Monday, September 29, 2008

Greetings with bad tidings (but not for the Wild)

Hello hello. I am back - which sounds weird since I haven't posted here before. What I mean is I have returned from a vacation that wasn't and now am more able to finally make my first post on this blog.

I know this is a Wild-centric blog, but recent news from other NHL teams is what leads to my post.

Two big tidings. First, in what's honestly a not-that-surprising move, the waiving by the Chicago Blackhawks of goaltender and Stanley Cup-winner Nikolai Khabibulin.

Why isn't it a surprise? Because of the fat contract handed out in July to Cristobal Huet, who changes the pronunciation of his last name from Yoo-ay (rhymes with hay) to Yoo-et monthly. I think it's back to Yoo-ay. That deal meant the Hawks - who used to be so cheap as recently as oh, two years ago, that you couldn't find any of their games on television in an effort to make people go to the games - were spending over $12 million in just goaltending.

It's not much surprise either that Chicago couldn't find a trade partner for Khabibulin. Despite the guy's credentials, he's pretty expensive. Though you woulda thought some team would've taken him. You're telling me Ottawa couldn't use him? Colorado? Sorry, Martin Gerber and Peter Budaj ain't gonna get it done. Boston probably could, but they've already got All-Star Tim Thomas and former Wild Manny Fernandez, who had a dreadful first year in the other black and gold (I know, I know; they wore the colors first.)

So it'll be interesting to see where Khabibulin ends up.

The other bit of news, which has yet to be officially announced, is the report that Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar - who should've at least been a finalist for the Norris the last two seasons - is going to undergo shoulder surgery and could be out 4-6 months.

He was injured in the team's first preseason game on a hit by the Lightning's David Koci, who used to be in the Penguins farm system. This marks the second time in less than a year that a major Penguin player has been injured by a Tampa defenseman. Last year, of course, Sidney Crosby got involved with Shane O'Brien and ended up colliding feet first into the end-boards, leading to a high ankle sprain.

(Stupidly, Crosby didn't brace himself; he looked at the referee wondering where the penalty call was. Sid, next time, worry about where you are on the ice, k? Thanks.)

This injury will be particularly devastating to Pittsburgh, which already will be without Ryan Whitney (a possible future Gonchar) for three to five months with foot surgery. The duo are Pittsburgh's top offensive defensemen. Gonchar is a rock on the blueline, plays nearly the full two minutes on the power play, kills penalties and is underrated defensively. Whitney is a budding young star with serious offensive potential who played a good chunk of last season on a bad foot - which led to the surgery post-season - and still scored 12 goals and 40 points.

What does this mean for the Penguins? First, the chances of them finishing on top the Eastern Conference take a big hit. Sure, they still have Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Jordan Staal, Petr Sykora, Brooks Orpik...but the power play will be in serious trouble. And you need to score on the power play. Gonchar isn't quite the Penguins MVP, but he is close.

It also means that two budding young offensive defensemen will likely be thrown into the fire. Kris Letang, called up last season, displayed promise. In 63 games, he scored six goals and posted 11 assists. And I thought his offensive game wasn't as good as the defensive play and hitting style he showed. But now he'll likely see time on the top PP unit.

The other defenseman is former Minnesota Gopher Alex Goligoski. The youngster excelled during the AHL playoffs last season, leading Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to the Calder Cup finals. Goligoski set a playoff record for points by a defenseman with 28. He played only three games in the NHL last season, called up because of injuries, but had two assists and was a plus 2 and acquitted himself very well. Small sample size though.

When camp began, Goligoski was not guaranteed of a roster spot. The Penguins, at the time, had Gonchar, Whitney, Orpik, Letang, Hal Gill, Rob Scuderi, Mark Eaton and Darryl Sydor slated for opening day. Now, I don't see how GM Ray Shero can send Goligoski to the minors.

Letang won't technically be a rookie but he is in just his second season. Sydor will see PP time and expect Crosby or Malkin to now play the point. Goligoski should be there too.

The Penguins' power play struggles without Gonchar and I would expect the same until Letang and Goligoski become accustomed to it. Pittsburgh should still be fine and could still win the Atlantic Division but it will be much tougher now if Gonchar indeed misses over half the season.



Nick in New York said...

nice oppening salvo, KiPA! Between Crosby and Geno, who would you rather see on the point on the PP? Put differently, who would you rather not have on the side boards/in the middle?

KiPA - Kevin in PA said...

Well, Malkin is reportedly manning the point now. He's got a much more powerful slapper than Crosby (he broke a pane of glass in the Igloo in his first game there with one) but Sid's got better vision and passing. Crosby would probably be more like Gonchar in the passing/directing of the play, but I like the threat of Malkin's shot.

So honestly, I could go either way. If I had to pick one, I'd say ... Malkin I guess.

KiPA - Kevin in PA said...

Oh, and the Penguins officially confirmed the Gonchar surgery today. He will indeed miss four to six months.