Belleville 2, Laval 1

Filip Gustavsson was a surprise starter as the Sens are recycling the Andrew Hammond drama with Mike Condon (something I saw as inevitable when they signed him to that silly three-year contract). The Swede stood on his head as the BSens continue to be woeful defensively and the top line continues to miss Chlapik.

Belleville 2, Laval 1
Shots: 19-35
PP: 0-2
PK: 4-4
Goaltender: Filip Gustavsson (34-35)
Batherson (Bergman, Balcers)
Balisy (Carey, Murray)

The Rocket arrived with just a 3-5-1 record and riding a four game winless streak. Usual starter Charlie Lindgren was between the pipes.

Only one change was made, as Boston Leier was demoted to the fourth line and Gagne was moved up. It’s the right decision as the former has been the least impressive forward among those dressed for the game (while Scarfo has been irrelevant, he hasn’t made any defensive goofs lately).

Special Teams
The units were unchanged and the PP failed to score on its two opportunities (despite some chances). I’m still not a fan of Murray playing with the first unit.

The PK enjoyed its second straight game without giving up a goal (the only two on the season), but at least some of that is attributable to Gustavsson‘s fantastic play.

Other Notes
Murray‘s turnovers are heavily slanted towards first periods for whatever reason; he’s not incapable of making defensive plays (he made a great sliding block on a 2-on-1 in the first), they are simply few and far between
-Both od Belleville goals via beautiful one-timers in high percentage areas (one pass from the under utilized Bergman the other from Carey)
Englund continues to be Englund
-Late in the third Nick Paul was pulled off the top-line (replaced with LaBate); my guess is that was purely for defensive reasons, but it will be interesting to keep an eye on it

My monthly review of the season will be coming out tomorrow. Should be fun as there’s lot’s to explore.

This article is written by Peter Levi (@eyeonthesens)

Belleville 1, Grand Rapids 3

The second game against Grand Rapids wasn’t as entertaining as the first, although Gustavsson was excellent between the pipes. In the absence of Filip Chlapik the BSens are generating fewer shots (averaging 24 the last three games) and that’s impacting their offense, having scored just one goal in two of those three games.

Belleville 1, Grand Rapids 3
Shots: 22-31
PP: 1-4
PK: 5-5
Goaltender: Filip Gustavsson (28-31)
Tambellini (Gagne, Carey) (pp)

Given that they’d played the night before there were only two changes made by the Griffins: rookie backup Patrik Rybar started (his previous start was a disastrous loss to Chicago) and former BSen Carter Camper played instead of Dylan McIlrath.

With Jack Rodewald getting called up to Ottawa Boston Leier slid into his spot on the third line, otherwise there were no changes. However, for the first time this season Troy Mann did some line/pairing juggling, all in the third period. He moved Sexton up to the first line and slid Batherson down to the second; he also put Bergman on the second pairing with Percy while pushing Sieloff down to the third.

Special Teams
The powerplay provided another goal, this time from the second unit. For the final two powerplays the second unit actually became the first.

For the first time this season the team did not give up a powerplay goal. The rotation was identical to the previous game, so until its repeated we can’t really draw conclusions other than to celebrate the fact.

Other Notes
-It was an ugly game for Jordan Murray, who had five turnovers (most unforced) in the first period (the last of which lead to the Griffins first goal)
-Patrick Sieloff was run from behind in the first (he remained in the game)
-Stuart Percy saved a goal in the second
-Gustavsson stopped a penalty shot in the second
-Mann cut into the first lines TOI, with less Batherson and Balcers than has been typical (the Carey line was the primary beneficiary)

This article is written by Peter Levi (@eyeonthesens)

Belleville 5, Grand Rapids 3

It was another entertaining game last night as the BSens continue to outscore opponents to win. One of the concerns I had for the team coming into the season was their soft defense (especially given call-ups), but scoring at this pace means they can overcome that weakness.

Belleville 5, Grand Rapids 3
Shots: 27-34
PP: 1-3
PK: 4-5
Goaltender: Mike McKenna (31-34)
Paul (Rodewald, Batherson) (pp)
Tambellini (Beauchemin, Percy)
Percy (Tambellini, Rodewald)
Sieloff (Balisy, Sexton) (sh)
Balisy (Sexton, Sieloff)

The Griffins arrived with a 2-4-0 record, but were coming off a win over Chicago. Regular starter Harri Sateri was in net (as he has been for all but one game), and he’s struggled all season, with just one game at a .900 save percentage. The team features former BSen (and first-round pick) Matt Puempel as well as failed first-rounder Dylan McIlrath.

