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Sochi Ahead
Olympic and other thoughts
1/15/14 - By Ken Smyth -

Never mind that the Canadian and US Olympic team selection process includes all the aspects of reality TV except for crazy women and confession cameras. Never mind that a two week break in the middle of the season disrupts any momentum a team might have. We're still all going to watch even if we pretend we didn't. Here are some random thoughts on the Olympics and the Sharks.

"The Big Ice"-"How will he play on the big ice?" is a common phrase in discussing NHL players' probable performance in international play. The first-order theory is the wider (30m vs 26m) IIHF ice surface favors faster, more skilled players since they have more room out there.

Is this really the case? Take a look at the KHL top scorers, that's a league with the big ice. North Americans occupy the 4th and 5th spots in the scoring stats, they're Brandon Bochenski and Kyle Wilson, each running at a point a game or so. Not intending disrespect, but these guys were both AHL/NHL journeymen who bounced around a lot. You'd think that if they had NHL top-six skating ability they would be still in the NHL.

Former Shark Jonathan Cheechoo is playing second-line minutes and has 32 points in 43 games playing in the KHL with Zagreb (Croatia). Cheechoo wasn't a great skater before his knee problems and he's now 33 years old. Maybe speed isn't all THAT important, is it?

Admittedly, there's a strong case that the KHL is just crappier than the NHL, which is why Bochenski and Wilson get time off in late February. But it's got to be more than that. People are spaced further apart on the larger surface. Remember the old thing about "giving a player time and space". The bigger ice gives a player more space, and maybe a little more time to do something before he gets checked. There's a lot more ice away from the boards. It's harder to chase the puck down after a missed shot, so teams don't shoot unless they have a good chance. It can degenerate into a stale soccer match on skates. Think of a Sharks' or Canucks' power play moving the puck around endlessly without a shot.

Smaller NHL ice provides more hitting and potentially more action, but it easily devolves into slog and drag; like a Nashville home game. The free scoring of the 1980's and early 1990's vanished once coaches figured out that referees were reluctant to call interference, holding and hooking exactly by the book.

The top-level skilled players adjust and succeed wherever they are. The wider surface opens things up for guys with puck sense and good hands. Joe Thornton, for example, played with success in Switzerland during lockouts, and looked good as a third-line center on Canada's gold medal team in Vancouver. But a grinder whose main contribution is pushing people into the boards and digging pucks out of corners will find it tough.

Logan Couture- World junior, now Olympics. Logan Couture's streak of being left off national teams continues. Possibly his injury really was known and the Team Canada brains figured he wasn't going to be ready to compete. But doesn't it look like Couture is on the crap list of some Hockey Canada big shot for something that won't EVER be forgotten? Don't laugh.

In 2005, as a 16 year-old entering major junior hockey, Couture was to be the favorite of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) Priority draft and was promised by the Oshawa Generals that he'd be taken with their #1 pick. But when the OHL gave John Tavares (then 14 years old) "exceptional player status", a few days before the draft, the Generals pulled the offer and announced they were taking Tavares instead. Supposedly Couture or his family put out a letter hours before the draft stating he would not play in the OHL for any team and was looking at the NCAA. Many in Canada were calling him a crybaby based on this story.

The Ottawa 67's took Couture with the 12th pick, and he did sign with the 67's a few weeks after the draft. Even though Couture's Ottawa career was interrupted by injuries, he played well and eventually became captain. But that junior draft, the World Junior snub, his later fall to #9 in the 2007 NHL draft and now the Olympics suggest that somebody is still pissed. Major Junior hockey in Canada is not to be mocked. If this were a mob movie Logan would probably be whacked in the last 20 minutes.

The loss to Boston- The Sharks lost 2-1 in Boston last October on a goal at the last second of the game. The Bruins won here last Saturday on a fluky bounce that ended up behind Antii Niemi off the stick of defenseman Dennis Seidenberg. The first game saw the Sharks at full strength except for Brent Burns out due to a "facial injury", the second game saw the Sharks missing Matt Irwin, Logan Couture, and Tomas Hertl; playing what looked like Andrew Desjardins and an AHL bench on the third and fourth lines.

It's amazing that the Sharks held Boston to one goal with that line-up. I normally don't see a lot of good in losses, but there was no shame in this one to the defending Eastern Conference Champion. The Sharks missed a couple excellent opportunities on Boston goalie Tukka Rask, and several non-calls by referees seemed to favor the visitors. But the game was tight at center ice and you knew the difference would be an odd goal. The Sharks showed they can play with anybody when they put their minds to it.

A Finnish scout would find it hard to choose between Rask and Niemi for the #1 goaltending spot in Sochi. On the Sharks' back lines, Desjardins is showing that he can do more than just punch people. Recent call-up Eriah Hayes doesn't look out of place, either; despite a name that sounds like a Dickens character.


Contact Ken at at kensmyth@letsgosharks.com


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