Wednesday, 3 July 2019

NHL Power Rankings 2019

Back in 2015 I first had the idea of publishing my own power rankings. The main theme to it was I would list the NHL teams in order of my own personal preference with reasons for liking or disliking that particular team. It was extremely biased and wasn’t to be taken too seriously and was simply done just for a bit of fun. Fast forward four years and I thought an update was due so here it is:

1 – Pittsburgh Penguins - Quite simply the greatest hockey team in the NHL (In my opinion). Pittsburgh is my team; I have supported them through the good years when Mario was playing that saw back-to-back cup wins and playoff runs throughout the 1990s and also stuck by them through the lean years between 2002-2007. But why choose the Pens above all over teams? 
It could have been the Penguin logo [what’s cooler than a Penguin strapping on a pair of skates and shooting a puck], or maybe it was because their colours are predominately Black and White (with Gold too) and therefore very similar to my soccer team back home, Newcastle United.
I guess though the real reason was when I discovered the video game NHL 93 on the Sega Mega Drive and noticed that Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr were 'quite good' players. I had already heard of Lemieux years earlier with the old Sega game ‘Mario Lemieux Hockey’ and knew then you have to be pretty special to have a video game named after you, and I recognised his name all those years later. The format of the game meant each team had a designated star player with a special move which if you pressed the right combination of buttons you could deliver to devastating move against your opponents for a goal. For example, the LA Kings had Wayne Gretzky and the New York Rangers had Mark Messier etc, but Pittsburgh had two players listed, Two! Lemieux and Jagr. So surely if the team had two-star players they must be something special right? Then there was the in-game announcer who was always over-animated whenever he mentioned Lemieux as the goal scorer.
From that point on the Penguins were the team I always chose on the video game and then when Channel 5 started covering NHL games in 1998 there was only ever going to be one team I would choose to support, and so it stuck.
The Pens team at that time saw Jagr leading them, along with Martin Straka, Robert Lang, Alexei Kovalev, German Titov and Alexei Morozov. Super Mario had retired but then dramatically returned as team owner, and then came out of retirement for a few years before the team tanked and was re-built with draft picks. Those years were tough to watch, especially the 2003-04 season when Wayne Primeau was considered one of our best players, Wayne Freakin Primeau? He wouldn’t even last the season before he was traded away and that really was a low point. But then the Penguins started bagging stars at the draft, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Kris Letang and Jordan Staal.
Back-to-Back Stanley Cup Finals in 08 & 09 saw the Pens became a major contender again. However, after landing that cup in 2009 the Pens then went several years where they struggled to win a playoff series never mind another Cup. 
Then came Mike Sullivan who arrived as coach in December 2015 and turned the team around. Back-to-Back championships arrived in 2016 and 2017 representing one of the highest points in their history. 
Those cup wins coincided with me making my first visits to the Steel City. I have since visited Pittsburgh three times in the last four seasons I have really fallen in love with the city, the people and everything inside to do with the ‘Burgh. It is always emotional whenever I return there. If I was born in the States, then Pittsburgh would definitely be my American home.
The last couple of seasons on the ice, the Pens have struggled as they balance re-building whilst keeping their cup window open. But no matter what they'll always be my team.

=2 – San Jose Sharks - The Sharks with their unique and classy teal jerseys have always had exciting teams to watch throughout their relatively short history.
The first Sharks team I took notice of was in 1994, just their third season of existence. They eliminated the Red Wings with a team that featured two thirds of the Soviet KLM line, Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov, and had Arturs Irbe in goal. The early expansion years are usually not always the best, but this team was fun to watch for sure.
By the end of the 1990s they had built another good side and even prised Teemu Selanne away from Californian rivals Anaheim to compliment the likes of Patrick Marleau, Owen Nolan and Mike Ricci. 
A first Western Conference Final arrived in 2004, before two more in 2010 and 2011. By now Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski had arrived to lead the team. A Stanley Cup final appearance in 2016 and another trip to the Western Conference Finals this year shows just how consistently good a team the Sharks have been over the last 15 years.
Looking at the team right now, Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl and Joonas Donskoi are great to watch. Melker Karlsson and Timo Meier look like they could have bright futures ahead of them too, and with Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Brent Burns on D the team is very strong. Marleau may have moved on to Toronto now but both he and Thornton certainly deserve to lift the cup before they retire.
Much like St Louis clinching their first this year, I would love to see the Sharks lift a Cup too. Whilst the Pens will always be my favourite team the Sharks and Blues are very close to my heart and no team deserves to win the Stanley Cup more now than the team from the Bay area.
One of my hockey supporting friends from in the States, Ashleigh, is a massive Sharks fan. Probably the most passionate one I know in fact, and it’s that love and passion for her team which is another reason why I would love to see them win.

=2 – St Louis Blues – Talking of friends and wanting to see their hometown team win we move onto the Blues. I have a few friends from the Lou and like Pittsburgh have visited the place a lot in recent years. In fact, you could say St Louis is American Hometown number 2! I have been fortunate to visit STL many times now and actually have a 6-1 record when watching them. 
So, what got me into liking the Blues? Well the name says it all really and with that Blue Note logo paying homage to a type of music I really like [Chuck Berry is from St Louis] it certainly helps. 
They were a perennial playoff team that always seemed to match up with the Red Wings throughout the 1990s so that meant seeing them a lot on TV. During that time, they had a certain Brett Hull, who after Mario Lemieux was the second hockey player I had ever heard of and he must have been good because like Mario he also had a video game named after him. ‘Brett Hull Hockey’ was where I learnt about the intricacies of the sport. Hully struck up a great partnership alongside Adam Oates which was arguably the best in the league at that time. Then there was Al MacInnes, the most offensive of defenseman. It was like the Blues were playing with four forwards whenever he was on the ice. 
But perhaps it is the current team that has really grabbed my attention over the last few years or so. Vladimir Tarasenko, is one of the most exciting hockey players in the NHL right now. Jori Lehtera and Vladimir Sobotka were good additions too but have since moved on, and with Alexander Steen, Jaden Schwartz and Ivan Barbashev also leading the attack they have a team stacked with talent. Even the blue line has quality with Alex Pietrangelo, and Jay Bouwmeester there. 
Adding Ryan O’Reilly from Buffalo and bringing Patrick Maroon home to the city of his berth at the start of this season really helped the Blues to their eventual first ever Stanley Cup win.
Having good friends like Dan and Joe who have supported their home team their entire lives has made it even easier to want the Blues to succeed and having been able to cheer them on together this season and share their joy was also special. As I have always said if the Pens can't win the cup, I would love to see the Blues or the Sharks win it. With the Blues claiming their first just two days ago it’s over to the Sharks now to lift theirs. 

