July 2, 2015

My professional opinion, for what it's worth

After talking to a few people, we've all pretty much come to the same conclusion. Mark Barberio signing with his hometown team of Montreal has set his career back. Reactions ran from him being stuck in the AHL forever now, to him being stuck in pretty much the same position he was in in Tampa.

He chose comfort, familiarity, and childhood dreams over his NHL career, and that's going to cost him. Probably. Another NHL team may pick him up off of waivers when he gets sent down to St. John's in Newfoundland and save him from himself. But if that doesn't happen, then chances are good that he'll be in the AHL for a large portion of the season.

And the thing is, he's not an AHLer. Right now, he's probably a #4 or #5 defenseman on an NHL team that needed a guy like him, and he'll only get better if he's playing against top competition. He probably would've had to have worked up to that from starting out as #5 or #6, but still. Being in the AHL won't give him that. He may dominate in the minors, sure, but he was doing that three years ago. It's a step backwards, not a step forward.

I don't know what kind of offers he was getting, but the first question he should've asked himself about any of them was if he'd get consistent NHL playing time. And if the answer to that wasn't yes, then he should've passed. There were plenty of NHL teams out there in need of a defenseman like him, and they probably would've given him a good 70 games this year.

Montreal has plenty of defensemen, so chances of him living the dream in his hometown are pretty slim. Especially since the head coach, Michel Therrien, probably won't like how he plays. He would've had a better shot at playing there towards the end of the NHL career instead.

I understand that it probably seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but it really wasn't. Montreal's always willing to listen to the agents of good players who are from La Belle Province, and particularly if they're from the town itself. They're pretty infamous for that, in fact. So it wasn't a matter of "if" so much as a matter of "when".

You can't take one aspect of a decision and decide that's all you need to make something work. From the outside looking in, it appears to be an impulsive decision that was entirely based upon family and / or childhood dreams that potentially could end up costing him an NHL career. And he's just too good to be a life-long minor leaguer, which is the tragedy of it all.

Could he make the opening night roster in Montreal? I'd like to think he could, because I know he's a good player, but at the same time I sort of doubt it. They've already got established defensemen that they like and are comfortable with - and he is not one of those. Again, if he's playing with the NHL club, he'll likely be doing some press box time - which is exactly what he was doing in Tampa Bay.

Thankfully, it's only a year contract, he could get picked up off waivers, and he's 25 years old - so it's not a total disaster. That's the one bright side to all of this. But I hope he likes Newfoundland, since he's probably going to be spending some quality time there.

June 29, 2015

The pitfalls of NHL free agency

Free agency for NHL fans is considered "Hockey Christmas", since the players get picked up by their favorite teams are like presents getting handed out at Christmas. Most of the time, they're unexpected happy surprises, and other times, it's nothing that they wanted. But, it's always exciting, either way.

From the player's side of things, it's likely incredibly stressful. Hockey players are creatures of habit, and creatures of habit don't like the uncertainty of trying to figure out what to do next. Thankfully, they have agents to help them out with that, but it's still probably pretty nerve wracking.

First, it comes down to teams reaching out to agents to see if they're interested. Or sometimes, it's agents reaching out to teams - and, seriously, it never hurts to ask - if the player so requests, from what I understand. Oftentimes, players don't realize that they're a part of the equation and have a say in what they want to do, so they leave it up to their agents. But the agent works for the player, not the other way around, so players can totally steer their career in the direction that they'd like to.

Once there are offers, then the sorting begins - and this is where players can screw themselves over. Take Vinny Lecavalier, for instance. Any fan knows that the Philadelphia Flyers are not a great place for an over-30 player to go. It's a total no-brainer, in fact. But he let his wife decide where she wanted to live instead of him deciding where he wanted to play, and now he's in a position where he's with a team that no longer wants him despite him still wanting to play.

It isn't just about location; it's about what's best for your career and what work conditions you're willing to put up with. Playing for the San Jose Sharks, for instance, might seem like a good idea since they've still got a decent team and a new coach. But there's a lot of locker room drama going on there, and if that's going to be something you're not willing to deal with, then maybe the Sharks aren't for you.

