Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Pekka Rinne Autographed Card

There were too many abnormal things happening in NHL news this summer, and the fact that the Nashville Predators and their former head coach Barry Trotz were talked about almost daily certainly fits in that category.

No offense, but this is a team that made the playoffs 7 times and won a grand total of 2 series. They have won 19 total post-season games in their 15-year history (it takes 16 in the same season to win a Stanley Cup).

They only have one player who won an NHL trophy while on their team: Steve Sullivan, winning the Bill Masterton for his awesome comeback from injury in 2008-09; and Mike Fisher (one of my favourite players) won the NHL Foundation Award for his contributions to charity in 2011-12. In fairness, Shea Weber deserves to have won a Norris at this point, and Pekka Rinne does deserve one of Martin Brodeur's four unwarranted Vezinas.

Which brings me to the superstar Finnish goalie who seems to have my home team's number. I first encountered him during the 2010-11 season, after a game where he shut out the Montréal Canadiens at the Bell Centre, at which time he signed this 2007-08 Between The Pipes card for me in blue sharpie (#42 in the set, part of the Future Stars sub-set) by In The Game:

It shows him wearing the Preds' AHL farm club Milwaukee Admirals' light blue (away) uniform, which is pretty awful. Notice the MLB's Milwaukee Brewers' logo / patch: the hockey team was purchased by a group that includes the Brewers' minority owner (Mark Attanasio), its assistant GM (Gord Ash) and former pitcher Ben Sheets; they made the Brewers the sole sponsor of the hockey team. Once in a while, the Admirals host a ''Brewers Night'', where they wear uniforms inspired by or referring to the baseball team's history.

Ironically, in baseball, Nashville and Milwaukee have the same affiliation, just reversed, where the country music capital is the Brewers' AAA affiliate.

I'm convinced Rinne will regain his Vezina form this coming season and make everyone forget his injury-plagued 2013-14 campaign. It's Tuukka Rask's throne to lose, though, and I don't see him giving it up easily. But Rinne is coming off a 2014 World Championships where he was named the tournament MVP as he led Team Finland to the silver medal...

Monday, July 28, 2014

Jaroslav Halak Swatch Card

By now you've probably guessed that Jaroslav Halak is my favourite NHL goalie, with Corey Crawford right behind as the de facto favourite Canadian goalie. Things haven't exactly always gone smoothly with Halak, but most of the players I admire often face adversity.

There are many who have waxed poetic about the 2009-10 playoffs he had with the Montréal Canadiens, but truth be told, he was the main reason the Habs even made the playoff three separate times; and his detractors like to point out that it was Carey Price who made the All-Star Game that year, but Halak nonetheless finished 10th in Vezina voting, which is voted on by the league's general managers and based solely on the regular season.

Halak also finished 6th in Vezina voting in 2011-12, in his second season with the St. Louis Blues - the year he and Brian Elliott shared the Jennings trophy. And while I openly rooted for Halak, I never became a Blues fan, so when they threw traded him away to acquire Ryan Miller, all I could wish them was a painful elimination. Which they got. And for all the flack that Halak got for having good statistics because he was playing in Ken Hitchcock's defensive system behind a wall of Olympic-caliber defensemen, Miller played behind the same guys on the same team, and the stats speak for themselves:
Halak: 24-9-4 (.686 winning percentage), Miller: 10-8-1 (.556)
Halak: 4 shutouts in 40 games (1 per 10), Miller: 1 shutout in 19 games (1 per 19)
Halak: 2.23 GAA, .917 save percentage, Miller: 2.47 GAA, .903 save percentage
Halak played like a #1 goalie, Miller played like a washed-up career backup. And Miller was even worse in the playoffs, with a 2.70 GAA, a .897 save percentage, and looking so shook up he rattled every single one of his teammates. Granted, injuries have prevented Halak from displaying his poise under pressure in St. Louis, but he still has a 1.73 GAA and .935 save percentage for the Blues in the postseason.

The only thing you can pin on Halak is his small stature (not his fault), that he gives a lot of rebounds (it's his style, he just needs to kick them towards teammates a bit more often), and the fact that while he is virtually unbeatable in pressure situations, he might lose his concentration against lesser teams after having won 3 or 4 unbelievable games.

One thing he has going for him next season (and for the subsequent three if he fulfills his contract with the New York Islanders) is that, more often than not, he will be on the lesser team, and will be facing the better opposition. But with him in nets and John Tavares up front, the Isles just might have the team to cost a few teams a playoff spot, and maybe squeeze into one themselves in a weak Metropolitan Division.

