It's the second weekend in May, and with the threat of snow or sub-30 degree temperatures largely removed in central Ohio, the garden centers are jammed, and the yards filled with the songs of birds . . .and a wide variety of gas powered yard implements. What better time to conduct a brief survey of the latest developments in the hockey world . . . away from the NHL playoffs. Well, mostly away, at any rate.
IIHF World Championships
For all of those players not encumbered by participation in the NHL post-season, the transition from hockey to golf is eased a bit by representing their countries in the IIHF World Championships, now underway in Prague, Czech Republic. The Blue Jackets are well represented -- both on and off the ice -- and the preliminary round is potentially setting up some interesting pairings as the tournament gets ready to move into the next phase.
We'll start with the USA squad, coached by the Blue Jackets' Todd Richards, who also enlisted Mike Vogt from the training staff to make the journey to Prague. On the ice, Columbus forward Jeremy Morin is on the squad, as is defenseman Mike Reilly, who infamously is playing a cat-and-mouse game with the Blue Jackets, as the clock ticks rapidly toward the deadline for signing the blue-liner, who recently elected to forego the remainder of his college career at the University of Minnesota to begin his professional life. For his part, Richards maintained that he would not use his head coaching position as a lever in the negotiations. Right. I also have a bridge, only slightly used, that I would like to sell you.
The US currently finds itself in third place in Group B, tied in points with both Russia and Finland, but slotted third due to goal differential. American efforts have been a bit up-and-down thus far, notching a big 5 -1 win over Finland and a solid 4 - 2 victory over Russia, while dropping an ugly 5 - 2 contest against Belarus, who was shellacked 7 - 0 by Russia earlier today. Yesterday, they posted a largely uninspired 1 - 0 win over a mediocre Danish team. Scoring has been a bit of an issue, with the majority of the work handled by Brock Nelson (Islanders), Trevor Lewis (Kings) and defenseman Torey Krug from the Bruins. Connor Hellebuyck -- a Winnipeg Jets prospect -- has garnered attention by posting a gaudy 0.67 GAA thus far in the preliminary round. Reilly has earned middle-of-the-road minutes, and has no points thus far in the tournament. Ditto for Morin. The USA has two games remaining -- Slovenia and Slovakia -- to wrap up the preliminary round.
Canada, meanwhile, sports a roster that reads like an NHL All Star roster in most seasons, with the predictable results. Only France came close, losing 4-3 earlier today, while Canada put 10 up against Germany, and six on the board in their other games agains, Latvia, the Czech Republic and Sweden. Taylor Hall has five goals and eight points for Canada, while Jordan Eberle and Matt Duchene each have seven points each. Jason Spezza and Sidney Crosby have six points each. Mike Smith and Martin Jones have more than capably handled the goaltending chores. Canada is alone at the top of Group A, with games vs. Switzerland and Austria remaining. David Savard has earned 2 assists and solid ice time for the Canadian squad.
Other notable Blue Jacket performances include Sergei Bobrovsky's 1.79 GAA for Russia, Artem Anisimov's goal and three assists (+4) for Russia, and Marko Dano's goal for Slovakia. Prospect Oliver Bjorkstrand has only appeared in a single game for Denmark, with nothing on the score sheet.
The USA will likely finish no worse than second in its group, due to the fact that Russia and Finland square off in the final game of the preliminary round for both squads, and could end up on top. However, assuming that standings otherwise remain static, the US would square off against the home-town Czech Republic team, while Canada would likely face Belarus -- who is having a schizophrenic tournament thus far. Under this scenario, Russia would likely face Switzerland, and a Scandinavian showdown between Sweden and Finland would also be on the slate. Whatever the specific matches, some good games remain, but Canada looks unbeatable.
The Quest for the "C"
As Jarmo Kekalainen strongly suggested -- and as John Davidson and Rob Mixer confirmed earlier this week -- the Blue Jackets have decided who the next captain of the club will be. For me, it seems like a no-brainer that Nick Foligno is the choice. His season on the ice, the masterful way he handled the "C" during the NHL All Star Game festivities, his fan vote as MVP, and his demeanor on and off the ice make him the runaway leader, in my book. Last August, long before the injury monster reared its ugly head, and before Foligno started posting his eye-popping numbers, I published this piece , suggesting that Foligno had all of the attributes for the post. (If it materializes, it's a rare correct prediction on my part, so bear with me on this one.)
While the organization proved to be absolutely correct that the next Captain would "reveal himself", I still think the announcement has been unnecessarily delayed. While we can have a great debate upon the ultimate value and role of the individual donning the "C", and their ability to make a tangible impact on the club as a whole, I can't help but think it would have helped at times during the season, as the club confronted a bewildering array of injuries and related issues. Be that as it may, the fact remains that the decision has been made, and the announcement is likely imminent. Specific timing is anyone's guess, as the NHL is touchy about major announcements during the playoffs. However, there will likely be some coaching moves in the next week or two, so those announcements will likely be hitting the airwaves. I'll guess that the announcement comes during a lull in the playoffs, possibly between the second round and the conference finals, but before the final series itself gets underway. I think the organization would like to have a positive announcement that gets its own airtime and attention, then follow that momentum into the draft and free agency. Just a guess, but consider that the likelihood of me being correct with two predictions is really low.
Finally, before signing off, just a word or two about pressure. Watching both the NHL playoffs and The Players' Championship this week, I've come to the conclusion that the thing the American sports fan appreciates more than anything else is the ability of an athlete (or team) to respond to pressure, to come through when it matters most. Though often phrased in terms of titles or championships, those are really just a proxy for the pressure response. You can bulk up your career stats all you want, but unless you come through when the chips at down, you'll be consigned to the very large historical scrap heap of sports stars. Conversely, coming through in those pressure situations can atone for a world of sins in other performances. Reggie Jackson struck out at a staggering pace over the course of his career, but he's forever known as "Mr. October." Joe Montana was an undersized quarterback selected in the 3rd round of the draft, but there's never been a better one when it mattered most.
Professional golf is a pressure cooker, particularly in the high profile tournaments, such as The Players. There are no teammates to point fingers at, and the caddie can only be blamed for so much. Nope, it's just you, swinging the club and accepting the consequences that the Golf Gods decree. Now add the particular cruelty of the Par-3 17th at Sawgrass, and the pressure turns into torture. Ask Aaron Baddely, who has a career hate/hate relationship with the 17th, and the pressure has clearly gotten into his head. This year, he hit his tee shot in the drink, then hit his next one in the water as well. Managing somehow to get the next one on, he two-putted for a seven, but was penalized a stroke for taking an improper drop. Insult to injury to be sure. The point is that Baddely is done at Sawgrass. The 17th has become a looming spectre that will overshadow his future rounds for years to come. Toast.
While NHL players have teammates to cushion the pressure, it's still noteworthy to see who thrives and who wilts as the pressure ramps up. Braden Holtby and Henrik Lundqvist have been amazing. Whether their clubs won or lost, they have been simply incredible when they have absolutely had to be. Ditto for Tyler Johnson and Patrick Kane, who just keep churning out goals when it matters most. On the other hand, Steven Stamkos and Rick Nash have but a single goal apiece, and have been largely invisible for large stretches. They are not the only ones, to be sure, but they are examples of guys who haven't been able to gear up their games as the playoffs ratchet up the pace. It's not about numbers as much as it is the ability to be "That Guy" who comes through when it counts the most. It's a fascinating phenomenon to watch as we move from round to round. Soon, some of these guys will be joining Baddely on the course.