Cellying 101

We’ve all done it. In your driveway, on the pond or at the rink, we’ve all fantasized about scoring the big dramatic goal that sends the crowd into uproarious bedlam, and ends in you celebrating like never before. For some it’s a game-7 winner, for others it’s the cup-clincher, and for others still it’s an OT goal against a rival. Whatever the case, there’s no denying the feeling of pure elation. Now what if that moment wasn’t a fantasy? What if your life dream of playing pro hockey – as I’m sure for many of you it was at a young age – was a reality? Say that you’re embarking on the early parts of a journey that, with your talent and work ethic, has the potential to be incredibly fruitful. You’ve sacrificed sleep, and have dedicated countless hours in working diligently to hone your craft and skills.

Your hard work is rewarded, and you are regarded as one of the best prospects in a young man’s NHL, and are selected tops in your draft class; a tremendous honour. Furthermore, you continue to play in a foreign country that has slowly become home in its own way throughout your junior career, and are now in the spotlight as one of the bright young talents of the future, and millions of eyes are now watching your every move to see if you’ll live up to all the hype. With the incredible pressure of playing the NHL as a young 19-year old not being enough, you’re charged with the task of being a go-to guy on a resurgent team looking to make the playoffs. You are eager, but also wait patiently for your moment to arrive.

Finally, that moment comes. That same goal you re-lived over and over in your mind has suddenly become a reality. You’ve scored an OT forcing goal in the dying seconds of a game against one of the league’s best goaltenders and the reigning Stanley Cup Champions.  An overwhelming jolt of emotion takes over your body, and you just want to scream in excitement and flail around like no one’s watching, and that’s exactly what you do. The crowd is going bananas, and your teammates are all-smiles…when all of a sudden, you’re told by a select few onlookers that you’re going way over the top, you need to calm down, and you’re instantly labeled as arrogant and selfish.

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If you haven’t guessed by now, the above anecdote is in reference to Nail Yakupov, one of the Edmonton Oilers’ budding stars, and his electric celebration (found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2p6XxYVyKrI) Tell me those Oilers fans weren’t thrilled with it. Here we have a wonderfully energetic and outgoing personality who’s scored a goal against the defending Stanley Cup champions to force the game to OT with mere seconds remaining. Sure it was a regular season goal in the early parts of the campaign, but in this truncated year of hockey, every point is that much more important. Furthermore, for a young team trying to carve out an identity and earn their stripes, this was a huge moment for the Oilers. Just ask one of their young leaders, Jordan Eberle who said you can see the maturity of the Oilers as they fought right to the end to earn every point they could, and went on to win that game in overtime riding a high courtesy of Yakupov’s goal and emphatic celebration.  The Oilers of recent years, said Eberle, might have conceded a point or two in that contest, and are learning together just what it takes to win in this league.

Predictably, Don Cherry had something to say about the situation, but that was likely because Nail is a Russian-born prospect who “stole a job” from a “good Canadian kid” in the CHL. Give it a rest, old man. While I fully agree that rookies have to “earn respect”, I also think that Nail scoring that goal, at that time was the perfect way to do just that. There’s a reason the 19-year old Yakupov was out there in the dying seconds…because he’s capable of just those heroics. Talk about pressure, and he delivers in the most dramatic of fashions, so why not celebrate like it, too?

If there’s something wrong with the Theo Fleury-esque “celly”, then why has no one spoken ill of #14 when he earned his spot in the highlight reel history book with his flailing knee-slide? “Oh but Nail was being an individual and not thinking about his teammates.” Oh please. He is an individual, and scoring a goal like that – batting a puck out of the air – is about as individual an effort as it gets. Yes, it’s a team game and Nail didn’t do it alone, per se, but I much prefer a unique celebration to the hackneyed “team huddle glove-tap and skate to the bench.” Besides, the two aren’t mutually exclusive, as Yakupov demonstrated. Furthermore, if that was so individualistic and selfish, then where is the line officially drawn? Why aren’t we here talking about how Jordan Eberle skated away from PK Subban to do a big sliding fist-pump before being clobbered by his teammates when scoring with 5.4 seconds left against Russia in the WJC? Sure it was a playoff type game, but they were both big goals. The Oilers are leaning on Yakupov among the others in their core of supremely talented forwards, to get into the playoffs and turn their organization around.

