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Bluelines: An Insightful Islanders View

Stan Fischler shares a confident view of the New York Islanders, a thought on hanging banners for Original Six players, hockey analytics and much more.
Mathew Barzal

AN INSIGHTFUL ISLANDERS VIEW – CHALLENGING THE SKEPTICS

The Hockey News Yearbook has Lou Lamoriello's Islanders finishing fifth in the Metropolitan Division. Other critics doubt that they'll even reach that level.

But since nobody X-Rays rookie coach Lane Lambert's sextet better than our Joltin' Joe Dionisio, here's what the fugitive from New York's Newsday reports:

Is any NHL squad receiving more divergent predictions than this year’s Islanders? Pity the Vegas oddsmakers.

Competent broadcasters such as Mike Rupp and Devan Dubnyk – along with GM Lou Lamoriello – are embracing Alfred E. Neuman’s “What, Me Worry?” view. That is, simply that 2022 was an aberration. That‘s in contrast to others, such as the Hockey News, which suffer doubts about rookie coach Lane Lambert's crew. So who’s correct? Neither, I say.

While the Elmonters' offense ranked 21st, 23rd and 24th in recent years, it didn't hurt during their successive playoff runs.

Nor do I buy the bromide that Barry Trotz suffocated Mat Barzal – No. 13 generated oodles of high-quality chances, yet his shooting was as unlucky as his uniform number. All of which raises the question of how elite the flashy center truly is.

Ownership certainly thinks the highest of Mat as his new, long-term contract proves. While Magic Mat is here to stay, Lambert's puzzle centers around finding the most productive wings for Mat and, brother/sister that is a challenge.

Here's the upside to soothe the Blue and Orange Army. A Vezina-caliber goalie, Ilya Sorokin, is entering his prime. The addition of rock-solid 'Big Al' Romanov to an already stout blueline featuring blossoming Noah Dobson is large, plus. And although it pains me to say it, jettisoning the revered 'Big Z' Chara and Andy Greene is addition by subtraction. Youthful replacements Robin Salo and Sebastian Aho will boost the squad’s energy.

Most intriguing is the Identity Line, and it's time to question whether an offense-wanting roster can still afford an energetic and robust – yet one-dimensional – fourth unit. That's a tough call all around.

There won't be any Humpties east of the Mississippi this semester. Even the five erstwhile cellar dwellers — Buffalo, Detroit, Ottawa, Columbus and Jersey — have improved, and have exited Patsy-ville.

Meanwhile, Boss Lamoriello has produced an intriguing wild card who – for years – had been pursued for head coaching duties. That's Monsieur Lambert who could be the X-factor to lead this underdog team back to the promised post-season.

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THE QUESTION OF HANGING BANNERS HAS CONFLICTING SIDES

To hang or not to hang?

The fact that Madison Square Garden's Rangers have not honored their Hall of Fame defenseman Brad Park has some folks all hot and bothered. We Did Everything But Win author George Grimm remains a constant lobbyist for Brad along with The Maven.

But let's face it, the banner-raising question has bedevilled Original Six teams ever since someone decided that retiring a player's jersey and number was a smart thing to do.

In some cases such as a Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr and Rocket Richard, it's a no-brainer, but a yes-brainer is involved with borderline cases and especially when it comes to a team such as the Rangers whose roots date back to 1926.

The Broadway Blueshirts won Stanley Cups in 1928 and 1933. The line of Bill Cook, Bun Cook and Frank Boucher – all Hall of Famers – is regarded as the greatest of all-time or at the very least, one of the greatest ever to grace an NHL rink.

Look real hard at the Madison Square Garden ceiling and you'll see plenty of banners, but you won't find one for Billy, Bunny nor Frankie.

Since the average Ranger fan wouldn't know the Cooks from the Colvilles (Neil and Mac) nor the Colvilles from the Patricks (Lynn and Muzz) there has been no uprising, nobody carrying a sign outside The Garden – BANNER FOR BOUCHER!

Curiously, though, there is a book championing those Original Rangers. Author Sean McCaffrey's The New York Rangers Rink Of Honor And The Rafters of Madison Square Garden says it all from the title. What's more, Sean adamantly refuses to get off his soap box on this issue even if it means angering the Park bloc.

