Clutterbuck, Karlsson remind us hockey is a game of pain

The sport of hockey can be a beautiful thing to behold. It’s the fluidity of motion up and down the ice surface, the play constantly flowing like a dancer’s streamer. It’s Evgeni Malkin galloping through the neutral zone, waving his stick like a magic wand and making an entire teams disappear into thin air.

It’s Pavel Datsyuk commanding his stick with such precision that his name has been turned into an adjective: Datsyukian

It’s also the small, seemingly irrelevant plays that are easily overlooked but infinitely appreciated by the few people who recognize them, like Sidney Crosby tipping a puck to himself while whizzing into the attacking zone.

If soccer is the beautiful game, hockey is the beautiful game on ice.

But every once in a while, we are reminded about the true duality of hockey. It might take some unique abilities to deliver a precise wrister into the top shelf or to shield a puck away from a defender while working toward the net, but the game also requires courage and the willingness to take a beating.

The arena that displays greatness and beauty is also the home to brutality and pain.

The NHL has claimed more teeth than candy, soda and incompetent dentists combined. It’s routine for a player to ruin their orthodontist’s handiwork on any given night and it’s as common to see blood on the ice as it is to find tobacco juice on a Major League Baseball diamond.

But despite all the gore, pain and continual discomfort, NHL players just seem to keep calm and carry on. They have an unfathomable pain threshold and are able to compete at a world-class level while enduring physical trauma that would horrify and incapacitate normal folks.

NHL players seem to be able to tolerate just about any kind of pain, so when you see incidents like in Edmonton last week and in Pittsburgh in mid-February, it sends chills down your spine.

Last Thursday, Minnesota Wild winger Cal Clutterbuck collided with Edmonton Oiler Taylor Hall with about two minutes left to play in the third period. As he neared center ice, Clutterbuck unsuccessfully attempted to play the puck with his skate an instant before Hall glided up the red line and delivered the hit.

Clutterbuck never saw it coming.

As you can see from the video, Clutterbuck was in an immense amount of pain and remained writhing at center ice for minutes after the collision. He might be the prototypical tough guy in hockey, but his pain reduced him to a squirming body in agony. That’s what makes it tough to watch.

Hall received a five-minute major penalty and a game misconduct for kneeing, while Clutterbuck was assisted by teammates and medical staff down the runway of Rexall Place.

The Edmonton forward was suspended two games and fined $9,729.72. Clutterbuck missed games Thursday and Sunday with a thigh contusion. He will also miss Tuesday’s game against Calgary.

Editor’s Note: Hall’s hit might seem especially familiar to Penguins fans and Bruins fans. Pittsburgh defenseman Ulf Samuelsson hit Cam Neely in a similar fashion in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals. That hit (and another knee-on-knee from Samuelsson) ultimately shortened Neely’s career, leading him to acquire a condition known as myositis ossificans.

Another incident that gave both NHL players and fans a reality check happened to reining Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson on February 13. Pittsburgh Penguin Matt Cooke (formerly noted for being a dirty player) attempted to pin the Ottawa defenseman against the boards by skating in behind him and raising his left skate. The skate blade cut Karlsson’s left Achilles tendon nearly the whole way through, leaving him screaming in pain and barely able to get off the ice.

Karlsson will miss the rest of the season after doctors surgically repaired his Achilles. The NHL decided that the play wasn’t illegal and Cooke was neither fined nor suspended.

This play was even scarier than the Clutterbuck incident. It’s easy to forget that these 200-pound athletes are flying around the ice on a pair of razor sharp blades. That is, until someone gets cut like Karlsson.

You could immediately tell that the 22-year-old D-man was in trouble, both after seeing this now famous picture from AP photographer Gene J. Puskar and upon noticing the anguish in Karlsson’s face after he tried to put weight on the injured leg.

Editor’s Note: Karlsson’s injury is gruesome, but far from the worst skate accidents to ever hit the NHL. If you want a graphic reminder, here’s a couple you might remember. (Warning, these videos are not for the faint of heart.)

