Thursday, February 25, 2010

Onward Brave Americans

Canada’s destruction of Russia- seriously, what was that all about?- was a frightening display of raw hockey power. I guess we won’t be seeing those “veterans” of the KHL anytime soon again. Canada dispensed with the macho nonsense, like winning battles in the corner, which merely serves to distract this awesome display of hockey skill. Instead they really ramped up the tempo, got the defensemen moving up, and simply throttled the Russian blueliners. Add in some shaky goaltending and an emotional performance in front of the home folks- and the result was big trouble followed by a stinking mess for the Soviets. Oddly then, the more compelling, interesting game was the top seed United States 2-0 win over Switzerland.

The Swiss have turned in back-to-back overachieving Olympic performances. They gave both Canada and the top seeded United States fits in the trio of games they’ve collectively played. So the top seeded USA need not apologize for the gritty win.

Because the Swiss have had a docket heavy on the top seeded USA and Canada the last two Games, I’ve seen them a lot- and as the link above shows I took a shine to them right away. The best approach to win this tournament is to be Canada- a complete collection of Hall of Fame hockey players leavened by elite all-stars. But in 2006, the Swiss figured out how to be competitive in this competition.

To wit, for all the talk about goalies and high-scoring wingers, you can play a competitive game in this tournament if you can roll out four quality defensemen. The key for these secondary teams (including the top seeded United States) is to be competent, poised in you own end: get it out, don’t turn it over, don’t give up odd man rushes, don’t leave guys uncovered fifteen feet from the goal, don’t turn it over. That is it. Simple- do that and you can keep Canada to a manageable two, three goals.

And while it helps to have world class players to score and tend goal, you just need a more basic competence to get it out, don’t turn it over, don’t give up odd man rushes, don’t leave guys uncovered fifteen feet from the goal, don’t turn it over. Those “skills” seem to be widely present- not necessarily world class. It doesn’t take Chris Chelios to run an orderly end; it merely takes a resolute Mark Streit.

Outside of Canada and Russia, the bottom half of the top six and the more competitive also-rans (Switzerland, Slovakia) are not making this tournament about star power and scoring, but rather playing mistake free in your end and keeping teams to a pair of goals or so. Again, it is something you can do with four or so good, not elite, committed defensemen. Almost all the potential upsets and actual upsets were low scoring disciplined affairs: Slovaks taking out the Swedes, the top seed USA and Swiss keeping Canada’s total down, Germans playing close to the Swedes, etc.

That is why the top seeded USA is advancing in this tournament- because they are darned orderly in their own end. Canada had a zillion shots- but not many rebounds or tic-tac-toe skill plays to unmarked guys. The game with Switzerland evolved into a game where two teams who are able to keep their ends orderly, free of cheap goals and good goalies. The Swiss have an NHL goalie, some good NHL defensemen, plus a veteran group of Euro-professionals who can mark their assignments and not commit bad turnovers. The top seeded US probably deserved a better result- outshooting the Swiss badly. But the top seeded Americans had a pair of goals disallowed (justifiably) that would have provided some breathing room with a bit more luck. In the end, the United States (the top seed) was saved by the their clicking, easily executed power play- just toss it back to the point and blast away. No chemistry required.

Before the tournament started, the consensus was that Zach Parise was probably the only American who makes Canada’s team. But watching Canada strafe the Russian defense with endless odd man rushes, rebound goals and emerging endlessly from the corners and walking up to the net- the antithesis of the “orderly end” I described above- the top seeded USA defenders are growing on me. As I wrote earlier in the week, Canada perhaps missed on a couple of defense choices. I can now see Parise, Miller and a defenseman or two making Canada’s roster.

Canada’s troubles with both top seeded USA and Switzerland, followed by Canada’s emphatic drubbing of Russia, moves both the top seeded USA and their two victories over the Swiss up a notch. Another game would be a real test of the theory: the top seeded Americans are way outclassed talent-wise, but you can cut a paper three goal deficit to something admittedly still south of even by holding the goalie edge and four good, unsentimental defensemen. Brian Rafalski holds top forwards and lines scoreless many nights. Now, there is no reason to look past the Finns (hot goalie). But maybe Rafalski and his top seeded peers could keep Canada to a manageable number to allow for a second sensational win.


