By Eric Wright
I was able to attend three days (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) of Penguins training camp at Mellon Arena. I missed the first day of the tournament scrimmages, but was able to see the final three days including the championship game, as well as several practices. Here is what caught my eye:
I had seen all of 45 total seconds of highlights of Crosby until Friday. It doesn't take too long after seeing him play to see that the kid is for real and will be a star much sooner than later. I suspect he could win his first Art Ross in his third season, hopefully, that will be in Pittsburgh (see below).
Crosby is often compared to Wayne Gretzky and, recently by association, Mario Lemieux. I think the best description of Crosby's game is a mix of Paul Kariya and Peter Forsberg. He has the leg drive and power cutting moves reminiscent of Forberg or even Jaromir Jagr combined with the super skating burst and bullet shot of Kariya. He doesn't have, say, Pavel Bure speed but he is at least as fast as, if not faster than, Mike Modano.
Crosby, like every Penguins center for the past decade, is not great on faceoffs. He is, however, much grittier than his frame would suggest and he seems to have a clue as to where he should be defensively, which already makes him a Selke candidate by Penguin forward standards.
THE SECOND LINE CENTER
While it's still possible that Mario could end up centering a "second" line with Ryan Malone and Ziggy Palffy, leaving Crosby and his training camp linemates, Mark Recchi and John Leclair, together, some combination of history and vanity will most likely put Lemieux on Crosby's line.
As of now, Penguin's management is hoping that Lasse Pirjeta will step and win the job. Pirjeta played very well with his increased ice time and responsibilities after coming over in a late season deal with the Blue Jackets in 2003-2004. He was placed on a training camp team with Palffy, in the hopes of building some chemistry.
Maybe it will work out, but as of now, I saw zero sign that Lasse was capable of filling such a role. He thinks a good game, but his skating and puck skills don't appear up to the task of playing with talents such as Palffy. Pirjeta would serve very nicely in a third or fourth line role, either at center or on the wing.
The team may still opt to bring in another player to fill the second line job. I did overhear a rumor that has zero credibility, unless that guy's friend really does live next to (Penguin's assistant GM) Eddie Johnston and E.J. spreads trade rumors up and down his block, but it does make sense and you never know. The rumor had the Pen's talking to the over the cap New Jersey Devils about one of three players-Sergei Brylin, Viktor Kozlov or Jeff Friesen. Brylin has been a Penguin-killer over the years but isn't really a number two center. Friesen could probably fill the role but has spent most of his career on the wing. Kozlov could be a good fit, actually, and there might well be some truth to this rumor.
If the team doesn't fill the role from the outside, I think Rico Fata should get a fair look for the job. For some reason, I have never heard Fata's name mentioned as a candidate. Fata is, both, one of the fastest and one of the quickest players in the NHL. And yes, they are different things.
And, for a guy who had the infamous "lacks hockey sense" text scrawled across the arena big screens shortly after being taken #6 overall by the Calgary Flames, Fata's ability to read the play now ranks behind only his superior skating as his strength. His hands are still a bit suspect and he'll probably never be a 30 goal man, but his potential as a playmaker is there. Line him up with Leclair and fellow midget buzzsaw, Mark Recchi. Let Rex and Fata cycle in the corner while the big man sets up in front.
SPEAKING OF FATA
Rico Fata is about 5'10 and maybe 190 pounds and I think I'm being generous with those guesses, I don't care what the Pen's website says. Rico's brother, defenseman Drew, who is also in Penguins camp, stands about 6'1 or 6'2 and 215.
Now, it's none of my business to pry into Mrs. Fata's but, is there anyway these two have the same father? Rico and Drew. Have you ever heard two related children with two more different names? "These are my kids, Gino and Preston." In all fairness, Drew does look like a bigger version of Rico.
Rico and Drew. Huh.
OTHER PLAYERS WHO CAUGHT MY EYE
MARK RECCHI- I intend to write about mostly unknowns in this section, but I have to comment-Recchi doesn't look any different from the guy I saw here in 1991. He is flying.
ERIK CHRISTENSEN- Many casual Penguins fans might wonder why the team traded Kris Beech, the centerpiece of the Jaromir Jagr deal. They might wonder moreso after Beech had his best pro season last year, an all star campaign in the AHL with the Baby Pens.
There are two reasons. As Craig Patrick knows and David Poile will soon find out, in spite of his great vision and skills, Beech is just not a good enough skater to succeed in the NHL. That is reason number one.
Reason number two is Erik Christensen. Skating with Beech's old number 16 and equipment that looks like it was stolen out of a K. Beech Koho bag, the similarly built Christensen looks like Beech's doppelganger. Except that Christensen is a bit better skater, a bit better passer, a bit better shooter, a bit stronger and a bit better skater than Beech. In short, he has a legit shot to play in the NHL, even if it most likely won't be this season.
Christensen stole the show on Sunday during the "Third Place" game that took place before the scrimmage championship. He was all over the ice and finished with five goals. But, even before that he had, no doubt, caught eyes with his solid play. Two years ago, he would have made the youth oriented "X-Generation" Penguins. This year, a numbers game will probably send him to Wilkes-Barre for another season.
ANDRE ROY- This is probably not news to Sens or Lightning fans, but for those who only know Roy from ESPN highlights of him going toe to toe with Tie Domi, this guy can play. He is a decent skater and knows what to do with the puck. It's not impossible that he could end up skating with 66 and 87, allowing the Pens to spread out good depth to three lines.
KONSTANTIN KOLTSOV- Caught my eye for the wrong reason. He is probably the fastest skater in the league, but (maybe he's saving his strength but ) he seems to coast more often than not, and his hands don't seem like they'll ever allow him to be a top six forward. This might be a good thing. Lock Koltsov in a 3rd or 4th line role and let him skate at top speed when he does get on the ice. He should be molded into a top penalty killer.
JOHANNES SALMONSSON- I was very surprised to see him sent down to juniors without getting even one look in a preseason game. After a slow start, Salmonsson played very well the final two days of camp, showing good skills and decent skating ability. He also read the play well. He is new to the North American game and will no doubt benefit by playing a year in junior. He will definitely play in the NHL one day.
RYAN WHITNEY- Whitney didn't catch my eye. As the 5th overall pick of the 2002 draft, I made sure to give him a look when he was on the ice. He seemed to be ok, but not nearly the polished lock to make the team I expected. This expectation is unfair and mostly based on the success of the players taken in front of Whitney, Jay Bouwmeester and Joni Pitkanen. Whitney is a great passer and reads the play but lacks great speed or shot. He might only become a Vladimir Malakhov-calibre defenseman, not the Brian Leetch-type Pens fans might hope for. Maybe Brian Leetch in Kevin Hatcher's body, at best.
BEN EAVES- It's not a word I use often, but I think nifty is the only way to describe Eaves. He is tiny (5'8) but he plays with his head up and always knows his next move. Another player who might have been able to impress last year, but will lose out to the Ryan Vandenbusches' this year. He could be a Daniel Briere-type in a few years.
RYAN STONE- Hard to get a handle on Stone. He was drafted to be a gritty Tomas Holmstrom-type. Then he finished second in WHL scoring last year. Stone is clearly not ready for the NHL but could be a good one after some time in the minors. He seemed to be trying to be a skill player, and needs to keep his game dirty and gritty to have success. FYI- Stone is the player drafted with the compensatory pick the Pens got for Robert Lang.
KRIS LETANG- The Pen's third round pick in the most recent draft, Letang is an interesting player. He seems to be a long shot to make the bigs due to his small stature and resulting defensive deficiencies, but if he can learn angles and beef up some, who knows. Brian Rafalski is an all star. He showed a nice burst and reads the play well. I think Greg Hawgood or Joel Bouchard when I see him. Might be a career minor leaguer, though. A project.
PLAYERS ON THE BUBBLE
COLBY ARMSTRONG- Has had some minor injuries and hasn't played much in camp. The Pens would be happy to see the former 1st rounder make the club as a gritty, but adequately skilled 4th liner. He had a good year in the minors last year. Needs to play in some preseason games to get a look.
MATT HUSSEY- One of two players ( Daniel Carcillo) who I didn't personally see much out of, but who has evidently caught management's eye. Hussey is a versatile, gritty and speedy player who should be able to find his way onto a 3rd or 4th line. His rep is that he seems to do better in the NHL than in the AHL.