 Goalie Clint Malarchuk gets throat cut by skate.

 Richard Zednik gets throat cut by skate.

Both Malarchuk and Zednik survived the incidents and returned to NHL action.

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The 2012-2013 NHL Season: What We’re All Missing Part 11 (Final Edition)

It’s official world, we have hockey this year!

How do I feel? The same as Evgeni Malkin does…

 

 

And we don’t have to wait until October.

Yes, the ghastly and unforgivable NHL lockout has ended and not a second too soon. Gary Bettman has apologized to fans and I’ll respond to him for the collective NHL fan base: Apology not accepted, go get your shine box, Gary.

Before I start ranting, I’ll get to the intended point of this post. This will be the final part of What We’re All Missing. Since we get to see Sid and Geno and Ovi and Pavel and Zdeno, etc. on just about a nightly basis from January 19th on, NHL fans won’t fully miss out on just how their team brings them joy.

But this piece was written and spaced out over time based on the very real fear that we would have a repeat of 2004-05 and be forced to watch the NBA, so consider this final part the “What We Would Be Missing if the NHL Season was Cancelled But Thank God it Isn’t Edition.” It doesn’t have the same ring to it, but they can’t all be winners now, can they?

I’d like to thank the Sportz Broz/Editor-in-Chief Adam Maher as always for posting my content.

So without further ado, here is the final installment of WWAM featuring the Edmonton Oilers, Florida Panthers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Nashville Predators, New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings, Buffalo Sabres, Ottawa Senators, San Jose Sharks, Dallas Stars and Minnesota Wild.

Penguins Add Depth, Experience Between the Pipes

Although most of the hockey talk in Pittsburgh right now is regarding the uncertainty of Jordan Staal’s future with the Penguins, the organization made an interesting roster move in the goalie department that I think should garner plenty of attention: the signing of veteran goaltender Tomas Vokoun.

The Washington Capitals traded Vokoun, an impending unrestricted free agent, to the Pittsburgh Penguins for a seventh-round pick in the 2012 NHL entry draft. The deal is for two years and worth $4 million.

I was pleased to hear that the Pens made a move for a backup goalie, but the price of the contract seems a bit higher than one would expect. Not only will Vokoun make $1.4 million more than previous backup Brent Johnson, he will also make more than every other backup goalie in the NHL in the 2012-13 season.*

*There are currently 14 backup goalies who are either restricted or unrestricted free agents this offseason, so Vokoun’s contract may not end up the biggest by the time next season rolls around.

Minus the 14 backups without a contract right now, the average salary for backups in 2012-13 will be $1,910,937. And that number is skewed by the $3.7 million due to Nikolai Khabibulin of the Edmonton Oilers this upcoming season.*  If you remove Khabibulin’s salary from the mix, the league average will be $1,788,333 — and that makes Vokoun’s contract $211,667 more than the league average.

*Khabibulin was technically the starter at the beginning of last season until his numbers dropped off in midseason. So if Devon Dubnyk signs a new contract, he will be the starter this year leaving Khabibulin to be an expensive backup (if he doesn’t retire).

Is Vokoun really worth that much money to ride the pine for the majority of the season? After all, the Penguins are ranked dead-last in the NHL in cap room coming into 2012-12, and stars Sidney Crosby and Staal are due contract extensions after next season.

In Vokoun’s 14-year NHL career, he has a .917 save percentage, a 2.55 goals-against average and an overall record of 287-284-78. In his best season, he went 36-18-7 with the Nashville Predators. He was an All-Star in 2004 and 2008 and he is currently ranked 6th in career wins among active goalies with 287.

