By Matt Blittner, The New York Extra/TheNYExtra.com
Welcome to another edition of Blittner’s Blue Line; if you’ve made it this far, I thank you. And if you’ve made it through the non-stop hockey news of the past week, good for you, because more’s on the way.
When the NHL released its 2021-22 regular-season schedule last Thursday, it did so with a multi-week break planned for the middle of February so its players can participate in the Olympics — depending on whether or not a formal deal gets struck with the IOC and the IIHF.
Well, the deadline for a deal is rapidly drawing nearer; some say it’s less than a week away. And on the heels of Frank Seravalli’s Monday afternoon report that Pittsburgh’s Mike Sullivan will be the Star Spangled Team’s Head Coach, it got me thinking about what the right decision is.
Should the NHL shut down for a few weeks so the players can go? Or should the NHL say nuts to what the players want and barrel full steam ahead with an uninterrupted season?
I’m not questioning whether Sullivan should be Team USA’s Head Coach. He more than deserves the honor.
Instead, I’m questioning why and if the players should be going. I’ll admit it — not that I was hiding anything — I wasn’t born when Team USA delivered one of the greatest sports moments in history by upsetting Team Russia in the 1980 Lake Placid games with just a ragtag group of amateurs.
In fact, outside of the 2018 Olympics, there hasn’t been a Winter Olympics in my lifetime that I was conscious of — I was one-year-old during the 1994 games — in which the NHL didn’t send its players to the grandest stage of International competition.
In the five Winter Olympics the NHL has had its players participate in, the Gold Medal teams have been as follows: Team Czech (1998); Team Canada (2002); Team Sweden (2006); Team Canada (2010) and Team Canada (2014).
The 2010 and 2014 games were particularly exciting for NHL fans. In 2010 you had Sidney Crosby deliver “The Golden Goal” in overtime against Team USA to win the Gold Medal. And in 2014, nobody will ever forget the rematch, 34-years in the making, between Team USA and Team Russia during pool play.
The Americans and Russians were knotted 2-2 when the game came down to the shootout. With Sergei Bobrovsky in net for Team Russia, USA head Coach Dan Bylsma decided to put his faith in then 27-year-old winger T.J. Oshie.
Oshie shot six times in the shootout, scoring a quartet of goals; including one in the eighth-round to win the game and give fans a memory that will last forever. Exciting stuff!
There’s no denying the mass appeal of the Olympics. That much is obvious. But what happens if a star player gets injured and then can’t help his team during its quest for Lord Stanley’s Cup? The Olympics are played once every four-years. A chance to hoist The Stanley Cup can be once in a lifetime. In that case, silver should beat gold.
And yet, you’d be hard pressed to find an NHL player who wouldn’t jump at the chance to represent his country at the Olympics. Sidney Crosby has often talked about how winning the Stanley Cup and winning a Gold Medal are the two top moments of his career.
Again, there’s no denying the excitement the games bring. And the sheer number of eyeballs it brings to the game of hockey is a wonderful thing as well. If that’s all true, then why would the NHL’s power-brokers fight so hard against going?
Well, it goes back to the injury issue, as well as to insurance, finances, etc. Basically, it’s a money problem. In this argument, green trumps gold.
After speaking with a quartet of hockey people, the answer to should they or shouldn’t they remains unresolved.
Howard Baldwin, who once sat on the NHL’s Board of Governors during his time as the Owner of the Hartford Whalers, told Blittner’s Blue Line that his opinion on the subject depended on what hat he was wearing. As a member of the Board of Governors, he was firmly against the players going. And his reason was two-fold.
One, the injuries/insurance/financial issues were ones that carried too much risk and not enough reward. Two, the logistics of stopping the season for a few weeks are not good. Too many teams can lose momentum. Baldwin and I also mused about whether or not winning a Gold Medal means as much to the players today as it did in the past? (Just some food for thought).
A different opinion was presented by Howard Dolgon, the current Owner of the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch franchise. Dolgon insisted he has mixed feelings on the subject as he can see the argument from both sides. And as an Owner, it was interesting that Dolgon noted how he would not want to be the one who stood in the way of his players getting to represent their respective countries at the Olympics. Although, he would be concerned about the risk of injuries to star players that could derail a team’s season.
Meanwhile, Doug MacLean, who has served as a Head Coach, a General Manager and as a Team President in the NHL, offered that players and coaches want to go. They dream of going. It’s a huge honor to be selected. He was steadfast that players want to go and that Owners indeed do too. The only thing holding the Owners back from giving their full support are the issues with injury/insurance/finances. The Owners do see the Olympics as a way to grow the game. It’s really just an issue of risk vs. reward.
Blittner’s Blue Line was able to poll one other person and that’s current Florida Panthers Color Analyst, Randy Moller. Moller, a former player, actually didn’t have strong feelings one way or the other, but he did offer that he felt playing in the games and competing for medals were more important to the European players. And that goes back to how ingrained the Olympics are in Europe’s history. However, Moller did allow that after the 2010 games in Vancouver, he felt the significance of playing in the Olympics increased among the North American players.
So, here we are, we’ve spoken to four highly regarded hockey people and still no definitive answer exists as to whether or not NHL players should go to the Olympics in February 2022. The decision will ultimately come down to whether or not the NHL gets what it wants from the IOC and the IIHF in regards to several of its demands.
When the sides finally come to a decision, it is highly likely the NHL’s players will be going to Beijing. Whether that’s the right decision or not remains to be seen. Either way, the ultimate winners will be the fans, who will get to watch some exciting hockey no matter what.