The second line was fixed (Balisy moved up, LaBate moved to the fourth line, and Beauchemin moved up to the third), we also saw Leier scratched for the little used Scarfo.

The downgrade between Chlapik to Paul remains apparent, because while the first line had chances they didn’t dominate possession the same way they normally do. The aforementioned changes, however, really helped the second and third lines and that shows up on the score sheet.

With Wolanin called up to Ottawa Murray was moved up to the first-pairing (!) and Sieloff came off the bottom rotation to play on the second.

I mentioned on Twitter prior to the game that I thought the top-pairing was going to struggle defensively and, indeed, they were on-ice for two of the three goals against (and largely responsible for both of them). I’m more than a little lost on the obvious solution with this kind of lineup: move Percy up to the top unit, shift Bergman to the second, and rotate Englund and Murray as a bottom or mixed pair.

Special Teams
After not scoring on the PP in the previous game the unit produced again. Sexton remains off the powerplay and I see no reason for him not to be on the second unit (at least). In terms of changes, the absence of Wolanin saw Percy move up to the top unit while Carey was added to the second.

The PK continues its horrendous streak of giving up a powerplay goal every single game. These are the current forward rotations:

Sexton was a very good penalty killer last season, so his addition makes a lot of sense, but Carey‘s inclusion seems to follow what Mann was doing with Chlapik and Balcers earlier in the season (more ice time for top players). This change seems to have hurt Rodewald the most, as he used to be part of the top duo.

On defense the norm remains Sieloff-Burgdoerfer, but the latter took a lot of penalties and was replaced by Percy. Oddly, the second pairing now seems to be Englund-Bergman (rather than having Percy play when there isn’t a penalty to one of the top two). Englund is an atrocious penalty killer (link above), so removing him would help the PK quite a bit (he was, indeed, on-ice for the goal against).

Other Notes
-Harri Sateri gave up a couple of genuinely bad goals (Sieloff‘s comes to mind)
Balisy was stopped on a penalty shot
Murray was guilty of a horrible turnover late in the first, but was fortunate not to pay for it
Rodewald badly flubbed a 2-on-1 in the second (no shot and couldn’t complete the pass); I’ve mentioned repeatedly that he’s not a playmaker and in scenarios like that he should simply shoot the puck
-I’ve been impressed with Beauchemin, who is gradually outplaying the other extraneous forwards (already ahead of CiampiniScarfo, and Leier)
-For general interest I posted an article yesterday looking at the struggles of sport in the current day and what might be behind that

This article is written by Peter Levi (@eyeonthesens)

Hockey’s Declining Popularity

Image result for decline

It has been a couple of years since I looked at the ailing popularity of traditional sports (with apologies to soccer) and compared it to the rise of esports (for those unfamiliar with the term, it means competitive video games). The exchange between the two mediums isn’t one-for-one, but I do think the latter is eating up potential fans of the former at an ever accelerating pace. This isn’t intended as a deep dive on the subject, but it is an update and refresher of what I think the issues are.

First let’s establish our parameters: for hockey I’m specifically looking at the American audience (the more casual fanbase and the one with the most growth potential). Overall TV viewership is down (this presents combined TV and stream numbers). As the article notes, these numbers are the lowest since 2010-11 and a 17% drop from just two years ago. Even within the comfy confines of the Stanley Cup views are not safe. The 2010 Cup had the highest ratings in eight years (coming on the heels of game seven in 2009 having the highest ratings since 1973), but the key point is the lower ratings previously. Those twin peak events, boosted by the 2010 Winter Olympics, were the cornerstones of the 10-year contract the league signed with NBC (you can read the other factors here). This brief moment of positive growth came rapidly back to earth in the 2012 final which barely edged out the 2007 final as the lowest of all time.

