Monday, April 25, 2011

Ilya Bryzgalov Jersey Card

Here's one guy who put himself in the proverbial hot water recently: Ilya Bryzgalov said if his Phoenix Coyotes moved to Winnipeg, he wouldn't tag along, citing cold weather, nothing to do, and a lack of a Russian population:
You don't want to go to Winnipeg, right? Not many people live there, not many Russian people there. Plus it's cold. There's no excitement except the hockey. No park, no entertaining for the families, for the kids. It's going to be tough life for your family.
At least he gets points for being honest, and it reminds the rest of us who would prefer more Canadian teams in the NHL that it wasn't always easy for Winnipeg and Québec - even Calgary and Edmonton, actually - before those teams were forced to move in the mid-1990s: free agents shunned them, the smaller cities didn't have much corporate support, and the weather was becoming an issue, what with Gary Bettman establishing teams in warm, non-traditional markets.

So hockey players will have this dilemma: will they want to play for higher salaries in sold out arenas and perhaps have a summer home elsewhere, or will they want to play in non-hockey climates to empty arenas for mid-range salaries?

And with the playoffs he's had, letting in soft goals in each game, Bryzgalov may be looking at something even lower than mid-range in pay. For millions, he might have to go to the KHL, despite another terrific NHL regular season, in which he tallied 36 wins to go with his 2.48 GAA and .921 save %. And the season before that, he crushed the team record for wins (formerly of 33) by getting 42, with a 2.29 GAA and .920 save % in 69 games to garner a Vezina nomination.

That was odd, considering he is third of all time for longest shutout streak in playoff history, a feat he achieved with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in 2006 - the year before they won the Cup.

This card (#36) is from Panini's 2010-11 Limited set, and is numbered 012/199; it sports a burgundy patch at the perfect spot right on his crotch at the bottom of the jersey, letting a bit of the team's logo pass through above it.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Kevin Lowe: 3 Autographed Cards

Obviously, I'm still learning when it comes to collecting autographs, and some lessons include how many of what to send to whom.

I sent Kevin Lowe - now the Edmonton Oilers' President - a fan letter along with the 5 cards pictured above on November 17th and got them all back today - 3 signed in thick black sharpie, and these two unsigned:
Then again, it's not like he'd worn a different uniform on all those cards, just that he has an 'A' on one and nothing on the other, compared to the 3 cards he signed on which he's wearing the captain's 'C'. And, as the guy who looks over the day-to-day operations of a hockey team in a hockey-mad town, I'm sure he had better things to do than respond to all autograph inquiries.

In that respect, I'll focus instead on the cards he did sign... and on the man himself.

From the get-go, Lowe was a prodigy. In Juniors, he was named the first English-speaking captain in QMJHL history (with the famed Québec Remparts) before becoming the Oilers' first NHL draft pick - ever. He went on to score their first NHL goal, too.

The QMJHL introduced a trophy named in his honour in 2005, which is to be awarded to the league's best defensive defenseman, but I've always found it unfair to catalog a defenseman with 432 NHL regular-season points and 58 playoff points (in 214 games) as ''defensive''. Sure, those aren't Paul Coffey-like numbers, but they sure are Hall Of Fame numbers, and ''jersey retirement'' numbers.

Which is why I was shocked to learn the Oilers hadn't retired it yet. And I only found that out when I watched an Oilers game and saw last year's #1 pick Taylor Hall wear the famed #4 jersey. How a guy with 7 All Star Game appearances, 6 Stanley Cups (5 with the Oil, one with the 1994 New York Rangers which consisted of most Oilers' dynasty players), holding team records for games played in the regular season (1037) and playoffs (172), a past captain on a team overflowing with leadership, who coached them to a 2nd place finish then as general manager got them to a Cup Finals doesn't get his jersey retired is beyond me, but maybe they're just waiting for him to no longer be involved with the team to thwart accusations of nepotism - I don't know.

Growing up, I was a huge Oilers fan. And the way I saw it, Wayne Gretzky was the offensive catalyst, of course, but my second favourite skater was Lowe - not Mark Messier, not Jari Kurri, not Glenn Anderson (who later became a Leaf), Coffey, Steve Smith or Craig MacTavish (the last player to play without a helmet). It was Lowe - the guy who could score the opportune goal from the point but would also always shut down the opposing team. And I loved both goalies - Grant Fuhr and Andy Moog, not so much Bill Ranford, who was traded for Moog.

