Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Live blog Wednesday


I'll be holding a live blog Wednesday to track and comment on the goings-on as free agency opens up. I'm not going to be breaking any signings or rumors, just chatting about what's officially known.

I should have the chat up around 11:30 a.m. EDT. Free agency starts a half hour later.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Penguins re-sign two charitable fellows

(Updated: 3:45 p.m. Tuesday)


Pittsburgh got a head start on its free agent shopping Monday by re-signing two key members of the Stanley Cup-winning team, bringing wingers Bill Guerin and Craig Adams back into the fold.

Both players willingly took discounts in order to remain Penguins. Guerin, who made $4.5 million last season - split between Long Island and Pittsburgh - signed on the dotted line for one year at $2 million. One Web site reported the deal comes with bonuses that could bring the total up to $2.85 million, but a newspaper article appears to say there are no bonuses. Adams took a rather smaller pay cut, as he made only $600K last season. That number is down to $550K over two years, for a contract worth $1.1 million. But hey, a discount is a discount.

It's a win-win for Guerin, whose kids became - similar to Evgeni Malkin's parents - minor celebrities at Penguins home games, becoming regulars on the JumboTron with signs reading, "My Dad (#13) Rocks" and the like. [Guerin wears #13.] Meanwhile, Guerin's personality in the locker room really set guys on ease and is cited as a key reason Guerin was so valuable during the playoffs.

Pittsburgh's free agency list now reads: Petr Sykora, Ruslan Fedotenko, Miroslav Satan, Mike Zigomanis, Rob Scuderi, Philippe Boucher and Hal Gill. Among the fans' most desired returnees are Zigomanis, Scuderi and Fedotenko. Among the holes to fill are a second-line winger, a depth forward, one or two defensemen and a backup goalie, with around $5 million to spend, if my math is right.

Some believe the Adams signing spells the end for Zigomanis, and that appears to be the case. On Tuesday, Zigomanis' agent Kurt Overhardt said he thinks it's a "fait accompli" that Zigomanis will not return to the Penguins, which is unfortunate, since Zigomanis was very good on faceoffs and would've proven quite a bit useful in the final minute of Game 7 of the Final (though it turned out alright in the end.)

There is also hope that guys like Scuderi and Fedotenko follow the lead set by Guerin and Adams and accept a smaller amount to remain with the team. If it doesn't happen, I won't begrudge either player to go for the money. If someone throws $4 million annually at Scuderi - which would be an insane amount for him - then it's hard to turn that down.

Working in Pittsburgh's favor, in Scuderi's case at least, is Scuderi knows about as firsthand as possible how unhappy someone can be by leaving a situation like his to make a quick buck. Former teammate Ryan Malone signed a hefty contract in Tampa Bay, and, if reports are to be believed, was almost begging Ray Shero to try and work out a trade to return him to the 'burgh. Malone also visited his former teammates prior to a game and expressed his discontent with the Lightning. Some, like Brooks Orpik, recalled the story after winning the Cup.

Now, with Guerin's re-signing, Scuderi has evidence of how it can go both ways, and we'll see what he decides. He's on record saying he'll test the market but will give Shero a chance to see how close he can come to the offer Scuderi likes best.

Regardless, I'm a tad excited about Guerin being back. I never expected the Penguins to be key figures in free agency this summer, so in terms of that, bringing Guerin back is about as good as it gets.

Thoughts on the Draft, RFA tender day, UFAs on tap

The Wild qualified the following RFAs:
Kyle Brodziak
Robbie Earl
Josh Harding
Danny Irmen
Benoit Pouliot
Clayton Stoner

The Wild did not qualify the following RFAs:
Paul Albers
Riley Emmerson
Dan Fritsche
Peter Olvecky
(from Wild.com)

I agree with KiPA: analyzing the just-completed draft is an exercise in futility. Since there are usually no more than a couple "sure things" it makes no sense to sit here and try to tell you I know the first thing about any of the rest of the kids that got picked. At some point you have to trust your scouts, right?

I am pleased that Fletch was able to acquire picks, move to get a younger, cheaper Fritsche, and re-stock our goalie drawer.

I do find it interesting that it was harder for teams to pull off trades than some of the prognositcators heading into the draft thought.

I am annoyed with the vocal minority of Minnesotans and Wild "fans" that pop their head out of their little hole on draft day and on trade deadline day to throw rocks at the rest of the hockey-consuming public. You simply can't judge a GM based on one draft. Well, not unless you don't care about coming across as a simplistic moron. The "we need more Minnesotans" set are always off-putting for their parochial arrogance, but to then turn around and claim that the Wild took the wrong Minnesotan is utterly ridiculous. Get a grip, people.

It's RFA tender day, and Russo thinks Fritsche may get cut loose. As much as I thought Fritsche did a good job, was a good soldier, etc last season, it won't break my heart to lose him. We're not going to win or lose the Stanley Cup based on whether or not Dan Fritsche is on the team - especially if Brodziak is what he sounds like. I hope Dan finds a place to thrive, but if it's not St. Paul then so be it.

It seems almost a foregone conclusion that Saku will join his baby brother in Minny. While I really have no problems with that (unless you're thinking that he's the answer to our #1 center prayers,) I do think that's a better situation for him than for the Wild. Not that it's bad for the Wild, but talk about a soft landing for a guy looking for one more multi-year contract before he (likely) skates off into the sunset! If he does sign here, I hope he stays healthy and can help us anchor our second line. I hope he and Mikko enjoy playing and living together. But I really hope it doesn't cramp Mikko's style at all - though I assume it wouldn't - because he really should become the first permanent captain in team history this season, and I would hate to think that he would in any way fall into his big brother's shadow.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Draft analys...


So I'd offer my non-expert opinion on the 2009 draft picks of the Minnesota Wild and the Pittsburgh Penguins but it makes no sense to do so. Few players in this year's draft class were projected to have an immediate impact on any of their new teams, and no player the Wild or Penguins selected in the first round would have been one of those - unless either team traded up for a top two or three pick.

But here are the first-rounders. The Wild selected local kid and offensive defenseman Nick Leddy from Eden Prairie H.S. with the 16th pick after turning the No. 12 selection into three other draft picks, which was a wise move. Unwilling to take a chance that Leddy would be available later in the first round, Chuck Fletcher chose to grab Leddy at 16. Pittsburgh sort of lucked into big defenseman Simon Despres, a defensive defenseman with some offensive upside who TSN had ranked 18th, with the 30th and final selection of the first round.

A good portion of the Penguins fan base seems accepting of Pittsburgh's pick, though more than a few people wanted a winger. Nearly all of Minnesota's followers seem to feel the Wild either a) took the wrong Minnesota player, b) shouldn't have taken a Minnesota player period, or c) didn't need a defenseman.

Given the fact that the two organizations can combine for about two or three forwards who might make an impact in the next couple of years, the selections of a defenseman by both clubs might seem strange. But look: At that stage of the first round, whoever was selected was going to need some time - two or three years at least - to develop into an NHL-ready player.

In that time, either Fletcher or Ray Shero could acquire a forward via free agency or a trade. That's the basis of the "take the best player available" strategy instead of "drafting for a need." You might need a certain player now but what if you end up signing a player who fills that need to a long-term contract less than a week after the draft? Then suddenly the guy you drafted to fill that hole isn't as necessary, and you'd be left wishing you had other assets in the system.

Which leads me to another point. The Wild lacks talent in its system. Sorry, but it's true. Take it from someone who's going through a similar experience with a baseball team. When there's little talent in the minor leagues, the first goal is likely to put talent into that system, no matter what position a guy plays. Yes, the Wild lacks forwards in a significant way, but it also lacks gifted players with NHL futures.

First increase the numbers of players who can have an impact in the NHL, then worry about where they actually play. Once the system is stocked, then it's easier to put together a competitive big league team each season.

Fletcher is not going to turn the Wild into a perennial contender over night. He'll try to win now as much as he can, but he won't be shortsighted enough to mortgage what future Minnesota has in a desperate attempt to make his mark right away. He's going to build up the system from the bottom, and that's going to take time. It might be unpleasant for fans over the next few seasons, but in the long run, if Fletcher makes the correct decisions, it'll be worth it.

So it's entirely too early to analyze any draft picks. Plus it's unfair to the players involved, and Leddy is already being lumped by some people into A.J. Thelen territory. Fletcher barely finished saying the kid's name before an uproar started over the selection. At least give the guy a chance before condemning him.

(Update, Saturday, 4:42 p.m. EDT: I changed the title to encompass the entire draft. Far too early to pass judgment on anyone selected this weekend. Only time will tell how they fare.)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Destination: Harding


With the NHL draft just a few days away, trade talks are likely to heat up. For the Wild, most likely it means the departure of Josh Harding, a restricted free agent whose future as a No. 1 goalie in Minnesota was, at best, delayed four years while Niklas Backstrom's contract is in effect. With netminders always being a valued commodity, Harding is Minnesota's biggest trade chip, but on his own, isn't likely to fetch a big name player. His name could be included in some package but it would take more than Harding and one other player to land a top talent. (Unless that other player is Mikko Koivu or Brent Burns, but that's highly unlikely.)

