Saturday, May 3, 2014



BOSTON, MA--With the NHL playoffs churning full steam ahead, it's time to reflect on the season that was--The Year of the Kwijibo. Led by the dynamic goaltending of Carey Price and a steady stream of bone-rattling hits from Hartnell, Gudas and Associates, the California Kwijibos outlasted Wolfsburg, Stuttugart and Sparta Praha en route to their first World Hockey League championship. The supremely balanced Kwijibos walloped their opponents in all facets of the game, finishing the 2013-14 season ranked 2nd in total fantasy points from goalies, 2nd in fantasy points from skaters and 2nd in points derived from hits and blocked shots. General Manager Paul Zeman and the Kwiji Kings owned four of six most productive weeks from a fantasy standpoint, all of which coincided perfectly with the WHL playoffs. Fittingly, one of those four weekly records just happened to be the highest-scoring week of the season--178.4 points back in late March. And as if that wasn't impressive enough, the Kwijibos also boasted the top day and top month of the season, 57 points on January 28th and 667 points in the month of March, respectively. 

Following in the footsteps of Indiana Jones, Paul was faced with three trials during his pursuit of the Holy Grail. Though perhaps not the penitent man (see ungodly hit totals), Zeman indeed followed in the footsteps of greatness and showed his worth. California's first trial was a 183-138 thumping of eight seeded Wolfsburg, a particularly heartbreaking loss for Vipers GM Mike Greeley considering that his 138 points would have bested any other first round team if not for home ice advantage. The second trial saw the Kwijibos advance to face fellow Californian GM, Joshua Deitell and the crafty Stuttgart Scorpions in the semifinals. Zeman was up to the task, posting the most points among all playoff teams for a second consecutive week, winning 177-142. With two trials down, thus began an all-out war against three-time champion Sparta Praha. To illustrate just how close this series was--and once more discounting the home ice bonus, California out-scored Sparta in seven of the 14 days, Sparta won six of its own, and the remaining day ended in a tie. When the dust finally settled, California had actually scored five fewer points than the runner-up Spartans, but a prolonged stretch of regular season dominance and tenacious support from a committed fan base were ultimately the deciding factors.
"You have to respect every team you face when you go into a playoff," explained Zeman to Pierre MacGuire at a dimly-lit sweat lodge in Saskatchewan. "They all did the dirty work to get to the same point as you and each round everyone starts at zero so anything can happen. We had sixteen or seventeen games missed by players due to injuries which didn't help our cause but guys stepped in and we essentially won by a single even strength goal. I am also a firm believer that if it weren't for the support of our fans, and the home ice advantage that brings, that we couldn't have beat such a stalwart opponent."
Conventional wisdom says that most championship teams are built through the draft, and that trades tend to be reserved for addressing injuries, shipping defective parts out of town, or for trying to push ones team over the top with a star player or two. Or in California's case, six. The Kwijibos made waves with two pivotal trades--one in early January which reeled in Martin St. Louis, Dustin Byfuglien and Blake Wheeler from the Mount Vernon Blades, and the other in early March when Zeman managed to pry away Jarome Iginla, Zdeno Chara and Johan Franzen from the Porter Pirates. On the flip side, California had to part with promising youngsters Vladimir Tarasenko and Tomas Hertl to acquire such a king's bounty of rental players, but the stars clearly aligned for Zeman. 

For all the ruffled feathers over those trades, however, the reality is that the Kwijibos had pieced together the core of its championship roster before the first puck fell. With Price, Halak and Mikko Koivu already under contract, Zeman stepped up the draft podium last September and procured players that would go on to play pivotal roles in his cup run. Dustin Brown in the 1st, who would later be used to acquire Logan Couture from CSKA Moscow. Andrew Ladd in the 2nd round, who finished as California's 2nd most valuable skater and 4th most valuable player overall. Hartnell in the 3rd, who placed just ahead of Ladd as the Kwijibo's MVP skater. Jordan Stall in the 5th--Cali's fourth most valuable skater. Radko Gudas in the 6th, Ryan Murray in the 8th (later traded to Montreal for Shane Doan), and who can forget Zeman making WHL history by drafting fellow GM Josh Deitell in the 11th? ... Hey, you can't win 'em all.
"This year was a personal best with my first win in both playoffs and point totals. A big turnaround from last years 17th place standing," said Zeman. "I got real lucky with a couple of draft selections such as Hertl and Gudas, as well as some fortuitous trades, which enabled me to win it all and for that I am grateful. Big thank you to everyone for the challenge and hope to continue the tradition."

While California's 2014 season ended with banners and confetti, the Kwijibos have traveled a relatively rocky road since breaking into the league in 2009. Working backwards starting with last season (2012-13), Zeman's clubs placed 17th, 3rd, 10th, and 3rd, putting the franchise in a position to buck the see-saw trend in 2014-15. For all of the ass-kickery this year, however, such a California dream was not a foregone conclusion. Tom Lusty and the Saginaw Spirit appeared to be runaway Cup favorites for most of the 2013 portion of the season, at one point sitting atop the standings for 74 consecutive days and building a 72-point advantage over the Kwijibos in late December. All summers must fade, however, as Zeman bided his time--swapping first and second place with the Saginaw multiple times before finally crushing their spirits for good on January 31st. 

