An Ode to Sidney Crosby

I hardly consider myself a poet, but today I felt like I wanted to give a special thanks to Sidney Crosby for agreeing to a 12-year deal worth $104.4 million. What was amazing about the deal wasn’t the length of the contract, but the fact that Sid agreed to never get a raise for the rest of his life. His previous deal paid him $8.7 million a year.

His new deal will pay the same amount.

He could have asked for more money and the Penguins would have given it to him. But he didn’t because he wanted to give the team the cap space to put other quality talent around him.

Sid’s primary goal is to win Stanley Cups.

He knows how it feels to win one and he will never forget how terrific that sensation is. He is a Captain, a leader and the greatest player in the world. Here’s to Sidney Crosby’s unselfish actions. Expect the key to Pittsburgh to be given to him shortly.

An Ode to Sidney Crosby

In sports there are men who come and go,

without much meaning or care.

Then there are men who always know,

the fans who want them there.

—————————————————-

They play hard and say the words,

that are right each and every time.

They carry themselves with pride and calm,

even when things aren’t fine.

—————————————————-

These are the leaders who sacrifice,

for the better good of the whole.

These are men like Sidney Crosby,

who believe that Cups are the only goal.

—————————————————-

In 2005 he came to the Burgh,

touted highly as a star.

Then he proved it with 39 goals,

his stats were right on par.

—————————————————

From then on out he was a leader,

soon getting the “C” on his chest.

But it wasn’t until 2007,

that he proved he was the best.

—————————————————

That’s when he won the Art Ross and Hart,

And was on the NHL first all-star team.

He also won the Lester Pearson,

by winning his peers’ esteem.

—————————————————

In 2009 he helped win the Cup,

in Game 7 on the road.

Becoming the youngest captain ever,

to whom Lord Stanley was bestowed.

—————————————————

But times since then have been rough,

playoffs and injuries have not been kind.

The critics questioned if he was tough,

and if he was right of mind.

—————————————————

But triumphantly he returned,

and looked like the old Sid.

His critics were quietly spurned,

and he smiled like a kid.

—————————————————

Today he signed a contract,

that makes him a Penguin for good.

He could have asked for more money,

like many thought he should.

—————————————————

But in his mind he had no doubts,

about where he wanted to play.

Consol would be his permanent home,

even for smaller pay.

—————————————————

What the future holds for this Pens star,

cannot be truly known.

But a Cup winning team can be built around him,

and a contender will be grown.

—————————————————

So with Sid and Geno and Letang and Flower,

the future is quite bright.

The Penguins currently have the power,

to put up the NHL’s best fight.

—————————————————-

So here’s to Sid’s decision,

like Mario’s before.

To keep the Pens a contender,

for now and ever more.

Paul Martin’s Handling of Head Injury Clouded by Poor Performance

Earlier today, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporter Josh Yohe tweeted some disturbing information about Penguins defenseman Paul Martin:

Josh Yohe ‏@JoshYohe_Trib:

“Pens D Paul Martin just told me that he played the first three games against the Flyers with concussion-like symptoms.”

 “Martin said nothing to trainers until after Game 3. At that point, he was shut down for the rest of the series.”

 “Martin is fully recovered from the concussion and is working out every day in Minnesota.”

“Martin said the concussion took place at some point in Game 1, but he isn’t sure precisely when.”

Yohe later elaborated on Martin’s injury and prospective future with the Penguins in a story you can see here.

In Yohe’s article, he quoted Martin saying the following:

“I wasn’t feeling well during Game 1,” Martin said. “But I never said anything to the trainers. I didn’t feel well in Game 2. Then, after Schenn hit me in Game 3, I felt really bad but still finished the game. The next night, I felt worse. I talked to our trainers then, and told them about the symptoms. That was it. They shut me down.”

“The whole thing was tough,” he said. “I took a test and supposedly did fine. But with what had happened with Kris and with Sid’s (Sidney Crosby’s) problems, I think they were being overly-cautious.”