MATT MURLEY- Teamed with Beech and Michel Oullett to form the Baby Pen's top line last year. He skated in camp with Pirjeta and Palffy on the champion "Team Francis" squad. Murley is maybe a poor man's Joe Juneau, a smart player with good skill, he could find a spot if he can contribute on the penalty kill.
GUILLAUME LEFEBVRE- Went from skating on Mario's line (in what even Mario at the time thought might be his last game) to being forgotten and buried in the minors ever since. Lefebvre was a perfect third line player who had the smarts to play with top line talent, but seems to have fallen into disfavor with management and is not mentioned as a candidate to make the club. He didn't exactly force their hand by having a great camp, though.
MARC ANDRE FLEURY and SEBASTIEN CARON- One of them will back up Jocelyn Thibault and the other will start in Wilkes-Barre. Fleury has been excellent throughout camp and had a very solid first outing in the preseason. The job would seem to be his to lose, except management might not be giving first prize to the winner. If they decide Thibault will play the bulk of the games in Pittsburgh, then they might feel Fleury would be better served by playing the bulk of the games in Wilkes-Barre. Caron is a viable netminder and is on a one-way contract, an advantage Fleury does not have.
Before Stan Fischler decided to show off his hockey ignorance by slamming Sidney Crosby, he started attacking Fleury. Maybe he just hates the Pens? Both players will ultimately prove Baldy wrong, of course. Fleury's gloves and pads are so quick, it's truly amazing. Fleury's reflexes are twice as fast as Patrick Roy's were, if he could only learn half of Roy's technique. The Penguins went cheap and local in hiring unknown Shane Clifford as their new goalie coach. This doesn't mean he can't do the job, but no one knows for sure.
MICHEL OUELLET- Did nothing in camp to warrant attention, but scored two points (and a high stick major) in the first preseason game. This after having an all star year in the AHL last year, he deserves a chance to prove he's a gamer. The Pens were starved for goal scoring two months ago and Ouellet had a great shot to make the team. After Crosby, Palffy and Leclair joined Recchi and Malone, the team has little need for a one way (unproven) scorer. If he lights it up in preseason, however, the team could find a spot for him.
STAYING IN SCRANTON
JONATHAN FILEWICH- Played well in camp. Needs more pro experience but a solid candidate to find NHL work someday. Not a great skater, but good with the puck and has a nose for the net. Sort of in the Milan Hejduk/Dave Andreychuk-mold.
TOMAS SUROVY- Good shooter, good with the puck and a decent skater. Surovy is a defensive liability and streaky. He doesn't seem to fit into the team's plans any longer. He could find his touch if he played for a team like the Capitals and could get an extended NHL look.
MAXIME TALBOT- Pen's radio man Paul Steigerwald thinks Talbot could make the club as a penalty killer and may well be right. I think the edge goes to Hussey right now and that Talbot will play another year in the minors. A good preseason could change that.
SHANE ENDICOTT- A big, rangy center. Many thought he could win the 3rd line center job, but injuries have him out for a while. Midseason, it will be tough to find his form when he returns and he will most likely get stuck in eastern PA this year.
NOAH WELCH and RYAN LANNON- The Penguins have two Harvard defensemen in their system. Welch, a former second round pick, is much further along than the free agent Lannon, but both players are big, strong physical defensemen who could find sooner (Welch) or later (Lannon). Welch might have had a shot to join the club this year, but the free agent signings of Steve Poapst and Lyle Odelein have left little room for young blueliners this year, with even Whitney on the bubble to make the club.
DREW FATA- Rico's brother, so they say anyway, reminds me of Jiri Slegr. He isn't nearly as fast as Rico, but is bigger and stronger. Another player who might have gotten a longer look two years ago with the X-Generation Pens. Might never find his way to Pittsburgh, but could emerge with another team in a few years.
PAUL BISSONETTE- One of two players (Ryan Malone) who really stood out in the Penguins 2003 Training Camp. Then an 18 year old fourth rounder, Bissonette showed the poise of a ten year vet as he made the right play every time. There was talk of him making the team as 18 year old until the reality of being a forth rounder sent him back to juniors. He has shown little progress since, but hopefully can find his game in Wilkes-Barre.
ANDY CHIODO- A scrappy goaltender who has become a cult figure in Wilkes-Barre for his pivotal role in two long playoff runs. Kept Marc-Andre Fleury on the bench both years in the process, more for his good play than bad play by Fleury. I think Chiodo could become a Ken Wregget-type one day and should play maybe 200 NHL games before it's all done for him.
Assuming the Pens do not make any trades between now and the beginning of the season, I expect the opening night lineup to look something like this (note-the Pens like to dress 7 defensemen):
Lemieux Crosby Recchi
with Melichar, Murley (or Talbot) and Vandenbusche in the press box.
WHY THE PENGUINS ARE GOING TO LOSE $7 MILLION THIS SEASON
Why would Mario come out and tell the world that the Penguins are spending too much money this season after years of preaching financial discipline and reality?
Simply put, he wanted to clear up any confusion.
The new CBA and the Penguins post-Crosby spending spree sent a confusing message to people who were used to the Penguins small budget ways. Many interpreted the combo of the two to mean that the Penguins could make money under the new deal even with a higher payroll.
Many took that further to question whether the Penguins even need a new building.
The Penguins plan B.C. (before Crosby) was to sign a few free agents in the Mark Recchi mold and try to ice a competitive team. No guarantees that any free agents wanted to play for the worst, poorest team in the league with the oldest building, but that was the plan.
Crosby enabled the Penguins to sign top shelf talent and build an instant playoff, and possible Stanley Cup contender. Mario and the ownership decided it was worth absorbing the $7 million in losses if it meant putting a possible championship team on the ice. A Penguins team that goes deep into the playoffs will put a lot of pressure on local politicians to support the club's attempt to use slot money to build a new arena.
But not if everyone thinks the team is doing just fine, thanks. One politician, after seeing the new CBA and spending spree, questioned whether the Penguins need for a new building was one of survival or profitability.
So Mario made sure that everyone knew, this championship caliber team can't sustained on the current revenue streams, but could be afforded if the team got a new building.
Here is why the Penguins cannot make enough money at Mellon Arena. The building is old and not particularly nice, so right off, it's hard to charge premium prices for anything. The few luxary boxes, which have become so important in the economics of today's sports, at Mellon Arena were not built to be luxary boxes, but were modified from old press boxes and whatnot. There is nothing particularly luxurious about them. Again, they cannot charge premium prices. Furthermore, the lease with SMG gives them a very small cut of the parking and concession money.
The Penguins best hope for survival is be to awarded the slot license in Pittsburgh (possible, but a gamble, no pun intended) or for the politicians who have input into it see to it that WHOEVER is awarded the license sets aside a portion of the huge windfall they were just given to go toward a much needed arena in a downtown dying for some new life. The city needs a new arena every bit as much as do the Penguins.
If a Cup run or Crosby-mania can force some politicians to demand that whoever gets the license must build the arena then it will be worth it for Lemieux and the owners to lose millions over the next two years. If they fail to get a new building, having Crosby and a Cup ready team will make the asking price that much higher to an outside buyer.
Many local politicians still do not believe that Mario would move the team. That was the point of the aborted plan to bring Boots Del Baggio in as primary owner. Now, Mario and his co-owners know they can fetch a pretty penny for this team on the open market, mostly thanks to Crosby. These politicians need to hear from a sea of Crosby loving Penguin fans. I read a comment from one lawmaker who wondered whether there would even be a city that wants the Penguins. They don't get it.
While Pens fans have long assumed that Portland is the next stop for the Penguins, Houston, Kansas City and Winnipeg have all built major league arenas waiting for a team. Should Pittsburgh fail to build the new arena that the city and team need, I suspect a wild card, curveball destination for the club will emerge.
How about the Toronto Penguins?
Again, all because of Crosby. Toronto could support two NHL teams very easily, but what club could ever make inroads against the mighty Maple Leafs? Surely, such a team would become hockey's version of the Clippers to the Maple Leaf's Lakers. But what if it was Sidney Crosby, then peaking as the NHL's premier player, and the Penguins coming to town? The Leafs haven't won a Cup in how long?