And, as at least one commentator so aptly put it:
(Elliott has appeared solid for the Blues during the regular season, but his playoff record indicates the inability to lead a team to the ultimate goal. Jake Allen may have what it takes, but it isn’t going to come without a learning curve or two.) Fans may soon realize just how good Jaroslav Halak was for the Blues during his time in the gateway city.
I didn't want to overload Halak with too many requests, so my plan was to write to him last year or this year to have him sign cards of himself with the Blues, but with the trade rumours intensifying, I didn't; and now he's on a team that isn't great at getting players their mail. Still, I have this card of him wearing St. Louis' third jersey (their nicest at the moment), from Panini's 2010-11 Dominion, #87 in the set (numbered 75/99):

It contains a white swatch that Panini - as is their custom - won't identify as being a jersey, but rather ''game-worn material'', so it could be a sock. (Just kidding, the checklist on their website says it's a jersey.) I'll get to it later, in the coming weeks or months, but I just want to say that Dominion was a much better product in 2010-11 than it was this year. This card looks great, and the back even has a different picture of him, wearing the team's white (away) jersey:

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Ryan Murray Autograph Card

As I mentioned last week on this Guillaume Latendresse card, I believe Scratching The Surface is the best-looking autograph sub-set in hockey, and while the Latendresse card featured the 2010-11 version, they kept most of the design intact with just a few tweaks for this 2013-14 Crown Royale set by Panini, represented by this Ryan Murray card:

They just added silver borders (which look like dark grey on the scan) and congratulated themselves on a job well done, I guess. Sure, we don't see much of the Columbus Blue Jackets' crest or the white (away) uniform in the picture, but it appears twice on the signature/ice surface, and that's enough.

When the Jackets made Murray the second-overall pick in 2012, the consensus was that he may not be the player with the most ''upside'' (i.e. room for improvement, particularly on offense), but was the most ''NHL-ready'' of the crop; it's too bad, then, that the lock-out and an untimely injury forced him out of pretty much the entire 2012-13 campaign. He still managed to accumulate 17 points in 23 games with his WHL team - the Everett Silvertips - and resumed the captaincy he'd gained the previous year, but it was a bit of a letdown.

For the record, eight players chosen after him now have more NHL experience than he does, and one of them - Tanner Pearson, chosen 30th - even has a Stanley Cup with the Los Angeles Kings. But Murray got ''adult'' international hardware before they did, having won the bronze with Team Canada at the 2012 World Championships a month before even being drafted, becoming the second-youngest of all time to dress for Canada at the event, behind Paul Kariya.

The Jackets view him as a potential future captain, but perhaps they'll give it to Brandon Dubinsky first, until Murray has the time to age and mature. He got 4 goals and 21 points in 66 games as a rookie this past year, which bodes well for the future.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Philippe Cornet Autograph Card

I'm a pretty big Edmonton Oilers fan (yes, even to this day) and was surprised this winter when I kept coming up on Philippe Cornet cards in almost every brand I picked up. This guy was either a huge prospect I'd slept on, or the Bob Corkum of his generation. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

He had a semi-distinguished career in Juniors with the LHJMQ's Rimouski Océanic and Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, improving every year and going from 21 points to 49 and 77 twice; he was also a point-per-game playoff performer, which probably helped when the Oilers took their 5th-round pick to make him the 133rd draftee of the class of 2008.

His first AHL season with the Oklahoma City Barons wasn't all that spectacular (7 goals and 23 points in 60 games), but his 24 goals in his sophomore year got him both a couple of call-ups to the NHL and an AHL All-Star Game nod.

That year, he showed he could find the back of the net, but also proved he could be a nifty passer against adults at the pro level. It seems every article about Barons games has a mention of his making a perfect pass through three pairs of skates directly on a teammate's stick blade. He also showed some courage and determination, always the first guy to jump in the corner or on the boards to wrestle the puck from much bigger opponents - though not always succeeding.

During his three years with the Barons, he made the playoffs twice, registering 4 goals, 12 assists and 16 points in 31 games - decent numbers, if not star-caliber, which may be why the Oilers chose not to re-sign him last season. Instead, he signed an AHL deal with the San Antonio Rampage (the Florida Panthers' AHL affiliate), who traded him mid-season to the Charlotte Checkers, home to the Carolina Hurricanes' prospects.

The NHL being an Old Boys' country club, though, generally, when a player doesn't make the roster on non-playoff teams, he's soon forgotten about, which may eventually lead to his moving to Europe for a higher level of play, pay, and lifestyle. Cornet arguably has the talent to be very good at a level just one notch below the NHL; where that may be, we'll just have to wait and see.

