The Penguins In Review: The 2012-13 Regular Season

Consol Energy Center

It’s tough to believe that the regular season is over already. The most ridiculous lockout since the last hockey lockout robbed us of 34 Penguins games this year and although that already seems like quite a bit of missed hockey, it’s even more devastating when you break it down to the number of absent regulation periods (102) and missing minutes (2,040). And not to put salt in the wound, but if Sidney Crosby hadn’t missed any games during the season and averaged his regular 21:06 of ice time per game, that means we also missed out on nearly 12 hours of watching the greatest player in the world do his thing.

 But let’s focus on what we did get to watch.

TEAM IN REVIEW

 To put it simply, the Pittsburgh Penguins were quite an amazing team to watch. They went 36-12-0 and acquired 72 points in route to capturing their first Atlantic Division title since 2008 and their first regular season conference crown in two decades, when they were captained by Mario Lemieux, backstopped by Tom Barrasso, and competed in the Prince of Wales Conference with the likes of the Quebec Nordiques and the Hartford Whalers.

 Like that team from 1993, these Penguins looked unstoppable in the regular season and are considered amongst the favorites to win the Stanley Cup. The 1992-93 Pens finished with 56 wins and 119 points. This year’s team was on pace for 61 wins and 122 points. That would have made them the winningest team in franchise history and given them the second most wins in NHL history, behind only the 1996 Detroit Red Wings who finished with 62.

 They never lost more than two games in a row and they became the first team in NHL history to win every game in the month of March (and at the same time becoming the first franchise to record a 10-game win streak in each of three consecutive seasons). That was during a streak in which the Pens won 15 in a row, tying the 1981-82 New York Islanders for the second longest win-streak in NHL history.

 Although this Pittsburgh team was relatively sound in most facets of the game, it was their offense that drove their success. Despite the shortened season, they still put a heck of a lot of pucks into the nets. They were first in the NHL in goals, with 162, which put them on pace to score 276 in 82 games. Much of their success came on the power play, which netted 42 goals and clicked at 24.7 percent, good enough for second best in the league.

 Defensively, the Pens weren’t firing on all cylinders for the duration of the season but they eventually found their way. Once they worked out some early season troubles leading to too much up and down hockey (that were exemplified by a disheartening 6-5 loss to the Flyers on February 20th and a 7-6 overtime win in Montreal on March 2), they really found the winning combination of scoring and defense. Through the first half of games, the Penguins gave up four or more goals eight times. Through the second half, they chiseled that number down to five games. It still wasn’t elite defense, but it got the job done by helping to win 20 of their last 24 games.

Over the course of the season, Pittsburgh averaged 2.48 goals against per game (12th in the NHL) and their goalie tandem of Marc-Andre Fleury (23-8 in 31 starts) and Tomas Vokoun (13-4 in 17 starts) combined for a .917 save percentage and 2.42 goals against. They might not be Vezina-type numbers, but they were good enough to help rack up the second-best record in the NHL and the best one-goal game win percentage in the league.

 But as good as Pittsburgh was in most areas of the game, they were pretty awful when it came to the penalty kill. They finished 25th in the league with a PK percentage of 79.6. Comparatively, the best PK team in the league, the Ottawa Senators, killed penalties at 88 percent. What’s most disconcerting about the Penguins penalty killing woes is that they’re one the worst teams in the league at it on the road. In the Stanley Cup playoffs, the ability to excel on the road is critical for deep Cup runs. The Pens killed only 75.5 percent of penalties on the road and allowed 24 power play goals. The only team that allowed more was the Colorado Avalanche, a.k.a. the worst team in the Western Conference.

PLAYERS IN REVIEW

 Now it’s time to fire through the whole Penguins roster of 2012-13 and conduct a quick review of their bodies of work.

Craig Adams- Adams was one of the six iron men on the team this season, playing in all 48 games. That’s somewhat surprising considering his playing style. He was third on the team in hits (107) and eighth on the team in blocked shots (37). He may not have much offensive savvy (three goals and six assists), but he’s a valuable penalty killer and a fearless defender. He’ll be one of the first guys penciled into coach Dan Bylsma’s everyday playoff lineup once the team becomes completely healthy because he’s such a solid shorthanded asset.

 Marc-Andre Fleury

Marc-Andre Fleury

As I mentioned before, MAF won’t win the Vezina this year, but if he ends the season hoisting the Stanley Cup, nothing else matters. He didn’t have elite statistics this season. He was 19th in save percentage (.916) and 17th in goals against average (2.39). But he did finish tied for second in wins (23) and the only reason that number wasn’t higher is because the Penguins actually had a backup they could trust to give Fleury some rest. In the end, the Flower was consistent and always gave the team a chance to win. He has a Stanley Cup pedigree and no one wants to avenge last season’s early playoff exit more than he does. I expect the same form from the Cup year to return this week and so does Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporter Rob Rossi.

 Beau Bennett– The rookie winger from California might have entered the NHL as a skinny greenhorn, but he’s left a tremendous impression on anyone that’s seen his work this season. We could see him grow up before our eyes, learning to see the ice better and better each game. He developed great chemistry with his line mates whether he was playing on the second line or the fourth. He has a slick touch to his puck handling and he’s certainly not afraid to run guys into the boards and grind the puck out from behind the net. I really hope Bylsma finds a spot on his playoff roster for this youngster because he will make the most out of any ice time he receives.