Note to Pennsylvania lawmakers-DO NOT LET THAT HAPPEN. If you could just get up off of your lazy, incompetent and/or corrupt asses, for something other than voting for your own raises in a midnight session, and see to it that the city of Pittsburgh and the Penguins get a new arena, most voters .
As of now, one of several millionaires will be granted a slot license that will make them filthy rich, why shouldn't the city get something back from them (in the form of a new arena and maybe even more) in exchange for, basically, handing them this incredible wealth?
The headline on ESPN.com
said, "Turgeon to Avs fans: I'm not Forsberg."
Messier. Stevens. MacInnis. Damphousse. All great players, but the NHL lost one of the classiest individuals in the history of professional sports when Ron Francis hung up the skates. Also, one of the few people in sports who truly deserves the overused "most underrated" tag. I remember, after Adam Graves broke Mario's hand in the 1992 playoffs, Ron Francis carried the Penguins on his back through the second round series against the then-President's Trophy winning Rangers. He later scored the Cup-winning goal against the Blackhawks. Safe to say, the Penguins would not have won that Cup without Francis determination and brilliance.
Anyone who says the Senators got anything but the better of the Hossa-Heatley deal is a fool. The Senators get Heatley, a younger, better player, at a lower salary than Hossa and get to move deVries and his inflated salary to Atlanta, making room for Redden and/or Chara to get new deals next year. The chance to get out from under big contracts is a huge opportunity in the new NHL landscape.
The NHLPA should resolve the Ted Saskin fiasco as soon as possible. The situation does nothing to dissuade the notion that the NHLPA is an amateurish organization. Saskin seems suited and qualified for the job and seems to enjoy support from a majority of the membership, however, it seems odd that the players would show little to no concern about following their own rules. News that Saskin might have been less than honest in comparing his salary to his counterparts in other sports might change his level of support from the players.
The Predators got a good player in ex-Pen Randy Robitaille. Robitaille is small and bad defensively, but he sees the ice very well and can make plays. He was great down the stretch for the Pens a few years back, but then wasn't given a real chance again. He would gel nicely with Paul Kariya, moreso than the slow-footed Beech.
Take goaltending out of the picture for a minute and I think the picks for the Stanley Cup Finals become simple- Ottawa vs. Vancouver. These teams are loaded with talent and experience from top to bottom. Unfortunately, Dominik Hasek simply will not be healthy or effective enough at his age, without playing last year, to lead the Sens to the promised land. Dan Cloutier isn't even "Chris Osgood of 1998"-good. If one of these netminders were to be hurt and the respective team acquired someone like Olie Kolzig, then they would be favorites for the Cup.
Another headline on ESPN.com: "Weight defends Tkachuk as union files grievance." It took me a minute to realize they meant Doug and not Keith's.
REVIEW OF NHL 2006 by EA Sports
Easily the most accurate translation of real hockey ever made. For the first time, the play is allowed to "stand still" with realistic power plays and cycling in the corners. Once you get the controls down, you can do almost anything you'd want to do in real hockey.
The game still has some flaws. The new rules were rushed in, so the game's AI doesn't realize the rule against the two line pass is gone. The CPU defense will allow you to stand still unchallenged for up to 30 seconds at a time oftentimes. Blame the NHLPA, but there is no Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin or any other player who has yet to play one NHL game.
The worst flaw is the music. It's an unholy collection of just painfully bad music. It might be a ploy by EA to keep you employed (and thus able to buy NHL 2007) by making sure you can't play too much of the game before the music drives you insane. Unlike past EA games, you cannot substitute your own music.
AL STRACHAN'S INJURY LOOPHOLE
Al Strachan in his last column before going on vacation (I hear he's taking a scenic cruise on the river Styx) discussed a "loophole" that would allow teams to spend over the cap. It allows teams to sign a player to an incentive laden deal with bonuses that would not count against that year's cap number.
As I noted in an earlier column, any loopholes found in the new CBA will be specifically included by the two negotiating parties (as this is) and not a mistake or typo as Al so often claimed. It's also carries heavy punishment for spending over the cap as the bonuses count against and thus lower next year's cap number for the offending team.
If you want to look for a true loophole that doesn't seem to have been accounted for in the new CBA it's not Jason Allison's deal you should look at, it's Mario Lemieux's. As the Penguin's owner, Lemieux can pay himself a low salary (not that he has or shown any inclination to do so, but it's possible) and make his money back by operating a successful team.
It's not a loophole that is likely to be exploited much, if at all. There is risk should the franchise lose money. Furthermore, no matter how much they want to sign a particular free agent, not many owners would be willing to give up a piece of their team.
The only exception to this might be Lemieux and the Penguins. Would they be willing to give Sidney Crosby a stake in the team before he becomes a UFA? Is there anything in the new CBA to stop them?
There seems to be an awful lot of handwringing up north about Wayne Gretzky going behind the Coyote's bench. Many fans want to treat Gretzky like really nice living room furniture and toss some plastic over him and never sit on him. If Gretzky is truly great, which of course he is, he can and will prove it again.
The challenge for Wayne won't be winning the Stanley Cup with Phoenix; (unless they get a real goaltender) Scotty Bowman couldn't make the playoffs with that club. The question is whether a truly great player, whose understanding of the game is almost natural, can explain it to someone who was not born great.
CROSBY'S RIPPLE EFFECT
It's slowly dawning on me that Sidney Crosby coming to Pittsburgh is even bigger than I realize. How many NHL players could get on the Tonight Show? Maybe Wayne, maybe Mario. Big maybes even.
Crosby has added such value to the franchise that Lemieux and his partners have decided not to sell the team to "Boots" Del Baggio, who will stay on as an investor but not majority owner. Mario keeping the team is comforting to Penguin fans who face the real threat of watching the team sold to Houston or Kansas City or Portland if a new arena isn't secured soon.
It's the comfort of Mario owning the team, however, that makes the move of the team less of a threat to the local politicians who will decide the fate of the new arena. This was one of the main reasons behind selling the team to a new owner. Few believe Mario would move the Penguins from Pittsburgh. Few doubt that Del Baggio would.
It seems now that the Penguins have (almost literally) put all their chips on a single spin of the roulette wheel. It is unclear whether the Penguins will be awarded the slot license, but many have floated the idea that whoever wins the license will be required to put money toward the new arena. Many politicians have talked about the idea, but none have committed to backing it. Hopefully, a city full of Crosby jerseys (I saw a guy wearing one the other day in 95 degree heat) and a sold out Mellon Arena will help them make up their minds.
I wonder if Crosby's presence might make the Penguins and their new arena more attractive to private funding, a la Nationwide Arena in Columbus. How about the Reebok Center?
FLYERS WON'T WIN
The Flyers have one of the best teams in the East, lots of great young talent, a fantastic scouting department and the resources to keep all of the above in place and add to it with signing like Derian Hatcher and Peter Forsberg. They should be the team to beat in the East for the foreseeable future.
But they won't win the Cup. They find a way every year to not win the Cup and this year will be no exception. If the game truly opens up the way the NHL hopes and intends, then defenseman like Hatcher and Rathje's stock will fall dramatically. Furthermore, I haven't seen too much of Robert Esche, but nothing I saw makes him seem any better than say, Garth Snow.
Goodenow made a lot of money for his players during his tenure as the head of the NHLPA. In fact, he made them way more money than the game could handle. The players should thank him for that, but the game is much better off without him.
Goodenow's only leverage in this past lockout was the fact that players were willing to jump over the cliff for him chanting "we won't accept a cap." There was, however, no way he was going to win with that as his only leverage and once he blindsided the players by putting a cap on the table without warning them in February, he lost their trust. Had he been realistic about a cap and been open to negotiating it in September, not February, the season might have been saved.
GONCHAR AND JACKMAN
With the addition of Sergei Gonchar, the Penguins have the potential to throw out a very talented and offensively skilled defense. Ryan Whitney, #5 overall in 2002, is expected to join the team with former number one defenseman Dick Tarnstrom and the late blooming Ric Jackman, who totaled 25 points in 25 games for the Pens in 2003-04.
I imagine Jackman will be relinquishing his number 55 to Gonchar. I suggest 56 for the right hand shooting pointman.
