Friday, November 04, 2005

Debunking hockey's Golden Boy

The grandaddy of all that is hockey blogging, Eric McErlain, hit the nail on the head yesterday morning when he addressed the NHL's Rookie of the Month award for October:
Looks like the NHL isn't going to let anything get in the way of the Sidney Crosby marketing campaign, as the young forward was named the NHL Rookie of the Month for October yesterday.

And there's no way he deserved it, not the way Washington's Alex Ovechkin has been playing. Check the numbers yourself (Crosby had one more point, but 6 fewer goals than Ovechkin), but the real test comes when you see Ovechkin play. He's got moves around the net I've never seen before.

Off the top of my head, I can name a handful of rookies who have impressed me more than Sid the Kid so far. Ovechkin, to be sure, has done exceptionally well with eight goals and 13 points in his first 11 NHL games.

But how about in the goaltending department? No fewer than four rookie netminders — LA's Jason LaBarbera, Ranger Henrik Lundqvist, Buffalo's Ryan Millerand Carolina's Cam Ward — have played exceptionally so far this season.

Even on defence, where rookies rarely make an impact in the NHL, we're seeing very, very strong performances from young blueliners. One guy who not enough people are talking about thus far is Calgary's Dion Phaneuf, who at age 20 leads all rookies with more than 23 minutes played per game. Shorthanded, power play, even strength — he's doing it all and doing it better than a lot of the Flames' veteran defencemen. (Defencemen have traditionally had a tough time winning the Calder, however, with only Bryan Berard and Barret Jackman winning in the past 15 years.)

Yes, Crosby has the rookie scoring lead with 18 points, but, honestly, I'd place him fourth or fifth so far in freshman performances so far. Heading into last night's game (when Crosby netted his third and fourth goals of the season), Sid had a 5.4 shooting percentage and was minus four. Not to mention his faceoff numbers (32 per cent), which have led to Penguins coach Ed Olczyk cutting back the number of draws he's taken significantly. In Crosby's first six games, he took 103 draws. In the next six, just 21.

It's not just in the numbers, however. It's been an almost taboo subject among the hockey media, but Crosby has looked all of his 18 years in a handful of games this year. Watching him line up for a draw or defend against an experienced veteran like 6-foot-3, 220-pound Bruins centre Dave Scatchard was eyeopening, to say the least.

This isn't to say Crosby won't be an NHL superstar, because it's clear from some of the offensive prowess he's displayed that he will. What I am saying, however, is that his play has hardly been infallible, and when matched against that of some older, more experience rookies, it is hardly miles above his peers.

Hockey circles are so desperate for 'The Next Gretzky' that I think some are overlooking the strong play of freshmen not named Crosby.

It's hardly going out on a limb for me to say that the 2005-06 rookie crop is so strong, this year's Calder Trophy race will be the toughest in years — and perhaps ever. Problem is, I think the league earmarked the award for Crosby's coronation, and it's going to take a performance from another rookie that goes well beyond Sid's in order to take the award.

I hope I'm wrong.

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On a related note, The Globe and Mail's The Rookie series has given the paper's readers some interesting insights into Crosby, but I do have a small quibble with how it has been presented so far. One of the main design elements of the piece when it appears in the paper is a listing of the NHL's top three rookies, and so far, in both instances this element has been used, the 'top rookies' have been listed as Crosby, Ovechkin and Pavel Vorobiev.


As I said, it's a minor quibble, but if we truly want to capture Crosby's first season and the competition he faces for the Calder, let's at least mention of some of the outstanding rookie goaltenders and defencemen and not just the rookie scoring leaders. (Especially considering that Canadian readers might be interested to hear how a player like Phaneuf is faring with a Canadian NHL team.)

Food for thought.

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With all of this in mind, here's my list of the top ten rookie performances so far this season (the list has been abbreviated to the top nine as Alex Auld doesn't qualify for the Calder):
  1. Alexander Ovechkin, Washington. Key stat: 49 shots on goal (8th in the NHL)
  2. Dion Phaneuf, Calgary. Key stat: 23:04 average icetime (2nd on Flames)
  3. Henrik Lundqvist, NY Rangers. Key stat: .938 save pct (2nd in NHL)
  4. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh. Key stat: 14 assists, 13 games (4th in NHL)
  5. Jason LaBarbera, LA. Key stat: 7 games started, 7 wins
  6. Ryan Miller, Buffalo. Key stat: 284 saves (5th in NHL)
  7. Mike Richards, Philadelphia. Key stat: +7 in 11 games
  8. Brent Seabrooke, Chicago. Key stat: +4 on a team with a 4.00 GAA
  9. Alex Auld, Vancouver. Key stat: .926 save pct (7th in NHL)
  10. Alexander Steen, Toronto. Key stat: 10 points, 13 games

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At 6:09 a.m., November 04, 2005, Blogger PJ Swenson said...

How you can have a top 3 without LaBarbera is beyond me. But then the East Coast has trouble staying up past 11:30 anyways.

At 9:57 a.m., November 04, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Since Alex Auld isn't actually a rookie you might want to remove him from your lists. Just a thought.

Auld played in six or more games in two seasons prior to this one, thus he is not an NHL rookie. I have a hard time putting ryan miller in the rookie category too since he played in 15 games in '02-03 but he meets the requirements.

Personally I'd give it to Ovechkin for thie month because he's doing so much on such a weak team. Labarbera would be second seeing as he's undefeated in seven starts.

At 1:36 p.m., November 04, 2005, Blogger James Mirtle said...

