Posted on: December 31, 2010 1:05 pm

No shootout necessary

PITTSBURGH -- For the 12,000 fans who were lucky enough to get one of the limited tickets available, (and even those who paid up to $160 to scalpers) the end to today’s alumni game didn’t really matter.

Obviously it would have been better had the Penguins defeated the Washington Capitals rather than tying them 5-5 in this politically correct-labeled old-timers matchup, even  more so had former captain and current team owner Mario Lemieux scored a goal or three.  But Lemieux did get a couple of assists, one of them on a goal by Rob Brown, his former linemate who might have appreciated the setup more had it come 23 years ago.

“He finally got me my 50th,”  laughed Brown, who scored 49 times in his best season with the Penguins.

Mind you, no one was complaining on what late, great Penguins coach Bob Johnson would have definitely called a great day for hockey. The temperature was 41 degrees at the start, it was dry and the sun managed to pop out before it was all over.

“It was fun to be a part of,” Lemieux said. “I saw some old faces again, guys I haven’t seen for a long time, some guys from the Cup years and older guys. It was pretty special for all of us. These are memories that we can cherish for a long time." 

For those in the stands though, this was less about creating memories than bringing back old ones, most notably when the Penguins showed flashes of the past by taking the lead on the power play late in the final period. Paul Coffey started things with a familiar rush, Lemieux directed traffic from the wall on his off wing and Larry Murphy quarterbacked from the point, with Ron Francis and Kevin Stevens doing the screening in front of Caps goalie Don Beaupre.

“Pretty much the same setup we had 20 years ago,” Lemieux laughed. “It looked like we knew what we were doing.”

Apparently because Francis neatly deflected the shot Murphy took after a feed from Lemieux. The Caps didn't quit though and drew even before it was over on a goal by Peter Bondra.

“What else do you expect from that guy,” Stevens said. “Some things never change.”

Even when they do.
Category: NHL
Posted on: December 28, 2010 4:04 pm

Sutter flames out

Funny thing about Flames GM Darryl Sutter being shown the door is that Calgary has won its last two games. One of them was even on the road in Dallas against one of the league’s top teams.

Normally that would delay the inevitable, which is this case is Sutter getting finally pushed aside, but only for so long.

Of course his brother, coach Brent, might be the next to go, a decision that is now up to new GM Jay Feaster. Feaster won a Stanley Cup in that role with Tampa Bay and was hired last summer as Darryl Sutter’s assistant, a fallback position for the team’s ownership that was as obvious then as it is now.

The Flames may not have quite been ready to face the reality of their situation last summer, but midway through another season that will end a lot earlier than anyone wants,  the higher-ups have obviously come to terms with the need for a different type of builder.

Feaster will bring a view of the world that better understands the NHL of today along with the painful lessons he learned about the salary cap after winning the Cup. And he’ll be able to operate without being encumbered by any of the  personal ‘loyalties’ that have become ingrained in the organization.

The Sutter family produced six brothers who played in the NHL and now has some of their offspring on the ice, resulting in a level of iconic status in their native province of Alberta. That provided a lot of latitude for Darryl over the seven years he served (including two seasons as coach) he’s been with the Flames in terms of personnel on and off the ice. But the bottom line is that Sutter got them to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2004, ironically against Feaster’s Lightning, and had been living off that ever since.

Calgary managed to catch some lightning in a bottle that pre-lockout season after missing the previous seven playoffs, but they flamed out once play resumed in large part because Sutter never quite seemed to understand just how much the game had changed after the stoppage. Sutter not only mismanaged the salary cap to the point his team played some games below the roster limit, he made questionable trades and signings and constructed lineups that were plodding, old and slow in a game that has become all about youth, quickness and agility. And Sutter never put together the kind of offense that could at least provide adequate support for franchise player Jarome Iginla.

The Flames made opening round exits in the first four seasons after the lockout, and then missed the playoffs entirely last season, Calgary’s first after Brent had been controversially hired away from New Jersey.  The brothers found themselves on thin ice as far as the rabid fan base was concerned, and Darryl didn’t help matters when his two biggest off-season moves were bringing back forwards Olli Jokinen and Alex Tanguay, both of whom had been essentially run out of the town.