This should upset every Penguins fan.

My No. 1 criticism of the NHL the past couple of years has been the epidemic of concussion problems that has struck pretty much every team in the league. The main problem I’ve had is how the league has been inconsistent with its punishment of head shot offenders. I’ve also taken issue with the fact that players have not changed how they hit others on the ice; head shots are still happening at a high rate and both the league and its players need to make changes to make the game safer.

But in Paul Martin’s case, I’m not mad at the league nor an offending player.

I’m upset with Paul Martin.

Martin plays on a team that has been at the forefront of the concussion debate for two years. Penguins Captain Sidney Crosby spent two seasons dealing with a head injury and as the face of the league, he garnered plenty of attention for it. He was part of the reason the NHL adopted changes to Rule 48, the rule that deals with the penalization of head shots.

Not only did the Penguins have to suffer through a slow recovery from Crosby, they also faced a similar situation with star defenseman Kris Letang. Letang suffered a concussion on Nov. 26 after taking a big open ice hit from Montreal Canadians forward Max Pacioretty, but returned later in the same game. His symptoms became worse over the next few days and he ended up missing 21 games because of them. Later in the season, he dealt with concussion symptoms yet again after taking a hit to the head by Dallas Stars forward Eric Nystrom.

So the fact that Paul Martin played through the pain and tried to ignore concussion symptoms over a three-game span baffles me. He, as well as every other NHL player, is surely aware of how serious a head injury can be. If not treated properly, it can lead to permanent brain damage that may cause major problems for the rest of a players life — and eventually end it. One only has to look as far as Pat LaFontaine, Scott Stevens, Eric and Brett Lindros, Michel Goulet, Brian Bradly, Nick Kypreos, Adam Deadmarsh, Jeff Beukeboom, Matthew Barnaby, Paul Comrie, Keith Primeau and Marc Savard to understand how devastating a brain injury can be — not to mention the death of Derek Boogaard in 2011, which was caused by an accidental drug and alcohol overdose while he recovered from a concussion.

Now, I also understand why Martin didn’t tell trainers about his concussion symptoms until they were debilitating. In professional sports — particularly in hockey and football — players are taught to have tough-guy mentality. They want to go out there and prove themselves, even if it comes at their own physical peril. After all, nothing says you’re a team player more than playing injured and team players get paid and respected.

And for Paul Martin, he had even more incentive to play injured than most players. He had a terrible year, one of the worst in his career. He wasn’t playing at a level anywhere near where a $5 million-per-year player should play. Because of his let-down season, Martin felt that he needed to play, regardless of injury, to prove that he was better than his season had shown. Going into the postseason, Martin had already begun to hear rumblings from fans and media that the Penguins should trade him in the offseason.

Yohe illustrates that here:

Martin was aware of negative talk from local fans and media outlets, and admitted this may have affected his performance.

“Coming from New Jersey,” Martin said, “it isn’t a fishbowl like Pittsburgh is. All it takes is for someone to write an article and people can jump on board. It’s hard to ignore it. When you’re a player, you notice things. I take pride in my job, and when people are telling you that you aren’t doing your job well, you don’t like it.”

Here’s another telling Martin quote from Yohe’s story:

“Do I think the same team is going to be back in Pittsburgh next year? No. But I hope I’m one of the guys who is back. I want to prove to myself and to reestablish to everyone the player that I am.”

Fans, other players and team management want to see players doing everything they can to prove themselves. Unfortunately, that mindset is quite valued. This tweet from Yohe proves that point:

“Obviously Martin’s judgment can be questioned for playing with the symptoms. Can’t question his commitment to the team, though.”

Martin may have thought he was helping the team by playing injured, but he was potentially doing the exact opposite. The old saying goes “Loose lips sink ships,” but when it comes to head injuries, it’s the sealed lips that hurt the most. No team will ever benefit from a player that is unable to get back onto the ice because of a devastating head injury. It looks like Martin got lucky because he doesn’t seem to have any long-term symptoms of his head shot.