In limited action, Harding has acquitted himself well and has earned consideration for a No. 1 job somewhere in the NHL. So who needs a goaltender? I've discussed this with some Wild fans and now I'll go a little more in-depth here. I'll even go so far as to list each team in the NHL and their plans in goal as much as I can.

Anaheim: No dice here, not with Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Jonas Hiller in the mix.

Possible destination, though not too likely. Kari Lehtonen is (was?) the goalie they want to build around, but there have been plenty of rumors swirling of Don Waddell wanting to trade Lehtonen. Maybe Thrashers management is growing impatient with Lehtonen's development. Ondrej Pavelec is another young prospect waiting in the wings, but neither he nor Lehtonen have grasped the reins yet.

Boston: A very slight darkhorse. Tim Thomas was an All-Star, won the Vezina, and has a four-year contract. He's also 35. Tuukka Rask will likely emerge as the backup, so while the Bruins will need a goalie at the end of Thomas' contract, right now Rask is the heir-apparent, so Harding won't wear black-and-gold.

Buffalo: Ryan Miller suffered a dreaded high ankle sprain last year but is still just 28, has a long contract, and Patrick Lalime is backing him up. No openings here.

Carolina: Cam Ward won't be supplanted, and Michael Leighton's the backup.

Calgary: Few goalies play as much as Miikka Kiprusoff. I bet even the front office doesn't know who the backup's name is.

Chicago: The Blackhawks gave Cristobal Huet a nice, fat contract last offseason. Then he proceeded to split time with Nikolai Khabibulin, who is now a free agent. I doubt the Bulin Wall returns, and Chicago probably rolls with Huet as No. 1 and Corey Crawford the backup.

Colorado: Our first real No. 1 opening. There ain't no one in the mix here. Peter Budaj is a restricted free agent, Andrew Raycroft is unrestricted, and I'll admit to having no idea if the Avalanche have a goalie in the minors who might be ready. Neither of the two NHLers did much last year to improve his long-term chances of being a starting goalie.

But will either the Wild or the Avs trade within the division? Rumors talk of Harding for Wojtek Wolski and a draft pick. If I'm Chuck Fletcher, I say, "Yes please, I'll take two." If I'm Colorado, the move doesn't make as much sense except from a salary dump point of view (Wolski's cap hit is $2.8 million and he's an RFA after next season.) Wolski's a nice, up-and-coming forward while Harding is still an unknown. If Harding becomes the next Patrick Roy, then advantage Colorado. Or maybe Harding becomes the next Andrew Raycroft.

Columbus: Harding isn't too likely to move Calder Trophy winner Steve Mason out of the pipes in Ohio. Some people (*cough* Nick *cough*) think Mason will become the next Jim Carey. Columbus has to hope Mason's career won't be filled with injuries like the recently-traded Pascal Leclaire.

Dallas: Marty Turco is the starting goalie. For now. He's 34 in August, on the last year of his contract, and has a less-than-stellar playoff record that has led to questions of whether he can get it done. Backup Tobias Stephen is a free agent and another youngster, Matt Climie, is a RFA. It might not be this year, but maybe Harding has a future in Big D. Wouldn't that kill Wild fans?

Ideally, Fletcher would love to get someone like Fabian Brunnstrom, James Neal or Loui Eriksson for Harding, but I don't see the Stars moving any of those guys. Still, Dallas is a possible destination.

Detroit: Possible but unlikely. Not only is Chris Osgood still there, but Jimmy Howard awaits, and the Wings will probably at least give Howard a look and see if he can cut it first. If Howard can't, then maybe Harding is an option. But, by the time Detroit determines that, Harding might no longer be in play.

Edmonton: Clear-cut opening No. 2. Dwayne Roloson is a free agent, still unsigned, but even if he signs, he's 39. Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers (after consulting NHL.com, apparently he dropped the Drouin part of his name) is their only goalie under contract right now, but has even less experience than Harding. This also brings up the "trading within the division" dilemma.

The Oilers have some young talent on the team, including former Wild property Patrick O'Sullivan, Ales Hemsky, Tom Gilbert, Sam Gagner and some others, but I don't see Edmonton parting with any of their more established talent for Harding. Maybe O'Sullivan.

Florida: Tomas Vokoun has two years left on his contract, and if I'm whoever-Florida-hires-as-GM, I'd try to re-sign Craig Anderson. If Anderson isn't re-signed, then maybe the Panthers would like to get Harding in to learn under Vokoun, but the No. 1 job wouldn't be an open competition.

Los Angeles: No clear-cut starting goalie here, but the Kings already have Jonathan Quick (who fared well) and Erik Ersberg (ups and downs), so they're not likely to want to bring in another young, unproven goalie. If LA goes for a goalie, it'll probably be a veteran like Khabibulin or Martin Biron.

Montreal: Depending to whom you talk, Carey Price was one of the biggest reasons the Canadiens bombed out in the playoffs after barely hanging onto the eighth seed. Jaroslav Halak fared a little better. The point is, no openings here.

Nashville: Pekka Rinne emerged as the No. 1, and Dan Ellis is still under contract and is a capable backup.

New Jersey: Martin Brodeur (age 37) has three years left on his contract. Scott Clemmensen, who kept the Devils' season alive, is 31 with no contract. Harding would be a backup at best for a couple seasons.

New York Islanders: This will sound funny, but I can see Long Island being a semi-viable destination. Sure, Rick DiPietro is signed to such a long contract that the original paper will have deteriorated by the end of it, but he's also a walking hospital. The Islanders had to go through a number of goalies this season, and having a reliable backup/No. 1A goalie would be really helpful.

If DiPietro stays healthy, he'll be the No. 1. But that's a big if, and there could be some rotation of DiPietro and Harding. The problem is, the Islanders need to acquire assets, not trade away draft picks or young players, so while the setting might be workable, the price probably wouldn't.

New York Rangers: Henrik Lundqvist. Steven Valiquette. Good combo.

Ottawa: I've seen many Wild fans clamoring for a trade of Harding and (insert bad contract of your choice) for Dany Heatley, but sorry, there's no way that's happening. Bryan Murray acquired Pascal Leclaire at the deadline, and he'll roll with Leclaire and Brian Elliott or Alex Auld.

Philadelphia: Ladies and gentlemen, your No. 1 stop for Josh Harding, the Philadelphia Flyers. Martin Biron is gone. Antero Niittymaki probably will join him. In their place... Ray Emery? Really? Ray Emery? The Flyers are going to try to win with Ray Emery? Ye gods.

Anyway. Yes, Emery is the only goalie under contract for the Flyers right now. They're always looking for goalies, and they never work out. From an on-ice perspective, this is Harding's best bet. The problem is, the first bad goal he gives up - maybe it doesn't even have to be a bad one - then boom, people will be all over him. But there's good forwards in place, good defense, just no goalie.

I discussed this on Russo's Rants the other day, and Daniel Briere could be part of a deal for Harding. Philadelphia is in salary cap hell right now (just under $55 million for 19 players next season) and Briere is the most expendable piece. He's playing out of position at wing because of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. He's still productive (97 points in 108 games, 31 goals two seasons ago) but ran into a plethora of health issues last season.

The contract is a nightmare, yes. He's signed through 2015 at a cap hit of $6.5 million. He's also a top-two center the Wild needs. Philadelphia needs a goalie and cap space. The Wild has a lot of cap room. The Flyers might be willing to let Briere go for less (Harding and maybe a cheap roster player for the third or fourth line) just to get him off their books.

If Fletcher thinks Briere will fit in Minnesota, and the price isn't too expensive (trade-wise), it could work. The Wild have some salaries coming off the books after 2010 which could make Briere's more acceptable.

Phoenix: Well, Ilya Bryzgalov is here and sometimes plays outstanding and sometimes not so much. But he's signed for another two seasons at over $4 million, and I think the Coyotes might be more concerned with where they're going to play next season rather than who will be on the team.

Pittsburgh: Even though some in Pittsburgh still aren't comfortable with Marc-Andre Fleury, the guy just won a Stanley Cup. (Also, those people are idiots.)

San Jose: Evgeni Nabokov is really good, and he'll also be 34 in July, entering the last year of his contract. The Sharks are usually good at finding goalies, so Harding won't fit here.

St. Louis: Chris Mason shook off a bad start to the season and was a key reason why the Blues made the playoffs. He'll keep his starting job, and Ben Bishop is around to back him up.

Tampa Bay: Another small possibility. The Lightning have Mike Smith, who suffered a concussion and ruined a good part of his season. I think Smith is capable but having insurance for him probably wouldn't be a bad idea. Tampa wants to be rid of Ryan Malone's contract, but fans in Minnesota aren't keen on picking it up. (Of course, fans don't make the call on trades.) Still, not too likely these teams match up.

Toronto: Another good fit. Rumors of Harding and Marek Zidlicky for Tomas Kaberle have circulated, and I think that's a good deal for the Wild. Brian Burke shot it down, however. Vesa Toskala is hanging around, but I'd say the Leafs goalie job is still up for grabs.

Vancouver: Roberto Luongo won't go anywhere...yet. He'll be a free agent after the 2010 season but that doesn't help for right now.

Washington: Jose Theodore makes $4.5 million but lost his starter's job in the playoffs to Simeon Varlamov. Either way, the Capitals don't have an opening.