Was Yakupov’s celebration wacky and unusual? Yes. Is that a bad thing? Absolutely not. Why must we try and normalize something as subjective and personal as a goal celebration? What’s next? Saying that you can’t come up with your own creative dekes in a shootout? Thanks for that goal, Damien Brunner but we’re going to ask that you, as a rookie, keep your shootout attempts to the classic skate in and shoot high-glove. That sounds like fun.
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For Yakupov’s detractors that say he showed a lack of class and respect for the other team and for the game…give me a break. It wasn’t a planned celebreation, it was an off-the-cuff display of emotion and passion, and that’s something we need MORE of in the game, not less of. What Alex Ovechkin did when he planned his “hot stick” celebration for his 50th goal could be perceived as an extra shot to the other team, but come on. Scoring a goal is the greatest feeling in this game. Anyone who’s played the game can attest to that. Scoring a big goal in your career or in a big game will most certainly induce an overwhelming sense of joy. All that said, there IS a line, and it’s pretty obvious when you cross it, like Artem Anisimov’s sniper riffle celebration (image below). That’s blatant mockery, and a deliberate attempt to get a rise out of your opponent.

It’s wonderful that there is so much young talent in the game, and I only wish fans were as excited about it as Yakupov was. Besides, there’s too much made of this “unwritten code” of respect between players anyway, because to be honest…it doesn’t exist as of now. At least not in enough strength to bring it up as an argument against celebrations that are as unique as the players themselves. From JP Parise’s pseudo-slash in the Summit Series, to Todd Bertuzzi’s barbaric punch on Steve Moore, to the Sean Avery/Martin Brodeur episode, to Burrows biting Bergeron’s finger in the playoffs and on and on, evidence is plenty that players put winning above everything, even player safety and respect for their opponents. The celebration wasn’t harmful to anyone, didn’t delay the game, and the Kings were plenty embarrassed by letting in a goal in the dying seconds in any case. They’re big boys, and I’m sure it wasn’t too daunting a task to let the young Yakupov have his moment. Heat of the moment? Sure it was frustrating for the Kings, and of course Don Cherry, but that moment passed faster than you can say “Lalongo.”

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But he disrespected a Conn Smythe winning goaltender! Oh really? Funny that no one said anything when Malcom Subban did a one knee fist-pump celly after a shootout win in this year’s WJC tournament. So it’s ok for a goalie to gloat about something he did personally, but not for a player. Got it. Also, I’m sure Jon Quick isn’t too beat up about it, and if he is he can just get drunk and swear about it on national TV. He’s also got a ring that he can rub in Yakupov’s face whenever he wants.

Does this mean everyone needs to go all willy-nilly when they score a goal? No. That one-off type reaction is what makes it so exciting when someone does go bonkers. The players, afterall, are in the enterainment business as much as anything, so kudos to Nail on an entertaining job well done. These highlights don’t come around too often, so when they do try not to go all “Twitter debate” about it. Just enjoy it.

Nikolai Kulemin – What now??

Night and day. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Call it what you will, but Nikolai Kulemin has put together two polarizing seasons in succession that have fans of the Leafs and fantasy hockey managers alike questioning what his true potential is. In 2010-2011 he was the second leading goal-scorer on the Toronto Maple Leafs with 30 goals in 82 games in his third year in the league, nearly doubling his previous season’s total of 16. This past season, however, is an altogether different story with Kulemin putting up 7 goals and 28 points in 70 games. Why has he struggled? The simple answer lies in looking at his shot totals. He possesses a heavy and accurate wrist shot, but has not gotten it off at the consistency that he did last year, which helped him reach 173 shots on the season (registered 107 this past season). Regardless of shot totals, however, his shooting percentage was down by a significant margin. Since breaking into the league, the now 25 year old has registered a shot percentage of over 11%, reaching up to 17.34% during his 30-goal campaign. Most of his goals came from below the hash marks banging in loose pucks and letting his wrist shot go in traffic. Despite his offensive struggles, which have led to Kulemin receiving the infamous “penthouse to outhouse” treatment that most Leafs players endure, Kulemin still holds promise and looks to regain respect and establish his value as a key member of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Kulemin remained engaged in games in one way or another if he wasn’t scoring goals including registering 97 hits in 70 games after registering 101 in 82 last year, which lends credence to the hope that he can return to form. He was also a +2 on the season, which ranked 2nd on the Leafs and shows that Kulemin’s defensive proficiency is not a thing of the past. Fans cried to have Kulemin benched on nights when his goal scoring droughts extended, while others figured demoting him out of the top 6 would do the trick. But for Kulemin, it wasn’t necessarily just a kick in the pants that was needed. Kulemin had been dealing with some significant off-ice issues most notably losing a number of friends and mentors in the tragic Lokomotiv Yaroslavl plane crash. Kulemin played with Igor Korolev – a former Leaf and casualty of the crash – in Magnitogorsk, and looked up to him in the early days of his professional career when they played on the same line together. “He gave me advice and helped me a lot. He told me what it’s like in Toronto and that it was the best time of his career to play here. No body said bad words about him on that team. He was my friend. It feels bad when you lose a friend and especially – he’s like one of my best friends. I know all the guys, all young guys, I played junior with them. I know everybody because I played in that league three years. It’s crazy.”

