The new year is upon us, and with that, comes another Winter Classic … well, this year at least.
It’s kind of funny how the news cycle can make us all forget the rage that came just about a year ago when the 2013 Winter Classic was “postponed” thanks to blind, stupid greed, huh? OK, it’s depressing instead of funny, but I still cannot help but marvel at how easily that profound disappointment was swept under the rug. Then again, maybe it’s the sight of 5,071 other outdoor games that softened everyone's edges.
Regardless, the NHL went back to forcing many hockey + booze fans to battle their hangovers by airing the game in the early afternoon. And the results were as good as anyone could expect, really.
(Personally, I’d recommend that the league take the blessing in disguise that was the primetime start for the Washington Capitals - Pittsburgh Penguins Winter Classic and run with that placement, or at least move things a few hours later. But I’m still in the “at a real risk of experiencing a rumbling tummy and headache during the Winter Classic” demographic, so there’s some obvious bias here.)
The Toronto Maple Leafs brought their getting massively out-shot and out-just-about-everything-but-goaltending act to a national stage on Wednesday, absolutely stealing a 3-2 shootout win from the Detroit Red Wings.
There's something strangely fitting about the Red Wings losing something that was, by almost all standards, a "fake" home game. Losing in Ann Arbor with a healthy (maybe healthier) Maple Leafs contingent on hand drops them to a jarring 6-10-7 at home, by far the worst mark for any contending team. (Actually, the New York Islanders are the only East team with a comparably bad home record at 5-8-7).
Speaking of that growing theme of cranial discomfort, David Poile and the United States Olympic “brain trust” made many brows furrow with some downright mystifying decisions regarding the 25 players America will send to Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympics (assuming injuries don’t force some logic back into the situation).
In all honesty, those selections really stole the show from the Classic,* which is rapidly declining to the level of “All-Star game with the novelty of possible snow.” So, as any upstanding, tax-paying American, I thought I’d channel my bewilderment and moderate outrage into a fantasy-friendly series of insights about the addled American roster.
After this quick break, I’ll discuss some of the “winners and losers” from these selections. Please keep in mind that this isn’t a comprehensive list; I don’t have time and you don’t have the interest to mention every Jason Pominville-type who deserved more consideration.
Some of these insights will be pretty straightforward (what is the DEAL with hockey people’s dismissal of Bobby Ryan???**) while other considerations are more abstract (injury considerations on both ends).
Naturally, I probably have my own quirks in regards to team-building and whatnot, so feel free to share your own insights via Twitter or the comments.
I’ve heard people who are equally confused about a few other “snubs,” but for me, no decision is even in the same zip code as leaving Bobby Ryan off the roster. In fact, the more I write about this subject, the more I notice my usual shield of humor dropping in favor of an increasingly genuine sneer of disgust.
Really, the anti-Ryan argument brings about the kind of exhaustion Billy Beane probably felt in “Moneyball”-era personnel debates when he heard old-school baseball types talk themselves out of productive prospects because they didn’t have prototypical physiques or … because they had ugly girlfriends.
(Those discussions couldn’t have happened in reality, could they?)
Simply put, Bobby Ryan scores goals. A lot of them. And as much as we all love heart and hustle and sticktoitiveness, goal-scoring is the single most valuable (and often elusive) skill any skater can boast.
If you’re looking at the skaters America is sending to Sochi, there are only a select few who are better at finding the net than Ryan. You have to tie yourself in knots looking for reasons to leave him off the roster because any explanation that denies a 26-year-old four-time 30+ goal-scorer from the conversation beyond “He’s literally so injured he can barely walk” should be laughed out of the room.
RYAN VS. WHEELER: A ONE-SIDED BATTLE
Instead, the “brain trust” decided he was too sleepy. But hey … when you have the chance to add a so-so scorer in Blake Wheeler,*** you have to, right?
I hate to beat up on Wheeler*** too much, but he’s the name being bandied about as the guy who took Ryan’s spot, and the comparison doesn’t do the Winnipeg Jets winger any favors. Consider this:
-- Since 2008-09 (when Wheeler debuted), Bobby Ryan is 10th among all active players with 160 goals in 397 games played ... one behind Sidney Crosby and one ahead of Thomas Vanek. Blake Wheeler is 58th with 108 in 414 games played, one behind Milan Michalek and one ahead of Bryan Little.
Phil Kessel is the only American-born player who scored more goals than Ryan in that span with 175.
-- Keep in mind this also cuts off one of Ryan's four 30+ goal seasons. Wheeler hasn't ever scored more than 21 goals in a season, though he has a good chance of doing so in 2013-14, as he has 15 in 42 games played. (Fittingly, Ryan still has more goals  than Wheeler during what seems like an over-his-head year for Wheeler.)