And now the Flames are 14th in the West and all but mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. This team needs a rebuild, one that would be helped immeasurably be helped if Iginla, who has been in high gear of late, agrees to waive his no-trade clause.

Sutter may or may not have gotten around to asking that of someone who has carried the team during his tenure, but now that he has, ahem, 'stepped down' it doesn't matter. Feaster will figure that part out and more important, he’ll take the team in a much different direction. It's a much-needed change.
Category: NHL
Posted on: December 16, 2010 1:23 pm

The skinny on Skinner's skating

So how is it that someone who was a nationally-ranked figure skater as a kid raises concerns about his ability on the blades? Hurricanes rookie Jeff Skinner has heard those knocks since the scouting reports on him began to emerge when he was a junior player, even if they tended to be always tempered with glowing remarks about his ability to score.

Not that it really bothered the five-foot-10, 193-pound forward, who as a child had a role as extra in the movie “Death to Smoochy” with Danny DeVito and Robin Williams because of his skating and is now opening eyes with his overall play this season for Carolina.

“I guess I have an interesting stride,” said Skinner, who gave up figure skating to concentrate on hockey when he was 12. “I’m a shorter guy that has sort of a longer stride and that’s not really common. Usually shorter guys have longer strides and quicker feet, but I think I have a more powerful stride.”

Skinner, 18, said that comes from what he learned from using the skinny blades, skills he believes helped his edge worked and ultimately his hockey game. But he understands that's also why many people tend to question his skating, although none of them are in Carolina these days.

“It depends what you’re looking at it,” Carolina GM Jim Rutherford said. “If you’re looking at pure speed from point A to point B, that’s not the type of skater he is. Jeff isn’t the fastest guy around, but he’s very agile and a very strong skater.”

Not to mention being a deceptive one, according to his coach.

“It doesn’t look like he’s going fast because he has a very unusual gait, but he slides by people somehow and beats them,” Paul Maurice said. “If the one thing about him is that he’s not a great skater then he’s going to be a great player who’s not a great skater.

“It’s like saying you’re a good coach but you’re ugly. If you’re still a great player, it doesn’t matter what part of your elements aren’t there. And at 18, he’s damn good player.”


Category: NHL
Posted on: December 15, 2010 11:52 pm

The view from the bench

Good thing Paul Maurice was in an upbeat mood, although coaches tend to be that way after their teams rally from three-goal deficits the way the Carolina Hurricanes did to beat Florida  4-3.

Still Maurice didn’t hide the fact that he was a little irritated with his star goalie Cam Ward, who gave up a pair of goals on just four shots before the game was two minutes old. Ward was yanked right after the Panthers second marker, a move Maurice said was intended to shake his team up more than to lay the blame on his netminder.

Or so he tried to suggest.

“I hold Cam to a higher standard,” Maurice said. “The only other player that I hold to the same standard is probably Eric Staal, but the difference in Eric Staal’s game is that if he makes a mistake, people don’t notice it.”

What Maurice said he noticed most of all was his team’s bad start, something he sensed might happen earlier in the day.

“You get those feelings,” the coach said. “I didn’t like our morning skate and we talked about it and it still happened.”

The Panthers struck just 29 seconds into the game when Ward reacted slowly after rookie Evgeny Dadonov pounced on a loose puck off a faceoff. Michael Frolik doubled the lead at 1:42 when Ward allowed a juicy rebound, and that was enough for Maurice.

“I’m not even saying that Cam was off, but the fact of the matter is there was a pinball back right on the guy’s stick that beat him five hole and a rebound off the pipe that he’s got to stop,” Maurice said. “I didn’t like the way it started and the first and most obvious thing is to change the goaltender.”

Good thing too because Justin Peters came in and turned aside 21 shots to help spark the comeback.

“He’s played good hockey for us, and nothing good’s happened for him,” Maurice said. “I’m happy for him.”


Category: NHL
Posted on: December 14, 2010 1:58 pm
Edited on: December 14, 2010 2:40 pm

The numbers game

There are a couple of prominent aging veteran names on the open market right now with Brian Rolston being put on waivers today by the New Jersey Devils and Evgeni Nabokov being released from his contract with St. Petersburg of the KHL.