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Sick And Tired

I am sick and tired of everyone saying what a great hockey team Canada has.

Their time is over.


Monday, February 22, 2010

Slur Marty Brodeur!

Last night, the United States plunged our northern neighbor into one of those funks you love to watch them wallow in. “Woe Canada!” screams the Vancouver Sun. The CBC is inviting a whole bemused nation to weigh in to the question: what is wrong with Canada hockey? Sadly, the answer largely seems to be to slur the classy Marty Brodeur!

Sure, Ryan Miller outplayed Brodeur in the nets. But I thought Miller played well- not superb. He made some great stops- but good NHL goalies do that. But some of Canada’s goals weren’t exactly great ones. For example, Crosby’s big marker with three minutes to go wasn’t exactly a “good goal”.

I will point out that the United States has some good defensemen who played darn well. Canada got bunches of shots- but they scored zero goals of the skill type. By that I mean those “start at your own blue line, make five passes, tap it in skill goals” or “breakdowns leading to odd man rushes” or “one guy goes end to end because you cannot control his brilliant talent”. Canada has a huge capability to generate those free scores- but no one could shake loose all night.

But yes, you can’t argue with Miller’s 42 saves.

However, the United States found something they else could do besides blindly hoping Miller stole the game. The United States still could not make plays or skate with Canada- but they could bang with them- particularly the USA wingers versus Canada’s defense. Frankly, the one thing the Americans could categorically do last night was stand in front of Brodeur with impunity. Except for the late empty net goal, all of the US goals were screened or deflected in close.

I think Canada might have the wrong defense corps here? I have no ice time stats- but Pronger and Neidermeyer don’t seem dominant physically. In fact, they don’t seem to play much. Doughty, Keith and Weber are simply not crease clearers in that Pronger world-class mode.

The Americans turned the one attribute they have- an ability to bang, get rooted- into repeated goals- a formula Canada had no luck solving. No one consistently could get the American forwards out from in front. As the second period evolved, the Americans became committed to throwing it in and literally standing around within fifteen feet of Brodeur waiting for good things to happen. It did not reverse Canada’s dominance- but it meant more of the game was played out of the US end.

That approach bled over to the power play as well. Canada’s obviously has more potential on their power play than the US ever will. But in this short tournament, with little time for introductions and practice, maybe the more primitive American approach- wind up and fire toward all the loitering American forwards- has more merit?

And yes it helped, in the third, that Canada took bad penalties, looked tentative playing from behind under clock pressure and allowed said American late power-play goal. It is funny how the two teams have such different international culture. The Americans always play like something good is about to happen (see Salt Lake 2002). Conversely, Canada plays like everyone thinks they’re a bad shift away from having Mike Richards take their place on a regular line.

As the number one seed, the USA now gets a real winnable quarterfinal game outside the Big Six. This sets the Americans up to medal. In the two later medal round games, they’ll only need to win once to get something- and can’t play both Russia and Canada (they play each other in the other side of the quarterfinal draw). And any medal is a good result for this young USA team built with an eye on Russia in 2014.


Saturday, February 20, 2010

Just Win Baby

VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Deciding to relieve the skip of his duties smacks of desperation.

But that’s exactly what the American men’s team opted to do on Friday when John Shuster not only stepped down as skip but was sent to the sidelines. Apparently it was head coach Phill Drobnick and the American coaching staff who made the call to bench Shuster following Team USA’s fourth straight loss.

“We needed to do something,” Drobnick said. “From here on out, we’re taking it game by game. We’ll meet tonight again and decide what lineup we are going to put out there.”
What is great about all this macho talk is that this is curling we are talking about.

Love that. And love that tat.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Better Than Looking Indifferent Against Latvia

The Olympics finally started yesterday with the commencement of the Men’s Ice Hockey tournament. Unlike the 2006 Games, the United States is off to a good start- a solid, high-effort win over the game Swiss.

