Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The calm before the disaster


Count me as someone who is not looking forward to July 1.

Granted, those who know me know that over the last 15 years, I've had exactly seven cheerful, optimistic thoughts. So I'm not exactly one to talk to when the subject involves "hope" or "wishful thinking" or whatnot. I believe that train of thought is worthless. But that's just me. Those of a brighter disposition can do what they want.

This time, I'm thinking I might be justified.

See, when the Penguins acquired the rights to defenseman du jour Dan Hamhuis, my first thought was, "There goes Sergei Gonchar." Then a strange thing happened. Somehow, somewhere, someone implanted the notion in my head that maybe, just maybe, Pittsburgh could sign both Gonchar and Hamhuis.

Such a scenario would continue to leave the top-six winger position vacant, but Hamhuis would help shore up a porous defense that became horribly exposed in the playoffs. It could work, I thought. Strength down the middle at center and at defense and the Penguins will be fine. Stopping goals was a bigger problem than scoring them.

So, I hoped. And I'm an idiot. A disappointed one.

Doesn't look like Gonchar or Hamhuis will sign. One wants more money and years. One wants to be somewhere else. Both can probably get more money elsewhere.

Therein lies Pittsburgh's problem. The Penguins have a lot to offer free agents. A team that's just one year removed of winning the Stanley Cup. A nice new arena. A good city with a strong fan base.

But not money. Not a lot of that to go around. Enough for one or two big players unless they want to break the bank. If that's what it's going to come down to, Ray Shero will likely miss out on the top targets, and there might be more holes in the lineup than before. Even Bill Guerin, Jordan Leopold and Mark Eaton might not return.

Instead of being excited about the start of free agency, I approach noon July 1 with dread. It just feels like it'll be a bleak summer for my Penguins, which is not how I approached the last two offseasons.

Maybe I'm wrong. We'll find out in the next few days. But I'm not getting my hopes up.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Pittsburgh: What is the plan?


When Brian Gionta gave Montreal a 5-2 lead midway through the third period of Game 7, it was time for Penguins management and fans to turn their attention to the free agency market to search for answers to the team's problems.

I, however, did not. I was on my seventh beer by that point and it was all I could do to see straight. I wondered why the usher was giving me funny looks as I was deep in conversation with a trash receptacle.

Anyway, now sober, I'll examine Pittsburgh's roster situation and provide sheer speculation, with no facts or inside information, on what might happen. Or, what I'd like to see general manager Ray Shero do.

Of course, when discussing the potential offseason moves, one must first list the free agents Shero has. The unrestricted ones are wingers Alexei Ponikarovsky, Ruslan Fedotenko, Matt Cooke and Bill Guerin, defensemen Sergei Gonchar, Mark Eaton, Jay McKee and Jordan Leopold. Additionally, minor league players Ryan Bayda, Ben Lovejoy and Chris Lee are up for new contracts. The most important one in that third group is Lovejoy, who is a frontrunner to be on the NHL team next season. Bayda performed well in training camp but spent the season in the AHL.

The only restricted free agent of note is Chris Conner, who appeared in a handful of games, most notably scoring a pair of goals alongside Sidney Crosby in a win at New York. Nick Johnson signed a one-year contract already, removing him from the list of RFAs.

First, the goners. McKee and Fedotenko have as much chance of being on the Penguins roster next season as I do. (Though it should be noted that I believe I am more mobile than McKee and more accurate on empty nets from five feet away than Fedotenko.) Ponikarovsky struggled since coming over in a trade with Toronto and it is now likely he won't be back. It's also not looking good for Gonchar, who is looking for his final contract as an NHLer. Shero doesn't seem too enamored with committing a significant amount of cash to a 36-year-old defenseman who's been picking up injuries lately, no matter how much game he has left.

Some reports have indicated Shero wants to give Gonchar just one year. Gonchar is looking for three. Now some rumors have surfaced about trading Gonchar's rights.

One Web site out there is suggesting Cooke will not return to Pittsburgh either. The jury is out on Guerin, Eaton and Leopold, who all might return. For the blue liners, it depends very much on what happens with Gonchar. Eaton is probably the one most likely to re-sign. Leopold, after an unspectacular but not horrid start, became one of Pittsburgh's top two-way defensemen. Until he was laid out by Andy Sutton. When he returned, he wasn't the same player. Still, it might be a good idea to bring him back.

Guerin supposedly wants to play one more season, but he's going to need to play slightly fewer minutes as his body ages another year. Shero will look at other options first, I think, but Guerin might yet finish his career in Pittsburgh.

