Last year, Gabriel Landeskog won the Calder Memorial Trophy with a 52-point season. He scored 22 goals and added 30 assists. This was good enough to beat out the only player chosen ahead of him in the 2011 draft, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, as well as New Jersey's cold-blooded sniper, Adam Henrique. The Nuge had 52 points (18G, 34A) in a season shortened by injury, and Henrique managed 16 goals and 35 assists, good for 51 points in only 74 games. Nugent-Hopkins only played 62.
In short, both players probably might have had a better shot than Landeskog had they played full seasons. If playoff performance were to be included, Henrique had back-to-back game seven series-winning goals, while his competition didn't even get the chance to play in the playoffs. He'd have won my vote.
Senators fans are excited for prospect Jakob Silfverberg, whose personal destruction of the Elitserien has been well-documented by this point. And we have ridden that hype train to Caldertown, considering Silfverberg to be a legitimate contender for the trophy before he has even earned a spot on an NHL roster. There's no denying Silfverberg's accomplishments last year, but Senators fans have just been through this with David Rundblad, the team's top defensive prospect until he was traded. After managing 50 points (11G, 39A) in 55 games in Sweden, Rundblad managed just four (1G, 3A) in 24 games with Ottawa. The defenseman put up better numbers in Phoenix (three assists in six games) but ultimately wound up in their AHL system with the Portland Pirates. Rundblad's inability to earn a roster spot on an Ottawa defensive group not exactly loaded with talent is a lesson on just how difficult the transition to the NHL can be--no matter how good a player has looked in other leagues.
But Silfverberg is totally going to fit right in on the first line and win the Calder. To do that, he'd need to score at least 50 points if last year is any indication. Ottawa's last Calder winner, some guy named Daniel Alfredsson, did it with 26 goals and 35 assists--61 total points. That's a tall order for any player, no matter how talented they are. Alfredsson himself only managed 59 last year.
So, what if Silfverberg does struggle? What can be considered a good season for him in the NHL? What if Silfverberg makes the team, but bounces around the lines, spending most of his time on Spezza's wing, but also taking shifts alongside Jim O'Brien as he learns the ropes of the NHL? What if he falls just shy of 40 points in that campaign--good enough to get recognized, but not quite a Calder Trophy pace? Would we call him a bust or would we consider it an encouraging start and get excited to see how he built on it the next year?
Here's the interesting part: Ottawa just had a rookie player do exactly that.
It was Colin Greening.
Be honest with yourself: Do you even remember that Greening was selected to the NHL All-Star rookie group (not the all-rookie team) last year? It's true. He was there. I saw him. He was one of only twelve rookies selected, joining a group that included Landeskog, Nugent-Hopkins, Henrique, Sean Couturier, Ryan Johansen, and Adam Larsson--pretty impressive company.
Greening, not Erik Karlsson, is the team's fastest skater. He lost out on the overall title at the All-Star game to fellow rookie Carl Hagelin of the New York Rangers by just three hundredths of a second. It's not an exaggeration to say there is just one player in the league faster than Greening. And it's Greening, not Jared Cowen, not Chris Neil, who is the team's strongest player.
Let's recap: Rookie. All-Star. Fastest player. Strongest player. 37 points (17G, 20A) despite averaging just 1:45 per game on the power play (three seconds more than Neil) while playing across four lines.
Yet Sens fans, myself included, have ignored these positives and put Greening in our bottom six for next season--usually in favor of one of the three of Silfverberg, Mark Stone, or Mika Zibanejad.
What makes us look at Greening, the strongest, fastest player on the team, and dismiss the same kind of season that would have us drooling all over Silfverberg's future?
It shouldn't be his age. Age is a crutch we use to convince ourselves players have not yet fulfilled their potential. If a player's age were a determining factor in how they performed, why was a 39-year-old Alfredsson better than a 38-year-old one? Besides, you don't have to look hard to find plenty of examples of NHL players who hit their stride in their mid-20's: Martin St. Louis, P.A. Parenteau, and Matt Moulson all immediately come to mind.
It shouldn't be his stats. Those can be twisted to suit any argument you want. Anyone who points out Greening has never exceeded 60 points at any level of hockey convienently ignores the fact that the college hockey season doesn't last more than 40 games, and that Greening recorded 118 points in 137 games at Cornell University-- a pace of .86 points per game. That pace is dragged down by his freshman year, where he only scored 19 points (11G, 8A) in a very limited role. With regular ice time starting his sophomore season, he put up 99 points in 106 games, good for a .93 points per game average. In Binghamton during the 2010-11 season, he had 15 goals and 25 assists, good for 40 points, in 59 games. The remainder of his season was spent in Ottawa, where he added 13 more points in 24 games. His stats don't prove he can't improve on last year any more than Mark Stone's first two seasons (17-22-39, 11-17-28) prove he couldn't deliver his last two (37-69-106, 41-82-123).