Kulemin isn’t the only Leaf to have lost a friend in the crash, but we all know that everyone reacts to situations differently. For Kulemin’s sake and for the sake of th Leafs, one should hope a change of scenery isn’t what’s needed to get him going again, and hope that he can grow and become stronger as a person and player. Will his return see him pot another 30 goals? Perhaps not. He’s always been projected as a guy that has top 6 attributes, physically and skill-wise, but could also fit in as a checker with scoring upside given his defensive posture and presence. Should he be playing in the top-6, I think he finds himself settling in more at a 25 goal and 55-60 or so point pace, but if early indications of Randy Carlyle’s tenure suggest anything, it’s that Kulemin could be used as that third line checking forward, that could jump up into the top-6 in replacement of injuries. To some, that third line is just as important as the top-6 group of forwards, especially when seeing how important secondary scoring and toughness become in the playoffs. While the Leafs roster looks to be primed for some personnel changes this off-season, the team would benefit by hanging on to the maturing winger. Kulemin is a valuable forward, and is the type of player that is important to a team that is eyeing their first playoff berth in nearly a decade.

Cheers,

Dante @dmartella

Who is Kent Nilsson?

Great question. He’s a European scout for the Florida Panthers that has played 553 NHL games. Not impressed? Let’s ask Wayne Gretzky what he thinks of the man they call ‘Mr. Magic’: “He may have been the most skilled hockey player I ever saw in my entire career.” That’s right. Wayne Gretzky who played at a time when the league featured superstars like Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Jarri Kurri, Mark Messier and many others believes that Kent Nilsson may have been the most purely skilled hockey player he has ever seen.  Still not convinced? Well let’s take a look at the stats book. Perhaps the most unheralded of supremely skilled players, Kent Nilsson recorded 686 points in those 553 games, and another 214 in 158 WHA games.

In his first two seasons with the Winnipeg Jets, who were then a part of the WHA, the crafty Swedish centre recorded back-to-back 107-point seasons. He followed those up with a 93-point effort with the Atlanta Flames of the NHL, all before the age of 25. When the Atlanta Flames moved to Calgary – where they currently reside – Kent exploded onto the scene with a 131-point season, which featured 82 assists. He moved to the Oilers in the middle of the 1986-87 season and registered 17 points in 17 games, and another 19 points in 21 playoff games en route to capturing the Stanley Cup. He was a guy that won no matter where he was, adding championships from the WHA and leagues in Italy and Switzerland to his resume.

When TSN put together a feature of the top 10 most skilled hockey players of all-time, Kent Nilsson landed at number 6 ahead of names like Pavel Datsyuk, Jaromir Jagr, Pavel Bure and Denis Savard. At 6’0”, Kent wasn’t the biggest guy on the ice, but what he could do with the puck truly made him special. Praises from Dale Hawerchuck and Brett Hull – some of the game’s greats – also allude to his speed, ability to change directions quickly, and lightning quick hands. Quite simply, he did things at a speed and level that was unparalleled in his time. He had incredible skill with the puck, and great determination and hustle to get to loose pucks.

