Sunday, May 23, 2004
Kelowna Rockets - 2004 Memorial Cup Champions
A great contrast in styles was on display at the 2004 Memorial Cup as the league's best offensive team (Gatineau Olympique) and the league's best defensive team (Kelowna Rockets -> 125 goals allowed in 72 games!) went head to head in the championship game.
As always seems to be the case these days, the defensive team came out on top as the Rockets won the lowest scoring Memorial Cup final in 30 years by a 2-1 score. The Rockets, coached by Marc Habscheid (who should be fielding a few NHL offers very soon), played a very defined defensive system that would have brought a tear to Ken Hitchcock's eye, if he wasn't a robotic minion from hell.
Although the championship game was quite exciting, the Memorial Cup tournament overall was a boring disappointment to me.
The main problem with the tournament was that it showed exactly what is wrong with hockey these days, in the non-financial sense. From the NHL on down to the CHL, it is clear that hockey is still going in the 'wrong' direction in terms of entertainment value. Long gone are the days when Cliff Ronning was putting up 197 points in 70 games, and 4 goals leads weren't considered "safe". Offense is on the wane and the flow of action has slowed to a crawl. As the CHL is a 'development' league, it will ultimate mimic the NHL and all of the problems that come with it.
Diluted Talent - With constant expansion into new and richer markets, the WHL, itself, has expanded to 20 teams while the OHL and QMJHL have experienced similar growth. The talent pool within Canada has not grown to compensate such expansion, and not every CHL uses their allotted 2 spots for European players. There is certainly a lot of 'average' or replacement-level talent, but there are still the same amount of star players being allocated to more and more teams. The skilled players have less of their true peers to play together with, leading to less offense created overall.
Defensive Assimilation - If the low-scoring Kelowna Rockets didn't win the WHL Championships, then it would have been the Everett Silvertips who would have represented the WHL at the Memorial Cup. The Silvertips are the newest WHL expansion team, and despite a total lack of real talent, managed to trap and choke their opponents with great success. 'Tips coach Kevin Constantine (Yes, that Constantine) had his little borglings playing the most conservative defensive system this side of the Alpha Quadrant, and the Silvertips had the 2nd best defensive record in the WHL with an incredible 2.12 Goals Against Average.
It's great that Constantine was able to bring together a bunch of scrubs and pluggers and pull off the near-impossible, but it made for incredibly boring hockey. If we want to watch a game with no offensive opportunities and stifling defense, we'd watch soccer.
There is no mystery as to why NHL teams love drafting WHL players (Just look at the San Jose Sharks). WHL players are typically strong, industrious, and play great defensively. Why take a chance on a one-dimensional offensive player when you can have a plugger who can already recite the first 10 chapters of Jacque Lemaire's book "How to Kill Any Semblance of Fun - Defensive Hockey for Dummies". OHL players aren't far behind, but the QMJHL still hasn't fully adapted. You can see the results on the past few drafts, as NHL teams tend to be afraid of drafting QMJHL players, who are seen as 'soft' and defensive unreliable.
Unfortunately, the focus on defensive systems 'at all costs' hurts the entire game of hockey in the long term. As the game continues to get harder to watch, the players being developed in the WHL and OHL will not have the skill level to create offensive wizardry if the NHL game ever decides to open up again. Rather than preach skill development, coaches like Constantine will preach defensive systems, which hamper offensive and creative development.
Defense and systematic hockey can be taught a lot easier than can offensive creativity. If the kids aren't allowed to 'play' the game, then it makes a lot less fun for the players and the fans.
Of course, any changes start at the top with the NHL. If the NHL continues to be a clutch-and-grab world where offense is often seen as sinful, then the CHL will simply follow suit.
The CHL wants to develop players for the NHL, and that is what they are doing by producing defensive plumber clones.
Expansion, Dilution of top talent, and defense-first hockey all started at the NHL level, and filtered on down to the AHL, CHL, and eventually will affect every level of hockey in North America.
PS: Shouldn't the Kelowna Rockets rename their team the 'Dragons'? Their logo has absolutely no resemblance to a rocket of any sort...
Czechs and Slovaks in the Memorial Cup
Martin Vagner, D - Gatineau - 5 GP 0-3-3 +5
Had a good tournament, but a poor year. Dallas may choose not to sign him, and instead get the compensation pick instead. Has done poorly since being drafted and was probably drafted too high to begin with.
Peter Pohl, C - Gatineau - Did not Play
Jakub Koreis, C - Guelph - 3 GP 0-0-0 -3
A tough tournament after a great playoff showing. Koreis was stuck on the 3rd line as a checking centre, and hasn't been able to get a lot of prime ice time since leaving Plzen. He's incredibly strong for his age and should make a fine NHL checking centre some day.
Martin Kubaliak, D - Medicine Hat - Did not Play
It's been a rough ride for Kubaliak in his WHL career, and he'll probably be back in Europe very soon.
Patrik Valcak, C - Kelowna - Did not Play
Not really a banner year for Czechs and Slovaks in this tournament. With no Slovaks likely to play a game in the Stanley Cup Finals, it's been a pretty cruddy spring for the region so far.