James O'Brien

Hockey Daily Dose

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Dose: Scapegoat Season

Tuesday, April 29, 2014


Considering how much joy I’ve gotten from giving people a hard time every now and then - especially during my high school and early college years - it’s kind of strange and funny that I find myself rolling my eyes when the latest story brings out the droves of people who delight in scapegoating the same basic set of characters. Maybe it’s just the poor craftsmanship of it all, though.

 

Since the last edition of the playoff Dose went up, there were plenty of moments in which scapegoating took place. It’s amusing how selective this stuff can be, though.

 

Context and expectations have a lot to do with it. I found it a little bit baffling that the Dallas Stars avoided pretty much any heat when they blew a two-goal lead late in Game 6 to lose to the Anaheim Ducks in overtime and ultimately get eliminated. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t beating up on the Stars; after all, they had a nice run into the playoffs and are a flawed, fun team with promise. Still, most of the times that a team gives up a multiple-goal lead, it gets flattened. Combine that with my vague feeling that the Ducks aren’t that special - at least when you compare them to other Western Conference powers - and you’d think people would bury Lindy Ruff/Tyler Seguin/Kari Lehtonen/whoever you dislike for weird reasons that probably say more about you than the athlete in question.

 

Naturally, it’s probably because people just aren’t used to that cast of characters … and by that, I mean they haven’t had lazy observers generate a slapdash narrative that makes it easier to explain a “failure” or “choke job” than, you know, actually putting some real thought into why a team might not succeed.

 

(Let’s also fail to give the team that won any credit, because that would be far too … reasonable.)

 

Unfortunately, for every “missed opportunity” when it came to blaming the usual suspects, there has been plenty of low-hanging-fruit for those who want to use as little imagination as possible.

 

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FLEURY DODGES A BULLET (FOR NOW)

 

In one situation, the crisis was somewhat averted … at least for now.

 

I’ll say this about Marc-Andre Fleury: we can debate his value all day (it seems like many analysts overrate his talent while some stats-minded folks have overreacted to his struggles a little too much), but the guy has a knack for failing dramatically when he does fail. When you consider that Twitter humorists often only catch a game or two of a given team’s exploits, there may be many who’ve only seen Fleury flop horribly (aside from that Stanley Cup-winning save on Nicklas Lidstrom … you’d think). In that way, he reminds of Tony Romo:* he unintentionally feeds the wolves by stumbling in ways that are almost unforgettable.

 

The goals he allowed by Brandon Dubinsky and Nick Foligno in Game 4 against the Columbus Blue Jackets were jaw-dropping, but maybe not shocking considering that Fleury was involved.

 

Luckily for “The Flower,” the Penguins won the next two games of the series to put away the Blue Jackets, yet it wasn’t always pretty. Pittsburgh saw a 4-0 lead shrink to a 4-3 margin (and eventual win) in a matter of five minutes.

 

One can only imagine how tight the Penguins - and Fleury - would have been if that game ended up going to overtime. (Would Mario Lemieux need to visit him in the locker room again?) Fleury received a reprieve, yet the Penguins seem about as vulnerable as a second seed has been in some time. While I agree that Fleury isn’t all that great - I’d say he may literally be average for a starter, and that’s less of an insult than you may think because goaltending is at a lofty level right now - this team has much bigger problems than just its goalie.

 

Still, it’s easier to blame the guy allowing the goal than the guys more subtly failing to score them or prevent those chances.

 

JUMBO JOE SWEATS IT OUT

 

Honestly, it was kind of stunning to see the San Jose Sharks go up 3-0 against the Los Angeles Kings; in predicting that series, I wrestled with a tough call and went with my gut: Kings in seven. Seeing the Kings fall on their faces - especially in the first two contests - I was wondering where maybe the best team in the league went.

 

Now with the series tied, tons of people are destroying the Sharks, especially those who remember the days when this franchise was even on a higher level and fell short of expectations in the postseason.