4 – Chicago Blackhawks - Aside from the 1992 Stanley Cup Final team which contained Jeremy Roenick and Chris Chelios, times were hard for the Hawks in the post expansion era. By the late 1990s Tony Amonte and Bob Probert were the only star players left, but when old man Wirtz 'went' in 2007 for son Rocky to take over, the team was transformed. 
Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane have been flag bearers of that turn around, helping the Hawks to three Stanley Cups in six seasons. Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp formed a great group of Four forwards during that time too. Between Cups, the Hawks have made a lot of changes to adhere to the strict salary cap. That has seen Brandon Saad leave for the Blue Jackets but then return in a bizarre trade that sent Artemi Panarin the other way. Panarin and fellow Russian Artem Anisimov had formed a great partnership on the second line alongside Kane so to give that up for a player whose career was on a downward spiral was disappointing.
Sadly, success comes at a cost and a maxed-out salary cap meant some promising young players like Finnish forward Teuvo Teravainen were let go. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook were the best defensive pairing in the league during the Hawks run of success, but age is slowly starting to creep up on them. While my Pens were finding more ways of messing up a shot at another Cup between 2010-2015, there was a lot of comfort in seeing the Hawks winning them instead. 
Chicago, with their Blues music and fascinating history and culture is possibly the greatest city I have been to [New York doesn’t even come close]; I have some good friends from the Windy City, who are Hawks fans. One of which is Kyle who I have been fortunate enough to go to a Hawks game with at the United Center. The Hawks are certainly a team close to my heart and are from a city I absolutely love. But more than that though they are just a proper hockey team, an original six member, with an awesome logo, very similar to that of the Whitley Warriors.

5 – Toronto Maple Leafs - The Newcastle United of the NHL. Huge fan base that hasn't won a trophy since the late 1960s that was/is mainly due to a series of mismanagement. The Mid-90s team was the first one to stick in the memory with Doug Gilmour leading the team. Then by 1999 we had the team make the Conference Finals with Mats Sundin and Tie Domi. 
The last 15 years have been tough for the Leafs, but with former Whitley Warrior Mike Babcock taking over coaching duties and the short-term appointment of former New Jersey GM Lou Lamoriello, there is a belief that finally Toronto are assembling all the right parts to build something the right way. Brendan Shanahan is also on board now and with the likes of Patrick Marleau leading a young exciting team of Austin Matthews, Mitch Marner and Kasperi Kapanen they should be built for cup runs for years to come, if only they could get past those pesky Bruins in Round 1.
Toronto is another one of my favourite cities to visit and is the true home of hockey. Given their stature in the Hockey world, having a winning Leafs side is a good thing.

6 – Detroit Red Wings - For a long time the Wings were my second team. Growing up thy were always contenders. Sergei Fedorov was one of the all-time greats and possibly the best two-way player ever! Equally at home at Center or Right Wing, he could also drop back to the blue line and direct play from there. He was also dating Russian Tennis hottie Anna Kournikova with rumors they were actually married at one stage. For that alone he was my hero. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. The roster back then read like a who's who of hockey: Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan, Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, Niklas Lidstrom, Chris Chelios, Dominik Hasek, Chris Osgood and Mike Vernon. There was the Grind Line of Darren McCarty, Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby. The rugged forward Marty Lapointe and of course the Russian Five. Fedorov was on a forward line with Slava Kozlov and Igor Larionov, once part of the fabled KLM Soviet Line. There was the legendary Slava Fetisov on the blue line alongside tough defenseman Vladimir Konstantionov. So many reasons to love the Wings, but then after the lockout of 2004-05 the salary cap meant the team had to cut some of their talent and it wasn't quite the same, but with former Whitley Warriors defenseman Mike Babcock in charge the team remained serious contenders. The 2008 and 2009 Stanley Cup Finals pitted both my teams against one-another and made for two great series. With Babcock now moved on to Toronto, Detroit enter what is a new era, as they attempt a re-build for the first time in 30 years. The glory years might be a fading memory but in Dylan Larkin they have a Michigan-born star in the making who could lead this team much like Yzerman did.

7 – Winnipeg Jets - Originally the 1999 expansion Atlanta Thrashers, the team moved North to Manitoba in 2011. Since then it has been tough for the Jets, but last season represented the team’s best, going to the conference finals before losing to the Golden Knights. I was lucky enough to watch the Jets at home back in March 2015 and they put on a great show in a 5-2 win over the Sharks. Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little, Blake Wheeler and Michael Frolik were well established on the team. Drew Stafford and Tyler Myers arrived as part of the Evander Kane trade from Buffalo. Mathieu Perreault was a good addition, with Jiri Tlusty too. The Jets have an exciting team right now and hopefully will continue that into the coming season. Mark Scheifele is now the well-established leader of the team with Patrick Laine arriving after being drafted from Tappara in Finland. Laine is a true sniper in much the same style as Alex Ovechkin and those players along with big defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, an imposing presence if ever there was one, and you have quite the team.

8 – Minnesota Wild – When the North Stars packed up and moved South to Texas Minnesota were left without and NHL team for 7 years, something that should never have been allowed to happen. The Wild have been in the NHL since 2000 but hadn't often made the play-offs. That all changed in 2012 with some key additions but the Wild faced and lost to the Hawks on three occasion during the post season despite proving to be the best dark horses in the league. In Zach Parise and Jason Pominville they had two good goal scorers. They were complimented by Finnish pair Mikko Koivu and Mikael Granlund and the likes of Jason Zucker, Nino Niederreiter, Thomas Vanek and Charlie Coyle. Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin were the top defensive pairing while Devan Dubnyk was a bargain find to help ease a goaltending crisis.
The Wild are such a likeable team, and the Minnesotans I met whilst there in April 2015 were really, great people. The team's slogan is 'The State of Hockey' and you can understand why. Minnesota is the hot bed of American hockey with the Gophers College team based in Minneapolis. Hopefully these hockey crazy fans will have a winning team for some time to come.

