Western Conference Preview

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Written on 9/30/2009 by Jim Cerny



Armed with a new long-term contract, and fully healthy after being limited to 54 games a year ago, is this the year Roberto Luongo (photo right) takes the Vancouver Canucks on a long springtime playoff ride?

I think it is. But it's not going to be easy as the Western Conference shapes up to be as tough as it ever has been in 2009-10.

Here's my look into the crystal ball, with all teams listed alphabetically...

Playoff Locks (5): Calgary, Chicago, Detroit, San Jose, and Vancouver.

Ok, I know, these are the same five teams that finished Top Five in the West a year ago. Really going out on a limb, eh Jim?! But let's face it, they are going to be the best five once again. The popular pick to be No. 1 is Chicago, and I think they will have a very strong year, maybe even win the Central Division. But I do not think they will advance to the Cup Finals. I think this could be Vancouver's year to represent the West. But do not discount Detroit. The Red Wings have proven year after year the ability to replace important parts with talented newcomers. If they can once again overcome mediocre goaltending, they'll be a force in the playoffs, though I wouldn't be surprised to see them fall back a bit in the regular season. And watch out for Calgary. They're going to be real good, with an awesome Top Three on defense to compliment Miikka Kiprusoff in goal and a Jarome Iginla-led offense. Plus, I love the addition of Brent Sutter as head coach. As for the Sharks, all bets are off come April. We shall see...

Playoff Teams (3): Anaheim, Los Angeles, and St. Louis

I really like the Ducks this year, though I still think they need to figure out the goaltending situation. It looks great to have two No. 1s, but in reality it can't continue to work long term, especially if high-priced JS Giguere is the one on the bench. Adding Joffrey Lupul, Luca Sbisa, and, especially, Saku Koivu were great moves for the Ducks. LA is my surprise team here. Goaltending is still a big question mark in La-La Land, but the additions of solid character guys like Ryan Smyth and Rob Scuderi will help push this very talented young squad into a playoff spot. I think it will be a battle for the 8th seed, but the Blues will have just enough to snag it. A healthy Paul Kariya and Erik Johnson will give the Blues the boost they need.

Slipping Back (3): Columbus, Minnesota, and Nashville

I do like the Blue Jackets, especially their good young nucleus. Plus they will add a potential star in Nikita Filatov this year. But so much of their success in last year's playoff campaign was predicated on Steve Mason being great in goal. I don't see a sophomore slump from Mason, but I also don't think he'll be as good. The Blue Jackets will just miss the cut in the West. Nashville just doesn't score enough in my book, though I am intrigued to see what rookie center Colin Wilson will add to the Preds offense this year. Pekka Rinne, like Mason might slip a bit this year, and, if so, the Preds will fall further back than the 10th place they finished a year ago. Minnesota will have a totally different look without Jacques Lemaire as head coach any more. Expect a more up-tempo exciting brand of hockey. Just don't expect more victories.

No Way Jose (4): Colorado, Edmonton, Dallas, and Phoenix

The Oilers are the best of this bunch, with Nikolai Khabibulin now on the scene to solidify the goaltending. Edmonton could make a run at a playoff spot, but in the end, they are just not good enough, and did not add any vital parts to the mix during the off-season, despite the near-deal for Dany Heatley. Dallas will battle Colorado for last place in the conference. And I think the Coyotes will play well for part of the year, riding some strong play from their talented core of youngsters. But in the end, the ownership mess, bankruptcy, and questions of where the team may play in 2010-11 will bog this team down and push it out of the mix by time the Olympics roll around.

Predicted to Represent the West in the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals: Vancouver Canucks

This is a gut call, and so much can take place to sway my decision in another direction over the coming months, but I like Vancouver in the playoffs. But I just have this nagging feeling that the Red Wings will prove me wrong yet again...or that the Ducks will make a run...or the Flames, like them a lot, too...OK, like I said, Vancouver in the Finals.

Thursday: I'll take a look at the Eastern Conference.

Del Zotto and Schremp Get Different New York Calls

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Written on 9/29/2009 by Jim Cerny


It might have been a foregone conclusion once the Rangers re-assigned Bobby Sanguinetti  to Hartford in the American Hockey League last week, but head coach John Tortorella made it official today that 19 year-old blueliner Michael Del Zotto (photo right) will be on the club's opening night roster.

"Based on his play, he has made the club," Tortorella said of Del Zotto this afternoon. "We feel right now he has played well enough to be with the National Hockey League team."

Del Zotto, the club's first round pick in the 2008 draft, has displayed much poise and confidence during camp and the pre-season games. And he has also show that he is as-advertised as a highly-skilled puck-moving defensemen.

Tortorella places much emphasis on having his defensemen join, and often lead, the rush. Now he has added two rookies who are more than willing to do that in Del Zotto and the 25 year-old Matt Gilroy, who also had a splendid pre-season.

There will be a big learning curve for Del Zotto---especially on the defensive-side of his game---but there is a tremendous upside, as well. There is the chance he does not spend the entire season in the NHL because he still is eligible to play for his major junior team in London, though he will start the season as a New York Ranger, and will be evaluated closely from that day forward. The Rangers can play Del Zotto in nine NHL games without him losing his junior eligibility and before his entry level contract kicks in.