When Grimm proposed in this space on Thursday that MSG should honor Park, you could hear McCaffrey's cry all the way across Manhattan Island – WHOA! WHOA!! and WHOA!!! (On Monday, I'll feature McCaffrey's pungent view.)

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SUMMIT '72 BOOKS AND A GOLDEN OLDIE WITH INFURIATING REVELATIONS

It seems as if every time I turn around, a new book about the famed 1972 Summit Series has hit the bookstores. And why not? The more angles the better, plus the writing and research are first-rate up and down the line.

But the book with an angle that still fascinates is one that was written fresh and on the spot 50 years ago. It remains as compelling – because of its insights – as if it just came off the presses.

I'm referring to Vic Hadfield's Diary which I've addressed before. Previously I focused on Vic's angry walkout and his feud with head coach Harry Sinden.

This time, I chose to read what Vic said before Team Canada left for Moscow and how the NHL players were egregiously deceived in advance by certain supposedly savvy hockey scouts. Here's what was written in his book, Vic Hadfield's Diary: From Moscow To the Playoffs.

The date was Sept. 1, 1972, before the opening game which would be played a night later in Montreal.

"We heard how the Russians can't skate or shoot with pros like us. We had men scouting them in Russia and they came back telling us that if we don't win every game by five or six goals there is something wrong with our hockey club -- or maybe our way of life."

Team Canada was coached by Harry Sinden who later would have a bitter feud with Hadfield. But the day before the opener, Vic and Harry still were on speaking terms. Here's what Vic wrote:

"Sinden claims the Russian goaltenders are weak. In a newspaper release the other day, Sinden said, 'The Russian goalies don't seem to have improved nearly as much as the rest of their players since I played against them in 1958 and 1960. The goalies look weak trying to glove rising shots from 25 to 30 feet. The Russians also have a flagrant defect in the way they kill penalties."

And here's how Vic opened his Diary after the first game:

"Those damn Russians played hockey last night like they invented it instead of us. They waxed us pretty good. We got beat 7-3."

Sinden benched Hadfield's entire line with Rod Gilbert and Jean Ratelle for Game Two.

Vic's reaction: "This makes us look like scapegoats!"

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HOW ANALYTICS SCORES ON THE ICE, OFF THE ICE AND ON TV

It's a given that the analytics avalanche has consumed every NHL team. In that sense, it's worthwhile to view how various franchises exploit their infatuation with the new science, or whatever you want to call it. And since our crackerjack nabob of the Northwest, Glenn Dreyfuss, is the Einstein of Analytics, he can teach us an arithmetic thing or three. Listen up, folks:

"Analytics extend well beyond the ice; NHL franchises are utilizing computational science to understand their fans as well. Sports consultant and former Sabres GM Gerry Meehan explained it to me on a recent Hockey Time Machine show.

Meehan: "Beyond the team's performance, what do you give the fans who consume your product, besides the watching of games? How do you engage them after the event, between games, in the parking lot getting into the arena? Analytics help determine ways to keep the fans interested in the product."

As the NHL and other pro leagues embrace gambling, Meehan says analytics will be key to that, too. "It allows fans to not just be engaged with the game on the ice, but 'prop bets.' That allows them to bet on the outcome, for example, of a shootout. Or, you might bet on who will score the first goal of the third period. This is what combines gaming with fan engagement."

Is there a concern that advanced metrics might be used to manipulate in-game outcomes? Meehan, who's also a lawyer, says, "There is definitely an issue there. The other side of that coin is, can you count on the advanced metrics information used to make your bet being timely. There was a recent lawsuit. The claim against the betting company was that the information on a prop bet, the odds on a particular outcome, were delayed getting to the person who made the bet. So there's all kinds of legal implications."

At this point, Dreyfuss shifted gears with the following analytics application:

IT'S A NUMBERS GAME ON NHL TELECASTS IN 2022-23

Shift length. Shot quality. Puck possession. Those and many more advanced metrics are becoming a standard feature of hockey telecasts. I talked about their use on TV with Alison Lukan, team and on-air analyst for Seattle Kraken broadcasts.

"In pre- and post-game shows," Lukan says, "we synthesize data to create visuals and inform our commentary." Certain information is repeated in each telecast, "So that fans can track a team’s progress, strengths and weaknesses across a season." Game-specific information, meanwhile, "Gives insight as to what contributed to a game ending up the way it did for a team or a specific player."

