Start this blog by watching Lorenzo Cain’s great catch from Game 2 of the American League Championship Series.
Nerd or not, MLB’s Statcast system is pretty interesting. Maybe you’re not that interested in Yordano Ventura’s “spin rate,” but watching Cain’s route to the ball and the speed he reaches to get there should yank your chain. After all, most of us wouldn’t be able to make that catch, unless we could drive a Bugatti while playing centrefield.
Last week in San Jose, NHL teams were invited to a presentation of similar technology designed for sports like hockey. MLB and NBA tracking is done by cameras, and there are questions about accuracy when it comes to competition with heavier contact.
Enter an infra-red chip system.
An Australian-based company called Catapult is considered the industry leader in this field, fittingly starting much of its research in Australian Rules Football. But its influence in North America is growing.
One of the first teams to take the plunge was Florida State’s football program, after two of its assistant coaches saw the devices being used in Aussie Rules. The Seminoles won the NCAA championship last season, with head coach Jimbo Fisher telling ESPN that the devices “virtually eliminated soft-tissue injuries.”
(According to the ESPN report, Seminoles players hilariously referred to the chest straps as “bros.” The chips can also be sewn into jerseys.)
This is the second benefit of the system. Not only are we talking about measuring how quickly a player can do something on the ice, but also knowing when players are not at peak performance, or if changing practice routines can improve their bodily output. Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly is a fan, as are the Toronto Raptors (Catapult’s online client list is here).
There are two hockey teams named. The Sabres were doing it a few years ago under GM Darcy Regier; he let us film a little bit of it one day at a morning skate. Philadelphia used it in practices last season.
However, teams are not allowed to wear them during games. The NHL’s goal is to change that.
There seems to be a lot of optimism this can be done, but there are hurdles to leap. For example, when the ref cam arrived this season, one of the concerns from the officials was that it would be used not just for entertainment, but to grade their work. The NHLPA, which must approve this technology, has similar questions.
The biggest? Medical information.
Who owns it? What can be done with it? For example, if you’re making a decision on a lucrative free-agent contract, could the chip tell you if, say, a player’s hip is not “firing” as well as it did when he was younger? Or, if a player is more susceptible to groin/abdominal injuries as he ages?
The possibilities are enormous. The Department of Player Safety could benefit, for example, by knowing if a skater truly tried to slow down before delivering a dangerous or borderline hit. Maybe we’re eventually talking about a chip inside the puck to determine goal or no goal, as soccer now does.
From what I understand, there’s a deal to be made here, with limitations on the use of medical info. A few of the people who saw the technology raved about it. Hopefully, we’ll soon get to share in that revelry.
1. Also at the San Jose meetings, the NHL, NHLPA and teams looked at virtual reality technology from OTOY, a California-based company. Basically, OTOY tries to create 3D graphics and pictures in real time. The league may test this at the outdoor games, with the idea of providing a 360-degree HD view from the bench or the penalty box. Remember when ColecoVision was cool?
2. Had a funny conversation with a GM last weekend. Heard he was looking for a defenceman. He responded with, “Everyone is looking for a defenceman.” Montreal is checking to see what’s out there. The decimated Rangers are bringing in Tomas Kaberle, with no contract offer. Philadelphia’s search, before signing Carlo Colaiacovo, was exhaustive. “Name someone,” one agent said. “They considered him.” The same GM quoted above talked to a team with eight, one-way contracts on its blueline, only to be told none were available. “They wanted to keep all of them,” he said.
3. Heading into Wednesday’s game against Buffalo, it would not have been a surprise if Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin was thinking about moving one of his 14 forwards so Michael Bournival or Jiri Sekac could play more. Bournival was injured on a hard (but clean) Cody McCormick check, while Sekac might be right back in Michel Therrien’s doghouse after a third-period penalty. Can’t imagine the Canadiens want Sekac, in particular, sitting.
4. Therrien had an interesting quote after the listless 2-1 shootout win, telling reporters, “There's not much I didn't like about our team tonight…I thought we played a solid game.” That’s a light touch for the Canadiens coach; he undoubtedly realized he needed to take the foot off the gas following back-to-back ugly losses against Calgary and Chicago. You wonder if both the coach and the players are adjusting to the loss of Gerard Gallant on the bench. Gallant was an important conduit between Therrien and the dressing room. Therrien, who wields a hammer, needs that buffer.
