MID SEASON REVIEW

 

As we near both the end of 2006 and the halfway mark of the NHL regular season, one thing is becoming very apparent – you can try to run, but you can't hide out there on the ice.

So who’s making the grade?  Here we go with the 4th annual installment of the Puckin’ Around report cards.  Enjoy and keep reading for an exclusive “All I Want For Christmas” rant in my usual Along The Boards section.

THE REPORTS

Anaheim Ducks – Chris Pronger, the Niedermayer brothers, Teemu Selanne, J.S. Giguere – need I say more?  Losers of only five games in regulation time all season.  Best overall at home and on the road (they broke the NHL record for road wins through the first 30 games).  Simply the best, bar none, and they have the best overall record in the standings to prove it.  But can they keep it going down the stretch when they will play more road games?

Grade: A

Atlanta Thrashers – Ilya Kovalchuk is a scary player at the best of times.  Now he has a rejuvenated Marian Hossa on his wing.  Kari Lehtonen continues to prove why he was one of the top drafted goaltenders in recent memory.  Leads their division at the Christmas break for the first time in franchise history.

Grade: A

Boston Bruins – At times this season they appeared to very much miss the likes of Joe Thornton and Ray Bourque, but as of late a new hero has emerged – goaltender Tim Thomas.  They’ve battled their way out of the Northeast Division basement and will be a threat for 8th in the Eastern Conference by the time all is said and done – but they have the Ottawa Senators on their tail – yes you read that right.  Let’s not discount the impact Zdeno Chara has had either.  One thing they can either take to the bank or squander the opportunity – they have at least two games at hand on their entire division, and as of late are making them count.

Grade: C

Buffalo Sabres – New uniforms, same old team.  The Sabres picked up where they left off last season and the pedal continues to be on the metal.  Ryan Miller missed a small portion of time due to injury but he is back and in fine form.  Daniel Briere and Maxim Afinogenov are both coming into their own.  The exclamation point on what could inevitably turn into a magical season for the Sabres was a 7-2 rout over Central Division leading Nashville Predators.  Oddly enough, they haven’t fared so well against their own division, particularly Ottawa and Montreal, the only bump on an otherwise smooth road so far.

Grade: A

Calgary Flames – Every team in the Northwest Division gets at the very least a B just for being within a win or two of 1st place.  The Flames have heated up after a less than favorable start and are right up there with Edmonton and Minnesota, yet Colorado and Vancouver aren’t far off the pace.  One need only look at the standings to realize there’s the understatement of the year.  Offense or lack thereof continues to be a concern, as Alex Tanguay hasn’t sparked Jarome Iginla as it was originally hoped.  What they lack in offense is made up on defense, as Dion Phaneuf continues to log Al MacInnis ice time and Miikka Kiprusoff for the most part is a stone wall in net.  It remains to be seen what team will make it out of the logjam in the division, but the Flames will no doubt be a contender again.

Grade: A

Carolina Hurricanes – The defending champs aren’t off to the start they had last season, but they are still within reach of the division lead.  Part of the problem has been the absence of Cory Stillman, who is back, and you can see the difference already.  Eric Cole is finally coming back around after the serious injury he sustained last year.  They let Martin Gerber sign in Ottawa as a free agent, but with Conn Smythe winner Cam Ward backstopping the Canes, nobody cares.  They don’t seem to miss Mark Recchi or Doug Weight, as Eric Staal has filled in the void.  It’s always tough to dethrone the champions, and this year will be no exception.  The only problem is Washington and Atlanta are better teams this year.

Grade: B

Chicago Blackhawks – After thinking Martin Havlat and Michal Handzus would give them the offense they so desperately needed, both sustained injuries.  While Havlat has since come back, Handzus is gone for the season.  Luckily Nikolai Khabibulin is getting back to the form he showed with Tampa Bay in 2003, but with a mostly rookie defense it will still be a long season for the Hawks.  Yet, they are hovering just below the playoff line and could squeak in if they make a good run for it.  Adding Peter Bondra as a free agent was a move I’m surprised nobody thought of sooner.

