Charlton's NHL: Olli's Crystall Ball

Rick Charlton

January 21th, 2002

Olli Jokinen now stands alone as a fountain of all-seeing wisdom.

The Florida Panther forward, one of the larger first round busts of the last 10 years, exceeded only by Alex Daigle simply because Daigle isn't playing anymore, has 15 points this year and is a minus 13.

But what Jokinen lacks in anything related to on-ice performance he more than compensates for in the realm of all-knowing seer, having the courage - nay the unbridled conviction -to call Calgary a bunch of deadbeats moments after losing 3-1 to the 6-1-0-1 Flames in late October.

The Flames, of course, would rocket out to a 13-2-4-2 start, the best such beginning to a season in 22 years in Calgary.

Calling the Flames a team of minor leaguers who wouldn't make the playoffs is an easy call at the moment - and that particular bandwagon has no shortage of current members.

Try making such a call when Jokinen did.

"When you look at the lineup over there, they got six minor-league guys," said Jokinen after barely working up a sweat that night. "They're not a playoff team or anything like that."

Ah yes, Jokinen.




Not exactly a description of his career but we'll give his big mouth full marks as the Flames ferocious start disintegrated to nothingness in this most interesting if not schizophrenic of seasons.

A team which was 11 games over .500 at one point has been rapidly falling out of the playoff picture and yet another sub .500 season, in spite of the victory over Anaheim the other night, now seems perilously near to reality.

It is not the normal easing of a frenetic pace one might expect. This is straight up and now straight down of a like that is rarely seen in the NHL. A 13-2-4-2 start has been anchored by a follow-through of 7-16-4.

Remember 1985-86? The Flames (40-31-9) went to the Stanley Cup final that year in spite of losing, at one point, 11 straight games.

No, this is somehow different. A Stanley Cup final to end this season doesn't seem to be in the offing.

So good did the Flames look in their meteoric rise early in the campaign that even the most steadfast of their critics wasted little time jumping from the pavement to the bandwagon.

There was Mike Brophy of The Hockey News, who called the Flames to finish dead-last in the Western Conference in the pre-season, only a month later apologizing red-faced with the comment: "I was dead wrong about the Flames."

Al Strachan of the Toronto SUN credited the Flames with the best six man defence core in the NHL the day before the Flames wiped out the Leafs 4-1 in Calgary, adding that Derek Morris and Robyn Regehr were the two most coveted young defencemen in the game.

"They're back, those teams are back," agreed Toronto's Curtis Joseph in mid-October of the Flames and Oilers. "They're not as good as they were in the '80s but they're coming back that way. They have good, young players. They're for real."

And there were those who claimed the gift of hindsight.

"A lot of people are talking about Calgary as being a surprise, but I'm not surprised at all," said Minnesota Wild forward Andy Sutton. "They have a good team. I thought they were better than they showed last season. The way they're playing this season is how I thought they would play last season."

The highest praise of all came in mid-November from Montreal's Craig Rivet.

"Calgary is by far the best team we've faced so far this season," Rivet said. "It's not because they beat us 6-2. It's because they played for 60 minutes. They tried for 60 minutes. They hit for 60 minutes. They didn't stop coming at us all night, and that's the way you've got to play this game now. Take a night off, and you'll be embarrassed. Take one off, and you should be embarrassed."

Ah the glory days. Even if they lasted only six weeks.

The Flames were marching to the light. But lately they've been fading to black.

Straight up. Straight down.

 Naturally, they met the Canadiens again in early January and, you guessed it, Calgary didn't play 60 minutes. They didn't hit much. And the Canadiens tried harder than they did. And the result was a 4-2 Montreal win.

And the praise-filled Leafs are up next.

The Oilers are going through a difficult period as well, now 5-8-3 in their last 16, Mike Comrie demoted to the fourth line then nailed to the bench in a recent game while committing the fatal giveaway in Saturday's 1-0 loss to Pittsburgh. Oh yes, the shine is now coming off just as writers were adding Edmonton to their mid-season list of Cup favourites.