 Robert Bortuzzo– Borts, as he’s affectionately referred to by teammates, may have trouble cracking the playoff roster. But that’s not an indictment of his play during the season. He scored his first two NHL goals, but any offensive production he brings is frankly a bonus. Where this big-bodied D-man plays his best is in his own zone, tying up bodies around the net. In 15 games, he blocked 14 shots and registered 18 hits. He’s also developing a reputation as a tough guy, dropping the gloves three times. Bortuzzo is yet another example of the quality defensive depth the Penguins organization still has, even after trading away some quality defensive prospects this season.

 Matt Cooke– This will be remembered by most as the season that Matt Cooke sliced Erik Karlsson’s Achilles tendon, drawing ridiculous accusations from the Ottawa Senators brass, boorish comments from ex-goon analysts and insulting comparisons from loose-lipped announcers. But in actuality, the dirty Matt Cooke is long gone. The new Matt Cooke has struck a balance of grit and skill and when he’s playing on the edge (without going over it) Cooke is a dynamic penalty killer and a scoring threat to boot. His offensive production was down slightly this season, but it was wrong to expect the same level of production this season as he had last year, when he spent time on lines with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. He did, however, have his worst plus/minus (-2) as a Penguin this year so hopefully the postseason will change his fortune in that regard.

 Sidney Crosby

Sidney Crosby

I think I’ve spent more time writing about injuries to Sidney Crosby than anything else on this blog. And I can’t tell you what it is (Bad luck? Unintended voodoo?), but I’ve been in attendance for the two most serious afflictions he’s suffered. I was at the Winter Classic in Pittsburgh when David Steckel concussed him and I was at the Consol Energy Center when Brooks Orpik’s errant shot broke his jaw and gave him a hockey smile. But had that puck missed him, he would be collecting an Art Ross Trophy at the end of the season in addition to a possible Hart Trophy. But there’s no use hashing out hypotheticals. What we know for sure is that Crosby is still the best player in the world and once he returns to action, we all expect him to resume his torrid scoring pace.

 Simon Despres– Despres has progressed well in his young career and this season he certainly showed us glimpses of his true value as a skilled defensive player. There are still some rough patches to iron out, including some panicky play where he’ll sling the puck into dangerous areas, but it’s all on pace and in due time. Bylsma needs to learn to trust Despres to play against more “physical” teams because it looks like that shouldn’t be an issue for him. He may not see time in the playoffs, but if Brooks Orpik remains out with a lower body injury, Despres’ puck moving ability and skill could be an asset against the young and speedy Islanders. It’s not likely that he’ll get the nod ahead of Deryk Engelland, though.

Pascal Dupuis

Pascal Dupuis

NHL players usually hit their primes around their mid-20s. By 30 they’re typically on the downswing of their careers and by their mid-30s, it’s not uncommon for them to trade in their hockey sticks for golf clubs. But not Pascal Dupuis. At the age of  34, this Canadian winger has been downright prolific this season, leading the NHL with a plus-31 and tying for third with 17 even strength goals. He finished third amongst Penguins with 31 points and led the club with 140 shots. He became a quality point man on the power play and continued to be one of the best penalty killers in Pittsburgh. He can switch between playing wing and center and in his younger days he even played some defense. This man can do everything and he’s hilarious, too. What’s not to like?

Mark Eaton– Mark Eaton doesn’t have point this season. He has only eight shots on goal and his shot blocks and hit totals don’t rank anywhere prominently in the NHL. Mark Eaton doesn’t get noticed and that’s been the best part about his play. He quietly executes on the blue line every night and he doesn’t make mistakes. He’s brought a calming veteran presence to this Penguins club and the proof is in its record since he arrived. In the 23 games he’s played with the Pens this year, they’ve lost three times. Call it a coincidence if you like, but he may be the most overlooked defensive piece that the Penguins have had all year.

 Deryk Engelland– Engelland had a decent season overall, but it was nothing to email home about. He certainly has progressed since the days in which his sole purpose in hockey was to cave in the face of the other team’s tough guy, but he isn’t at the level of a top-six defenseman (and I doubt he’ll ever reach that level). His physical style is welcomed in front of the Penguins net, but he can get out of position at times and he isn’t a great skater. His usefulness can plummet in the playoffs, where fights are few and far between, but as long as Bylsma doubts Simon Despres’ physicality, Engl will be the sixth defenseman until Orpik is ready.

 Tanner Glass– A glance a Glass’ numbers will make it seem like he didn’t have a very good season and they’d pretty much be correct. Don’t get me wrong. He’s one of the hardest working Pens and he’s eats up time on the penalty kill, but here’s what I’m hoping is just a bad coincidence: the Penguins penalty kill is awful and its key components are largely unchanged from the past few seasons when they were among the best in the league. Glass is one of the few different components. Do I think he single-highhandedly destroyed their PK somehow? Absolutely not. Do I think he’s helping it? Not necessarily. It’s great that he adds grit and sticks up for his teammates, every team needs guys like that. But I’m just not sold on his value after this short season. Hopefully, he can flip a switch like the Arron Ashams of the world and turn into an asset in the postseason. If he doesn’t show something right off the bat, he shouldn’t dress.