The 2006 United States team had no real chance to medal in Turino. Revisiting some of these reviews of their games back then- a tie with Latvia, loss to Slovakia- brings back all the ick. John Grahame and Robert Esche pitched as answers in goal! Slovakia dressing Zdeno Chara (definitely a world class player), Lubomir Visnovsky (leading NHL defensemen in points at that time) and Andrej Meszaros on defense- better than anything the mighty US could muster.

This American team is a step up in class. Sure, the pundits are right- it is a very young team. At no point yesterday could the US been described as heady and mistake-free. They aren’t slick at all- and showed no ability to get into the offensive zone other than dump and chase. Did you notice the unbelievable number of guys simply running into each other? But they were high effort- as Coach Brian Burke says in this morning’s PDN:
"Young players sometimes try things that older players won't," he was saying the other day. "Sometimes they do things that our older players won't."

Like? Like taking a stick to your nose while diving for the puck on your first-ever Olympic shift. Like blocking shots in a preliminary-round game with your team up two goals. Like playing a puck along the boards on all fours just to keep it inside the offensive zone, or rushing the puck from one end of the ice to the other, surprising the opposing defensemen, surprising the opposing goaltender, surprising the 16,706 who came to watch Team USA's victory over Switzerland yesterday.
Ryan Miller is a substantial upgrade in goal. And Ryan Suter’s good point play on the power play gives them “something simple to do” on the man advantage- not altogether unimportant with limited practice and get acquainted time. Just dump it in and let him play quarterback.

Baseball has the five tool player. I sort of break players down into four categories: speed, strength/size, puck control and scoring. This US team is not going to compete with Canada and Russia on the latter two categories. I mean, Jeff Carter is sitting home- and he’d be on the United States’ first power play unit. But the United States can skate and man!- really hit. The officials ignored the physical play, really had the whistles in the pocket, for yesterday’s slate of games. With no NHL style enforcers, the US might get a real chance to pound on and face wash Sidney Crosby and pals Sunday- see how bad they want this.

Canada’s disappointing 2006 finish wasn’t exactly the result of being unlucky or untalented- but playing with too little urgency (remember Switzerland in 2006?). They didn’t look too urgent yesterday against a bad Norge team (ed. note: I love Norge!)

But that is just it. This tournament doesn’t begin until the knock-out round, which everyone makes. The United Sates needs these games to get organized, get playing time together. Canada just needs to be ready to answer the bell next week.

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Monday, February 15, 2010

24 Hours of Daytona

In response to the conclusion of the football season, Frank Helps You Think It All Out slowed down a little last week. But the blog is right back this week- and I will start with the horrible show NASCAR put on with yesterday’s “24 Hours of Daytona”.

Okay, okay- it really was the Daytona 500- but as it stretched into sixth hour yesterday- it was a little obscene. Let me abridge Mike Bianchi a little here:
This will go down in infamy as the Pothole 500. The Great American Race turned into a Great American Disgrace.

How does this happen? How can a sport whose entire existence is based upon good asphalt have its most important event all but ruined because of bad asphalt?

"We're the world center of racing," said Robin Braig, president of Daytona International Speedway. "This is the Daytona 500. This is not supposed to happen, and I take full responsibility."

The Daytona 500 was red-flagged and delayed twice — for nearly 2½ hours — as track workers struggled before finally patching a mysterious hole on the track between turns one and two. The race started at 1 p.m. on a cool, sunny day. It ended more than six hours later when Jamie McMurray held off a hard-charging Dale Earnhardt Jr. under the speedway lights.
NASCAR simply can’t have its signature event extend almost seven hours due to non-weather related, non-Act of God style shenanigans. And NASCAR owns Daytona- so don’t send the President of the Speedway out there to take the flak. This is their pothole and their mess.

Secondly, I get the green-white-checker rule. I don’t like it, but I get it. NASCAR wants fans to see a finish under racing conditions, rather than a caution parade to the finish. So yes, giving the fans a chance to see a racing finish by extending the race- fine, grudging approval.

