Monday, September 27, 2010
NCSportsTalk.com - Puck Drops
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When training camp started, there were more open slots on the Canes' roster than at any point since the lockout. Not to say that six open spots are anything to write home about, but for a franchise that has for years assigned lines and roster spots in June rather than September this qualifies as news. With four open spaces at forward and two defensive spots open, the competition was expected to be fierce. However, as we've gone through the preseason there have been some surprises, both good and bad, so with a week left in camp we look at the chances of the players on the bubble to stick on the roster when the regular season begins next Friday.
Note that the NHL allows teams beginning the season overseas to have an expanded 25-man roster until they return from Europe. One of those extra slots will undoubtedly go to Justin Pogge, who will serve as the third goaltender, and the second will likely go to a defenseman. For purposes of this discussion, we will limit it to a normal 23-man roster and assess the odds from that benchmark.
Already on the team, barring catastrophe
F (8): Eric Staal, Sergei Samsonov, Tuomo Ruutu, Brandon Sutter, Erik Cole, Tom Kostopoulos, Jussi Jokinen, Chad LaRose
D (4): Tim Gleason, Joni Pitkanen, Anton Babchuk, Joe Corvo
G (2): Cam Ward, Justin Peters (plus Justin Pogge, who will go to Europe but will almost certainly be sent to Charlotte after the team returns)
Competition for Forward Spots
Patrick O'Sullivan: Signed the day camp opened, O'Sullivan has been a revelation in camp and a spot is almost certainly his to lose. He has been productive in all facets of the game, including a turn as a penalty killer that resulted in a shorthanded goal in the first preseason game against Florida. O'Sullivan is a historically streaky player, so to expect this great play to continue through the season is unrealistic, but he's more than earned a spot on the roster as he's been the best player on the ice for two of the Canes' four preseason games. Chance of making the team: 95%
Zach Boychuk: No one on the roster has seen his stock fall faster in the first two weeks of camp than Boychuk, who had by all accounts been given every opportunity to make the team but has looked increasingly lost as camp has progressed. He has been tentative on the puck, ineffective off it and has been by far the most disappointing player relative to his potential to this point. The emergence of O'Sullivan has been directly at Boychuk's expense, and while he may make the flight to Europe it will take a remarkable turnaround for him to stay on the 23-man roster. There's probably a decent (maybe 35%) chance of Boychuk being traded for defensive help in the next couple of weeks, although the team will never admit this, because his perceived ceiling (and therefore, his value on the trade market) is higher than anyone else on the bubble. Chance of making the team: 30%
Jiri Tlusty: A torn ACL in the AHL playoffs last year has prevented Tlusty from playing in any preseason games, but he may be cleared in time to play one of the final two games before the Canes leave for Russia. There were never any promises for Tlusty this season, but the fact that he must clear waivers to be sent down (plus the one-way deal he signed this offseason, ensuring he will make NHL money even if sent down) will likely result in a roster spot. Chance of making the team: 70%
Drayson Bowman: Unusually for such a small player, if Bowman makes the team it will be as a defensive specialist. Bowman has earned raves from the coaching staff with his attention to defensive detail. He could use another season in the AHL to bulk up, and with the number of defensive forwards already on the roster (Sutter, Staal, Kostopoulos, LaRose, etc.) he will likely be squeezed to Charlotte. It hasn't been for a lack of effort, though, and he will probably be the first callup if he does head to the minors out of camp. Chance of making the team: 40%
Zac Dalpe: Dalpe's chances of making the team took a serious hit Sunday when the team announced Jussi Jokinen would likely play center on the third line. If Dalpe were to make the team, that's where he would settle, so while he remains on the training camp roster it's likely that he will not be headed to Europe. While looking solid on the puck and generally making good decisions on both ends, Dalpe has made the predictable rookie mistakes, to no one's surprise, and it wouldn't hurt him to play top-six minutes in Charlotte rather than having a ceiling of 15 minutes per game with the Canes. Remember, he only signed his professional contract with nine games remaining in Albany's season last year, so there's still development that needs to occur. Chance of making the team: 15%
Patrick Dwyer: Dwyer is a known quantity, having played 58 games with Carolina last season, and while he would likely clear waivers (and has a minors-friendly two-way deal) it would take an other-worldly performance from either Bowman or Dalpe to knock Dwyer down to Charlotte. Much like Chad LaRose years ago, who always seemed from the outside to have a shakier roster spot than the inside believed, Dwyer is a known quantity in an organization that values the known highly. He's virtually guaranteed a spot on the 23-man roster. Chance of making the team: 95%