 Jarome Iginla

Jarome Iginla

Iginla’s trade was obviously the blockbuster deal of the NHL this season. After spending his entire career in Calgary, he decided he wanted to win some hockey games and dropped his no trade clause to play with his old Olympic buddy Sidney Crosby. I attended his first game as a Penguin and the crowd was about as receptive as it possibly could have been. And now after only 13 games of service to the city of Pittsburgh, I know why Calgary was so upset to see him go. How has a howitzer of a slap shot, a pearly white smile that he displays frequently and he’s already developed serious chemistry with the rest of the team. He sold his house in Calgary so it seems like he won’t be returning there at season’s end, so the question remains: Can/will the Pens sign him to an extension for 2013-14 and beyond? Because at the right price, I wouldn’t mind seeing him do this in a Penguins uniform for a few more years.

 Dustin Jeffrey– I can only imagine the frustration of Dustin Jeffrey. He’s a young, decent hockey player on one of the best teams in the NHL but there is no room at the inn. He’s been with the organization since 2007-08 and has bounced back and forth between the AHL and NHL so much that he probably forgets what jersey to put on when he arrives at the rink. But lately, he can assume that a suit and tie is the appropriate uni. He played quite a bit in March but was a scratch for all but three games in April. And unless things go terribly awry in the injury department, it’s likely that DJ has played in his last game of the season. Six points and a plus-1 in 24 games should hardly be convincing otherwise.

 Jussi Jokinen- You might not have believed me if I told you that Jokinen would be the most efficient addition to the 2013 Penguins roster when Ray Shero brought him on board on deadline day, but that’s exactly what he’s been. When he shoots, it goes in. It’s that simple. The Juice has 13 shots on goal in 10 games and he’s scored on seven of them (and added four assists). That’s the best shooting percentage on the team. He’s also been the second-best Penguin in the face-off circle (57.9 percent). It should scare other teams that he might be relegated to the fourth line once the Penguins become healthy, because he has top-six talent.

 Tyler Kennedy– TK had arguably his worst season as a Penguin. He finished with six goals, five assists and was a minus-6. He did manage to put 100 shots on goal, but that’s hardly an exception for him. He’s always had a shoot first (shoot always) mentality and while he has seemed to elevate his game in past seasons when players went down because of injury, that really wasn’t the case this year. He got opportunities to center the first line when Sidney Crosby went down, but he struggled to inject any flow to his game and he was quickly relegated back to the third and fourth lines. For whatever reason, Bylsma loves Kennedy. I would pick him to be a healthy scratch once the Pens are healthy again, but knowing Disco, TK will be out there blasting off-target shots as soon as the postseason begins.

 Chris Kunitz

Chris Kunitz

I present for your consideration, the 2012-13 statistics of one Christopher Kunitz: 22 goals, 30 assists, 52 points, plus-30, nine power play goals, five game-winning goals, 19.5 shooting percentage, 113 shots, all 48 games played. He was easily the best Penguin not named Sidney this year. For awhile, he was in the running for the Rocket Richard and Art Ross trophies. The only question remaining about Kunitz is where he’ll play once the Penguins are healthy. Crosby said that he feels more comfortable with Kunitz and Dupuis on his wings, but it shouldn’t matter where they are plugged in. Whether its on the first line with Crosby and Dupuis or on the second with Malkin and Neal, his presence can make it the best line in the NHL. Pretty good for a 33-year-old undrafted free agent.

 Kris Letang– He’s the best defenseman in hockey and he should be recognized as such by being awarded the Norris Trophy. Letang tied another Norris front-runner, P.K. Subban, with 38 points and did him four better when it came to plus/minus. Letang’s odds were narrowed because he played in seven fewer games than Subban and scored six fewer goals, but he ate up two more minutes per game than Subban and was in the penalty box far less as well. Unfortunately, I don’t have a vote for the NHL awards but he deserves the hardware because he plays the game better than any other blue-liner in the league.

 Steve MacIntyre– What can I say about Mac? He played in one game with the big club this year and basically served as a bodyguard for Matt Cooke. He’s a big bruiser that doesn’t do much and his type will eventually be phased out of the game someday. But for now, it’s hard not to love the big lug because of one time he defended his teammates by beating up the entire other team. I’ll just say I’m glad he’s on our side.

 Evgeni Malkin

Evgeni Malkin

Last season, Evgeni Malkin finished the regular season with 50 goals and 109 points to lock up the NHL scoring title. He was also won the Ted Lindsay Award (Most Outstanding Player) and was voted the league MVP. This season, Geno had nine goals and 24 assist, which put him on pace for 15 goals and 41 assists in an 82-game campaign. Those numbers would represent the second-worst statistical year of his career, with the worst coming in a season in which he played only 43 games. He did have injury problems this year as well, but Malkin might as well have fallen off the face of the earth. Thankfully, there’s still the postseason to redeem himself. He’s played some of his best hockey in the Stanley Cup playoffs, most notably in 2009 when he when the Conn Smythe trophy as the postseason MVP. His odds for winning a second Conn Smythe are 20/1 this year.