Talking about numbers is less effective than seeing them, so for the sake of visualizing I put together the NBCSN numbers and NBC national broadcast network numbers into a couple of graphs (finding the former was easier than the latter, sources for which are here and here). The point is the general trend:

This gradual downward trend, as I pointed out two years ago, is not unique to hockey as traditional sports in North America are all amidst the same trend (with the NFL as an exception of sorts, although it too is aging while benefiting from the buffer of gambling interests–it can’t get too comfortable). This trend is not something that has gone unnoticed, but generally the theories proposed (for example) focus on inter-league competition rather than a changing medium or something outside the avenue of sport (the inherent idea seems to be only traditional sport can compete with itself, ie, only competitiveness within the bottle of what’s typically defined as sport can work against itself). My theory remains that many younger viewers are gravitating to esports and I want to go through why that is.esports viewership through June 2018.1

When I looked at the esports numbers previously, Fortune (in 2015) estimated the number of fans at around 226 million (a number surely already higher than overall interest in hockey at the time). The graph above shows just viewership achieving that number this year, indicating the number of fans continues to increase exponentially. The rate of growth is staggering as can be seen through the growth of Twitch (the streaming service primarily devoted to gameplay) since 2012:

Twitch Growth

Back in 2011 the then most popular esport (Starcraft 2) and Twitch joined forces and popular esports pressed on. Specific to hockey one might argue that it’s current decline is simply a dip in what is a relatively stable overall number, but that doesn’t address the aging fanbase and what that means going forward.

One of hockey’s primary problems is the cost of entry (equipment, rink time, etc), making it far less available to a general audience. There are secondary issues as well with the violence of the sport (such things as Don Sanderson’s death in 2008 or the general awareness of the impact of concussions)–something kids playing soccer or basketball don’t typically have to worry about (they are also the two least expensive sports and the ones whose fanbase is aging the least). The other issues are akin to what all traditional sports suffer from:
1) the games are long (2.5 hours is what I expect, punctuated by long intermissions–how anyone watches a baseball game is beyond me)
2) the content has limitations (off-seasons with no on-ice content whatsoever)
3) repetitive (there’s a limited variety in what you’ll see on the field of play–to a casual fan the game is basically unchanged since 2005)

Conversely, there’s almost no barrier to entry for video games–not only are they relatively cheap and accessible, but there’s almost no limitation for playing them (gender, age, physical fitness, and some disabilities become completely irrelevant). The games themselves are short, such that almost any schedule can accommodate putting time into playing or watching. In addition there is content–so much content. Even though all esports have an annual championship (just like traditional sports), they are peppered with other major tournaments along the way and in addition there are innumerable smaller competitions–whatever game you enjoy it’s a virtually guarantee to have something competitive to watch every week. In addition to this is a mountain of general content (streaming) that’s available 24/7. The players themselves are much more accessible–if you’re a fan of uber Fortnite player Ninja you can go watch his stream and potentially interact with him. A streamer might invite fans to play with them and a fan who is good enough might simply compete against them on the ladder–these are things that are impossible with a pro athlete outside very rare arranged activities.

Hockey (and sport in general) are also very resistant to change, whereas esports have to adapt and change all the time. I used to blog about StarCraft (something that had five to ten times the readership of what I do for hockey, despite a much smaller fanbase), and each year the game was quite different–even within a year patches would alter the meta. This kind of variety is impossible for normal sport to compete with–they simply can’t adapt this quickly–not only is it more complicated to change the game (given the resonance down to development leagues along with getting the owners and the union to agree), but fans themselves can be very resistant. If Valve wants to change CS:GO there’s no impediment for them to do so save potential backlash from the community–if there is backlash the change can be reverted almost immediately. There’s really no parallel to this in sport, as hockey’s major changes occur extremely rarely and are usually separated by decades.

While I think the product of hockey is in better shape than it was in 2003, the league itself continues to fail to make any serious gains in popularity. My feeling has long been that that the lack of offence is the primary problem for the NHL. You only have to look at its main competitor, the NBA (whose season overlaps it), to see how focusing on offense helps create excitement. Casual fans come to see goals and they want to see records challenged–that’s been impossible in the league for the last 25 years (look at the top-50 best seasons of all time, only the 05-06 and 06-07 seasons had anyone come close to the bottom of that list).

Do I think the NHL will make major changes? No. They won’t go down that road until there’s a dramatic collapse in views (think of how long the issue with goaltender equipment has lingered), but I do think it’s the only way the sport can go if it truly wants to anchor itself into the future. While I don’t think hockey is in the same death-spiral of the baseball audience, that will be their fate in a generation if things don’t change.

This article is written by Peter Levi (@eyeonthesens)

Belleville 1, Binghamton 3

I had to miss the live broadcast of this one and watch it on replay (the away feed is bugged so I was forced to endure the error-filled Belleville cast). Filip Chlapik‘s absence was notable–zone entries weren’t as smooth and puck distribution wasn’t as crisp (particularly on the PP). At any rate, further observations below!

