Thursday, January 19, 2012

Varly vs. Chambers and other goalie thoughts

Mike Chambers

On Monday, the Avs suffered a 6-1 loss at the hands of the Phoenix Coyotes.  Afterward, Denver Post writer Mike Chambers wrote a piece about how he asked Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov for a quick interview and Varlamov waived him off and "rudely declined."  Let me first start off by saying, I have tremendous respect for both Varly and Mike Chambers.  I've played goalie for the past 10 years, albeit not in the NHL and obviously, I've written about the Avalanche, but never with a platform as large as the Denver Post.  I've been in Varly's and Chambers' shoes, but of course on a much, much smaller scale.

Chambers stated that Varly acted unprofessionally and that he should "act like a pro hockey player."  Sure, it is Chambers' job to get post-game interviews from the players, but goalies are different animals.  Goaltending is as mental of a position as any in professional sports, right up there with NFL quarterbacks and MLB pitchers.  I've had games in rec leagues where I've been lit up and I didn't want to talk to my teammates, friends, or anyone afterward.  I just wanted to forget about it.  I can only imagine that feeling is exponentially magnified at the NHL level with the media, fans, and the world watching.  Patrick Roy was infamous for not making himself available to the media during game days.  Now Varly has certainly not earned himself the passes that Patrick Roy got, not even close.  If Varly went into Joe Sacco's office and trashed it, I don't think that would end well for Semyon.  With all that said, I do think Varly and every NHL goalie is entitled to a pass every now and then.  Every goaltender who's ever strapped on the pads has had those games where seemingly everything goes in and all you want to do is forget about it.  Milan Hejduk wears the "C" and should be available for a quote.  Chuck Kobasew netted the Avs' only goal that afternoon and I'm sure he would have liked to have been asked about that, but a goalie who just allowed 6 in a loss, probably isn't going to give you any profound insight as to why.  Perhaps Chambers was fishing for an entertaining quote.  If so, Varly's fellow countryman, Flyers goalie and 24/7 star Ilya Bryzgalov might be the right guy.

Much like the Avs team as a whole this season, Semyon Varlamov has been very streaky.  Unfortunately for him, he is coming off two consecutive losses in which he allowed 10 combined goals.  Fortunately for the Avs however, veteran goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere has been the model of consistency this season.  Now I am not a fan of the term "goalie controversy."  It has become as overused and cliche as "must-win" and "it is what it is" (thanks Todd, for that one).  Giguere's numbers and wins have earned him more starts.  There's no question about that.  However, in my mind, nothing has changed.  Varlamov is still the future of the Avs' goaltending and Giguere is the mentor goalie, who also happens to be a wily veteran who still has some gas left in the tank.  It has never been a question of talent for Varly.  He has the excellent quickness, flexibility, and reflexes and can be a #1 goalie in the NHL.  At just 23, give him time to develop mentally, and he can get there.  Even Giguere the other day, said he doesn't understand why a lot of teams, including the Avs, do not employ a full-time goalie coach.  Coach Joe Sacco said that he feels it might be "overbearing" for the goalies to have a full-time guy there, but I don't see Sacco or assistant coaches Sylvain Lefebvre or Adam Deadmarsh taking days or weeks off so as to not make it overbearing on the 20+ skaters on the team.  I fully agree with Jiggy on this one, every NHL team would be wise to employ a full-time goaltending coach.  I mentioned quarterbacks and pitchers earlier.  There are full-time quarterbacks coaches and full-time pitching coaches, why not full-time goalie coaches as the standard?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

At The Half...

