Thursday December 6th, 2007

The angry mobs gathered up the pitchforks, oiled the torches and stormed the castle in the wake of last week's first-quarter awards column. Seems that nothing whips up the masses like overlooking their favored sons, even if it is only an early-season review.

Judging by the accents (and the nature of their grievances), most of the rabble hailed from Philly:

I'm disappointed you didn't mention Mike Richards in your Hart Trophy list. Mike is in the top 25 in all offensive categories, top-10 in four of them and is second only to Ilya Kovalchuk in shooting percentage. He plays the point on power plays, is second in shorthanded goals and has already had a career year in the first quarter. He has points in 19 of Philly's 24 games and has helped lift the team from the cellar to first. -- Keith Fisher, North Wales, PA

If there were a breakthrough player award, Richards would definitely be the leader in the clubhouse. At 22, he's providing leadership and two-way play that goes beyond his years. But as impressive as that may be, he's not bringing as much game as Vincent Lecavalier or Daniel Alfredsson. If you watch those guys on a regular basis, they're on an entirely different level.

I also received a number of e-mails wondering why I left Richards out of the Selke discussion. It's a fair point, because he's earned a spot at that table with his smarts and his work ethic. He's one of those rare skaters who can be used in any situation not out of necessity, but because he's proven himself to be a reliable option. My bad for overlooking him.

Where's the love for John Stevens? All he's done is take a team that finished in the basement last season and turned them into a true contender for the Cup. Take a look at the standings once in awhile before picking the best coach. -- Rachel Morneau, Philadelphia, PA

Honestly, there's no tougher field to narrow down than the list of coaches doing some solid work, so additional kudos to Barry Trotz, Claude Julien and Denis Savard.

That said, I'm not all that sold on the argument that Stevens has played the pivotal role in the turnaround. (Take a bow, Paul Holmgren.)

Not saying Stevens hasn't contributed, but he's been the beneficiary of a major talent infusion, primarily in net and on the blueline. Just as Stevens wasn't as bad as he looked last year when beach balls were floating merrily past Robert Esche and Antero Niittymaki, he's not quite as good as this year's mark with Martin Biron in nets might suggest.

And you can count me among those who place most of the blame at his feet for his team's scofflaw antics this season. His teams played that same style in the AHL, so clearly he believes that recklessness is more effective than simple intimidation. If this wasn't part of his overall game plan, the Flyers wouldn't be tied with the rest of the league combined in terms of supplementary discipline.

Sorry, but I'm not a fan of what he's done in Philly. He deserves a suspension for his approach far more than praise.

What is up with you and Tim Thomas? Two years ago, you supported him for the US Olympic team. Now you're saying he's Vezina-worthy. Does he have pictures of you or something? How on earth can you be so blind to what a total spare he is? -- Jeremy, Rochester, NY

He might be a bit of a late bloomer, and he might have the name recognition of Jeff Plewman, but calling Thomas a spare is ridiculous.

I like Thomas now for the same reason I did then: I don't think there's any goalie in the league who battles harder and more consistently than the Boston stopper. And while he's benefited from the improved team play in front of him, no one's mistaking these Bruins for the 1972-73 Canadiens, making his league-leading .938 save percentage all the more impressive. Hey, put him behind a more defensive-minded squad, the Wild, for example, and he'd probably be batting .950. He's been that good.

Thomas won't win any style points, but his play is the biggest reason for Boston's success this season (apologies to coach Claude Julien). He deserves the love.

I'm not particularly worried about Team Canada missing out Toews, Gagner, Staal, etc. I have a feeling that we have the most talented offense in years. Between Steven Stamkos, John Tavares, Brett MacLean, Brandon Sutter and Angelo Esposito, Canada will be fine. USA's strongest position is defence, but with Canada's high-powered offence and Bernier and Mason between the pipes, I just don't see the gap being that close. -- Jeffrey Truax, Toronto

Allan, have you gone mad? I don't see anyone beating Canada after the way they clobbered the Russians in the summer. The Americans may have some really good players, but they don't have jaw- dropping talent like Canada -- Brad Worthington, Toronto

Hold on there, boys. I don't recall dropping even the slightest suggestion that this American squad was strong enough to beat Team Canada at the World Juniors. That's not to say they couldn't-anything can happen when these rivals meet in a one-off -- but I wouldn't bet on it. Even without the six NHLers, Canada has more depth than any other country, and they have a sizable advantage between the pipes in Jonathan Bernier.