So there you have it, one man's team by team evaluation of starting goalies and where Harding fits. I see him landing in Philadelphia, Toronto, maybe to one of Minnesota's division rivals, or an outside chance of Tampa Bay.

Monday, June 22, 2009

WRT's This 'n' That

A column of opinions, some facts and an occasional rant from the Wild Road Tripper (WRT)

The next two weeks should be -- should be -- very interesting.

The question is, however: How will fans react as the process unfolds?

Will Minnesota Wild fans actually care if Marian Gaborik, the top unrestricted free agent in a lot of minds, actually does leave the only franchise he has ever played for in North America? Or, will Wild fans actually feel relief that the two-season saga of Gaby's free agency is finally past them, regardless of whether or not he re-signs with the Wild or (Oh, My!) joins his BFF, Pavol Demitra, in Vancouver?

And, what about the Wild roster? Some say it is in dire need of a complete rebuild; others say all it needs is minor tweaking. In any case, the face of this franchise will indeed change between now and the start of training camp in early September. Owner Craig Leipold has willed it so, espcially with the resignation of Jacques Lemaire and the termination of Doug Risebrough following the now-infamous 'Managed Expectations' remarks at the Lemaire presser.

And what of the new regime? New GM Chuck Fletcher needs to make a splash in order to let the rest of the NHL know the old Habs era in St. Paul is, indeed, dead; and Todd Richards, this year's wunderkind coach prospect, will have to deal with pulling together a roster populated with men who, until now, were disciplined if they showed any offensive creativity whatsoever, regardless of the result.

I'm really not sure what to think of all this. To be honest, I'm of the 'I'll believe it when I see it' school. Until now, Fletcher and Richards have publically said all the right things, have done the right moves -- including the dismissal of DR's former assistant, Tom Lynn (a move for which few Wild fans shed tears over after it was announced) and numerous press interviews (a 180-degree opposite of the DR regime and their 'We know what we're doing, why do you question us?' attitude which earned Risebrough the derisive nickname 'Smug' in later seasons).

As for Gaborik, hockey's most petulant superstar forward, when he can show anyone in hockey -- anyone -- that he can hold up to an entire season's grind without missing major portions of said season due to injury, his value will sharply rise, and he will be paid as one of the top 20 players in the world. Until then, he will have to bide his time, work on his game, and hope that someone will take a flyer on him. The Wild are willing to, within reason, take that chance. Reportedly, a $7M/year offer is on the table; for how long may be the major stumbling block. I'm not sure that many other teams (most of whom cannot fit Gaborik under a shrinking salary cap) can even afford to sign one player for that kind of money. The Wild are one of the few teams that can. And, with the new style 'ramped-up' offense being inserted, this team has unlimited potential for Gaborik to thrive in.

Having said all that in favor of Gaborik staying, here's the reasons that Gaborik will go:

A new start may just do Gaborik good. It has, again, been reported that Gaborik has not been happy during his time in Minnesota, primarily due to the money issue, but that the contentious nature of his relationship with the now-departed Risebrough has not endeared him to Wild staff members, most notably the hockey operations staff. His 'me, me, me, it's all about ME' attitude, not normally prevalent amongst NHL players, has not exactly endeared him to his teammates nor Wild fans, either.

The rancorous nature of the negotiations up to April 16, the date of DR's dismissal -- where Gaborik's agent (Ron Salcer) would not even talk to DR, even though that both were only 10 feet apart at a Wild practice session -- is also a point of contention. When Salcer's local contact person gets permanently ejected from the locker-room level of the Xcel Energy Center due to an ongoing argument between that person and DR, all players who Salcer represents (Gaborik, Brent Burns, Nick Schultz and Derek Boogaard) must sit back and take notice.

Gaborik might be happier as the focal point in, say, a post-Sedin Vancouver playing alongside his BFF, Demitra, although if anyone thinks the press in Minnesota is bad, the fourth estate in Vancouver is ten times worse. Every Canuck practice is covered by both print and electronic media, and no, you can't pull a DR and permanently close practices to everyone in Vancouver.

Gaborik may just wind up in La-la land, when the Kings need to make a big splash (even more so since the two teams they most directly compete with for sports entertainment dollars -- the Anaheim Ducks and the NBA's LA Lakers -- both recently won titles) and Kings' owner Phil Anschutz, playing with all the money in the world, can afford to sign Gaborik and place him along Anze Kopitar, the Kings' home-grown superstar center who is in desperate need of someone to play alongside of.

So, there's the quandry. Does Gaborik go, or does he stay and enjoy the new 'unleashed expectations' of the new look Wild, a look that was basically created for him to thrive in?

I really don't know what to think right now...

Friday, June 19, 2009

MVP doesn't necessarily mean "best"


First, a congratulations to all the NHL award winners.

The awards show also likely sparked discussion in at least some parts once again of "Who's better, Alex Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby?" I even saw a poll that seemed to indicate the majority of voters believe Ovechkin winning two straight Hart Trophies is more impressive than Crosby winning the Stanley Cup.

Personally, I think that's absurd. Winning back-to-back MVPs is impressive, sure, but when the playoffs started, do you think Capitals fans were saying, "I hope Ovie wins MVP again" or, "I hope we win the Cup"? OK, they probably were rooting for both, but if they had to pick just one, which do you think they would've chosen? Which would you have rooted for more?

The goal of any sport is to win the championship, not a regular season award. Or at least, it should be. If Caps fans settled for just winning the Hart, then...well, more power to them I guess. I know that I was rooting for the Penguins to win the Cup far more than for Evgeni Malkin to win the Hart. I'll take the Cup and the Conn Smythe over the Hart any season.

If Ovechkin wins 10 Hart Trophies but no Stanley Cups, and you offered him a trade of those 10 Harts for one ring, do you think he'd accept?

Having said that, I don't think there should be any question that Ovechkin deserved the MVP. He did. I don't think you need to look any further than the shots stat, which shows Ovechkin took more than twice as many shots as any teammate (528 to Mike Green's 243) this season. Most Penguins fans - say, 99.9% or so - label Ovechkin a puckhog. I say he knows that the best way for his team to win is to score, and so he shoots a lot in order to do that.

With apologies to Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Green, I don't think the Capitals are a playoff team without Ovechkin. I know Detroit still makes the postseason without Pavel Datsyuk and Pittsburgh most likely still makes it without Malkin. I think that's the definition of "most valuable player."

I have little problem also with Ovechkin winning the Lester B. Pearson award as "most outstanding" player. He's the player who "stands out" the most, because of his ability to get shots on goal and beat the goalie.

But I still don't think Ovechkin is the best player in the league.

Nor am I going to make the argument for Malkin or Crosby.

There are two ends to the hockey rink. And I don't think the best player in the league can be described as someone who can score a lot but doesn't pay the most attention he could to the defensive zone (Ovechkin); or someone whose game is elevated by elite teammates (Crosby); or someone who, for all his razzle-dazzle, can make some costly gaffes and doesn't seem to bring it every night (Malkin).

Shouldn't the talk center around Datsyuk as the best?

He's won two straight Selke Trophies, evidence that his defensive game is phenomenal. He's scored 87 points or more four straight seasons, including 97 the last two, so he adds an impressive offensive game to the defense. Datsyuk is outstanding in the faceoff circle, which means he gives his team more opportunities to possess the puck.

Being the best player isn't about simply scoring the most or making nifty plays and passes with the puck. Or at least, it shouldn't be. Ovechkin's the best at scoring goals because he has a tremendous shot, ability to get the puck through traffic and the desire to score.

Datsyuk doesn't score or hit as much as Ovechkin but he trumps his fellow Russian in a lot of other facets of the game. Usually it's in ways that don't show up on highlights, which is probably why so many people believe Ovechkin is the best player. By the way, Ovechkin led the league in giveaways with 107. But he does get a lot of goals.

It's hard to go wrong picking among the four. By choosing Datsyuk, not only are you getting a premier offensive player, you get someone who's going to shut down the other team's skilled forwards as well. He's better overall - that's offense and defense combined - than any of Ovechkin, Crosby or Malkin. Shouldn't that make Datsyuk the best "player"?

Then again, defense wins championships, not attention. Only goals make the highlights. So, sorry, Pavel, you have to settle for that other hardware you've won.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Now that the dust is settled...


With the NHL season concluded, attention turns to the Entry Draft next weekend. Since it's unlikely for either team central to this blog to draft a player who will provide an immediate impact, the bigger date on the horizon is July 1, the start of free agency. So let's take a look at the ramifications for these two teams.

I'll start with my bigger area of knowledge, the Stanley Cup champion Penguins. (That won't get old to type.)

Pittsburgh's pending free agents: 10
Salary cap space: Just under $10 million, 14 players signed
Key UFAs: Wingers Petr Sykora, Ruslan Fedotenko, Miroslav Satan and Bill Guerin; defensemen Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi; backup goalie Mathieu Garon.
Priorities: I'd like to say first priority should be re-signing Scuderi. But his performance this season led to a huge spike in his value. After making $725,000 this season, he can be expected to at least triple that value, if not quadruple it. It's highly likely he'll be too expensive for the Penguins to keep.