Thing is at this stage of their respective careers, neither is going to have a particularly easy time finding new employment in the NHL. The problem of course is money.

Rolston has another season after this one remaining on a contract that pays him $5 million a season, a steep hit for any team to absorb in the cap-conscious environment that encompasses the NHL these days. Especially for a 35-year-old who has been limited to just 12 games this season because of injuries and has only two goals. Rolston is in his second tour of duty with the team and is by all accounts a respected solid citizen in the world of Devils GM Lou Lamoriello, but New Jersey’s season has turned into an unmitigated disaster, and standing still is not an option.

Mind you Rolston has a no-trade, but not a no-movement clause in his deal, but given his age, the team wouldn’t get any cap relief if he cleared waivers and was sent to the minors. The best case scenario for New Jersey would be for Rolston to clear and then have someone claim him at a 50 percent discount on re-entry waivers. New Jersey would be on the hook for the balance, but the $2.5 million of added cap space this season and next is something that would help the organization. Remember, Zach Parise needs a new deal after this season.

Meanwhile Nabokov’s return home to Russia hasn’t been quite what he expected before he was released from his four-year, $24 million deal. Officially, the breakup is for ‘family reasons,’ which is Russian for a team not being satisfied with a 3.02 goals-against average and an .888 save percentage.

Those aren’t very good numbers to be sure, but that doesn’t mean some teams in the NHL won’t be willing to take a chance on someone who has been a very solid NHL and probably would still be in the league had he been willing to accept less money than the Russians were offering.  Mind you, there isn’t a very big market for goaltending help these days, although with the Tampa Bay Lightning’ season being undermined by the work they are getting in goal, and lately the Washington Capitals too, you never know. And if you’ve watched the way Brian Elliot has looked for Ottawa of late, especially with Pascal Leclaire back on the injured list, it’s not inconceivable that the Senators might get into the mix as well

Of course Nabokov would have to clear waivers too, and likely have to swallow his pride quite a bit, much like Marty Turco did when he signed one-year discount deal in Chicago last summer. But if Nabokov regains the form he showed in his best days with the Sharks, the payoff for him could come next season. He’s only 35 after all, which is much younger in goalie years than in skater years.

In any language.


Category: NHL
Posted on: December 7, 2010 5:53 pm

Walking before running

Among the first-time participants in an NHL board of governors meeting this week was former Colorado Avalanche captain and franchise icon Joe Sakic.

The future Hall of Famer ended his brilliant 20-year career before last season and has spent much of his time since then with his family and contemplating his future. But he has stayed close to the Avs organization, attending many of their games and hanging with team president Pierre Lacroix, so the general assumption is that Sakic will eventually follow the lead of several other peers like Steve Yzerman and get into some sort of management role.

Sakic, though, said he hasn’t thought that far ahead. 

 “This is just a start for me,” Sakic said after the two- days of meetings in Palm Beach, Florida ended. “Pierre asked me to come and I jumped at the opportunity to get in and learn the business side of it before I start anything.”

Sakic said he isn’t in any rush to get back into the game. And Yzerman, now the rookie general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning, noted that Sakic is going about things the right way.

“He’s gradually getting back into it,” Yzerman said. “We all retire at relatively young ages -- 40sh or so – and he’s s got an opportunity now to spend some time with his family and kids, but the game is what we grow up doing and what we’re most comfortable in and what we know best and the ability to stay in it is important.

“But you have to get your feet wet. There’s an incredible amount to learn and coming to a board of governors meeting attending or other meetings, being at games, it’s a great transition. When the time is right to get back in, you’ve got an education.”
Category: NHL
Posted on: December 7, 2010 7:31 am

Breaking up is hard to do

Some of the excitement Kevin Shattenkirk has been experiencing since making his NHL debut in early November was tempered last week when his childhood friend Colby Cohen was traded away to Boston by the Avalanche.

“Part of the business, I guess,” Shattenkirk shrugged. “We were hoping to play together up here, but he’ll enjoy being back in Boston.”

That’s where the two of them played as defense partners in college, with Shattenkirk setting up Cohen for Boston University’s Frozen Four-winning goal in overtime in 2009. The 21-year-olds have played with or against each other since they were 10 years old, and have taken similar career routes through the U.S. National Team Development program and college hockey.