Based on what "seems" to be true, the Penguins need the following: A winger for Sidney Crosby (stunning; this position is normally so stable), one or two wingers for Evgeni Malkin, and a bunch of defensemen, including a potential power play quarterback. Pascal Dupuis is a wild card; he might end up filling Cooke's role on the third line or could be slotted in somewhere in the top two. Pittsburgh has plenty of grinders for the bottom two lines.

On defense, Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski are the only ones signed for next season. We're going to assume Eaton and Lovejoy come to terms. Letang and Goligoski might be ready to handle full-time power play duties. If Gonchar signs elsewhere, that makes it more likely Leopold returns. He, Eaton and Lovejoy can also help out on the power play.

The main target(s), as usual, is a winger to put the puck in the net. Rumors abound that Nathan Horton will be traded, and soon. Frankly, I'd give my left testicle to get Horton. That might be a bit extreme, but as I said on Twitter recently, after seeing the likes of Dupuis, Fedotenko and Max Talbot in top-six roles, Horton looks like Bobby Hull.

Horton has had injury problems, but he's only 25, he's got great size (6-2, 229), he's got a nice contract (three years, $4 million hit/year) and he's managed three seasons of over 25 goals, including one with 31, while playing in Florida. My favorite part is he's a right-handed shooter. I don't know what the Panthers would look for in return, so the price in a trade might be too high.

I also saw a funny rumor that Chicago might trade Marian Hossa, but I think I mentioned that in a previous post. So let's look at free agent wingers. I would guess Shero would pursue Ray Whitney, Alexander Frolov and/or Lee Stempniak. I'd like to see any of those guys in black and gold. Slava Kozlov is too old and probably doesn't have any game left, Paul Kariya might be too expensive, and Patrick Marleau and Ilya Kovalchuk are definitely out of the price range.

Teemu Selanne was linked with the Penguins in a report I saw, but I can't imagine that happening. My guess is Selanne retires a Duck, whenever he does retire. Vinny Prospal had a good season for the Rangers, which means he'll have a bad one next year but he might still be a fallback option. I'll pass on Alex Tanguay, I think, who couldn't seem to gel with either Vincent Lecavalier or Steven Stamkos.

Most people in Pittsburgh have such a hard-on for a Colby Armstrong return it's distressingly pathetic. I think it's more likely a trade happens to bring back Hossa before Armstrong re-signs here. Other options might be Jason Williams, Maxim Afinogenov or (gulp) Mike Comrie, but I'm really hoping for someone else.

I think I depressed myself over the winger options, so let's turn to the D. Mainly what Pittsburgh needs is a rugged, big body. The Penguins can probably survive Gonchar's loss offensively, but the defensive end was the bigger liability. Anton Volchenkov solves that, but he will be at the top of many teams' wish list, which will drive his price up and out of Pittsburgh. Other options include Dan Hamhuis, Zybnek Michalek, or Andy Sutton. Maybe Toni Lydman or Aaron Ward.

If offense turns into a need, Joe Corvo or Derek Morris might be available.

In an ideal, non-cap world, my Christmas-in-Summer list has Marleau and Volchenkov at the top. More realistically, I'd settle for a Whitney (or Horton)-Sutton combo, maybe with another piece or two here and there.

Regardless, this is one of the two funnest times of the year. The other is trade deadline day. All kinds of rumor and frenzy are flying around, and as we've seen with the Jaroslav Halak trade and the seemingly-imminent Horton trade, we don't need to wait until July 1 for the craziness to start.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

For Sale


Only one team gets to revel and wallow in blissful euphoria following a gloriously successful season.

The rest have to figure out what went wrong, and how to fix it. Some have more problems than others. Some teams have better solutions than others. Then there's 60 percent of the Southeast Division, which is rarely able to even put a band-aid on the gaping wounds in their organizations.

Hitting the Post hereby reveals a breaking news story: Free agents are often looked upon as "missing links" or "key ingredients." Sometimes they work (see Chicago: Hossa, Marian) and sometimes they don't (see Rangers: Anyone.) Thusly, HtP reveals an exclusive list of several marquee free agents. You will not find these names anywhere else. (Assuming you don't look anywhere else.)

Ilya Kovalchuk
This is the big enchilada in the pond. He's good. Scores a bunch of goals, creates some havoc. Just don't ask him to enter the defensive zone. Don't make him captain either. He's Russian, so you also have to send him to a cardiologist to see if he has any heart.

You'll also need to back up the Brinks truck to get him to sign. At 27, Kovalchuk is just entering his prime.

Patrick Marleau
He may have earned some more cash with his performances in the second and third rounds of the playoffs. Invisible in the first round, Marleau - who's often had his postseason resume questioned - finished with eight goals in 14 playoff games. Had anyone else bothered to show up for San Jose, maybe the Sharks would've hoisted that silver thing.