That said, it doesn't detract from the point of the story, which is that the Americans are, in fact, developing some jaw-dropping talent of their own. The things Patrick Kane can do at 18 suggest he'll become an elite game-breaker in short order, and Erik Johnson has the look of a young Chris Pronger. And even absent the services of this duo, along with Peter Mueller, the Americans can still ice a team that should compete for a medal in the Czech Republic. National pride aside, you have to recognize what that means for the future of the sport.

And don't put too much into that summer Super Series against the Russians. They're in a bit of a development trough right now. I'd venture that an eight-game series against the Americans would have been a far more competitive and entertaining affair.

When are the Habs going to dump Michael Ryder? He sucks! -- Gil Berron, Nova Scotia

Not sure I'd say he sucks, but he may be the most snakebit player in the league right now. Here's a guy who's led the team with back-to-back seasons of 30 goals, and with the number of shots he's getting (75 and counting), he should be lighting the lamp with a bit more frequency. Your frustration is justified, but honestly, you have to think it's just a matter of time before he finds a groove.

It's also worth remembering that no team ever gets better by selling low, and Ryder's value at the moment doesn't suggest he'll return someone who would make an immediate impact for the Habs. If they plan to move him -- a strong likelihood given he's unrestricted after this season -- they're better served by waiting until he gets his game in order.

After having the NHL Center Ice Package for a few years, I've developed a list of favorite announcers around the league. Have you ever thought about ranking the best and worst (best being Vancouver, Calgary and Buffalo, worst being Minnesota, Dallas and Washington)? -- Chris Lund, Seattle

It's been a couple years, but I've done a list like this in the past. Maybe it's time to get some feedback from the readers, and see who floats your boat, and who you think comes off like fingernails on the chalkboard. Send in your thoughts, and maybe we can work something up.

For the record, I'm with you, at least partially. Still think Jim Hughson (Vancouver) is the best in the business. He has that warm, well-modulated voice, and he's as well-prepared as anyone in the business. And while I fully understand why he'd end up on a lot of worst lists, give me Bob Cole of Hockey Night In Canada. He may miss a name or drop the occasional malapropism, but no one else can make a mid-February contest sound like the seventh game of the Finals. I also give high marks to Doc Emrick of the Devils and Joe Bowen in Toronto, and I've come around on Buffalo's Rick Jeanerret. Now that I've finally got that "May Day" call out of my head, his quirky delivery sits pretty well with me.

So, let's hear who you like.

This new schedule does nothing to address the real problem. The biggest reason the unbalanced schedule didn't work the way the owners wanted was because division rivals didn't necessarily have to go through each other to advance like they did in the 1980s. This is the only reason I would support expansion to 32 teams. It would balance the conferences and set up a better playoff system. -- M.Hardiman, Walpole, MA

I'm right there with you. Rivalries are built in the heated battles of spring, not through overexposure in December and March. Amazing how something so obvious could escape the grasp of the Board of Governors.

I was talking about rivalries with an assistant coach a few weeks back, and I asked him about a team that was widely perceived as his club's most hated opponent. He corrected me pretty quickly. "Honestly, I don't think we have a real rivalry with anyone right now. There's not one team we want to beat any more than any other."

Kind of sad, isn't it? But the way things are set up, that's pretty much the extent of it. Two points are two points.

Although I'm not crazy about expansion, it is inevitable. There's too much money involved for it not to happen. And if the end result of adding the Las Vegas Gamblers and the Houston Oilers (hey, two teams with the same name works in the CFL) is that we get back to a meaningful divisional setup that teams have to battle through in order to advance, then bring it on.

I challenge you to a game of NHL '08 on PS3 online. If I win, you write a congrats to me. If you win, I will have my brother, a producer of the Mike and Mike Show, get them to interview you. -- Adam, Woodbury, NY

Brother, I'm from the pre-Pong generation. Beating me at a video game would be like whipping up on your grandmother at the 100-meter dash-heck, considering the state of my battle-scarred knees, I might lose that challenge, too.

Now, if I could get my seven-year-old son to stand in for me, then it might be interesting. He'd probably be a more compelling get for your brother, too. That kid has some hot sports opinions ...

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