September 17, 2010

Staal Infection Hurts Pens More than It Does Him

"If I didn't have my good looks, skills, and millions of dollars, I'd be scared s(&!less right about now."
Say what you want about Pittsburgh Penguin Jordan Staal: that he’s overrated, that he’s underrated, that, following his arrest at brother Eric’s bachelor party in 2007, he should choose his family better, etc., etc.... he is still as tough as they come.

Case in point would be his performance in last year’s playoffs, when he suffered a season-ending severed tendon on his foot in game one of his team’s second-round series against the Montreal Canadiens only to return two (2!) games later. Admittedly, his being 6’4”, they’re at least several feet from where the injury was sustained, but, still, that right there is balls.

Further proof comes in the form of his iron-man streak, which, in four NHL seasons, had never been broken until last spring’s injury. His regular-season consecutive-games-played streak, despite being on very thin ice, still remains intact however at 327 games. That will be snapped when the season starts, as he is likely to miss at least its first three weeks recovering from a staph infection originating where tendon was repaired.

Never mind the pain factor. What’s most impressive about his surprising return to action last May is how the mere thought of somehow causing additional, irreparable damage in a subsequent game would send most others cowering into a small corner of the dressing room, contemplating just how many millions of dollars and sex appeal they would lose as a result of a career-ending injury. In Staal’s case, it would be a lot, just for the simple reason that he is the real deal.

His point totals may not reflect his talent level, as he has averaged just over a half-point per game over his career. That is due to his playing third fiddle to arguably the two best centers in the game in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. As a defense-first center, and a Selke Trophy-nominated one at that, his point totals are not exactly meant to be indicative of his offensive capabilities. That he has scored 49 points in each of the past two seasons is just that, however. As a third-liner he nets more points than most second-liners, which is about as impressive as the Pens winning the Stanley Cup with Marc-Andre Fleury in nets... and even the one flower that manages to wilt every spring gets his hot streaks sometimes.

What’s most disappointing was that this was the year that the Pens were coming to their senses, and realizing that Malkin and Crosby couldn’t do it themselves. Staal was meant to become the team’s number-two center, with Malkin moving to his wing. As such, he clearly would have been given ample opportunity to increase upon those aforementioned point totals.
"I know my English isn't perfect, but, dude, when I said you'd finally be getting a chance to score..."

And to those Pens fans hoping for another miraculous recovery and seeing Staal in the Pens’ line-up when they open the season on October 7 against the Philadelphia Flyers, consider that this infection has been particularly pesky and infected tissue has had to be removed on several occasions already. Needless to say, like that one annoying unwanted girlfriend you can never get out of your life, there is no way Staal would risk keeping the infection around any longer than he needs to. It only interprets neglect as playing hard to get. The only way to finally be rid of it is to give it a taste of its own medicine, smother it with attention, get it to pack its bags - inordinate amounts of ugly-looking shoes making a mess of your closet and all - and get it to leave on its own. Or so I’ve been told.

The bottom line is Staal’s going to bite the bullet, bring an end to his iron-man streak, and it is all for the better in the long term, especially as the long term would pertain to the Penguins.

Without Staal, the team is weaker for sure. With the recent signing of forward Mike Comrie, they may not even be a playoff team... he’s that bad. While the defensive-corps additions of Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek do help, much more is needed for the Penguins to be able to regain their strut – or march, if you want to be cute. The team’s goaltending is inconsistent to be very kind, and their forward lines are made up of three – now two superstars and a bunch of third-liners (or fifth-liners in Comrie’s case). There is no middle ground, especially with Bill Guerin not being brought back.

Staal will return eventually, but until then look for the Penguins to stumble out of the gate and struggle to earn home-ice advantage in the playoffs the rest of the season. They’re the ones that are overrated, not Staal.

September 16, 2010

Gionta a Fine English-Speaking Choice for Habs’ Captain

Wherever she is, either at home or somewhere in the world spewing her gospel of hatred for all things English-speaking, Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois is most certainly not a happy camper.

That she represents a Canadian political party that can’t even win in its namesake province is bad enough. But, now, it’s become readily apparent that no one is even taking her party’s crusade against the Montreal Canadiens seriously. You can’t make this stuff up.