Let's have a look at the cards he signed:
On the left, from Pro Set's 1991-92 Parkhurst set (card #51), we have him wearing the team's blue (away) uniform, augmented by the captain's 'C'; in the middle, from Score, a 1992-93 Score (card #39) depicting him in the team's home uniform, again serving as captain; and on the right, from Upper Deck's 1991-92 Series 1 set (card #186), again in the away uniform, this time sporting the assistant captain's 'A'. And what a distinctive signature!

All in all, I'm extremely happy to have gotten these cards back. I think Kevin Lowe is one of the most important players in the Oilers' dynasty and, thus, in NHL history. I view him as no less than the Oilers' own Larry Robinson. To have worn a letter on his jersey in the Gretzky/Messier years before inheriting the 'C' for himself shows just how highly his teammates regarded him, and the measure of the man can also be attested from his numerous appearances on French Canadian TV, where he always accepts to be interviewed in French, not only showing respect to Quebecers, but reminding us he'll always be one of us - he just happens to have become successful a little further West.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Craig Anderson: 4 Autographed Cards (Part 1)

Some are wondering if the Ottawa Senators were wise to sign Craig Anderson to a 4-year contract extension a few weeks ago but I, for one, think it could work out.

Sure, he and Michael Leighton spent years in the Chicago Blackhawks' system without being given a proper chance and both were pretty much thrown away like hole-filled socks, Leighton spending years on waivers and Anderson being dealt to the Florida Panthers, who already had an All Star #1 goalie in Tomas Vokoun.

Of those years in the minors, I kept this card as a memento:
It's from In the Game's 2006-07 Between The Pipes set, the Future Stars sub-set (card #10), where he's wearing the Rochester Americans' red jersey.

And as a Panther, I have this one:
It's card #126 in Upper Deck's 2008-09 Power Play Boxed Set and shows him with the same mask he wore on the AHL card. In his first season with the Panthers, he went 8-6-1 (2.24 GAA; .935 save %) in 17 games, the most impressive of which was a 1-0 win against the New York Islanders on March 2nd in which he set an NHL record for most saves in a shutout, with 53. In 2008-09, he went 15-7-5 with a 2.71 GAA and .924 save percentage, cementing his position as a goalie who could, perhaps, get the job done.

And that's what the Colorado Avalanche were banking on when they signed him to a 2-year deal, and they gave him every opportunity to shine, giving him the net for 15 straight starts to begin the season - a team record. He got a shutout in his second game and was the league's second star for two out of four weeks in October. He became only the fourth goalie in franchise history to record 30 wins in a season, and by season's end, he held team marks for games played, minutes played and saves made - beating the best goalie of all time, Patrick Roy, for all three. And as interesting as a 38-25-7 record, a 2.63 GAA and a .917 save % are in the regular season, his 2.62 GAA and .933 save % in the playoffs were even better.

                                       (to be continued in the next post)

Monday, April 11, 2011

Craig Anderson: 4 Autographed Cards (Part 2)

                          (continued from the previous post)

Things looked promising and he became a fixture in hockey card sets, as these two Upper Deck Cards can attest:
The one on the left is from the 2010-11 Black Diamond set (card #2), while the one on the right is from the 2010-11 Victory collection (card #51). I love how the blue ink of his signature matches the blue on his equipment.

Unfortunately, 2010-11 didn't work out as well for him with the Avs, and he was traded to the Ottawa Senators at the deadline. He gave them a look at what he could achieve by going 11-5-1 in 18 games, with a stunning 2.05 GAA and .939 save percentage.

All in all, I feel that putting your trust in this former OHL goalie of the year (with the Guelph Storm) is a worthy gamble. I told him as much in a fan letter I sent him along with these 4 cards on March 25th, two weeks ago. He signed them all in blue sharpie, adding his jersey numbers (30 in Rochester, 31 in Florida and 41 in Colorado) at the end, stylistically. I received them on April 8th, a little more than a week later! The only reason I didn't write this post on Friday was that my scanner was out of commission.

Now, many of you know I'm a jersey nerd and usually try to have players sign different jersey designs on the cards I send. Take a look at the Panthers' and Avs' jerseys: Reebok didn't try very hard with these two, as they are identical. The (ugly) pipings are at the same place, the team's main logo is on the chest and their pseudo-alternate/State logos are on the shoulders, and the colours on both arms go all the way down. If it wasn't that one team's main colour is burgundy while the other's is an orangey-red, they'd be the same. Once again, Reebok shows us how good they are at failing - and recycling.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Marc-André Gragnani Autograph Card

Timely posts: it's what I do.

Last night, the Buffalo Sabres made a step towards the playoffs by beating the Carolina Hurricanes 2-1 on an overtime goal by Marc-André Gragnani. The Montréal native was in the third game of his recent stint with the Sabres; he was also in the NHL for 3 games in late January, but spent the rest of the season with the Sabres' AHL affiliate Portland Pirates.