But je’zum crow. We’re now going to do this three times? Who was not rolling their eyes as NASCAR again and again and again, again edging toward hour seven, lined these guys up to smash into each other?

One solvable problem with the green-white-checker finish is that NASCAR rewards a change of position pretty much the same no matter where you are in the field. A driver gets roughly the same points boost improving from third to second as he does from 23rd to 22nd. So all through the field you have incentive to drive like a nut. Particularly at a plate track, where a driver can improve several positions in two laps.

I would make it a true overtime- clear the track of every driver but the top five or so- and let them sort it out. A meaningless wreck over fourteenth place, involving a whole field re-set again and again and again- is not the purpose here.

Lastly, I’ve been working on both a Tulane editorial and Olympics for this week- so content is back this week with a vengeance!

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Monday, February 08, 2010

All Souls Day

All Souls Day? Well, it is the day after All Saints Day, no?

We’re not churlish here at Frank Helps You Think It All Out. The first order of business is to offer congratulations to the fans of the New Orleans Saints.

In hockey and basketball, where the play-offs involve winning four out of seven, the order of business is to produce a repeatable formula for victory. The Super Bowl is different- you only got to prevail once. I’m not sure New Orleans has a repeatable formula- score 31 points scoring only two offensive touchdowns?- but it doesn’t matter one whit either.

The two main ways to close the gap with a superior outfit in the NFL: turnovers and mistakes (normally penalties and any kicking game follies). Ultimately, the Saints are a good team. They haven’t played consistent great offense since before winter, and correspondingly played more like good offense yesterday: the aforementioned two scores, a few field goals, solid passing total (just short of 300 yards), wasting few snaps rushing the football. But that was all the needed. A good NFL team with a “+2” turnover advantage (the fumbled on side kick, fourth quarter interception) almost never loses- and winning that battle was a huge step in closing the gap.

Sean Payton deserves credit. A lot of coaches passively accept the status quo. But an on-sides kick to start the second half is indicative of both a coach unsure he can win playing straight up (I mean, it is a huge gamble, particularly when losing) and a coach willing to do what it takes to change the game’s nature to one he has a better chance to win.

To wit, I don’t know if the Saints are a better football team than Indianapolis. But as the game bled into the third and fourth quarter, it became less a game about the deployment of football talent (where I still think the Colts are better) to a game of who really messes up first. On Sunday, the Saints were the clear winner of that game- and the answer to is “who is more heady under pressure?” might be a question that it was easier for the Saints to answer than “who is a better pure collective of football talent?”

The Saints kept up relentless pressure on to not make a killer mistake. New Orleans made their kicks, covered their kicks, did not give up first downs on penalties, etc. Down a score, with time running down, Manning was under increasing pressure to force the issue… and he made the final terrible error to wrap the title up for New Orleans.


Friday, February 05, 2010

Prediction Friday? Super Bowl Edition

I am not going to rehash last week’s Super Bowl pick much. I don't want to inflame the proletarius too much. The line opened with a frankly absurd Indianapolis -2.5 over New Orleans. As predicted, it quickly rallied to the Colts giving six- before settling down to five in the wake of the Dwight Freeney saga. If it appears he is going to play, this still cheap line will go to six and a hook, maybe seven.

This increasing number further illustrates a consensus in Vegas that the Saints best football was probably back in November. Put it this way, I think the 9-7 Jets, admittedly playing their best football in January, would probably be a narrow favorite over the Saints here. The Colts were seven over New York at home- a real similar line to New Orleans here at a neutral site. I would not have been surprised to see the Jets -1 over the Saints here. That would shock people- but just do the math. Put this game in Indy, the Colts would approach a whopping nine, ten.
Manning dumped a ton of big scoring on the Jets' defense in little more than a half, once he figured New York out. At season’s end, the Jets' defense was one of the best in the League- a claim hard to make about New Orleans. The Saints are damned opportunistic- but those are mistakes they’re simply not going to get Sunday. Gregg Williams isn’t going to keep the Colts under thirty. Heck, they couldn't keep the Vikes out of the end zone four times with five turnovers in their own building.