On Thursday, it was reported that the Montreal Canadiens were set to name diminutive American forward Brian Gionta as the team’s 28th captain. If the rumours are correct, he would become just the second American to be named captain in team history, with the recently retired Chris Chelios being the first.

"Of course! Hockey! That's the one that's played on ice, right?"
Seeing as the PQ, which stands for Quebec’s sovereignty and the preservation of the French language, has recently taken it upon itself to attack the Habs’ policies and general lack of French-speaking players on the roster, the naming of an anglophone, let alone an American one, as captain would serve as a stake through the heart of any supercilious point the PQ may have.

Gionta??? Over leaders such as Mathieu “130 NHL Games to My Name” Darche, “Mad to the Point of Never Dropping My Gloves” Maxim Lapierre, and Benoit “I Was Actually a Top-Five Pick(?)” Pouliot, who has somehow found himself forever playing in the shadow of Guillaume Friggin’ Latendresse??? Sacrilege!

If only the Habs had jumped at the opportunity to trade the team’s entire farm system to the Tampa Bay Lightning for its captain, Vincent Lecavalier, his overbearing 10-year contract, and his play-limiting injury problems. Then we wouldn’t be having this conversation. We’d instead be asking why we traded such fine local products as the highly touted Louis Leblanc for damaged goods. When there were only two francophone players, including Lecavalier, in the top 30 scorers of the league last year, the Habs’ options are limited to say the least. What are they going to do? Fill their team with plugs and lose each and every year? Best to save the hockey decisions to the people that know about hockey, PQ.

While the PQ’s conspiracy theory is par for their nationally irrelevant course and makes for at least a few good laughs in these dire, economically uncertain times (which should serve as reason enough for them to revisit their platform just a tiny bit), the truth of the matter is that Gionta is fit to be captain of the moribund franchise. That isn’t meant to be a slight to him, just give the proper context to the situation. While the team made it to the third round of the playoffs last spring, the Habs are not contenders. After a full season in which the captaincy was left vacant following Saku Koivu’s departure, it’s high time that someone fill the open spot, and there are few better candidates than Gionta:

1)      Andrei Markov is the longest-serving Hab, but he tends to lead more by quiet example and shy away from things like full seasons of play, full heads of hair, and actual conversation. That and he’s from Russia. And, clearly, a Commie wearing a “C” and a primarily red uniform is something best reserved for the science-fiction genre.

2)      A much more intimidating presence than Markov, Hal Gill willingly sacrificed his body time again during the Habs’ playoff run, blocking shot after shot. Still, at 6’7”, whenever he would be talking to players, he’d actually be talking down to them. No one needs that level of condescension, especially from a career third-pairing defenseman.

3)      Among defensemen, Josh Gorges was always a much more likely option due to his only being 6’1”, his actually posting a positive +/- rating last year (Gill was -10), and the fact that he is still young at 26. Still, it would be nice for your captain to be able to tell the team to get a few quick goals given a deficit and actually possess the ability to find the net himself. Even if he were to be provided a map, compass, and one or two Sherpas on loan, Gorges’s eight career goals do not inspire confidence.

4)      Mike Cammalleri was the fan’s choice to become captain, primarily due to his ability to find the back of the net. His motives as a Torontonian for deciding to play for the Habs last summer have to come into question, though. A spy? Maybe that’s Marois talking.

"Hey, Brian, remember our deal: Whoever gets the"C" has to make the other finance minister in the new unlingual Canada."

All in all, Gionta best epitomizes the Habs and what they stand for: yes, a lack of size, but also skill, drive, and, above all else, heart. He may not speak French, but the only language that should matter when it comes to the Canadiens is hockey. In that, I’m told he’s especially fluent. I’d be surprised if Marois or anyone else of consequence in the PQ was as well. Following hockey is hard enough when you don’t have your hands full planning Quebec’s yet-to-be-scheduled independence party. The PQ likely has other things to worry about... that it should be worrying about, rather.

September 15, 2010

PR Hit the Least of Capitals’ Worries as Team Loses out on Belanger

By signing a one-year, $750,000 deal with the Phoenix Coyotes, forward Eric Belanger will look to do the near-impossible this season and provide even more bite to a team that took the NHL by storm last year.