 Paul Martin– At the end of last season, Paul Martin was public enemy No. 1 in Pittsburgh. He had a putrid year and because of his $5 million per year salary, it didn’t seem likely that any other team would take him off our hands. We became stuck with Paul Martin. Now, thank god we’re stuck with Paul Martin. He was easily the team’s comeback player of the year. Just consider the numbers. This season he has four more goals in 39 fewer games. He has nearly as many assists this year (17) as he did last year (25). His plus/minus is five points better. When it comes to the intangibles, it’s also been night and day. Last year, he struggled in the offensive zone, especially when he was on the point during the power play. This season, he’s calm and collected in the offensive zone. There is no panic and he has seemingly always made the right pass or shot at the perfect time. And with 52 games played in the Stanley Cup playoffs, his experience is welcomed with open arms at this time of year. A $5 million Paul Martin? Hell, that’s a bargain.

 Brenden Morrow– Brendan Morrow has been a Penguin for only 15 games and already he’s a cult hero in Pittsburgh. The blue collar fans love his style of play. They love that he parks in front of the net and raises hell on ice for defensemen and goaltenders. They love that he’s averaged nearly a point per game since he’s arrived. But I think Pens fans really love him because he seems to play with such passion and emotion, even after 850 career NHL games. And what’s the most telling fact? When he scores, he beams. It’s like every time the puck zings off his stick into the net, it’s the first time he’s ever scored, and this is a man who has 249 career goals. Fans enjoy when it’s clear that players are having fun representing their city. And it doesn’t hurt that Morrow put the beat down on local villain Subban and yelled from the penalty box “You have five minutes to think about what I’m going to do to you when we get out there.”

Douglas Murray

Douglas Murray

In his former lives, Douglas Murray was a bouncer, a boulder, a bull dog and a beef cow. In this life, he’s a slow-skating mountain troll who doesn’t feel pain and clears the ice of human debris.  After Morrow, Murray might be the next favorite addition to the Penguins because of his strength, size and because he might be a slightly cleaner reincarnation of Ulf Samuelsson. Between his time in San Jose and Pittsburgh this season, Murray has 89 hits and 98 blocked shots, which both rank second amongst Pen’s D-men. He has the second worst plus/minus on the team, but other than that he certainly has made a positive influence in the Burgh.

 James Neal– The Real Deal James Neal hammered home 21 goals this season, nine of them coming on the power play. He still has one of the most wicked shots in hockey, a release so quick that the opposition can’t get in front of it quick enough (skaters and goalies all included). I wondered how Neal would look upon returning from a concussion, but my fears were alleviated by a four-point regular season finale complete with a hat trick off of eight shots. Neal is yet another power play specialist within the Penguins roster that will do some major damage in the postseason, especially off of a face off play that is so quick, the announcers can’t call the goal until the puck is in the net for five seconds.

 Matt Niskanen– Niksanen is another one of those Penguins players that rarely gets talked about because there’s never a need to do so. He’s been one of the most quietly consistent Penguins since he joined the team and this year was no different. He didn’t exactly wear out the net twine but he was able to put together a respectable season with 14 points, two game-winning goals and was a  plus-4. This was a carry over from last year’s playoffs, in which the former Dallas Star lead the Penguins in almost all major statistical categories in terms of shots against, goals against and Corsi.Pair his play on the ice with his recently received “Good Guy” Award and you have a quality person and D-man in Matt Niskanen.

 Brooks Orpik

Brooks Orpik

Orpik is the second-biggest question mark remaining on the Penguins roster heading into the postseason (with the first obviously being Crosby). He suffered a lower-body injury last week against the Buffalo Sabres that kept him out of the final two regular-season games. He did skate by himself this week but is listed as day to day. Orpik is an important cog in a Penguins defense that struggled in the beginning of the year, only to turn it around in mid-season. His potential absence could leave a glaring hole in front of the net. He was clearly the best defensive defenseman for the Penguins, leading the team in hits (119), blocked shots (114) and games played (46). I’ll feel a lot better about the back end once Orpik and his demonic bulging eyes are back on the ice.

 Dylan Reese– Reese played in three NHL contests this season and registered one shot on goal. He’s currently playing for the Baby Pens in the first round of the AHL playoffs. He grew up in Pittsburgh, so that’s nice. Moving on…

 Trevor Smith– If it doesn’t ring a bell, don’t worry, it shouldn’t. Mr. Smith played in one game this year. I was at that game in March and didn’t know he had played in it. He registered zero stats during 10:24 of ice time.

 Brandon Sutter– Now that the season is over, we can finally compare the stats of Sutter and Jordan Staal and see which team won the trade! Although this doesn’t necessarily work in a black and white comparison, it’s still fun to see. Sutter finished with one more goal than Staal, but the ex-Penguin racked up 13 more assists. The glaring difference was their plus/minus numbers. Sutter finished with a plus-3 (the second-best of his career) while Staal finished a minus-18, easily the worst of his career. Sutsy finished with five game-winning goals. Staal had one. There wasn’t a huge difference between the two, but given where the Pens are right now, I’d say that Shero has no regrets. And given Sutter’s family pedigree and style of play, I cannot wait to see what kind of force he can be in the playoffs.