9 – Dallas Stars - With UK NHL coverage in full swing courtesy of Channel 5 it meant I got to watch the 1999 Stanley Cup playoffs. Dallas were in the finals, I needed to choose a team to follow as the Penguins and Red Wings were long since eliminated in Round 2, and it was never going to be the defensive minded Buffalo Sabres was it? 
It proved to be an inspired choice as the Stars won the cup with a good team that included franchise player Mike Modano, defensive forward Jere Lehtinen, goal-scoring super star Brett Hull, along with Joe Nieuwendyk, Jamie Langenbrunner, Guy Carbonneau, Pat Verbeek, Sergei Zubov and Ed Belfour.
Since then the Stars have always been a team I have liked. Recent seasons have seen mixed results with the team making the playoffs one year with Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn scoring goals for fun then missing out on the post season the next. Patrick Sharp seemed to find a new lease of life after leaving the Blackhawks for a couple of years and Valeri Nichushkin, a promising young Russian who continues to look for the form from his rookie season. If anyone needed further incentives, Derien Hatcher once broke Jeremy 'Motor Mouth' Roenick's jaw. Surely that is reason enough to like the Stars right?

10 – Colorado Avalanche - I liked the Quebec Nordiques, and when Eric Lindros forced a trade to the Goons of Philly, the Nordiques were able to assemble a championship winning team off what they got back in return. Sadly, by the time they were any good, they upped sticks and moved to Denver. There were aspects of the team I disliked. Dirty Claude with his horrible hit on Kris Draper in 1996, Patrick WAAAAAW was odious too, although it must be said he was also a great goalie. But during their rivalry with the Wings between 1996-02 both teams pushed each other onto greater achievements. Joe Sakic was the Av's version of Steve Yzerman, and Valery Kamensky was from the same CSKA Moscow team as Sergei Fedorov. Peter Forsberg could be childish at times, but what a player he was when he wasn't trying to get revenge on someone for hitting him. Milan Hejduk and Alex Tanguay were introduced in time to win a well-deserved cup in 2001, but things went downhill after that. With Sakic now GM and the Landeskog-MacKinnon-Rantanen line the best in the NHL, the team is starting to get back to being a contender. However, they could certainly use some secondary scoring.

11 – Columbus Blue Jackets - CBJ! as my friend John from Ohio loves to message me with. I have always had a soft spot for the Blue Jackets, right from their expansion in 2000 alongside the Wild. The team has struggled throughout their short history, but I have always liked them from day one. During my first trip to the States in 2011, following Newcastle United's pre-season tour, I ended up at a Columbus Crew game, where I met John alongside my Blues supporting friend Dan but before that I had to go visit the Nationwide Arena.
I was in my first hockey town of the trip and had to make the pilgrimage to an actual NHL Arena. The staff there were brilliant, and their warmth and kindness has always stuck with me. With this being July, the ice was covered over while the arena was being prepared for a concert, but that didn't stop me getting a free tour of the place and a chance to walk out to where center ice would be. I made a promise then, that one day I would return and take in a game there, which I have since done twice. Columbus is actually a really cool city and somewhere I love visiting on my trips heading from Pittsburgh to St Louis. With Panarin there too, for now, CBJ have improved year after year.

12 – Buffalo Sabres – The best part of NY! Considering Buffalo is one of the smaller NHL markets, the Sabres have always been able to attract some quality players: Dominik Hasek, Pat Lafontaine, Alexander Mogilny and Dave Andreychuk to name but a few. Their current Dark Blue and Yellow jerseys are pretty bad-ass too. In recent years they have become a side I have increasingly warmed towards. Given recent trades a lot of former Penguins and Blues players are there, and you get the impression they are trying to build something in the next few years. Given its proximity to both Toronto and Pittsburgh it makes an easy stop off en-route to either of those cities and you know what? It’s got some cool bars and interesting architecture.

13 – Montreal Canadiens - There was a time I really didn't like the Habs. It was around the late 1990s and their team sucked, aside from Saku Koivu. Then two years ago I read a great book which chronicled their history and now I have nothing but admiration for them. The 2013-14 season showed they had a good side with Gallagher, Pacioretty, Galchenyuk and Plekanec starring, but after not really taking that next step another rebuild happened. As it turned out it was one for the better with near-immediate results. Max Domi arrived from Phoenix, to center the top line while young Finn, Kotkoniemi looks like he will be a great player and he is only 18! Shea Weber has also proved to be a great leader on the blue line since his arrival and with those iconic red, white and blue jerseys there is something majestic about watching the Habs. Having been to Montreal last year it is another great place to add to an ever-growing list of hockey trips. The Bell Centre also has something of a team museum you can walk through on your way to finding your seats to the arena.

14 – Vancouver Canucks - People say you never forget your first, and for me that would be the Canucks. They were the first NHL team I got to see, when I visited the Rogers Center back in 2013. Before that visit I always had mixed feelings towards them. The team of the early 1990s that included Pavel Bure and Trevor Linden were great although the Black jerseys were not so much. Then when the Jerseys changed so did the team. Not even the Messiah (Mark Messier) or Alexander Mogilny could save them from tanking, but that did mean the Sedin twins could arrive and with Brendan Morrison and Markus Naslund also in BC it meant the team improved once again. They really should have won the Cup in 2011 but got bullied out the series by the odious Bruins.
Despite the Leafs being the Newcastle United of the NHL, it's the Canucks fans that are more aligned to the Geordies. Only in Vancouver and Newcastle, could you get fans to smash up their own city after another cup finals loss. Although there have been no reports of a Canadian Mountie having his horse punched unconscious like what happened in England.

15 – Los Angeles Kings - The Kings have always tried to throw money at star players in the hope they could mesh into a team, kind of like a West Coast New York Rangers. But in 2012 they decided to do things differently. They just sneaked into a playoff spot, and proceeded to pick off all three Western Conference Division Winners (Vancouver, St Louis & Phoenix) on their way to landing their first ever Stanley Cup. It was done with a strong, hard-working team lead by Slovenian star Anze Kopitar. Over the next two years they made the Conference Finals again, capping a fine 2014 with a second Cup. Kopitar then having Marion Gaborik and on his line. However, their mini dynasty ended sharply and a full-on re-build is currently on-going. It’s a shame to see them slump now but I still hold good memories of their cup successes.