Naturally, everyone wants to play for contending teams - the point of playing the game is to get your name on the Stanley Cup, after all. But not only is the competition for the few open spots available insane, it may not be the best option for a career. Especially for a younger player, who's still trying to establish himself in the league.

I think that what's best for a player's career should come first, followed by the team's culture, their ability to contend, and then the location for a younger player. For older established players, then probably ability to contend moves to the top of the list - depending on their age and where they're at in the careers. Rarely, if at all, will all four of those things line up into a perfect situation, though, so it's best to not even expect that to ever happen.

So the teams to avoid (from the fan's perspective), if you were an unrestricted free agent, are:
  • Boston Bruins
  • Dallas Stars
  • Edmonton Oilers
  • Philadelphia Flyers
  • San Jose Sharks
  • Toronto Maple Leafs
  • Vancouver Canucks
  • Winnipeg Jets
There may be others, but those are the big, glaring problem children of the NHL right now off the top of my head. Those are the teams that most fans, bloggers, and media cringe at players signing with. Some are worse than others, but those are the teams you have to think twice about when it comes to how they're managed, at least.

Still, a player has to do what's best for him and his career. And hopefully, he's got people who know the league that can help advise him. But the bottom line is that it's his decision, and he has control over his own career - not his agent, not his wife or girlfriend, and not his parents.

May 21, 2015

A ghost of a defenseman

What Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper - and his defensive coach Rick Bowness - have done to defenseman Mark Barberio this season is completely and utterly wrong. I don't care who the guy is; you don't treat players like this. It's things like this that make coaches lose their rooms and their jobs.

But I guess we should've seen this coming, as he'd only played in three of the first 18 games of the regular season. A streak that may have gone longer had I not called out Cooper on Twitter for it. Coincidentally or not, Barberio played the following game after that.

The biggest part of the problem - for there are many parts to this - is the lack of playing time, especially in playoffs.

Here's a well-liked player among his teammates, who put in 52 games of work in a difficult situation, and he excelled at it. The Lightning were down four defenseman, and Barberio was tasked to step in and help cover for that. And not only did he play well enough to have earned a spot in the roster, he was a key part of top-rated penalty killing units.

But right before and at the start of playoffs, all of those defensemen came back, and he hasn't been seen again. Not just in the lineup, but also by the media. He's become a ghost - someone no one either acknowledges nor talks about publicly, for whatever reason. Even people who work for the team, who probably see him on a regular basis, almost never mention him even as a part of the scratches.

What makes this all worse is that his head coach is the very man who helped him reach the NHL. Who leaned on him hard during their time together in the minor leagues and counted on Barberio to get the job done. And now, that same coach takes him apparently either for granted or has put him in the dog house - that part of the situation isn't clear from the outside looking in.

What is clear, however, is that Cooper is no longer a fan of Mark Barberio. And because of that, Barberio doesn't get to play. Which is completely unfair that it's come down to this. Barberio was praised all season long for doing everything that he was supposed to, for being able to step into a game seamlessly when he'd been sitting out for weeks without complaint, and yet he's been push aside like an empty coffee cup.

He does everything his coaches asks of him, and he's rewarded by sitting in the press box.

Now, people may give me crap for this, but I genuinely believe that he's just as good as Anton Stralman. In my opinion, the Lightning's current defensive depth is Victor Hedman being a bit ahead of the rest, then Stralman and Barberio, followed closely by Jason Garrison and Nikita Nesterov. Then it drops a bit to Braydon Coburn, and a bit more to Matt Carle. Finally, it's Luke Witkowski and then Andrej Sustr.

After last season, when the Lightning coaches were switching up defensive pairings all over the place, I got to see who Barberio played best with. And the guy that his playing style had the best fit with was Victor Hedman. By far. Not only were they very creative together and solidly responsible defensively, but offensively as well.

So my pairings, were I in charge of that for the team, would be Hedman-Barberio, Nesterov-Stralman, Garrison-Coburn, and then maybe rotate in Carle or Witkowski as necessary.

I have no problem with Andrej Sustr - I really don't. I'm sure he's a very nice guy and everything, but he does not fit in at all with this defense. He's not strong positionally, and instead tries to recover from his mistakes with his insanely long reach. Much of that time that actually works for him, but when it doesn't it's disastrous. He's definitely the weakest player in this type of system for the Lightning.

