Christmas Hockey Observations


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Hello. I’d like to start this blog off by wishing everyone a Happy Holidays. No matter what you celebrate, it’s special to spend it with your loved ones and friends. Being that Chanukah and Christmas came out the same weekend, I’ve taken to wishing friends a Merry Christmaskah and Happy Chanukahmas. 🙂

Being Jewish growing up, my family always celebrated both. Of course, Chanukah or Hanukkah meant more due to the burning of the candle light for eight nights. However, I always loved Christmas. Who doesn’t? My favorite part has always been looking at all the fancy decorations and lights. It’s beautiful. I love seeing my friends’ trees.

It is the season of giving. I gave money to the Jimmy V Fund for cancer research. I also was able to find some gifts for my family that I knew they would love. It’s never about receiving. Though I must say my Mom outdid herself this year. I’m gonna pay her back in 2017. When it comes to family, always recognize what they do for you. She gave me money for a new car which I probably will have by the end of the week just in time for the New Year. Between that and the gifts for my birthday, I’m speechless. My Dad took me out too for my 40th to a great restaurant and gave me a lot of money which I am saving. When I figure out what to do with it, I’ll spend it wisely for a change. 😉

As Hasan noted in a very nicely put together previous holiday post, this space is about more than hockey. It’s about appreciating the holiday season for believing and dreaming. I can honestly say I’m lucky. I’ve always had overwhelming support from my family and friends. I guess what I want to say is this. Never take it for granted. Every moment is special. Create new memories. They’re all we have.

This is a hockey blog. We do what we can. With our busy schedules, it’s not as much as it used to be. I wish I could devote more time to the Islanders and Sabres. The Rangers are my team. Like any born and raised New Yorker, I wear my emotions on my sleeve. They come pouring out after bad losses. Instead of posting thoughts on the second consecutive debacle- an ugly 7-4 home defeat to the Wild that chased Henrik Lundqvist, I decided to pass since I saw bits and pieces. I was busy celebrating the return of the Big Man, Brian Sanborn. Our emotional Buffalo Sabres resident came home for Christmas this weekend. We had one great time at our buddy’s house in South River. The inside jokes poured in along with the stories. There was good old fashioned razzing and banter. Nothing’s changed in two decades since the basement days at St. John’s in Grymes Hill. I’m proud to say that great friendship is truly forever.

Funny enough, when they did flip to that Minnesota/Rangers game, we saw two Ranger goals and the Wild celebrating a few others with Lundqvist sent to the bench for Antti Raanta. It was ugly. We also made sure to give Brian plenty of what turned out to be a lopsided 5-0 blowout loss at the Islanders. So much for Kyle Okposo’s return sparking the Sabres. Of course, the Big Man got me on video talking about Buffalo. We have this inside joke where he insists that I’m fascinated with them.

“What About Buffalo!”

Whether it be the Bills or Sabres, he has this silly notion that I enjoy seeing his teams lose. That all of our inner core of Jersey mixed in with Staten Island want that to happen so we can see an eruption. Let me put it this way. Brian is the most passionate person I know. He’s had some classic meltdowns. It would seem if you root for the Bills and Sabres, that would be the case. I once went with him to a Bills home opener. It’s hard to believe it was 11 years ago. I came away impressed by the atmosphere which included a tailgate that started at 8 in the morning along with a five hour Bills pregame show. I liked the stadium too. It was 9/11 too. Four years later. Emotions were high. Buffalo won.

I’ve always told him I’d like to see one of his teams win. The Sabres are closer as long as Jack Eichel is around. They’re building it back up with Eichel, Ryan O’Reilly, Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen. Brian isn’t sold on Robin Lehner because of his injury history. Neither am I. With other key pieces such as Jake McCabe, Okposo, Zach Bogosian and future Sabre Alex Nylander, there’s plenty for Buffalo fans to look forward to. I excluded Evander Kane because the combination of injuries and his off ice issues make him a candidate to be traded.

As for the Islanders, they won a second in a row after a five-game winless streak. At this point, they are what they are. A mediocre team that can’t seem to sustain consistent play. John Tavares misses Okposo and Frans Nielsen. Only a handful of Isles have performed up to expectation. Josh Bailey and Brock Nelson play with Tavares. Anders Lee has been on a scoring tear lately and leads them with 12 goals. Casey Cizikas is out indefinitely and Cal Clutterbuck has only two goals despite his usual physical play. Replacements Andrew Ladd and Jason Chimera have been huge disappointments. Ryan Strome looks more like a bust than a player. The defense has struggled. Only Dennis Seidenberg has been up to par. Then there’s the three-ring goalie circus of Halak, Greiss and Berube. It’s hard to understand what Garth Snow is doing. The team still plays for embattled coach Jack Capuano. But a move could be coming soon.