Grade: C

Colorado Avalanche – Every time I think they’re done, they prove me wrong.  Sure, Joe Sakic is still on this team, but for how much longer?  It all goes to show just how smart Pierre Lacroix really was, not just in the moves he made, but with the drafting process.  The Northwest Division has never been tighter, and while I still think the team can’t keep it going unless they pull off a blockbuster trade for a goalie or a sniper, they don’t seem to care and roll right along.  By the way, can Tyler Arnason perhaps tell me what’s in the drinking water in Denver?  Both he and Pierre Turgeon seem like they’ve discovered the fountain of youth. 

Grade: B

Columbus Blue Jackets – When it’s broke – fire the coach.   It seems to have worked for the Jackets, as since Gerard Gallant was let go in favor of Ken Hitchcock, Columbus has been on fire.  While they may have been too far behind to make some noise in the playoff race, they’ve managed to pull out of the Western Conference basement and are on the way up.  Sergei Fedorov hasn’t been on a points streak since he left Detroit, and Rick Nash is finally putting up Rick Nash numbers.  Even Nikolai Zherdev is getting in on the act.  Anson Carter has looked at home too.  Look out for them in the second half, even if they do have their work cut out for them.

Grade: D

Dallas Stars – No longer the grand daddies of the Pacific Division (or Western Conference for that matter), the Stars are still a competitive team and are well on their way to yet another playoff berth.  So far they’ve had to play a good portion of their games without all their big stars in Mike Modano, Brenden Morrow and Eric Lindros, but it doesn’t seem to phase them.  Marty Turco continues to get the job done, and is a big reason why a lot of games are low scoring, at least for the opposition.  Of course, Sergei Zubov is still a big contributor to the defensive strategy.  The real test will come in the playoffs, where they’ve been horrible since Ray Bourque retired.

Grade: B

Detroit Red Wings – Still the class of the Central Division, but unlike last year, they haven’t exactly had their way against Nashville, Columbus or Chicago.  Parity, you’ve got to love it.  Chris Chelios continues to chase Gordie Howe’s longevity record, Dominik Hasek looks to prove Ottawa was wrong to not re-sign him, and life without Steve Yzerman goes on.  They’ll be a formidable foe for whoever faces them, but will it matter?  The only thing left to be answered is will the Detroit curse continue for whomever is brave enough and tough enough to eliminate them?

Grade: B

Edmonton Oilers – They play every game like it’s their last, are never truly out of any game, and they carry a huge chip on their shoulder from the last game of last season.  The mentality this year is to prove they weren’t just a fluke making it to the finals and are bound and determined to make it back there, and win it this time.  If you need more proof, just witness the intensity of some of the divisional games and games against teams they played against in the playoffs – particularly San Jose and Carolina.  While they haven’t been able to solve Anaheim yet, it’s only regular season, and there are still two more head to head matches.  They don’t lead the division, albeit slightly, for nothing.  Jarret Stoll is a name you wouldn’t talk about much if Ryan Smyth wasn’t out with a thumb injury, but he has been the definition of the word grit.  The team will only get better when Smyth and Ethan Moreau return, but for now Dwayne Roloson will hold the fort as Ales Hemsky and Petr Sykora continue to put up points, just so long as both stay healthy.  Of all the teams in the Northwest, the Oilers are the most fun to watch, and I’m not just saying that because they’re my favorite team.  This new era has been a long time coming, and kudos to management and coaching staff for never changing their focus on speed and grit.  Make or break, the second half will be a lot of fun.

Grade: A

Florida Panthers – Did the cool cats not learn anything from Jacques Martin’s tenure in Ottawa or Pat Quinn’s debacle in Toronto?  Apparently not, as Mike Keenan this year stepped down to allow Martin to play the dual coach and general manager role.  On paper it should have been a match made in hockey heaven, but on the ice it has been a disaster.  Todd Bertuzzi, as he was in Vancouver, has been a huge bust for the team, and has missed the past several games with a back injury.  The loss of Roberto Luongo was a huge blow in net, one they haven’t exactly been able to fill with the likes of Ed Belfour or Alex Auld.  Belfour has been mediocre at best, but then again he is 41 years old.  While quiet, Olli Jokinen has paid statistical dividends for the team, as he again leads the team in scoring.  Here’s the most telling stat of all – the team is a collective minus 20, a stat they’ll need to drastically improve if they plan to make some noise on the all of a sudden tough Southeast Division.  They’re not entirely out of it, but fading fast.