That means wingers for Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are on the "buy" list. Right now, only Chris Kunitz and maybe Max Talbot are in the mix. But Ray Shero can't break the bank. So, the likes of Marian Hossa, Michael Cammalleri and Martin Havlat are almost certainly out of consideration. Even second-tier guys like Alex Tanguay or Alex Kovalev, or even Brian Gionta or Mike Knuble, could cost too much. Fedotenko could re-sign, as could Guerin. Sykora and Satan are likely gone.

Shero might have to go after someone like Ales Kotalik or Jason Williams. There's just not much money to spend.

I expect the Penguins to be fairly quiet in free agency. They were last year too, except for re-signing their own players, but money is even tighter this time around. The first domino, however, has fallen, as Pittsburgh re-signed restricted free agent-to-be Alex Goligoski to a three-year contract worth $5.5 million on Wednesday. Which, honestly, seems a little steep for me for one half season of good work but could turn into a bargain. I think that hammers the final nail on Scuderi's coffin, and if so, I wish Rob all the best. The Cup wouldn't have happened without him.

There are some in-house replacements for the blue line and backup goalie, but not yet for top-six wingers. Another one- or two-year contract to a couple people might be Pittsburgh's fix.

Minnesota's pending free agents: 12
Salary cap space: About $13 million with 17 players signed.
Key free agents: Five UFAs: wingers Marian Gaborik, Stephane Veilleux, defensemen Marc-Andre Bergeron, Martin Skoula and Kurtis Foster. RFAs include Dan Fritsche, Josh Harding, Benoit Pouliot.
Priorities: I think Chuck Fletcher should try to re-sign Gaborik. Barring that, some other top scoring winger. If Fletcher and Todd Richards want to play up-tempo and aggressive, they need someone who can score.

After that, a top-two center. James Sheppard might yet turn into the center everyone in Minnesota wants - and there's a small precedent set, as Jordan Staal's game improved somewhat once Dan Bylsma took over for Michel Therrien. But Sheppard's possible improvement under a more up-tempo coach shouldn't be relied upon. Same with Pouliot.

Fletcher left a situation that had Sergei Gonchar, Ryan Whitney, Kris Letang and Goligoski - all offensively skilled defensemen - in the organization. Maybe he looks to add one of those types in Minnesota, or maybe he's got one already in Kim Johnsson, whose offense could increase under Richards.

Otherwise, the defense corps appears capable. Just need to add a couple pieces. What to do with Harding is a question, whether he'll be traded or re-signed, so a backup goalie might be necessary as well.

Maybe Fletcher just tears everything down and starts over from scratch (relatively), which would lead to some growing pains. The Wild won under the old system but doesn't have the pieces yet for the new one. The question is whether he tries to win now or if he reconstructs the system to fit his ideals.

So, I really have no idea what Minnesota will do.

Things should be fun in two weeks, though I for one am in no particular hurry to get there, but I know I'm in the minority on that. Plus, who knows what things will look like on July 1 with possible trades at the draft.

Early Thoughts on Todd Richards

I like this move. I like that it meshes with what Fletch has said he's looking for. I like that it allows him a bit of familiarity with the key person on his staff. I like that Richards will be a hungry, young coach. I like that, if anything, coaching "at home" will add more pressure to him, not less - I don't think he'll just be at Manny's every night letting people buy him drinks and stuff. I like all of those things.

Mostly I like that this was done now and not later. Because I think the team is ill-equipped to play this style and win games this season. So getting all his ducks in a row now will allow Fletch the most possible time to go out and woo. And I hope Mrs. Fletcher is not the jealous type because Fletch is going to be wooing his ass off.

Unless...part of Fletch's vision of the Minnesota Wild as "his" team includes putting his stamp on the team from the ground up. And so he doesn't go out and spend to within a couple mil of the cap this summer, doesn't get crazy with UFAs, fields a respectable lineup for sure, but doesn't bring in a Hossa (for example) and back up a Brinks truck to Gaby's garage. Then the team is more exciting just because it's new and it's, well, more exciting which keeps the fans engaged, but maybe if they don't make the playoffs, maybe that's not the worst thing in the world. Particularly if the Wild can get into the top 10 in the draft for next summer (2010), maybe move a couple pieces next season to free up some space (against the all-but assumed to be falling cap) and get back some good picks in return...maybe?

So far, I think Fletch is batting 1.000. I'm on board as a fan. I'm even enthusiastic about the near- and long-term outlook right now. And I'm willing to go through a scenario like the one I painted above. But one's batting average is a trailing indicator; it does not, as we say in the business, predict or depict future success.


Monday, June 15, 2009

Russo: Richards to be named Wild coach; Lynn fired

Todd Richards is to be named Minnesota Wild head coach, according to Michael Russo.

Here's the link:


Update: Russo (and TSN, amongst others) now reporting Tom Lynn has been fired as assistant GM as well.

FYI: The Richards press conference will stream live Tuesday, June 16 on Wild.com beginning with a 'Wild highlight reel' at 11:45 AM (CDT) followed by remarks by both GM Chuck Fletcher and Richards, followed by a Q&A session.


Sunday, June 14, 2009

Penguins top 10 playoff moments


Sorry, I can't help myself.

In reverse order, here are my 10 favorite moments from the Penguins' playoff run. Everyone loves lists, right?

10. Bill Guerin's overtime winner (First round, Philadelphia, Game 2)

Any playoff overtime goal is cause for celebration. There's really nothing else like it in any other sport. This one gave the Penguins a 3-2 win and a 2-0 series lead. It came on a 5-on-3 after Philadelphia's Mike Knuble took a careless penalty in the offensive zone, while the Flyers were on a power play, then Claude Giroux was called for slashing.

The goal was Guerin's second of the game and was made possible when Evgeni Malkin scored a power play goal with 3:37 remaining to tie the score.

Philadelphia played much better than in Game 1 and easily could've won. Guerin's clutch play (I won't say "heroics") prevented that.

9. Marc-Andre Fleury's save on Jeff Carter (First round, Philadelphia, Game 2)

Guerin's goal wouldn't have been possible if Fleury hadn't absolutely robbed Philadelphia center Jeff Carter, owner of 46 regular-season goals. The Flyers led, 2-1, and the puck came to Carter who had a gaping net to shoot at. Fleury stuck his leg back and blocked the shot with his toe. Not long after, the Penguins went on a power play and tied the score.


8. Kris Letang's overtime goal (Second round, Washington, Game 3)

Here's a funny story from this game. After Game 2, there were reports that Letang was injured and might miss Game 3. For most of Pittsburgh's power plays, I was pulling my hair out over Letang's inability to one-time the puck in a prime scoring location. I remarked several times to my friend, "We should've dressed Philippe Boucher."

I happily ate my words when Letang notched his first career playoff goal off a one-timer after Sidney Crosby won a faceoff in the attacking zone for a crucial 3-2 win. Pittsburgh trailed in the series, 2-0, and a loss in Game 3 essentially would've ended the season.

7. Evgeni Malkin's overtime winner (Second round, Washington, Game 5)

I'm a superstitious person. I feel no shame over this. Earlier in the postseason, I had to head to work and had to listen to the third period of Pittsburgh's Game 6 win over Philadelphia on the radio. But, I reasoned, maybe they ended up winning because I wasn't watching.

I went with the same philosophy for this game. This time it was the reverse. I had an unusually and unexpectedly long day at work and I left for home after the third period. I'd decided to stay in my car until someone scored, even if it meant driving around aimlessly.

Well, no sooner did I drive past my driveway - about three or four seconds after - did Malkin's pass deflect off defenseman Tom Poti into the net for a 4-3 win.

6. Malkin's hat trick goal (Conference finals, Carolina, Game 2)

This goal was one of the most unbelievable I've ever seen in person, and, getting to watch Malkin and Crosby, I see a lot. And it's only sixth on this list. It made the score of Game 2 of the conference finals 6-4 (7-4 final) and capped a dominating performance by Geno.

Words can't describe it, so I'll let the video try.


Watching it again makes me want to put it higher on the list. But...

5. Jordan Staal's shorthanded goal (Finals, Detroit, Game 4)

The significance and timing of the top five is what bumps each ahead of Malkin's hat trick, and it starts with the shorthanded goal Staal scored to tie Game 4 of the finals.

Trailing in the series, 2-1, and facing a must-win game at home, the Penguins trailed the game, 2-1, and were on their second-straight penalty kill in quick succession. The Red Wings could've won the series with a goal on either power play. Instead, not only did they not score, but they allowed a shorthanded tally on a great play by the much-maligned Staal. The goal was the first of three by Pittsburgh in a span of 5:37 and changed the fortune of the game and the series.

4. Fleury's save on Alex Ovechkin (Second round, Washington, Game 7)

The save on Carter could be an all-timer. But it doesn't come close to the save Fleury made on the probable two-time MVP, Ovechkin.

The situation: Game 7. In Washington. Scoreless game. Three minutes in. Ovechkin gets a breakaway, the chance to get his team the crucial first goal, and Fleury stonewalled him with the glove.


I don't know what the game will be remembered for more, the Penguins scoring the first five goals and winning 6-2, or Fleury's save.

Fleury didn't have a very good series overall but made up for it with that stop.

3. Fleury's save on Daniel Cleary (Finals, Detroit, Game 6)

Then he duplicated it against Detroit's Daniel Cleary in the Stanley Cup finals. Cleary isn't as offensively skilled as Ovechkin, but he has been a clutch performer for the Red Wings and has plenty of goal-scoring ability.