In November, the Saints could keep up score for score- but Dallas showed attacking the interior of the New Orleans’ offensive line with the pass rush could control, albeit not stop, the Saints attack. Indianapolis can do that- and keep the Saints from the five TD scores they’ll need to win this thing.

My only real concern is that my fave public prognosticator likes the Saints. The respected Wildcat says:
It’s tough to resist the drumbeat accompanying the canonization of Peyton Manning; he is awesome, the vital cog, a coach who can play with all the answers. But Drew Brees put on some sensational natural grass shows this season, especially Miami and Philadelphia. Opportunistic, turnover-creating defense, superior running game, Reggie Bush running in open space- and you’re getting points!
But I think that is just it. I don’t believe running the football means much in the pro-game. You’re just taking snaps away from Drew Brees. Manning isn’t going to turn the ball over. And having your season depend on Reggie Bush... well, I’ll take that bet gladly. Colts -5 for me.


Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Don't Be Dirty

Last week, I was taken to task a little for chiding the officials vis-à-vis the Saints- despite national reprobation: here, here, here and here. Consequently, I further would gently point to today’s NY Times blog “Fifth Down” entitled Do The Saints Play Dirty? agreeing with my point- detailing the fact that their readers and journalists have been unhappy about the unpenalized liberties of the Saints defensive front.

I have zero comment as to whether the Saints are dirty. I imagine it would come right down to party lines- plus a goodly number, like me, with no informed opinion whatsoever.

I’m more interested in the culture Gregg Williams brags about cultivating- which is obviously emblematic of just about everyone in the NFL- and is of course completely contrary to the NFL’s desires to protect their member franchises’ $50-$100M quarterback assets:
“This guy’s got a great clock in his head,” Williams told 104.5 The Zone. “The big thing is that he throws the ball so early that we’re going to have to do a good job of finding ways to get to him, and when we do get to him we’re going to have to make sure he gets a couple ‘remember me’ shots when we get there.”
There are two ways to solve this sort of problem- the physical intimidation of your star players and gate attractions. The first is the NFL approach- which is to punish improper hits and liberties punitively and without regard to intent. As a consequence, the sport enjoys frustrating crippling personal foul penalties not only for true fouls but also inadvertent and meaningless “blows to the head”. Clearly, the fouls are of differing magnitudes, but the League needs to protect these players- particularly in a League where the lack of quality quarterback play is a death sentence: Oakland, Detroit, St. Louis, etc.

The second- and probably much better way- is to allow players to enforce their own code via wink and a nod discipline. This is notable in baseball- where pitchers retaliate “outside the rules” for infractions top the code. Also hockey, where the five minute fighting penalty gives teams a way to police a code of unacceptable behavior toward franchise meal ticket. There is a reason why hockey stars have no where neart the number of lazy, undisciplined hits inflicted on them as quarterbacks, despite playing five times as many games and frequently being unprotected to big, high speed, open ice shots.

Obviously, these techniques are not available or appropriate to all sports. I’ve written before that NASCAR has a hockey helmet problem.
The NHL mandated helmets to protect players’ heads- and "surprisingly" stick fouls and injuries to the head sky-rocketed. Putting the helmet on players’ heads removed the collective responsibility to police your stick to keep your peers from getting hurt. If you are increasing safety, while decreasing responsibility to keep one another safe, you aren’t advancing anything.

NASCAR’s never ending emphasis on safety has achieved a similar effect. They’ve made everything ostensibly “safer”- and accidents are through the roof. Every race now has ten cautions for people running into each other. Not too long ago they were able to run places like Talladega and Bristol with one or two (or zero). Drivers knew craziness could get them hurt or dead.
To wit, the reason the number of wrecks increases is the drivers have no way to enforce a code against poor or reckless behavior.

In the end, the NFL is probably forced into this procedure that emphasizes raw compliance to the letter of the rule over justice. Some of the Saints’ recent play has proved you can’t legislate dirty play- be it inadvertent or deliberate. Much like the speeding ticket, if you can’t prohibit the behavior, then you have got to make it very painful to get caught no matter what the reason.