Grade: D

Los Angeles Kings – With Anaheim, San Jose and Dallas in the same division, how can you have even a hope of coming close to a playoff spot?  The Kings certainly aren’t stopping the puck with Dan Cloutier, and Marc Crawford doesn’t strike me as the kind of coach who can make the team any better than they were under Andy Murray.  Somewhere within the confines of the Staples Center, somebody is kicking themselves hard for trading away Cristobal Huet.  At least for now Sean Avery has concentrated more on his game (not like he had a choice), and Rob Blake has added a little bit of stability on D.  I’ve liked the play of rookie Anze Kopitar so far, and forward Alexander Frolov continues to amaze with his razzle dazzle plays.  It still won’t be enough to get the Kings to the postseason, but can you really blame the team on paper when the Pacific Division is as strong as it is?  If ever there was a perfect example of why playing eight games against your own division rivals is a crock, here you go.  Even still, their record is what it is, and nobody's making excuses.  The Kings need to be better, period.

Grade: D

Minnesota Wild – They play the same boring hockey night in and night out, but this year they’re getting results.  Quite frankly, Jacques Lemaire won’t have it any other way.  They’re one of the five teams smack dab in the middle of the Northwest Division race I spoke of, and have been trading places with Edmonton and Calgary on an almost nightly basis.  The hope was Pavol Demitra and Marion Gaborik would be a dynamic duo, and this was true until Gaborik went out with an injury.  The Wild need him to come back soon and be effective, or else they could find themselves sitting on the fence when the dust settles.  Todd White can’t do it all by himself.  Manny Fernandez is finally getting back between the pipes, but the team looks almost nightly at the scores coming out of Edmonton and more often than not sees their former netminder Dwayne Roloson putting on a show and can’t help but wonder what life could be like without a salary cap.  Even without Roli, as I said before this division race is going to be fun.

Grade: B

Montreal Canadiens – No, you haven’t entered a time warp.  Those chants of “Guy, Guy Guy” are not for Guy Lafleur, they’re for rookie phenom Guillaume Latendresse, who has not looked out of place in his first NHL campaign, and perhaps to a certain extent, first year head coach Guy Carbonneau.  Saku Koivu has managed to make it back from a serious eye injury which more or less helped eliminate Montreal from Cup contention last year.  This year a rejuvenated Koivu has looked lethal playing with the likes of Alexei Kovalev, Michael Ryder, Sergei Samsonov, and yes, even Radek Bonk.  I touched on this in my report of L.A., what they lost by trading away Cristobal Huet has clearly been Montreal’s gain, and the backup David Aebischer who came over in the Jose Theodore trade hasn’t been bad either.  If you would take away the division factor in both conferences, the Habs would sit in second place in the Eastern Conference right behind Buffalo, and fifth overall.  Given their record against the Sabres, not to mention the rest of the division, they don’t seem content to stay put.  This has only been magnified by the recent tragedy involving G.M. Bob Gainey's daughter, and the team seems to have rallied behind it.  There is a great tradition to uphold, and the Habs fully intend to make some noise this year.  Something tells me they will if they can only secure home ice advantage.