It shouldn't be his draft position. Being selected 204th overall in the seventh round is not a big deal. That same Alfredsson guy was selected 133rd overall in the sixth round of the 1994 NHL Draft and he's turned out all right.
Why do we dismiss Greening? I can't put my finger on why I do. I just think Silfverberg's better--an opinion not only based on nothing, but flagrantly contradicting everything I know--and have listed--about Greening as a player. When you think about what you look for in a forward: size (Greening is 6'3" and 212lbs), speed (Greening is currently the second-fastest player in the NHL) and strength (strongest player on the Senators), Greening's description is practically the ideal match... until you attach his name to it. It makes no sense.
And our bias isn't limited to Greening. Criticism of Mika Zibanejad began the second he was drafted and has been mounting ever since. Comparisons with Couturier were inevitable the second the Flyers' rookie recorded a hat trick in the playoffs while Zibanejad's team had already been eliminated. Never mind that Zibanejad has only played nine NHL games. Perhaps fans just need a new whipping boy, now that Brian Lee can no longer be blamed for not being Anze Kopitar. Never mind the utter hypocrisy of criticizing a player like Zibanejad while being unable to contain your excitement over a player like Silfverberg. Both were drafted by the same scouting staff, but one is not good because another player on a different team with different circumstances is having more immediate success. Where does the arrogance to second-guess professionals who spend their lives evaluating players come from after watching a rookie play 116 minutes of hockey?
It doesn't end there. As user "brochenski" showed recently, Erik Condra makes everyone he plays with better. Our own Peter Raaymakers then expanded on that notion, clearly demonstrating Condra does not just make the players he's with better, he enables his defensemen to advance the puck more easily--a critical part of head coach Paul MacLean's scheme. It's not an effect that shows up on the scoresheet, but one has to wonder if Erik Karlsson would have won the Norris Trophy without Condra. After all, Condra only played 26 games with the Senators the previous year, where Karlsson put up just 45 points. Karlsson's leap, of course, is not merely attributable to Condra's presence in the lineup. There's no denying personal improvement as well as system changes were larger influences on that leap--but there's also no denying Condra was a major fit in those system changes. Think about that. Then ask yourself what you think about Condra.
I don't know about you, but that's the answer I came up with. Why? Think about it. If someone described a player to you, and they said, "This guy makes everyone around him better and makes the game easier for his defensemen," wouldn't you be excited to have that guy on your team? That's the kind of thing people say about Sidney Crosby, and the kind of thing a player like Alex Ovechkin is criticized for not doing. It's the kind of thing you want from every player on your team, until you find out that player is named Erik Condra. Erik Condra? Oh. Fourth-line player.
In his article about Condra, Peter writes:
In this case, it challenges ideas of Condra's worth based on his relatively low offensive production (which can, as others have shown, be partially explained by his inferior linemates and remarkably low shooting percentage) and offers a new measure of his worth; one which takes into consideration his ability to support his teammates in production of offence and, in this case, their defensive ability.
Is this it? Is that the answer? Are we too quick to judge players solely on the merits of their offensive production? I think so.
The reality is that as fans, we're not very knowledgeable about the game of hockey. We may think we are. We may think we understand the subtle nuances of the game, but no amount of watching television, with its limited viewing angles, video game success, with its design favoring entertainment over reality, or coaching kids, which emphasizes fun over strategy, will ever come close to replicating the thousands of hours professionals spend on the game every year.
Why do we think it does? Maybe it's just the nature of such a globalized tool like the Internet. Maybe we think having a medium to share our opinions somehow means those opinions have more credibility than if we were bitching to our friends in a sports bar--not unlike how Martin Sheen thinks having played the President of the United States on television somehow makes him a credible voice in the arena of politics.
The truth is we watch sports for their entertainment value. And while some would argue paying for entertainment justifies their criticism of it, there are many more critical walks of life where we keep our mouths shut despite having a financial investment in them. We don't tell a prosecutor what charges to file despite paying the taxes that support their salary, for example.
And because we watch sports for their entertainment value, we overemphasize the plays that entertain us and ignore the ones that don't. A routine save born of positionally sound play doesn't stick in our minds the way some lunging, desperation poke does--even though highlight reel saves are frequently the result of some technical mistake by a goalie. But how a play happened, why it happened, doesn't matter to us as long as we're entertained by the result.
The most entertaining thing about hockey is when a goal is scored. That's why the game has goal horns and goal songs. It's not surprising, then, that we value players who provide offense more than those that don't. And we're such point-junkies that even the promise of more points is enough for us to disregard anything that doesn't feed that promise. Jakob Silfverberg had more points in a different league? Of course he's a better option than Colin Greening! Sean Couturier has more hat tricks than Mika Zibanejad? Of course he would have been the better draft choice! Erik Condra only had 25 points last year? Of course he's just an easily replaceable fourth-liner!
I don't know what any of this means. I do know that I'm as guilty of it as any other fan. Maybe we should all just relax and enjoy the game a little more. Maybe the true fun is in celebrating what happens as it happens instead of worrying about what could happen next.
What do you think?