So while facing - and stopping - Ovechkin is more impressive than stopping Cleary, the stakes of the Cleary breakaway were far higher. Pittsburgh was one loss from its season ending but just over a minute away from extending it. A Brooks Orpik turnover - and Cleary's speed - in a one-goal game created the chance.

To this point, Fleury had to devote more time to fending off his critics rather than the Wings. He can't win a big-time game, they said. He can't come up with a huge save when his team needs it, they said.

Well, he stopped Cleary, who probably would've won the Cup for Detroit if he scores. The Penguins would've let a 2-0, third-period lead slip away on home ice and would've faced an overtime against an explosive offense that almost entirely controlled the third period with their playoff lives in further jeopardy.

Fleury didn't let that happen. (Then Rob Scuderi helped later.)

2. Max Talbot's fight with Philadelphia's Daniel Carcillo (First round, Philadelphia, Game 6)

Get this. I once was going to write up a post saying fighting was an overrated game-changer. I'd changed my mind - having convinced myself that I was wrong - and deleted the draft. Well, the Talbot-Carcillo bout is Exhibit A for how much of an effect a fight can have on a team, on a game.

The Penguins had lost Game 5 at home in their first chance to knock out the Flyers and advance. In Game 6 in Philadelphia, the Flyers jumped out to a 3-0 lead. Shortly after the third goal, in the second period, Talbot got Carcillo to drop the gloves, and Carcillo pummeled Talbot. On his way to the penalty box, Carcillo lifted his arms to the crowd to get them louder. Talbot put a finger to his lips in the classic 'Shhhh!' pose.

That was an awesome moment by Talbot. Then, just 14 seconds after the fight, Ruslan Fedotenko scored to make things 3-1. Less than two minutes later, Mark Eaton tallied a goal, and suddenly it was 3-2. Crosby tied the game before the period ended, and Sergei Gonchar scored early in the third period for a 4-3 Penguins lead. Crosby added an empty-netter, and that was the series.

The fight is what seemed to turn things around.

1. Fleury's save on Nicklas Lidstrom, Sidney Crosby lifting the Cup

I guess technically this would be my top 11, and a tie for No. 1, but they go hand-in-hand, so I count it as just one.

When I saw Lidstrom closing in on the loose puck at the end of Game 7, I thought, "Oh no..." with a sinking feeling in my chest. I expected Lidstrom to score. I think a lot - if not all - of the people in Joe Louis Arena thought that. Fleury made himself big, dove down and took the puck in his chest. A second later, the horn sounded and the Penguins began celebrating.

My favorite part of the Cup celebration was when the other players elicited a collective roar after Crosby took the trophy from Gary Bettman and lifted it over his head.

Just like a weight I'm sure was lifted off Crosby's shoulders for winning the Stanley Cup, I feel one has been lifted off the shoulders of Penguins fans. Although most of the core is under 25, I didn't want to be one of those teams who had great players but failed to win a championship with any of them (like the Utah Jazz with Karl Malone and John Stockton, or Patrick Ewings' Knicks, etc.) Hopefully there will be more.

OK, that's about it. Awards ceremony is Thursday.

An honest mistake


Well, the fallout has already begun. No matter what he does - or in this case, doesn't do - Sidney Crosby is a target for criticism.

This time it's from Red Wings forward Kris Draper, who felt Crosby snubbed Detroit captain Nicklas Lidstrom in the post-series handshake line.

Frankly, I think this is much ado about nothing and was a situation that both sides could've handled better.

The Penguins probably could've/should've gone to the handshake line a little quicker than they did. But let's be honest, here. This is a national story in Canada and people were going to swarm all over Crosby, who was "destined" to win a Stanley Cup since before he knew what his name was.

I don't know how much time elapsed from the final horn to when Detroit lined up for the handshake. But it's not like Lidstrom was waiting in line for an hour. I think the Red Wings could've waited a little longer, maybe be a little gracious in defeat. I think Crosby probably got caught up in the moment and made an inexperienced, young man's mistake. Should he win another championship, I'm willing to bet there won't be a repeat of this. I hardly think the most important thing running through Crosby's mind was, "I have to make sure I don't shake Lidstrom's hand."

I have some questions for Mr. Draper. Are you really that upset at Crosby, or are you upset that your team failed to close out the series, despite being up 2-0, 3-2 and with a Game 7 on home ice? Are you upset that you, personally, failed to bring much to the table in the series, after taking Justin Abdelkader's roster spot, a player who caused the Penguins problems in the first two games? Or that your team scored two goals total in the final two games of the series, when you had two chances to win the Cup?

You were young once and have won several Stanley Cups. Don't you remember what it was like to win your first one? You can't let Crosby take some time to revel in the moment?

You questioned Crosby's class. Well, you stay classy yourself. You know, calling out another player in the media, instead of venting your displeasure privately to said player. Because classy people always question another person's motives and actions in public, rather than air it out behind closed doors. The only possible intent for doing something like that is to deride another player. Now that's showing respect, isn't it? It doesn't seem like you took the time to ask Crosby if it was just a mistake, you immediately assumed the worst. Very honorable there, sir.

This is coming from a guy who once refused to shake hands with someone after a series. Granted, Draper might have had reason to not show respect to Claude Lemieux, who rearranged Draper's face on one of the dirtiest hits one will ever see. But he actually has the nerve to call out someone for doing the same thing he once did? Did Draper bash teammate Chris Chelios, who skated off the ice immediately after Chelios and the Red Wings lost the Western finals to Anaheim two years ago? Did he do it publicly?

The difference is, I'd bet my Stanley Cup-champion merchandise that Crosby's non-handshake was an accident, not intentional like Draper; Chelios apologized the next day, citing emotion and wanting privacy, so maybe he gets a pass. Crosby missing Lidstrom in the handshake line was an unfortunate incident that could've been avoided. If Crosby wanted to snub people, he wouldn't have gotten in line at all. He just took too long and/or several Detroit players scampered off the ice too quickly.

Emotion was running rampant on both sides, high for Crosby and the Penguins, who didn't want to leave, and low for Lidstrom and the Wings, who preferred the quickest escape possible. Put those two things together and, unfortunately, something like this happens.

That's all it is. It wasn't an insult directed at Lidstrom. Hopefully Crosby can get hold of Lidstrom and apologize, and hopefully Lidstrom accepts it, and maybe this thing can be put to rest.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Leftover Finals stuff


Some leftover stuff from a tremendous Final series.

First, it's somewhat incredible that the Penguins had pretty much hit rock-bottom after a deflating loss to the woeful New York Islanders on Feb. 16. Pittsburgh was 10th in the Eastern Conference and a spot in the playoffs was laughable at best, let alone winning a round, reaching the finals or actually winning the whole thing.

Reaching the playoffs became something of a pipe dream, though in the back of our heads, we thought, "Well, if we can get there, then anything can happen." But getting there was the tough part and I didn't expect it to happen.

Then there was the coaching change. The trade of Ryan Whitney for Chris Kunitz and a prospect. Bill Guerin was brought on board for one last run at the Cup. Two moves that were so important. Those two players became top-liners, allowing other players to move into roles more suited for them, adding to the Penguins' depth.

Pittsburgh not just clinched a playoff spot but ended up as the fourth seed, which became home-ice advantage for two series. I'm not sure how far many fans expected the Penguins to advance, but I for one didn't expect a return to the finals, due to a number of factors (short offseason, the overseas trip to Sweden, being in playoff mode for so long, and simply not being as good as last year.)

A victory over Philadelphia in the first round was particularly sweet, as the Flyers are unquestionably Pittsburgh's biggest rival, but the Penguins weren't as impressive in victory as last year, when they steamrolled their way to the final. They got past Washington's scary-good offense and then had to face Cam Ward, who was possibly the NHL's hottest goalie over the last two months.

Once getting past Carolina, winning the Stanley Cup became plausible. Pittsburgh got better as the playoffs progressed and it actually was a better unit than last year, despite the misgivings from that first-round series.

The Penguins seem to play better when they're in trouble. They were one of the best teams, record-wise, when trailing after two periods. In the finals, twice they fell behind in critical situations - 2-0 and 3-2 - and rebounded to win. They essentially played elimination games in Games 3 and 4, while 6 and 7 were actual potential season-ending games. They came through each test with flying colors, and that's why they're now the champions.

I'll be honest when I say, before Game 6, that the one thing I was really hoping for was a win so Detroit wouldn't celebrate in Pittsburgh again. If the Penguins won Game 6, I didn't know if they'd win in Detroit, where they've played some awful games. I just didn't want to see, in person, the Cup awarded again.

It was nice, to say the least, to be able to return the favor.

I don't know if I can pick one memory from the playoffs that stands out. There are a lot to choose from. In the first round, there's Bill Guerin's overtime-winner in Game 2. Or Marc-Andre Fleury's absolutely sick save on Jeff Carter earlier in that game. Max Talbot probably trumps both with his fight against Daniel Carcillo in Game 6, when Talbot put a finger to his lips as he skated to the penalty box, telling the Flyers fans to "Shhh." Pittsburgh then erased a 3-0 deficit and went on to eliminate Philadelphia, 5-3.