Grade: A

Nashville Predators – They know how to put on a show in the Music City, whether it’s the Grand Ole Opry, a great stage show rivaling the likes of Broadway, or the NFL's Tennessee Titans.  Relatively new to Tennessee, the Nashville Predators have put on a show of their own, and in recent years have started to glow as bright as their mustard colored jerseys.  In recent years it was all about beating Detroit.  So far this year, mission accomplished.  They did alright last year until Tomas Vokoun went down with injury, and this year they have a backup plan named Chris Mason, who is quickly developing into their goaltender of the future.  The Predators realized they were too small, and this year have addressed the need to get bigger as they welcomed Jason Arnott and J.P. Dumont to the fold.  Both have allowed Steve Sullivan and Paul Kariya to do their thing.  Vokoun is again out, but this time should be back before the playoffs.  Unfortunately, Scott Nichol did an absolutely stupid thing the other night when he decided to sucker punch Buffalo’s Jaroslav Spacek, and while he will sit for nine games, it put a negative stamp on what has been an otherwise great start for Nashville.  The fact of the matter is, if they weren’t already, this team will be a contender this year and will not be pushed around like they were in recent playoff appearances.  The Todd Bertuzzi shenanigans would be best left in the locker room.

Grade: A

New Jersey Devils – The closest thing to what’s happening in the Northwest Division is the Atlantic Division, at least amongst the top four teams anyway.  The Devils have held the division lead ever so slightly for the most part of the season, but have traded places with the Rangers, Islanders and even Pittsburgh at one point.  It hasn’t always been easy.  Lou Lamiorello has probably been one of the hardest hit general managers by the salary cap, and has been forced to say goodbye to some pretty darn good players out of necessity (Alexander Mogilny anyone?)  Despite having to make do with a $44 million roster, the Devils have done alright.  Patrick Elias has been earning his big fat paycheck the old fashioned way, by scoring early and often.  Highly touted Zach Parise has probably benefitted the most from Elias’ presence on the ice.  Jamie Langenbrunner, Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez continue to be solid performers.  Martin Brodeur at this point is second only to Patrick Roy on the all time list with a slight asterisk – Roy never got to play in a shootout unless it was the All Star game.  Who knows how crazy the race would be if Philadelphia was on their game – more on that to come.

Grade: A

New York Islanders – There is a new attitude on Long Island this year, mostly due to the fact Mike Milbury is no longer involved in the day to day operations.  Garth Snow so far hasn’t really been tested as general manager, as he’s only made a few minor tweaks to the roster.  Ted Nolan on the other hand, in his return to the NHL as head coach has been able to get more out of the players.  You see it in the stats put up by Alexei Yashin, Jason Blake and Miroslav Satan.  The fifteen year deal for goaltender Rick DiPietro has been ridiculed by many, myself included, but you can’t deny the position is solidified for at least a few years.  If he actually plays out the contract to its full extent, it will be a bargain by the time it’s over.  Expect at least a playoff round out of this team.

Grade: B

New York Rangers – The lights on Broadway continue to glow bright, and the Rangers are attempting to make the playoffs for the second straight year.  Jaromir Jagr continues to bask in the limelight and is always an offensive threat.  Martin Straka and Michael Nylander have only benefited from Jagr.  Brendan Shanahan continues to get it done in this his 18th NHL season.  The goaltending situation is solid, with Henrik Lundqvist and Kevin Weekes.  The Rangers will most likely make it to the dance, and will be looking to do better than getting swept – the Atlantic Division crown isn’t out of the question either, but they have to stop blowing 3rd period leads.

Grade: A

Ottawa Senators – What’s going on in Canada’s Capital?  The fingers are pointed everywhere these days.  One finger points to the loss of two prominent defensemen Zdeno Chara and Brian Pothier.  Another points to the loss of Marian Hossa last year and Martin Havlat this year.  Yet another points to captain Daniel Alfredsson.  The heat is on Martin Gerber, as he has yet to really start earning his $3.7 million contract (Ray Emery has had better results).  Enough already – time to stop with the excuses.  This team needs to pick itself up by the seat of the pants and just play their game.  When they do, they are one of the most exciting teams to watch and are hard to beat.  When they don’t, they are downright awful.  Needless to say the fans have hit the panic button a long time ago – but may I remind them of this: The Sens are in the same spot now as they were in going into the Christmas break in 1998 – a .500 hockey team.  All they did that season was squeak into 8th spot and take out then 1st seeded New Jersey, at a time when Ron Tugnutt and Damian Rhodes traded places in net.  The roster has improved dramatically since then (even with the players they lost to free agency), and on paper if they could only just make it in, one never knows.  However, the new NHL era is a new game, and the Senators are definitely playing with fire.  There won’t be too many more opportunities to bring a championship to Ottawa before they blow it all up and rebuild.