The Colorado Avalanche have played exactly half of their regular season games of the 2011-2012 season.  After 41, the Avs are 22-18-1 with a total of 45 points.  They are tied for the 8th and final playoff spot in the West (although LA currently holds the tiebreaker as they've played 1 fewer game).  How has the first half of the season been?  Overall, not bad.  The season opened with a disappointing loss to the rival Detroit Red Wings on Peter Forsberg night, but then the Avs proceeded to go on a tear on the road, sweeping a 5-game road trip and winning 6 of their first 7 road games overall.  Unfortunately during this period, the Avs could not win at home.  In fact, they did not pick up their first home win until October 30th against the Kings.  They won only 4 times in their first 13 home games.  However, after that, they won a franchise record 8 consecutive home games in a row.  However, during that time, they dropped 8 consecutive on the road.  Needless to say, this young Avalanche club has been a streaky one.  They enter 2012 and the 2nd half of their season on a pretty good roll though.  They've won 9 of the last 11, which included wins on both home and road ice.  While long road/home winning streaks are certainly nice, the Avs will never be much better than a .500 team if they are losing the other games.  Winning with consistency at home AND on the road is the key to this team staying in playoff contention.

In November, when the Avs were struggling mightily, Avs Nation was vehemently calling for #firesacco.  In fact, the Blues, Ducks, Hurricanes, Canadiens, Kings, and Capitals have all replaced their coaches so far this season.  That's exactly 1/5 of the NHL coaches who started the season and who are now no longer with that club.  However, Joe Sacco managed to weather the storm and since the Avs have been on a 9-2 run, the rumblings for his job have died down.  As this is the final year of his current contract, his long-term future with the team is certainly not guaranteed, but unless the Avs take a nosedive during the 2nd half of the season like last year, Sacco will most likely finish the year behind the Avs bench.  Despite the Avs success of late, I disagree with some of the recent coaching decisions made by Sacco.  First and foremost, during the Avs' 8-game home winning streak, he kept the same lineup game in and game out, to almost a superstitious point.  Kyle Quincey, the Avs leading scorer amongst defensemen was injured during 2 games, but kept out of the lineup as a healthy scratch because Sacco didn't want to disrupt the winning lineup.  Matt Hunwick, Quincey's replacement, wasn't terrible, but he only has 1 assist, and is minus-1 in 10 games this season.  Hardly a reason to keep him rolling.  He also started Jean-Sebastien Giguere for 5 consecutive games.  Now don't get me wrong, Jiggy was playing great hockey, but he's your #2 goalie and hasn't started more than 26 games in each of the last 3 seasons.  In the 5th game, Jiggy looked tired in the 4-1 loss to the Jets.  I think it's important to keep Varly rolling to keep the young goalie's confidence up. 

Over the first half of the season, I think it's apparent that the Avs' goaltending is much-improved.  The speculation in late June was that the Avs were going to sign veteran all-star Tomas Vokoun to be their short-term #1.  Instead, the Avs made a bold trade with Washington to acquire the promising but unproven Semyon Varlamov and signed veteran and former Conn Smythe and Stanley Cup winner, Jean-Sebastien Giguere to be the team's backup.  Aside from perhaps former Av, Brian Elliott, Giguere has had the best season of any backup in the NHL, playing his best hockey since his Anaheim days.  By the way, very classy of the Ducks organization and fans to pay him tribute the other night in his first game back at Honda Center.  I bet we'll see his #35 hanging in the rafters there when he calls it a career.  When he signed here, he knew that his role would be a different one than he's ever had in his career before.  In Anaheim and Toronto, he was supposed to be the starter, but here, one of his primary purposes is to mentor Semyon Varlamov.  Jiggy actually does have a history of being a mentor to younger goalies with Bryzgalov and Hiller in Anaheim and Gustavsson and Reimer in Toronto.  Varly, although his numbers have not been as consistent as Giguere's, has also been good.  He's certainly shown flashes of brilliance and potential which is why I'm sure Greg Sherman and Joe Sakic made the trade for him.  Monday's 2-1 shootout win in LA was probably his best Avalanche performance to date.  At only 23-years-old, Varlamov has all the raw talent needed, he just needs to get the confidence and consistency to be a long-term #1 NHL goalie.  Varlamov is a very quick goalie, perhaps the quickest one the Avs have ever had.  He can move laterally like lightning and is capable of making the unreal, highlight saves.  He robbed a sure goal from the Kings' Jack Johnson the other night.  Varly has also been unstoppable in the shootouts, going 6-0 and stopping 19 of 21 shooters.  Ironically, during his post-game interview, he said he doesn't like shootouts.  I'm guessing the shooters he's faced this season, like them even less!  J-S Giguere has a much different style than Varlamov.  Although they're both about the same size, Jiggy relies a lot less on reflexes and quickness and much more on good, solid positioning.  Giguere has always played a positional style, but it's even more pronounced now that he's in his mid 30s and doesn't have the quickness he did 10 years ago.  I hope that Giguere and goaltending consultant Kirk McLean help Varlamov to become more of a solid positional goalie as this will certainly help him in the long-term in addition to his assets of quickness and flexibility.