Belleville 1, Binghamton 3
Shots: 23-19
PP: 0-2
PK: 0-1
Goaltender: Mike McKenna (16-19)
Batherson (Balcers, Paul)

Binghamton entered the game having lost back-to-back games 4-0 shutouts to Syracuse and Cleveland. NHLer Cory Schneider was in net for the team on a conditioning stint, coming off the aforementioned loss to Cleveland. The two teams had already played once this season, with the BSens winning 5-2 in a special teams-filled affair where they were out shot 40-25.

With Chlapik still injured and both Paul Carey and Ben Sexton back in the lineup, changes were made. Nick Paul moved into Chlapik‘s spot, while the latter two were put between LaBate (an odd choice) with the the second line kept together (now the third) and Leier and Beauchemin joining Gagne on the fourth. To be clear:

The third line, after a solid game against Rochester, came crashing down to earth and were largely invisible. The new second line was quite good, but LaBate is a poor fit for his wingers and it caused some issues. Paul isn’t quite Chlapik and that was particularly noticeable on the PP (overhandling the puck is his major problem).

The defense didn’t change other than Sieloff coming out (I’m assuming injury, but didn’t see anything official either way), meaning that both Bergman and Englund played more (the pair wound up being on-ice for two of the goals against). Murray, who generally makes at least one catastrophic defensive play per game, was responsible for the first goal against with a horrendous turnover.

Special Teams
The refs didn’t call much, but at least on the powerplay nothing changed–neither Carey nor Sexton, despite their track record, were added with the extra man. The BSens pp goal-scoring streak ends at four games.

The team was only shorthanded once with Troy Mann pulling something out of Kurt Kleinendorst’s playbook by having Paul and Rodewald as a PK-duo. This was a disaster last year and they were promptly scored on. The other change of note was Mann removing Beauchemin from the rotation and replacing him with Carey to play the left side with Balisy.

Other Notes
There’s not much to add that isn’t mentioned above, but I will say it was a strong debut for Carey who had the most scoring chances on the team. Despite ending the game with a middling save percentage, I thought McKenna played well and the score could have been much worse.

This article is written by Peter Levi (@eyeonthesens)

Belleville’s Weekend Games

It was a wacky weekend for me so I had to watch both games after the fact. There were similarities between the two games (sloppy but entertaining), but the BSens were better in their win (the close score was more a matter of Mike McKenna having an off day). We saw players progress to the mean as the punchless depth came to life to shift their numbers towards the norm. With that said, the top line continues to be the engine that drives things.

Belleville 3, Hartford 4
Shots: 28-43
PP: 1-5
PK: 5-6
Goaltender: Filip Gustavsson (39-43)
Rodewald (Batherson, Chlapik) (pp)
Beauchemin (Tambellini)
Burgdoerfer (Murray, Rodewald)

Belleville 5, Rochester 4 (OT)
Shots: 30-36
PP: 2-6
PK: 2-3
Goaltender: Mike McKenna (32-36)
Gagne (Balcers, Sieloff)
Rodewald (Burgdoerfer, Balisy)
Balisy (Gagne, Murray) (pp)
Tambellini (Percy, Gagne) (pp)
Balisy (Wolanin)

Hartford arrived with a mediocre record (3-2-1) and played their backup Alexander Georgiev (a 2017 FA). The team featured former BSens’ Cole Schneider and Bobby Butler (both of whom scored).

Rochester rolled in with an impressive 5-2-0 record and they also played their backup (the middling Adam Wilcox). Former BSen ‘good in the corners, garbage on the ice’ Tyler Randell played and was a non-factor.

In the loss the only change was the removal of Paul (NHL) and return of Chlapik (who is still battling injury). In the Rochester game liability Andreas Englund sat and the little-used Ryan Scarfo was dressed, but there was one other change of note: Gabriel Gagne was taken off the second line and Jack Rodewald promoted to it (this seemed to help the former considerably).

Special Teams
No changes were made and the second unit provided some offense by scoring both man-advantage goals against Rochester. The team is now 8-31 (25.8%), which is excellent. I’d still like to see Julius Bergman on the PP, but given these results it’s unlikely barring injury.