Even if the numbers aren’t dazzling, I’d say he’s worth the higher-than-average price tag. He has plenty of experience and has always been pretty solid between the pipes. That’s what you need for a guy coming off the bench 20-25 times a season. You only need to look as far as the Eastern Conference winning New Jersey Devils and their veteran backup Johan Hedberg to see how much a crafty veteran can help a team. Vokoun may not prove to be as valuable of a backup as Hedberg has been, but I’d be willing to bet that Vokoun is more than capable of having a better year than Brent Johnson did this year

Johnson went 6-7-2 with a .904 save percentage and averaged 2.63 goals against. At times, he was very good, but his collective work was pretty difficult to watch. He seemed lost and allowed soft goals with regularity. And toward the end of last season, it seemed as if the Penguins had lost all confidence him, allowing rookie Brad Thiessen to make the backup starts for a while. Management said that Johnson was suffering from flu symptoms for a while and also claimed he had an injury — two reasons that sidelined him and necessitated the call up of Thiessen. But I’m willing to bet Johnson’s unimpressive starts played into the reasoning for the call up just as much as his illness and injury.

Johnson’s struggles seemed to affect starter Marc-Andre Fleury down the stretch. Fleury started 64 games and played in 67 this season and he never claimed that he was worn down from playing in that many. But No. 29 certainly wasn’t his normal phenomenal self from the middle of March on this year.

It’s my guess that Marc-Andre was affected by multiple factors. He had to be worn out from playing so much, but I think he may have also felt more pressure to go out there and perform more often because of Johnson’s struggles. He may have been pressing to get wins because he knew that Johnson just wasn’t getting the job done in his absence.

Penguins GM Ray Shero said the move to was to help Marc-Andre Fleury play in fewer games to keep him fresh. Michelle Crechiolo and Sam Kasan, writers for the Pittsburgh Penguins, reported what Shero said on the Penguins website earlier today:

“This is to help Marc-Andre. It’s to help his game,” Shero said. “We still believe in Marc-Andre Fleury. He’s one of the better goalies in the league. But the position is demanding, both physically and mentally. If you can get a quality guy like this that has a track record like Tomas has, mentally it will give Marc a break, but it also challenges him. It challenges Tomas as well. This is the best goaltending tandem we’ve had in a long time.”

In 2009 when Marc-Andre won the Stanley Cup, he started 61 (and played in 62) games in the regular season, notching a record of 35-18-7. He was backed up by the trio of Dany Sabourin, Mathieu Garon and John Curry. The three finished the season with a collective record of 10-10-2. As you can see, there wasn’t much difference in the number of games Fleury played in this season compared to ’09. But Fleury was three years younger and he had a better team playing in front of him. He didn’t have as much pressure on his shoulders to be lights out every night because he didn’t have to be. The defensive core and the team defense shouldered the load more.

Fleury will probably never admit that he was worn out, even if Shero and the rest of the Penguins believe he was. But one thing is apparent, teams that have a great No. 1 and a solid No. 2 have had some outstanding seasons lately.

Last year, it was the Boston Bruins. Tim Thomas was their most important contributor, capturing a Conn Smythe en-route to a Stanley Cup victory. But he also had one of the best backups in the league in Tuukka Rask. Thomas notched 35 victories in each of the last two years, with Rask winning 11 in each of those years, as well.

The Vancouver Canucks further illustrate the point. Roberto Luongo has been outstanding the last two years, leading his team to a Stanley Cup Final in 2010-2011 and a President’s Trophy this season. In those seasons, he registered 38 and 31 wins, respectively. And in both of those seasons, he was backed up by Cory Schneider, who claimed 16 and 20 wins. Because both were impact guys, they took the pressure off of each other to perform and kept each other fresh for the long haul.

Will the duo of Fleury and Vokoun be the next great pair in the NHL?

I’m guessing probably not. But that doesn’t mean the two can’t support each other enough to win a Stanley Cup. As I mentioned earlier, Fleury didn’t have the greatest of backups in his Cup victory season, but he still won it.

Adding Vokoun is a step in the right direction, but the team playing in front of the two will ultimately determine how hard the goalies will need to work between the pipes. If the Penguins defensive coverage is as bad as it was in the playoffs this season, then it won’t matter who the two goalies are, they won’t be good enough to lift the Cup next June.

