Monday, November 17, 2008

First Look

It's not often you get to do a season "preview" a fifth of the way into the season. So I'm going to take advantage of the rare opportunity and present my Hockey Preview 2.0. Now I know you're wondering, 'Where was 1.0?" and you're very astute, as always. Hockey Preview (now 1.0) was the original, completely predictive and entirely before the season started, and it was written in my head. 2.0 allows me a fraction of hindsight to see where I may have already been wrong, to be honest about the first edition and make some correctives where necessary.

Now that that's behind us, let me begin by saying I really like this Flyers team. A lot. My friends know that I'm the ridiculous eternal optimist, always predicting at least the Cup Finals most seasons. But I do like this team.

Don't be too overly concerned by the slow start. Of course it's unfortunate, but the lesson we've learned from hockey more than in any other sport is that all you've gotta do is make the playoffs. Think about the Edmonton Oilers, the 8-seed out West back in 2006, coming within a game of winning it all. Or think about the Flyers of last season, overachieving all the way into the Conference Finals before falling to the Penguins. And this team should make the playoffs too, even if in an unspectacular fashion.

The other reason not to be too discouraged by the record is that they've lost approximately a ton of one-goal games. In just 17 games, the Fly-guys have already lost six games by one tally, many against very good clubs like two to the San Jose Sharks (overtime and shootout, respectively), and two in overtime to the Pens. What it means is that they're not far off. And with a talented, young core of players that is not going anywhere, this team could sneak through a the playoffs again and find themselves contenders in the East. They're not right now. But the season is long.

So my initial prognostication, in typical homer fashion, was that the Flyers would take the East and lose pretty badly to the Detroit Red Wings, much like in 1997. I don't think that's going to happen this season. Maybe they can get there next year, but I'd say the farthest we get is the same we did last season. And that would still be no less of an accomplishment after where this team was just two seasons ago. But the Penguins are good, and so are the Rangers, which I didn't see coming, though for many they remain a trendy pick to win it all. I thought there's no way a team that lost as much as it did could be better than they were last year. Yet another example of hockey being truly the greatest team sport.

So, the conservative pick (and probably better bet) is that it'll be a flashback to last season, with the Red Wings taking out the Penguins in an even-closer series. But don't sleep on the Sharks out West, or the Rangers, Canadiens, and, yes, Flyers in the East.
Flyers to watch out for:

Luca Sbisa, 18-year-old from Italy. This is the guy we got with the pick acquired in the Umberger-to-Columbus deal at the draft. Smart, fast, good puck-mover and transition player.

Braydon Coburn. By the end of the season, Paul Holmgren is going to look like a genius for getting this kid from Atlanta for Alexei Zhitnik. Trust me.

Oh, and Mike Richards is already starting to look like the new Brendan Shanahan. Just a pure goal-scorer.

Players to watch out for:

Alexander Semin, Washington Capitals. Think Scottie Pippen to Ovechkin's Jordan.

Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings: The latest proof that Los Angeles is a pitiful excuse for a hockey town is this kid. Combination of a slow start, an egregious lack of talent around him, and the fact that southern Californians don't understand or appreciate the game are the reasons this guy isn't yet a household name. But I think he will be. 20 goals in his first season, 32 in his second. Dude just turned 21.

Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks. I'm probably a season or two too early on this one, but this kid, the top overall pick two drafts ago, is really talented. He is a huge part of the reason they're talking playoffs in Chicago for the first time in a long time.
Other Musings:
A tie?!?!? To the Bengals?!?!?!?!?!???? Talk about inventing new ways to lose...

(Also a tad freaky is that the last time the Eagles had a tie--eleven years ago--was on exactly the same date. Weird.)

Anyone notice that the Monday Night Football theme music is used for every commercial? And for things that haven't the slightest connection to the game. Just For Men? That ridiculous, limited-edition Brett Favre coin offer? (Pssst! He's still playing!) I even saw it used the other day in a commercial for the animated film Wall-E. Are you kidding?
Shaquille O'Neal. His foul last night on the Pistons' Rodney Stuckey looked very bad. He was called for a flagrant foul, T'd up twice, and ejected from the game. Afterwards he made the point that, "if you understand the laws of physics like I do...[which] say that a body in motion stays in motion. So if you have two objects meet in the air, the smaller object is going to fall much harder." The man may be right. But this is a man who once said: "My game's like the Pythagorean Theorem. It can't be solved." So, you understand my skepticism.

They announced the MVP today in the National League. And the winner is...oh yeah, who cares? Nothing like winning the whole thing to show you how meaningless the individual awards are.