Three More Weeks Until Hockey is Back…

A lot has happened since the last time I wrote, so I will try to cover a variety of topics here:

Congrats to the Boston Bruins who won the Stanley Cup in a Game 7 @ Vancouver. Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron were off the charts in that series, and Tim Thomas’ performance was legendary. That Claude Julien guy that coaches the B’s is pretty good, it’d be nice if the Devils had a coach like that…

The Atlanta Thrashers (and their fugly uniforms) are gone and the Winnipeg Jets are back! It’s a shame they won’t be wearing the old uniforms, but a new beginning does deserve a new look and I think I like what I saw from the logo and the uniform scheme.

My sincere and deepest condolences to the families of all of the hockey players that passed away this summer. I am still trying to wrap my head around what happened in Russia with the plane crash and I still cannot erase the images of Pavol Demitra, Josef Vasicek and Alexander Vasyunov’s faces from my mind; hopefully they didn’t suffer. They will all be missed and never, ever forgotten.

So the Philadelphia Flyers brought in Ilya Bryzgalov to play goal this season, making him the 500th goalie they have employed since Martin Brodeur became a New Jersey Devil and the 1,000th netminder since they last won the Cup in 1975. They also traded their two best players — Jeff Carter and Mike Richards — in separate deals that did not bring back equal value and signed 39-year-old Jaromir Jagr. Good luck with that.

It seems certain that Sidney Crosby won’t be ready for the start of the season, but could suit up at some point in 2011-12. Concussions are a delicate issue and Crosby’s career could be derailed like Eric Lindros and Paul Kariya before him. Intentional head shots must be eliminated from the game, but certain players (ahem Criesby…) are also responsible for protecting themselves and need to stop admiring their passes.

Don’t be surprised if the New York Islanders (that’s right, I said it) make the playoffs this season. IF they can stay healthy! John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Michael Grabner and Matt Moulson seem primed to have big seasons and hopefully Evgeni Nabokov can add some stability to what has been a blue cross and blue shield crease the last few seasons.

The Rangers added the biggest fish in the free-agent pool in Brad Richards, but have we not learned anything over the past six seasons — the team that signs the top free agent never wins the Cup. They did make one right move this summer — naming Ryan Callahan their new captain.

The Devils had a semi-quiet offseason after selecting Adam Larsson with the 4th pick in the NHL Entry Draft. They were able to rid themselves of Colin White and Brian Rolston’s ridiculous contracts, and they were able to re-sign Andy Greene and Johan ‘Moose’ Hedberg. Both Bryce Salvador and Zach Parise have been cleared to start the season, but Travis Zajac may not be back until December after tearing his achilles tendon during an off-ice workout; Zajac’s team record consecutive games streak will end at 401. Cam Janssen is back with NJ and Petr Sykora could be too — he will be in training camp on a tryout basis. The new coach is Peter DeBoer who was fired from the Florida Panthers, the same DeBoer who helped the Cats reach 94 points a few years back — a remarkable feat in itself with the roster he was given. I predict Mattias Tedenby will net at least 20 goals this season and Jacob Josefson will have 30 assists as they help lead the Devs back to the playoffs after last season’s hiccup.

Boston begins defense of it’s Championship on opening night (October 6); the Rangers open in Sweden against the LA Kings the following day (October 7); the Islanders (vs. Florida) and Devils (vs. Philly) both begin their seasons on Saturday October 8; and the new Winnipeg/old Atlanta team makes it’s debut on Sunday October 9 vs. Montreal.

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Waiting For Kovalchuk…

A lot has happened since Ilya Kovalchuk (642 points in 621 NHL games) became the most talented free-agent in NHL history to hit the open market on July 1, but here we sit on July 18 and the Russian sniper (338 career goals) still hasn’t found a new home. New Jersey, which acquired him in a trade last season is still in the mix, and so are the in, out, in, out, in the Kovy-sweepstakes LA Kings. A third option could be the Russian KHL League, but a talented player in his prime like Kovalchuk needs to play in the league with the most talent and best competition — the NHL.