As for Nesterov, in the coaches' eyes he jumped over Barberio at the end of the regular season in the depth chart. Nesterov had shown more of an interest in being the offensive player that Barberio had been known as in the AHL, which is probably why. Barberio was content at being more of a stay-at-home defensive player, which is apparently not what the Lightning were hoping to get out of him at the NHL level. But that makes sense - if a guy was an offensive force in the minors, then chances are, that's what they'd want out of him in the majors. The trick is maintaining that defensive responsibility while doing playing more offensively at a higher level of play.

To be clear, when a defenseman is considered more "offensive", it's that he's being more of a playmaker rather than just a guy sitting at the blue line trying to keep the puck in the offensive zone. A "scoring" defenseman gets maybe 15 goals a year, but that's not very common. It's racking up the assists that give a defenseman a reputation for being an offensive player more so than goal scoring.

Now, is Barberio #2 defenseman material? No, not right now. But that's not the point here, either. People often get caught up in depth charts and assigning meaningless status to players as a way to evaluate them, when they ought to be looking at what abilities compliment other player's abilities. Barberio's ability compliments Hedman's in a way that no one else's can or does on the Lightning. That's all. That doesn't automatically mean he's the second-best defenseman on the team, however.

Another big part of Barberio's lineup problem is that the coaching staff has become very rigid this season in their thinking about the defense. They're determined to keep a right-shooting defenseman paired with a left-shooting defenseman. And as Sustr is a right-shooting defenseman, that means that he's automatically in the lineup, no matter what. So, naturally, that makes him the weakest spot in the defense, which other teams can exploit to their advantage - either through getting him to take a penalty, or overwhelming him on the ice.

Of course, Barberio hasn't done himself any favors by trying to be inconspicuous, either. Here's a guy who is very adept at flying under other people's radar when he chooses to. In this case, that's caused him to be overlooked even more, even as he's likely frustrated by the fact that he's sitting in limbo and black aces are being talked about more than he is. If you want people to notice you, and to perhaps give you a shot, then you have to make a little noise in order to their attention focused on you in the first place.

About the only good from this playoff run is that Barberio is eligible to get his name on the Stanley Cup, even if he doesn't play, and if the Lightning make it that far. Players had to have played at least 41 regular season games, or played in one playoff game, to qualify for that. It'd be a bittersweet and somewhat empty victory for him, I would guess, but it would help him out in the long run over his NHL career.

Despite Matt Carle being out of the lineup and questionable for Game 4 tomorrow, I'm not holding my breath that Barberio will make it into the lineup even if Carle is out. I'm actually expecting Cooper to go with a 12-forward / 6-defensemen setup, in fact. Which means that Nesterov will be in, and Barberio will still be sitting in the press box. If, by some quirk of fate Barberio does make it into the lineup, then I expect very limited playing time for him. It's clear that the coaches don't want him to play, so why give him playing time if they don't have to?

Is Barberio blameless in this situation? Of course not. I can think of a number of things that could've been done differently, and have mentioned a couple of them here already. But as the decision to play him or not lies primarily with the coaching staff, the burden of the situation rests more upon them than it does on him.

At this point, Barberio's a restricted free agent come July 1st, and I'm seriously hoping general manager Steve Yzerman lets him go. Or, at least, trades him. Barberio has earned better treatment than sitting in the press box as his coaches take him for granted. He's obviously been buried in the depth chart with the Lightning, so he's likely not going to get any more playing time were he re-signed - especially not by a coaching staff that has consistently shown no interest in playing him.

My greatest fear is that Yzerman does re-sign him, in fact. In which case, I would hope that Barberio jumps ship for Europe, since the current coaching staff likely won't change their minds about him. There's no point in sticking around if all you're going to end up doing is sitting in the press box for half the season and all of playoffs, after all.

So, Yzerman - let him go. Let him find another team that will actually give him a legitimate chance, instead of adding more defensemen to the roster so he can't play. His coaches apparently don't want him there, so why re-sign the poor guy? If you want to reward him for putting in the time and effort and helping out the team in a pinch, the let him find a new home. Give him that chance to be the defenseman that you wanted him to be on another team, since his current coaches won't.