That fight would be a really good option, especially seeing as how Talbot ended up with the Cup-winning goal. In the second round, there's Evgeni Malkin's OT winner when I superstitiously stayed in my car after driving home from work, or Sidney Crosby's breakaway that capped a 6-2 win. Or Malkin's unbelievable hat-trick goal in game 2 against Carolina, or Talbot's fluke goal in Game 4 against the Canes.

That's just to name a few, and I'm ecstatic I can have this debate. The Penguins had a phenomenal season and they were a pleasure to watch. So, from me, a hearty thank you for all those memories.

Now, some random stats and observations:

**Conn Smythe winner Evgeni Malkin recorded 36 points, the most in the postseason since 1993. He became just the fifth player since 1968 to lead the regular- and postseason in scoring. The others: Guy LaFleur, Wayne Gretzky, Phil Esposito and Mario Lemieux.

**The Penguins are 9-0 in the playoffs when Max Talbot scores.

**I've seen people criticizing Sidney Crosby for having only three points in the finals. But know what? It's a team game. Crosby carried the team to the finals and sooner or later, someone else had to step up his game. Jordan Staal did. He scored two of the series' biggest goals. Max Talbot did. He got the Cup winner. Marc-Andre Fleury did. Tyler Kennedy did. The defense as a whole did.

Crosby still had more goals in the series than Marian Hossa and Nicklas Lidstrom combined, and it was a game-winner. He still finished with 15 goals - to lead all players - and 31 points in the playoffs.

**The Penguins clinched each series this postseason on the road. Neither of their first two Cups were won on home ice.

**Pittsburgh spit in the face of a number of statistical trends that were going against it. First, the home team had been 12-2 in Game 7 of the finals. The road team hadn't won since 1971. In this series, the home team had been 6-0. No coach who had been hired in midseason won the Stanley Cup since that same 1971 team, the Montreal Canadiens, led by Al MacNeil. Detroit was 11-1 at home in this postseason. And, which was widely discussed, the Penguins became the first team since the 1984 Edmonton Oilers to lose in the finals one year then win the Cup the next.

**No team in any of the three major sports won a road Game 7 to win a championship since baseball's Pittsburgh Pirates in 1979, who also pulled off the feat in...1971.

**No team had trailed 2-0 in a series twice in one postseason and still won the Stanley Cup. Pittsburgh dropped the first two games in Washington before winning in seven games. Only one other team lost the first two games in the finals on the road and still won the Cup in seven games.

**I missed the telecasts of the games in Pittsburgh, since I attended each game, but did it really take until Game 7 for NBC to begin discussing how the rulebook was thrown out for the finals? And it took the Penguins getting away with some violations before they finally talked about it? Both teams got away with a large number of penalties. I wonder if the NHL officials realize that was a problem, and I wonder if they're at all embarrassed at how loosely the series was called. Penguins defenseman Hal Gill alone probably should've been called for at least a half dozen infractions.

I don't blame the players for getting away with penalties. If they're not going to be called for them, then by all means do it. But the rules shouldn't have changed for the finals, and it was clear they did, which is ridiculous.

**Max Talbot became just the third player to score both his team's goals in a finals game 7. The others were now-teammate Ruslan Fedotenko, then with Tampa Bay in 2004, and Vancouver's Trevor Linden in 1994. Fedotenko's Lightning won the Stanley Cup, Linden's Canucks didn't.

**This year's series ended in a similar way to last year's. In Game 6 last year, the Penguins had one last chance as time expired to tie the game, but missed the cage. This year, the Red Wings had one last shot in the final second to tie things up that was stopped.

**For the second straight year, there was something notable about the captains. Last year, Nicklas Lidstrom became the first European captain to hoist the Cup. This year, Sidney Crosby became the youngest captain to do so.

I think that's about all. Congratulations to the Penguins players, coaches and the rest of the organization, on winning, and to the Red Wings for another stellar season.

Flower Power earns a Cup


Well. Where do I begin?

I'd been planning a post on why Marc-Andre Fleury isn't yet an elite goaltender. Something about his inconsistency - i.e. having a performance like in Game 5, then turn around and excel the next game - and how he has a tendency to get into trouble with giving up big rebounds, allow a soft goal at a most inopportune time - think Daniel Cleary's goal in Game 5 - and not handle the puck all that well, which can lead to badness.

All of that will probably still be true when the 2009-10 season begins. But one thing that can be added to Fleury's description is Stanley Cup champion.

The 24-year-old goalie turned in two of the finest games of his career when the Penguins needed them most, in elimination Game 6 and Game 7, with the Stanley Cup on the line.

In Pittsburgh, we call Frank Pietrangelo's stop on Peter Stastny in Game 6 of the 1991 first round, when Stastny had about nine-tenths of the net to shoot at, "The Save." Well, Pietrangelo covered up the other one-tenth with his glove and that's where Stastny shot the puck. The Penguins went on to win the game and Game 7 en route to their first Stanley Cup.

Fleury's two big stops at the end, particularly the diving save on Nicklas Lidstrom, one of the finest defensemen to ever play the game, just before time expired, plus the incredible glove save on Cleary's breakaway near the end of Game 6, will join Pietrangelo's save in Pittsburgh lore. Maybe Fleury's critics, who lambasted him after the first two games and after Game 5, will quiet a little. At least until he gives up his first goal next season.

I wouldn't really have been surprised if Fleury was named the Conn Smythe winner. I didn't expect it, as some of Fleury's early round performances didn't exactly inspire confidence, but he was by far the Penguins' best player in each of the victories in the finals. I can't give him enough credit for how he played when the Penguins' backs were against the wall. Plus his defense corps in front of him, who collectively blocked 20 shots in the final game, including five by Brooks Orpik, who also had nine hits.

Although, after the Penguins took a 2-0 lead, the play was almost always in the Pittsburgh end of the ice. That was distressing and led one to drink even before there was a valid reason to do so. I wasn't too thrilled with that part, and that's on the whole team.

But, more on that 2-0 lead. Some of us in my section in Mellon Arena have taken to calling Max Talbot, "Superstar." This stems from some commercials he made with a local car dealership, which brags about treating every client the same way, as if they're a star. Talbot believes he's receiving superstar treatment, while the owners say everyone gets the same deal.

Well, Talbot played like a superstar Friday night. He was the only forward to score a goal in Game 7, opening the scoring early in the second period after a Detroit clearing attempt went off Evgeni Malkin's skate, then Talbot doubled the lead on a great shot midway through the period. On the second goal, Chris Kunitz - who had just one goal in the playoffs, but still played a lot of productive minutes - made a great play, reaching a loose puck and taking a hit to get the puck up to Talbot.

In a series that featured such star power names as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Marian Hossa, it was Talbot who played a huge hand in deciding the winner.

Talbot scored four goals in the series, as he also netted two in the Game 3 victory. He finished the playoffs with eight goals and 13 points, including four and six in the finals. Hossa, by the way, reverted to his lack of production in the playoffs that he was so harshly criticized for before last season. He did not score a goal and had only three points in the finals, and finished the playoffs with six goals and 14 points.

As I mentioned earlier, Pittsburgh seemed to stop playing, or was simply overwhelmed, after going ahead 2-0. I don't know how many shots the Penguins registered after Talbot's second goal, but they finished with only 18, including just one in the third period. From the time it was 2-0 until the final buzzer, Pittsburgh was in complete survival mode. I didn't expect the lead to hold up.

Jonathan Ericsson's goal after a long, long, long shift in Pittsburgh's end made things exciting, and Niklas Kronwall hit the crossbar with 2:14 left. The Penguins might've made things easier on themselves if they could've won a faceoff, but I believe they won only one in the entire third period, and that was by an injured Crosby. I could be misremembering, but I think they had 13 faceoff wins after the second period. They finished with 14. Under the new math, that means they won one in the third.

Pittsburgh played over half the game - almost two-thirds - without Crosby, who was injured in a collision with Johan Franzen. That contributed to the Penguins' inability to maintain any kind of offensive presence, but even without Crosby, Pittsburgh simply couldn't corral Detroit's attack. The Penguins seemed content to just dump the puck to the center red line and start the process all over. I guess it's tough to argue with the result, but it's not a way to win games consistently. The thing is, of course, is there aren't any more games to win for a few months.

I'll stop things here, but later Saturday or Sunday I'll have a post with some leftover Finals notes and facts. There are a lot of other interesting numbers and tidbits and I think they merit their own post.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Post Game 6


The NHL season has one final game remaining in the 2008-09 season.

The Penguins bounced back impressively from a 5-0 shellacking for one of their best team efforts and held off several late Red Wings charges to stave off elimination, 2-1, in Game 6 Tuesday.

Among the most notable Pittsburgh players who rebounded was goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who made 25 saves and was named the game's No. 1 star. He faced only three shots in the first period - yes, three - but two of them were great chances. Fleury came through with a big save each time.

Neither was bigger than in the game's final moments, when defenseman Brooks Orpik shanked a dump-in attempt after a faceoff win in Detroit's end that turned into a Daniel Cleary breakaway. If Cleary scores, it's a dagger in the heart of the Penguins and the Red Wings might well have gone on to win the game.

But, similar to what he did against Alex Ovechkin in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Fleury came through with a game-saving stop, and Pittsburgh survived Detroit's late push.