Nilsson wasn’t one to shy away from challenges, either. He was once asked to see if he could hit the crossbar from center ice with a slap shot and was given 5 pucks to do so. He wound up and cranked his first puck….*PING*. He smiled and skated off the ice after the puck rattled off the bar.

He ranks 11th on the all-time regular season points-per-game list, ahead of legends like Guy Lafleur, Joe Sakic, Dale Hawerchuk, Pat LaFontaine, Steve Yzerman, Eric Lindros, Denis Savard, Jari Kurri, Pavel Bure, Bobby Hull and others. Nilsson also sits 10th in assists-per-game ahead of some of the most gifted play-makers like Steve Yzerman, Bryan Trottier and Ron Francis. He also, however, places 12th on the shooting percentage list, showing that his game wasn’t limited to the playmaking, but was dynamic. His shooting percentage eclipses that of Mario Lemieux, Jari Kurri and Peter Stastny, and while he played in a significantly less number of games than all of them, you don’t earn praise from hockey legends for being lucky.

So, the next time someone asks you who Kent Nilsson is, you’ll be able to answer confidently that he was one of the most skilled players to have ever played the game of hockey.

Cheers,

Dante (@dmartella12)

OHL Draft Displays “Exceptional” Talent For Second Year Running

With the 2011-2012 OHL Regular Season coming to a close in the last week, attention has turned from the intense 68 game campaign to the playoffs. For 16 of 2o OHL teams, the attitude in the dressing room brightens and the pressure in practice elevates as teams gear up for playoff runs. While the players focus, across the street, upstairs or across town, OHL brass turn their attention to the annual draft (to take place April 7th). The OHL draft is a 15 round selection process that sees each of the 20 teams build towards there future through a crop of Ontario and American born 16 year old, AAA players. After covering last years draft, it became clear that while, still extremely young, the group of 300+ sixteen year old’s are a testament to the tremendous hard work and dedication of North American hockey players and their parents. The 2011 draft, drew more of my attention to young players than it had previously in large part because of the tremendous skill all the way through the draft, with dynamic forwards and defensemen going well into the middle rounds.

What was once more intriguing about last years draft was the decision to grant “Exceptional Player Status” t0 15 year old defensemen Aaron Ekblad. Ekblad, despite being a year behind the draft class was than allowed to be eligible, joining John Tavares and Jason Spezza as previous players to accept the honour. Ekblad was then drafted 1st overall where he played alongside Tanner Pearson and Mark Scheifele in Barrie. The 6’3, 205 pound defensemen has logged big minutes in all situations and followed the accolades in stride, proving he was worthy. While the honour is something rare, the talent among young players has never been higher and once again, for the second year running, that honour was bestowed upon a 15 year old skater. This year that skater was 15 year old Connor McDavid.

McDavid is forward who played for the Minor Midget AAA, Toronto Marlboros  this season, registering 72 points in 33 games along side kids that are a year older than him. His tremendous talent, statistical production and academics went into the process that garnered him the status, as chosen by hockey Canada. In the extensive process, his skills, maturity and awards such as OHL Cup and GTHL Championship MVP’s were enough to allow him to enter the draft. With the first overall selection this year, look to the Erie Otters to pounce on the young talent (unless they swing a deal with a team like Kingston) and allow him to take a prominent role in the upcoming season.

That isn’t to say the 16 year olds are weak either. In fact it’s truly an “Exceptional” draft class. Without household names like Subban and Domi of last years draft, this years draft should pull you in on talent alone. McDavid’s Marlboros teammate, Joshua Ho-Sang is considered even more talented but won’t benefit from having 3 years of OHL use for his team like Connor will. Ho-Sang has been a highlight reel in a league that isn’t televised and has been described as the most skilled GTHL prospect many scouts have ever seen (Stamkos, Nash, Gagne and many others have shone in the GTHL). Other GTHL AAA players like Rowland Mckeown, Michael Dal Colle and Robbert Fabbri have been highly touted  in a draft that is usually dominated by the Toronto league.

Outside the GTHL, players like Ottawa Jr. 67′s forward Jaden Lindo and Upper Canada Cyclones’ Eric Cornel have shown they’re ready to be big time OHL players.

One things for sure, the future of hockey is brighter than ever. Watch out.

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