16 – Tampa Bay Lightning - When the Bolts arrived in the NHL they were a losing team for years, then they found Marty St. Louis who scored goals for fun, and brought in veteran Dave Andreychuk still trying to get his hands on a cup for the first time. John Tortorella was the perfect coach for that team, and they were good to watch in 2003-04. The 'Triplets Line' of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov are great to watch now, along with Steven Stamkos. In Andrei Vasilevskiy they have arguable the best goalie in the NHL right now. Despite a 62 win campaign last season they were swept in the opening round of the playoffs meaning their search for a second cup continues.

17 – Edmonton Oilers - Let's face it other than Flames fans, who doesn't like the Oilers. The team from the 1980s that contained Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Esa Tikkanen, Paul Coffey, Glen Anderson, Grant Fuhr et al will go down as one of the greatest ever. Since those heady days though it’s been a tough existence for the team from Alberta. All that was supposed to change after landing yet another number 1 draft pick in Connor McDavid. The rookie is expected to be the best player to be drafted since Sidney Crosby ten years earlier. However, trading Taylor Hall, a perfect foil you would assume on McDavid’s wing, has hampered their progress. Mick David as they call him in North America is going to be a star for years to come but he needs a supporting cast to help him take the team into the playoffs again.

18 – Phoenix Coyotes - I used to love the Yotes. It starts back when they were the original Winnipeg Jets with Teemu Selanne. Then after they moved to the desert of Arizona, Channel Five in the UK started showing NHL games. During one occasion in the Spring of 1999 Todd Macklin (the studio expert) spoke about the new second line that had assembled. There was former Penguins Rick Tocchet, flying Winger Greg Adams and newly signed center Robert Reichel. It was that single moment that got my obsession with hockey lines started, as before then it wasn't something, I paid a great deal too. 
The team had a great season and with Keith Tkachuk, Jeremy Roenick, Teppo Numminen and Nikolai Khabibulin all starring, they became my second favourite team at the time. They also had this unique jersey with a Kachina style pattern to it. A lot of people slated that Jersey but I actually loved it! The next few years were tough but when Wayne Gretzky bought the team it set up the weird situation of having my two favourite ever hockey players owning my two favourite teams (Mario Lemieux and the Penguins being the other side).
Fast forward to 2013 and the team got off to a great start to the season which coincided with my visit to Glendale Arena. Radim Vrbata and Lauri Korpikoski were great to watch around that time, but by December the team fell apart, expensive signing Mike 'Skeletor' Ribeiro fell off the wagon and I started to fall out of love with them. The following season matters were made worse when first they changed their name to the Arizona Coyotes (which still doesn’t sound right to me) and then the geriatric Shane Doan delivered a cheap-shot to Kris Letang, that screwed any chance the Pens had of progressing in the playoffs.
I do still have happy (fading) memories of the Coyotes, but this current team sucks big style. The next few years saw them trade away their better players and tank, as they attempted to grab more number better draft picks. But they abandoned that strategy after a couple of years and wasted those picks on expensive veterans. However, with Rick Tocchet taking up the head coaching job he has turned the team around and took them from a side rotting in the basement to won who narrowly missed out on a playoff berth for the first time since 2012.
Having been to Glendale to watch Coyotes games quite often I have got used to what it is like there. They do have some Douche bag fans, which tarnishes their name. They probably are like that due to being in a non-hockey market. Hopefully though the team will stay in Arizona. The last thing I want is to see is the team move to say somewhere like Portland.

19 – Florida Panthers - The team from Sunrise, have always been a struggling franchise, rarely making the post season throughout their history, but they have had some great players over the years. Between 1999-02 the Panthers were able to call upon Russian stars such as Pavel & Valeri Bure, Viktor Kozlov and Oleg Kvasha and were great to watch. Now they are building something good, with Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov on the top line and Coach Q arriving to help take them to the next level. They might not make the playoffs this coming season, but they do have a young core so they have plenty of time on their side to put that right.

20 – Calgary Flames - Never thought much of the flames, in fact when they suck they really suck, but in recent years they improved massively and Johnny Gaudreau has turned into a great player. Last season they won their division but crashed out the playoffs in the first round, still though the signs are there they are improving.

21 – Carolina Hurricanes - I used to love the Hartford Whalers, but then they moved to a non-hockey market in Raleigh, NC and it certainly angered me. Now, although I don't necessarily dislike them, they are just one of those teams without much of an identity. How many people in the UK would actually say 'yeah, you know what I'm going to support the Hurricanes?' or can actually remember the Canes winning a Stanley Cup thirteen years ago for that matter? It certainly seems a million miles away now. However, after 12 straight seasons without any playoff hockey a new exciting team full of young European players such Aho and Svechnikov took the league by storm (excuse the pun). They even managed to upset the grumpiest man in Canada, when Don Cherry branded the Canes players ‘A Bunch of Jerks’ just because they had the cheek to celebrate each victory with a different post game ritual with the fans. There was the Icelandic Thunderclap, Baseball on Ice and Ten Pin Bowling, all taken in good humour and was about a bunch of players having fun, which what hockey should be about. But the most opinionated and uneducated man in hockey thought different. 

22 – New Jersey Devils - Back in the late 90s early 00s New Jersey used to bore teams to death with their neutral zone trap. If that didn't work Scott Stevens would try and smash the opposition through the boards or end opponent’s careers like he did with Eric Lindros and attempted to do with Paul Kariya. I used to hate this team at the time, but as the years have passed, I have actually grown to appreciate what they achieved. Their 1999-00 Cup Winning team was probably their best and included a daunting top line of Jason Arnott, Petr Sykora and Patrick Elias. Throw in guys like Bobby Holik, Sergei Brylin, Scott Gomez, Jay Pandalfo and John Madden and this really was a stacked team. Right now, the team is still in the middle of a re-build, since losing Ilya Kovalchuk they have been trying to get back to that level. Certainly, having two number one draft picks in three seasons will help that process.