In the meantime, I can cross #51 off my Oilers Numbers Project with card #MM-42 of Panini's 2013-14 Titanium set (part of the Metallic Marks sub-set, the Bronze variant), with a thin blue-sharpied sticker autograph with his jersey number included:

I'll say this about the product: boxes like this one, where you get 20 cards in total for roughly $100 (sometimes a bit more) are the main reason why I usually stick to $30 boxes like Score, O-Pee-Chee, Victory and the like; there is no way I would have paid $5 for any of the cards I pulled, though I was happy I got to further my Oilers project along, and I got a few jersey cards of players I like, but could have done without.

What I usually do is get in groups, where, say, 10 or 15 of us will get together and split 5, 10 or 15 boxes (whatever divides ok), and keep whatever interests us the most; people like getting into these groups with me because I won't call dibs on the Crosbys (there are never any anyway), though we usually make a deal where if one very valuable card is pulled, we just sell it on Ebay and split the money.

Anyhow, I'd rather get two autographs and a few hundred ''regular'' cards for $30 than five sub-par ''hits'' with already-bent corners (such as the top-right one on this card) for $100, which is a whole day's work for me before taxes.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Alex Chiasson Jersey Card

Arguably the trade that sparked the rest of the summer's movements, the one that sent Jason Spezza to the Dallas Stars and Alex Chiasson and two prospects to the Ottawa Senators changed the dynamic of two divisions. Dallas now has a top-six that rivals that of the Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings, Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild, perhaps with even more raw talent; the Sens are now in the late stages of their rebuild and ready to climb in the standings, steady in front of the net, with a fine top-3 on defense, and a force on the wings - they might need to solidify their #2 and #3 center positions to rival the Montréal Canadiens, Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins in the Atlantic division, though.

I love what Chiasson brings to the Sens - at 6'3'', working on his already-acceptable foot speed, gifted and gritty, he will take a lot of pressure off Bobby Ryan and may become Ottawa's version of Milan Lucic, except with a brain. Hockey's Future even goes as far as saying:
Potential top-six playmaking winger, like a more talented version of Blake Wheeler.
That may be laying it on a bit thick, in my opinion, which you can read in my recent post about Wheeler here. But the fact remains that Chiasson has dominated at every level before the NHL, from Midget AAA to the USHL to the NCAA (Boston University Terriers), and showed All-Star form in his rookie season with the AHL's Texas Stars before getting called up to the NHL and never looking back in 2012-13.

He will be wearing #90 with the Sens, seeing as Milan Michalek already wears #9. I expect him to score 20 goals with some 60 points per year for a decade, and peak around 30 goals and 75 points in maybe three years, hitting one of those numbers 3 or 4 times (he is a better playmaker than shooter at this point, but with his frame, may end up with a dozen powerplay goals a year, which would add to his totals in that category).

And so I was already a fan prior to the trade, which means I was thrilled when this card came out of a pack of Upper Deck's 2013-14 Series 2 cards - it's #RM-AC of the Rookie Materials sub-set, featuring a black swatch from an event-worn jersey. It depicts him with the Stars' white (away) uniform, perhaps the best-looking one since the team moved from Minnesota:

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Andrew Brunette: 7 Autographed Cards (Part 1)

As I hinted in yesterday's post about Niklas Backstrom, I got two returns from Minnesota yesterday. Here is the second one:

Never a superstar, Andrew Brunette made the OHL's Owen Sound Platers after having been drafted in the 7th round at the midget draft; he had three relatively successful years with them, improving from 35 to 98 to a whopping 162 points over his three seasons in Juniors, where he played alongside future NHLers Kevin Weekes, Kirk Maltby, Scott Walker, and Jamie Storr, all of which led him to being drafted by the Washington Capitals 174th overall in 1993, in the... seventh round. That pick originally belonged to the Calgary Flames.

This card reflects his time in the OHL, showing him with the Platers' white (home) uniform, from 7th Inning Sketch's 1990-91 7th Inning Sketch set of CHL cards (it's #277):

He would play 62 games with the Caps over parts of three seasons, showing a great deal of promise in the third, with 11 goals and 23 points in just 28 games, leading the Nashville Predators to select him in the expansion draft. He only played one year in Nashville before they traded him to the Atlanta Thrashers for a draft pick, making it the second-straight expansion team he'd play for.