Summed up writer Robert Tychkowski in the Edmonton SUN a few days ago. "They can't win on the road, can't win at home, can't score on the power play, can't hold a third-period lead, can't find the first line, or the second, and have somehow turned a nine-point cushion in the Northwest Division into a desperate struggle to even make the playoffs."

But as much as the Oilers and their brethren may be wringing their hands at the moment the Flames are in a far more perilous condition, confidence tremulous and a string of only four home dates in the next 21 games starting next week.

Since mid-November, the Flames have gone out and found themselves an anvil, tied it around their legs and hopped over to the end of the pier.

If they fall now, it won't be because they were pushed.

The Flames used all those pre-season prognostications of their impending death as a motivation of sorts, building a determination to stuff a mountain of alleged experts into a very small sand hole at low tide.

But the experts are clawing their way back.

Unless the Flames halt their monstrous rollover post haste, the "choke" label, so tortuous to this franchise for so long in the early to mid-1990's, may have to be hauled out once again.

But who knew?

Olli Jokinen knew.

ATTENDANCE IS BEGINNING TO ROLL OVER IN NASHVILLE where the Predators, now in their third season, continue to ice an improving, albeit losing team. After drawing 16,600 in their inaugural season, Nashville has dropped to 15,895 last year and 14,504 so far this season. As is usually the case, the average Joe is dropping by the wayside and the team is surprised the corporate well isn't a bottomless one. "This goes not to hockey being new, but to the arena being new," Predators President Jack Diller said. "In New York, it's automatic. When the Rangers are playing, you don't go home after work, you go to Madison Square Garden and you take your client. It's full of business guys and girls selling business. (In a smaller city like Nashville) sports is fun and games on Sunday afternoon, and you take your neighbour. But this building allows us to create an environment where the business person knows that from 6 in the evening until he says goodbye to his client, it's a good atmosphere to conduct business. That is the challenge - to get our sales in business up to the usual level, to 60-40 or even 75-25. Right now, we're not even above 50 per cent in business-based attendance." Filling the rink is what its all about in the NHL and that isn't likely to change anytime soon. It's coming up on eight years since the Rangers won the Cup and Sports Illustrated tabbed hockey as the new "it" sport. But the mystical television deal that would push the NHL into the elite ranks of sport in North America looks to be a pipedream. And now, with the economic bubble in North America having gone by the wayside, the corporate customer is rethinking his priorities. That leaves it once again to the stereotypical father and his stereotypical family. Except prices are now beyond his reach.

"I JUST TRY TO LOOK, when I get the puck, where the players are and anticipate where they're going to be once I get the puck. That's something I've always done throughout my career. Just knowing where everybody else is on the ice certainly helps once you have to make a decision." - The game is so simple when you're Mario Lemieux.

"IT'S CLEAR TO ME IF YOU'RE LOOKING FOR SKILLS, you're looking for a European player. If you're looking for a guy who can score or grind, you look for a Canadian or American. It's sort of like the way we buy cars. If you're looking for something sporty and flashy, you buy a German car. If you want a truck or SUV, you buy a Chevrolet Suburban. We do the same at the draft. We assume a European can stick-handle and make plays, and we assume a North American player is going to be like a utility vehicle - not glamorous, but getting the job done." - The always diplomatic Ron Wilson, coach of the Washington Capitals.

"THE ONE THING THAT SETS THE GREAT PLAYERS APART from others is they're faster than everybody else. You start with the speed and then add exceptional skill into the mix, and you've got a great player. That's what distinguishes Peter Forsberg and Jaromir Jagr, Teemu Selanne and Paul Kariya and Joe Sakic from the rest." - Dallas Stars centre Mike Modano.

"WE'VE GOT TO ANALYSE ALL THE OPTIONS AVAILABLE TO US. This is the NHL and the bottom line is results. We haven't had the results. If you're a player in the NHL, you bear the burden of that responsibility, otherwise you're subjected to the possibility of change." - Craig McTavish, coach of the faltering Oilers. Is that a threat?




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