 Joe Vitale– I always admired Joe Vitale’s game. He hustles like he’s Bryce Harper on ice, he drills guys into the boards and while he doesn’t often fill the net, he scored one of the prettiest elevation goals of this shortened NHL season. He has a skill set that would be utilized a lot more were he not on a superstar-loaded team. He still managed to get on the ice 33 times this year, however that was the best number on his stat sheet. He was a minus-7 with two goals and three assists. I would have liked to see him get some more time this year simply because he’s fun to watch, but a healthy roster will probably relegate him to the press box for the remainder of the season. He has one year left on his contract after this season and then becomes a restricted free agent. Given his overall lack of production and the fact he’ll be 28 years old, that might be the last season we see him in a Penguins sweater.

 Tomas Vokoun

Tomas Vokoun

Much can be said about all of Ray Shero’s 2012-13 acquisitions, but the best of them all was Tomas Vokoun. Fleury was overworked when he entered last year’s playoffs because of the Penguins’ hesitance to start Brent Johnson more than a handful of times during the regular season. With the installation of Vokoun, the Pens were able to rest Fleury without worrying about their backup getting lit up. Vokoun’s veteran presence has seemed to push the Flower to become more focused and better rested. And heading into the postseason, Fleury is by far the most important person to be in peak condition both mentally and physically.

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Should the NHL mandate visors?

Yes. Here’s two simple equations to illustrate the point:

Vision = good.

Blindness = bad.

Ever since New York Rangers defenseman Marc Staal took a puck to the eye on March 5, the hockey world has been buzzing about whether or not the NHL should grandfather in a mandatory visor rule.

Staal will make a full recovery, but after watching the video, it’s no surprise plenty of players don’t have an issue with that mandate.

Since 2006, the AHL has demanded that all its players wear visors. The majority of draft picks that reach the NHL do so via a call up from the AHL, so anyone who has played in the AHL from 2006 on is used to wearing the devices – that’s a large portion of NHL players. And according to the NHLPA, 73 percent of NHL players already wear the protective plastic that partially or fully cover their faces.

That percentage reflects the fact that NHL players are wising up. The game is getting faster and more dangerous as players continue to evolve into even greater athletic marvels than their predecessors. The puck is traveling faster and sticks are getting lighter. Odds are greater that a deflected puck or an errant stick will inflict major damage to an unfortunate skater in their paths. Just ask Bryan Berard, Manny Malhotra and Chris Pronger.

But there are still a number of players who oppose a mandatory visor rule, despite an overwhelming amount of evidence that supports the change.

Many of these players are grinders, fighters and checkers. They are men employed to beat guys up, protect super-stars and take up space to block shots and prevent offense. They value toughness and the respect they garner from other players around the league.

These players cite a variety of reasons why they don’t want visors. Here are their excuses and my responses:

1. “Visors obstruct my vision and ability to play the puck.” You aren’t in the league for your ability to play the puck. You take the body. You knock guys down. You block shots. And even if you are a skill player and think a visor obstructs your vision too much to effectively play the puck, ask the elite skill players in the league like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk and the other 73 percent of players how much negative impact a visor has on their vision. If they can get used to some fogginess and water droplets in front of their eyes, so can you.

2. “If I wear one, my peers will think less of me.” This isn’t high school and being a tough guy isn’t everything, even in the NHL. Do you want your kids to have a cyclops father? How would your mother feel watching you scream in agony on live TV because of an accident that could have been avoided? There are much worse things in life (like, I dunno, blindness) than guys like George Parros or Colton Orr thinking you’re a sissy. Blaze a path and be a leader that other tough guys can follow. If you make your living by protecting other players on the ice, rallying for mandatory visors would make you a greater protector than any fist you’ve thrown or any check you’ve delivered.

3. “If I instigate a fight while wearing a visor, I’ll get an extra two-minute penalty. Plus it’s hard to challenge anyone with a visor on.” This is actually a legitimate point. According to Rule 46.6:

If a player penalized as an instigator of an altercation is wearing a face shield (including a goalkeeper), he shall be assessed an additional unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Should the player (including a goalkeeper) who instigates the fight be wearing a face shield, but removes it before instigating the altercation, the additional unsportsmanlike conduct penalty shall not apply.

In the heat of battle, nobody with a visor is going to take off their helmet before defending a teammate who just took a cheap shot. And fighting someone with a visor on is considered dirty. This is situation the NHL to needs to remedy by removing the instigator rule and mandating visors. That’s what they did in the AHL and it hasn’t changed players from being physical or fighting. And since the NHL doesn’t want to cut out fighting altogether, it should make those changes.

4. “It’s my body and I should get to decide how to best protect it.” This is true in theory, but in professional sports, commissioners and other league officials have the duty to protect their players the best way they see fit, such as the mandatory use of the HANS device in NASCAR or the helmet rule in the NHL, which was grandfathered into the league in 1979. And here’s the beauty of grandfathering in the visor rule: If you didn’t wear a visor prior to whenever the rule was enacted, guess what? You’d be allowed to play without one! It would only affect players who signed their contract after the rule was placed. You’re old school? Fine, don’t wear one and accept the consequences if something bad happens. Everyone else? Too bad, these are the rules and we’d like you to have both eye balls and a lengthy career. All professional sports need to move forward in protecting their players because this isn’t ancient Rome, it’s the 21st century. A league’s investment in player safety is an investment in that league’s longevity.