Broadcasters everywhere will be thrilled to know that the Kwijibos genuinely did all of the little things to earn their first cup. The championship series was billed as a tour de force between the two top-hitting clubs in the league, and boy did it deliver. 167 penalty minutes were amassed over the final two weeks, including a league-high 113 in the first week of the series. On top of that, California managed a 220-181 edge in total hits thrown, thanks in large part to the beastly Scott Hartnell and new brute on the block, Radko Gudas. While Hartnell's antics and multi-category contributions are well documented, Gudas burst onto the scene this year and established himself as one of the most physically imposing forces on the ice by racking up 152 Pims, 114 shots, 138 blocks, and--brace yourself--273 hits on the season (including 50 over the final 15 games).
"We had been targeting Hartnell since last season and expectations were high after drafting him in the 3rd round," reflected Zeman. "Gudas was a guy that not everyone knew at the beginning of the year. One of the GMs even commented WHO? when Gudie was selected in the sixth round, which makes me smile because they are certainly aware of him now. If you combined PIMs, blocked shots, and hits I believe that Gudas is number one in that category. He was sixth in PIMs and tied for third in hits and when you combine those types of numbers you have a player that no one wants to face."
When physical prowess and ample offense weren't quite enough, Carey Price played the Shepherd. In sum, 14 goalies made at least one appearance for the Kwijibos over the course of the season, but Price was the constant, and easily the most valuable piece on California's chessboard. Price tied for second in the league with six shutouts on the season and was third in average points per game among players with at least 20 GP. In the playoffs Price continued to excel by providing two shutouts and seven wins. Between the pipes during the Championship Final, neither Kwijibo (6-6) nor Spartan (5-5) goalies cracked .500 in the win column, but the key difference was Cali's three shutouts to Sparta's one--including a 41-save gem from none other than Carey Price on April 12th.
"Carey is the ultimate player," said GM Paul Zeman. "Price is an amazing teammate who gives his all game in and game out. He was hurt for a few weeks after the playoffs and it was during this period that the Kwijibos had a rough time of things and started to struggle a bit in the standings, so it is easy to say that Price is the heart and soul of this team."
Just up I-95 in the WHL's birth state of Maine, Portland Pints GM Colin Smith surely cursed the hockey gods after a hot finish came too little too late. Smith's Pints racked up more fantasy points than any other team in the month of April, including an impressive 322 points in the 3rd place series against Stuttgart. As fate and general shit luck would have it, that not-so-pint-sized point total would have easily dispatched Sparta or California over the final two weeks, but c'est la vie in the world of playoffs. Despite another disappointing finish for the perennial contenders, this was the second-best finish in Portland's franchise history after placing 2nd last year and averaging just shy of 5th (4.71) place since the league's genesis in 2007. Looking ahead to next season, Smith's Pints will once again have a stellar core to draft around. Top 10 goalies Kari Lehtonen and Sergei Bobrovsky will return, as will Portland's leading scorer, Sidney Crosby, who enters the final year of his favorable contract, along with fellow centerman Nicklas Backstrom and rising star, Mikael Granlund. 

With so much action packed into the playoff bracket this year, it was easy to overlook some quality hockey being played among the consolation ranks. Ty Ladd's Canadiens de Montreal were carried by sensational goaltending from top-rated Semyon Varlamov, and understudies Karri Ramo and Robin Lehner. In the quarterfinals against Tayutic Team Rasta, Montreal tenders stopped a ridiculous 349 shots--roughtly 150 more than any other consolation team, and 130 more than any other playoff team. In the semifinals against West Palm Beach, les Canadiens "cooled down" a bit with 205 saves--100 more than his direct competition and second only to California in total saves that week. In the consolation final against Altoona, Ladd's offense emerged as a major factor, racking up 26 assists to Altoona's six, while Ladd's goalies once again out-dueled the competition in total saves, 212-204. The future looks bright in goal for Montreal, with the services of both Varlamov and Lehner retained through 2015-16. 

The first ever Restricted Free Agent auction wrapped up during the last week of April. While just four players ended up changing jerseys, a handful of interesting bids were placed. Continuing his trend of bold acquisitions, Mount Vernon Blades GM Chet Merola stepped up with a $90 offer sheet to Ryan Miller, adding some much-needed stability to Mt. V's rebuilding efforts. The Brooklyn Cyclones elected to put Wayne Simmonds out to pasture, who promptly signed a two-year, $87 deal ($42/$45) with the Altoona Angry Beavers. The champion Kwijibos also got in on the RFA action, scooping up goaltender Jake Allen on a one-year, $6 contract. Beernuts GM Joe Mastrangelo, who was also in pursuit of Allen's services, instead settled on another young goaltender, Jhonas Enroth for $3. Forwards J.T. Miller and Filip Forsberg also garnered interest, but were both retained by their original owners for $5 and $3, respectively. Not bad for our first attempt, which certainly makes a case for the possibility of an expanded auction in the future once Dyanst Mode is achieved. 

Looking ahead at what's next for the World Hockey League, league Commissioners will be exploring options to slightly decrease the value of goalies, per the last league poll which indicated that most owners think goalies are slightly overvalued in our league. The particulars are still in the works, but rest assured that provisions will be made for owners that already have goalies under contract. In that same survey, strong interest was also expressed in transitioning the WHL to a dynasty format, which will mean more keepers, a shorter draft, and bigger salary cap heading into the 2015-16 season (not next season, but the following). Details are in the works, and again, it's business as usual this summer heading into 2014-15. On a personal note, I would like to echo some of what our league champion recently said in his epic e-mail rant. Thanks to everyone who left it all on the ice this year. You guys are indeed awesome and you make it worth putting effort into the league year round. 

Enjoy the rest of the NHL playoffs and have a great summer! 

Destruction leads to a very rough road
But it also breeds creation
And earthquakes are to a girl's guitar
They're just another good vibration
And tidal waves couldn't save the world
From Californication
- Red Hot Chili Peppers, "Californication"

No comments:

Post a Comment