23 – New York Islanders - Pittsburgh were all set for a three-peat in 1993, until a horrible, boring, defensive team full of players no one had ever heard of stopped them in their tracks. Super Mario should have had his dynasty and for that I will never forgive the fish sticks. Also, Billy Smith was a bit of a dirty dog back in the 1980s. Then there was the horrendous brawl that took place in 2011 when the Islanders decided to call up some goods from the minor leagues who looked like a bunch of serial killers and trailer trash. Then there was the curious case of John Tavares. Being a Toronto native Tavares understandably wanted to sign with his hometown team. And let’s face it where would you rather live? In the middle of Long Island the most boring part of the most overrated city in America? Or in Toronto, a vibrant and uber cool city? Plus, well The Islanders have sucked since 1984 when they last made a Stanley Cup Finals appearance. So with Tavares gone the Islanders fans collecting started to cry their eyes out. But then they took it a step further. Prior to the Leafs meeting the Isles in Lawng Island they released a video of a bunch of fans crying over Tavares leaving in an open letter type format with fans openly crying as though they had been jilted by an ex-lover. It was probably the most pathetic and cringeworthy thing I have ever seen, and those fans should be embarrassed by it. Then the childish chants began during the game ‘Whose you daddy?’ which apparently relates to something to do with a Yankees player for decades ago. Remind me what Rounders has to do with Good ol Game? But that’s New York Sports fans for you. Arrogant and disgusting in equal measure.

24 – Vegas Golden Knights – Where do I start with this one? I hate this franchise! There I said it. But why you may ask? Firstly, the destination. Vegas, the self-styled Sin City where people go to gamble away their problems and the locals are too busy working in casinos to, go to a game. To me Vegas always seems like a holiday destination not a place where people, actually live. As if having one struggling franchise in the desert wasn’t enough, they decided to bring another one at the expense of more deserving cities such as Seattle, Houston, Hartford or Quebec City. Then there is the jersey, who ever thought grey, black and gold would work? And when I say gold the material looks like someone has stitched sandpaper to the sleeves. It must be the most hideous design the NHL has ever seen. The logo isn’t great either, then you have the name Golden Knights. In reference to their mega-rich owner William Foley’s time in the United States Military Academy ‘The Black Knights’ I mean that isn’t egotistical or anything is it? So, the owner buys his way into the league, bribes Gary Bettman to give him favourable expansion draft options, making sure they were competitive from the start [Where was that favouritism for the Predators, Thrashers, Blue Jackets and Wild?], Then after all that he names the team after himself.
With top players stolen off other franchises and inheriting a three-time Stanley Cup winning goalie in Marc-Andre Fleury it’s no surprise they had such a successful inaugural season. Of course, the media were falling over themselves at their success, an expansion team making the SCF in year 1! but I wasn’t. If you give a franchise that many advantages of course they will do well. If the Columbus Blue Jackets had been given that kind of start in 2000, they would have made the Stanley Cup finals too.
Fast forward a year and they were oh so bitter over the way they lost a series to the Sharks in 2019. A five-minute penalty was called on Cody Eakin for delivering a concussion to Joe Pavelski and the Sharks scored several times off it to deliver a knockout blow and effectively win the series. The Knights official twitter page even took to sending out embarrassing tweets over the call, what did Uncle Gary not fix it for you to make it to another final this year? Oh what a shame. So no, sorry but The Vegas Golden Knights can go screw themselves.

25 – Ottawa Senators - I have nothing against the Sens as such, in fact in the late 90s they had a very talented young team with Alexei Yashin and Marian Hossa leading the charge. Right now, they are a complete mess. There are no standout players to make me like them and the odious Chris Neil was a douche bag of the highest order. With an owner who doesn’t want to invest in the team, players’ wives bullying each other and players departing quicker than you can say Erik Karlsson and you can see why they are in this mess. There is an issue over their current arena which is in Kanata (miles from Ottawa) and no agreement in place to get one downtown, could they be on the move? I think most of my dislike for the team stems from a gruelling ECF series against the Pens in 2017 and the geographical rivalry they share with the Leafs.

26 – New York Rangers - When Wayne Gretzky wound down his career with the Smurfs, they were a team I quite liked, but since the Great One retired, the Rangers became something of a joke, buying up a collection of expensive players that would never mesh into a team. Over recent years the Rangers had a hold over the Pens, that included eliminating us from the playoffs in 2014 and 2015, even though the Rangers had a weaker team, so that soured my feelings towards them further. Also Adam Graves' dirty slash that broke Mario Lemieux's wrist in 1992 was disgusting and so they will always be way down the rankings for that as well. Plus well ya know, it’s New York and New Yorkers are amongst the worst sports fans in the world. There’s a reason why everyone hates the Yankees.

27 – Anaheim Sucks - Back in the late 1990s when they were known as the Mighty Ducks, Anaheim were a decent team. They had Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne scoring goals for fun. Then in 2003 Whitley Warrior's very own Mike Babcock coached them to game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. However, things change. Babcock moved on to bigger and better things at Detroit, Kariya disappeared while Selanne did return post lockout. With a new era being ushered in a name change saw the 'Mighty' disappear and their jersey colors going from unique and interesting (Green/Purple) to dull and boring (Black/Orange/Gold). When the Sucks did win a Stanley Cup they did so following the Flyers, blueprint of gooning it up. There is no coincidence that Chris Pronger has played for both teams, and spent his entire time going out of his way to banjo opposing players. Over the last few seasons we have seen Ryan Getzlaf and Kyle Palmieri delivering some dirty plays, but the biggest reason to dislike the team from Orange County is, the odious Corey Perry. He goes through games dealing out cheap shots, late hits and thinking he is some sort of tough guy, until someone drops the gloves and he bottles it. Basically, he is like a poor man's Jeremy Roenick, that is a moniker no one should wish for. Surely someone, eventually will give Perry the ass-kicking he deserves, and finally wipe that smug, gormless look off his face.