Lukan draws from a variety of sources. "League-provided resources allow us to create things like shot location charts." She says game data is also crunched by third-party companies, including Natural Stat Trick, Hockey Viz, Evolving Hockey, and analysis company Sportlogiq.

What's the right TV balance so analytics add to a telecast but don't overwhelm it? "We never want to make game commentary about the numbers. You use analytics as a support to commentary on a game or player. For example, if a team is taking a ton of shots and it feels like they should be leading on the scoreboard but are not, we can talk about shot quality to say 'yes, you’re right!' or 'none of the shots they are taking are very dangerous.'"

Lukan says effective communication is the key to de-mystifying advanced stats. That goes double for her Pacific Northwest audience, many of whom are new to hockey. "First, use words that everyone understands. Don’t say 'Corsi,' say 'shot attempts.' Second, tie numbers to what we have seen. Pairing a data point with video, or a reminder of a play, deepens understanding – be it a rink-relevant visual, or a table that clearly shows a point of contrast or advantage."

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WHO SAID IT? "I'll propose anything where I can make a buck." (ANSWER BELOW.)

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HERE'S A SWEDISH DEFENSEMAN WHO WAS BETTER THAN BORJE SALMING

Over the years, it's been fashionable for Toronto writers to laud Borje Salming as one of the all-time NHL blueliners. Fair enough, if you live in Toronto or Mississauga.

For my money, the best of all NHL Swedish defenders isn't even in the Hall of Fame, although he should be.

Stefan Persson is the most underrated Swede ever to grace the Bigs. Remember, Salming never played for a Cup-winner – Persson played on all four of the dynastic Islanders teams. Center and Hall of Famer Bryan Trottier appreciated Persson to no end.

"Stef was so underrated," said Trots. "His passes on the power play were exceptional. He was the best passer among me, Mike Bossy, Clark Gillies and Denis Potvin. Stef knew he was there to set us up, not to score. And when he did shoot it, it was always with the intent that we would be able to deflect the puck, or there would be a rebound."

Like Salming, Persson was tough and courageous and never could be physically intimidated.

Trottier: "Stef was always calm and controlled with the puck and very durable. He'd play despite nagging injuries."

Teammate Glenn (Chico) Resch agrees. "Right off the bat, Persson showed us that he could play rock-solid defense. Playing goal behind him – as I did – was a confident experience for me because Stef never got beat 1-on-1. Plus, he not only blocked shots but he blocked dangerous passes and battled with the most feared forwards in front of my net.

"Granted, he took some punishing checks along the boards, but he never gave up the puck easily. Every player will tell you that his passes were tape to tape. I can't remember Stef ever being benched for uninspired or poor play. Our coach, Al Arbour, who was tough on his defensemen, told me that Persson was a joy to coach.

"In his rookie season, he took a stick to the face and went off bleeding. He got stitched up and returned to the game repaired. Despite being swollen and stitched, he then went down on the ice to block a shot. That told me, 'Here's a player you win championships with,' and I was right. Stef is the only Swedish defenseman to win four straight Stanley Cups. Put it this way: we all knew that he was the consummate player. He meant so much more to our winning those championships than people on the outside ever knew."

You tell me who's better, Persson with four Cups or Salming with 0!

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I'M JUST SAYIN:

* Calvin de Haan always impressed me as an Islander. Good move by Don Waddell adding 'Cool Cal' to the Canes Corps.

* Jaromir Jagr is so busy coaching and managing his family's Czech team, Double J is finally going to give his blades a permanent rest. (Expect a comeback after the next loss.)

* Cam Talbot's injury reinforces the already reinforced belief that every team now has to carry three goalies. (The Goaltenders' Union should call it Butterly-itis.)

* The Flyers will test Torts' patience, and he'll patiently teach them how to be winners.

* But the Broad Streeters have to find a vaccine for better goaltending.

* The idea of moving the Leafs' offensive machine Mitch Marner back to defense – at least a little bit – is a lot wiser than many skeptics think. (More on this Marner-ism next issue.)

* The idea of a World Cup is fine but – as Commissioner Bettman aptly puts it – "Geting everybody on board" is a huge challenge. (The "Everybody") sounds to me like the assorted European federations.)