It’s tough to say whether or not Martin will be in a Penguins sweater next season. Many people agree that he should be traded, but his high price tag will make it tough for Penguins GM Ray Shero to move him after the terrible season he had. Pittsburgh has plenty of depth in the AHL that could take Martin’s place next year, but if the Penguins can’t move him and are unwilling to eat the remainder of his contract, he may be on the blue line in Pittsburgh for another year. Ultimately, that will be what saves Martin from being traded, not his ill-advised effort to play through a head injury in the post season.

If Martin is a Penguin next season, I’ll expect him to be better on the ice.

But I’ll expect more from his decisions off of it.

Kings Show Why Penguins Should Move Staal to Wing

The Los Angeles Kings are a game away from winning the Stanley Cup. They’ve been winning in dominating fashion, most notably because of their intense forecheck along the boards, where they plaster opponents and recover the puck.

One main reason that forecheck works so well?

Left Wing

Dustin Penner 6-4, 249 lbs.  —> 3G 8A

Dwight King 6-3, 234 lbs. ——> 5G 1 A

Right Wing

Dustin Brown 6-0, 209 lbs. —> 7G 10A

These guys have shown what big, physical wingers can do and they’ve done it in the postseason.

Remind you of any CENTERS on the Penguins roster?

Jordan Staal 6-4, 220 lbs.

It’s just a thought experiment, but think about the work that Staal does on the forecheck. He’s a big, physical player anyway, so why not move him to the wing alongside Sidney Crosby? He’ll score even more, get more ice time and he’ll be pleased that he’s no longer a third-line guy. That would give him more incentive to stay with the Penguins, making him easier to sign. And think about how loaded the top-two lines would look:

Neal-Malkin-Kunitz

Staal-Crosby-Dupuis

That’d be fun to watch.

Getting bigger on the wing is something the Penguins should be looking to do anyway.

Look at the Penguins current wingers.

LEFT WINGS
NO. NAME AGE HT WT SHOT BIRTH PLACE BIRTHDATE
24 Matt Cooke 33 5-11 205 L Belleville, Ontario 9/7/78
14 Chris Kunitz 32 6-0 193 L Regina, Saskatchewan 9/26/79
26 Steve Sullivan 37 5-8 161 R Timmins, Ontario 7/6/74
25 Eric Tangradi 23 6-4 221 L Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 2/10/89
RIGHT WINGS
NO. NAME AGE HT WT SHOT BIRTH PLACE BIRTHDATE
27 Craig Adams 35 6-0 197 R Seria, Brunei 4/26/77
45 Arron Asham 34 5-11 205 R Portage La Prairie, Manitoba 4/13/78
9 Pascal Dupuis 33 6-1 205 L Laval, Quebec 4/7/79
18 James Neal 24 6-2 208 L Oshawa, Ontario 9/3/87
12 Richard Park 36 5-11 190 R Seoul, South Korea 5/27/76

There isn’t exactly a wealth of size there.

And I know, Dan Bylsma‘s system is based more on speed and mobility. But it couldn’t hurt to have a few bigger guys that can turn the puck over and offer a physical presence on the ice. We already know that Staal skates pretty well for a big man. He fits the mold of the system and he also fits the mold of what the Kings are doing right now.

I’m certainly not the first one to suggest this. Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist Dejan Kovecevic suggested this move earlier this year.

I’m just saying now that there’s tangible evidence of how the move could work out.

Offseason 2012: First Crosby Rumors of the Year

Yesterday, Pittsburgh sports radio pundit Mark Madden told listeners on 105.9 the X that he heard Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby reportedly wants a deal worth $125m over 14 seasons, equating to $8.92 million per year. The Penguins and Crosby’s agent can officially begin negotiations on July 1, leaving one year remaining on Crosby’s current contract.

Considering that he makes $8.7 million now, the dollar amount is a bargain for the Penguins — especially if the salary cap goes up after the next collective bargaining agreement.

