Overrated and Underrated in Canada
I watch a lot of hockey, mostly because here in Canada we can’t get enough of it and there’s just a lot on. Most of the coverage- expectedly but perhaps unfortunately- is skewed towards the National Hockey League’s six Canadian franchises, so the inherent biases that occur during that coverage should surprise no one. Given the bias, I thought one day I’d come up with one player out of each Canadian franchise that gets a lot more air time and buzz than he should simply because he’s playing for a Canadian team and six players who get considerably less air time and buzz just because they have the unfortunate situation of playing south of the 49th parallel. So without further adieu, here’s the list.
THE OVERRATED CLASS
MATTHEW LOMBARDI, CALGARY FLAMES
Still a relative youngster at age 26, Matthew Lombardi is generally- and generously- grouped by Flames fans among the team’s Top Six forwards, heaping mounds of praise on a player who frankly hasn’t done a lot to deserve it. Lombardi possesses a lot of speed, but that’s it- he’s not the best of shooters or passers, and during games he often imitates Houdini because his on-ice vision is considerably poor. This kind of act was understandable when he was 22, 23 or 24, but this is supposed to be the time of Lombardi’s career where he blossoms and he hasn’t exactly done that (at least not to expectations). He seems to be rounding into a form like the Ottawa Senators’ Dean McAmmond- a speedster useful on the penalty kill and on defence who can chip in with the odd goal, because his offence has never been that great (only one 20-goal season, and that’s when he hit 20 last season). The only caveat is that Lombardi’s defence is poor (-7 this season), so unless he improves in that area (at least), Lombardi’s career will be shorter than it could be.
JARRET STOLL, EDMONTON OILERS
There were several players I could have picked from the Edmonton Oilers, but none jumped out at me more than the 25-year-old Jarret Stoll did. Part of the group of young, boisterous forwards that played well over their heads in the Oilers’ surprise 2006 playoff run (which owed more of its success to energy and smart coaching than an actual abundance of talent), Stoll is still among the few in that group who are still celebrated- for example, The Score’s 2007-08 Forecaster called Stoll “(Edmonton’s) most effective player last season” and said he was “(rounding) into one of the most complete centres in the league”. The truth is anything but: in a year where Stoll’s potential is supposed to pan out, he has went out and posted an ugly –17 rating (so much for the defensive side) and a paltry 10 goals in 61 games. His production suggests a third-line centre at best, but his defensive game is atrocious. Not only that, but like his counterpart Lombardi down Highway 2, Stoll has a troubling tendency to disappear from the play, especially on the power play, but that has more to do with a lack of awareness instead of a lack of focus. It may be true that Stoll’s real talent lies in the immeasurable category of “work ethic”, but like the saying goes, “you can’t just work hard, you’ve got to work smart”- and Stoll never seems to “work smart”. He has to if he’s ever going to have the career many have said he should be having.
GUILLAME LATENDRESSE, MONTREAL CANADIENS
Perhaps it’s too early to rag on Guillame Latendresse- he is, after all, 20 and still very much in his development phase- but the Canadiens and their fans are high on this guy and I just have to wonder why (unless they’re just high…which explains a lot if you know Canadiens fans). He’s a big boy, but like his comparable chump Alexei Ponikarovsky in Toronto, that’s it- in the two years Latendresse has been in the league, he doesn’t do anything on the ice except occasionally, going through long stretches where you need the Hubble telescope to discover that he’s actually playing. Last season he posted 29 points and 16 goals (to top off a miserable –20), and this season he projects to 20 goals, 30 points and a –10 rating- on a much better Canadiens team than last year. Sure, there’s a small statistical improvement there, but Latendresse’s skills and sense haven’t improved at all in his second year in the league, and that’s troubling. Really, he’s just more of a big guy on skates than an actual hockey player and unless he seriously works on his game, Latendresse will round into nothing more than a player better suited to playing Quebec’s thuggish semi-professional league than the real thing.
MARTIN GERBER/RAY EMERY, OTTAWA SENATORS
Okay, so I lied- I didn’t pick one Ottawa Senator, I picked two; but the reality is that the goaltending tandem of Martin Gerber and Ray Emery has been so interconnected (and the players so comparable) that it’s impossible just to focus on one player. Emery won plaudits for being the goaltender that finally led the Senators to the Stanley Cup Final a year after being undressed by the Buffalo Sabres’ Jason Pominville in overtime of Game 5 that sealed the Senators’ Conference Semi-Final loss (including beating those very Sabres in the Conference Final), while Gerber won recognition after a solid start to the 2007-08 season in relief of the injured Emery after a miserable opening campaign as a Senator. Both of those spurts have led to both being classified as elite-level goaltenders, but the truth is that neither can be considered as anything better than “dependable”: rebound control is an issue for both, Gerber isn’t very nimble in the crease and Emery- despite all his athleticism (there’s an overused word)- has a tendency to frequently let pucks through him. Not only that, but when was the last time Gerber or Emery ever *stole* a game for the Senators? I can’t remember one. Now, it’s not like Ottawa wins in spite of its goaltending, but no one should kid themselves- neither Gerber or Emery are as close to Martin Brodeur or Roberto Luongo as people think they are, and neither seem destined to get that far. One great stretch- which is all these two have had- isn’t enough.