The Ottawa Senators, after years of not being gritty enough for the playoffs, might have finally had the rules come to them. The Senators should be a top pick as early Stanley Cup favorites. But can a forty year old with a bad back be their number one netminder? Why trade Martin Prusek? I know the Sens think highly of Binghamton's Ray Emery, but does anyone think he can lead Ottawa to the playoffs or the Cup?
This is the Senators best, and if they lose as many UFA's as they may next summer, only chance to win the Stanley Cup and the odds of Hasek holding up all season are almost laughable. They should sign one of the (admittedly questionable) veteran goalies left as insurance.
Did I miss the season that Marian Hossa won the scoring title? Or led the league in goals? Or led his team to the Stanley Cup finals or an Olympic title? Comparing Hossa, a fine player in his own right, to Jarome Iginla isn't just absurd, it's stupid. Hossa belongs somewhere in the $4.5 million a year range that Kovalev, Palffy and Kariya found themselves in and not the elite level of Iginla.
Younger or more recent fans of the NHL might not realize, and many might not remember, the extent to which Ziggy Palffy admired and imitated Jaromir Jagr when he broke into the league. It was (I was going to say almost, but no almost about it) embarrassing. Palffy wore his hair long in the same style as Jagr's and made it obvious by wearing his number 68 for a season or two before switching to 16.
Maybe then, it's no surprise he wanted to play for the Penguins. Hey, Ziggy, number 68 is available in Pittsburgh and most fans have forgotten or now dislike the old owner. It's all yours.
Mike Keenan hasn't had the best off season so far. The first two signings of the free agent period proved to be the worst, as Keenan overpaid for aging vets Roberts and Nieuwendyk and risked destroying the marketplace of the new CBA on the first day. His latest signing of notorious underachiever Chris Gratton didn't make up for the earlier mistake. And as Spector noted, why play hardball with your best player and maybe the best goalie in the league, Roberto Luongo?
Keenan deserves a lot of credit for laying the foundation for the recent success of the St. Louis Blues and Vancouver Canucks, as well as jumpstarting the careers of many players, including Joe Thornton and Olli Jokinen. One would have thought he'd have done better for the Panthers, a team poised for much success.
MARIO'S MASTER PLAN
Many people have wondered how and why the Penguins are suddenly spending far more than they did the past few years. Were the Pens lying about their money problems? No, but they weren't prepared to spend more than they needed to survive until the new CBA was in place. Furthermore, the addition of Crosby will see the Penguins go from the league's worst attendance to maybe selling out the whole season. Throw in the addition of new investor, Del Baggio and the Penguins will add close to $12 million to their previous payroll.
But there is more. I think Mario realizes that in order to pressure the politicians into building the new arena, the Pens need to enjoy as much success as they can this season. It would be worth it for the Penguins to add more payroll than they can afford this season if it can solidify the deal for a new arena.
I would expect the Pens to add a few more star players at the trading deadline, when salaries only have to be paid for a few more weeks. They'll still have room under the $39 million cap to accommodate such acquisitions and will have the means to do so. Unlike most teams, who will be reluctant to part with high draft picks in the new cap era, the Penguins have Crosby and Malkin and company and can afford to part with a few draft picks.
A legitimate run at the Cup (which would still require Fleury to blossom or Thibault to play much better than at any other point in his career) would go a long, long way towards getting the Penguins the public support they need to get their new building.
Let's see. Chris Pronger and Michael Peca are in Edmonton. Sergei Gonchar and Ziggy Palffy have signed in Pittsburgh. Paul Kariya went where? The new CBA has delivered much of what was promised in terms of parity.
Is the playing field perfectly level? No. Will Philadelphia still have an advantage over Pittsburgh? Of course. But the new system is obviously a vast improvement over the old in terms of parity.
It should (and has) also help the NHL win back fans as many of the smaller markets are reenergized by their teams getting top flight players and having more than a fluke's chance of winning. Some fans in Toronto, Colorado and New York might not be as happy with the new deal, but there are plenty of people in those large markets to take their seats.
In terms of getting the fans back to the game, the NHL might surprise people with how quickly the fans are drawn back to the game. Parity helps.
THE NHL ON OLN?
Let's hope the NHL's gamble here works and ESPN is forced to match the deal. Anyone who remembers Sportschannel knows the NHL will vanish on the Outdoor Life Network. ESPN will probably decide to quash any potential competitor early and match the deal, but OLN?
Are they still in the league? You have to feel bad for Alex Ovechkin, who will have absolutely no help in his rookie year. The Caps seem to working hard to get another first overall pick, but then, so do the Rangers and a few other clubs, for that matter.
If they, or other teams, are waiting on a free agent bonanza next summer, they might want to notice how many of those players are being resigned to long term deals as teams have caught on quickly to secure their top young talent, such as Joe Thornton and soon Vinnie Lecavalier.
Speaking of which, I don't get the fuss over Rick Nash's deal? Yes, he has only been in the league for two seasons, but he did lead the league in goals in one of them. Doug MacLean will look smart for many years for this signing.
Back to the Caps, Ted Leonsis biggest accomplishments as an NHL owner have been to trade Jagr to a large market team and still pay half of his salary and, of course, his genius idea on how to block people with 412 or 724 (Pittsburgh region) area codes from buying Capitals (playoff series vs. Pens) tickets on their web site.
Bill Wirtz was finally right about something. When that lotto ball with the Penguins number on it bounced the right way Friday afternoon and sent Sidney Crosby to Pittsburgh, it was nothing short of vindicating justice.
The Pens were the epitome of why a major change was necessary to the NHL's salary structure; the driving force of the lockout. The Penguin's inability to compete was not the result of mismanagement. On the contrary, Craig Patrick (with apologies to Lou Lamourello) is the best in the business. The problem was a system of disparity that allowed large market teams to extend their financial advantage to the ice, leaving small market teams to enjoy success only through exceptionally good drafting (such as Ottawa) or streaks of great team chemistry (such as Carolina or Calgary).
No team was better prepared for the coming lockout than the Penguins.
The Pens last real season in the NHL was 2001 when Mario returned to a join a team with the likes of Alexei Kovalev, Robert Lang, Martin Straka, Jan Hrdina and the upstart Johan Hedberg between the pipes. Behind the strong netminding of the Moose, the Pens made it to the Eastern Conference semi's against the Devils. If it were not for a piece of dead weight named Jaromir Jagr, who skated around the entire playoffs that year as if he was looking for a lost contact on the ice, perhaps it could have been Pittsburgh fighting the Avs for the Cup that year.
Many fans might not realize even after this, and in spite of his bizarre (some say, untreated bipolar) attitude, the Penguins spoke to Jagr about keeping him and his league high salary in small market Pittsburgh. Jagr simply wanted out of town. Pittsburgh, the team and the city, was more than happy to oblige. You might think Jagr for Kris Beech, Michael Sivek and Ross Lupashuck is a bad deal, since none of these players look like they'll pan out, but we would have dealt him for a puck. Evidently, that would have been a fair price, since Ted Leonsis later offered Jagr to Anaheim for a 9th round draft pick.
The dealing of Jagr and the deep playoff run of 2001 allowed the Penguins to keep their Straka, Lang, Kovalev line intact for another year in the hopes that another playoff run would keep the team afloat. Injuries to Straka, Lang and Lemieux doomed the season and Lang was allowed to walk as a UFA. Kovalev was traded the following season and Straka followed him out of town a year later.
All the while the Pens picked up cheap young players and high draft picks to build a core that could be ready to grow and peak after a new CBA was implemented. Patrick knew the Pens could not compete without a new deal so he started working toward a different goal-laying the foundation.
You have to admit, no one knows how to lose better than Pittsburgh ask the 1983 New Jersey Devils. More to the point, the Pens know that if you aren't going to win, you might as well lose big. The payoff is better.
Finishing at or near the bottom of the league for the past several seasons has allowed the Pens to draft a potential number one defenseman (Ryan Whitney, #5 in 2002), a potential franchise goaltender (Marc Andre Fleury, #1 in 2003) and a potential number one all star caliber center (Evgeni Malkin, #2 in 2004). It also put them in position to get a (albeit only very slightly) better shot at landing the NHL's next superstar, Sidney Crosby.