5. My first real “beat” in the business was the inaugural Toronto Raptors (1995-96). Their head coach, Brendan Malone, waited almost 30 years for his NBA chance. It became very clear, very quickly that he wanted to win more than the team did. It led to an ugly public battle with GM Isiah Thomas, as the organization shut down Rookie of the Year Damon Stoudamire because it was worried Malone was overusing the player. They fired him after the season. Watching Ted Nolan publicly criticize his Sabres twice now reminds me of that situation. He’s competitive. He knows this could be his last chance. The team is comfortable with one more ugly year. Nolan isn’t. It’s not going to be easy.
6. The Rangers are one of several clubs waiting to see what the Hurricanes decide with Andrej Sekera. There’s no guarantee that comes quickly, especially now that Carolina is healthier and stabilized. Depending on what happens with Slava Voynov, opponents think Los Angeles could be interested, too. Also heard some talk about Zbynek Michalek, a different player than Sekera, but a right-hand shot. Coyotes GM Don Maloney wouldn’t bite on an inquiry about it.
7. Whenever Keith Yandle’s name surfaces in rumours, I go back to an old Maloney line about him: “If we trade him, you will (hear the deal) and understand why.” The only difference now is his contract, which only has one more year. Does that change the dynamic? The Coyotes know so much of their offence comes in transition from he and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. If they do it, can they replace what he brings now, or is that step one of a long-term build?
8. It sounds like there’s a lot of, “We better make sure we’re ready in case Team X decides to move someone we like.” Here’s another example: There is zero evidence Winnipeg is interested in anything involving either Dustin Byfuglien or Andrew Ladd, but opponents are watching (Like Yandle, both are free after next season). The Jets know Ladd’s trade list (15 clubs), but have to ask for five acceptable teams from Byfuglien should they ever decide to move him. Winnipeg just won three big games and you know they’re going for it. As long as they’re in the race, there’s no reason to expect change.
9. The Jets’ 1-0 win Sunday in Chicago was some of their best defensive play since they moved back to Canada, and not just because of the shutout. Shots in the third were 13-9 Blackhawks, but aside from a flurry in the first minute, the Jets did a fantastic job protecting that lead in a tough place to win. They consistently beat Chicago to rebounds, getting the puck out of the zone and into areas where they could change without getting into trouble. None of the shots came from Duncan Keith or Jonathan Toews. Patrick Kane had one; Marian Hossa none in the last 19 minutes. The Jets haven't always paid attention to detail, but sure did that night.
10. Apparently, Ryan Whitney told teams he wanted to play a few KHL contests to get the blood flowing before considering a North American offer. He’s got three points in three games. The only problem with Whitney now is he has to clear waivers in the NHL. With all the lusting after defencemen, that may not be easy.
11. There were rumours last week that Dallas, with Anders Lindback struggling, might look at signing Martin Brodeur. GM Jim Nill denied that.
12. As the injuries mounted last week, Calgary called up Sven Baertschi from Adirondack. His numbers were ugly in the AHL, just three points (no goals) in 10 games. Even worse, a few teams that saw him were exceedingly unimpressed, with one suggesting he wouldn’t want Baertschi near his other prospects. The Flames defended the forward against accusations that his attitude was bad. “Was he unhappy to be there? Yes, initially he was, but we could understand that,” said GM Brad Treliving. “To say he was causing problems, that’s not fair.” Treliving added that there is room in Calgary for Baertschi’s skill-set. He is exempt from waivers for another year or so. That’s probably the real deadline for him in southern Alberta.
13. One exec whose team played the Hurricanes already this season said no player needed something good to happen more than second-year forward Elias Lindholm. The 19-year-old had an assist in the opener, then went pointless in seven. “He was trying, but nothing good was happening,” the exec said. “You could see how it effected him.” Lindholm had five points in Carolina’s three wins, breaking the schneid just as his team did.
14. Can't help but wonder if there is a Kovalchuk-like solution to Carolina’s detente with Alexander Semin. No way this can last 317 more games, can it?
15. So, Radim Vrbata, what did you like best: the goggles, the bucket, or the skis?
“The skis,” he said. Why? “Because we won,” he laughed. Since the ski race was worth the most points of the three team-building tests, Vrbata’s group didn’t have to do extra skating following the next practice.
16. Vrbata said the Sedins really didn’t have many special instructions about fitting in with them. After a couple of exhibition games, the linemates made sure that whoever was in the middle on a rush made sure to drive the net. Other than that? “We decided we have to shoot more,” Vrbata said. Even Henrik? Vrbata paused, and you could hear the smile forming on his face over the phone. “When they said we have to shoot more, they were really saying I have to shoot more.”
17. Marc-Andre Fleury’s new contract includes a no-move clause to protect against waivers. He can be dealt, but is allowed to provide a 12-team no-trade list. A lot of bandwidth is already destroyed arguing this one, but it is clear the Penguins do believe their desire to hold the puck more will make Fleury a better goalie.