28 – Trashville Predators - The Preds used to be one of those teams I had nothing against. In fact, had they been in any other division than the super competitive Central they would have ranked much higher. However, then there was the 2017 Stanley Cup Finals. I mean there are players I dislike on the team, mainly their dirty Swedes who hack and slash their way through games and deliver a few sucker punches when the officials are not looking and one of the biggest tools in the game. P.K. Subban who we understand could use some mouth wash following a clash with Crosby. But perhaps the biggest reason I hate this team is their fans. This is a perfect example on why a non-hockey market shouldn’t get successful as they don’t know how to behave, and having a team supported by a bunch of Southern Hillbillies is the worst.
But for some reason the media love them, ‘Preds fans are so passionate!’ No they just make a lot of noise. ‘But they throw catfish on the ice, how original is that?’ Hmm pretty sure the Red Wings were tossing an Octopus onto their ice for decades. ‘I know, you gotta love them smashing up cars with the rival team’s logo on it, how awesome a way is that to support your team?’ You mean needless vandalism whilst behaving like trailer trash? No thanks. Even Mike Fisher’s puck bunny, Carrie Underwood got involved in it with her friend which reminded me of that Eminem song ‘Two Trailer Park Girls Go Round The Outside, Round The Outside, Round The Outside.’
Throughout their run to the 2017 Finals they saw off the Hawks and Blues and in each series every tweet of chant in the arena was concluded with a ‘Hawks Suck’ or ‘Blues Suck’ oh how original. The following year when one of their goons took a Jet’s players head off and the officials dared to call a penalty which was borderline assault what do you think those ‘awesome’ fans said? Yeah that’s right ‘Ref You Suck’.
So, their fans for me are the main problem. When they were a struggling team, they were okay but as soon as they became good people jumped on the band wagon and their creditability plummeted. 
They do have a couple of redeeming features though. In Pekka Rinne they have an excellent shot-stopper who will win games and you know well he is Finnish, and I love the Finns. Eeli Tolvanen, another Finn who was the star of the 2018 Winter Olympics, is also there, although bizarrely doesn’t get played, and there is also Chris Mason. Chris, was a former Predators goalie who also spent some time with the Blues and is the current color commentator for the Predators. I was fortunate enough to meet him and he is a great guy. Turns out his grandparents are from the same village as where my sister lives, so it was cool talking to him. I just wished he was working for a better franchise that was more deserving of his talents.

29 – Washington Crapitals – One of the Pens biggest rivals was always going to feature down here wasn’t it? Much of my dislike for the Caps is down to the playoff battles with the Pens over the years. The dirty treatment dished out by the Caps in 1996 saw Super Mario forced to drop the gloves with Todd Krygier, then in 2001 when he just returned from his first retirement the dirty hits continued on him. More recently The Pens v Caps rivalry has been re-ignited with them meeting in three successive years of the post season.
Until now that wasn’t really a problem but then in 2018 the Caps beat the Pens and Tom Wilson became public enemy number 1. A terrible hit on Zach Aston-Reese, which ended his season was disgusting. Since then he has had a series of multi game bans as he continues to deliver dirty hits but got a taste of his own medicine when he was cleaned out by Ryan Reeves. Erik Gudbranson is another guy who has the better of him in fights throughout their careers. 
The rosie-cheeked cherub that is T.J. Oshie is another player I don’t like. Even when he was a Blues player, he was someone I didn’t like, but playing alongside Wilson has obviously brought out the cheap shots in him.
Ex-Pen Matt Niskanen soured his relationship with his former teammates after snapping his stick around Crosby’s neck in 2017 while Alex Ovechkin is massively overrated. He is a one-trick pony (granted that one trick still beats goalies more than it should) and has this arrogance about him. He also looks like he could use a good wash, in fact I bet he smells of sour milk. Probably the only Russian player I have ever disliked. I would argue Evgeny Kuznetsov is a better player on that Caps team than Ovi-Rated.

30 – Boston Bruins - Another team that the Pens have a decent rivalry with. It started in the early 90s when both teams met in the Conference Finals of 1991 & 1992, as Pittsburgh went on to lift their first two Cups. Ulf Samuelsson was always an uncompromising defenseman and developed a divisional/local rivalry with the Bruins Star player Cam Neely, whilst playing for the Hartford Whalers. Neely, hardly a saint himself, took exception to a hit to his knee, during Game 3 of the 1991 Finals, and has never shut up about it since, becoming a whiney bitch. Fast forward a few years and both teams met in another Conference Final, this time it was 2013. The vile Brad Marchand did a dirty hit on James Neal and Chris Kelly spent Game 1 going after Matt Cooke.
James Neal had his revenge the following December when he appeared to Knee Brad Marchand in the back of the head. This provoked all-out war with Shawn Thornton hospitalising Brooks Orpik with a cheap shot, punch to the back of the head. Thornton added insult to injury by sending Orpik a Hockey Helmet full of fruit in a vain attempt to get his suspension reduced. Even the normally passive Pascal Dupuis slashed at Chris Kelly, breaking his ankle. 
The main reason for dis-liking the Bruins right now is Brad Marchand. Again, he is someone just asking for a good old-fashioned ass kicking. The Bruins first visit back to Vancouver after winning the 2011 Stanley Cup saw Marchand skating past the Canucks fans and lifting an invisible cup to taunt them. When he isn’t cheap-shotting opponents he is licking their faces. He looks like a rat and behaves like one too.
There was also a cheap hit by Chris Kelly which took out Evgeni Malkin towards the end of the 2014-15 season. Normally it wouldn't be too much of an issue, but it meant the injury sustained kept Geno out of the game at Phoenix a few days later, a game I was attending and so denied me probably my only chance (or so I thought at the time) of getting to see Malkin play for the Pens.
Most recently the Bruins faced the St Louis Blues in the 2019 Stanley Cup Finals and the antics they stooped too was classless. The coach, Bruce Cassidy, crying if he didn’t get a call he wanted (in actual fact he got two Blues players suspended with this tactic whist Torrey Krug escaped a penalty for charging the length of the ice to take a Blues player out). The Zamboni issue ahead of Game 7 was deplorable, preventing the Blues from taking a practice the day before the game and Rat-Boy himself, Marchand was never far away from controversy. When justice was done, and the Blues deservedly won their first cup in franchise history the Bruins were still crying over losing. ‘They stole our destiny’ was one such non-sensical comment. How do you think the Canucks felt in 2011 when you stole a cup off them you didn’t deserve?
Boston used to be a much nicer place when it was a city of losers. But then those odious Trump supporters Kraft, Belichick and Tom Brady came along cheating their way to one Super Bowl success after another. Then the Red Sox ended their 100 year wait for a World Series too and suddenly the city got used to having their parades and the fans became obnoxiously bad winners. So, thanks Boston you have somehow managed to out-New York, New York.