Grade: C

Philadelphia Flyers – Oh my how the mighty have fallen!  How did the Broad Street Bullies turn into the Panzies of Philly in just 10 years?  I for one blame Bob Clarke, who just this season couldn’t take it anymore and stepped down.  In my mind he wasn’t smart enough to recognize the team needed some youth and always opted for the so called tough and rugged veteran player, who at this stage is too old or too expensive to play the new game or fit into the new salary structure.  He wasn’t shrewd enough to secure a bonafide number one goaltender.  And he was dumb enough to not recognize Peter Forsberg’s injury prone career.  Now the chips have fallen where they have and the Flyers are off to their worst start in franchise history, and in all likelihood will miss the playoffs for the first time in a long time.  Not even reacquiring Eric Lindros and John Leclair would be enough at this stage to stop the bleeding.  Hey where is Bernie Parent nowadays?  Perhaps they can convince him or Ron Hextall to come out of retirement.  It worked for Rocky, why not?

Grade: F

Phoenix Coyotes – Has the new NHL era passed even Wayne Gretzky by?  Some say yes, especially given the team the desert dogs have on paper should be doing better than they are.  Then again, in their defense, they have the same dilemma as Los Angeles – they play in the same division as Anaheim, San Jose and Dallas.  In the games they play they at least compete.  They never seem to be out of a game, but always seem to find a way to lose.  I give them a B for effort, but their record doesn’t justify a passing grade.  Curtis Joseph is a better goaltender than he makes himself out to be, and Jeremy Roenick at this stage of his career should be leading by example, not going to dinner when the going gets tough.  How can one expect the young players to develop when the veterans can’t lead by example.  The exception has been Owen Nolan and Georges Laraque, the only two bright spots on an otherwise mediocre squad.  Even captain Shane Doan has yet to really impress.

Grade: D

Pittsburgh Penguins – Just when things were looking brighter than they have in more than a decade, all of a sudden we’re right back to square one.  Jim Balsillie, CEO of Research In Motion, pulled his bid for the team off the table after he couldn’t come to an agreement with the NHL.  To add insult to injury, the Isle of Capri’s bid to build a casino in Pittsburgh which would have financed a brand new arena also fell through.  On the ice, however, the team has been very good, if not a little inexperienced.  Sidney Crosby is putting in a good bid for the scoring title, and at the rate he’s going he should be right up there right until the end.  Jordan Staal, brother of Carolina’s Eric, along with newcomer Evgeni Malkin, have given Crosby some much needed offensive help.  Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is finally starting to look like a top drafted goaltender.  In a nutshell, the kids are alright, but still have a lot of work to do if they want to make it to the postseason.  So far, so good for a team that’s spent the last few seasons in the basement.

Grade: C

San Jose Sharks – Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo continue to be the dynamic duo they’ve been ever since Thornton’s arrival from Boston.  This year, however, they’ve had some help from Patrick Marleau, Milan Michalek and Steve Bernier.  Since the departure of Tom Preissing, the defense hasn’t been much to write home about, but it hasn’t been an issue with the goaltending tandem of Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala.  There’s still talk one of them could be traded, as the Sharks are deep in goaltending depth, not to mention the third of the four Staal brothers is in their farm system.  There’s talk Nolan Schaefer, brother of Ottawa’s Peter, could be ready for the NHL.  For now, the Sharks are enjoying life in the upper echelon of the Pacific Division.  If it wasn’t for Anaheim, they’d be #1, and still could end up there by the end of the season.

Grade: A

St. Louis Blues – New general manager, new coach, some old friends, same old result.  The Blues aren’t as bad as Philadelphia in the East, but they aren’t much better.  There was thought Doug Weight and Bill Guerin would help boost Keith Tkachuk’s offensive output, but this hasn’t happened.  Radek Dvorak, Jay McKee and Dan Hinote were expected to carry a lot of the offensive and defensive load, but it hasn’t happened.  Manny Legace was brought in from Detroit to stop the puck, and guess what?  It hasn’t happened.  The only bright spot is the up and coming players like 1st round draft pick Erik Johnson, but we won’t see him until at least next year.  I hear John Davidson is already looking for a broadcasting job to fall back on for next season, just in case.