The incredible good fortune and sheer luck of getting Crosby turns the Penguins very nice collection of young players into the best stable of young talent in the NHL. That, combined with a new CBA that will limit their opponents to 150% of their payroll instead of the over 300% disparity of the old deal, will allow the Penguins to compete with the Red Wings and Flyers of the league for the first time in many years.
Craig Patrick foresaw the lockout and how it would play out better than Wayne Gretzky used to read the play. In addition to justice for the Penguins plight over the years, getting Sidney Crosby is deserved reward for Patrick's continued brilliance.
MORE IF I WERE CRAIG PATRICK
I've learned not to second-guess Craig Patrick. Markus Naslund and Sergei Zubov aside, Patrick has proven me wrong every time I questioned a move. But, a little first-guessing can't hurt.
Patrick has said he plans to address several needs in the free agent period and they are prioritized A, B, C and D. Sidney Crosby fills need A, a skilled center.
I believe if the Penguins fill needs B, C and D properly they can compete for a Stanley Cup this season. Here is a look at what those needs might be and the best choices to fill them.
This is an easy one. The Penguins have lots of talented young defensemen and goaltenders in their system, as well as many promising young forwards. They lack few legitimate snipers though, unless Tomas Surovy steps up his game. The choice is also easy to fill this job-Alexei Kovalev. Kovalev is one of the few players in the world talented enough to play with the likes of Lemieux and Crosby and Pittsburgh is where Kovalev played his best hockey. Kovy would also serve as a fine mentor and translator for the man forgotten in all of the deserved Sidney Crosby hype-Evgeni Malkin.
C-Solid Two-Way Defenseman
Preferably, a right-handed shooting one. This might be the hardest need to fill. Ric Jackman showed signs of being Patrick's latest great reclamation project as the former top ten pick turned journeyman found his game in Pittsburgh, basically netting a point a game for the Pen's last 25 games in 2003-2004. The team would be in great shape, however, if he and Dick Tarnstrom (the former Islander's number seven defenseman who Patrick turned into our number one) could form the number two defense pairing behind former number five overall pick Ryan Whitney and a free agent. I don't imagine the Devil's will allow Brian Rafalski to leave, especially if Scott Niedermeyer signs elsewhere, but if he does come to the open market, he would be the perfect fit for the Pen's blueline. Patrick is familiar with him, and vice versa, from the US Olympic Program. If not Rafalski, then Sergei Zubov (if he is available), Adrian Aucoin or Sergei Gonchar would also look good in black and gold. So would Sandis Ozolinsh.
Not just any veteran netminder, though. He has to be good enough to be the number one goalie if Fleury isn't ready for the job a very likely scenario since he can't even drink legally here. The goalie also has to be a team first guy who is at a point in his career where he could accept a backup role if Fleury starts to show he is ready for greatness. Nikolai Khabibulin would not be a good fit here. Sean Burke, or to a lesser extent-Mike Dunham, could be just right.
With these moves the Penguins core could look like this:
Lemieux Crosby Recchi
Free agents (the team would still have a fair bit of room under the cap as well as their own team budget) or some of the Penguins many young players would fill out the bottom two lines and final defense pairing. The Pens don't have a plethora of grinding/checking line candidates, but perhaps if the league is to be as open as they say, rolling four scoring lines might be the best strategy.
If Martin Straka is unable to get a good contract offer due to his age and injury history, he would probably be amenable to playing cheap in Pittsburgh, where he has enjoyed infinitely more success than his many other stops in the NHL. Given that Straka is a sound two way player and great team guy, he would be a solid and cost effective 2nd or 3rd liner under such a scenario.
A LOOK AT THE PENS ROSTER
Unless you're a hard-core Pittsburgh Penguins fan, the odds are reasonable that you decided the team wasn't worth watching for the past few years. Most of Pittsburgh thought so. Here is a look at the organization that hockey's newest prize will join:
Players On The Team
Mario Lemieux- Enough said. Though, there is no particular reason to think Mario will be able to remain healthy as he has been injured most seasons since his un-retirement.
Mark Recchi- Rex has been productive his entire career and surprisingly hasn't shown many signs of slowing down. They will come soon enough, but he could play for several more years at a high level.
Sidney Crosby- Barring injury, Crosby will be in black and gold to open the season. I wouldn't expect him to play a single minor league game in his career.
Evgeni Malkin*- Assuming they can get him over from Russia*, a task made easier by the recent agreement with the IIHF. Malkin is reportedly earning $1.3 million a year in Russia or about $400,000 more than he could make in Pittsburgh. Is that enough to forego the NHL? You'll have to ask Malkin, that is, if you speak Russian.
There are number obstacles to getting Malkin in the lineup, but if the Pens can, he has drawn comparisons to Vincent Lecavalier, Mats Sundin and Joe Thornton, and would be an amazing compliment to Crosby. Some scouts now believe he is better than 2004 top pick, Alex Ovechkin, which, if true, would mean the Penguins have the top two prospects to come into the league this decade.
If he comes to North America, he will play in Pittsburgh.
Ryan Malone- For years, I think most Pens fans dismissed Malone's name from the list of top Pen's prospect, and assumed his drafting was a token gesture to head scout and father, Greg Malone. For those who saw Ryan play his way from a sure minor league stint to a lock to make the big club in training camp in 2003-2004, and subsequently those who saw through the wreckage of the Pen's season that year to see his great rookie campaign, know that Malone is the real deal. He is a poor team's Keith Tkachuk.
Dick Tarnstrom-I'm pretty sure that Patrick picked Tarnstrom up off of waivers, but either way he went from the Isle's #7 to our #1 defenseman. Plays very well with talented players like Lemieux and Kovalev. Sees the ice very well.
Ric Jackman- Another cast-off, from the Bruins, Stars and Leafs, this former top ten pick played exceptionally well down the stretch for the Penguins. It's uncertain whether Jackman will pick up where he left off or revert to his old form, but he will certainly be given another season in Pittsburgh to find out.
Ryan Whitney- I have never seen Whitney play, but from all reports of his career at Boston U. and his season in Wilkes-Barre he seems a lock to join the big club this season. He is 6-4 with skating and puck skills that made him next in line after Jay Bouwmeester and Joni Pitkanen were drafted in 2002. Whitney is now 22 and should have a relatively smooth transistion to the pros.
Brooks Orpik- Orpik is a physical, mostly stay-at-home defenseman. He is also a much better skater than one might think for a player with a such a resume. He also makes a nice outlet pass. Many feel he could be the Pen's captain one day. Not to put him in this elite class, but, think a young Scott Stevens type.
Rico Fata- Unless he sucks big time in training camp, Fata is a sure bet to find some place on the roster. He is ultra-fast and always shows great hustle. If and when his hands keep up with his feet, he is a dangerous player with good moves. Fata can play on the second, third or fourth lines and make an impact.
Players On The Bubble
Marc-Andre Fleury- Critics have gotten a bit restless with Fleury's inconsistent play in his first two pro seasons. They forget that he is still only 20 years old. Luongo took years to pan out. DiPietro still has not joined the elite ranks of goaltenders. It takes time for a young goalie to be NHL worthy, no matter the pedigree. Fleury's quickness makes Curtis Joseph in his prime look like Mike Liut. He will be just fine. If he is not ready for the NHL, there is no harm in sending him back to the minors assuming Patrick signs a veteran goalie.
Aleksey Morozov- Morozov has teased with his considerable talent for almost a decade now. He has had brilliant stretches, mostly playing with Mario. He was dominant down the stretch for the Pens in 2003-2004 and finished fourth in Russian League scoring last season, ahead of many notable NHL'ers. The Pens don't want to see Morozov become another Markus Naslund, a talented player who simply took a bit longer than most to develop and did so elsewhere, but might not have much choice. The new rules for UFA status should make Morozov free to entertain any offers come August 1st. Unless the Pens fail to sign Kovalev or another top flight free agent winger, I would expect that Morozov will sign with another club rather than risk spending any more time than he has (a lot) already spent on the Penguins third line.
Morozov never adjusted to the NHL (he always lacked the upper body strength to win the battles) but now that "new" NHL has adjusted to him, he could thrive. Whoever signs him, might get a great bargain.
Konstantin Koltsov- The Pens would probably have to sign a few veteran free agents to bump Koltsov from the lineup. Koltsov might be the fastest skater in the entire NHL. His hands don't seem like they will ever be good enough to make him a top line player, but he is grittier than most think and he could be very effective as a role player and penalty killer. I would love to see him skate on a line with Fata and Recchi for a bit; three of the smallest but quickest players in the league darting around.