The PK continues to struggle as the BSens streak of allowing a pp-goal every game remains intact. Mann continues to make adjustments–while the Sieloff-Burgdoerfer duo continue to begin and end the PK D-rotation (as noted previously)–top forwards have been removed from the equation (ie, no more Chlapik or Balcers). The forward rotation is also much tighter, with LaBate-Rodewald remaining the primary duo, but Balisy plus another forward are now the only replacement. When we’re through October I’ll go through the various numbers specific to the deployments.

Other Notes
-The team has scored 19 goals in 4 games–not a sustainable rate, but impressive nonetheless
-It’s a joy to watch the top-line play and I encourage anyone who can to spend some time doing so before inevitably its broken up due to call-ups (two really cerebral players in Chlapik and Batherson complimented by a guy with great hands in Balcers)
-It’s beating a dead horse, but I’ll note again that Englund can’t complete a pass
-It’s been a nice start for Rodewald (echoing last season), but I want to emphasize his lack of hockey sense and his poor puck distribution (this was on display in the Hartford game where in the second period, on a 4-on-2, he passed to no one leading to an odd-man rush the other way)
-I’m not a fan of Jordan Murray, but the numbers are currently there despite his foibles, so as long as he produces I’ll do my best to shut-up about him
Scarfo‘s limited TOI against Rochester was not pretty and I’m sure at the first opportunity he’ll be replaced with a better player and be returned to Brampton

This article is written by Peter Levi (@eyeonthesens)

Belleville 5, Binghamton 2

Wednesday night’s home opener was a fun one for the BSens, particularly in the early going before the game was completely out of hand. Just like the previous game against Manitoba the talented top line dominated and  scored three of the five goals before largely being sat out for much of the second half. Prior to the game we solved the mystery of the Aaron Luchuk scratches in Brampton, as the FA signee is apparently suffering from a concussion.

Belleville 5, Binghamton 2
Shots: 25-40
PP: 2-5
PK: 7-8
Goaltender: Mike McKenna (38-40)
Beauchemin (Batherson, Sieloff)
Wolanin (Paul, Balcers)
Balcers (Batherson, Paul) (pp)
Paul (Batherson, Balcers) (pp)
Rodewald (LaBate, Murray) (sh)

Binghamton arrived with a 3-1-0 record–wins over Toronto, Hartford, and Laval (their only loss was against Laval). Goaltender Cam Johnson was in net for three of those games and despite two wins did not have great numbers.

There was only one change to the lines, with Filip Chlapik out (injury) and Nick Paul in (returned from Ottawa). Christian Jaros had also been sent down, but was held out with the flu.

Special Teams
Other than the aforementioned switch nothing was different on the powerplay. The team is now 5-21 (23.8%), with four of those goals coming from the first unit.

The PK continues to give up goals, allowing one in each game this season. The personnel didn’t change much between games other than Chlapik‘s absence, Paul‘s addition, and the removal of Balcers from the rotation.
Much like Kurt Kleinendorst’s team last season, Troy Mann is leaning heavily on the Sieloff-Burgdoerfer pairing on the blueline for the tough minutes, with an ever-changing rotation otherwise (Wolanin is the only blueliner who is largely removed from the equation). At forward Rodewald and LaBate generally start the kill with the former getting the largest share of TOI.

Other Notes
-It was another great game from Drake Batherson, who didn’t play much in the second half once the game was essentially over–he has seven points in the last two games (eight on the year)–exactly the start you want to see from a top prospect in the minors
-It’s important to note how top-heavy the scoring is from the BSens: of the 13 goals scored this season 9 are from the top line (5-on-5 and PP), with only 2 from the other three (the remaining two goals are from the second unit PP and shorthanded). Long term I don’t think that’s sustainable and the team needs more production from the rest of the lineup (injuries and callups, clearly, are a factor)
-It’s a strange development that Rodewald has become an excellent faceoff guy–having spent his career on the wing and, in my memory, taking few faceoffs previously, I’m not sure where the skill came from, but it makes him a more useful player
McKenna continues to impress–when he was signed I thought we’d be going down the road of seasons past when the org signed a veteran goaltender on a downward slide (Danny Taylor last year, but there’s plenty more historically)–thus far he’s been excellent

All-in-all a fun game and I hope we see more of the same going forward. Given how trigger-happy the org is in pushing prospects into the NHL, I think the clock is ticking for how long we’ll get to enjoy Batherson at this level.

This article is written by Peter Levi (@eyeonthesens)