31 – Philadelphia Flyers - Goes without saying being a Pens fan I hate these guys. It doesn't help the fact that the Flyers have always been the dirtiest hockey teams in the NHL, from the Broad Street Bullies to Todd The Dork (Fedoruk).
When CSKA Moscow played them in a series back in 1976, the Flyers goons targeted the Russian's skill players like Kharlamov, trying to injure them. Fast forward 25 years and Fedoruk was doing the same to Mario Lemieux, although he will go down as one of the worst goons in history, anyone remember Colton Orr knocking him out? Hilarious.
Their jerseys are terrible, something resembling a squashed pumpkin left over from Halloween. Simply a vile hockey team always has been always will be.
Their least-worst team was during the Eric Lindros era and his legion of doom line. I still never liked them but their darker shade of orange jerseys, along with their black alternate was infinitely better than what we have now, and they actually had good players back then. Gudas, Giroux and Scott ‘More Cowbell’ Hartnell are a reminder of just how horrible this team is.
I recently went to a Pens/Flyers game in Pittsburgh and as much as I hate this team from the city of brotherly love, I actually found some of these guys okay. Maybe they are not completely bad, just mostly.

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Kingston Rec Tournament - June 29-30, 2019

Hillheads-based trio, Whitley Bay Islanders, Newcastle Predators and Durham Dragons were all in action at the Kingston Tournament last weekend with varying degrees of success.

The Predators and Islanders faced off against one-another in the second game of the day with the latter coming out 3-1 winners. The Islanders were able to score on an early power play and also bagged a short-handed goal too from Stephen Laidler. However, having built a three goal lead with Gav Wafer’s marker at 6:53, the Islanders began to tire and the Predators ended the game the stronger, bagging a goal through Lee Gill and going close a couple of times after but some good saves by Drew Forester in the Islanders net preserved their lead.

The Predators bounced back in their next game, beating Scottish team Dumfries Demons. However, they had to work hard for the win. It was the third line that found the breakthrough when Curtis Dean gave the Predators the lead after being set up by Ben McCallum and Andy Dytham. Adam Winter then doubled that advantage with less than two minutes left but Dumfries got a goal back moments later through Steven Renton. Setting up a nervy finish. However, the Predators would go on to win 2-1 and claim their first points of the weekend.

The Islanders had a second straight derby match to contend with when they played the Dragons in their second game. Contests between the two have been enthralling in recent years but perhaps nobody expected such a comfortable margin of victory for Whitley, especially considering the number of key players that were missing from their line up for the tournament. Ross Trail gave them an early lead they would hold for the next ten minutes. David Hirst got the Dragons back on level terms but that didn’t last for long. Liam Brown, Liam Telfer and a Gav Wafer double secured a 5-1 win. The best goal of the game came from Telfer who shot from the halfway line to beat Sam Elsom in the Dragons goal.

For Durham this represented the lowest point of the tournament for them, as they had already lost their opening game to Grimsby 3-2. They soon put that right though with a comfortable 4-1 win over Blackburn Falcons to end the day with their first points on the board.

Having beat Durham, it was a case of after the Lord Mayor’s show for the Islanders as they surprisingly found themselves down 2-0 to Dumfries. Former Solway Shark, John Ballentyne gave Dumfries the lead just 53 seconds in before Jamie Kerr made it two at the mid-point of the game. The Islanders would get a goal back through Steve Brown, but it wouldn’t be enough to prevent a first loss in the tournament.

The Predators then had two tough encounters to end the day with. Against the hosts Kingston Cobras, they went down 0-5 but did hang on until the ninth minute before conceding a powerplay goal to Chris Armitage. Then Kingston scored twice in fifteen seconds as Aaron Jordan and Mike Fletcher put the game out of the Predator’s reach. A brace from Lewis Fenwick, which included a shorthanded and a power play goal, in the final five minutes completed the scoring.

The Predators then had to face Grimsby Lightning in the final game of the day. The Lightning were the only team that were unbeaten from Day 1, when they inflicted a 1-4 defeat on the Preds. James Wardle was the main difference between the two sides as he netted a hat-trick scoring on a delayed penalty to get his sides’ opening strike. James Kelly scored on the powerplay to complete the scoring for Grimsby, while Jamie Penaluna’s shorthanded marker with five minutes to go briefly slashed the Lightning’s lead to two but Wardle’s hat-trick goal ended the game as a contest moments later.

Durham had the honour of getting Day 2 underway with a 2-1 win over Dumfries. The Scottish side left disappointed last year but were proving to be a much tougher team to beat 12 months later. In fact, five of their six games were settled by just a single goal which shows how difficult a side they were to break down.

The Predators were next up, and they had two games within an hour, drawing the first contest 1-1 with Blackburn Falcons, before taking on the Dragons. Conor Duthie has given the Falcons an early lead, but the Predators played well and found a way back into the game at the midpoint when Australian defenseman Dylan Stevens scored on the powerplay.

The game against Durham would prove to be the best performance of the weekend for the Predators as they competed well with their opponents and narrowly lost 0-2. Ian Spraggon and John Shreeve scored for the Dragons but the Predators had racked up 12 PIMs which probably didn’t help their cause. However, the level of commitment from every player on every shift meant they could head home with some positives to take into next weekend’s NRHC encounter against the same side.

That left the Predators on four points and mathematically they could no longer finish any higher then fifth place. It also as good as confirmed Whitley and Durham would be in the semi-finals along with Kingston and Grimsby.

That being said the Islanders still had work to do and had to come from behind against Kingston to win 3-2. Steve Brown opened the scoring but two goals from William Smith, three minutes apart had given the Cobras the lead. However, a minute later the Islanders tied it up and 42 seconds after that had their lead back when Liam Telfer found the net. Perhaps more importantly though was the loss of Ross Trail to an upper body injury which required a visit to the local hospital. Sadly, it appears the former Whitley Renegade [Under 20s] will be out for some time.