Jeff Skinner: Even the franchise that valued him so highly that only the top two draft picks were above him on their board didn't think the decision on whether Skinner would make the team was going to be this easy. If not for O'Sullivan, Skinner would be the story of camp. He's flown all over the ice, creating scoring chances out of nothing, and perhaps most importantly he teamed with Jokinen and LaRose on Friday night as part of the most effective line on the ice for either team. That line is likely to remain intact when the season begins, and not only will Skinner make the opening-night roster, he will be on the roster for ten games, and his contract will be activated. There's no guarantee he will stay up for the entire season, but if he can play at this level all year, why wouldn't the Canes keep him up? Chance of making the team: 90%
Likely to make the team: O'Sullivan, Dwyer, Skinner, Tlusty
Competition for Defense Spots
Jamie McBain: A spot on the 2010-11 roster has been McBain's to lose since last year's trade deadline, and he's done nothing to relinquish that spot. McBain has been solid if unspectacular in the preseason, but unspectacular in his case is a good thing. He's been smart with the puck and he doesn't give up odd-man rushes often, so he is a solid defender in addition to being a valuable weapon on offense. No question there will be some growing pains as he goes through his first full NHL season, but it would take a remarkable regression combined with someone else stepping up for McBain to play anywhere other than Carolina this season. Chance of making the team: 99%
Bobby Sanguinetti: It's no surprise that the Canes are giving Sanguinetti an extended audition while sending potential roster-spot competitors Casey Borer and Bryan Rodney to Charlotte. While the Canes know what they're getting with the likes of Borer and Rodney, Sanguinetti is still something of an unknown quantity. Unfortunately for him, Sanguinetti's play has been shaky in the preseason. He has been caught out of position somewhat regularly, and his offensive exploits have been pretty much nonexistent. Even though Sanguinetti will be in camp for longer than most other hopefuls, he probably won't even be the first option as a callup, especially when considering that Sanguinetti is exempt from waivers and has a two-way deal. Like Bowman, Sanguinetti will likely head to Europe but will be in Charlotte after the Canes return. Chance of making the team: 30%
Brett Carson: A non-factor to the point of being invisible thus far, Carson is nonetheless a known quantity which increases his chances of sticking on the roster. The Canes know what they have with Carson, who proved last year that he can handle regular shifts, and he's probably going to be in a rotation with Jay Harrison (see below) as the sixth or seventh defenseman on any given night. Note that Carson's chance of staying put on the NHL roster will drop quickly if the Canes pull the trigger on a deal for more defensive depth. Chance of making the team: 60%
Jay Harrison: By any reasonable account Harrison has done nothing to deserve a roster spot. So why is only McBain listed with a higher probability of seeing the roster? Simple: Harrison has a one-way deal, and the Canes are in no mood to pay him NHL money to play for Charlotte while paying a two-way player like Carson or Sanguinetti to play NHL minutes. Harrison has been frighteningly bad, and the ill-fated pairing with Anton Babchuk in Friday's game was a logistical nightmare. After Bryan Rodney left with an injury, Harrison was mercifully moved from Babchuk's pairing onto a unit with Tim Gleason, which only proved that Gleason can compensate for Harrison's shortcomings. There is no reasonable hockey reason Harrison should have a roster spot, but the budget being what it is you can safely expect Harrison to hold down a roster spot. Chance of making the team: 80%
Likely to make the team: McBain, Harrison, Carson (unless a trade is pulled off)
We'll know by Wednesday who makes the team. The Canes have one more cut to get down to 25, but since the budget is a consideration there's a decent chance the Canes will cut more players and only take 23 or 24 to Europe. In any case, by the time the team comes back to the USA after the games in Helsinki the roster will almost certainly have no more than 21 players.
Who will they be? We'll find out soon enough.
Friday, September 24, 2010
NCSportsTalk.com - Puck Drops
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The second of three games in as many nights sees the Canes come back to Raleigh for one night only, between trips to Nashville yesterday and Atlanta tomorrow. After beating the Predators 3-1 at Bridgestone Arena last night, the Canes look for a sweep tonight against a slightly more-veteran Preds team than what the Canes saw last night.
Patrick O'Sullivan continued his great play, scoring the game-tying goal last night and looking like he has one of the open spots sewn up even this early in camp. At the other end, there's some separation occurring, and Zach Boychuk in particular needs to step up his play to have any chance of sticking with the Canes when they leave for Helsinki by way of St. Petersburg next Friday. Zac Dalpe and Patrick Dwyer have also impressed in limited showings, and with Jeff Skinner likely to at least begin the season on the Canes' roster the number of open spots is quickly dwindling.