Mark my words, though. If Del Zotto proves he can play in the NHL over those nine games, Tortorella will keep him. His age and inexperience will not matter. Torts just lights up when he speaks about Del Zotto and Gilroy quarterbacking things, both at present and in the future.

If Del Zotto is overwhelmed during his indoctrination to the NHL, he can still go back to London and play 30 minutes a night, knowing that a return engagement in the National Hockey League is coming as soon as 2010-11.

"I'm just taking it one day at a time," Del Zotto told me. "They could send me back before nine games, or even tomorrow, for all I know. So I am here to prove myself every day. My goal is to be here all year."

I have more on Del Zotto in a feature I wrote today over at newyorkrangers.com.

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Smart pick-up by the Islanders today, claiming center Rob Schremp off waivers from the Edmonton Oilers. The 23 year-old has been a big disappointment since being Edmonton's first round pick in 2004. Schremp has played in only seven NHL games---picking up three points, all during last year's four-game stint---and has not come close to resembling the 58-goal, 145-point player he was with London in the OHL back in 2005-06.

But Schremp does have a 20-goal season under his belt at the professional level (23 in the AHL two years ago), and, well, he'll always have that monster season in junior on his resume, making him worth a second look.

With the Islanders, Schremp should land some quality ice-time, including important power play time, which should jumpstart his confidence, as well as his offensive production.

Katie Strang of Newsday caught up with Schremp earlier today as he was driving down from his home in upsate New York to Long Island, and he was predictably excited about the opportunity with the Islanders.

"It's exciting," Schremp told Katie. "It's a new situation...I'm excited to be an Islander."

Unless someone moves to the wing, the Islanders are putting together a pretty interesting young nucleus down the middle with Schremp, first overall pick John Tavares, and last year's No. 1 Josh Bailey. Throw 25 year-old Frans Nielsen into the mix, along with veteran Doug Weight, and, well, at least it's better than what they had last year, and they could be developing a decent nucleus moving forward.

Schremp will get his opportunity on the Island. Let's see what he does with it.

Monday Musings on Crosby, Kadri, and Canucks

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Written on 9/28/2009 by Jim Cerny


Time to share a few thoughts and news tidbits as we close in on the start of the 2009-10 National Hockey League season.

First off, there doesn't seem to be any panic in Pittsburgh even though captain Sidney Crosby has missed several practices, as well as yesterday's pre-season tilt against the Red Wings, because of a sore groin. Sid the Kid skated on his own both Saturday and Sunday, and is confident he will be able to play in the season opener on Friday night against the Rangers.

Of course, the Pens will raise their 2009 Stanley Cup Championship banner that night, so I am sure that Crosby will do whatever it takes---within logical reason, of course---to be on the ice on Friday.

Crosby told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that his lone objective is to be ready to go by 7:30 Friday evening. "That's the goal. That's my focus now. I'll do all the things I have to, to make sure that, come Game One, I'm ready to go."

Pens GM Ray Shero told Craig Custance at the Sporting News that, "There's no reason to think that he won't be ready  for Friday."

As an aside, it amazes me how much Crosby has accomplished already in his career. He just turned 22 years old, has already appeared in two Cup Finals, served as captain of a Stanley Cup champion, produced three 100+ point seasons out of four NHL campaigns, totaled 397 points in only 290 regular season games, and has notched 63 points in 49 post-season contests.

Yet, amazingly, he is often overshadowed by his own teammate Evgeni Malkin and Caps superstar Alex Ovechkin.

Incredible.

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Nazem Kadri, who was selected in the first round---7th overall---by the Maple Leafs in June's NHL Entry Draft, is being returned to his major junior team, the London Knights, despite very impressive play in training camp and during pre-season action.

The temptation to keep Kadri---a personable and talented 18 year-old from Ontario---surely had to be there for the Leafs hierarchy, especially after he tallied three goals and two assists over six pre-season games.

Toronto head coach Ron Wilson told the Toronto Star, "Nazem is going to be a superstar in this league. We honestly believe that, but we want  him to go back to the OHL and absolutely dominate there."

That is sound long-term thinking on the Leafs part. Kadri needs to build himself up physically, first and foremost, for the daily grind of playing against grown men at the NHL level night-in and night-out. Wilson also wants him to develop the mentality of being the go-to player, as well as grow as a leader. These are all things Kadri will be able to do at London and for the Canadian Junior Team.

While Kadri did not make the varsity, it appears that fellow rookie Viktor Stalberg has. The 23 year-old, who led the Leafs with six goals in the pre-season, apparently has done enough to win a spot on the Opening Night roster, according to Wilson.

"In my mind's eye, Stalberg will be in the starting lineup Thursday night (against the Montreal Canadiens)," stated Wilson.