DARCY TUCKER, TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
Toronto Maple Leaf fans are prone to overrate *everyone* (talk to a Leaf fan long enough and you’d be convinced they should not just win the Stanley Cup, but the World Series, UEFA Champions’ League, the America’s Cup, the Daytona 500, the Super Bowl and the Inter-County League as well), but Darcy Tucker takes the cake. For years, I joined the parade raving about Tucker’s energy and aggressiveness that allowed him to play well above his physical frame (he’s just 5’10”, 178 lbs.) and chip in with some timely goals, but lately- upon re-examination- I’ve found that Tucker’s usefulness really isn’t that high. Every time I see him on the ice he either gets belted (and for no actual benefit for the team) or just disappears, popping up occasionally to score a goal. This year, those occasions have become even fewer than they did in seasons’ past: a year after potting 24 goals in 56 games, Tucker has scored just 12 times in 55 contests this season, coupled with 21 points and an abysmal –5. A lot has been made about Tucker’s “heart” and “emotion” (attributes that, like Stoll’s “work ethic” are immeasurable) because Tucker so obviously wears it on his sleeve, but those mean nothing if he doesn’t produce results- something which Tucker so demonstrably does *not* do. I agree that he’s a “pest”, but only in comparison to an annoying gnat, since all Tucker does is fly around aimlessly annoying people but accomplishing nothing. With the Leafs’ recent woes, I have to wonder how long it’ll take before Toronto takes off their Wendel Clark-coloured glasses and finally see the reality, because Tucker is becoming increasingly more of a liability than an asset.
KEVIN BIEKSA, VANCOUVER CANUCKS
Another one of those “heart-and-soul” type players who scores heaps of praise by a hockey media that overvalues the immeasurable while ignoring the measurable- things like shooting, passing, checking, defending, etc.- expecting the rest of us to take what they say at face value. Me? I’d rather see results, and Kevin Bieksa doesn’t provide much. After a 12-goal, 30-assist regular season in 2006-07, Bieksa disappeared in the playoffs, registering nothing in nine playoff games except 20 penalty minutes and this year he lit the lamp once and added three assists (with an abysmal –5) in 12 games after an early-season injury (adding nothing in the two games he played in after coming back). I certainly believe he’s a dependable player, but there’s nothing about Bieksa that makes him as irreplaceable as Canuck fans would like to think. He’s behind on the depth chart to guys like Willie Mitchell (one of the game’s better defensive defencemen), Alexander Edler (a much better two-way defender than Bieksa is), Mattias Öhlund (the Canucks’ best offensive defenceman and passer) and Sami Salo (one of the league’s best shooters) and while he’s an important member of that cast, you could just as easily find fifty or so other defenders (Calgary’s Rhett Warrener, Boston’s Andrew Alberts, Chicago’s Brent Seabrook and Minnesota’s Keith Carney are comparable off the top of my head) that could play the same kind of role that Bieksa does in Vancouver. Solid? Yes. Irreplaceable? No.
THE UNDERRATED CLASS
Now that you know who the Canadian media overhypes, it’s time to expose those who are underhyped- the players who, had they been playing in Canada you’d be hearing a lot more of. Since I have six overrated guys, I decided I’ll even it up with six underrated guys (I would profile one from each of the 24 American teams but some of the American teams- such as the Detroit Red Wings- are well followed north of the border, or- in the case of the 2007 Stanley Cup-winning Anaheim Ducks- are well known north of the border). Not all of my picks play in “non-traditional hockey markets” (you know, the places that have the tag “we shouldn’t have hockey there”, a clear indication of just how bad National Hockey League marketing is in respect to its individual franchises because they haven’t given any of us a reason to care for those teams when there should be), because even teams in “hockey markets” (such as Buffalo and Minneapolis) haven’t done a lot in recent years to warrant a huge profile in Canada; although even those players are better noticed than those in Phoenix, Nashville or Raleigh, where hockey coverage isn’t very dependable (owing, yet again, to poor marketing in those areas and by the league itself). One thing is still certain though: had any of those players been playing in Toronto, Calgary or Vancouver they’d have a much higher profile than they do now, which is why I shall raise them here with this post.