Justin Pogge will get the start tonight and, according to Paul Maurice, will play the entire game. This is the last chance for fans to see the Canes in an evening tilt before returning from their lengthy road trip on October 27; there's one more game next Friday, but it's at 1:00 (and open to the public for free) to accommodate the team's departure for St. Petersburg later in the afternoon.
Here we go...
End 1st: Canes lead 1-0; O'Sullivan 2 (Babchuk, Skinner) (pp) Notice something missing? It was a late night at the office for yours truly, and we didn't make it to the rink until there were six minutes left in the first period (in other news, the first period flew by, with only a handful of whistles). Anyway, here's what you missed: a 5-on-3 goal that further cemented Patrick O'Sullivan's place on the roster in Helsinki, on a one-time shot from the right point off a slick pass from Anton Babchuk.
2:50 2nd: Not a great play by Bobby Sanguinetti. On a clear into the Hurricanes' zone, Sanguinetti fumbled the puck and nearly handed the Preds a 3-on-1 below the hash marks in the low slot. Pogge was sharp, and the Canes escaped trouble by scrambling back to cover, but that was a scoring chance that never should have happened.
7:45 2nd: Preds tie it at 1; Legwand 1 (unassisted) Kind of a bizarre play there. Pogge left the puck behind the net for Jay Harrison, who evidently never got the memo and didn't pick up the puck, so David Legwand picked it up uncontested. Instead of looking for an outlet pass, though, Legwand wrapped it around and surprised Pogge with a long slot to the far post that somehow beat Pogge even though he had most of the net covered. Not a red-letter moment for Harrison, who hasn't impressed anyone thus far in the preseason, but the goal was a weird shot that Pogge looked to have covered but didn't by a few inches.
12:06 2nd: Preds take a 2-1 lead; Tootoo 1 (Halischuk) This is why line changes are important, folks. The Canes got caught in a lazy line change and the Preds broke out on a 3-on-2 as a result. Matt Halischuk, acquired over the summer from New Jersey for Jason Arnott, started the rush and fed Jordan Tootoo at the top of the right circle for a one-timer that Tootoo perfectly placed over Pogge's glove for Nashville's first lead of the night.
14:54 2nd: Nice recovery by Pogge on a dangerous play from behind the net on the near side. The Preds are trying all sorts of stuff behind the net. I wouldn't think they've been watching film this early in the season, but it seems like every shift they have at least one play set up from behind the Carolina net.
17:10 2nd: Francis Bouillon politely introduces himself to Zach Boychuk at the red line. And by a polite introduction I mean "flattened him and stood over him admiring his handiwork". Brandon Sutter, of all people, jumped in to keep the peace.
End 2nd: The ice was tilted toward Pogge for most of the period. Shots were 11-6 Predators, who had held the Canes to just two shots for a long stretch of the period. Not really the best showing for the guys who have jobs on the line. Bobby Sanguinetti, Zach Boychuk and Jay Harrison, I'm looking at you.
1:02 3rd: Chad LaRose was wondering why he didn't draw a tripping penalty when he was wiped out by David Legwand and went careening into the net. Probably a good question.
1:13 3rd: Francis Bouillon is quickly becoming public enemy number one in the stands at the RBC. This time, a nasty knee-on-knee hit on the Canes' Jussi Jokinen drew the ire of the fans and players alike. Jokinen stayed on the bench, but Bouillon earned four minutes in penalties including offsetting roughing calls with the Canes' LaRose.
11:00 3rd: They haven't scored, but the combination of Jokinen, LaRose and Jeff Skinner has created a scoring chance every time they've gone down the ice in this period. Skinner in particular looks much better tonight than he did on Tuesday, and it's obvious that the whirlwind surrounding his contract signing Tuesday was a significant distraction. He and O'Sullivan are confirming their spots on the opening-night roster with every shift they take.
17:19 3rd: LaRose and Bouillon nearly go at it again after LaRose got up high on a Preds' defender behind the Nashville net. LaRose is lucky he didn't get sent off for elbowing, but he got a nasty facewash courtesy of Bouillon and David Legwand as a result.
End 3rd: Despite a power-play with ten seconds left that looked to generate some good offense, the Canes failed to put a second one in the net and they dropped their second consecutive home game to split the home-and-home with the Predators.