Apart from that, Marleau is a threat to score 30 goals every season. He peaked at 44 with the arrival of Dany Heatley, who himself scored a lot. Marleau, 30, is also capable of taking and winning many faceoffs. He's also going to be pricey, so my Penguins won't get him, even though he's basically exactly what they need (goals and faceoffs.) Stupid salary cap.

Olli Jokinen
Wait, I said this was a list of marquee free agents. Moving on.

Sergei Gonchar
There's still some gas left in the tank for this 36-year-old defenseman, who might or might not re-sign in Pittsburgh. According to Pierre LeBrun over at ESPN, Gonchar seems to be looking for a three-year deal, while Pittsburgh is hesitant, perhaps justifiably so, to go beyond one.

Gonchar showed his age at times but still recorded 50 points in 62 regular season games (11 goals) along with 12 postseason points in 13 appearances. He remains a top-notch offensive blue liner and his defensive game is underrated.

Ray Whitney
Once New Jersey removed Kovalchuk from the trade market, Whitney stepped in as many teams' top choice. Sometimes confused for the bad R. Whitney (defenseman Ryan, now in Edmonton), Ray was one of the most dangerous players for a Carolina team that actually was pretty competitive once the season started in December. (I know, it started in October. Well, the Hurricanes didn't begin playing until December.)

Whitney is older than Gonchar, at 38, so he's more likely to be running on fumes first, but put up 21 goals and 58 points last season. Normally good for the 25 to 35 range for goals, Whitney is also capable of manning one of the point positions on the power play. A cheaper option than Kovalchuk or Marleau, Whitney will also provide lesser production but will still be a valuable addition for a team looking to get over the hump. (Like my Penguins. But he's too expensive for them too, probably. Stupid salary cap.)

Pavel Kubina
Fans of Western Conference teams are saying: Who? That's what happens when your career involves Tampa Bay, Toronto and Atlanta. Kubina is a slightly younger, right-handed, poor man's Gonchar. At 33, Kubina provides a dangerous shot from the blue line, with five seasons of double digit goal-scoring in his career. He's normally good for around 40 points a season, though with talent around him, might be able to up that.

Or might not. During the Lightning's run to the Stanley Cup, Kubina registered just four assists in the postseason after tallying 17 goals in the regular season. Still, teams looking for a power play quarterback should give him a call.

Anton Volchenkov
For Minnesota fans, just picture another Greg Zanon. Except a little bit better and much more expensive. For those unfamiliar, Volchenkov is better at stopping pucks than Vesa Toskala. A great shot-blocker, Volchenkov puts the "defense" back into "defenseman." If he's not stopping pucks, he's likely to throw a hit.

Goalie 1, Goalie 2
These two guys are the same. Both are aging goaltenders who probably can still stop a puck, but questions exist over their mettle when spring hockey is played. One's already been run out of his old town in favor for a guy with injury problems. The other was part of yet another underachieving team.

Their names: Marty Turco and Evgeni Nabokov.

Those are essentially the big-name free agents. Some might not get to July 1. Lesser names include guys like wingers Alexei Ponikarovsky and Alexander Frolov, centers Matt Cullen and Saku Koivu, defensemen Andy Sutton (poor man's Volchenkov), Paul Martin and Joe Corvo, and goalies Jose Theodore and Chris Mason just to name a few. Some key restricted free agents include centers Tomas Plekanec and Joe Pavelski, wingers Wojtek Wolski and Blake Wheeler and defenseman Erik Johnson.

I seem to recall HtP held a chat last July 1 for all the free agent goings-on. Might have it again this year. If I'm not catching up on my sleep from the World Cup, which is a distinct possibility.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

There But For the Grace of God

This is a story of two Canadian boys.

Hockey players.

Both are centers, both are captains of their respective NHL teams.

Both highly touted from a young age, though one considerably more than the other.

Both played at Shattuck-St. Mary's in their youth, one year apart.

One played in Canadian juniors, the other played in the NCAA.

One received the attention and idolatry befitting the next great one to assume the mantle of the greatest among the game, the other not so much.

One has two more years in the NHL than the other.

One is mentioned with friends with names like Hart, Ross, Pearson and Messier.

The other hangs out with a buddy named Smythe.

Both have earned the right to wear Olympic gold around their neck.

One was the youngest full-time captain to win the Stanley Cup.

The other was the 2nd youngest full-time captain to win the Stanley Cup.

The other was the named Best Forward in the Olympics.

The other is the youngest person to gain entry into the Triple Gold Club (World Junior, Olympics, Stanley Cup). One won't be invited into that club.

One is the face of the NHL. The other can't even get a decent likeness of himself on a billboard in his NHL hometown.

Can you tell which is which?


Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Who's laughing now?