-- If you change the criteria to pure points, Ryan has 315 in 397 games, good for a tie for 32nd overall with Jason Pominville (just one behind Zach Parise, tied with Jason Pominville, another surprising omission). Blake Wheeler comes in at 59th with 264 points in 414 games.
-- The explanation for choosing Wheeler over Ryan seems to be athletic, as I doubt anyone’s talking about Selke nods for either forward. Yet I’d wager Team Canada will be OK with Corey Perry despite his lack of foot speed.
… Let’s just move on before this gets ugly, but I hope it’s clear that Ryan is an unusually prolific goal-scorer, whether he’s fighting for ice time on the Anaheim Ducks or asked to be something of a scoring savior for the Ottawa Senators. Apparently much of the same silly logic that prompted his trade out of Anaheim pushed him off America too.
What’s the deal, honestly? Is he a big jerk? Is that the real answer? Because even the simplest numbers say this is a lame-brained idea. (Decides to stop as the risk of turning into a werewolf mid-sentence dramatically increases.)
Let’s gather our thoughts and discuss other winners and losers after the jump.
* - I was going to do faux game summaries for past Winter Classics, but Poile & Co. brought enough buffoonery to the mix that I scuttled that plan. So, you can either thank him for killing that gimmick (until next year, maybe?) or condemn him for leaving Ryan off the team and derailing a fun idea.
** - Yes, that warranted multiple question marks.
*** - I mean, I kind of like Wheeler, but SERIOUSLY. Come on.
OTHER WINNERS AND LOSERS
David Poile (loser, probably) - Boy, the last couple years haven’t been kind to Poile. Even before the zany logic behind this Olympic team-building was exposed, he’s greatly damaged the image that once prevailed about the Predators being a plucky group making the most of a shoestring budget.
Shea Weber’s still a strong player, though one can wonder if he misses Ryan Suter more than many expected. Still, paying Weber and Pekka Rinne almost $16 million per year looks like an unqualified disaster right now … and the rest of the Predators’ moves seem far-from-progressive.
Really, the only way this works out for Poile is if this remarkably grindy American team overachieves for another Olympic month. If that happens, he should trade for Ryan Miller out of sheer gratitude.
Phoenix Coyotes win while individuals lose - ‘Yotes GM Don Maloney trotted out the “at least he’ll get rest, which is good for us” logic regarding Keith Yandle’s snub. If nothing else, Phoenix might be the most blessed by Olympic selections, as this team might be the best squad that barely sends anyone to the Olympics.
(The Dallas Stars might have a thing to say about that comment if Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn fail to make Team Canada while Kari Lehtonen gets rest thanks to the Finnish netminding logjam …)
Key players like Yandle, Shane Doan and Mike Smith get to rest up. Mike Ribeiro wasn’t getting an invite anyway, but still. Sure, there will be an Oliver Ekman-Larsson gone here and there, but that could be a great experience for OEL, for all we know.
Winnipeg Jets lose, in general - Even beyond Wheeler carrying the pressure of being “the guy America foolishly chose over Bobby Ryan,” this is a bummer for the Jets. While you could apply much of the nice rest logic from the Coyotes over to Winnipeg, my guess is the Jets won’t have many people in Sochi, which underscores the fact that this team has little promise of being anything more than middling in the near future.
I also think that Dustin Byfuglien is the best player who truly needed to go overseas. I hate to say it, but will he physically falter by not playing? The guy has garnered serious questions about his fitness regimen, and now he’s off for weeks. If he’s an emotional eater, wouldn’t he chow down to drown out the sorrow of being left behind for some marginal blueliners? I know I would.
Jimmy Howard (loser, longer version here) - If you want one inclusion that argues that Poile went on autopilot regarding any recent results, Howard’s the guy to point to.
If you see the benefit in adding guys playing at the top of their games, then Ben Bishop makes sense instead. Really, if you apply the “strong body of work” argument that Poile does, you could make a better argument for Cory Schneider (career .926 save percentage) than Howard (career .917 mark).
Howard’s a fine goalie, particularly before 2013-14, but you really have to talk yourself into adding him.
And if you’re going to say “But he’s probably not playing as the third guy,” don’t forget that Poile is rolling the dice with two banged-up goalies in Jonathan Quick and Howard. If Quick is hurt and Ryan Miller doesn’t match his 2010 work, Howard could be exposed on an international stage.
Owners of beaten-up players such as Quick, Ryan Callahan, etc. lose - I don’t blame players such as Steve Stamkos racing back to play in the Olympics, but their fantasy owners would surely benefit from the rest Maloney speaks of. Guys who are injured today might be able to play in February, but it doesn’t take a doctor to note that injured players playing partially injured face a heightened chance of becoming re-injured players.
Which might mean that …
Owners of backups behind injured goalies such as Quick, Howard win - Hey, one man’s loss could be Martin Jones’ or Jonas Gustavsson’s gain.
With that, I’ll leave you to discuss the Olympics and other issues in the comments. Be nice to each other, though.