OLLI JOKINEN, FLORIDA PANTHERS
“Okay, okay, what do you mean he’s underrated? I already knew this guy was good!” Yes, but I ask- “just how good?” Olli Jokinen has made an entire career for himself playing for some very bad teams- he was drafted by the rebuilding Los Angeles Kings in 1997, traded two years later to the New York Islanders in their woeful years before being dealt to the Florida Panthers in 2000 (along with Roberto Luongo for Oleg Kvasha and Mark Parrish, one of the many deals that sent then Islander General Manager Mike Milbury to a less than stellar career as a broadcaster), which is why the most anyone has ever known about Jokinen is that he’s good without actually realizing just how good. Once you see him play, you see that Jokinen is more than just your “average” impact player- he is, without a doubt, one of the best players in the National Hockey League, the complete package who’s the epitome of “captaincy” in the NHL. He does literally *everything* for the Panthers, being not just the kind of player who makes plays out of nothing, he never takes a shift off, always making himself visible on the ice whether or not he’s wiring a shot home from an impossible angle or creating a turnover to douse an enemy rush and create one for the Panthers. It is unfortunate that he’s never had the benefit of playing with better players (or that he’s never seen playoff action), but the league doesn’t see a more well-rounded competitor than Olli Jokinen.
SHEA WEBER, NASHVILLE PREDATORS
Shea Weber is another in a line of “yeah he’s good but people don’t realize just ‘how’ good”. He plays his game just like- maybe even a little better than- Calgary’s Dion Phaneuf, being a physical defenceman not afraid to legendarily lay people out in reading the game (and attacks) exceptionally well, but on top of being a great defender, Weber is also great on the offensive end. As Greg Millen once said during the Leafs-Predators game earlier this season, “if he played in Canada he’d be a household name”. Truer words could not be said.
MIKE CAMMALLERI, LOS ANGELES KINGS
Perhaps lost in the shadow of dynamic forwards Alexander Frolov and Anze Kopitar (or the stench of just how awful the Los Angeles Kings really are), the Kings’ Mike Cammalleri may be the most anonymous offensive weapon in the entire NHL. Small but shifty, Cammalleri is capable of making a sweet dish or wiring the perfect shot, and he never gives up on the play. Not only that, but the diminutive Cammalleri is showing to be pretty durable- this year’s 17-game absence after a mid-season rib injury was his first significant injury since suffering a head injury in 2002-03. He’s still on the rise at age 25, and, with the likes of Frolov, Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Patrick O’Sullivan maturing at the same time, it won’t be long before Cammalleri’s offensive exploits get the credit they deserve.
CHRIS CAMPOLI, NEW YORK ISLANDERS
One of the steadiest blueliners in the NHL at just 23, the New York Islanders’ Chris Campoli is a power-play quarterback in the making. He is a quick, agile skater with great passing ability and a decent shot, plus his on-ice awareness is improving. His point totals aren’t gaudy (14 goals (including four power-play markers) and 66 points in 177 games), but Campoli has been derailed by injuries the past two seasons and thus hasn’t had a “proper” opportunity to build on his remarkable 34-point rookie season in 2005-06. That said, his point totals are consistent (his figures for the past two seasons) would round to 30+ points over a full season) and his defensive game is improving, since his plus/minus numbers have improved each year (–16 in ’05-’06, –3 last year and –1 this year). Given his youth, it’s only a matter of time before Campoli becomes more of an impact player than he is now- a scary prospect indeed.
JOCHEN HECHT, BUFFALO SABRES
When the Buffalo Sabres were the impressive scoring machines of ’05-’06 and ’06-’07, Jochen Hecht always felt out of place. He never was a super-scorer, being the kind of player who’d hang back instead of join in on the offence, despite having a good skill set. However, with Daniel Briérè and Chris Drury gone and the Sabres’ scoring punch down as a result, Hecht’s usefulness has grown considerably this season, as Hecht’s defensive play allows him to generate turnovers that lead to timely offence. He is also heading for a career year, with 17 goals in 61 games thus far this season- meaning, barring injury (not a certainty with Hecht), he should hit 20 goals for the first time in his career. Not bad for a player whose skills and awareness are among the most under-appreciated (and unheralded) for most of his career.
PASCAL LECLAIRE, COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
Last but not least is the Columbus Blue Jackets’ wunderkind Pascal Leclaire, who has been one of the league’s biggest surprises this season. What puts him here is just how much of a surprise he is, since all you get out of Canadian media is that he’s good, one of the biggest understatements of the year. Leclaire is third in the NHL in goals-against-average, second in save percentage and tops in shutouts, and, if the Jackets ever learned how to score (outside of Rick Nash and Nikolai Zherdev), he would be up there in wins as well. His performance is no fluke- Leclaire never gives up on a shot, always being square to the shooter and having remarkable acrobatic ability to snuff out what would be otherwise sure goals. He does seem to lose concentration at times, but he does have the ability to bounce back after a poor start- after the Toronto Maple Leafs went up 3-1 in the first period earlier this week, Leclaire shut the door for the rest of the game. He’ll only get better at that with age- at just 26, Leclaire is well on his way to joining the NHL’s elite, hopefully taking the Blue Jackets to the playoffs with him.-DG