Another Penguin who has more than his share of critics provided a big-time performance. Jordan Staal, on a great effort, opened the game's scoring, and ended the contest with three hits and won eight of 14 faceoffs.

Tyler Kennedy chipped a puck past Chris Osgood - who played outstanding and kept the game from becoming a 5-0-type contest - for a two-goal lead, and the Penguins seemed to be in good shape.

Kris Draper got one goal back just a few minutes later, and Detroit earned two power plays in quick succession, but was unable to convert either chance. (Quick sidenote: Both teams committed more than two penalties in the game, particularly the Penguins. The referees might as well not be on the ice.)

Major kudos go out to Pittsburgh defenseman Rob Scuderi, who I wrote about recently as an unsung hero. Scuderi blocked four shots, including two in the waning seconds with Fleury out of the goal cage, and also batted away a loose puck before Nicklas Lidstrom could whack it into an open net earlier in the third period.

Pittsburgh responded in Game 6 exactly the way it needed to. The Penguins out-shot the Red Wings, 12-3 in the first period, and limited Detroit to nine shots in the second period - plus got a break when Henrik Zetterberg hit the post.

Tuesday's was the first real elimination game in the finals for the Penguins, but essentially, they've now played three. If they lost either Game 3 or 4, this series would be over. Now the Red Wings get to play in an elimination game as well, but they have the comfort of playing at home, and Joe Louis Arena has been a house of horrors in the postseason for Pittsburgh. The Penguins won a regular season game there this season but have scored just two goals in three games in the finals. Take away Game 5 last year, and in five postseason games, Pittsburgh has scored...two goals in Detroit.

And, of course, the last time the Joe hosted a game, the Penguins fell into an abyss of misery and undisciplined penalties. Maybe they've gotten their bad game(s) out of their system.

Everything will be decided Friday.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Post Game 5


(Keeping this short so it stays relatively impartial and not become just an angry rant.)

So much for momentum.

The prevailing theme from this series from the Penguins' perspective - apart from the lack of quality officiating, which continues - is Pittsburgh simply not seizing the moments when they come.

I thought Pittsburgh played a great first 6 1/2 minutes but were unable to cash in on two great scoring chances produced by the Evgeni Malkin line. Those players did earn a power play, but that's when the momentum changed.

The Penguins failed not just to generate prime opportunities with the man-advantage but barely even possessed the puck in the Detroit end.

Similar things happened in the first two games, which were both winnable. The Penguins have had plenty of chances to score against the Red Wings.

For the most part, however, they haven't been able to convert, and that's what will be their undoing.

Not to mention failing to beat Detroit in either of the first two games when the Red Wings didn't have Pavel Datsyuk. One win in either of those games and we're looking at a different series. If you can't beat the Red Wings when they're not at full strength, how can you expect to beat them?

The failed power play allowed Detroit a chance to regroup, which it did. A long-range, seemingly stoppable shot by Daniel Cleary eluded Marc-Andre Fleury and some of us had the sense that, "Well, that's it."

Then Chris Kunitz gets called for goalie interference - although it seemed Henrik Zetterberg made just as much, if not more, contact on Chris Osgood - and Detroit generated enough of a territorial edge that eventually Osgood was able to catch the Penguins in a line change for the all-important second goal.

From there, some questionable but also undisciplined penalties put the Penguins into a hole they had little chance of digging out of, and the Red Wings - unlike the Penguins - made the most of the chances given to them. Then it was just a matter of killing time until Game 6.

Datsyuk's return helped Detroit, of course, but I have a feeling his effect will be overblown a tad.

After the Red Wings went up 2-0, Pittsburgh barely mustered any attack, and the game closely resembled the first two games from last year's series, when Detroit out-classed and out-worked Pittsburgh.

So the series returns to Pittsburgh. The Penguins played Games 3 and 4 as if they were elimination games, and opened up Game 5 like that as well, until their own power play led to ruin. Now they face an actual elimination game and one would think the 5-0 embarrassment, plus the sting of watching Detroit celebrate on their ice last year, would lead to the Pittsburgh players coming out more focused, harder working, and more disciplined.

We'll see what haapens.

(If you want to know what I'm really thinking, you'll have to e-mail me.)

Friday, June 5, 2009

Post Game 4


The Penguins picked a good time for one of their best second period performances of the season.

After a first period that mirrored Game 3's - an early Pittsburgh goal followed by a long stretch of uninspired play by the Penguins - that ended in a 1-1 tie after a horrid turnover by Rob Scuderi, Brad Stuart scored less than a minute into the second and the life was further sucked out of the home crowd, not helped by consecutive penalties on Pittsburgh.

But that's when the Penguins made their move, and special teams was the key. Pittsburgh scored on one of their two power plays (they were given just one other one, but more on that later) while Detroit not just failed to score on any of its four chances but gave up a shorthanded goal to Jordan Staal on a fine individual effort to weave around Brian Rafalski and beat Chris Osgood to tie the game at 2-2.

A possible series-changing sequence, and certainly one that altered the outcome of Game 4.

The Penguins finished killing that penalty and less than a minute after it expired, Malkin made a good play to block a dump-in attempt and raced down the ice in a 2-on-1 with Sidney Crosby.

Malkin's first pass was blocked but it came back to him and he got it through to Crosby, who lifted a shot past Osgood for a 3-2 lead. That prompted Mike Babcock to use his timeout, but it didn't help much.

Pittsburgh excels at scoring in bunches and it didn't take long for Tyler Kennedy to make it 4-2. With a strong forecheck, Kennedy forced a turnover where Chris Kunitz took control. A pass to Crosby followed by a quick one-touch pass the opposite direction gave Kennedy an empty net to shoot at, and he didn't miss.

That made three goals in a span of 5:37. All in all, the second period was one of Pittsburgh's finest of the year, playoffs or regular season. They withstood two Red Wings power plays, got a shortie and ended up taking a rare two-goal lead, just their second of the series. The first came after Max Talbot's empty-netter in Game 3.

And they made that lead hold up, which is a little surprising. Pittsburgh has shown a tendency to give up multiple goal leads in the third period, and the first five minutes of the third looked ominous. Fleury played excellently for the second straight game and gradually the ice evened out a little, with the Penguins able to whittle some clock off in the Detroit end of the rink.

You'll have to forgive me, however, if I wonder why the final score wasn't 5-2. Here's why:

57.4 Awarded Goal - If, when the opposing goalkeeper has been removed from the ice, a player in control of the puck in the neutral or attacking zone is tripped or otherwise fouled with no opposition between him and the opposing goal, thus preventing a reasonable scoring opportunity, the Referee shall immediately stop play and award a goal to the attacking team.

Late in the game, with Osgood on the bench, Kunitz had control of the puck, gazing at an empty net, and was fouled from behind by Niklas Kronwall. Bill McCreary, supposedly one of the NHL's best and most veteran referees, apparently forgot this rule and merely shipped Kronwall to the box for hooking instead of awarding the Penguins a goal. The above is straight from the NHL rulebook and there is nothing that says "referee's discretion." It says in plain black and white, a goal shall be awarded.

Oh well, I guess.

Anyway, it is now a best-of-three series. And in the third period, the Red Wings were looking a bit tired. They hoped to have Pavel Datsyuk back in the lineup but, despite taking the pre-game skate, Datsyuk said he was not ready to play.

Momentum, confidence, and whatnot are definitely on the Penguins' side now, but the Red Wings should be bolstered by playing Game 5 at home, and I'll be shocked if Datsyuk isn't in the lineup Saturday. Babcock will get to play his matchups and force Dan Bylsma to make adjustments based on that. There's probably no one rooting for Datsyuk's return more than Henrik Zetterberg, as maybe Crosby is beginning to wear Zetterberg out.

I thought Crosby and Malkin were great Thursday, and maybe they're figuring out how to get through Detroit's defense. One persistent problem for Pittsburgh is breaking out of the defensive zone, culminated by Scuderi's turnover in the first period. It seemed like just a matter of time before a play like that happened.

Obviously, Game 5 is a turning point for the series. The Penguins should know they can win that game and the series, while the Red Wings are possibly beginning to think they can lose.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Off-day news and notes from elsewhere


Wednesday was an off-day for the finals, but there have been some interesting news bits going on lately. (Yes, this is a rather shameless steal of WRT's post down below.)

**First, I'm going to steal from someone else - Puck Daddy I believe - who said Jacques Martin was done ruining the Florida Panthers, so now he's going to further ruin the Montreal Canadiens, who hired Martin to become their next head coach.

Good news for the Panthers, who Martin didn't help by not trading free agent-to-be Jay Bouwmeester. Rather than move the highly coveted defenseman for, well, anything, Martin stood pat, and Florida missed the playoffs. Hindsight might be 20/20, but Martin's goal should've been to build a Stanley Cup-winning team, not a playoff-contending team, and if moving Bouwmeester would've aided in achieving the first goal, he should've done so.

Last season, the Canadiens suffered through a disappointing year on many fronts, culminating in a first-round sweep at the hands of the archrival Bruins. Martin once won the Jack Adams Trophy but only once in 14 years as a coach has he taken a team to the conference finals. Hard to imagine how big an influence - positive anyway - Martin will have in Montreal.

Even with less than a month before the draft to find a new GM, Florida is better off without Martin.