5. “It’ll take too long to get used to it.” How long is too long? Two days? Three? If the rule is enacted, it will be done so during the offseason in the summer. That will give all of the remaining holdouts months to adapt to their new protective devices. Just ask Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik, a perennial tough guy who’s played more than 600 NHL games without a visor. He began wearing one in practice a few days after the Staal incident. A day later, he was comfortable enough to wear it during a game on March 14. He’s worn it for every game since. He said there was no noticeable difference and his play hasn’t suffered, either. And coincidentally, he was hit with a shot near his face during a matchup against the Rangers three days after he began using the visor.

Who knows what would have happened otherwise.

The GMs have already agreed on grandfathering visors and the NHLPA will poll players this summer to decide on whether or not to do the same.  If the players and the competition committee decide to approve the change, it will be up to the NHL Board of Governors to give the thumbs up before it is inked into the rule book.

The remaining 27 percent of visor-less players stand to be the only people that could block the rule. They need to stop making excuses and realize how precious their health is. This requires the abandonment of antiquated hockey tradition and the adoption of progressive thinking to protect themselves for their own sakes and those of their families and fans.

Like Orpik told Josh Yohe of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “I guess there really isn’t a valid excuse to not wear one anymore.”

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.

New York Islanders fans: bloodthirsty, boorish and absent

As I exited from Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Tuesday night after the Penguins dispatched the Islanders 4-2, a security guard playfully urged me and a group of others to hurry up. “Go on you Penguins fans,” he joked, “get outta here.”

I responded in kind by thanking him for the hospitality. He scolded me briefly before I told him I was kidding. “Hey, it’s always fun to come out to the island,” I told him.

I was lying.

I’ve been lucky enough to live in the heart of the NHL’s Atlantic Division since I moved to New York City in the summer of 2010. Although this limits how many Pens’ games I can see in Pittsburgh every season, I still have relatively easy access to Madison Square Garden in Manhattan, the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. and the Coliseum in Uniondale, Long Island. Because of this access and my affinity for seeing the Pens play live, I go to four or five away games every year against the Rangers, Devils and Islanders.

There’s something uniquely enjoyable being a Penguins fan in these venues. Rather than identifying with the majority, I become the enemy with limited or no support from other human beings around me. Sometimes, it feels borderline-dangerous and I’ll admit it’s kind of a rush. A little back and forth with local fans is entertaining and usually it’s just good-natured ribbing from both sides. But when I show up on Long Island to watch the Pens, I have to say that the majority (not all) of Islanders fans are boorish, rude and easy to dislike.

My experience on Tuesday was no different.

I’ve been to Nassau Coliseum to watch the Pens four or five times in my life and each time, I find myself being verbally accosted for no reason other than for wearing a Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin shirt. I never instigate and I never reply. Usually I’m by myself, so getting into an altercation with hoards of “enemy” fans would be unwise. But the main reason I don’t respond is because I don’t want to be a poor representative of Penguins fans. That is a concept that most Islanders fans cannot seem to grasp.

Within minutes of entering the arena last night, I was approached by three full-grown men who felt the need to inform me that many things “sucked.” It wasn’t just the typical “Crosby sucks,” it was “Hey man, you suck–” followed by some language I won’t repeat.

Charming.

This scenario happened a number of times during the course of the evening, in addition to being told to “shut the f*** up” after I cheered for the Pens. I turned the other cheek and smiled because after all, Pittsburgh was winning and nothing else mattered. I’ve come to expect the hostility from fans in the New York metro area (as well as most other pro sports venues that I’ve been to) but the Islanders faithful managed to step it up a notch on Tuesday.

The most disturbing portion of the night happened early in the second period when a Kris Letang shot caught Crosby in the face. Play was halted and the bloodied Penguins captain was immediately led into the locker room by trainers with a towel over his face. As soon as the scant crowd realized who had gotten hurt, it erupted into their loudest cheer of the night followed by a “Crosby sucks” chant.

How winsome.

Now, I realize opposing fans love to hate Crosby. He gets booed in every away arena in the United States (and even in Canada, despite the fact he won the country a friggin’ gold medal in 2010). Is it jealousy or even a form of veneration? Perhaps. On NHL Live last night, Boston Bruins radio analyst Bob Beers said that “everywhere Zdeno Chara goes, he seems to get booed, which I guess is the ultimate form of respect.”

So by that reasoning, Crosby is the most respected player in the NHL.

I’ve never had a problem with booing, it’s kind of a dumb fan tradition (imagine booing vegetables on your plate as a child or booing the staff at the DMV), but everyone does it and it’s harmless. I’ll take a “boo” over mindless cursing and the utterance of homophobic slurs any day.