Of his days in Atlanta, I have this keepsake showing him wearing the Thrashers' dark blue (away) uniform, from Pacific's 1999-2000 Omega set (card #9):

He had a pretty good couple of seasons in Atlanta, scoring 23 goals with 50 points in 1999-2000, and reaching 59 points the next year, before making his way to the Minnesota Wild. He played three fine seasons in his first stint in Minnesota, and started making a name for himself in the 2002-03 playoffs, with 13 points in 18 games but, more importantly, all 7 of his goals being of the ''very important'' kind, including a Game-7 overtime series clincher against Patrick Roy and the Colorado Avalanche.

As soon as he became a free agent, the Avs signed him, specifically for his clutch post-season acumen. He did pretty good in the regular season in Colorado as well, with a career year in 2006-07, marking his high point in goals (27), assists (56) and points (83). He would also put up 17 points on 8 goals (including another series clincher) in 19 playoff games with the Avalanche.

I have this memento of his time playing with Joe Sakic, from Upper Deck's 2005-06 Parkhurst collection (card #121 in the set):

It shows him wearing their original burgundy (away) uniform, which I have grown to miss.

    (continued in the following post)

Andrew Brunette: 7 Autographed Cards (Part 2)

              (continued from the previous post)

After three seasons with the Colorado Avalanche, Andrew Brunette went back to the Minnesota Wild, signing as a free agent for three seasons. Consistency being a strong suit, he was just as productive in his second go-round with the Wild as he'd been in the first:
2001-02: 21 goals, 48 assists, 69 points (in 81 games)
2002-03: 18 goals, 28 assists, 46 points (in 82 games)
2003-04: 15 goals, 34 assists, 49 points (in 82 games)
2008-09: 22 goals, 28 assists, 50 points (in 80 games)
2009-10: 25 goals, 36 assists, 61 points (in 82 games)
2010-11:  18 goals, 28 assists, 46 points (in 82 games)
As you can see, age was pretty much never a factor, and neither were teammates. Also, he was as durable as they come. He once played in 509 consecutive games, and between 2001-02 and 2010-11, he just missed 3 games in total. I didn't count his last season with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2011-12 though he'd only missed 4, nor the three before where he'd only missed 11 in total.

Of his time in the center of the continent, I have four cards; first, here are two of the Wild's white uniform:

The card of the left is from Topps' 2002-03 Total set (card #245) - at that time, the white uniform was used for home games; on the right is card #249 from Panini's 2010-11 Score set, where white is for away games. Notice the alternate captain's 'A'; he also wore the captain's 'C' on 4 separate month-long stints back when the team rotated the title amongst its leaders.

I also have these two ''landscape-format'' cards:

The top card is from Upper Deck's 2002-03 Vintage set (card #130), again in white; the card on the right is #119 from Panini's 2011-12 Score set, showing him with the Wild's green alternate home uniform, but listing him as a member of the Blackhawks, as he'd signed with them as a free agent over the summer.

When all was said and done, he had suited up for 6 different NHL teams, had had his rights switch teams 8 times, he'd played in over 1100 games, scoring 268 goals with 465 assists for 733 points (plus 35 points in 49 playoff games). He was 9th in the league for assists (48) in 2001-02, and got a fair amount of votes for the Lady Byng 7 times; he finished with less than 20 PIMs seven times, including a low of just 4 penalty minutes in 78 games with Chicago in 2011-12.

I had sent him these 7 cards and a fan letter on February 5th, 2014, care of the Wild, where he now acts as a Hockey Operations Advisor; I received them all back, signed in black sharpie with his jersey number tagged at the end (15 for all, except for the Owen Sound Platers card where he's sporting #16), on July 23rd, 2014, good for a 168-day round trip. All told, that brings my 2013-14 totals to 29/74.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Niklas Backstrom: 5 Autographed Cards (Part 1)

I got not one but a couple of tremendous returns today - both from Minnesota, coincidentally! Here's the first one:

How cool is that? Niklas Backstrom was one of the best and most consistent goalies in the NHL from 2006 until the end of the locked-out season in 2012-13. Before crossing the Atlantic, however, the Finn of Swedish descent had dominated the Finnish Elite League, leading his team Oulun Kärpät to two straight championships and winning the best goalie award and playoff MVP title twice in the process.

After winning a silver medal at the 2006 Olympics and bronze at the 2006 World Championships with Team Finland, he signed with the Minnesota Wild as a free agent and started the 2006-07 season as Manny Fernandez' backup, inheriting the #1 mantle when Fernandez fell to injury, and not letting it go until injuries forced him to share duties with Josh Harding in 2013-14, as he was limited to 21 games.