That isn’t due to the Coyotes already being maxed out talent-wise (although they are doing okay in that department). It’s due to how, up until now, the 32-year-old’s crowning achievement was his ability to return to game action soon after losing a handful of teeth in a playoff game against the Montreal Canadiens last spring. Not exactly the kind of selfless act on which you would want to base a career, unless your aim is to eventually become some toothless freak show of a hockey player ironically nicknamed “Sharky” – but it was impressively gutsy, nonetheless.

Needless to say, he’ll be looking to keep the play away from the general vicinity of his teeth and battle-worn face from here on out, because, apparently, contrary to popular belief, that kind of self-sacrifice just isn’t appreciated within the sport.

There is no other way to explain it as, last month, the Washington Capitals sought to repay Belanger for his contribution to D.C.’s dental industry with a reported one-year, $1.8-million contract but reneged on it soon thereafter. Admittedly it was a verbal agreement between the two sides that dissolved when a trade the Caps were looking to make fell through what one can only guess was one of the many cracks in former goalie Jose Theodore’s armour.

As a result of the discussions between him and the Caps, Belanger was led to believe that he had a job lined up for this coming season, with the team even going so far as to help him lease a home and enrol his daughters in schools in the area. However, instead of access to the kind of first-class education one should expect in this intellectually advanced nation’s capital, his kids got a first-hand lesson in the perils of business ethics. Belanger was ultimately forced to take his taking-a-stick-to-the-face antics on the road to the desert, and here we are. The Caps have missed out on a chance to remain legitimate contenders and the Coyotes are the beneficiaries of their mistake. What’s worse is that Washington even has $5 million left in cap space. So, they surely could have accommodated Belanger if they so chose.

Belanger provides the type of two-way play that any team would find valuable, most of all the Caps, who, despite their notoriously highly explosive attack, have the holes in their defensive coverage to match. The Caps are sure to be powerhouses in the regular season again, but it’s the Belangers of the NHL that help to push teams to a Stanley Cup championship.

The Capitals may have lost in the first round last year, but anyone that watched the Habs beat Washington knows it was the flukiest of victories in which goalie Jaroslav Halak supernaturally outplayed both Theodore in the first two games (although a cardboard cut-out with one leg ripped off could probably have done the same) and Semyon Varlamov in the last three. 

The truth of the matter is that the Capitals were stacked with the likes of Belanger, Scott Walker, and Joe Corvo... all very decent secondary players all acquired at the trade deadline. Halak and the Habs just were not to be denied. Now, Walker won’t be back, Corvo has gone back to the Carolina Hurricanes, and the Caps, due to their being about as dependable as their own inexperienced goaltending, missed out on Belanger. This now means, unless they’re able to trade for a rugged defensive forward, the very unrugged and just plain offensive Alexander Semin will have to pick up the slack in his own zone. That’s about as likely as the Caps winning the Cup this year. Sure, it could happen, but only through a long and arduous reprogramming process. I mean impotency come the playoffs is all the franchise has ever known. Oedipus complex or not, it’s gotten so bad that someone should schedule a sit-down with Freud.

The Caps do have one of the best players in the game in Alexander Ovechkin and two very strong lines, but they missed a chance at a third, which likely will translate into their fourth-straight early exit from the post-season. Unlike the Coyotes at this point, this team is all bark.

"Maybe I should get a gold one to replace it... God knows this team will make me rich next year."

September 14, 2010

Souray Leaving Edmonton not a Matter of “If” but “When”

If anyone in the NHL is in the market for a disgruntled, expensive, washed-up, injury-ridden, about-as-effective-as-a-knife-in-a-gunfight power-play quarterback, there has never been a better time to snatch up Edmonton Oilers defenseman Sheldon Souray.

As enticing an opportunity as that sounds, there is much more than meets the eye to the Souray saga. Now that the Ilya Kovalchuk melodrama is behind fans (relatively speaking), attention has turned to the last-place Oilers and their attempts to make Souray and his oversized $5.4-million salary-cap hit someone else’s problem. However, a rather unforeseen twist of fate has apparently led to a downturn in the number of masochistic general managers looking to lose their jobs.