At this point it's obvious that even the players know who will be on the sides of the chopping block, perhaps as soon as after tomorrow's game in Atlanta. Patrick O'Sullivan and Jeff Skinner will make the team, barring injury, and it's highly likely Zach Boychuk will not. Patrick Dwyer will probably make the team as a depth forward, although he really isn't in competition (at least, from an offensive-production standpoint) with the likes of Skinner and Boychuk. Still up in the air are the statuses of Drayson Bowman and Zac Dalpe; it's likely Dalpe has the inside track since he's a natural center and the Canes need one more, but Paul Maurice singled out Bowman's defensive acumen tonight and there's a chance he could sneak on the team. Much more on this coming in a column early next week.
On defense, no one really stood out (or, in Maurice's words, maybe they did for the wrong reasons). Jay Harrison is nothing more than a depth defenseman, but Maurice singled him out for solid play. We all scratched our heads at that one. If he makes the team, it will likely be at the expense of Bobby Sanguinetti and Casey Borer, neither of whom have shown much either. The overriding concern is that no one on the defense, other than Tim Gleason and Joe Corvo, has done anything at all on the ice so far, so a trade to shore up the blue line is a realistic possibility before the Canes jet off to St. Petersburg next Friday.
Click for audio from Patrick O'Sullivan and Jeff Skinner. Maurice's press conference is attached.
Much more on the roster-spot battles coming up early next week. We'll be back in game action October 27 when the Canes welcome the Washington Capitals to town for the first regular-season game at the RBC after their nearly month-long road trip.
Tuesday, September 21, 2010
NCSportsTalk.com - Puck Drops
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Not that preseason games ever have any relevance to the regular season, but this year might be more important to Canes fans than past years. For one thing, tonight and Friday are the only two chances to see the Canes in action at the RBC Center before the home opener on October 27th. (In case you forgot, there's the little issue of a multi-continent road trip involved in the meantime.) For another, there are some unfamiliar names on the backs of the red jerseys in the building tonight.
Foremost among those unfamiliar names is a guy Caniacs will likely get to know pretty well in the coming season. Fresh off signing his entry-level contract at a press conference earlier today (the only press conference I can remember the team holding for a rookie signing his first contract), Jeff Skinner will debut tonight plaing wing alongside Patrick Dwyer and Chad LaRose. The other names in the lineup are a mix of people you know and some new names. There's going to be some adjustment in looking at the unfamiliar numbers on the ice, but you'll be well-versed with these guys by the time they get back from Finland.
We're going to be here for all of it (well, except for the Finland part), so join us as we begin Puck Drops' 4th season tonight...
1:50 1st: Some nice pressure down low from a combination of Jon Matsumoto and Drayson Bowman, helped out by a helpful rebound from Florida's Scott Clemmensen. The Canes had about four great scoring chances from the low slot and were generating a ton of pressure for about 25-30 seconds.
2:56 1st: And the first power play of the season goes to the Canes. Florida's Mike Duco bowled over Cam Ward with no one around, and it was an obvious interference call. Tom Kostopoulos took exception and jawed at Duco on the way back to the bench, with Jay Harrison coming in for backup and hip-checking Duco at the blue line.
3:45 1st: Panthers lead 1-0; Gudbranson 1 (Matthias) Didn't take long for the Panthers to hit paydirt. Tuomo Ruutu was sent off for interference, and off the ensuing faceoff Erik Gudbranson fired a rifle shot from the near circle that flew past Ward and into the back of the net.
5:39 1st: Now a 3-0 lead; Santorelli 1 (Callahan) (pp) 4:56, then Timmins 1 (Grant, Gudbranson) 5:39 The bottom is falling out of the Canes' defense, six minutes into the preseason. Santorelli absolutely undressed Anton Babchuk in the far circle, freezing Ward and firing it home while Ward was helpless to stop it, then the goalie lost sight of the puck on the third goal and the trash was cleaned up in front of him by Scott Timmins after a double-deflection. An ugly set of sequences, no two ways about it.
15:20 1st: The officials have been, to put it politely, letting the boys play tonight. Things could get a little heated if they keep up. Tuomo Ruutu was just railroaded into the near boards by Rostislav Olesz and Ruutu made note of the guilty party, probably for future reference. The Canes' D has loked a little more solid, but it's still a very obvious work in progress.
End 1st: Things have settled down a bit. It's a good thing this game doesn't count, because there would be a lot more bellyaching in the locker room otherwise. The shots were a deceptive 13-11 for the Panthers, but while the Canes had a couple of good chances the ice was tilted toward Cam Ward for long stretches of the period.
