San Jose Sharks
@ Detroit Red Wings
Wednesday, May 4, 2011, 5:00 PM PDT
Joe Louis Arena
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Disclaimer: Unlike Mike Babcock, I am not a racist. I don't believe that European players are all "soft" or that North American players are inherently better at hockey. This story is just an attempt to attach some definite numbers to the vague perception that I (and probably other people, but who cares about other people?) have about this series that the Sharks are a very North American team facing off against the Red Wings' more international squad. There will be no satisfactory conclusions drawn anywhere in this story but there will be a pretty sweet chart.
The Sharks are up 2-0 in the series heading into Detroit. Both games have ended 2-1, but the final score hasn't really told the whole story of either game. If not for Jimmy Howard deciding to begin playing out of his damn mind, the first two games would have gone to the Sharks by a much wider margin. None of this is especially shocking to Sharks fans, but some people (Pierre McGuire!!!) who don't follow the Sharks closely are wondering how the heck this could be happening.
After last year's 4-1 playoff series victory the Sharks took 3 of the 4 matches between the two teams during this regular season. Adding these first two playoff victories means San Jose has now won 9 of the last 11 games against Detroit. Since the beginning of the playoff series last year up until now, the Sharks seem to be able to dominate the Red Wings. So what gives?
Here's a possible explanation: the Red Wings are just too damn European for their own good.
Obviously there are plenty of players on these two teams that will serve to disprove any of the ignorant stereotypes about North American or "World" players. Douglas Murray is the toughest dude on the Sharks and Niklas Kronwall is a physical presence too (so I'm told - you wouldn't know it from this series so far). Even so, it's not crazy to assume that there are probably differences in general play style that would come from being trained in North America vs. Europe.
So exactly how Europe-y are the Red Wings, compared to the rest of the NHL?
I couldn't find a good visual representation of this information, so I made my own. I used the nationality information from Wikipedia's list of NHL rosters, counted the number of listed players from North America compared to elsewhere, and then subtracted goaltenders from the count because they don't really matter when talking about different styles of team play. This whole process is crude to be sure, but if it's not good enough for you then I recommend you go make your own damn graph.
How about that, huh? What a beauty.
As suspected, the Red Wings are one of the most Europe-y teams around, while the Sharks are very close to having zero skaters from overseas (but love Euro-goalies, for some reason). Nearly all of the Red Wings' biggest stars are European while, aside from the stalwart Douglas Murray and playoff-secret-weapon but sometimes-healthy-scratch Niclas Wallin, all of the Sharks' skaters hail from the U.S. or Canada*.
So what conclusions can we draw from this information? I don't know. Why is it my job to tell you what to think? I made the awesome graph, what more do you want?
Alright, alright, here's your precious analysis: the ongoing series between the Sharks and the Red Wings is the closest hockey fans can currently get to "North America vs. The World" style competition. Sure the Senators are technically more Europe-y, but they're also terrible so they're not a good representation of what European players can really do. The Sharks and the Red Wings have been two of the best teams in the league over the past few seasons, and both squads are packed with All-Stars and Olympians. If you really liked the old All-Star format where players were separated based on their nationality, but always wished that there was actually hitting and defense in the games and that the players actually cared who won, then this series is perfect for you.
That's not to say that either of these teams really play a pure "European" or "North American" brand of hockey. Neither of those styles would work in today's NHL. Quality teams need to combine puck possession, strong fore-checking, talented shooters and passers, and a willingness to hit and fight your way to loose pucks. Both the Red Wings and the Sharks do all of these things very well but, over the past eleven games between these squads, the Sharks have been doing everything better.
In conclusion, if you think the Red Wings are losing this series because they're too European you're probably crazy or a racist.
* = But mostly Canada. Actually, aside from Joe Pavelski and the previously mentioned Murray and Wallin, every single other regular roster player for the Sharks is Canadian.