Cohen, a native of Villanova, Pa., actually left the national program a year before Shattenkirk to play junior A hockey but they reconnected at Boston U. and were both drafted by the Avs in 2007.  Each made their NHL debut this season for Colorado, though not at the same time, but  the next time they’ll meet, it will be as rivals.

“That’s the nature of the beast,” Shattenkirk said.
Category: NHL
Posted on: December 1, 2010 3:24 pm

Midweek musings

Imagine if Sidney Crosby actually had a high-end winger to play with.

Seems like finding one is always on the Penguins wish list, or at least recommended to them, but in the meantime Pittsburgh’s superstar isn’t doing all that badly flanked by Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis. Without the true 40-goal type who would benefit most from Crosby’s feeding ability, the Kid still managed to rack up 14 assists in 14 November games, not to mention 12 goals, and to earn the league’s first star of the month award.

He's been doing just as much that doesn't show up on the scoresheet, but being the driving force in Pittsburgh is nothing new to Crosby. Still he has taken his game up another notch of late and not coincidentally, so have the Penguins. Crosby finished the month with a 13-game scoring streak while the Penguins have won their last seven and gone 9-0-1 in the last 10.

That officially makes Pittsburgh the hottest team in the NHL and by a nice twist of fate, it sets up an interesting evening Thursday because the league’s second hottest team will be visiting.

The Atlanta Thrashers have won their last six games and they’ve beaten some of the league’s best teams convincingly along the way. Their goalie Ondrej Pavelec has become a feel-good story too for bouncing back so well from a scary fainting spell on opening night, but in Atlanta now, the big thing has been the emergence, or should we say the eruption of Dustin Byfuglien.

Byfuglien made a name for himself as a forward during the Stanley Cup playoffs last spring with the Blackhawks, but he was moved back to his natural position on defense after the Thrashers traded for him and he's been on fire all season. More important, Byfuglien has become the focal point for Atlanta, contributing big time offense from the defense and often leading the Thrashers attack with his intimidating 258 pound presence.

He’s also the third star of the month in the NHL (Montreal goalie Carey Price was No. 2)  for scoring 17 points including five goals in 14 games.  And remarkably for a defenseman, Byfuglien leads the league with five game-winning goals. 

One defenseman unlikely to ever lead in that category though is the newest member of the Washington Capitals. In fact the Capitals will be hard pressed to get any goals at all from Scott Hannan, who has averaged about three in 10 plus seasons. And he didn’t score in Colorado before the Avalanche traded him to Washington this week.

The deal saw Colorado pick up Tomas Fleischmann, a left wing has shown flashes of being a top six forward in Washington. But Fleischmann's production dropped off noticeably as last season wore onand his conditioning was questioned this season, so his ice time diminished. But he’ll get more of a chance to play with the injury-depleted Avs, who will also save a little money because Fleischmann makes about $2 million less than Hannan.

But Colorado didn’t necessarily trade Hannan for money reasons, althought the price of re-signing the 31-year-old’s pending unrestricted free agent probably factored into the equation. But the Avs have been rightfully impressed with the play of 21-year-old defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk since he made his NHL debut early in November. And they picked up defenseman Matt Hunwick – traded by Boston for a prospect so the Bruins have cap space to active Marc Savard from the injured list -- so they are still in good shape along the blue line. 

Colorado needed help up front and they’re hoping Fleischmann takes advantage of a fresh start.

Meanwhile, Hannan is a very good fit in Washington. He’s the kind of shutdown, stay-at-home defenseman that has been missing from a Caps team that has been conditioned to attack,and he is joining them early enough in the season to get comfortable with the type of game they play.

The Caps have made a point of trying to be better defensively this season and on many nights this season they have been. But Hannan is the kind of piece this team would probably be looking for at the trade deadline.  Washington has just speeded up the process, something that rarely happens in that city.

Finally, condolences to the family of longtime hockey writer Jim Kelley, who passed away at age 61 this week after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. Kelley spent much of his career covering the Buffalo Sabres, but worked for a variety of national organizations over the last decade and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2004.


Category: NHL
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