Kukla's Korner Hockey
by George Malik on 09/20/07 at 02:12 PM ET
by George James Malik
It’s that time of year again, that time again for each and every one of us, regardless of the teams we root for. Training camp has ended, and the exhibition season has begun, and whether you’ve seen scrimmages and exhibition games in person, online, or whether all the information you can find is the “official” line from the mainstream media, you think you’ve got a pretty good idea as to which of your team’s prospects, try-outs, and new free agents are going to pan out—especially if you’ve seen them in action.
I happen to be of the opinion that hockey fans are the smartest and savviest in sports. We follow a game that not only moves at “a hundred miles an hour,” the speed of the puck, but also a game with ebbs and flows, with momentum changes that are as subtle but tactile, and astonishing acts of improvisation based on nothing more than instinct, reading off everything from teammates’ tendencies to the angle of an opponent’s skates as he skates in on the forecheck. We see that, and, especially if we’ve played, we get it. For a game that screams in slapshots and thunderous bodychecks, attention to detail, grit, will, and desire can defeat size, strength, skill, and depth four times out of seven, and that’s enough to make the most unlikely teams championship material, at least on occasion.
Sometimes, however, our instincts aren’t a hundred percent correct, and while our eyes, ears, and “guts” are nuanced, everybody makes mistakes, especially with first impressions.
In other words? At this time of year, it’s very easy to watch an 18-year-old from Saskatoon absolutely humiliate an all-star in practice, or see a highlight of a phenom from some far-off place in Europe make a ridiculously gorgeous play in an exhibition game—against a veteran-laden opposing team icing close to its regular season line-up—and extrapolate accordingly.
For the last few years that the Detroit Red Wings held their training camp at Joe Louis Arena, it was open to the public, and I recall attending with a certain red-headed saxophone player that this high school band geek was absolutely nuts about in his junior year. There was, of course, a delineation between my off-ice interests and the fact that I was able to sit a few feet away from an NHL team, but I’m just suggesting that my judgment may have been slighty affected by hormones when I declared…that Pavel Agarkov had the best hands I’d ever seen.
Agarkov was skating with the main camp, and during a scrimmage, he was making Nick Lidstrom and Paul Coffey look silly. The kid dipsy-doodled and dangled like Pavel Datsyuk, and he had a Bure-like skating stance and the speed to back his strides up. The few times I saw him in person, I was just floored, and I swore up and down to my friends that this kid was going to be at least as good as Slava Kozlov.
Agarkov went home after training camp, and he never came back. He ended up drinking his way out of the Russian Superleague, and, as far as I know, he at least put those issues behind him, but that was the extent of his professional accomplishments.
I can’t say that my eye’s improved over time. The last time the Wings held their prospect camp in Troy, it was readily apparent that Johan Franzen wouldn’t initiate contact, but could push guys around—and could push through them pretty easily, even when he wasn’t in NHL shape. It wasn’t hard to discern that Kyle Quincey’s offensive flair as a member of the Mississauga Ice Dogs might not translate to pro hockey, but he could certainly capably carry the puck, and the fact that he could knock guys on their butts was obviously impressing the Wings’ coaching staff. The fact that he’d joke around with the guys after every drill was surprising, but he also didn’t make funny faces when the coaches stopped him or took him aside, and offset the fact that he was cocky as hell. As far as I can tell, he’s matured into a hard worker, and while I can’t promise that he’s going to become the next big physical defenceman the Wings are looking for, he and more than a few of his fellow prospects were willing to put in the work necessary to get themselves into NHL shape—that, and they were more than willing to talk hockey. The few ones who already copped a pro attitude, both on the ice and off, let’s just say that they’re not in the Wings’ system anymore.
All of that being said, if I was going on skill alone, again, I’d say that somebody who hasn’t had a sniff of pro hockey was the best kid out there. Nils Backstrom, a defenceman who’s playing at the University of Alaska Anchorage, had all the tools, and then some. He could handle the puck with authority, and his heads-up play was pro smart—no bull in his own end, no fancy-pantsing for the heck of it, no “I’m an offensive defenceman, look at me deke somebody’s pants off” stuff, just simple, efficient control and distribution of the puck, and while he didn’t do anything great, he did everything well, and he did it at a pace that drove his fellow prospects to distraction.
He’s still getting his stuff together at the college level, but people mature at their own rates.
Therein lies the rub. Some of the prospects we see are going to put it together. Some don’t want to hear that they’ve got to “get stronger” or work harder, some simply can’t keep up, and some guys just don’t have a future as a professional hockey player. The Wings supposedly drafted a genius in Francois Senez, a last-round pick who was majoring in physics at RPI, and the kid went and did diddly squat after leaving the NCAA to play in the Quebec league, but he did finish his degree.
Moreover, there are things that the people who see and run every practice and are behind the bench for every exhibition game see that we don’t. Two years ago, there was a three-horse race between Blake Sloan, Rem Murray, and Dan Cleary for a spot on the Wings’ fourth line, and the smart money had the guys with local ties (Sloan graduated from the University of Michigan, and Murray graduated from Michigan State) edging out the kid who was on his last, last chance, but the coach didn’t go that way.
Last season, Boyd Devereaux played well enough to earn an NHL spot, but he didn’t earn it with the Wings—he went to Toronto to get it, and he stuck there, but the Wings were leaning towards adding some toughness—which worked for all of five games, because nobody gets it right all the time. If they did, they wouldn’t hand out the Stanley Cup in June.
So, as you sit down to watch the Wings’ exhibition season play out, don’t be afraid to go with your gut. You’re a hockey fan—you’re smart, and you can read talent pretty well.
Just don’t be surprised if one of the guys who wows you will probably be on the Wings roster, while others will be with the Griffins, and may not be back. We all make observational mistakes—if only occasionally.
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Paul Kukla founded Kukla’s Korner in 2005 and the site has since become the must-read site on the ‘net for all the latest happenings around the NHL.
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