 

Naturally, this means that Joe Thornton is getting buried the deepest, especially by those who genuinely don’t want to spend more than a millisecond breaking anything down objectively. I already shudder to think of the lame jokes (especially from fans out of the Massachusetts area**) that may be thrown at Jumbo Joe if the Sharks lose in Game 7. That’s especially true if he has a poor game, which is perfectly plausible because Thornton may have been injured during a ridiculous altercation with Jonathan Quick at the end of Game 6.

 

More than these other situations, I get why people are beating up on the Sharks, even if the real story might just be that an elite team in the Kings finally woke up. If you do, can you at least put a little imagination into the Thornton jokes? Maybe at least throw in a Leo Dicaprio Oscar reference instead of going to the Romo well for the millionth time?

 

CAPITALS PUNISHMENT

 

The real groan-worthy stuff came when everyone and their uncle blamed Alex Ovechkin for the Washington Capitals firing GM George McPhee and head coach Adam Oates.

 

Look, I’m not going to fight with you about Ovechkin. If you don’t like him or his game, no number of articles touting his strong work and poor luck will likely sway you. I’m not necessarily saying this was a strong season for the elite scorer - it wasn’t his best by any means - but this is all about an obnoxious narrative that haunts players like Ovechkin, Phil Kessel and so on. Simply put, people often blame the best player(s) on a team when the real problems are usually around them.

 

While Nicklas Backstrom is an excellent player, the bigger story is that the Capitals a) are still paying for going away from what made them special in the Bruce Boudreau years and b) simply don’t have enough talent to support Ovechkin and Backstrom.

 

As much as people will trot out Ovechkin's -35 rating (while ignoring a litany of negative ratings for other players on his team, along with historical examples like Brett Hull generating a - 27 mark despite scoring 54 goals and 101 points and turning out quite fine), a more telling stat for those who love simple ones is this:

 

30 points. That’s the gap between Ovechkin and Backstrom’s team-leading 79 points and the next best Capitals player, Joel Ward (49). While things might have been a touch better if the likes of Brooks Laich and Mikhail Grabovski were healthy all season (neither played more than 58 games), that's a pretty simple way to illustrate that the real problem was that the Capitals simply depended upon their top stars to do too much.

 

If you ask me, this is increasingly becoming a "depth league." For all the plaudits Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane rightfully receive, they're surrounded by other stars (Duncan Keith, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa) along with quality supporting cast members. The Penguins are essentially a better, less insecure version of the Capitals; few things make me laugh more than the panic over Sidney Crosby (six points in six playoff games) and Evgeni Malkin (seven in six with Game 6's hat trick) despite their strong play. Much like the Caps, Pittsburgh sees an enormous drop-off from their high-end and could very well be doomed by its lack of depth.

 

***

 

There are some fantasy lessons tucked into all this talk about how silly scapegoating can be. The biggest one, I’d say, is that you should do your own research rather than giving into the screaming of others. You may very well find that you’ll be able to draft a very good hockey player who gets a bad rap for often dubious reasons; Jeff Carter slid down a few rounds for quite some time because of the weird prejudices of others, for example.

 

The other takeaway is one of the missions of the Dose: winning can often come down to which GM makes the wisest decisions versus which one simply got lucky by nabbing a few star players.

 

For all that’s made about how a team should aspire to follow the Penguins’ or Blackhawks’ rebuilding blueprint; I might just side with Chicago: be ready to make tough sacrifices, exploit loopholes and rarely accept success as a reason to become stagnant.

 

Of course, that endorsement might just doom Corey Crawford’s glove hand to a round of media blame in the round two …

 

For a full list of injuries and suspensions, click here. Go to Rotoworld's NHL page for breaking hockey news and more.

 

* - For what it’s worth, I think Romo is a legitimate star in his sport, even if he’s almost a tragic figure if you ignore the whole “Actually has a pretty awesome life overall” factor.

 

** - Boston Bruins fans aren’t happy enough with their team that they have to bash a guy who carried some awful squads to the playoffs? The only benefit the Bruins saw from trading Thornton was that the people who decided to trade Thornton were fired.



James O'Brien is the Hockey Daily Dose's author and has been a contributor to NBC's Pro Hockey Talk for more than four years. Follow him on Twitter.
Email :James O'Brien



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