But there is never an excuse for fans to cheer when a player gets injured.  That’s over-the-line behavior. It’s an abusive mob mentality that perfectly depicts the lack of respect some fans have. I’m sure the cowards who harassed me before the game were among the boisterous thousands who cheered while Crosby, a player with a history of head injuries, lay bleeding on the ice before them. It’s probably not a stretch to presume they’ve never been pelted in the face with a frozen rubber puck going 50-plus miles per hour, either.

I wasn’t the only person who was disgusted by the scene in Long Island Tuesday night:

Seth Rorabaugh — Penguins writer for the Penguins for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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Jesse Marshall — Co-owner/operator of Faceoff-Factor.com

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Dejan Kovacevic — Pittsburgh Tribune-Review sports columnist

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Arthur Staple — Islanders writer for Newsday

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Dave Molinari — Penguins beat writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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Josh Yohe — Penguins beat writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

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Crosby’s incident wasn’t quite as bad as Eagles fans cheering when Michael Irvin suffered a neck injury during a game in 1999, but both were disgusting. Philly fans already have the reputation for having the worst fans in all of pro sports, but New Yorkers (Islanders fans specifically) aren’t far behind.

I understand that this kind of behavior isn’t happening in the vacuum of New York and Philadelphia. Every fan base in pro sports has its share of bad apples, idiots, slack-jawed ignoramuses and drunken  morons — Pittsburgh included.

So what gives for all the idiocy and ignorance?

Former NBCSports.com contributor and current Miami Heat columnist for the Palm Beach Post Ethan J. Skolnick wrote an article in 2009 entitled “Why do sports turn us into irrational fanatics?” In the article, he interviewed Dr. Richard Lustberg, a Long Island resident who runs the site psychologyofsports.com. Lustberg offered one explanation of why fans act like fools:

“It’s without a doubt one of the great diversions that you can have in entertainment. People take that entertainment and then relate it to their own lives. People can understand getting to the precipice of getting to a promotion, and then succeeding at it or not. The merging that occurs between fans and players is the involvement that takes you away from other issues in your life, but also the understanding that you too have been involved with highs, lows, ups, downs in your life, and that’s how you relate.”

In the same article, Christian End, an assistant psychology professor at Xavier University specializing in sports fan behavior, said the following:

“Groups strive to make themselves distinct from other groups,” End said. “They also want to be better than the other groups when you compare them head-to-head. If they begin to believe that the taunting is having an impact on the game, they sort of take pride in being the best at providing a distraction. That can help them buffer, and make them feel better if the team isn’t as successful head-to-head.”

Take those two opinions, toss in a few decades of losing seasons and you have a valid representation of an Islanders fan.

Watching your favorite hockey team is supposed to be fun. It should be a pleasant distraction to everyday problems. But for Islanders’ fans, the team is just another problem creating yet another need for more distraction, i.e., drinking too much, name calling, etc. The team hasn’t finished above .500 since 2007, which also marks the last time it reached the postseason (they lost the series 4-1 to the Buffalo Sabres). The Islanders haven’t won a playoff series since 1993 and haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1983. In my lifetime (25 years), they’ve been a winning team a grand total of eight times.

Yep, must be frustrating but it’s still no excuse.

And according to End, those fans take pride in being the best distraction since their team is no good. However, they failed at being anything more than background noise when it came to the play of the Penguins. Cheering during Crosby’s injury was distracting for me, but I highly doubt it did anything other than motivate Crosby and the rest of the Penguins. He returned in about 10 minutes he didn’t seem to exhibit any ill effects.

I suppose the cheering may have been more effective if Islanders fans would actually bother to come to the games. If you want to see an NHL game but can only afford to spend less than $20, the Islanders are for you! There’s virtually no local interest in this team. I bought my ticket on Stub Hub the evening before the game and the base price was $9.50.

$9.50.

With additional fees and the other standard charges, the grand total came to $19.50. Only twice have I paid less money for a ticket to a professional sporting event and both of those times were at Citi Field when the woeful Pirates came to town to play the lowly Mets.

Here’s the Coliseum about an hour before the puck drops. Yes, that’s pretty early before the game but there were about 20 fans in the building. The attendance of the hotel bar next door was far greater.

Come early and often! Or, don't bother with either...I guess.

Come early and often! Or, don’t bother with either!

So you’d figure that the Penguins would get a decent draw for away games. They’re one of the best teams in the league and super stars like Crosby and Malkin are major attractions, regardless of whether fans love them or hate them. But here’s a picture I took during the pregame warmups. This was about 20 minutes before game time.

The Islanders can't give away tickets.

The Penguins hold practices in front of larger crowds.

By the end of the night, the total paid attendance was a whopping 11,318. Major high school football games attract higher fan numbers. Last year, average attendance for Islanders games was 13,191 and total attendance was 540,838. The only team with poorer attendance was the Phoenix Coyotes and this year it looks like the Islanders could challenge the Coyotes for the bottom spot on the list.

Long Island used to be the home to a stellar hockey franchise that won four consecutive Stanley Cups in the ’80s. Fans were proud of the team and the team was proud of its fans. They deserved each other.

But now, I dare say that neither side supports the other and any dignity this organization built in the wake of its success has since faded. The on-ice product might be improving with the likes of John Tavares and Michael Grabner, but the fans on Long Island don’t seem to appreciate any kind of talent when it graces the ice of Nassau Coliseum.