The obvious point to consider is the contract length. Fourteen seasons is a long time — an entire career for most hockey players. But more importantly, it’s a long time to sign a player with concussion problems.

The Penguins nor their fans will forget the agonizing days during Crosby’s recovery. We didn’t know if he would play again in the 2010-2011 season or EVER AGAIN. And then after his second setback in this year’s regular season, doubts were at an all-time high regarding Crosby’s ability to take hits without re-aggravating concussion symptoms.

I remember asking myself if this was something Penguins fans would have to go through every season until an early Crosby retirement. How long could the captain possibly last in the NHL if he couldn’t take an occasional hit up high? Whether the NHL cracked down on head-shots or not, the accidental hit would still undoubtedly occur.

But fortunately Sid recovered from his second head-shot and was able to play in the final 28 games of the season including six playoff games. In that span, he still collected 37 points with eight goals in the regular season and eight points and three goals in the playoffs.

Those were numbers posted by a guy coming off of a brain injury with far less time on the ice practicing his craft before hand. Now that he’s completely healthy again by all accounts (including his own), he has the opportunity to conduct a full offseason without distraction.

The last time he was able to do that was the summer before 2010-11. And if you remember that season, you remember why he’s the best player in the NHL. In 41 games, he had 32 goals, 34 assists and was on pace for 64 goals, 68 assists and 132 points. And during that span, he had a 25-game point streak in which he notched 27 goals (including three hat tricks), 24 assists, and 51 points.

To me, there’s no debate about whether or not to give him this contract. It’s a great big, bold, double-stamped YES.

Sure, there’s risk involved. But there’s always risk involved in a collision sport like hockey. Any player’s career could end on opening day this fall — especially if the NHL doesn’t start to crack down more on hits to the head. But when you’re dealing with the best player in the world, you give him what he wants.

If Crosby stays healthy, the Penguins will sell out for at least 14 more seasons and probably have a chance at the Stanley Cup for all of them. As Madden said on his show, that contract “gives the Penguins a license to print money.”

Penguins GM Ray Shero could also go a different route by offering Crosby more money, but fewer years on the contract, so his past concussion problems wouldn’t be as big of a liability.

I’m guessing Crosby would be a lot less receptive to that idea. If the whole issue was about money, Crosby would ask for a lot more money, not just $228,571 more per year. Sid is financially set for life, he doesn’t need more money.

It’s the length of the contract that’s the primary issue for Sid.

And let’s say that Shero did offer him fewer years and more money and Crosby doesn’t accept. Do we really want there to be negotiation issues and possible bad blood? What if he holds out and there’s a ton of drama and uncertainty. I wouldn’t expect that to happen, but you never know when you’re dealing with a player’s livelihood, especially one with as much popularity in Pittsburgh as Sidney Crosby. Contract negotiations can be a real pain and create real distractions. Crosby doesn’t want that. Shero doesn’t want that. The fans don’t want that.

Signing Sid for forever for whatever amount is a good deal for Sid, the Penguins, the city of Pittsburgh and the NHL.

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.

Thank You Nicklas Lidstrom

As a 24 year old, I often think that I haven’t been around to see many of the players that dominated their sports because I feel that the true legends played and retired before I was even born.

Greats like Babe Ruth, Walter Payton, Wilt Chamberlain and Bobby Orr come to mind.

Even players who did play during my life often get put into this category since I was too young to really remember them. These are guys like Larry Bird, Joe Montana and Mike Schmidt.

And I’ll admit, there are also players like Wayne Gretzky who played well into my life that I don’t really remember because I took them for granted at the time and didn’t realize their importance to the world of sports. I really regret these instances because a player like Gretzky will probably never come along in my life time.

But I realize I can use these regrets to remind me to appreciate the greats of sports that are still playing.

That brings me to Nicklas Lidstrom.