Whitley faced Grimsby next and secured another win [2-1]. Liam Brown gave the Islanders the lead, but the unbeaten Lightning were not going to give up without a fight. James Kelly levelled the scores at 11:52 but Richie Crowe’s goal six minutes later secured the victory for the Islanders and inflicted a first defeat of the weekend on their opponents in the process. The Islanders were finding ways to win tight games but perhaps they were peaking too soon in the tournament?

Durham secured a 3-1 win over Kingston in their last game to finish fourth in the standings [Played 6, Won 4, Lost 2, Goals Scored 16, Goals Against 10, Points 12].

The final game of the group stage saw Whitley cruise to a 5-1 win over Blackburn Falcons, a result which confirmed they would win the group stage by finishing top of the standings with 15 points from a possible 18. Steve Brown opened the scoring before Adam Fleet briefly had Blackburn level before the Islanders re-took the lead at 10:11though Richie Crowe. Further strikes from Gav Wafer, Brown and Crowe, the latter two getting their second goals of the game, completed the scoring.

Despite ending the group stage on a high, it would count for nothing as the Islanders were not even afforded a rest period between the game with Blackburn and their semi-final. Of course, it was a mere quirk in the schedule but did lead many to question why bother with a group stage at all if there is no advantage to finishing first.

Following a short ice cut, the Islanders found themselves taking on a very well rested host team. That was evident after the Cobras had got two quick goals within the opening five minutes and would be increased to 3-0 before we had seven minutes on the clock. The Islanders were gassed and faced a very difficult final twenty minutes of their weekend. Right Wing Sniper Gav Wafer had a couple of fierce drives, but they were well stopped by Steve Hudson in the Kingston net, while Liam Brown had a breakaway, but he too found himself stonewalled by the impressive Hudson. Further goals from Kingston compounded the Islanders misery, and not even a consolation marker from Wafer to cut the score to 1-5 could raise spirits. Mike Forbes was certainly the star player for Kingston, as he netted four of his sides goals and bagged an assist in a five-point game. Nathan Otley and Lewis Fenwick also got on the scoresheet.

It was a tough way to exit a competition that the Islanders appeared to have within their grasp, but in the end the short bench and having to play four games in four hours finally took their toll. Might there have been a different story had the likes of Simon Leach, Bobby Bradley, Kevin Bucas and Paul Willis been playing?

A special mention should be made to Drew Forester in the Islanders net who has stepped up from the Tyneside Jesters this season to give Antony Markham some competition between the pipes. He made some smart saves at crucial times during the weekend to help the Islanders claim top spot in the standings.

With other results going their way the Newcastle Predators were confirmed as finishing fifth in the standings, one place from a Semi-Final spot. It was perhaps not as exciting as last year’s edition for the Preds when they claimed 3 wins and a draw from their five games but having faced some tough opposition it was certainly a good experience.

That left Durham, who were tied with Grimsby Lightning at 2-2 until they grabbed a late winner to book a place in the final.

With Kingston’s win over the Islanders in the other semi-final and also having the benefit of home ice advantage the Cobras entered the game with plenty of confidence. However, Durham who got off to a slow start in the competition were gradually improving with every game. Like any machine, I guess it just needs warming up before working to it’s true potential and by the final they were firing on all cylinders. A massive 6-0 victory was achieved to deservedly retain the trophy they won a year ago and our congratulations go to them.

All three sides will be back in action this coming weekend. Durham host Newcastle Predators on Saturday, July 6 at Hillheads [12 Noon Faceoff]. While the Whitley Bay Islanders will make the short journey down the A19 to take on the Cleveland Comets at the Billingham Forum later that same day [6pm Faceoff].

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

NRHC - Whitley Bay Islanders vs Kingston Cobras 3-2 - Sunday, June 9, 2019

The Whitley Bay Islanders consolidated their place at the top of the NRHC Northern Conference standings with a hard-fought win against a spirited Kingston Cobras side.

The Humberside based outfit arrived at Hillheads with just 10 skaters but managed to push the Islanders for the full 60 minutes and even surprised their hosts by taking the lead early in the second period. However, not for the first time this season the Islanders were thankful to Simon Leach who bagged a brace of goals to turn the game in his side’s favour.

The Cobras have been one of the top teams in Rec hockey over the past few years. However, last season represented a downturn in results, and nobody knew what to expect from them this year. But, right from the first puck drop the Cobras showed they were not going to be any pushovers, which was particularly re-assuring given the ease with which the Islanders won their previous two games against Durham Dragons and Newcastle Predators.

The first ten minutes of the game saw both teams still trying to work each other out, that was until the 11:34 mark when David Cowey’s persistence paid off. Having collected a pass from Richard Crowe, Cowey drove to the net and got a shot away, but Steven Hudson proved a formidable barrier in stopping the initial shot. He couldn’t prevent the rebound from going in though and Stephen Brown duly delivered to give the Islanders the lead.

Any momentum the home side were starting to build was soon taken away with a series of relatively soft calls against them. A tripping penalty against Calvin Khass, who was starring as a defenseman in the number 69 jersey, was looking like being killed off until Kingston scored with a second left of the powerplay. Aaron Jordan converting Michael Fletcher’s pass.

Soon after that, calls on Kevin Bucas and Ben Buckley 44 seconds apart gifted the Cobras a two man-advantage which went into the second period. The Islanders were doing a great job of killing the penalties off but with 19 seconds left on that one the visitors scored again. This time Jordan turned provider for Fletcher who shot high over the glove side of Antony Markham.

The Cobras had shocked the Islanders, but the home side knew they had to shift up a gear and they did just that. Simon Leach collected the puck from Liam Telfer in the high slot before drilling a low shot in the far corner of Hudson’s net to tie the game. Then with less than 90 seconds left in the period, Ross Tomlinson let fly with a fierce drive from the left wing which Leach was able to get a tip on and direct it into the net. The score was turned around and the Islanders were back ahead.

There were no further goals in the final period but with the Islanders having already done enough they seemed content to control the puck with Markham once again proving what a quality goalie he is when called upon. 

At the halfway stage of the competition the Islanders have taken seven points from eight and it certainly appears as though it will be them and Durham who will fight it out for top spot in the conference. On this evidence Kingston shouldn’t be written off either though. They know their opponents in the group well from their Summer Cup days and are still capable of beating anyone on their day.

Islanders are next in action in two weeks’ time against the Cleveland Comets [Saturday, June 22nd12pm Faceoff].