Grade: F

Tampa Bay Lightning – The Lightning have played as expected, win some, lose some.  The simple fact of the matter is as Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St Louis, Brad Richards and Vinny Prospal go, so do the Tampa Bay Lightning.  Marc Denis has had some good nights and some downright awful nights.  Ottawa local Dan Boyle has become a solid point man and defensive stalwart.  If they make the playoffs, it will come right down to the wire.

Grade: C

Toronto Maple Leafs – So far it’s been another season of what ifs?  What if Mats Sundin could stay healthy for a whole entire season?  What if the Leafs weren’t the proverbial centre of the hockey universe – um never mind.  There’s a new attitude in Toronto this year, and even I’ve taken notice.  Although, their record still hovers around the .500 mark, it could turn out to be enough in a very close Eastern Conference.  Losing Michael Peca for four months is a huge blow, but they have enough firepower to make it through.  Darcy Tucker continues to be a pesky side of the net sniper, Kyle Wellwood, Matt Stajan and Jeff O’Neill are putting up points, and the defensive pairing of Tomas Kaberle and Bryan McCabe is as good as they come.  Andrew Raycroft, backed up by Jean-Sebastien Aubin, is giving Toronto the goaltending they haven’t had the last couple of seasons.  The Leafs will at least challenge for a playoff spot.  Is there an echo in here?

Grade: C

Vancouver Canucks – They lost Marc Crawford, Dan Cloutier, Alex Auld, Anson Carter and Todd Bertuzzi, but they got their man in goal – Roberto Luongo, who has looked great on some nights and shaky on others, but I ask you this – what team hasn’t had shaky goaltending at some point?  The Sedin twins learned a lot from Carter, and their new line mate (at times) Markus Naslund has helped their development.  Trevor Linden continues to lead by example.  There are a lot of young spark plugs on this team, including defenseman Kevin Bieksa and winger Alex Burrows.  When the Canucks are on their game they’re as good as any in the Western Conference, and are trying hard not to fall off the pace in the Northwest Division.  It will go right down to the wire again before we know what teams make it in, but the Canucks need to get it going, and now, as they play six of their next eight against division rivals, before embarking on a Northeastern road trip.

Grade: B

Washington Capitals – Another team you’ll want to watch out for in the second half is the Alex Ovechkin led Washington Capitals.  For a short period of time they were better than Carolina, but have fallen back to earth just a little bit.  Even still, the maturity of Ovechkin has been evident throughout the first half, and his leadership will hopefully rally the team into the postseason.  But he can’t do it alone, he will need all hands on deck, particularly Alex Semin, Dainius Zubrus, Chris Clark and Brian Pothier, who have all had a banner first half.  Olie The Goalie needs his solid net minding to continue.  Where they go from here, who knows?

Grade: B

NHL – If you believe everything Gary Bettman says (which I don’t), the league continues to grow and attendance is at a record high and the game is healthier than it has ever been under his “cost certainty” model.  Yet, something seems very wrong on many levels.  The supposed crackdown on proper officiating seems to have regressed this season, there is a continuous lack of respect among players which is growing more and more, and yet another NHL team is in jeopardy and could be on the move.  On the bright side, the game continues to be entertaining and still fills the Saturday Night void.  For better or for worse, hockey continues to rule north of the border, and continues to expand into new horizons in the U.S.  If you need more proof hockey is finally starting to get recognized, just look at all the college students who play the game, and look towards terrestrial and even satellite radio to see more and more mention of the game.  Adam Carolla has had many an NHL player on his show, and even Howard Stern has made reference to the Rangers on more than one occasion.  As they say in Toronto, it’s the “passion that unites us all”, and I can only hope people see beyond the highly paid professionals, and see the forest for the trees.  It’s still a wonderful game, period.