There are still very valuable players on the market besides Kovalchuk and it seems that the are all waiting for him to sign, before they decide where to go or maybe the other GMs are waiting to see where he lands — making for a very boring two weeks in July devoid of any substantial hockey news.  So, here’s what I am thinking about as we wait for Kovalchuk’s ‘decision’ to be made:

-The NY Islanders have made some solid, off the radar moves to shore up their blue line (Mark Eaton & Milan Jurcina), but more work needs to be done if they are to contend for a playoff spot out of the ultra-competitive Atlantic Division. They should look to sign Alexei Ponikarovsky to play in the top-six and bring back two former Islanders to add more grit to their game — Andy Sutton & Raffi Torres. Sutton has said he would welcome a return to the Island and Torres would be a perfect fit on the third line alongside either Frans Nielsen or Doug Weight.

-What in the freaking world is going on in Calgary?!? They signed two ex-Flames, who both had less than stellar tenures the first time around. Alex Tanguay is a shell of the player he was in 2001 with Colorado and Olli Jokinen was traded away for Ales Kotalik and his ridiculous contract and then they re-sign Jokinen who never looked comfortable in Calgary alongside Jarome Iginla. A few days later ex-Tampa GM Jay Feaster as assistant to the GM who will be probably soon be fired in Darryl Sutter.

-There are still two solid goalies available — one via free agency (Marty Turco) and one via trade (Tim Thomas). It’s not every day you have these types of quality goalies available, so stop being cheap and give your team a decent chance to succeed next year (this means you Columbus, Toronto, Atlanta, Florida, Tampa, Montreal, Minnesota, LA, San Jose, Dallas).

-There are two enigmatic, but talented wingers available in Max Afinogenov and Alex Frolov and i haven’t heard peep about either yet. It’s possible that one of these two could wind up in the KHL, but in the right situation they can still be solid NHLers.

-Two talented centers are available for trade, but both have almost unmovable  contracts — Boston’s Marc Savard and Ottawa’s Jason Spezza. Hey, maybe they should just be traded for each other?

-It seemed odd to me that: Pittsburgh signed defenseman Paul Martin from New Jersey, New Jersey signed Anton Volchenkov from Ottawa and Ottawa signed Sergei Gonchar from Pittsburgh. This is just my opinion but, a three-way trade during the season would have been soooooo much cooler!

-If the Devils don’t sign Kovalchuk, they should take a hard look at Miroslav Satan, and not just because of the name. Miro proved in the playoffs that he can still produce and help a winning team go deep into the spring.

-Four solid long-time NHL vets are still on the market. Would Mike Modano, Paul Kariya, Teemu Selanne & Bill Guerin have lasted this long on the open market ten summers ago in 2000? I think not. Modano may go to Detroit, which makes sense in a lot of ways. What if Kariya and Selanne sign one-year deals in Pittsburgh like they did in Colorado? Apparently Sidney Crosby felt he didn’t need Guerin’s leadership, so maybe Guerin could ride shotgun with AO in DC?

-Finally where in the world is Petr Sykora? The rest of your buddies from 2000 are in NJ…..A-LINE, ASSEMBLE!!!!

My Top 10…

Everyone these days is doing some sort of top ten, and recently I read a blogger who listed their top ten favorite players and the idea intrigued me. If you have a top ten (or five) player list, let me know & here is my submission:

10: Zach Parise (New Jersey) — This kid has done nothing but score since making his debut after the lockout and he never seems to take a shift off. Other coaches visiting New Jersey have instructed their healthy scratches to watch Parise shift after shift and pattern their games after him. The best part is that Zach is only 25 and still has room to get even better (if that’s possible); oh and he is as nice a person as he is as good a hockey player — one of the few players that says thank you after being interviewed.

9: Patrik Elias (New Jersey) — My buddies & I nicknamed Elias ‘The Finisher’ back in the 2000 season because of the Czech star’s penchant for scoring big goals (See Philly, Game 7 2000 East Finals) as a member of the A-line (Jason Arnott, Petr Sykora). There have been times when I doubted that he would stay in New Jersey his whole career, but the franchise’s all-time leading point-getter has been a treat to watch and still has some gas left in his tank.

8. Saku Koivu (Montreal-Anaheim) — I instantly became a Saku fan when I first started participating in fantasy hockey and Montreal’s top line was the lethal trio of Koivu-Mark Recchi & Martin Rucinsky. After I read the detailed stories of his battle with stomach cancer, a battle he would survive, how could you not pull for the little guy? One of the most memorable games I ever attended was when he played his first game (after going through treatments for almost a year) at the end of the 2001-02 season in New Jersey. It’s sad that he couldn’t finish his career as a Hab, but I’ll always be a fan.