Kris Beech- The centerpiece of the Jagr deal. Beech is a skilled, smart player, but his skating (strength as well) is simply under par for the NHL level. He has had a few nice seasons in the AHL since his last NHL action, so he deserves another chance. Ron Francis was never a great skater either, but Beech would have to show some major improvement, now that the Pens have Crosby and Malkin, to make the team.
Milan Kraft- See Kris Beech. Kraft is a poor skater who has disappointed Penguins fans for years. He did show some signs of getting his game together before the lockout. He is a good shooter and, when he is on his game, can use his big body like Jason Allison to make plays. Kraft might get lost in the numbers game as well, and could end up doing very well later in his career, as Robert Lang did.
Ramzi Abid- Has shown almost nothing since being acquired in a deal for the very under-rated Jan Hrdina. He looked great against the Pens in a Coyotes uniform before the trade, though. If he can upgrade his defensive game, he could stick as a fourth liner, but the new rules don't help him or his slow feet.
Michael Sivek- Who knows? Sivek has been in the Czech Republic for a few seasons. For his first 20 NHL games, it looked like Jagr for Sivek would have been a great deal. He made plays, he showed defensive saavy and the knack for being in the right place at the right time. Not great, but an adequate skater, he has size and skill and the tools to play on almost any line. His mother died soon after the stretch, and he has played in the Czech Republic since, without much success it would seem.
Andy Chiodo- If he weren't a seventh round pick, Chiodo's play since turning pro would have probably earned him the backup job in Pittsburgh by now. Expect him to return to the AHL, but to end up in the NHL permanently in a few seasons, with some team.
Shane Endicott- Is a big, rangy center who many feel could eventually (perhaps sooner rather than later) fill the third line job. A lack of other candidates currenly in the organization gives Endicott, who has played well for the Baby Pens, a decent chance to make the club this year barring a free agent signing for that spot.
Sebastien Caron- While Caron has shown flashes of being a good goalie-he has very quick legs-he is not a threat to Fleury as the team's future in goal. Caron didn't end up catching on with a real pro team during the lockout, so it remains to be seen how rusty he will be once play resumes. He is a darkhorse candidate for a buyout of the two years he has left on his deal, but the team will probably, at least, take a look at him in camp. He would be an expensive minor leaguer if the Pens opt to sign a veteran goalie. He is an NHL-caliber backup.
Michael Roszival and Josef Melichar- A duo for most of their careers, those two players have formed an effective tandem when healthy, and could be a nice pair of 5th and 6th defenseman for the team if they can stay on the ice. They might have worn out the patience of the club, however, and could very easily be replaced. Roszival has the tools to be a top defenseman, but seems unlikely to put it all together.
Other young, up and coming young Penguins include Sergei Ashankov (from the Straka deal) a former linemate of Malkin's, grinder turned scorer Ryan Stone (2nd in WHL scoring last year), Matt Murley, Surovy, Ben Eaves, possible mini-sniper Michel Oullet (AHL all-star last year) and Stephen Dixon, who was a member of Canada's World Junior team. Colby Armstrong, a first rounder in 2000, could also help fill out the Pen's checking line.
Paul Bissonette, looked like a veteran defenseman in camp in 2003 and almost made the NHL as an 18 year old. While he hasn't seemed to improve much since then, he remains a good bet to be a contributor one day. Noah Welch of Harvard is also a highly regarded blueline prospect.
Players On Their Way Out (Most Likely)
Matt Bradley- They just gave Mark Recchi the number 8 Bradley had been wearing as a Pen. He might not last much longer, either. Bradley was a supposed to win a 2nd line job for the young and sucky Pens of 2003-2004, at best, he was a substandard fourth liner. Bradley's skating skills merit another look at camp this year, but he would have to show a lot to be worth a roster spot.
Lasse Pirjeta- An older pro who came over from Europe to play in the Blue Jacket's system. He looked pretty good in his short stint with Pittsburgh after coming over at the trading deadline, but his spot would probably be best used by a developing young player. He would be an ideal 23rd man to keep on the roster, spending most of the season in the press box, but able to offer solid play if called upon.
Martin Strbak- Strbak played
better than expected of a nobody coming over in a salary dump,
but he is what he is, a journeyman defenseman. His roster spot
would be better served on a young player. He could sit with Pirjeta
in the press box or move along.
The past few lean years aside, Penguins fans have been very lucky over the past 20 years. Between Mario and Jagr, Pittsburgh has been home to the Art Ross Trophy 11 times over the past 17 years.
As much as we need Crosby now, to help secure a new building, and as much as justice has been served as Bill Wirtz said, after the years of CBA related problems the Penguins survived, Penguin fans have been spoiled by the talent to skate at the Igloo over the years.
Here is a list of the players I have been privileged enough to watch, night in and night out, during my years as a Penguins fan, in a loose order-
A list that would match well against any team in the league for the last 15-20 years. To add names like Fleury, Malkin and now, Sidney Crosby is amazing. Hopefully, the Art Ross Trophy will continue to make it's home in Pittsburgh.
TOO MUCH FOR ONE KID'S BACK?
For all of the talk of pressure of Sidney Crosby, and it's all real and all true, to be a savior for the league and for the Penguins, that is down the road. Lemieux and Patrick will not rush him. Crosby's only pressure this season is to play some second line center for the Pens. Although, a Calder Trophy would be nice
BUILD THE BUILDING
The politicians in Pennsylvania, for the most part, seemed to fall into one of two categories-incompetent or corrupt. Neither is encouraging to the Penguins odds of getting their help towards a new building.
Off topic, but, my favorite sort of anecdotal number, stat or ranking is this-A study of the roads in the US found (using whatever standards they used to measure, I don't know exactly) that to no one's surprise PA has the worst roads in the US. But what was great about the study was that by whatever score or formula they used to determine that ranking, the 49th ranked state (New York) was rated closer to #1 than #50 meaning PA's roads are astronomically worse than any other state. And it has been that way forever. Now, that is some serious corruption, incompetence or both.
The politicians in this state have managed to vote themselves a hefty pay raise and erect new homes for the Philadelphia Flyers, Sixers, Eagles and Phillies over the past few years, not to mention the Pittsburgh Steelers and Pirates. The Penguins, thus far, have not been so lucky.
Every time I see PNC Park, I get sick. No one cared about the Pirates when they had Bonds, Bonilla and company and competed annually for pennants, and they certainly don't care about the AAA club they have now. PNC Park, with apologies to Camden Yards, is probably the nicest ballpark in baseball. The Heritage Classic led me to think it could make a great hockey stadium, too. Put a roof over it and let's get 40,000 out there watching Sidney Crosby.
That pointless fantasy aside, the city of Pittsburgh needs a new arena for much more than just the Penguins. It also houses concerts and others events. Many major acts skip the city for lack of a modern venue.
It would be nice to think that the bright outlook of the Penguins future would lead a private investor to step up and build the Penguins a new arena as Nationwide Insurance did for the Columbus Blue Jackets. Nice, but unrealistic. It seems the Pen's fate needs public money, either from taxes or from the proposed slot parlors in the state.
Most politicians, including the governor Ed Rendell, blow off the issue, leaving the Penguins last hope tied to a gaming license to open a slot machine parlor in Pittsburgh. The Penguins are one of the groups applying for the license and there is hope that the winner of that license, regardless of who it is, will be required to put up the arena money.
But getting back to that part about our politicians being subtly amongst the most corrupt in the country and you see why the Pens and their fans are nervous to have the franchise's fate in the hands of a few gaming commissioners appointed by said politicians. The hope is that Sidney Crosby will bring such attention and public support to the team that the city, state and/or gaming board will have no choice but to support the arena.
Pittsburgh needs to learn from the example of other cities who felt they couldn't afford to keep their teams in their cities, only to later realize their mistake. After the team leaves, they usually build a great, expensive new building in the hopes of getting a team back, but probably never will, and become permanently minor league. Sorry, Winnipeg.
There is no doubt that Pittsburgh is a declining city, but it doesn't have to be a dying city. The choice is between a rebirth or a funeral. I know which one the Pens leaving town would feel like
The other choice is there. A new arena would be a great start.