Grade: B

ALONG THE BOARDS

And now, I have to chime in on what’s happening over in Pittsburgh.  First of all, I have a question.  If Gary Bettman claims the NHL is thriving and in great shape, how and why did the whole situation with Jim Balsillie of RIM take a 360 degree turn in less than 48 hours?  If the so called “cost certainty” Bettman wouldn’t have reopened the league without is working so well, why then, did the league have to put undue pressure on Balsillie to agree to special provisions in the event the deal was approved?  Word on the street is the deal would never have gone through without Balsillie signing off on special clauses to keep the team in Pittsburgh no matter what.  Am I missing something here?  Wasn’t the whole point of the new collective bargaining agreement to actually help out small market teams like Pittsburgh?  Why is it a new owner would have to guarantee he wouldn’t move the team when the team itself can’t even secure its own financing to build a much needed new building?  And just where is the NHL putting all this money collected from every player and put into escrow?  Isn’t this money supposed to be used to help out a team like Pittsburgh who desperately needs it?  If there is a team needing help, why is the salary cap continuing to go up after only a season and a half (word is it is expected to go up again next year)?  Does something smell skunky here (as in skunky beer)?

Now here’s what we do know.  Jim Balsillie won’t be the new owner of the Penguins, Mario Lemieux won’t be returning his deposit due to him pulling out (a drop in the bucket for him I’m sure), and the Penguins last resort Isle of Capri casino hasn’t been approved.  What happens now remains to be seen, but now all of a sudden the Pittsburgh franchise’s future has never been more uncertain, even after Bettman promised everybody no NHL team would fold or move on his watch.  Was there an ulterior motive behind the lockout the whole time, and if so, what was it?  If we can’t guarantee a team’s future any more today than we could before the lockout, what was the point?  Mr. Commissioner, over to you.

The plot thickens.  Now Frank D’Angelo, owner and CEO of Steelback Breweries, has shifted his focus from bringing a Canadian Football League franchise back to Ottawa (for the second time), to now picking up where Balsillie left off.  But hold the phone (or Blackberry) - I’ve just now been reading Balsillie has written a letter to Mario Lemieux with a personal apology over the whole situation and outlining his intent to still buy the team, even though Lemieux and Bettman have both publicly stated the team is off the market.  Why do I get the feeling no matter what happens, the Penguins are moving?  I have one word for Gary Bettman – Winnipeg.  Now more than ever I believe this could happen.  Of course, I will continue to follow this story with great interest.  For now, the kids are doing alright on the ice and will be an exciting team for any city to watch for many years to come, even if it remains in Pittsburgh.  Steelback in Steeltown kind of has a nice ring to it, don't you think?

THE OLDEST OR MOST EXPENSIVE STICK?

A stick said to be originally carved by one Alexander Rutherford and passed on to one Gord Sharpe by his great uncle Melville Rutherford, was recently auctioned off for a record $2.2 million.  The stick was carved out of hickory sometime between 1852 and 1856, and will be displayed at the Hockey Hall of fame, thanks to a generous donation by the winning bidder, who is Canadian.  The hall already displays what was thought to be the oldest stick, made in 1881.  Proceeds from the auction will go to charity.  Just when I think I’ve seen everything there is to see, I now have an excuse to visit the hall again next time I’m in Toronto (and this time I walk out with a picture of me beside the Stanley Cup).

VOTE FOR RORY?

Steve Schmid, a Buffalo Sabres fan, launched probably the most thought provoking and hockey conversation starting website (second only of course to puckinaround.net!) in recent memory when he launched http://voteforrory.com.  The website urges surfers to vote for Vancouver Canucks’ Rory Fitzpatrick on the All Star ballot, because he feels “Rory is the perfect representative for all the players who work hard behind the scenes and never get any recognition”.  Fair enough, but isn’t the All Star game in Dallas this year?  Regardless, the website has inspired fans to vote Rory second overall in fan balloting for all Western Conference defensemen.  Should he remain there when balloting closes on January 2, he would be a starter.