This is also good timing for Minnesota fans, as Chuck Fletcher might have decided Florida was the place to go, having worked there before.

**In other hiring and firing news, Colorado cleaned house, removing Tony Granato as head coach, relieving all assistants - even the video coach - of their duties, and promoted assistant GM Greg Sherman to the post of general manager. Granato probably figured his time was nearing its end with the not-so-subtle courting of Patrick Roy to be the Avs' next head coach.

Sherman has his work cut out for him to fix a team that finished near the bottom of the NHL standings, has very little cap room, an aging franchise star (Joe Sakic) who doesn't know if he'll play next season or not, and a vacancy in net. Maybe Colorado should've asked Roy to be coach and goalie?

-Dallas decided the co-GM experiment with Brett Hull and Les Jackson wasn't working, but isn't ready to give up on the "former players can be good GMs" mindset by replacing those two with Joe Nieuwendyk. The Hull-Jackson duo didn't help themselves with that little Sean Avery signing.

Cliff Fletcher thinks Nieuwendyk is front-office material, and Nieuwendyk also must work to get the Stars back into the playoffs.

-Lastly, these two notes are older so just a brief mention: Edmonton hired Pat Quinn to be their next head coach and Calgary seeks a replacement for the unsurprisingly-fired Mike Keenan.

**Boston rewarded young center David Krejci with a three-year extension reported to be worth $11.25 million. Krejci enjoyed a career season with 22 goals, 51 assists and a league-best +37 rating, and was a big part of the Bruins earning the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. He was second on the team in assists and points.

One problem is the 23-year-old will have surgery that will keep him out four-to-six months, possibly missing the first month of the regular season. Krejci had his share of slumps in his sophomore season. He finished the regular season with one goal in his last 16 games, recovered to put up two goals and five points in the sweep of Montreal but had just three assists in the seven-game series against Carolina.

Still, a good contract for a player who should continue to improve.

**The Capitals need to re-stock their Russians after Sergei Federov and Viktor Kozlov apparently made plans to join the KHL. Both players saw time with Alex Ovechkin and the absences of both create some holes in Washington's lineup.

Also rumored to be moving to the KHL is Penguins winger Petr Sykora, who played so poorly down the stretch and in the playoffs that he hasn't skated in a game since early in the second-round series against Washington, and only six total playoff games.

**A congratulations to Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Penguins beat writer Dave Molinari for winning the Hockey Hall of Fame's Elmer Ferguson Award for his print journalism contributions to hockey over what is a 26-year ongoing career.

Also to John Davidson, now president of St. Louis, who won the Foster Hewitt Award for broadcasting.

**Finally, a bit of fun. The biggest rumor to be gaining steam lately seems to be Tampa Bay prepared (or at least trying) to trade Vincent Lecavalier to Los Angeles, which would send Jack Johnson to the Lightning. Johnson - Sidney Crosby's best friend, who wants to play in Pittsburgh - has apparently said he doesn't want to play in Tampa, so the Lightning would turn around and send him to Pittsburgh for Jordan Staal.

That's all for now. Talk to you after Game 4.

Post Game 3


One bad officiating game begets another, I guess.

For 21 seconds in the first period, the Penguins played with six men on the ice. Somehow, no on-ice official noticed, or at least didn't call the infraction.

I'd be remiss if I didn't rail against the officiating after having done it below, but that about sums up what the series has been like, and the refereeing is becoming a theme. One would think the league doesn't want the officials to become a story, but they have, and again in Game 3, a number of violations went unpunished by both teams.

Honestly, this is becoming a joke, and it's happening on the NHL's marquee stage. As I commented below, referees tend to say they don't want to affect the outcome of the game by calling penalties, but they fail to realize they're affecting the outcome of the game by not calling penalties. The rule book is there for a reason, and it's so rules aren't broken. NFL officials have no hesitation to call holding in the final two minutes of the Super Bowl, baseball umpires call strikes in the ninth inning of the World Series. But for some reason, NHL and NBA referees take a far more liberal approach to enforcing the rules.

The product that's out there is not what hockey has been like this season. If someone in either sweater commits a foul, call it. You can take "letting them play" only so far. Showcase the talented players that are on the ice, don't let them fall back into the abyss of holding and interference that bogs them down. Don't go overboard with the calls, but I'd think that's better than going overboard with the non-calls.

Off the soapbox. This incessant discussion about this subject is surely tiring to read, but it's not something that should be ignored either.

Anyway, onto the game.

In a way, this was the typical Pittsburgh game. Dominant early, lackluster for the latter half of the first period and most of the second, dominant again in the third.

The Penguins controlled play early, and actually scored a goal (sometimes they're dominant early without scoring a goal) but Detroit answered quickly, got a power play and went ahead 2-1. After Pittsburgh's goal, the Red Wings dictated play in the first period.

Detroit controlled the action in the second period too, out-shooting Pittsburgh 14-4 in the frame. But Marc-Andre Fleury - who has faced harsh criticism, which I feel is undeserved - stood tall and kept the Wings off the scoreboard.

The second period is typically Pittsburgh's worst and that was the case Tuesday. The third period is probably their strongest, and the Penguins had one of the league's best records when trailing after two periods.

They weren't trailing going into the third but still came out to play. Pittsburgh limited Detroit to three shots in the final period. Jonathan Ericsson took an interference penalty, and Sergei Gonchar powered a slapper past Chris Osgood for what proved to be the game-winning goal.

What followed the goal was a long stretch of end-to-end action, then the Penguins did a superb job hemming the Red Wings in their own end for several minutes, rarely allowing any threat to Fleury's goal. Then Max Talbot iced the cake with his second goal of the game into an empty net with 56.4 seconds remaining, and the Penguins earned their first win of the series.

The lesson to be learned through three games seems to be, let your opponent get more shots. Pittsburgh out-shot Detroit in the first two games (32-30 and 32-26) and the Red Wings tallied a higher total in Game 3, 29-21.

The Penguins got a sorely needed win, and having been confident even after dropping the first two games, should be more so knowing that yes, they can skate with the Red Wings and beat them. Whether they're back in the series will be determined Thursday. A win tonight means little if the Penguins lose Game 4.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Post Game 2


It's hard enough beating a team as good as the Red Wings. It's even tougher when that team has luck on its side, in addition to the skill.

The breaks and bounces are continuing to go Detroit's way, evidenced again by Justin Abdelkader's goal, which was batted by a couple sticks and ended up at his feet anyway, for another whack-a-puck goal that Marc-Andre Fleury badly misplayed. Sure, Fleury should've and needed to stop the puck, but Abdelkader was lucky just to be able to shoot the puck. Bad defensive play as well, I'll grant you. Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi shouldn't have led the forward skate in like that.

This series really could have any result so far, from the Penguins up 2-0, to tied 1-1, or to what is deservingly Detroit 2-0. The Red Wings are continuing to show their superiority but there have been chinks in the armor.

The problem is, Pittsburgh's arrows aren't finding those chinks. In Game 2, it was in the form of three posts.

It isn't helping when the officiating also goes Detroit's way. Now hang on a second, before you go off saying I'm crying. When a neutral television station broadcasting the game goes so far as to start to put up their "delayed penalty" graphic on what appears to be an obvious penalty, and then has to take it down because the referees let the play go, that sort of suggests that there should've been a penalty on the play. You don't see a TV network do that very often.

Marian Hossa hooked Pascal Dupuis in the Pittsburgh zone, forcing a turnover near the blue line. No penalty on the play, and a few seconds later, in the same shift, with the same players, Detroit scores to make it 2-1.

Then there's this, brought to you by the NHL rulebook:

Rule 67 - Handling Puck

67.4 Penalty Shot - If a player, except a goalkeeper, while play is in progress, falls on the puck, holds the puck, picks up the puck, or gathers the puck into his body or hands from the ice in the goal crease area, the play shall be stopped immediately and a penalty shot shall be awarded to the non-offending team.

Didn't Henrik Zetterberg break this rule late in the third period off a Sidney Crosby chance, when Zetterberg was lying on the goal line? That certainly wasn't Chris Osgood covering the puck. Zetterberg seemed to have also frozen the puck in Game 1 when the puck fell on Osgood's back.

I had a non-Penguins fan friend email me wondering where the penalty shot was, so don't try to call me a whiner. Haven't I given Detroit credit for being up 2-0?

I guess it wasn't a violation because the puck was shot into Zetterberg? But shouldn't he have had to move the puck after it hit him? Isn't that "holding the puck"?

Anyway, Pittsburgh again had some chances to score and missed most of them. So those two non-calls, while crucial, aren't what decided the game. The Penguins are just missing on passes, shots and clearing attempts. Detroit, not so much.

Like last year, I'm impressed at how well Detroit plays defense and supports the puck. It usually seems like there's seven or eight Red Wings on the ice, and that's a compliment. There's rarely open space for the opposition to find, and Detroit passes inevitably find teammates.

What chances the Penguins get simply must be converted, and they're not doing that. What's also stood out is each time Pittsburgh misses on a prime scoring chance, the Red Wings score shortly after, and it happened again in Game 2. Like I said above, the Penguins could easily be up 2-0 in this series. But they're not, and they have their work cut out for them if they want to win this series.

(P.S. Where are those 1984 Oilers vibes now? Isn't history on Pittsburgh's side here?)