The Rangers are still third in the crowded Metro Division. The Blue Jackets have won 12 in a row and lead the conference with 50 points. They smacked around the Penguins a couple of nights after Pittsburgh humiliated the Blueshirts. They’re a very complete team that is four lines deep with a much improved blue line led by Calder hopeful Zach Werenski. Sergei Bobrovsky is back to Vezina form. John Tortorella is the leading candidate for the Jack Adams.

While Columbus and Pittsburgh look better, the Rangers have reverted to ’15-16 form when they relied on the goaltending of Lundqvist and Raanta. The defense is starting to become an issue again. Alain Vigneault has made some puzzling decisions. He’s content to play Dan Girardi on the top pair with Ryan McDonagh, whose play has suffered over the past two weeks. It’s resulted in them pinned in a lot more and on for more goals against. Vigneault will not rest Girardi. He even opted to reinsert Adam Clendening for rookie Brady Skjei against Minnesota. A decision that backfired.  While it’s true that Skjei’s defensive play has come back to earth as expected for a first-year pro, taking out the fast skating left D while keeping the plodding Girardi in along with the inconsistent Kevin Klein makes their defense worse. At some point, Vigneault should move Girardi down and put possession D Nick Holden up with McDonagh. Holden has played mostly with Marc Staal, who’s had a stronger year.

As for the scoring, it’s predictably dropped off with Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich out until next January. Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller have both seen their scoring dip. Carrying more responsibilities including penalty killing, each two-way forward is more crucial to the team. Chris Kreider tallied twice giving him 11 goals. He along with Derek Stepan and Mats Zuccarello were the only line that was going. The cohesive trio combined for eight points (3-5-8) in the defeat. McDonagh tallied the other goal on a Kreider screen.

Without Rick Nash, who should return following Tuesday’s game against Ottawa, the Rangers didn’t get enough from other players. Miller was a dismal minus-four and Hayes minus-three. Girardi was on for at least three goals against. Even Michael Grabner went minus-two. Aside from a power play goal and assist in a 5-0 rout of the Devils, Brandon Pirri has been invisible. Newcomer Marek Hrivik has done more with his even strength shifts. Oscar Lindberg is reliable on face-offs but he desperately needs a goal.

Jimmy Vesey gives a more consistent effort and deserves more ice-time than Vigneault gives him. He has 10 goals and seven helpers and has proven himself to be a dangerous offensive player five-on-five. With a nose for the net and willing to shoot, the 23-year old Harvard alum is a key component. Defensive forward Jesper Fast gives the same type of effort. Reward the guys who work hard.

My take on the Devils is they’re not good. They’re worse than ever imagined. I thought they’d be in the hunt for a wildcard. Nobody could’ve predicted Cory Schneider’s melt. He’s finding out what it’s like to have no defensive help. When Ray Shero dealt away ace Adam Larsson for Taylor Hall, he took a risk giving up a young shutdown defenseman for a scorer. Hall has had his moments scoring eight times with 22 points in 26 games. He needs to score more consistently. What’s really killing them is the lack of production from Adam Henrique and Kyle Palmieri. Each went for 30 goals last year. Both have had better nights recently. But it’s about consistency. Travis Zajac shouldn’t be leading this team in scoring. Mike Cammalleri shouldn’t have more goals than Hall, Henrique or Palmieri at this point. Especially given the time he missed. P.A. Parenteau, who was a healthy scratch has as many goals (8) as Hall and Zajac.

Andy Greene is basically by himself on the back end with Damon Severson a defensive liability. The point production (3-15-18) is good but the minus-17 rating isn’t a fluke. To be blunt, Greene isn’t a top pair defenseman on a good team. He does the best he can. But it’s an awful lot of responsibility for a player who’s gotten the most out of his talent. Vets John Moore and Ben Lovejoy aren’t great. Moore is more of a streaky offensive D who gets beaten frequently. Lovejoy can play the position but a lot is expected due to the contract. Yohann Auvitu should be given a chance to sink or swim. Kyle Quincey is an extra on a deeper roster. He’s done okay considering. It might be time for the organization to admit Jon Merrill is a bust. Seth Helgeson was just recalled.

The Devs also should admit the same for shootout specialist Jacob Josefson. Why is he even still on the roster? At least Miles Wood and Nick Lappin have contributed. Wood being the one to watch because of his combination of speed and shot. Sergey Kalinin has one goal and is minus-11. Shero pet Beau Bennett has one goal. Vernon Fiddler is a fourth line penalty killer who plays hard but has three points.