The Detroit Red Wings announced today that there will be a scheduled a press conference tomorrow at 11 a.m., which will be attended by Lidstrom and general manager Ken Holland. It’s reasonable to assume that Lidstrom may announce his retirement from hockey.

Without a doubt Lidstrom is and will be one of the best players to ever lace up skates. The 42-year-old captain has compiled quite a list of achievements and statistics in his 20-year career. He has won four Stanley Cups, seven Norris Trophies, one Conn Smythe Trophy and was an All-Star 11 times.

The Swedish defenseman was also the first European-born NHL captain to win a Stanley Cup, which earned him a membership in the Triple Gold Club – a group of 25 players who have won an Olympic Games gold medal, a World Championship gold medal and the Stanley Cup.

Lidstrom was one of the smartest defenseman in the history of the NHL. His ability to read plays in front of him and always be in ideal position made him impossible to deal with for opposing teams. He could score, distribute the puck, kill penalties and work the power play.

He wouldn’t overwhelm you with his physical game, but he didn’t need to. He could make you turn the puck over by being in perfect position.

And when Lidstrom was on the ice, chances were a lot better that the Wings would score a goal instead of their opposition. He ranks 8th all-time in career plus/minus as a plus-450. He leads all active players in this category, as well as games played.

I could go on and on.

Now I’ll admit that I still probably didn’t watch Lidstrom play as much as I should have. I grew up a Penguins fan and my broad interest in all NHL teams and players didn’t develop until around the 2000s. For the majority of my life, I was busy watching Lemieux, Jagr and then Crosby and Malkin.

But there is one memory of Lidstrom that I will never forget. He was part of the greatest sports memory in my life to date. It was June 12, 2009. Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals — Penguins versus Redwings.

Neither the Pens nor the Wings had lost a game at home in the series. Pittsburgh had the momentum going into Game 7, coming off of a Game 6 home victory, but the Red Wings lost only one game at home during the entire playoffs — and it came in triple overtime.

Pittsburgh held a 2-1 lead in the final minutes of the third, but Detroit surged and put immense pressure on the Pens. With only seconds left, Detroit forward Henrik Zetterberg blasted a shot from the right circle on Pittsburgh netminder Marc-Andre Fleury. The puck deflected off of Fleury’s pads, sending it to the far left side of the ice. Lidstrom was there to receive the rebound (in perfect position as always) with the entire left side of the net gaping in front of him. He blasted a shot with two seconds remaining, only to have Fleury dive across to stop it and end the series.

Never have I transitioned from such a feeling of impending doom to pure elation so quickly. I was sure Lidstrom would bury the shot because, well, he was Nick Lidstrom. When my team was able to stop him to secure a Stanley Cup victory, it only further solidified the fact that the Penguins were the best in hockey. I don’t know if I’ll ever have a moment like that again.

So thank you Nicklas Lidstrom for coming up short just that one time. I’ll never forget your legendary status and how it made me feel that day.

If you retire tomorrow, it will be a retirement well deserved.

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.

NHL Head Shots Should Garner Longer Suspensions

Brendan Shanahan has been a little too busy this post season.

But unfortunately, he doesn’t have a choice.

Yesterday, the NHL’s senior vice president of the department of player safety handed down a one-game suspension to New York Rangers defenseman Brandon Prust for elbowing New Jersey Devils defenseman Anton Volchenkov in the head on Saturday.

It was the 12th suspension Shanahan has doled out this postseason.

Now 12 suspensions in  77 total games this playoffs might not seem like many, but last year there were only four the entire postseason.

This trend raises a few different questions. Are players committing more suspendable hits than before? Is Shanahan just being more nit-picky? Maybe a little bit of both?

I don’t know for sure, but I believe that players are playing the same way they always have. But after the rash of concussions last season, the NHL is stiffening up on their tolerance levels of violent and dangerous hits.

Seemingly.

The problem is, even though Shanahan is handing out suspensions like arenas hand out rally towels, players aren’t changing the way they play the game. Of the 12 suspension this postseason, eight of them featured legitimate head shots. I know the intensity is ramped up in the playoffs, but that doesn’t mean reckless behavior should be ramped up as well.