3:44 1st: Canes on the board, Babchuk 1 (O'Sullivan, Kostopoulos) (sh) And that's what we expect from Anton Babchuk, isn't it? Rather uninspired play for 33 minutes, noticeable by his lack of defensive awareness, then pop up out of nowhere (on a penalty kill, naturally) and convert a 2-on-1. Saw it coming, didn't you? Patrick O'Sullivan was the setup man for the odd-man rush, feeding Babchuk with a nice tape-to-tape pass in the high slot that Babchuk roofed over Clemmensen's glove to put the Canes on the scoreboard.
10:40 2nd: Should have been 3-2 if not for some bad luck. Riley Nash took a turnaround shot from the bottom of the near circle that surprised Clemmensen and had him beat, if not for the near-side post getting in the way. The puck slid parallel to the goal line from one side to the other, an unfortunate break that the Canes deserved better from.
15:00 2nd: Great pressure from the Canes, particularly Tom Kostopoulos and Drayson Bowman. Kostopoulos twice tried to feed Bowman from behind the net and if not for some great reflexes by new Panthers goalie Jacob Markstrom, he'd have had the Canes' second of the night. As it was, Kostopoulos is showing some nice hands tonight, which is a good sign for the Canes' necessary scoring depth this season.
End 2nd: It was better, which is faint praise given how long stretches of the first period went, and we're learning more about exactly how the new players are adapting to Carolina's system. Patrick O'Sullivan and Riley Nash have looked particularly good, and I'd think at this point they're likely to play a good number of games with the Canes this season. Shots in the period were 10-9 Canes, who trail 22-21 overall.
3:20 3rd: Another what-might-have-been moment in front of Markstrom. This time, Tuomo Ruutu was the unlucky party. Markstrom bounced a rebound to the left side of his net and Ruutu was right there to clean up, but he was unable to elevate it over Markstrom's glove and it ended up buried under a Panthers defenseman for a whistle.
9:44 3rd: Paetsch scores to make it 4-1 Panthers And don't tell Tim Gleason this is a meaningless game. After Nathan Paetsch scored on a one-timer from the right side of the far circle, Gleason and Tristan Grant went at it behind the net and the Canes somehow came out with a power play on a four-minute roughing penalty to Grant while Gleason was only handed a single minor.
10:50 3rd: Patrick O'Sullivan's unlucky night continues, as he whiffed on a silver-platter puck at the top of the crease with Markstrom well out of position. He could easily have had a three-point night if things had gone according to plan in the game.
End 3rd: At least the Canes showed life in the third period, outshooting the Panthers 13-2 in the final frame. It didn't matter, though, as they weren't able to get another one past Markstrom for a 4-1 final. Paul Maurice said after the game that he almost expected the weary legs that the team saw in the first period, given how much excitement was in the locker room before the game and the pace of training camp up to this point. More to the point, he said that if the team was up to speed from the opening faceoff that they hadn't worked them hard enough in camp.
There's obviously not much you can take from a game like this, but it has to be said that there are certain players who did their best to stake a claim to a roster spot, foremost among them Patrick O'Sullivan. He was bar none the best Hurricane on the ice tonight, and it's a fair argument to say that he was the best player for either team. It will take some serious competition from elsewhere to keep O'Sullivan off the opening night roster.
Click for audio from O'Sullivan and Jeff Skinner. Maurice's press conference is attached.
Back at it Friday night when the Nashville Predators come to town.
Friday, September 17, 2010
NCSportsTalk.com - Puck Drops
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As first reported by TSN's Bob McKenzie on Twitter last night, the Hurricanes have agreed to a one-year, two-way deal with forward Patrick O'Sullivan. O'Sullivan spent the 2009-10 season with the Edmonton Oilers, posting 11 goals and 34 points in 73 games. At the 2009 trade deadline, O'Sullivan was a go-between in a three-way deal that saw the Canes send Justin Williams to Los Angeles and reacquire Erik Cole from Edmonton, so technically this is his second tour of duty with the Canes although the first lasted but a few minutes.
While O'Sullivan was born in Toronto (according to Canes PR whiz Mike Sundheim, his family was on vacation and he came early), he spent the first eight years of his life in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the hometown of his mother and the city where his father played minor-league hockey under then-coach and current Atlanta Thrashers GM Rick Dudley. Winston-Salem is about two hours west of Raleigh, and 30 minutes from the Canes' first North Carolina home in Greensboro (1997-99). That makes O'Sullivan the first-ever player to suit up for the Canes who grew up in North Carolina, although he was here (and moved away) well before the Canes came to the state.