SIDNEY CROSBY WILL NOT BE TRADED
Sidney Crosby, like Mario Lemieux, will be a Penguin for life.
Unless he turn into the second coming of Jaromir Jagr, that is. Jagr, who went from (allegedly according to gossip, mind you) being a coke addict to finding God though that usually is the sequence I wonder if he might run for president? Hmmm. For whatever reasons, Jagr thought he could run from his demons by leaving Pittsburgh. I hope he's succeeded, though it doesn't seem as if he has. Sid seems far too grounded, however, to follow the moody Jagr down that path.
Or unless, like Eric Lindros, Sid decides he has to try to go home to face the pressure of his hometown team and demands a trade.
Otherwise, the new CBA dictates his salary will be very limited his first three years and a sure bargain for the Pens. Once that deal expires, he will be a restricted free agent and the Penguins will likely sign him to a long, long term deal at the max salary. For those hoping the Pens won't be able to afford him one day come on, you don't think they'll pay 20% of their cap space for hockey's superstar? It will be Sid and a roster full of AHL types before they trade Crosby.
The only thing that will get Crosby out of Pittsburgh is the relocation of the franchise. At which point, Kansas City or Portland will just pay him the max salary and keep Crosby for his career.
Much to the dismay of the team and the fans, it will be awhile still before we know if the Pens will get, or at least benefit, from the slot license to be awarded in Pittsburgh. If, however, Mario were to be granted that license, the irony is that the Penguins would go from one of the lowest revenue teams to one of nearly unlimited resources.
Furthermore, most athletes who play there come to love Pittsburgh, mostly because Pittsburgh loves them. Sports accounts for about 98% of civic pride in the former Steel City. It's all the city has to hang it's hat on these days, really.
The Penguins certainly won't be trading the pick between now and Saturday. What could another team offer the Penguins that would be worth trading Sidney Crosby?
Unless the Thrashers offered up Heatley, Kovalchuk, Braydon Coburn and (for no real reason since we have Fleury) Keri Lehtonen, plus at least 4 or 5 first round picks, it would never be worth it for the Pens (or anyone) to trade the player many think will be the NHL's best before too long. You almost never win trading the best player in the deal, let alone, the best in the league.
Gretzky and Messier. Lemieux and Francis. Sakic and Forsberg. Yzerman and Fedorov.
Those are the types of two center attacks that Stanley Cup champions are built around, and hopefully soon, Crosby and Malkin will be mentioned in the same breath. So don't hold yours waiting for the Penguins to deal "the Next One."
Pens fans might be excused for holding theirs, however, as it has been a long time since it has been awhile since the home team had a real chance to win. Would you have paid to watch that 2003-2004 team?
Armed with Crosby, Malkin and some great young players--not to mention veterans like 66, Recchi and hopefully Kovalev-and a new CBA that will allow them to keep a team together, Penguin fans must (and will, I believe) prove that this is still a great hockey town.
By Eric Wright
The debate, sparked by the comments of Manny Legace and Jeremy Roenick, as to whether the players should have accepted one of the earlier offers rather than watching as the season and over a billion dollars in salary was lost, is a false one. It implies that those were the only two choices.
There was, at least, one more option--negotiation.
If you simply list the NHL's offers on paper, they look mighty stingy. Those bids, however, were designed to introduce a CBA structure and leave wiggle room for negotiation. But the NHLPA never did negotiate. They refused to consider a salary cap, even though they were the only remaining sport without cost containment.
Does anyone think that if the players had offered the deal they are about to sign to the owners with a range of $30-$45 million, instead of the expected $22-$38 million, back in September, that the owner's would have refused? The owner's would have jumped at the chance to get their cap without losing season ticket holders, sponsors, or broadcast deals.
Anyone, the NHLPA included, who thought the players might avoid a deal with a salary cap never really understood the ramifications of Gary Bettman needing only 8 votes to scuttle a deal. Pittsburgh, Edmonton, Florida, Nashville, Atlanta, Tampa, Phoenix and Buffalo basically needed a hard cap to survive. Were they going to vote for their own demise?
Didn't the union notice the Rangers slashing salary, dealing away Alexei Kovalev and Brian Leetch among others? Even the Rangers understood a salary cap was coming.
Bob Goodenow's strategy, evidently, was to convince the player's that a cap was morally, ethically, and spiritually wrong and use that solidarity as his only leverage. The NHLPA had little economic ground to stand on in the debate, as the league's finances couldn't justify the salaries.
Even Goodenow, however, realized that a cap was inevitable. Of course, he couldn't tell his players that or else they'd demand a quick settlement. His plan was to offer Gary Bettman the cap he'd been seeking at the last minute without the union's knowledge, expecting Bettman to bite on a cap around or above the $50 million mark. Such a cap would have had very little, if any, effect on salaries as a whole.
Bettman balked and the season was cancelled. Many have said that the NHL was not willing to negotiate. It was, but on it's terms only. Right or wrong, that is how it was and the players eventually understood that and got the best deal they could.
Goodenow never had a plan B. Once the players had accepted that a cap was inevitable, and both sides decided a court battle was in no one's best interests, a deal was reached (relatively) quickly.
Should the players have taken one of the NHL's lowball offers earlier? Of course not, but the union should have realized they couldn't beat the cap and started into the process of negotiation that began in April back in September.
If they had spent their time and energy fighting for increased revenue sharing instead of against the cap, the deal they'll be signing soon would be much better for the game, the fans, and themselves. Instead, Goodenow's failed strategy left them without the leverage to win more than a few minor concessions. They were doomed to lose the war, but could have won a few more battles with the right general.
JUST HATE BETTMAN
I've long felt that many who supported the players in this debate did so more out of a dislike of Gary Bettman than any good economic argument against a salary cap. Bettman deserves criticism for much of the league woes that have occurred on his watch, but I never understood why that translated into supporting the player's counterproductive fight against a necessary change in the salary structure.
If you want to hate Bettman for overexpansion or expanding the league too quickly, go right ahead.
If you want to hate Bettman for his yearly failure to oversee a fundamental change in officiating to remove the cancerous obstruction from the game, no one can argue.
If you want to hate Bettman for bad TV ratings, the glowing puck or just the fact that he looks like a weasely little f#@k, be my guest. You are right on all counts.
All sports today, however, have some form of cost containment. Hockey was not going to be different. Blaming Bettman for not giving in to the player's refusal to see that fact is misplaced anger.
Bettman and the league have taken much criticism lately because teams aren't cutting ticket prices in half. Player salaries are being cut 24 % (not 50%) and if player salaries account for 54% of revenue, that amounts to a 1/8th reduction in costs. Fans looking for huge price breaks are being unrealistic.
Most of the criticism for ticket prices is coming from pro-NHLPA sources, which is ironic. As it stands with the new CBA coming, most teams are reducing or freezing their ticket prices. No team is raising ticket prices. When was the last time that happened? If the players had won the lockout, ticket prices would have been guaranteed to continue their yearly increases.
Much of the same anti-Bettman crowd laments the fact that large market clubs might still have an advantage over small market clubs. Meanwhile, by supporting the players, they tacitly supported the old system which saw large market teams enjoy a much, much larger advantage than they will under the new deal. I never got that.
If the playing field isn't perfectly level, then it might as well be as slanted as possible? If the ticket prices aren't cut in half, they might as well go up 10% each year? The bottom line is that the NHL has a chance now to be a lot better than it was before the lockout.
Bettman got what the owners wanted and his job is safe. As a small market fan, he did better than I thought he could have and look forward to watching my team compete with clubs that have only 150% the payroll of my team, instead of double or triple.
Now, that the lockout is over and some semblance of parity is at hand for the NHL, I can go back to hating Bettman for obstruction, and lack of TV exposure, and
Bill Lankhof's article from July 9th in the Toronto Sun takes many undeserved cheap shots at Bettman and the league, and serves as a fine example of the aforementioned misplaced Bettman hated. He uses false arguments to indict what he calls "Gary Bettman's cost certainty" rather than acknowledging economic reality.
Lankhof states, "The previous time the NHL owners got uppity, Gretzky ended up playing his first professional games with the World Hockey Association." At the time, the NHL was "uppity" about Gretzky being 17 years old. The NHL did not want to employ an underage player, the "uppity" bastards.