7. Kirk Muller (NJ) — Captain Kirk spent the first seven years of his career in New Jersey and was my first favorite player when I began watching/listening to games in 1988. I don’t remember many specifics from back then, as I was still learning the game, but I do remember that he seemed to get a point, or do something to help the team win every night. Meeting him a few years ago in New Jersey (he’s now an assistant coach with Montreal) is one of the highlights of my career so far.

6. Jeremy Roenick (Chicago-Phoenix-Philly-LA-San Jose) — I remember JR’s back-to-back 50-goal seasons and his three consecutive 100-point campaigns, but what everyone remembers most is his outspokenness and willingness to say what was on his mind. The Rooming with Roenick spots that ran on Center Ice were hilarious. He’s probably the one player that I ever liked that played for the Flyers (his OT goal in Game 7 against Toronto was a classic) and one of the few great players of my era that never won the Stanley Cup. He did some great TV work during these past Olympics — and hopefully we see more of him doing stuff like that in the future.

5. Sergei Fedorov (Detroit-Anaheim-Columbus-Washington) — He just about all you could do in an NHL career: won three Cups, league MVP, two Selke Trophys and now plays in the Russian league (KHL) after a great 19-years here in the US. Sadly, when I interviewed him I never got the chance to tell him about the ‘White Russian’ Nike poster I had hanging in my basement for 10 years; but he was one of the best players I’ve ever met and had the honor of interviewing. It also annoys to me no end when media outlets like MSG (gag!) spell his name wrong on their bottom line: IT’S FEDOROV NOT FEDEROV!!

4. Brett Hull (St. Louis-Dallas-Detroit) — Hull, like Roenick was never shy when it came to saying what was on his mind, but on the ice he was lethal. His 741 career goals are an amazing number and he’ll probably always be remembered for his Cup-clinching, foot in the crease goal for Dallas in Buffalo in the 1999 Finals, but I also remember the seasons when he tallied 72, 86 & 70 (in consecutive years) while skating in St. Louis. Hull clinched his spot on this list when he decided to suit up for the US team rather than Canada in the 1996 World Cup, prompting boos from the Montreal crowd every time his face was on the jumbotron during the Final series (I was at Game 2 of 3).

3. Scott Stevens (Washington-St. Louis-New Jersey) — When Stevens came to New Jersey, he immediately impacted the franchise and became one of the fiercest open-ice hitters the NHL has ever seen. There were so many memorable hits (See: Eric Lindros, Paul Kariya, Slava Kozlov, Ron Francis) but one of the things I think of when I think about  Stevens is he was the guy who led New Jersey to three Stanley Cups — turning the Devils from a “Mickey Mouse organization” into a team that the NHL has twice adjusted it’s rules for. The only other franchise I can think of that has that distinction was Montreal.

2. Dominik Hasek (Chicago-Buffalo-Detroit-Ottawa) — Ten years ago, I would’ve never picked Hasek for my list, but times change. He was always Martin Brodeur’s biggest rival during his Buffalo days, and Hasek’s unorthodox, yet successful style led him to six Vezina Trophies and two league MVP’s. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall when he and Brett Hull became teammates in Detroit, and I’m sure Hasek’s pain was eased a bit when the two Hall-of-Famers became champions together in Detroit. The Dominator had some strange moments throughout his career, and he suffered too many injuries to contend for some of the NHL’s goaltending records. Talking to him late in his career after a game in NJ, still feels very surreal, but he was willing to talk until all of my questions were answered, something I’ll never forget.

1. Martin Brodeur (New Jersey) — He’s been my absolute favorite player since 1994 and when he retires, I may actually shed a tear. Brodeur owns just about every major NHL goaltending record and still has some good years left so who knows what those numbers will be when he does hang up his skates. It’s still a little intimidating to interview my favorite player, but his easy-going personality makes my job a lot easier; and the fact that I can tell that he recognizes me (he should after five seasons!) is pretty neat. He became the ultimate comeback when being taunted by dopey, Rangers’ fans: ‘Devils suck! Yeah but we have Brodeur and you don’t! Whatever, you guys suck!’ I’ll never forget where I was when he scored a goal in the playoffs vs. Montreal or when he broke Patrick Roy’s wins record vs. Chicago, or when he was the backbone of three Stanley Cup championship teams, and one of these days, I will make sure to thank him for all of those memories…and hopefully a few more!