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YAYS AND BOOS:

YAY TO CONNOR MCDAVID for looking like's going to outdo what he did last year, which was to outdo what he did the year before and before that.

BOO TO CONNOR MCDAVID for continually whining about the poor, sad fact that the darling boy and his pals didn't get to play in the Olympics.

YAY TO ROMAN JOSI AND NINO NIEDERREITER for stopping off at a Bern, Switzerland hospital to cheer the kids-plus, despite a very tight schedule.

BOO TO THE NEW PATCH-KNOCKERS. If you want your heroes to get bigger and bigger bucks, I have hot news for you; the moolah doesn't grow on trees!

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DIDJA KNOW that John (Duke) Wayne, arguably the most popular actor in Hollywood history, portrayed a high-scoring forward in the 1937 film, Idol Of The Crowds. Whether or not Wayne could skate never was known since he was never actually shown in full flight. In one sequence, the camera zeroed in on his upper torso and in another down to a pair of skating legs – obviously either belonging to a stuntman or Bryan Hextall.

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THE BIG DEAL IN BERN:

As expected, the Bern, Switzerland exhibition game between the Nashville Predators and the Bern home side at Post Finance Arena was an absolute sellout. The game – won by the Preds – was appropriately thrilling and capped by hometown boy, Roman Josi, scoring a pair of goals for the visitors.

Josi not only is a role model for young Swiss stick handlers but as well for Smashville fans and others around the National Hockey League. Following the socko show in Bern, the Preds moved on to Prague for the season's inaugural Global Series match with the San Jose Sharks.

The NHL values the growth of European hockey and its numerous contributions to The Show. Bettman, Inc. will continue to exploit the possibilities of more such games, potentially leading to a World Cup.

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BIG QUESTION (VIA SPORTSNET): Do The New Look Flames Have Enough Depth To Make a Stanley Cup Run? My Answer: Emphatically, yes, because they have a better goalie and a better coach than Edmonton. Darryl Sutter is THE smartest bench boss in the West.

WHO'S BETTER  JAKE GUENTZEL VS. KYLE CONNOR?

This is a challenging match-up – a really tough call, but our Irad Chen takes a crack at it just the same.

Here we have two first-class American-born left wingers, yet neither is the biggest star on his team.

A third-round pick (77th overall) in the 2013 event, Guentzel made waves as a rookie by being the top goal-scorer in the 2017 playoffs. Jake tied the record for most goals scored (13) by a rookie in the post-season while helping Pitt capture its second straight Stanley Cup.

A year later, Jake’s regular season production dipped, but he recovered in the playoffs with 10 goals and 21 points in a dozen games, good for fifth in the overall 2018 playoffs. Over the next three years, Guentzel averaged nearly a point per game, and in 2021-22, he climbed to 40 goals and 84 points while adding eight goals and 10 points in seven playoff games.

Granted that Jake's success story is linked with his linemate Sidney Crosby. Still, skating in 38 games without Crosby, he totalled 16 goals and 24 assists, which suggests he can succeed with or without his captain.

As for Connor, he was selected 17th overall in the very deep 2015 Draft and was a highly sought prospect. In 2017-18, his freshman year, he tallied 31 goals for 57 points and finished fourth in Calder Trophy voting.

Each season since, his points increased with 34 goals and 66 points in 2018-19, and 38 goals and 73 points in just 71 games in 2019-20. But then came the explosion, with 47 goals and 93 points. In the playoffs, Connor delivered 23 points in 35 career games.

While the motorman in Pittsburgh clearly is Crosby, the Jets' twin leaders still are Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele while Connor falls into place right behind them. Last season, Kyle led 'Peg forwards in ice time per game, playing on the top power play unit while also killing penalties.

CONCLUSION: They have different styles. Connor is a speedy winger with a laser shot. Most of his goals come off the rush in the high slots. On the power play, he’s on the right half-board. Guentzel scores from dirty areas around the net. He excels at finding that soft spot in the opposing defense while playing the cycle game. On the PP, he's in front of the net.

BOTTOM LINE: Connor has more natural skills and a higher ceiling, but Guentzel wins the Who's Better nod. It's all about being clutch and winning the big prize. Jake takes his game more often to the next level at playoff time. Plus, he has two Cup rings; Kyle has none.

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ANSWER TO WHO SAID IT? Maple Leafs boss Harold Ballard.

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