Lankhof continues, "The NHL ended up having to adopt a whole league to get Gretzky back." Is that what happened? Or did the NHL absorb four WHA clubs after the upstart league went bankrupt? It seems they were paying out far too much in salary, trying to compete for talent, than the business of hockey could support and they went out of business. That sounds familiar.
Lankhof's point, that the new CBA could send Crosby to play in the Swiss League, has, of course, been thoroughly discredited by now. There is ZERO chance of that happening, nor was it ever a serious threat. Reebok and Gatorade and the other companies who will soon sign him aren't paying him to skate in Lugano.
Will some high-end European rookies remain overseas for better deals than they can get under the new NHL rookie cap? Yes. Will anyone else join them? Probably not. The better players will still get salaries higher than those available overseas in the NHL and the marginal players will not illicit much demand unless some Swiss League owner thinks Kip Miller can sell tickets.
If you want to hate Bettman for allowing Alex Ovechkin or Evgenii Malkin to remain overseas, well, you know
I had previously believed that Al Strachan's almost kamikaze pro-NHLPA stance throughout the lockout was the result of a perfect intersection of interests-- his need to interview the players and to report on the free spending Maple Leafs who were not all that interested in the NHL winning the lockout. Now, I just think he is being paid personally by Bob Goodenow.
In his July 10th column, Strachan tries to do his best Johnnie Cochran to Goodenow's O.J. Simpson. I hope he gets a jury that doesn't understand DNA evidence.
Hockey players are loyal to the team and they believed in their coach. The players never really talked about not being paid enough, rather the need to get a fair deal (after being told for years that a cap was unfair) and just get back on the ice.
The idea that holding out for two or more years would have somehow resulted in a better deal for the players is such fantasy that it's almost delusional.
The argument that Goodenow must have the support of his players because he has not been fired yet doesn't hold up as well as that same argument about Bettman. It takes only a majority 30 of owners to fire Bettman if he is not serving their will. How exactly would the 700 or more players go about ousting Goodenow? Is there a recall process? How is it initiated? Does it take a simple majority or more? Does anyone know?
Hockey players are highly unlikely to ever take such a mutinous attitude during a fight. Also, many players have maintained a surprisingly modest level of interest in the negotiations, particularly those who played overseas. Furthermore, it would have been bargaining suicide to fire Goodenow during the CBA talks. Once the dust of the lockout settles and the players start talking in the locker rooms, we'll see how long Goodenow remains with the union.
Imagine my surprise when I agreed with almost everything Al Strachan had to say in his July 11th column. Strachan is 100% right when he says the NHL needs to provide an incentive for winning.
The extra point is very important to avoid having teams killing the clock in OT in hopes of a tie. It also keeps more teams in the playoff hunt for a longer period of time. Meanwhile, the idea that a varying number of points are available year to year is sloppy and inconsistent. A three point system would be the perfect solution for the NHL and put the emphasis where it should be-playing winning (and thus exciting) hockey.
-It's very hard to predict at this point what the teams will even look like, let alone guess at favorites. But .I guess I'll do just that. The Florida Panthers have the look of a team that can be very formidable for years to come. The young players led by super goalie Roberto Luongo with Jay Bouwmeester , Stephen Weiss, Nathan Horton, Kristian Huselius and Olli Jokinen form a solid, young core at a relatively good price.
The Panthers now have the luxury of selling free agents on Florida's weather and lack of state income tax, and can add some great veterans to form an instant Stanley Cup contender this summer. Bill Guerin comes to mind.
The Panthers young core is also a bit older and thus more experienced than my Penguins young core of players and look to be a serious roadblock to anyone with Eastern Conference playoff hopes.
-I think all 30 teams should have an equal shot at Sidney Crosby. With the new landscape, having a great team of expensive veterans, such as Detroit or Colorado, is as big a handicap as having a bare roster of unproven, yet cheap youngsters, like Pittsburgh or Washington. Teams and their advantages going forward under the new deal will not be based on past success and the draft lottery should not be either.
I wouldn't mind seeing the draft lottery determine only the top pick as in most years, instead of the entire draft order, but then I'm a partisan fan of the team with the worst record the past 3 years. The number two pick would help us catch up to the Panthers a bit.
The NHL should try to get as much exposure for the lottery as possible. I doubt a Top Ten list of prospects is Letterman's idea of funny, but maybe the league can beg them to draw the balls on TV, if not there then elsewhere. It should be webcast on NHL.com, if nothing else.
Also, don't just let the first ball that comes out get the first pick, there isn't much drama there. It should be take at least 2 or 3 balls to win the top pick. Build some suspense.
-I think the fans will be back quicker than most think, and in bigger numbers. Large market buildings will find more than enough people to fill the seats of any disgruntled fans. Fans in small markets with a good hockey background might start off with better attendance than when they left, as the teams will now have a real chance to win. The biggest question mark is in markets where hockey hasn't taken hold, like Atlanta, Nashville, and the two Florida teams. Tampa Bay's Cup momentum might be nil. Ditto for Nashville's playoff appearance.
-The NHL finally got something right by announcing the agreement on the slowest sports day of the year. Honestly, the lockout probably got the league more publicity in the US than playing would have generated. Maybe casual and non-fans will be more inclined to try the "new" NHL than the old one they've ignored all their lives. They say there is no such thing as bad publicity, let's find out how many tickets it sells.
-The maximum individual salary (20% at most of the team cap) seems a bit punitive on top of the team salary cap to the players, but it creates a very easy system for signing elite players--offer them $7.4 million a year. This maximum will allow most teams to add at least one or two elite players. Even the Pens, at the height of their financial troubles, offered Alexei Kovalev a 5 year, $30 million deal, so $7.4 is within reason for most clubs.
This will make it easier for small market teams to compete for top talent. The large market club's advantage will probably arise in the form of better 2nd and 3rd lines than small market teams can afford. Every team will have the chance to add a top player, though, if they so choose.
-The players hardly lost in this new deal as the average salary still figures to be about $1.3 million a year. The lowering of the UFA age to 27, however, might ultimately prove beneficial to the owners. Players in their prime always get top dollar, but with the extra free agents on the market each year, the owner's can sign older players, who benefited from a dearth of available free agent many previous summers, at a lower cost.
-Referees should have to wear helmet-cams at all times. This would kill two birds, providing an up close look at the action the NHL wants to convey on TV while allowing the league to root out those officials who simply refuse to call the penalties that happen right in front of their eyes.
-Martin Havlat makes a pretty compelling case against the removal of the red line. It might be wise to test the idea in the AHL first.
-I worry about the NHL making too many rule changes at once. Something about having an experiment with 18 variables doesn't seem like a good idea. Shrinking goalie gear? A given. Tag up offsides? Maybe. Making the lines fatter? Fantastic. Taking out the red line? I don't know. No touch icing? It could lead to some very slow stretches of the game. The league has to be careful about going too far.
-I hope the rumor of the shootout featuring only 3 shooters per team is false. Three is fluky. Five shooters aside is a more appropriate number. I might be one of the few fans hard core enough to love the idea of having all 18 skaters per team take a shot. It would probably cheapen the shootout far too much to be worth it, but I love sixth defensemen on breakaways.
-At first glance, I don't like the idea of expanding the playoffs to ten teams per conference, it cheapens making the playoffs. But those resistant to wild cards in baseball were ultimately proven wrong as it made the regular season much more interesting. The idea might have some merit. Nothing kills fan interest like being eliminated from the post season by January. More teams in the post season mean more revenue, so both sides would have benefit. We might one day talk about the team that won 18 games to take the Stanley Cup. The layoff for the top teams in each conference, and the chance to get rusty, seems a bit unfair, though.
-The NHL needs to get back on TV. The price tag on the NHL's cable rights is sure to be very low at this point, so the league's focus must be on getting the largest number of games on the air as possible.
-The revenue sharing in the new deal is disappointing. The idea of a luxury tax kicking in at the halfway point of the salary range to provide a pool of money to be distributed to lower income teams was much more promising. While Bettman needed only 8 small market votes to kill a deal without sufficient cost containment, it also meant that it took only 8 large market votes to veto a deal with overly generous revenue sharing.
Eric Wright is a Pittsburgh
Penguins fan who loves the
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