METRO DRAFT GRADES
With the NHL’s Annual Entry Draft now behind us, Blittner’s Blue Line decided to bring in an expert to determine how the Islanders and Rangers graded out.
Steve Kournianos (@TheDraftAnalyst) plys his craft for TheDraftAnalyst.com and spent some time with BBL to break down the Islanders and Rangers respective draft classes. Here’s some snippets of his thoughts on each prospect.
Let’s start with the Isles:
SK on center Aatu Raty: “Raty was supposed to be a potential top-five pick. In fact, a lot of us had him ranked number one overall, in the entire draft. He quickly kind of fell from grace and had a slow start to his season. But if you look at the Islanders themselves, as a franchise, as an organization, that farm system, they have holes. So I think getting a high-yield, high-ceiling type of player in Raty, it’s a home run.”
SK on goalie Tristan Lennox: “He was a highly regarded prospect for a couple of years. The OHL was a pretty wide league. So I think it kind of humbled him a little bit, because he was giving up a lot of goals. But he has games where he just kind of takes over and then nothing gets by him. I think Lennox really does have Number One potential in the NHL.”
SK on center Cameron Berg: “He already had gone through the process, I believe this was his second look at The Draft and he was probably told by an agent and by advisors that he needed to make adjustments. And I think he did. He was one of the top players in the league this year. Not only was he a scoring guy, but he was effective off the puck. He’s a quick kid. He plays with a lot of effort and energy.”
SK on left-wing Eetu Liukas: “He’s kind of like Matt Martin, where he’s a big guy, who’s kind of skilled, who’s got good hands. He can stickhandle. You’re probably not going to see any fancy or finesse moves on a regular basis though. He’s always played against older competition. He’s a very hard hitter, even from short distances. He’s got a long stick, decent skater and really good hands for a big guy.”
SK on defenseman Aleksi Malinen: “He played most of his season against men (in a higher league). He’s a smaller defenseman. He’s known for his speed. So when he showed up to that league, he was definitely out of place. I mean, he had a tough time adapting, but that transition period was pretty short. He went from being a nervous young defenseman to a more positive defenseman within a few weeks worth of games. I think that he’s got a really high ceiling.
SK on defenseman Tomas Machu: “He’s a big guy. He’s a big physical defender. He was in the Junior league in the Czech Republic and was one of the best defenseman in that league for like a month. So they promoted him to play in the adult age league. Once he got there, they kind of relied on him and he played a real key role on that team.”
Overall Islanders Draft Grade: B+.
Now for the Rangers:
SK on left-wing Brennan Othmann: “He’s a physical kid. But it’s not just that he’s physical. He brings a lot of energy. He’s a difference-maker on the ice off the puck. On the puck, he’s a very good puckhandler. He can finish. I would say he’s more of a finisher than he is a playmaker.”
SK on center Jayden Grubbe: “He’s a physical, in your face, aggressive, two-way center. More of a Playmaker than a goal-scorer. He can stickhandle. He’s the kind of guy who kills penalties and he hits hard.”
SK on center Ryder Korczak: “He’s a play-making center. He was considered first-round quality, because he was the top scoring rookie, I believe, in the WHL last year. So he was considered to be a potential late first-round pick for this draft. When he went back (after the COVID break), he didn’t produce as much, I guess, as he was expected to. So, his stock fell a little bit. But you’re still getting late first-round, early second-round quality.”
SK on right-wing Brody Lamb: “He’s a one man scoring machine. Now, the thing about the stats in Minnesota is he played, I think, in Class One-A. The quality of competition can be a joke sometimes. So, when you get players like Lamb, who are just so talented with the puck and they’re so creative, they can just kind of dictate the terms anytime they have the puck. The other thing about him that’s important is that he plays hard off the puck. He’s not just some finesse guy. He excels in tough battles.”
SK on left-wing Kalle Vaisanen: “He’s a shoot-first wing, good on the boards. He works hard. That’s the thing. So, even though his skating might not look pretty, he works hard and keeps his feet moving. That can be just as effective as being really fast in a straight line. But his shot’s great. His shot is an X-factor.”
SK on goalie Talyn Boyko: “Obviously his size is a big deal. He’s pretty coordinated. He had a couple of games where he faced a lot of shots. He did pretty well, showing that he could take on multiple chances in a row and be able to get back in his position and make the key saves to bail out his team.”
SK on right-wing Jaroslav Chmelar: “Kind of a two-way type. He doesn’t really have one specific skill with the puck. He’s more of a net front guy. He can make plays in tight. Pretty good hands for his size. His skating is between below-average to average, he’s not a good skater.”
SK on defenseman Hank Kempf: “He’s a defensive defenseman. Decent feet. Stay at home type. You’re looking at a guy who’s going to be a shot-blocker. He can skate. He’s sort of like a Hunter Skinner type.”
Overall Rangers Draft Grade: B+.
A usually unheralded part of the NHL off-season is which RFAs receive qualifying offers and which do not. The Islanders and Rangers each had several RFAs to make decisions on prior to Monday’s 5pm deadline and here’s the results.
The Islanders extended offers to: Anthony Beauvillier, Kieffer Bellows, Adam Pelech, Ilya Sorokin, Otto Koivula and Anatoly Golyshev.
They did not qualify Michael Dal Colle, Dmytro Timashov and Bobo Carpenter, making the trio unrestricted free agents.
Meanwhile, the Rangers extended offers to: Filip Chytil, Tim Gettinger, Ty Ronning, Libor Hájek, Igor Shesterkin and Adam Huska.
That left Gabriel Fontaine, Patrick Newell, Brandon Crawley and Yegor Rykov out in the cold and looking for new teams.