Funny. Many people had lots of laughs when Patrick Kane had his run-in with the law before the season. Now he joins the exclusive list of players who scored the Stanley Cup-clinching goal in overtime. Even if the only people who knew the puck went in were Kane and Patrick Sharp, leading to one of the strangest and most anticlimactic celebrations in team sports history.

Blog's been quiet; I've had some stuff going on, didn't feel like writing. Also couldn't stomach writing about successful Philadelphia playoff games, so that didn't help.

Pierre McGuire just asked Joel Quenneville a question about whether Antti Niemi is for real or not. Plenty of us wondered about that. We're all idiots.

Niemi didn't have a stellar Finals series, but he won games. In my book, he was neck-and-neck with Jonathan Toews for the Conn Smythe Trophy from Chicago through three rounds. Now, if Chicago can just find a taker for Cristobal Huet and his albatross of a contract...

This was a thoroughly entertaining series. No real blowouts. Game 5 might've been a 7-4 final and was a three-goal game a couple times, but the Flyers constantly came back from all kinds of deficits, and they didn't quit in that game either. Philadelphia's forwards are among the most talented in the league, so no lead was safe, especially with how Chicago was, at times, rather undisciplined and careless with the puck in the defensive zone.

I'd have enjoyed the series more if Philadelphia wasn't in it. As it was, I had to root rather vehemently for the Blackhawks.

Questions about Michael Leighton might be done too. Sure, he was pulled twice in the series and ended up on the losing end of things, but his improbable run of success kept going on and on despite many people thinking otherwise.

The scary thing is Chicago is set up, more than any other team, to do this again and again. The Blackhawks are in cap trouble for future seasons, and I doubt there's a long line of suitors for Huet. Could a buyout be in the future? If it clears enough space, maybe.

The Blackhawks are loaded. Toews, Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Kris Versteeg, Dustin Byfuglien, Dave Bolland... will they all be back? They look to get help if the salary cap does indeed rise by $2 million as Gary Bettman said it might. (Update: Niemi is a restricted free agent. How much is he going to make next season? Dude just won the Cup as the starter.)

That's a problem for the front office to figure out, once the celebrating is done. What matters right now is Chicago broke a 49-year Cup-less streak.

Philadelphia put on a hell of a challenge. The last team to qualify for the playoffs, and doing so only in a shootout on the final day, the Flyers tore through New Jersey, made a historic comeback against Boston and got something of a walkover in a Montreal squad that ran out of gas. But in the Final, Philadelphia gave Chicago everything it could handle.

Both teams didn't know what they had in their goalies. Both might be fairly content (Chicago more so) right now.

Great postseason from both, and congratulations to Chicago and its fans. And a big thank you from everyone in Pittsburgh and probably Washington.

Twenty two days until the start of free agency.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Another One Bites the Dust

Flyers goalie, that is. For a kid who was unconscious against the Habs, Leighton sure came crashing back to earth in the Finals. Ouch. Jeff Carter too....put the "over" in over-rated during this series.

Anyone else notice how Madden seems to have the same calming effect on the Hawks that Pronger (allegedly) does on the Flyers - yet does so without all the jackassery and megalomania? And, oh by the way, remind me again which of them has won more Cups? Bottom line: Pronger takes care of number one. (Whether his wife likes it or not.) That's his prerogative of course. But can we please stop the canonization now?

Great series.

Good series for the NHL too. Two big markets, two gritty teams, Milbury didn't even have any reason to pull a Eurotrash comment out of his ass.

For all the comments about the 09-10 Hawks being the next incarnation of 83-84 Oilers, forget it. Salary cap, people! Scotty Bowman's smug, crooked little grin as he was raising a Cup he barely had a hand in - yet managed to squeeze his butt through the bench door to make sure he was in the spotlight to celebrate ("where have you gone, Dale Tallon? Hawks nation turns a lonely eye to you....woo woo woo...") - seemed to being saying "enjoy this while you can, son. For tomorrow's quite another day indeed."

And so it likely shall be for the Cap-strapped Hawks. Pocklington may not have had the dough available to keep the band together in Edmonton forever (either that or he had a clinically inappropriate affinity for Jimmy Carson) but the point is that, if he had, he could have kept the band together. Not so, Stan Bowman.

So, I hope the Hawks and their fans enjoy this. They certainly deserve it. Chicago is too important a market for the NHL to have been an after thought for as long as they were. Old man gets out of the canoe, son steps in and breathes new life into the organization, league rewards them with a Cup. It ain't a fairy tale, but it's as close as we can get in the sports world.

*** *** ***

My thanks to KiPA for keeping HTP going this season. Without getting into the (boring) whys, I just didn't have it in me for much of the season. Kevin kept the blog alive with his spot on reporting and sharp writing. I owe ya, Kev. Big.