Gone, it would seem, are the Mike Milburys of the league, who once gave up Jason Spezza (in draft-pick form) and Zdeno Chara for Alexei Yashin... who once traded Roberto Luongo AND Olli Jokinen for Mark Parrish and Oleg Kvasha. Gone too is former Edmonton GM Kevin Lowe, but that’s a story for another day. Today, though, comes news that the Oilers do not want Souray at training camp, clearly considering him a potential distraction as a result of comments he made back in April. Most notably, he accused the team of prodding him into playing despite his having sustained injuries that would have kept him out of the line-up on other teams.

If true, hockey fans can certainly forgive the Oilers for what clearly amounts to an innocent case of mistaken identity: mistaking Souray for a hockey player, after he signed a contract much to that effect a few years ago. From Souray’s perspective, you can see where the confusion would set in, with his having spent half his time as an Oiler out of uniform and injured.

After spending 102 of a possible 246 games injured, one would have had to at least believe he’d have gotten kind of healthy? But, as fate would have it, no. A broken Souray, the incredible, unhealing man, if you will, was allegedly forced to come to the rescue of a team so far out of the playoff race that it was being lapped by the horrid Toronto Maple Leafs. Please. Like he could have helped if he wanted to.

"Geez. That's going to hurt in the morning... hurt me. Ouch."
Whatever ego-stroking conversations took place behind closed doors between the Oilers and Souray, in which Souray was clearly falsely led to believe that he was the team’s saviour, one has to believe in turn that his time with the Oilers is over. Kurtis Foster was brought in during the off-season to help man the point on the power play, which is the only use Souray, when healthy, serves. It is very much an iconic move and an ironic at that that the Oilers turned to Foster, considering how he once missed nearly an entire calendar year with a broken leg.

The Oilers are essentially replacing one player that has never been able to put his injury-riddled past completely behind him with one that was nominated for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy last year as a nod to his career-high 42 points notched just one season after missing 72 games with the broken leg. It’s clear who the more valuable player between the two is, but if any additional help was needed: Foster only has a cap hit of $1.8 million.

Yes, Souray may be buried in the minors. Yes, there are even rumours of a salary swap between the Oilers and the New York Rangers, in which Wade Redden and his $6.5-million cap hit would be sent Edmonton’s way, but no one is expecting to come out of that deal a winner, just slightly less of a loser. Considering these are two non-playoff teams, one finishing dead-last in the league last year and one notorious for throwing money at its problems until they’re unrecognizably covered in green, they’ve each got an uphill battle back to respectability ahead of them. None compares to that of Souray, despite his bank-account balance, who along with his oft-injured and overpaid status has now earned the reputation of a cancer.

One gets the sense that the Oilers and Souray are a match made in heaven and that if someone brave enough were able to trick him and management into a room, lock them in, and throw away the key for 24 hours, they could make serious headway towards resolving their differences. Souray is from Alberta, which makes Edmonton, despite the cold, snow, and Hillary Duff (now that she’s married to native Mike Comrie) a pretty favourable destination. Conversely, the Oilers are a young team that could use a leadership presence, even if all Souray can teach his teammates is what not to do in order to avoid injuries to every single body part over the course of a career.

Ideally, the Oilers and Souray would be able to put this whole ugly incident behind them, he would play for the team, score 30 goals, help to push the team into the playoffs, and all would be right in the world. Unfortunately, though, everyone knows every bit of that fairy-tale scenario is unlikely. The Oilers are not a playoff team. Souray has never scored more than 26 goals in a season and he won’t score 30 now, as a battered and bruised defenseman in his mid-30s. Over three seasons in Edmonton, he’s only played in 144 games. And, finally, there’s little chance the Oilers would attempt to reconcile with a player, for which they have no practical use on the ice. Unfortunately for Souray, 29 other teams feel similarly.

September 13, 2010

Once a Captain, Now a Director of Forwards Development

"No! It's too early for me to get the hook. I'm not ready!"
On the surface, there are seemingly no hard feelings between the Carolina Hurricanes and former captain Rod Brind’Amour. One gets a very different idea upon realizing just how little the recently named director of Carolina’s forwards development has to work with.