The Sabres' third round pick in 2005 (87th overall), he had played his junior hockey with the P.E.I. Rocket of the QJMHL. In his last two seasons there, the defenseman averaged more than a point per game. He holds the Pirates' records for assists and points by a defenseman in a single season.

This minuscule card is from Upper Deck's 2008-09 Champ's set (card #CS-MG), and is of the Mini Signatures sub-set. This series is pretty much Upper Deck's ''hockey answer'' to Topps' Allen & Ginter baseball set, cards that have an old-school feel, with generally absent countours and where the image looks like a painting or a drawing.

UD's Champ's brand is a nod to the Champ's Cigarette Company of Canada, which produced a hockey card set in 1924-25; those cards were smaller than the regular format, because they had to fit inside a pack of smokes. In homage, UD not only made this set a 200-card fare of its regular-sized cards but also a 480-card of mini cards; where they went nuts is that the set of mini cards features 192 base player cards, 95 short-run rookie cards, a bunch of cards featuring athletes from other sports in what is labeled the ''Hall Of Legends'' sub-set, as well as roughly 200 animal cards and 14 fossils.

And that wasn't a metaphor. Check the Jaguar out here. That's way too much 'National Geographic' for my taste. Might as well have stuck with the original product and included cards about cigarette brands, or even actual tobacco instead.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Raffi Torres: 3 Autographed Cards

This could be the season where we find out whether Raffi Torres is cursed by the Hockey Gods or if he will find - like Marian Hossa before him, last season - solace in hockey's Holy Grail by season's end.

Indeed, championships have eluded Torres so far, from a bronze medal at the World Juniors (2001) to a Calder Cup final in each of his two AHL seasons (but no wins), culminating in the heart-breaking 7-game loss his Edmonton Oilers suffered at the hands of the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006.

After relatively quiet stints with the Buffalo Sabres and Columbus Blue Jackets, he is back on a contender with this season's Vancouver Canucks, the odds-on favourite so far. On a personal level, he looks like he'll score at least 15 goals this season, the fifth time he will have reached that number. His best season was in 2005-06, when he collected 27 goals to go along with his 14 assists, good for 41 points in 82 games; he followed that in the afore-mentioned Cup run by going 4-7-11 in 22 playoff games.

I sent Mr. Torres these three cards and a fan letter, care of the Canucks, on December 3rd, 2010 and got them all back, signed in blue sharpie, on April 1st, 2011. He added his jersey number (14) at the end. All three show him in the Oilers' white ''home'' jerseys from the few years right before Reebok came in and ruined the Edmonton team's look.

The card in the middle is from Upper Deck's 2006-07 Victory set (card #82), and the one on the right is from the 2006-07 Upper Deck Series 1 collection (card #81). But the stand-out piece among those three is without question the card on the left, this one:
It's card #121 in Upper Deck's terrific 2006-07 Ovation set, which I also touched upon here in a post on Pascal Leclaire. The ink smudged a bit because of both the card's foil material but also because of the three-dimensional feel they gave it through its unusual texture. When I got these gorgeous cards, I never thought I'd get one autographed, let alone two (so far).

All that being said, I wish Mr. Torres the best of luck in... turning his luck around come June.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Carey Price Autographed Card

Here's a story for you: On January 29th, 2010, I sent Montréal Canadiens' star goalie Carey Price two cards (one in the Habs' white uniform, the other in red - both in penny sleeves, which I no longer do) and a mini-standee I got in a weird pack of cards and a letter explaining what I do with this blog, asking him to sign the cards and saying he could keep the standee, 'cause I thought it was cool, and maybe he'd like it too, since it's an unusual piece. On April 1st, 2011 (April's Fool's Day, more than a year later!), I get my pre-addressed envelope back... with this one card, signed in black sharpie - and both my sleeves.

Now, I won't complain nor bite the hand that freebies - players are by no means obligated to sign, reply or return anything, and those that do - I feel - do so as a sign of respect and appreciation for their fans.

And I'm not going to pretend I'm Price's #1 fan, either, as you can see from the first paragraph from this post on Jaroslav Halak. But he does have a legion of faithful followers, and pleasing even just a few of them once in a while has got to be time-consuming.

And that's the thing: I'm not sure if he kept the other card because he gets so many requests he has a ''one-per-person'' principle, or because he read my blog and noticed I wasn't sold on him yet, that I'm waiting for some playoff success first. Or maybe he doesn't trust that I wouldn't sell the cards. The point is: I don't know.

