres are done and have their guy by the time he’s getting picked, but with some guys, you can just tell. He’s gonna be good.
  • It’s really hard to get a good read on players in an event like this. The best stand out. Some guys can surprise. But I’m not gonna act like I know a player’s game from how they look in an all-star event. Gotta see them at the club level.

That’s about it. Gonna have to see when BU will be on television this season.

Instigator Podcast #22: Back In Business (Jan 8, 2013)

You know, you figure since they decided to end the lockout, I figured it was time Chris Ostrander of Two In the Box and myself did another podcast.

In a brand new season premiere of the Instigator (new intro and everything!) we talk about the end of the lockout, where we go from here, the superpower that is USA Hockey, Canada being Canada, and we play Plus/Minus.

We take suggestions. Leave us a note here or on twitter, @3rdManIn or @2ITB_Buffalo.

Blown Opportunity: NHL leaves Atlanta

You’d never know it by the majority of media coverage, but today is a dark day for American hockey.

There will be a press conference at 12 ET today to announce that the Atlanta Thrashers will be moving to Winnipeg, Manitoba for next season. True North Sports & Entertainment, after failing to purchase the Phoenix Coyotes, will finally be in line to become an NHL ownership group.

Great for the people of Winnipeg, horrible for the game of hockey, especially in the United States.

Atlanta Spirit Group, the Thrashers’ current owners and also owners of Philips Arena and the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, are finally dumping their hockey team after repeated tries. ASG has alienated hockey fans in Atlanta and the players as well in doing so.

Former Sabre Chris Thorburn on the situation:

“It’s discouraging to know they’re not behind us. They’re trying to dump us,” he said. “That makes a guy mad.”

Thorburn also criticized NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who has not [visited] Atlanta while rumors of the sale of Thrashers to Winnipeg’s True North Sports have swirled. “You’d like to see the guy at the head of the league present. So it’s kind of discouraging,” Thorburn said.

The 27-year-old Thorburn has spent the past four seasons with the Atlanta Thrashers. “We’ve made Atlanta home,” he said of his wife and child.

“Atlanta’s a great hockey town. There’s no reason to not stay here,” Thorburn said. “You just don’t want to pick up and leave for the wrong reasons.”

The NHL will gain zero new fans by moving to Manitoba. Instead of focusing on growing a huge, exploding market, they’re sending a franchise to a small city that doesn’t have an NHL-calibre arena.

In an analogy, the NHL is walking into a club and picking up a drunk slampig instead of hitting on the hot girl at the bar. You want a sure thing? There’s your ugly Winnipeg. You gonna try to do better? Atlanta might not put out the first night, but it’s worth an effort. The Atlanta Spirit Group has gone after their Atlanta with no game, so it’s no wonder they haven’t pulled in fans. The team has never won a playoff game. How do you expect to survive sending a bunch of losers out every year? What city (other than Toronto) would that ever fly in?

No franchise has a chance in hell at establishing itself in a market when the team doesn’t perform on the ice and the management doesn’t try. ASG has been trying to sell the team for five years. Do you really expect them to worry about growing the fan base while they’re trying to unload? By all accounts, ASG has done everything it could to salt the earth towards hockey in Atlanta. They’re selling to TNSE simply to recoup as much of their investment as they can. It’s a business move for them, something that’s happening easier because they were able to alienate a lot of people who might’ve cared about the team.

Attendance wasn’t that bad. For being the 25th best team in the league in 2010-11, they were 28th in attendance, averaging 13,469. The season they won the Southeast divison, they averaged 16,240 in 2006-07. It took a hit the following season, but the 15,831 they average in 2007-08 was fairly good considering they finished 14th in the East. They’ve averaged over 15,000 for five of the ten seasons since their expansion year, which is fairly good for finishing in the bottom half of the league for nine of them.

But fans will show up in Winnipeg, right? Read the rest of this entry

Closing thoughts on Vancouver 2010

The past two weeks have been an absolute treat for hockey fans.

Leading up to the 2010 Winter Olympics, much hype was given to the hockey tournament, and sure enough, it may have even surpassed the hype. Great hockey available on almost a nightly basis. Unless you have NHL Center Ice, odds are you’re lucky to see one game a night. Getting three games a day, night after night, made it wonderful to be a hockey fan.

Buffalo Sabres fans were able to watch our superstar become the nation’s superstar. Ryan Miller established himself as the best goalie in the world right now to the hockey world and the casual viewing public. Miller was named MVP of the tournament, as well as best goaltender, as well as being placed on the all-tournament team. Not too shabby of a performance out of the man.

In the end, the pre-tournament favorite ended up claiming the gold, but in far from the manner that most expected. I’m sure anyone who would’ve claimed Canada would end up as the 6-seed after the prelims would’ve been laughed at. But they did, and in spite of it, they won the games they needed to win.