Good point on Auld, Ben. I checked for Miller, but not him.

PJ, since I work until 11:30 most nights, I almost exclusively see West Coast games. I think LaBarbera getting pulled last night against Phoenix may have influenced my putting Lundqvist ahead of him (that and Henrik plays on a decidedly weaker defensive team and has faced more shots).

Answer me this: What more can Phaneuf do to be considered one of the top rookies so far?

At 2:22 p.m., November 04, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Phaneuf wouldn't get any credit because he's a defenseman on a team that went to the finals last year. It's not fair at all but defensemen don't get recognition for the Calder as it, so unless he has big numbers to put him at the top of stats lists he won't get credit. add to that the fact that he plays for a team that had a reputation for strong defense last season and he doesn't jump out. It takes effort to notice the good job he's doing and not many people put that much effort into these things. If he was leading a defensive turnaround in Washington or Carolina he might noticed, put he's not.

At 2:52 p.m., November 04, 2005, Blogger Alan Mann said...

Hey, who are you calling a "decidedly weaker defensive team?" The first place Broadway Blueshirts (hey, I gotta get this stuff in while I still can!) have yielded only 35 goals in 14 games. Only Detroit, Ottawa, and Nashville have given up less, and the latter two have only played 12 games. (The Kings have surrendered 39.) And it's not all because of Lundqvist, as you'd know if you were watching some games from the east! :-)

At 3:00 p.m., November 04, 2005, Blogger James Mirtle said...

Whew, I knew I'd get roasted on this post, but I figured it'd be from Pittsburgh fans.

Alan, I see way more games than any one should, but, no, not a ton from the Rangers so far. Is it a matter of Weekes playing so poorly when he's getting his starts?

I'm a fan of Tom Renney, so it's nice to see he's actually got some bodies to work with as a coach this time around.

At 3:03 p.m., November 04, 2005, Blogger James Mirtle said...


I think Phaneuf is jumping out, especially so with Regehr out of the lineup all this time.

Barret Jackman won the Calder two years ago and wasn't nearly having the kind of impact Phaneuf has so far. Problem is, the Flames aren't meeting anyone's expectations on the ice, so that's hurting his recognition.

In the games I've seen, he's been one of their best players and is holding up the pairing with Hamrlik.

At 3:54 p.m., November 04, 2005, Blogger Alan Mann said...


Weekes started out fine but pulled a groin the first week of the season. Lundqvist came in and was great, but Renney had been insistent that Weekes was #1 and seemed to be trying to prove that point when he rushed him back for a game on the Island a couple of weeks ago. Weekes gave up goals on the first three shots in a 5-4 loss. So they rode Lundqvist until he lost to the Canadiens on Monday. Weekes returned last night and he was great. Still, we're not hearing anything about him being #1 anymore. The fans have embraced Lundqvist and Weekes would be well-advised to not have a bad game at the Garden any time soon.

At 11:30 a.m., November 05, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Phaneuf is the pick of this group. He plays with the poise of a veteran. I haven't seen him typical rookie mistakes that can be so costly on D. Rookie forwards tend to be judged on hustle and playmaking. When defensemen make mistakes its a lot more obvious visually and in the box score. I love Ryan Suter, but he's made some bonehead blind passes that I just haven't seen from Phaneuf.

At 12:06 p.m., November 05, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As long as Crosby beats Ovechkin in at least one category, you can expect Crosby to continue to take home the accolades. The fix is in.

At 3:49 a.m., November 08, 2005, Blogger James Mirtle said...

I kind of like the idea of ranking the rookies, so I'm going to keep with it each month after the 'Rookie of the Month' comes out.

After seeing Phaneuf's performance tonight against the Canucks, he just may make a bid for No. 1.

At 2:05 p.m., November 08, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry to post a hockey comment under a Canadian Legion post, but something's been bugging me since the "rookie list"--

Why all the Crosby hate? Look, I know he's been over-hyped, I know that Ovechkin is the best sniper among the group hands-down, and I've seen how well Phaneuf plays the blueline. But I don't necessarly think the "fix" is in for Crosby. The fact is, the kid has the most points among rookies at this point, and he's done it by being a playmaker. There's a reason Mark Recchi loves being on this guy's wing. He's also been as consistent as Ovechkin notching points in all but three games this season.

It's a long Calder race, and I'd like to see LaBarbera, Lundqvist, Ovechkin and Phaneuf (maybe even Vorobiev who has a thankless job as well) considered on their merits as well when all is said and done. But let's not start trashing a kid whose expectations were so high that some of us were worried of another Alexandre Daigle. We may all disagree with who got the Rookie honors this month (my pick was Alex O., BTW), but one thing's for sure--Crosby did play reasonably well under all the pressure.

Just my two cents, but I felt the need to post after watching him score again last night. Seems he's getting better already with a little experience.

At 2:14 p.m., November 08, 2005, Blogger James Mirtle said...

Docciavelli, I moved your post to the appropriate thread.

I don't think putting him fourth in rookie rankings through one months is hate for him. As I said, there have been a ton of fantastic rookie performances this year, but to objectively look at the first month each player had — including Crosby being pushed around and his team losing so often — and he wasn't one of the best.

Now, this doesn't mean he still can't be the best player ever. Perhaps his first was just an unusually timid month for Sid the Kid. I think people have to be honest with how he's contributing, warts and all, and through October, there were definitely some warts (he probably had one of the NHL's worst faceoff percentages, for one thing).

Crosby did score two goals the day after I made this post, so maybe he's reading.


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