November 17, 2014

Does it happen? Yes. Will it stop? Probably not.

Dear hockey fans: let’s do more to weed out internet trolls
It shouldn’t have to be said, but apparently, it needs to be: there is no excuse for attacking a player’s wife, girlfriend or any family member. None. If you don’t know why this is inappropriate, go soak your head for a good, long while, and try figuring it out again on your own. The families of hockey players have no connection to your enjoyment of the game. Any rationalization you have to include them in your hate is fundamentally flawed, as are you as a human being if you’re stupid enough to do so.
Most women don't understand what they're getting themselves into when they date a professional athlete. They truly don't. They just fall in love with a guy, and don't realize what comes with his position as a public figure - not just the bad stuff, but the good stuff as well.

The hockey media is actually pretty good about not dragging wives and girlfriends into things. Unlike other sports that will more than happily trash the wife of a big name player in the mainstream media. Especially if she has a high-profile in her own right.

So, no. This doesn't surprise me at all. Some women just shouldn't even consider dating, let alone marry, a professional athlete because of this very thing. If you can't hack internet trolls or stupid reporters that will come after you for no real reason, then you have no business being married to a guy who deals with that on a daily basis.

This is also why athletes shouldn't talk about their wives or girlfriends, and / or families publicly. Seriously. If they give their significant other attention, then others will give them attention. And usually not in a good way. It's not just personal attacks, but also sexual harassment that's involved.

For some people, nothing is sacred. If a guy is a public figure, then by extension, everyone he knows is also public and fair game. In some cases, it's actually a fan trying to upset a player from the opposing team by going after his wife just so his team will win. Which is incredibly wrong, but it does happen - more so to NFLers in this country than anyone else, and likely also to soccer players elsewhere.

A lot of people view this as the athlete first, and the wife second - like she and the kids are acceptable collateral damage, instead of targeted victims of hateful acts as well. I can't decide if that's due to sexism (the man is more important than the woman) or the fact that she's not typically in the spotlight like the athlete is. Either way, that's also not right.

Not all women are cut out for this life, and a lot of that is because of this sort of thing. It blindsides most women, and they don't often have a thick enough skin to take the verbal abuse. Women tend to take things very personally, especially when some stranger is attacking them on a personal basis. They don't always get that the attack has more to do with the person making it than themselves.

And, of course, it doesn't help that the athletes are so used to it that they don't think to say anything to these women that it might happen to them as well. In fact, the athletes tend to not realize that it will happen to the woman they love, so it does get under their skin. Which is exactly the thing trolls want to happen.

That shouldn't stop anyone from dating anyone else, but it should be something to be mentally prepared for.

June 10, 2014

Public relations isn't his strong suit, apparently

Marty St. Louis: 'Was anyone more loyal?'
Never mind that St. Louis was eventually added to the team because of an injury to Steven Stamkos. Forget that Yzerman was not alone in picking the Canadian team. For St. Louis, who is as proud as he is talented, the circle of trust had been broken.

And so that's why St. Louis feels misunderstood now. The way he sees it, he wasn't the disloyal one.

"My time in Tampa, I gave everything I had," St. Louis said. "Everything! Who was more loyal? Look at my career there."
Marty, here's the story.

Your boss passed you by for a special project - twice - and you felt slighted and unappreciated. So you did what anyone would've done, and that's go looking for another job. Which is completely reasonable.

However, sports aren't about reason, they're about emotion. People can't identify with you and what you did because fans put athletes up on a pedestal. Supposedly, athletes aren't like regular people, which you'll agree with me is bullshit. But that's how so many fans think.

You, in particular, were put on one of the highest pedestals ever in Tampa Bay. The fans adored you. They didn't just call you the "heart and soul" of the team - they meant it. You exemplified everything every fans wishes every player could be like.

And then you turned out to be human, and they feel betrayed by that.

You see, they took it personally. They thought that all of that love and adoration they had for you was returned - and I'm sure it was. But for them, that meant forever, no matter what the circumstances.