18. As Derek Stepan returns, the Rangers are excited about getting Martin St. Louis back to his regular routine. He took 92 face-offs in the first 10 games; only Derick Brassard and Dominic Moore had more. St. Louis had one goal and five assists. After last Saturday’s 1-0 loss to Winnipeg, New York eased his load. He took just two draws against the Blues and none versus Detroit, totalling three goals and one assist. As a centre, “he is always late on the rush, because we need him down low in the defensive zone,” associate coach Scott Arniel said. “Now he is free to lead the rush.”
19. Another centre experiment on hold for now — Montreal’s Alex Galchenyuk. Word is they feel he’s not as instinctive in the middle, and don’t want him overthinking.
20. The last time Boston extended Claude Julien, it was July 2012. Look at the coaching contracts signed since then: Lindy Ruff, John Tortorella and Alain Vigneault (among others) broke the $2 million mark and Joel Quenneville is believed to reach $3 million in his new deal. Boston looked at the landscape and made the easy decision to put Julien in that class.
21. A lot of interesting reaction to Kris Versteeg’s goal in Chicago’s 5-4 win over Ottawa last week. Players on both teams were astonished when Erik Karlsson chased down Kris Versteeg on the breakaway. “We couldn't believe he caught him,” Clarke Macarthur said. “He had this little smile on his face like he knew he was going to do it.” “I was like, ‘Holy Crap,’” Versteeg said. “How did he get here?”
22. After initially losing the puck, Versteeg got it back. He scored, making Karlsson look foolish on a fake. “Obviously, he thought I was going to shoot it,” the Chicago forward said. PJ Stock did a great segment last weekend, illustrating both the good and bad of Karlsson’s game. Stock showed how Karlsson gets into trouble in his own zone, because he “always looks for an offensive play out of a defensive situation.” One example was Karlsson taking himself out of position by protecting against a pass he thought he could intercept — a pass that never came. This is the next evolution for him.
23. MacArthur gave good insight into playing in front of Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner. The two goalies have slightly different requests of the defenders in front of them. Anderson wants shot blockers to go low, and leave the high heat for him. Lehner simply wants you to get out of his way so he can handle the shot. “And he does it in a booming Swedish voice,” MacArthur said.
24. Versteeg, by the way, remains interested in buying the WHL’s Lethbridge Hurricanes. The news is all bad for the community-owned club, which has lost almost $2 million and hasn't made the playoffs since 2009-10. At the team’s annual meeting in September, a motion was put forward to sell the team to private ownership, with a vote coming next fall. Born in the city, Versteeg played three seasons of junior hockey there.
25. Seventeen years ago, WHL Portland head coach Brent Peterson said he didn’t know what to expect when first-round NHL draft pick Marian Hossa showed up from Ottawa to join the Winterhawks. The team had two Slovak players, Hossa and Andrej Podkonicky, so it hired a Slovak coach, Julius Supler, to help — although there was an English-only rule around the team. “The first practice, you knew how good he was,” Peterson said last week, as Hossa hit the 1,000-point mark.
26. What stood out for Peterson was how much abuse Hossa took without complaint. Portland won the Memorial Cup that season without a true enforcer, as no one had more than 200 penalty minutes. “He was the target for every other team,” the coach said. “He just played through it.” Things haven’t changed. A Hall of Famer in my book, for sure.
27. One scout had a good line about Hossa and the Blackhawks: “They love being on the ice with him. They know he’ll backcheck hard and cover up their mistakes.”
28. Despite 152 games the last two seasons, including two late-spring finishes, Patrick Kane was back on the ice in June. Can’t find another player who was skating again so quickly.
29. There were some teams who did not like seeing the four officials get together to overturn a tripping penalty to Jarret Stoll last week in Pittsburgh (Brandon Sutter fell on his own before a collision with Stoll). “A slippery slope,” one GM said, although one referee responded, “There’s nothing in the rule book that says we can’t do it.” My sense is the league is willing to allow it, since it’s already an option on disputed goals. Why not? Don’t see a problem, especially if it leads to more correct calls.
30. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know I track a certain post-season stat: teams more than four points out of the playoffs on Nov. 1 face a serious fight to get in. Since 2003-04, only five clubs out of 40 that far behind on that date made it. The challenge this season goes to Edmonton (five points back), Arizona and Buffalo (seven back), and Carolina (10). Winnipeg was five from the wild card, but just three in arrears of Minnesota for third in the Central. Therefore, upon further review, the Jets don’t count. The good news for this year’s qualifiers is that two teams did it last year, Dallas and Philadelphia.