The change to Rule 48 this offseason was supposed to eliminate head shots from the game, or at least decrease the number of them. But that hasn’t happened.Players are still consistently going out and hitting each other in dangerous manners.

It seems like the two most common dangerous hits players are still executing are hits to the head and boarding (which often result in head injuries). Every time I see a guy hit in the head or hit from behind into the boards, I wonder if any messages Shanahan are sending are getting through.

One problem might be with the messages themselves.

Out of the 12 suspensions given out this season, seven of them were for only one game. Of those seven incidents, four involved head shots.

The NHL needs to send a clear message that hits to the head won’t be tolerated. Ever. Suspending players for one game isn’t enough. The supplemental discipline needs to be far more severe if Shanahan wants to really get the players’ attention.

The latest was the Prust hit I previously mentioned. Here are the other three.

Philadelphia Flyers forward Claude Giroux delivers a hit to the head of Devils forward Dainas Zubrus on May 6.

Washington Capitals forward Nicklas Backstrom crosschecks Boston Bruins forward Rich Peverly on April 16.

Pittsburgh Penguins forward James Neal hits Philadelphia Flyers forwards Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux on April 15.

There were also two hits this postseason that were definite head shots that resulted in no suspension.

An elbow from San Jose Sharks defenseman Brent Burns to the head of St. Louis Blues forward Scott Nichol on April 14.

And probably the worst non-suspension incident this season involving Nashville Predators Captain Shea Weber and Detroit Redwings forward Henrik Zetterberg on April 11.

Weber was fined $2,500 for his actions, but was given no supplemental discipline.

It should have been easy to address Weber’s actions, so I don’t know what was more shocking; the fact that Weber slammed Zetterberg’s head into the glass repeatedly or the fact that Shanahan didn’t suspend Weber for a single game.

And when looking at Burns’ elbow, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between his and the shot delivered by Prust. Both were obvious elbows to the head that didn’t result in injury (and Burns even has a prior history of supplemental discipline). So why did Prust’s hit result in suspension while Burns’ did not?

Shanahan has to be more consistent with his rulings, especially when dealing with head shots.

In addition to the one-game suspensions (and incidents where no suspensions were given) there has been one head shot that resulted in a two-game suspension (Vancouver Canuck Byron Bitz boarding Los Angeles King Kyle Clifford on April 11), two head shots resulting in three-game suspensions (New York Ranger Carl Hagelin elbowing Ottawa Senator Daniel Alfredsson on April 14 and Chicago Blackhawk Andrew Shaw delivering a blow to the head of Phoenix Coyote goaltender Mike Smith on April 14) and one that garnered a 25-game suspension. The obvious outlier is the 25-game suspension to Phoenix Coyote Raffi Torres, stemming from a hit on Chicago Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa.

Shanahan makes his rulings by using three basic criteria: how the hit happened, if a player was injured and if the offending player is a repeat offender. Torres received such drastic supplemental discipline because he violated three different NHL rules during his hit (interference, charging and an illegal check to the head), Hossa suffered a severe injury and Torres has been previously suspended or fined five previous times for similar incidents.

I agreed with the 25-game suspension, but again, the inconsistency of Shanahan’s ruling is what upsets me. When Haglin elbowed Alfredsson in the head, Alfredsson also suffered a head injury. But Haglin received only a three-game suspension.

And yes, I know that Haglin didn’t have any prior history of similar offenses, but when it comes down to it, it should be ruled in a similar manner because it was a head shot that resulted in injury. That’s the only way players will start to adapt and stay away from such dangerous hits, whether they are throwing an elbow like Hagelin or leaving their feet to target the head like Torres.