Wayne Gretzky, for one, is not impressed.  “I think from his (the webmaster’s) point of view, it's great.  From what the All-Star Game is about, it's 100 percent wrong.  I'm not trying to be controversial.  Maybe he deserves to be in the game.  I can't stand here and tell you that he doesn't deserve to be in the game because I've never seen him play.  But if he thinks he deserves to be in the All-Star Game, then good for him, he should go.  If he doesn't believe he should be in the All-Star Game, he should stand up and say, 'You know what, there's other guys that deserve to be there.'  That's kind of what my take on it is.”  Translation - I don't get the joke.

For what it’s worth, Fitzpatrick has 0 points in 19 games this season, clearly All-Star numbers if you believe the webmaster of the site.  While it would be great to see the fans’ reaction if he were to show up, I personally just don’t believe with the caliber of defensemen playing out west we would even be talking about Rory if it wasn’t for this fan site.  Personally, I cast my write in vote for Jarret Stoll, for many of the same reasons, but also because he puts points up on the board in the absence of fallen team mates.  Sorry Rory.

ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS

As I wrap up this epic of a 75th Puckin’ Around article, I know I may be asking for a lot here, but in the spirit of the holiday season and the great Christmas carol “The Twelve Days Of Christmas” (and all of its variations), here are twelve things I’d like to see in 2007 (and beyond).

-          The Edmonton Oilers win the Northwest Division, get home ice advantage throughout the playoffs and ultimately win that final Game 7 should it be necessary.  Should a Stanley Cup again be out of the question, I’ll settle for a series win against Anaheim where one of either Jarret Stoll, Ethan Moreau (when he gets back), Raffi Torres or Ryan Smyth puts a bone crunching (but clean) hit on Chris Pronger – preferably at Rexall Place where the fans will appreciate it.  Even a first round matchup against Dallas where the Oilers actually make it out alive would be fun.  I know, I know, careful what I wish for, right?

-          Oilers Pay Per View catches me on camera after an Oiler goal when I visit Scotiabank Place on February 20, 2007 as Edmonton faces Ottawa (I’ll be about four rows from the ice and I can’t wait!)

-          For the NHL to forget all about even thinking about reducing the divisions from six to four – unless they plan on expanding to 32 teams and moving Detroit to the Northeast Division and leaving Columbus in the Central (once again the NHL proves they have absolutely no sense of geography) – Atlanta a Central division team?  Since when?

-          Speaking of dumb ideas, the NHL needs to also forget about ever messing with the nets and just call the game right.  Am I really truly asking too much here?

-          Rory Fitzpatrick to politely decline his invite to the All Star game, for the better of the event.  Sorry, but 0 points in 19 games doesn’t earn you the right to go to Dallas, no matter how much a fan thinks he can influence the voting.  For that matter, even if the All Star Game was in Vancouver, it still wouldn't be fair.

-          Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin get into a fight and then laugh about it in the penalty box.

-          The Ottawa Senators get the proverbial playoff monkey off their back and at least make it to the final four so the entire town will stop ragging on Daniel Alfredsson.  First thing’s first though, they have to actually make it to the playoffs.  They get bonus points if they face Toronto again and actually win.  As Jason Spezza likes to say, dare to dream...

-          The Pittsburgh Penguins decide once and for all if they’re staying in Pittsburgh or moving, and if they move, they move to Winnipeg.

-          Mick McGeough gets banished to the ECHL and misses out on officiating the playoffs (yes, I’m still reeling over the Dallas-Edmonton game, and don't tell me to get over it because I can't).

-          Don Cherry to actually say something worth listening to.

-          Gary Bettman to stop running the NHL like he’s skating on thin ice, or step down and let somebody else bring the league back to respectability.

-          The greatest game on earth to become even greater.  I hear Howard Stern is a Rangers fan...

I’d like to take this opportunity to wish all of my loyal readers the very best over the holidays.  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year (or whatever holiday you’ll be celebrating, make it a good one) – and don’t forget, the fun doesn’t stop in this column.  Over here at puckinaround.net we never stop talking pucks, ever!

Stay safe and remember – don’t drink and drive because we want to talk to you, not about you!

 

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