After all, athletes don't have feelings, right? You're mere objects in which to idolized and worship. And to actually think and feel for yourself, well, we can't possibly have that. That would make it all way too complicated. Humans are messy, but heroes are always good and honorable and simple.

You didn't help yourself with the stuff you were saying while in New York, either, though. That was a big part of things. Your comments about loving being in a big market and such without any qualifiers just made it all worse. It was probably totally inadvertant on your part, but you made the Lightning fans feel like they weren't good enough, and that pissed them off.

The only way you would've been able to win would've been to have said up front that you didn't feel needed in Tampa Bay anymore, so you wanted to go play with your good friend Brad Richards. And then...kept your mouth shut. Instead, you were quiet when you should've been talking, and talking when you should've been quiet.

My advice to you is to face up to it. And then not say a word all summer to any member of the media. Let it die down and people will start to forgive you for disillusioning themselves. There will always be people who hate you for what they did to themselves, of course, but such is life.

Personally, I wish you the best of luck. I hold nothing against you about this, since you just did what you needed to do. I just really wish you'd been a bit more diplomatic in how you'd worded things after you got to New York, though. You could've avoided a lot of this angst, if you had.

Anyways, good luck with your first game in Tampa next season. Seriously. Because you're going to need it. This one quote pretty much sums up how you'll be dealing with Lightning fans for the rest of your life:
“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” -Maya Angelou

January 8, 2014

If you feel unworthy and unwanted, why would you stay?

I'm going to hide this over here, mostly because I'm not up to getting dumped on by Tampa Bay Lightning fans today....

Sports fans are funny. They like to believe that every player on the team they root for are there by conscious choice, and that's usually not the case. Guys get drafted, can be traded without their permission, and they don't see free agency for a while. Even undrafted free agents don't have much decision in the matter - it comes down to who's making the offer, and if anyone's giving them a better choice. It's not until a player is in the latter half of his career that he has any choice in regards to the location he wants to play and live.

But to suggest that a player may not be happy where he's at is heresy for sports fans. Many consider it a complete and utter insult, in fact, which I think is just ridiculous. And that's why I'm not feeling up to posting this on Raw Charge - I've got enough drama going on in my life due to others. I don't need to actively solicit more.

So.... Hockey Canada's GM - and the Lightning's GM - Steve Yzerman has left Tampa Bay captain Martin St. Louis off of the men's Olympic roster, and it's causing much angst and frustration among not just Lightning fans, but also Canadians. There are all kinds of things that are being written about it, and with good reason. It's the second Olympics in a row that Yzerman has elected to not put St. Louis on the roster.

It was after the first time that Yzerman became GM of Tampa Bay, and St. Louis was going to be a free agent that summer. Yzerman had to do some fast talking to get St. Louis to not test free agency and sign with the team. Partly because of where the Lightning were at in the standings and personnel-wise, but also because St. Louis wasn't very happy with Yzerman due to the Olympics snub in 2010.

And so here we are again - second snub, but with Marty being captain now. And having just won the Art Ross Trophy last season, too. And the Lightning are in first place in the Atlantic Division, as of this morning, and third overall in the Eastern Conference - without having had Steven Stamkos in the lineup for the past two months.

So if your boss's boss overlooked you for the second time for a special project that only comes up once every few years, what would you do?

In all honesty, if I were in St. Louis's position, I'd probably ask for a trade - or find a new job, were this not a hockey situation. Though, it'd come down to what my significant other wanted to do, and what I thought the chances of the team were to win the Stanley Cup (or career advancement). But even still, it'd be hard to not want to leave when it feels like my boss's boss doesn't appreciate me. That's not a happy work environment, and I can completely relate to that, since I've been in similar positions before.

(Makes me think of this saying.... Wrong me once, shame on you. Wrong me twice, shame on me.)

I watched Marty play last night, and he looked like he wanted to be anywhere but where he was. And I don't blame him. I'd feel the exact same way in his skates. He may have scored two goals, but he took absolutely no joy in them. They were more out of habit than out of any spitefulness to prove people wrong. He wasn't angry about being left off the Canadian Olympic roster; he was just mentally done with his current situation.