Maybe “being set up to fail” is the wrong terminology. Maybe the ‘Canes are actually hoping Brind’Amour is able to impart the many nuggets of wisdom he’s tucked away for occasions such as this to the team’s forward base. Maybe he will even succeed. But when you’re talking about a team made up of consistent underachievers like goaltender Cam Ward, defenseman Joni Pitkanen, and forwards Tuomo Ruutu, Sergei Samsonov, Erik Cole, and captain Eric Staal, a lack of development is not likely the problem.

Try as he might, I strongly suspect that the work ethic that made Rod “The Bod” so effective as a hockey player doesn’t exactly lend itself to easy learning. Much more likely? Genetics lent at least a helping hand to prolonging Brind’Amour’s 20-year career. And his being grown in a lab should not be completely ruled out either.

At the end of the day, you’re talking about a decent team on paper that at mid-season was last in the entire NHL. The ‘Canes no doubt finished strong, going 25-14-3 in the new year, but that torrid run only led the team to 24th place to end the season. So, the team, which lost top-six forward Ray Whitney but re-gained power-play quarterback Anton Babchuk in the off-season, no doubt has potential to do damage. They could just as easily sabotage their own playoff hopes, though.

Like a group of double agents caught in a perpetual cold war between college basketball and hockey in the Southern United States, the ‘Canes have been in deep cover far too long – for four years, since the team’s Stanley Cup victory – to be as passionate for their sport as they once were. Few can blame them when their efforts on the ice, somewhat invalidated by low attendance over the last few seasons, go unnoticed, at least by the locals. Farther north, however, it’s a different story. For example:

1) Clearly, injuries have taken their toll on Cole, to the point that he hasn’t had a decent season since 2007. That’s a long time spent toiling in mediocrity, even taking into account the time he’s spent in whichever hospital ward he’s grown most accustomed to calling home.

2) Ruutu is playing a lot like his older brother, minus his “shift disturber” status, making him about as worthwhile as a $4-million mansion without the friends to invite over. If you can’t show off, why bother keeping it around? If you’re Ruutu, why bother showing up at all?

3) Eric Staal has had one all-star calibre season in his career, yet continues to be recognized as one of the top players in the league. It kind of makes you wonder where Keanu Reeves would be without The Matrix. Needless to say, I don’t think he would be able to fall back on his “work” experience filming the Bill & Ted movies.

However the ‘Canes finish this year, Brind’Amour definitely has his hands full, especially when it comes to making sure prospects like Brandon Sutter and Zach Boychuk don’t fall into the same bad habits that led any one of the team’s top forwards to let superstardom slip out of their fingers.

Like it or not, Brind’Amour represents the last legitimate all-around all-star the team has had. Yes, his play kind of tailed off in the recent past and he placed second-to-last in +/- in the league last season, an embarrassment to say the least for a player that once won the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the league’s best defensive forward two years in a row. But that’s why players retire, because they don’t have it anymore.

In a way, maybe this is some weird form of karmic payback, for leaving the ‘Canes in the lurch, holding the tab on his $3.6-million salary-cap hit this year. But the ‘Canes probably expected as much. They maybe even had that coming their way thanks to them stripping him of his captaincy last year, in the middle of the season no less, as if giving the purely symbolic “C”, which, to the best of everyone’s knowledge, does not possess mystical powers, to Staal would have made a difference to the outcome of their already lost season in late January.

The ‘Canes can say that Brind’Amour gracefully gave up the captaincy all they want and that he had the power to veto the decision if he so desired. But, if you were in Brind’Amour’s skates, you had an inkling that you were going to hang them up at the end of the season, and you wanted to do the classy thing, would you have caused a ruckus? At that point, even if Brind’Amour hadn’t thought of retiring, the not-so-tactful hands of the team were clearly directing him towards the door anyway. Retiring could have been construed as the most logical way for him to save face following what must have been a generally humiliating experience.

Brind’Amour may still be employed by the team, but it doesn’t deserve him. Staal may have been the team’s best player the past few seasons, but the ‘Canes will soon realize it isn’t the captaincy that makes the player... it’s the player that makes the team. And neither is good enough.