O'Sullivan is a talented, yet inconsistent player whose main claim to fame (or infamy) is the saga of his father, John. A middling forward for the Winston-Salem Thunderbirds, John O'Sullivan was by all accounts an abusive father who lived out his own NHL dream vicariously through his talented son. There are restraining orders, jail sentences, bodyguards, and God knows what else involved in this story. I won't repeat them all here, but this is a signing that comes with a lot of baggage -- moreso than any other signing Jim Rutherford has ever made.
The sad thing is that O'Sullivan will never be able to lead a normal NHL career. Everywhere he goes, he is forced to look over his shoulder. It happened at the 2003 draft in Nashville, where O'Sullivan was projected to go in the first round but slipped to the late second before Minnesota snapped him up. His father was supposed to stay far away from the Gaylord Entertainment Center on that day, but he showed up and NHL security was forced to keep surveillance on him at all times. It will certainly happen in Carolina, at least until he gets comfortable back in his home state. And everywhere he goes, the first question is about his father, no matter what happened that night at the rink. It's a sad piece of baggage that O'Sullivan will carry with him until the day he retires.
As a pure hockey move, this is another of Rutherford's patented reclamation projects, next in line behind Sergei Samsonov, Jussi Jokinen and the like. It's a low-risk signing (again, strictly in the hockey sense) and gives the Canes a little more wiggle room if the youngsters at camp underwhelm and show that they need more time to develop. O'Sullivan never panned out to his high ceiling in his draft year, due in no small part to the family drama that encircled him, but if all goes right he can still chip in 15-20 goals. That would take a significant amount of performance pressure off the likes of Drayson Bowman, Zac Dalpe, Jiri Tlusty and the like.
We're headed to the first on-ice day of training camp tomorrow, so it will be easier to get a handle on exactly what the Canes have on their hands. From first impressions, this could be another bargain-basement signing that ends well for the team.
Wednesday, September 8, 2010
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Every year, the Hurricanes graciously host the local media in a "getting-to-know-you" setting that, for some, includes a day on a local golf course with Canes players, coaches and executives. That group, unsurprisingly, does not include yours truly, and will not unless they decide to hold the outing on a local miniature golf course. (I'm mean with a putter, but more of my golf balls hit off a tee wind up on local highways than they do on greens. I'm not sayin', I'm just sayin'.)
To no one's surprise, GM Jim Rutherford's group finished first (for the third year in a row) among about twelve foursomes, and I have a feeling the Canes stashed an intern at the back of each green to always give the big boss a good lie á là a Simpsons episode from years ago, with Rutherford playing the role of Mr. Burns and the unsuspecting intern in the role of Smithers.
Anyway, rather than recapping the golf game of various players and media members, I figure you care more about what those players and their coaches and executives had to say about the upcoming season. Last year, the general sense among the attendees was that the Canes were well on their way to reprising their appearance in the conference final. Then, last year happened.
So it's rather unsurprising that the mood this year was upbeat for a different reason. Instead of having great expectations, there's almost a carefree sense throughout the organization. They still feel that the team will be competitive and, if everything goes right, perhaps sneak into the postseason. But where last year the scuttlebutt was that the playoffs were all but assured, by contrast this year the P-word was never even mentioned in six interviews I conducted.
So what was mentioned? Youth, for one. I got the sense that coach Paul Maurice in particular is relishing the chance to have the ability to mold the young players that will comprise most of the roster this year. It was a shock for a couple of us when I realized that fully three-quarters of the roster is younger than me, and a writer for the Associated Press who is only a couple of years older than I am is now older than the entire team. It's going to be incumbent on the likes of Eric Staal, Tim Gleason, Cam Ward et al. to take the mantle of leadership; indeed, when we thought about it for a second, we realized that Staal is the only player left in the locker room to have worn a captain's letter for all of last season.
Obviously, the early-season trip to Finland was a topic of conversation as well. Given how last year started, a good start is imperative to begin the 2010-11 season. But since the Canes will not play a game at the RBC Center until the season is three weeks old, just keeping the team's collective head above water will be a challenge. (Paul Maurice said that he's figured out that he will spend just four nights the entire month of October in his own bed. Sounds like fun, right?)
One minor bit of news: Rutherford says he anticipates one or two NHL veterans attending training camp, either on a tryout basis or on a two-way contract that he will finalize in the next week or so. He was very clear, though, in saying that no one would be gifted a roster spot, and to that end he will not be handing out one-way deals with open invitations to claim a spot. In other words, don't expect a Stephane Yelle or Josef Melichar-type signing this season.