The Avs' MVP to this point has unquestionably been Ryan O'Reilly.  "Factor" impressively made the team right out of the 2009 draft and was a very good defensive center his first 2 seasons.  This season however, his offensive game has really blossomed and he has become one of the top two-way centers in the game.  With Matt Duchene out with a knee injury, O'Reilly certainly should be selected to represent the Avs in Ottawa for the All-Star Game.  In half a season, he has already eclipsed his career high in points, and has been valuable on the penalty kill and power play.  He has also scored some big, clutch goals including the Avs' lone regulation goal late in the 3rd to send the game to overtime the other night.  If Factor keeps it up, not only should he be an all-star, he should get some serious consideration for the Selke Trophy, awarded to the league's best two-way forward.  Currently, O'Reilly has 55 takeaways, which is 1 more than 3-time Selke winner Pavel Datsyuk.  Here's a very good article on O'Reilly from today's Denver Post by Mike Chambers.

While O'Reilly may be the Avs best player to this point, fellow 3rd year player, Matt Duchene is the most talented.  Unfortunately, Duchene is currently on IR with a knee injury and is out until at least late January.  Duchene's talent has never been a question.  His puck control is reminiscent of Peter Forsberg, his speed with the puck is uncanny, and he can score big, highlight reel goals.  He had the big OT winner against Tampa Bay, and his goal against all-star goalie Marc-Andre Fleury is hands down one of the best of the year.
Aside from his talent that made him a #3 overall pick, Duchene's greatest strength is also his greatest weakness.  He is a very emotional player and person, which can be both a blessing and a curse.  When things are going well, Duchene can feed off of the emotion to propel him to further success, but when the team is losing or when he's not producing on the scoresheet, he can get down on himself.  Joe Sakic was the best I've ever seen at remaining even keel through both good times and bad.  Current captain Milan Hejduk is of the same mold as well.  The fact that Duchene is not doesn't make him a bad player or a bad person, it's just the way he is.  Guys like Patrick Roy, Peter Forsberg, and Adam Foote were emotional players and that didn't hamper their success.  However, this time on IR away from hockey and the team will certainly be a trying one for the youngster, but I have no doubt he'll be able to have great success this season when he returns.

The most maligned players this season have been Paul Stastny and Erik Johnson.  While neither player has achieved the all-star caliber success expected of them, neither player has been particularly bad.  People have called for them to be traded or benched and I think either of those cases would be a bit drastic.  First off, you don't want to trade a player when they're under performing.  You want to trade a player when he's at the top of his game so that you can get the most in return.  Stastny has been selected to 2 all-star games and has been a near point-per-game player throughout his career.  Certainly he can turn things around and play the game that earned him the 2 all-star nods and the assistant captain's "A" he wears on a nightly basis.  EJ is still only 23.  Give him time to develop into a full-fledged NHL defenseman.  If he hasn't progressed in a year or two from now, then maybe it's time to put the future of the Avs' defense elsewhere, but for now, EJ is the guy.

Gabriel Landeskog has been everything the Avs could have hoped for from their #2 overall pick.  Like O'Reilly, this kid does it all.  He's on the PP, PK, and is obviously very strong at both ends of the ice.  He leads the team in shots and hits and is only going to get bigger, stronger, and more confident.  #92 is the real deal.