Not to be a dead horse. There’s a lot wrong with how the Devils are being run. At some point, the management team needs to wake up. And this isn’t a coach issue either. It’s a personnel one. They need to find out about some of the other prospects. Steven Santini, Blake Pietila, John Quenneville. Even Joe Blandisi deserves another crack. Why is Reid Boucher still listed under the Devils Prospect section when the Predators picked him up? Why is Mattias Tedenby still listed? Does anyone keep track?

It shouldn’t that hard. Anyway, those are my Devil observations. I really killed them. Sorry Hasan. 😛 I guess I don’t pull any punches.

As for the rest of the league, some other quick hits:

Sidney Crosby really is far and away the best player. He is running away with the Rocket Richard and will beat out Connor McDavid for the Art Ross. You can pretty much book a Hart for Crosby.

-The rookie race is shaping up to be a good one. With Werenski and Matt Murray added to the mix of Patrik Laine and Auston Matthews plus Mitchell Marner, it’s sure to go down to the wire. Keep an eye on Matthew Tkachuk, who is quietly picking it up in Calgary.

Steve Downie’s tweet fest on the Coyotes was rather interesting. He made a lot of good points and raised some issues about how they mishandled injured players. He also took a shot at Don Cherry. Hitting has always been part of hockey. No one forced Downie to leap into Dean McAmmond and concuss him. Ultimately, it’s up to the players to have respect. There isn’t much. Downie was a gritty player. But his penchant for bad penalties is why he’s out of the league.

-I’ve never heard anyone rip Dave Tippett. That was unexpected. Though you do have to wonder what the hell has happened to Anthony Duclair? One goal so far. I get that he was never a complete player. But how has he sunk that far? And some of the Coyotes’ decisions have been baffling like scratching Jersey product Anthony DeAngelo. What for? They are in rebuild mode and again one of the NHL’s doormats.

-I’m not shocked by the Avalanche’s decline. They have no system. Little D. Erik Johnson is out and they gave away Holden for a fourth round pick. Semyon Varlamov and Calvin Pickard can only do so much. That dirty Hab was at it again. Alexei Emelin’s cheap shot on Jarome Iginla in a lopsided blowout in which they scored 10 goals was a joke. And Emelin ducked Iginla’s challenge. Emelin is the definition of a garbage hockey player.

-So, maybe we were wrong on P.K. Subban for Shea Weber. One thing about Weber, who somehow has never won a Norris while Subban has. He’s a much better overall defenseman playing his end without taking as many risks. Subban’s numbers are still good. But he doesn’t compare to Weber or Nashville anchor Roman Josi.

-The Pens are gonna be awful tough to beat. Kris Letang is out. With a healthy Letang, Pittsburgh becomes much better. If only he could stay on the ice, maybe he’d get recognized in the Norris conversation. Erik Karlsson is running away with it by not only right behind Brent Burns in points but also ranks second in blocked shots with 93. The Ottawa captain is doing everything for one of the NHL’s pleasant surprises. I always felt Guy Boucher got a raw deal. He’s even got Derick Brassard playing defense.

-They looked worn out in a 4-0 loss at the Devils. But the Flyers play an exciting style of hockey. Dave Hakstol has to be one of the better young coaches. In his second year, he’s doing another heck of a job with the Flyers tied with the Caps in points (44). Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek are back playing inspired and Wayne Simmonds continues to be the best power forward in the sport. Rookie Travis Konecny plays with spunk and rookie Ivan Provorov has helped improve the team defense. Michael Del Zotto can still play the game when called upon. Steve Mason has played inspired since Michal Neuvirth went down. The Flyers have one of those teams that comes at you. They are fun to watch.

Biggest Disappointments:

1.Tampa Bay Lightning

2.Dallas Stars

3.Nashville Predators

4.Florida Panthers

5.Islanders/Devils

Biggest Surprises:

1.Columbus Blue Jackets

2.Edmonton Oilers

3.Ottawa Senators

4.Minnesota Wild

5.Toronto Maple Leafs

-Outdoor games return with two big ones on New Year’s Day and Jan. 2. The Scotiabank NHL Centennial Classic takes place on Sunday, Jan. 1 when the Maple Leafs host the Red Wings at Exhibition Stadium at 3 PM. The following day, the Bridgestone Winter Classic features the St. Louis Blues hosting the Chicago Blackhawks at Busch Stadium on NBC.

-On Jan. 1 during the Centennial Classic, the NHL will unveil the game’s greatest 100 players including 34 who played between 1917-66 before Expansion. It should be great.

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About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included two stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil games. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has scored Berkeley Carroll basketball games since 2006 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. From players, coaches to administrators, it's a first class program. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree.
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