But if the defense can play even slightly better, while Fleury is back to his normal, stellar self with Vokoun being a solid, better-than-.500 goaltender while playing 20-25 games, the Pittsburgh Penguins can return to the glory of ’09.

If all of this will happen remains to be seen, but I’m excited to find out.

Kings and Devils: Why Hockey is Great

It’s been four days since the last NHL game was played and I’m already going through hockey withdrawal. But that’s nothing compared to the emptiness I’ll be feeling once the 2012 finals are over.

It’s been a terrific playoffs to watch so far, some say the best in years. Part of that reasoning is based on the upsets. No teams seeded better than 6th made it to the final and very rarely do you see something like that happen in any of the other major North American sports.

It’s pretty incredible to look at the preseason odds Vegas gave for the entire NHL last fall. The favorites to reach the finals were the Vancouver Canucks (9/2) and the Pittsburgh Penguins (5/1) . Each team made the playoffs but were unable to escape the first round. Vancouver won only one game and Pittsburgh managed to win only two. A Pittsburgh vs. Vancouver Cup final looked great on paper, but the hockey gods thought otherwise.

So where did the odds makers slot the finals combatants — the Los Angeles Kings and the New Jersey Devils — heading into the 2011-2012 season?

Los Angeles actually got a pretty good ranking as they were awarded the 11th best odds to win the Cup at 25/1. New Jersey was the real surprise, since Vegas gave them a 250/1 shot at winning it all.

250/1! The only two teams given worse odds were the Edmonton Oilers and the New York Islanders. That’s why the Devils are the perfect example of the claim that “all you have to do is make the playoffs and then all bets are off.”

And let’s forget for a minute that Los Angeles was given a decent shot at the beginning of the year. For the majority of the season, they looked like a floundering team that didn’t stand much of a chance at even making the postseason. Goalie Jonathan Quick seemed to be one of the only stand out players for the Kings and even though you need great goaltending to contend in the NHL, you also need to score goals.

Los Angeles couldn’t score goals.

The Kings finished 29th in scoring in the NHL at the end of the regular season, netting an average of 2.29 goals per game. Only the Minnesota Wild scored fewer, ending with an average of 2.02 goals per game.

But in the final 20 games of the regular season, the Kings scored 65 goals. In that span, their goals per game average was 3.25. It was a team that turned it on at the right time and got red-hot when it really mattered. And even with that performance, they managed to barely slip into the postseason as an 8 seed, making their path to the Cup as difficult as it gets. Hypothetically, there was a chance that the Kings would need to beat the 1,2 and 3 seeds to make it to the final.

And that’s exactly what happened, further solidifying my claim that unpredictability is the hallmark of the NHL playoffs.

But even as entertaining and unpredictable as they have been so far, it’s very possible that the NHL saved the best for last.

Some pundits believe that the Kings will roll through this final series. After all, no other team even came close to stopping them — they’ve lost two games since April 11. Quick has been, without a doubt, the best goalie in these playoffs (and I believe the regular season, as well) and it seems that the only way to get pucks behind him is to pray, shoot and pray again.

But I don’t think the Devils are going to be easily stamped out. They’ve had to fight much harder than the Kings and I believe that fight has built up an even bigger level of confidence than in the LA locker room. New Jersey has proven they can win a long series while Los Angeles never had a chance to do so. Devils veteran goalie Marty Broduer looks like he’s 22 again and despite having already played 18 playoff games, he doesn’t seem the least bit tired or worn down. Quick obviously has the athletic edge, but a crafty old former Cup winner like Broduer can add an element to a team that youth and athleticism cannot.

And toward the end of the Kings last series, they seemed to sputter a bit more than in the beginning. Maybe they’re too comfortable. Maybe they’ve been coasting. Regardless of what it is, this is the round where the Kings’ easy path ends.

But that doesn’t mean I’m picking New Jersey to win.