I also watched an interview of Steven Stamkos - a guy who had been named to an Olympic team for the first time - and it took everything he had to not stand there and weep for Marty. He kept looking up at the ceiling so tears wouldn't fall, and the pain in his voice was unmistakable. He was completely heartbroken for his friend and mentor, to the point where he could take no joy in his own opportunity. And that should tell you everything you need to know about how St. Louis took the news.

So, no. It wouldn't surprise me in the least if St. Louis asked for a trade. I sort of doubt that it'll be immediate, and he may wait until the offseason, but I can totally see him wanting to go because of this. He's got one more year on his contract, and just about any team in the NHL would make room for him, if they could. Happily.

And, frankly, who could blame him if he did?

That would be the end of the honeymoon for Yzerman if St. Louis left, though. Fans were not happy when he traded Cory Conacher away for Ben Bishop, and some are even still bitter about that, despite Bishop becoming a big asset for the Lightning. So some fans are already disillusioned.

But this would be the final straw. Marty's loved by just about everyone in the fan base - and is the last active player left in Tampa that won the Stanley Cup with the Lightning in 2004. So if St. Louis goes, then that absolute trust in Yzerman's decisions among fans likely goes with him.

Sure, one could argue that it was a committee decision, and not Yzerman's alone. But, as GM, Yzerman had the final say. And if he'd really wanted St. Louis on the Canadian Olympic Team, he'd be on the Canadian Olympic team. He would've found a way to make that happen since he's the guy in charge.

Personally, I would like St. Louis to stay. I've always liked him as a player, and I think he's a good guy. But I would completely understand if he couldn't stomach playing for a team run by a man who didn't think he was good enough for something more. I'm sure Yzerman had his reasons, but we'll probably never know them. And even if Marty does, I'm not sure that'll change his mind about things.

So don't be too surprised if you see Martin St. Louis in a different jersey next season - you'd probably do the exact same thing, if you were in his spot.

January 8, 2013

It's hard to care when they just want you for your money

You know, I just cannot get myself excited about the NHL lockout ending. I really can’t. I was genuinely pretty happy following the AHL and not having to write very much.

With the NHL, it’s like dating. If you do something to get a guy’s attention, but he does nothing to show he’s interested back in a similar fashion, then why keep pestering the guy? We can take a hint – you’re just not that into us, NHL.

And for me, that’s pretty much it. Why put effort into something where you’re just getting shamelessly taken advantage of? There’s pretty much no point. I realize that that’s always been the case – the getting taken advantage of part, I mean – but previously, at least the league tried to make it look like they cared about their fans.

There’s only two ways to deal with people who try to take advantage of you. One is to try to take advantage of them back, and the other is to simply walk away. And I have to say that walking away is really awfully tempting right about now.

In all honesty, there’s pretty much no bribe that will make me reconsider my stance. Free Center Ice? More access to the players? Lower ticket prices (which will never happen)? Sure – but that doesn’t mean I’ll run to you with open arms.

(Though, admittedly, I’ve always preferred the minors and college sports. The lockout just gave me a reason to rediscover that when it comes to hockey. And it help that I live within driving distance of AHL teams, too.)

I’m sure the players can understand this. I mean, when people just want you for your money, you’re not exactly interested in sticking around. Well, that’s all that the NHL wants from its fans – their money. We’re their guaranteed source of funding, and that’s all they want us for.

I sympathize with the players. I really do. They didn’t want to have a lockout, and they’re the ones who are going to have to constantly face the fans over it. But in helping them I’m also helping the NHL, and that’s just not going to happen very often.

In a way, it’s like dating a married man and expecting him to get a divorce for you. Why should he, when he can have his cake and eat it, too? There’s no incentive for change if you play someone else’s game to your own disadvantage. So, why play the NHL’s?

I’m actually not angry about this. I’m more ambivalent than anything else. It’s hard to work up any emotion over something that doesn’t really mean all that much in the grand scheme of life.

I’m not going to give up on the NHL entirely. I’ve still got a hockey blog to help run, after all, so I’ll keep up on news and watch games online. But unless I have a very good reason to go – like maybe to see some Syracuse players finally reaching their dream of playing in the NHL – then I probably won’t go to any NHL games this year.

As for next season…we’ll see.