He represented the Wild in an All-Star Game, holds the team's career (189 and counting) and season (37) wins records as well as single-season shutout record (8), was nominated for a Vezina, and won two more bronze medals (2008 World Championships and 2010 Olympics) with Finland, playing behind the best goalie of his generation in Miikka Kiprusoff. He also won the Jennings (best team GAA) and Crozier (best save percentage) trophies in 2006-07.

Backstrom has a near-perfect technique, a blend of the already-excellent stand-up/covering-the-angles style he used in Europe and the improved butterfly he picked up in North America; a fearless, fierce and focused competitor, his only imperfection is the 5-hole (between the legs), which he counters by making up for in positioning.

Here he is in the Wild's red (home) uniform:

The card on the left is from Upper Deck's 2009-10 Collector's Choice (card #74 in the set) and shows him following the puck as it moves from behind the net to the corner, sharp and attentive; the card on the right is from In The Game's 2010-11 Between The Pipes set (#128 in the collection, part of the Stars Of The Game sub-set), and has a great view of the Wild's main logo on his mask - a nice way to get around copyright issues for ITG.

The Wild also have an alternate home uniform, in green, with a College-style cursive font in front, as seen in this 2013-14 O-Pee-Chee card (#478 in the collection) by UD:

I like that OPC tried to re-create similar designs to those of my youth, but the un-matching colour schemes tend to make me nauseous a bit; the light blue could have easily been dark green to fit, or even just plain black.

                                 (continued in the following post)

Niklas Backstrom: 5 Autographed Cards (Part 2)

               (continued from the previous post)

While I used to prefer their red uniform, I am now a bigger fan of the Minnesota Wild's white (away) jerseys; the colour combinations work and complement each other very well, and combined with the white Vaughn  equipment, combines to give goalies a ''totally classic'' look and feel:

Pictured on the left is a sticker from Panini's 2008-09 Panini sticker book (#218), which shows both the team's logo and a nice angle of Niklas Backstrom's old mask, which carries the team's former shoulder logo on the forehead; on the right is card #125 from Upper Deck's 2010-11 SP Authentic set, an always a sober-looking, white-dominant design that autographs look great on. Notice the different shoulder patches on that one, and the chest patch commemorating the team's 10th anniversary.

It also has a clear view of his usual stance, very modern - the glove facing inwards and completely upwards is a pet peeve of mine, but hey, I haven't been nominated for a Vezina, so whatever works for him is fine by me.

I had sent him these 5 items and a fan letter on March 3rd, 2014, and they took 142 days to get back to me, which brings us to July 23rd, 2014. They were all signed in black sharpie, with his jersey number (32) tagged at the end. He actually re-signed with the Wild last year and has 2 more years left at a cap hit just over $3M per season, just about half of what he earned in his previous deal.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

David Booth Jersey Card

Earlier today, the Toronto Maple Leafs solidified their second line by signing David Booth to an affordable 1-year contract; just a couple of days ago, I had suggested they try someone else who is often asked and expected to play as a power-forward, Guillaume Latendresse, but Booth fills the same type of role (and has the same history of concussions).

David Booth's time with the Vancouver Canucks may well be considered unsuccessful to say the least, what with just 26 goals and 51 points in 164 points, but keep in mind he came in mid-season after a trade with the Florida Panthers, with whom he'd spent all of his career with until that point; the second year was the lock-out, and the third brought in a new head coach in John Tortorella, who completely changed the style and make-up of the team. That makes for a lot of change in very little time.

His career-high for goals (31) and points (60) may no longer be attainable, because I don't think he can warrant top-line minutes like he used to in Florida, if only because talented new rookies have come in each year since 2008-09, but I still stand by what I said about him last March:
(He) would be an ideal second-liner on a playoff-quality team, and a luxury third-liner with powerplay and penalty-killing time on a stacked Stanley Cup contender like the Chicago Blackhawks or Anaheim Ducks (though possibly a first-liner on the stacked-at-center Pittsburgh Penguins).
Meaning I can see him reaching the 45-50-point plateau, ideally with more than 20 goals, perhaps 25.

Here is a card that dates back to his heyday, showing him wearing the Panthers' white (away) uniform, with the aletrnate captain's 'A':

It's from Upper Deck's 2009-10 Series 1 set, and is card #GJ-DA of the UD Game Jersey sub-set, with a black game-worn jersey swatch (though the white uniform contains no black apart from the dreaded piping).