What I do know is I'm glad I didn't also send cards of him in the Hamilton Bulldogs' uniform, nor Team Canada (at the World Juniors) and the Tri-City Americans (his WHL days). I would have been pissed to lose those cards.

No Habs goalie has sparked so much passion - whether it's for or against him - in a long, long time. Not even José Théodore, who hung around with members of biker gangs and cheated on his recovering-from-giving-birth wife with Paris Hilton.

Price fans will remind you he was a first-round draft pick (5th overall), won World Junior gold (in a shootout, no less) and was named the AHL playoff MVP en route to a Calder Cup with the Bulldogs in his first pro season, which he started in April of that year, after his junior career ended when his WHL team lost in their playoffs.

His detractors will see his absence of a Memorial Cup as a lack of experience, and the fact that he was cut from Team Canada in his first World Juniors try-out - after being drafted in the first round by the Habs, meaning at least 3 other goalies his age were considered better than him. They'll also point out that when he did win gold, in his last year of eligibility in juniors, he did so as an adult, playing against some kids who were three or four years younger than him. They'll also likely say his Calder Cup happened with a team that was going to win it anyway, with or without him, as they had dominated the AHL all season, and he came in riding the high of his WJC gold and merely followed through.

All of that is true. Both sides are right. But none of that pertains to the NHL, the only place where he is expected to perform as an elite athlete and should be judged as such.

And in his rookie season (2007-08), he made the All-Rookie team. Whether the Habs should have kept their #1 goalie Cristobal Huet at the trade deadline has little to do with Price himself and a lot more to do with GM Bob Gainey's over-confidence in his young stud, but the Boss had judged that Price had played well enough to be given the reigns in his first year going into the playoffs. And, as usual, the Habs beat the Boston Bruins in the first round. So, the actual test would start in Round 2, where career backup Martin Biron looked like the second coming of Patrick Roy as his Philadelphia Flyers demolished the Canadiens en route to a 4-1 series win during which Price seemed to break down at every game, tears appearing in his eyes, a child against men.

2008-09 saw the All Star Game being presented in Montréal, with 4 Habs players making the team through fan voting, including Price. He aggravated an injury at the game - which the coaches and management felt he should have missed - and never quite got his groove back. When the playoffs came, round one was against the Bruins, which - as History will tell you - is a shoe-in. But the B's swept the Habs in 4 games, humiliatingly. And Price's play was so-so (0-4, a 4.11 GAA and .878 save %).

2009-10 was more of the same, as Price went 13-20-5, with a 2.77 GAA and a decent .912 save percentage while Halak took over the starting goalie role. When called upon in the playoffs, Price went 0-1 in 4 games, with a 3.56 GAA and .890 save %.

But for 2010-11, the Habs went all-in with Price, trading Halak and hiring Alex Auld as a backup. And they only let Auld start 11 games, leaving the bulk to Price, which may have proven to be too large a workload for him. As a matter of fact, he was pulled in 3 of his last 6 starts - in less than two weeks.

Now, I was a goalie myself, for more than half my lifetime; I also currently serve as a part-time goaltending coach for minor junior teams. I'd like to help out an actual goaltending coach in the AHL or NHL someday. From my experience, in this day and age, goalies should NEVER play back-to-back games, except if between the two the other goalie got injured and a minor-league call-up couldn't make it on time. And, under any circumstance should a goalie play in back-to-back games in different cities. Price has done that many times this season; it doesn't give him the advantage; it doesn't even give him a chance.

It's as if the Habs' brass weren't aware that no goalie in the NHL has advanced to the third round of the playoffs while playing more than 60 games in the same regular season since the lock-out. Not even Roberto Luongo, nor Miikka Kiprusoff, nor Evgeni Nabokov, nor Marc-André Fleury, nor Martin Brodeur. Speaking of Brodeur, he hasn't even made it past the second round since his last Stanley Cup... in 2003. That's eight years ago, folks.

But back to Price.

Because he was overworked, the Vezina and Hart talk died out in the past 10 days, but more importantly, it's unfair to pit his recent struggles on anything else than fatigue. Which means we're stuck with yet another season in which it's unclear whether he has what it takes to thrive full-time at the NHL level.

Plus, in my opinion, his one true test remains how well he'll fare in the playoffs. A week or so from now. I sincerely hope he pulls himself back together in time, because it looks like we'll be facing those damned Boston Bruins again, and that's supposed to be a ''gimme'', what with the ghosts of our pasts that scare the living shit out of them year in and year out.

And in case you're wondering about the card, it's from Upper Deck's 2008-09 Victory set (card #89); the one he kept was from the 2009-10 Victory set.