Will the Islanders return to form as a playoff contender in the NHL  in the near future? It certainly seems like a legitimate possibility. They have a ton of young talent and the team has looked strong in a number of games this season. But the real question is if a considerate fan base will ever pack the confines of the Islanders’ home arena any time soon. The fact that a resurgence in respectful fan support for a four-time Cup winner can even be questioned is far more devastating than a puck to the face.

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.

NHL lockout close to end…not so fast my friend.

This week, the NHL labor negotiations borrowed a page from ESPN college football personality Lee Corso’s book.

It looked like the NHLPA and owners were coming close to reaching an agreement and ending the inexcusable, unreasonable and unfathomable lockout this week. Optimism was surprisingly high on both sides. Multiple media outlets reported that the owners and players seemed close to an agreement. They met all day and into the following morning on both Tuesday and Wednesday. It seemed that the presence of moderate owners like Jeff Vinik of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Ron Burkle of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Mark Chipman of the Winnipeg Jets and Larry Tanenbaum of the Toronto Maple Leafs might have to doing some good to grease the wheels of appeasement on both sides of the puck.

Then on Thursday evening, the vibe seemed to fluctuate. The media began to tweet that the atmosphere no longer had the feeling of positivity, but then reported that NHLPA head Donald Fehr said, “We think there is a complete agreement on dollars. If that’s the case, and we think it is, there’s no reason to not have agreement.”

In hindsight, there was no good reason to trust what Fehr said, but sometimes when you want something so badly, all you see and hear is what you want to see and hear. So I read the words in front of me and began to feel hope, and even the hope of hockey is enough to get me through my day. It was slight, but it was a good feeling, one that I hadn’t had at all concerning these labor negotiations.

I updated my Christmas wish-list to read “1. NHL Game Center, 2. Penguins tickets, etc.” I glued myself to Twitter (since the NHL Network didn’t have the decency to broadcast any breaking news about the near future of its league) and kept my phone handy, ready to call my brother and father to rejoice about the saved season. Hell, I even thought I’d feel so good tomorrow I might get up early and start working out again. Now that the NHL was back, the world was my oyster and there was no limit to my potential!

As the evening negotiations came to a close, reporters waited for someone to take the podium and fill us all in on the days talks. Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist Dejan Kovacevic tweeted “You can tell even players have no idea what Fehr is going to say, what NHL response was. Makes for unreal drama in here.” And that was even palpable through the Twitter machine as I sat alone on my couch in my Brooklyn apartment. I was nervous, excited, doubtful, anxious and about 50 other emotions I can’t quite qualify with labels. I wanted it so badly. Then…

A dark cloud blew into midtown Manhattan and started raining ill will inside the Westin New York at Times Square. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daley left a voice mail on Fehr’s brother Steve’s phone regarding the current proposal from the NHLPA. Kovecevic tweeted what the union head told reporters.

Fehr: “Advised in a voice mail that moves players made were not acceptable, that there was no reason for owners to stay.”

And just like that, everything went up in smoke and the collective hearts of NHL fans plummeted into our stomachs and shattered at the bottom like a faulty elevator.

This pretty much sums it up.

The grim reality was splattered on the wall. It appeared unlikely there would be an NHL season after this let down and all because of a three-year disagreement on contract term (NHL five years, PA eight years) and a two-year gap on CBA length (NHL eight years, PA six) . No, the season hasn’t been cancelled yet, and there still is time to save 40-50 games. But if you’re confident that the same guys blowing these negotiations now can save the season, I envy your optimism. Mine is drowning in melted ice and tears.

After the bad news was revealed, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman informed the media and public what happened with the labor negotiations on Thursday.

But to NHL fans Bettman’s address sounded more like the South Park presidential duck.

Partisan politics came back to the forefront and the fan constituency was forgotten, if it had ever been considered in the first place. The big wigs of hockey took one step forward then five steps back. Some owners told Bettman the process was over. Concessions came off the table. Bettman said it didn’t look like the two sides would be meeting soon, adding that he had no idea why Fehr said the two sides were close, and that was unfair to hockey fans.

Now, the next reasonable conclusion is for Cthulhu to exit his hibernation to cast the hockey world into darkness and despair for 5000 years.

Ok, maybe it’s not that bad but this situation is about the worst we could have asked for. It’s not too late to start following the NBA (sob) fellow puck heads, because following these labor negotiations is a slap in the face. We can’t trust Bettman or Fehr. We’re watching a bad movie where there are only villains and victims and the ending is starting to seem as predictable as 1997’s biggest blockbuster.

Hockey fans have been helpless through this whole process and now, as we watch our beloved game be torn limb from limb by greed and narcissism, all we can do is regret loving the game as much as we do and hope that we can forget our affection for the NHL or pray that the NHL will remember us.

The 2012-2013 NHL Season: What We’re All Missing Part 10

Even though the NHL is still locked out, we can all take solace in the fact that the NBA is a perfect substitute!

Glances across Canada, hears crickets, sees angry people in sweaters.

Yes, Canada I feel your pain. Especially people in Toronto. Here’s a few reasons I know you’re missing the NHL right now.

 

 

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