Dustin Byfuglien made life difficult for Willie Mitchell and the rest of the Canucks in the Vancouver-Chicago series last season. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
That was some year we had. The 2009 playoffs were amazing, capped off by a classic final between Pittsburgh and Detroit, while the draft landed the Islanders a new franchise hope in John Tavares. More recently, everyone has caught Olympic fever and now owes the International Olympic Committee and VANOC royalties, since Olympic germs are a patented bio-form.
But we all know that.
So for the final Straight Edge column of 2009, here's a quick rundown of my favorite stories from the past year.
Brendan Witt gets hit by a truck: Not that I wish Witt any ill will; quite the opposite, in fact. But when the stalwart Islanders defenseman held a gold Yukon SUV to a draw (must have been a soccer fan driving) on the streets of Philadelphia in December, he reinforced several positive stereotypes about hockey players: tough as nails and humble as pie.
Witt's superhero-like proclamation after dusting himself off (“It's OK, I'm a hockey player.”) couldn't have been scripted any better and having spoken to him several times, he is just a good, funny dude. I can only imagine the ribbing he took at the Isles' Christmas party.
Tim Gleason's broken-face shorty: Call this the runner-up. After taking an Alex Ovechkin shot to the face at close range in December, the Carolina Hurricanes defenseman popped right back up, skated off the ice for some medical attention, then returned to the game with a protective face shield.
And with his team killing a penalty and trailing late in the third period, Gleason picked off a Mike Green pass and went all the way down the ice, drilling a slapshot past Jose Theodore to knot the game. That sound you hear is Don Cherry getting just a little choked up somewhere.
Chicago vs. Vancouver: Here's a great new rivalry that started in early 2009 and has continued on this season. You had the March line brawl featuring Alex Burrows pulling Duncan Keith's hair, Ben Eager body-slamming Kevin Bieksa and the beginning of the Roberto Luongo-Dustin Byfuglien feud, followed by Chicago knocking the Canucks out of the playoffs a short time later.
More recently, Willie Mitchell kicked off the 2009-10 campaign by sending Jonathan Toews halfway to Valhalla with a huge open-ice hit. If the Canucks can get their season together, I can see another post-season tilt on the horizon and it would be a beauty.
Windsor Recruiting: For all you major junior fans out there, you have to hand it to the Spitfires braintrust of GM Warren Rychel and coach Bob Boughner. Sure, winning the Memorial Cup in 2009 was impressive, but adding some of the best prospects in the world to an already gifted roster means the Spits are in good shape for this year's defense and even the year after.
Richard Panik, Cam Fowler and Kenny Ryan all signed on for this season while top goaltending prospect Jack Campbell will be between the pipes next year. Fierce.
Looking Ahead: Two storylines I'm intrigued by for 2010 are the rise of the United States League and the development paths of Russian prospects.
The USHL is churning out more top-level prospects than ever and the addition of the U.S. National Team Development Program bolstered the circuit's clout (even if the team has struggled). As a top-notch league that allows elite players to maintain college eligibility, I see the USHL's stable growing as the years go on. At the least it becomes a great bargaining chip for prospects making the choice between major junior and the NCAA.
As for the young Russians, I think NHL teams are going to warm up to those prospects again after a couple years of worry thanks to transfer agreement politics. That is, of course, based on how Columbus and Phoenix make out with Nikita Filatov and Viktor Tikhonov. Both players are “on loan” to the Kontinental League right now and both are scoring much more than they did in the NHL.
But with ice time so limited for teenagers over there, I still believe the examples set by Kirill Kabanov, Alexander Burmistrov and Ivan Telegin this year (all playing major junior) will be followed by other elite Russian youth: get North American minutes, get drafted, then see what the best career path is while you develop. If that means going back home, where your minutes miraculously spike, then all the better.
Again, this all hinges on Filatov and Tikhonov coming back next year, but happy players and happy teams seems like a good situation, doesn't it?
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appears Monday and Wednesday, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
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