It was a great time in a very relaxed setting, with plenty of opportunities for candid commentary from all sorts of folks within the organization. Click below for the audio files from today's event:
Paul Maurice (5:21)
Chad LaRose (3:11)
Joe Corvo (2:45)
Cam Ward (2:16)
Eric Staal (4:51)
Jim Rutherford (14:33)
One more week until training camp starts. The Canes will report on Friday, September 17 for physical testing, and they hit the ice for the first time at the RBC Center the next day.
Friday, September 3, 2010
NCSportsTalk.com - Puck Drops
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In the beginning, there was the sports media. Teams and players dealt with the media, the media dealt with the fans, every once in a while a player or two would come out and sign autographs, and that was largely that for the first 100 or so years of sports journalism.
Then, along came Twitter. And the rules of engagement changed in a way no one could have predicted.
As little as two years ago, Twitter was seen as a fad at best, and a useless time-waster at worst. I personally saw little point in posting what amounted to Facebook status updates for the whole world to see. Not only was it a little uncomfortable from a privacy standpoint, but I figured that no one cared what I ate for breakfast, how awful my day at work was, or anything else. More to the point, the people that needed to know such things already knew.
But then social media, and Twitter in particular, took on a life of its own, and the end result is a paradigm shift the likes of which have never before been seen in journalism or in sports. And it's been so quick that the rules of engagement are essentially being set on the fly, sometimes changing from day to day, or even minute to minute.
Hockey player-turned-blogger-turned-reporter Justin Bourne is only a year removed from playing professional hockey, yet even in that short amount of time, he says, everything players ever knew about dealing with fans and the media has been turned upside down.
"Last year was my first year not playing, and in that time I think things have changed drastically just because of Twitter. When I was playing we would get a media prep sheet, and it was just the basics: don't tear apart the other team in the media, the way to answer questions so that everything is basically sterile. They really don't want you to say anything too interesting. Now, I'm sure they have to coach players in a whole different way because of Twitter."
Hurricanes director of media relations Mike Sundheim leads casual discussions for newly-drafted players at rookie conditioning camp in July. Unlike in the past, where the discussion could mostly be limited to what to say and what not to say to the media, Sundheim says that players now need to pay attention to what they post on public social networking sites, and to expect little to no privacy.
"We talk to them about having common sense when they use [social media], and especially who they're friends with on Facebook, because when you're friends with people on Facebook they have access to everything that's on your page and often have the ability to tag photos of you. It gets almost to the point of being a safety concern in some cases, but also obviously an image concern with what ends up there."
Where in the past teams were largely able to ensure that players' communications with their fans were filtered through the media, with the advent of social networking the players and fans can converse directly with each other, sometimes with disastrous results. Just ask Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Dan Ellis. On August 17, a tweet from Ellis comparing goaltenders to brain surgeons, given their need for specialized training and the danger they put themselves in front of every day, elicited unsurprising results. Ellis fired back at his critics, and within ten minutes the situation boiled over into back-and-forths between Ellis and fans following him.
The danger of a spat like this occurring increases the amount of work team media relations departments have to do, and Sundheim says that while he personally would be in favor of a Hurricanes player establishing a Twitter account and interacting with the fans, ultimately they have to keep their job in mind.
"These guys are professionals, and they go into visiting buildings and have just about everything in the world said to them that you wouldn't believe. It's up to them to be professional and maintain their focus, to play a sport and not respond to those things. It's really up to the player to be responsible, and at the end of the day if somebody reacts poorly it's going to reflect worst on that person as an individual."
Scott Norton and his agency, Norton Sports Management, have been at the forefront of encouraging players to sign up for Twitter. Norton believes that the value of Twitter lies not in its ability to bypass team media relations departments, but rather in putting a human face on players who for years have been largely faceless, with the notable exception of the few superstars that the NHL promotes to no end.
"In hockey, with the exception of Ovechkin or Crosby, the individuals aren't marketed. I think hockey players are by far the most well-grounded and the best people who are professional athletes. It's really a shame, because there are a lot of good stories, there's a lot of good people doing a lot of good things, but really no one ever knows about them. As far as I'm concerned, [social networking] can do nothing but good."
To that end, Norton has encouraged his clients to utilize Twitter for greater societal good, and not necessarily a simple window into the player's private life. This past week, Norton and a few of his clients began a program dubbed "Make My Day Monday," an initiative designed to have players give a helping hand to the homeless and other less fortunate people in their communities. The concept is one of several similar ideas that players and agents have used to publicize charitable works and giving via social media.