Certainly a lot can happen over the next 41 games and the Avs resiliency will be further tested as long as Matt Duchene is out of the lineup, but this young team has talent, character, and emerging stars and leaders that should propel the Avs into playoff contention and hopefully further!  Here's to a good 2nd half and a great 2012!  #GOAVSGO

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Mid-Season TV Lineup

2012 is upon us.  With the new year of course, means new mid-season TV shows!  Here are the ones I'll be watching:

Let's start with new network shows.  On Monday, 1/16, J.J. Abrams will debut his latest project, Alcatraz.  The Fox series will be about the infamous titular prison and will star former Lost alum, Jorge Garcia (Hurley).  It seems to have a sci-fi element as the plot revolves around former Alcatraz inmates who went missing decades ago and are now turning up in present day.  Abrams' first post-Lost endeavor, Undercovers, was short-lived, but his second, Person of Interest has been a hit thus far.  Alcatraz is definitely worth a shot.

Also on Mondays on Fox will be Touch, from Heroes creator, Tim Ring.  The series will star Kiefer Sutherland, who was last seen on Fox as Jack Bauer, one of the greatest TV characters ever.  Sutherland will reprise his role as Bauer...just kidding, but how sick would that be?  Sutherland will actually play Martin Bohm, a man whose wife was killed in 9/11 and whose son has autism and does not speak, but is also able to see into the future.  The show will co-star Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who was the female lead in the aforementioned Undercovers, and veteran actor Danny Glover.  Also, definitely a must-watch.  The show will have a preview episode on Wednesday, 1/25, but will begin its official run on Monday, 3/19.

On Tuesday, 3/6, the Fox sitcom, Breaking In will return.  The show stars Bret Harrison, Odette Annable, and Christian Slater, and is only the second show behind Family Guy to return from cancellation twice.

On Thursday, 1/12, Rob will debut, starring Rob Schneider.  Back in 1996, Schneider had a funny, but short-lived sitcom called Men Behaving Badly.  Anyone remember that one?  The new series, Rob, will be a semi-autobiographical endeavor, with Schneider playing a man who marries into a Mexican-American family.  The show will air on CBS.

One that's a may or may not watch for me is Missing.  The show stars Ashley Judd in her first starring TV role (unless you count Sisters in the early 90s), as a former CIA agent who tries to track down her missing son.  Taken, with Liam Neeson was a good movie, but a lot of its appeal was that it was a very fast-paced film.  Time will tell if Judd can take a similar plot, stretch it out over an entire TV run and keep it interesting.  Thursdays are also pretty full with Person of Interest, Rob, the returning 30 Rock, and Up All Night on its new day, which might work against Missing.  We'll see.  I have a feeling Heidi might want to try the Ashley Judd show.

Over on basic cable, FX will begin the third season of its show Justified on Tuesday, 1/17.  Another reason I'm glad DirecTV and Fox resolved their stupid dispute!

Now on to the money shows, i.e. the shows you have to pay for because they're on premium channels.  The most anticipated new show is House of Lies on Showtime which premiers this Sunday, 1/8.  The 30 minute comedy stars one of the best actors of our generation and Colorado native, Don Cheadle and Kristen Bell as cutthroat management consultants.

The much anticipated new season of Spartacus, titled Spartacus: Vengeance will premiere on Friday, 1/27.  The second season of the Starz hit epic show (third if you count the prequel series, Spartacus: Gods of the Arena) has sadly been delayed due to the cancer and passing of former star Andy Whitfield.  Before his death, he graciously gave his blessing for Starz to continue to show without him and Liam McIntyre inherited the title role.  This has been Starz only show to make it past a first season and is keeping Starz original programming credibility alive.  I did however, really like Camelot and thought it deserved to be renewed.

HBO's highly acclaimed epic fantasy series, Game of Thrones, was renewed however, and will begin its second season in April.

Mid-Season Lineup:

House of Lies, Showtime - 1/8
Game of Thrones, HBO - TBD, April

Alcatraz, Fox - 1/16
Touch, Fox - (1/25), 3/19

Justified, FX - 1/17
Breaking In, Fox - 3/6

30 Rock, NBC - 1/12
Rob, CBS - 1/12
Missing, ABC - 3/15*

Spartacus: Vengeance, Starz - 1/27