I think that the Kings have the edge in goal-scoring talent and puck stopping talent. All they need to do is prove it four more times, which they’re pretty used to doing by now.

I’m a combined 6-10 with my picks through the first three rounds of the playoffs, so I can’t hit .500 (which I feel like is the bare minimum of respectability). But if I can finish 7-10 with a Cup final win, I think I’ll be satisfied.

My pick: Los Angeles Kings in 7.

Penguins Fans Shouldn’t Fear Offseason Roster Changes

One look at the Penguins roster right now reveals a ton of talent and potential. But one look at the record this core of players has put together in the postseason in the past three years reveals something else: a pattern of poor play despite that overwhelming talent.

There aren’t a whole lot of Penguins fans out there that would say they’d like to see a major change to this roster, but they may not have a choice. Fans and Pens GM Ray Shero should be asking themselves the same question: Can this group of players win a Stanley Cup?

That may seem disheartening to some, mostly because the core of the team is largely unchanged from the team that raised the Cup in 2009 (13 players remain on the roster from the championship team, including Marc-Andre Fleury, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang).

But as much as Pens fans want it to stay ‘09 forever (as Pens fans previously wanted it to stay 1991 and 1992 before) they need to consider what has happened recently and how that will affect the next few years for the team, especially with the uncertainty of the upcoming collective bargaining agreement in September.

Ray Shero may have to make some difficult decisions this summer because of CBA and that could mean the departure of center Jordan Staal. Don’t get me wrong, he may be just as big a piece as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and I believe the Penguins should do everything in their power to keep Staal. But if Shero cannot figure a way to keep all three, Staal is the odd man out.

Staal has consistently proven over the past few seasons that he is much better than the third line center role he has assumed on this team. Penguins fans undoubtedly have considered themselves blessed to have a team so solid down the middle throughout the entire lineup. But consistency and talent like that comes with a price.

Both Staal and Crosby are heading into the final year of their contracts and Malkin is heading into the next to last year of his. Both Crosby and Malkin are making $8.7 million and both could be seeking raises considering how outstanding they have been. But the same can be said about Staal, and he’s making $4.7 less than both of them. He could easily command first-line center money somewhere else and if he is thinking what’s best for him, Staal may go where he gets first-line time for more cash.

And yes, Staal has been quoted that he would love to stay in Pittsburgh, but if that stands in the way of his becoming a first line guy and making first-liner coin, he may want to consider other options. Whether he stays in Pittsburgh or not rests on Staal just as much as it does on the Penguins.

As much as Pittsburgh loves Staal and as good as he’s been for the Pens, there’s a chance he could be leaving soon. I’m not saying they should trade him, but if he’s going to be leaving once his contract expires anyway, the Pens might as well get some good value for him (which they absolutely would).

One scenario that has been brought up recently is a potential deal with the Edmonton Oilers.  Over the weekend, Dave Staples wrote a column at the Edmonton Journal that brought up the question: Should the Edmonton Oilers consider trading the No. 1 overall pick in the draft to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Staal?

The Oilers certainly would love to have a young center like Staal that can bring just as much defensive help to a team as he can offense and right now, the primary need for Edmonton is players that can help keep the puck out of their own net.

On the Penguins side, it could also make sense considering they haven’t been able to draft particularly well in the past few years because they have been in the tail end of the draft order. They have some great young talent at defense, but their depth at forward is scant when you look beyond the NHL roster. If they were to receive the No. 1 pick, they could pick up an NHL-ready player like Nail Yakupov and they wouldn’t have to worry about paying him big bucks for a few years after his rookie deal.

Right now, it’s just food for thought and speculation about a potential deal with Edmonton is just that, speculation. Edmonton has not expressed any interest in Staal whatsoever. But if Staal were to leave, regardless of where he goes, Pens fans need to be able to cope with it. Change is a part of hockey and if your team isn’t winning championships with the kind of talent Pittsburgh has, then maybe that change is necessary.

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