But Bourne believes that, ironically, the greater access afforded by social media into players' personal lives could result in more of the boilerplate soundbites that reporters have heard for years.
"We're probably creating more actual boring people. In the old days, when 'the game was bigger than us', you could have a player go answer some questions, then they would go out and tear it up and no one would really know. There was no reporter there with a camera, no one was taking cell phone pics. Now, they're filtering their messages so strongly that there's no release for Sidney Crosby. He's just got to be boring. That's his only option. They're aware that any message they put out there will get out there to a million eyes. I think we are forcing these people to be boring."
No amount of cliches can be too much for players who have been trained since junior hockey to speak in generalities and never give bulletin-board material to the other team. Especially in hockey, where the culture emphasizes the team over all else moreso than in other sports, social media allows players to express themselves in a way that has never been available to them in the past.
With the uncharted territory that social media continues to occupy, and given the opportunities for self-promotion that social media encourages, Norton thinks that teams will continue to crack down on players using Twitter and other forms of social media, and that ultimately the matter may be decided in collective bargaining when the next agreement is up for negotiation in 2012.
"As we get into the new CBAs -- for all the sports -- there will be clauses covering social media. Whether it's they have to go through the team, whether it's the team can have final say, whatever it might be, I see it as something that they will try to address, because other than that it just comes down to freedom of speech. It's pretty difficult to tell a player, especially a player who's in your core players that you're not going to bench or whatever might be, 'hey, don't do this'."
Sundheim, however, says that at least in the case of the Hurricanes, while the media relations staff would need to keep tabs on any potential Tweeters in the Canes' locker room, it's not something the organization dismisses out of hand.
"I don't think that [social media] is necessarily a bad thing. We like social media -- we have our own Facebook page, we have our own Twitter, and I think all these things are good. They're a way to communicate with fans that we hadn't had previously, and frankly it's changing the way marketing works to a certain extent. At the same time, we just have to keep an eye on what players are doing. If anyone decides to start a Twitter, obviously I would have to follow that person and just keep an eye on how it's going. For the most part, I trust our guys. If a guy was going to start something like that, we would trust that he would be responsible with it."
Until the new territory is settled and understood by all sides, teams and players can expect a feeling-out process to figure out where the line should be drawn between a productive amount of information and, in the case of Ellis' situation, a public relations headache. Norton says he impresses on his clients the importance of continuously being aware of what they are posting and not to simply post at will with no regards for the consequences.
"There's going to be the isolated incident, not just in any sport but in any business. But that's why I feel the onus falls on me as an agent, or my marketing team, or whoever it might be, to educate the players on where you go with these things, what you do, what you don't do, the areas you don't get into. Every player that's signed up [for Twitter] I've told the areas to stay away from. You want to find the fine line of bringing the fans into your life, but still keeping the privacy."
A potential flash point in social media is the lack of transparency; Sundheim says that since absolutely anyone can create a social media account pretending to be someone who they aren't, the teams have to be on guard against any fake pages and ensure that what's out there is as accurate as possible.
"The only real direction we've had is a heads-up from the NHLPA to keep an eye on the fake Facebook pages, and frankly that's difficult because it's easy to create a fake Facebook page pretending to be a player and misrepresent yourself. Their concern is basically that it's a form of identity theft, and if those 5,000 people think they're friends with Eric Staal and the fake Eric Staal says something offhand, there's not a whole lot we can do about that. At this point, even working with Facebook to take those things down has proved to be a little bit of a challenge."
According to Bourne, players today have an opportunity that their predecessors would have never dreamed possible. But until the generations of hockey players catch up with the technology available, social media will continue to be an evolving aspect of the media landscape.
"I'm petrified at some point, because I haven't been doing this media thing for a whole lot of time. Growing up playing the game, you just fire back at your opponents. I don't know if it's a certain sensitivity or not, but there's definitely times when I can see myself just having a five-minute brain [cramp] and firing off on about ten people, and all of a sudden I don't have a job anymore. "
As the world of social media continues to evolve, teams, players and fans will all have a steep learning curve to define "normal" moving forward. As the Ellis and Paul Bissonnette sagas proved, there are still some real questions about how much is too much when it comes to posting information on social networking. Ultimately, limits will be set, as they have been in the past with other evolving methods of communication, but when those limits come down the road is anyone's guess.
Until that point, it's likely to remain the free-for-all that Twitter has enabled, and while controversy might not be any more prevalent than it already is in locker rooms around the NHL, the next one might come from an angle no one has any chance to predict.