Here are some parting shots in regards to the Winter Olympiad:

  • 27.6 million Americans watched the gold medal game. Sucks the US didn’t win, but that’s an overall win for hockey. For what it’s worth, 16.6 million Canadians watched the game, the biggest audience for any telecast in Canadian history. Amazing.
  • I’m not very shocked that Russia fell apart like they did. Looking at the lineup, you saw a lot of guys who were known for offensive prowess much more than they were for defensive responsibility and/or grit. That showed. Teams that had talent and work ethic beat them. The blowout loss to Canada should’ve been seen from a mile away.
  • Big ups to the Slovaks for coming to play. They were very underrated coming in, and they showed more heart than most teams. When you play with heart, the effect of talent grows exponentially. A solid defensive core led by Zdeno Chara and Lubomir Visnovsky gave Jaroslav Halak a chance to be a key player in goal. That supporting cast was the difference between teams like Slovakia and Switzerland. Hiller may have been the second best goalie in the tournament, but a lack of a cast got them nowhere.
  • I love Doc Emrick. He was phenomenal calling games the whole tournament. Emrick is the best in the business.
  • If Lindy scratches Andrej Sekera at all the rest of the season, he’s a moron.
  • It was very refreshing to open-heartedly fall in love with Chris Drury again. I would’ve liked to have seen him on the ice a bit more in the gold medal game. His spot on the team was merited, and he proved it on the ice. He came up big when needed… just like Chris Drury always does.
  • Best name of the games: Mats Zuccarello Aasen. Runner up goes to Tore Vikingstad.
  • Toni Lydman did take home some hardware, and good for him. Finland claimed the bronze medal with a 5-3 comeback win over Slovakia. Good way to rebound after getting crushed by the US the day before.
  • Sweden never looked like a legit contender for gold throughout the tournament. A very disappointing finish for the defending champions. I really wanted Hank Tallinder to come home with a medal.

All in all, a fun two weeks to be a hockey fan. It remains to be seen whether or not the NHL takes a break in 2014 for the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. It would definitely require a longer break than these games did, so it may have to be considered that the NHL allows players to go without completely shutting down. I know it would be controversial for teams to play without their stars, but I don’t see it being feasible to stop the league for three weeks without shortening the schedule.

Either way, I don’t know if those Olympics could possibly live up to the standard set by Vancouver.

It’s obvious now. Team USA is built for gold.

Yeah, I know. Long layoff since the last post. That Columbus trip took a lot out of us.

Anyways…

With this afternoon’s 2-0 quarterfinal victory over perrenial hockey superpower Switzerland, the United States will be playing for a medal this weekend.

Backed by Sabres star and all-around superhunk Ryan Miller, the US has soundly defeated their opponents in all four outings thus far in Vancouver.

And surprisingly, to many in the hockey world at least, the United States is in great position to win the gold medal in this tournament. One of the two favorites coming in, Canada or Russia, won’t even make it past the quarters. Except for maybe Sweden, every team other than the US has looked suspect at some point since the games began. But the US has looked underwhelmingly solid so far, and the results seem to back up the notion that it could be their tournament to lose.

While some have poked holes in USA’s game, whether it be their inability to get through Swiss goalie Jonas Hiller for the first two periods of this afternoon’s effort, or getting outshot by Canada, the team has found a way to win with gritty performances and near-perfect goaltending.

The boys in red, white and blue aren’t the kind of team that can dangle around everyone and wow with skill. They have enough skill to get by, but more than make up for it with effort and grit.

In games against Switzerland and Norway, they were able to match their opponents’ effort and beat them with their skill. In the Canada game, it was the other way around, using their skill to match the Canadians, but using their hard work to grind out a win. None of the top teams in this tournament seem to be laying down and selling out their bodies like the US.

The special teams has been solid, with the powerplay unit finding ways to score, and the penalty kill unit doing everything needed to keep the puck away from the net. The Chris Drury-Ryan Callahan combo up front on the PK, as well as guys like Jamie Langenbrunner and Ryan Kesler, have been spectacular in limiting scoring opportunities. Even when they make a mistake, the defense has stepped up.

It’s a very strong team, and they’re playing well enough that Ryan Miller doesn’t have to steal games himself. It’s a team that’s built to win this tournament. And at this moment, they’ve got to be the front runner.

So suck on that, Canada!

Don’t count out Team USA in Vancouver

The Winter Olympics are just a few short weeks away. It’s now time to dream about Team USA winning a gold medal.

Imagine how satisfying it would be to beat those annoying Canadians at their own game, on their own soil, twice in less than two months.

Now, from an outsider’s perspective, it would seem as if the Americans are a long shot to even medal at the upcoming games in Vancouver. Under the guidance of general manager Brian Burke and head coach Ron Wilson, who put together a new younger roster, I feel there’s plenty of reason to believe there’s chance for a medal, and yes, even gold.