I know Shanahan wants to base all of his rulings on the details of each individual incident because each hit is different. But the bottom line should be an automatic suspension for a hit to the head, say for 10 games. Then after the base 10, Shanahan can look at the specific details and add additional games, setting precedents for future incidents. Players would definitely think twice about getting their elbows or shoulders up high if there’s a chance they could miss the rest of a playoff series.

I know it’s a drastic solution, but right now there’s too much at risk when it comes to head injuries. More research needs to be done on how concussions affect the brain long term, but it’s starting to look pretty clear in both ex-NHL players and ex-NFL players that head shots can ruin lives. And until better equipment can be developed to protect these players, the actions of the players themselves must be the solution.

Develop consistency in the disciplinary action and make it harsh. The players may not like it, but it’ll protect them in the long run and that’s what the NHL should be concerned about above all else.

Penguins Unexpected Playoff Exit Only Adds Drama

The Pittsburgh Penguins were eliminated in six games by the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

I know, it still sounds awful and I’m still distraught about it.

I’ve been trying to find the positivity in a losing series in which the Pens gave up 11 power play goals and three shorties and Marc-Andre Fleury gave up 26 goals with a 4.63 goals against average and a .834 save percentage.

I found that, if nothing else, the Penguins’ hatred of the Flyers grew in those six games and so did mine. It may seem like a small positive – if a positive at all – but the intensity that rivalries inject into sports adds about as much drama as you can dream up.

That’s why we watch sports, after all. The drama of every shot, every hit and every swing of a bat, stick, racket or club can keep fans on the edge of their seats because of what is at stake. It’s supremely entertaining because sports is the ultimate reality show. You never know what’s going to happen. Sometimes, the odds are pretty good that you can guess what may come next, but there is no sure thing in sports, as in life.

The Penguins’ postseason was a great example of that unpredictability. They went into the playoffs as the odds-on favorite to bring home the Stanley Cup. Sports Illustrated featured a cover line that read “Who will stop the Penguins?” on the NHL playoffs preview issue (pictured right).

Sidney Crosby was healthy again, Evgeni Malkin had won a scoring title and Marc-Andre Fleury was playing the way he did when he won the Cup in 2009. Pittsburgh Tribune Review Pens beat writer Josh Yohe wrote a blog entitled “10 Reasons Penguins Can Win Stanley Cup” even before the Penguins really turned it on with Crosby’s return. But once the regular season ended, it all collapsed at the hands of the Penguins most hated rival.

This is a theme not uncommon to sports.

If you’re a Yankees fan, it was reasonable to guess that after Enter Sandman boomed from the loudspeakers, Mariano Rivera was going to jog out of the bullpen and sit down the next three batters to win a ball game.

Then without warning, Rivera slipped on the warning track while shagging fly balls and tore his ACL, leaving his career in jeopardy.

If you were a fan of the “old” Tiger Woods – which coincidentally was the young Tiger Woods – you could be almost certain that he was going to win a tournament if he went into the final day of a tournament at the top of the leader board.

But then Tiger got into a car accident, some strange events unfolded and now he hasn’t won a major or much else since.

It’s the drama of not knowing that drives a fan. It’s all about hope. It’s that hope for “the feeling” you get when your team wins at the risk of getting “that other feeling” when your team loses. I hoped the Pens would oust the Flyers from the playoffs. It didn’t happen. I hope the Steelers can make a decent run at a Super Bowl this year, but maybe they won’t. I’m willing to put in all the enthusiasm I can to root for my teams even though I’m risking major disappointment. I’ve bought into the risk vs. reward just like most fans out there.

So even though the Penguins lost to the Flyers, it only fueled my desire to see the black and gold take the ice next season and defeat the orange and black and hopefully the Penguins share my sentiments. I’ve accepted defeat and disappointment this season because I know a Cup might come next season in dramatic fashion. Flyers in 6 wasn’t the end of the world, it was just part of the evolution of the rivalry. Maybe Pittsburgh will face Philadelphia in the postseason next year and the rivalry will be even more intense. That’s what I’m hoping at least, because in sports, you never know and that’s what makes it great.

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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