So, the Americans don’t have a star-studded lineup like the Canadians, Swedes or Russians, but they do have plenty of guys with skill and that work hard to give it all on every shift of every game. It’s not to say guys like Mike Modano, Keith Tkachuk and Doug Weight didn’t care, but it was time to get younger and add some new faces on the squad.

We’ll start with the goalies. Ryan Miller appears to be the guy for the Americans, with Boston’s Tim Thomas, last year’s Vezina trophy winner, and LA’s Jonathon Quick as his backups. As Sabres fans, we all know what Ryan Miller is capable of. When he’s on his game, he’s nearly impossible to beat with a clean shot. In a tournament like this, if he can get hot, he could carry the team by himself. Thomas has struggled this year compared to last year, but he’s also proven capable of getting hot and carrying a team as well. Quick is a young up-and-coming goalie from the Los Angeles Kings who isn’t likely to see much game action.

On defense, the US will have a nice combination of puck moving players that can skate and some nasty, clear-the-crease type guys. However, one of USA’s top defenders, Paul Martin of the New Jersey Devils, is hurt and may not be able to play. Brian Rafalski, Ryan Suter, and Erik Johnson are guys that can skate the puck out of trouble and bring a little something to the score sheet. Amherst-native Brooks Orpik, Jack Johnson and Mike Komisarek bring the nastiness and will be making sure nobody is in the blue paint of Ryan Miller.

At forward, the Americans are built much like the Burke-led Anaheim Ducks, who won  the Stanley Cup in 2007, and that’s with skill, grit and heart.  The skill comes in the form of guys like Zach Parise of the Devils, Buffalo-native Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, Paul Stastny, Bobby Ryan and Joe Pavelski. After that comes the guys that will go in and do the “dirty work” as Brian Burke would say. Leading the way will be captain Jamie Langenbrunner, Chris Drury, Ryan Callahan, Ryan Malone, Ryan Kesler, Dustin Brown and David Backes, who since being named to Team USA has fought three members of team Canada.

Again, as I said earlier, they don’t have a Crosby, Nash, Ovechkin, Kovalchuk, or even a Zetterberg, like the favorites in the tournament, but that doesn’t mean they have no chance. They come equipped with a good goalie, a group of forwards that can score, forecheck hard, and do the little things that are needed to win. The defense is wiling to skate and lead the rush and battle in front of the net to make sure there’s no loose puck around the net.

Give this team a chance, because you and the rest of the hockey world may be very surprised.

Now boarding: Flight 2010… Buffalo to Vancouver

Captain AmericaAs the 2008 IIHF World Championships come down to the wire, one of the relatively major stories of the tournament was Jason Pominville deciding to play for the US.

While this post will not talk about how awesome Jason Pominville is for choosing to call himself American, (that will be covered in a later post) it will be discussed because there is talk that it was motivated by a potential opportunity to play in the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Should Pominville put up numbers like he did last season again next season, there will be no doubt that he will be included on the US roster for the Games.

Odds are, he will not be alone on the flight to Vancouver. Here are some candidates for their national teams:

Read the rest of this entry

US done at World Championships

Drew StaffordGoing into last night’s match with Finland, the United States had never beaten the Finns in an elimination game at the World Championships or Olympics. Never.

The game changed nothing.

Trailing 2-0 late in the 3rd period, the US rallied to tie it on goals by Phil Kessel and our boy Drew Stafford.

It’s a really disappointing end for the US team, which seemed to struggle with goaltending throughout the tournament. Whether that’s due to the fact that the three goalies were Tim Thomas, Craig Anderson and Robert frickin’ Esche remains to be seen.

I think it’d be safe to say that Ryan Miller or Rick DiPietro may have been of assistance this year.
Read the rest of this entry

WJC 2011: Make it happen, Buffalo

The City of No IllusionsIn recent history, Buffalo has hosted some relatively large sporting events.

It’s been the site of early round games of the NCAA Basketball tournament on multiple occasions. There are minor hockey tournaments held in the area every year.

Back in 2004, the Queen City played host to the NCAA Frozen Four. Buffalo fans were able to catch a glimpse of Thomas Vanek before he became the all-star player he is.

Every time Buffalo came out with glowing reviews and an economic shot-in-the-arm. That’s never bad for a city that has image problems, both from outsiders and the residents.

There’s another opportunity out there that can do nothing but help Buffalo. In 2007, the IIHF awarded the United States the opportunity to host a few upcoming tournaments, including the 2011 U20 World Championships, commonly known as the World Juniors. Now, USA Hockey is accepting bids from potential host cities.

USA Hockey expects to announce the host for the 2011 IIHF World Under-20 Championship in late December. Bid proposals for the event are due to the USA Hockey national office by August 1.

This is too good an opportunity to pass up.

Read the rest of this entry

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