As for Tyler Bozek, the other heralded rookie in Leafs camp, he survived the latest round of cuts, though that has not guaranteed him a final roster spot just yet. Bozek, who is also 23, has played well, showing flashes of being a very competant two-way center in the NHL. Wilson and GM Brian Burke just have to decide if he needs a bit more seasoning. Their final decision should come by midweek.

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Had the chance to watch the Canucks-Flames pre-season contest on Saturday night, and came away with a couple of observations.

First off, what a fun finish to this one. A 1-1 tight-defensive affair that all of a sudden opened up in the final minutes of regulation and throughout overtime. Roberto Luongo scrambling to make several saves in a wild battle by his crease, and Miikka Kiprusoff staring down several Vancouver scoring chances. Then during the shootout, Luongo and Kiprusoff made it look too easy stopping round after round of shooters. Finally, Calgary's Olli Jokinen skated in and cranked a hard slap shot from fifteen feet away at Luongo, who made the save, and then angrily stared down Jokinen as he skated away. Ryan Kesler returned the favor for the Canucks by slapping one up high and off the shoulder of Kiprusoff, who, like Luongo, was not amused. Fun stuff, that should help continue to fuel the regular season rivalry between these two teams.

Oh yeah Mason Raymond---keep an eye on him this season---eventually won it for the Canucks.

My second observation is that Vancouver---and not the Blackhaws, the popular choice---could be the team to come out of the Western Conference in late May, early June. And I am not discounting top teams like the Sharks or Ducks, and certainly not underestimating the Red Wings, either, but this Canucks squad has the pieces to put together a nice, long run.

Pre-season records and statistics, by and large, mean nothing. But Vancouver was unbeaten in regulation---posting a 7-0-2 mark---during the exhibition schedule. And they averaged well more than three goals per game, while surrendering only 20 goals in nine contests.

If Luongo can remain healhty---which he was not a year ago---this could be a special season for the Canucks. They have a nice blend of veterans and young players still coming into their own. And I love the addition of a real pro, a real proven winner, in Mikael Samuelsson.

Five Intriguing Players

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Written on 9/24/2009 by Jim Cerny


With the first puck set to drop on the 2009-10 National Hockey League season in exactly one week, I got to thinking about some of the players I am really intrigued to see play---for one reason or another---this season.

Of course, it is always exciting to see the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, etc. ply their craft, and I am always intrigued to see how their seasons play out. But this list of five isn't necessarily about being a superstar.


Matt Gilroy-D-New York Rangers: Last year's Hobey Baker Award winner as college hockey's top player, Gilroy (pictured above) is a unique rookie in the fact that he is 25 years-old, and brings a maturity to the game that most rookies do not posess just yet. He also brings something quite unique to the Rangers current crop of defensemen---a willingness and ability to jump into the rush, and often lead the rush, to create scoring opportunities. With coach John Tortorella's constant encouragement to remain aggressive, Gilroy has been exciting to watch during the pre-season---witness this awesome goal against the Devils---and is going to play very important minutes on Broadway this season. Dare I say that the Rangers have not had a defenseman with this set of offensive skills since Hall-of-Famer Brian Leetch? Gilroy is not at that level yet, but he is a lot better offensively than what the Rangers have had since Leetch skated away several years ago. Though in excellent physical condition, one question will be how Gilroy adjusts to the grind of a long 82-game NHL season after playing almost half that amount in college.

Pascal LeClaire-G-Ottawa Senators: If LeClaire is healthy, the Senators could be one of the surprise teams in the Eastern Conference this season. But when discussing LeClaire, his health is always a big IF. Last season he was limited to just 12 games of action---and none since December 18---because of an ankle injury that eventually led to surgery over the winter. Ottawa took a chance and traded for LeClaire a month or so after the surgery in a deal that sent Antoine Vermette to Columbus. LeClaire says he is healthy, and has looked decent in pre-season action, so far. But remember that he has played more than 33 games in a season only once in his four previous NHL seasons. However, in that one season where LeClaire remained healthy, he proved he could be a solid goaltender in this league, justifying the high expectations placed upon him since he was the 8th overall selection in the 2001 draft. In 2007-08, LeClaire sparkled in 54 appearances, posting a tidy 2.25 goals against average, .919 save percentage, and 9 shutouts for the Blue Jackets. It is that Pascal LeClaire the Senators are looking to this season. And if they get that type of performance from their #1 goalie, the playoffs are not a farfetched possibility.

Mike Modano-C-Dallas Stars: This team no longer revolves around Modano, now a 39 year-old veteran of 1,400 NHL games with 543 goals on his resume. Last season, Modano accepted a lesser role with more defensive responsibilities and fewer offensive opportunities---15 goals in 80 games---and that will be his lot again this season as he slots into the third line behind top-two centers Mike Ribeiro and a healthy Brad Richards. What makes him intriguing to watch is that he burns for one last go at it with the United States Olympic Hockey Team. And no matter the considerable intangibles he would bring to Team USA, Modano is aware that he still needs to show the powers that be some on-ice production, as well. So will we see a gung-ho Modano trying to recapture a bit of his past? And will he get enough of that opportunity from Marc Crawford in Dallas? And what happens if Modano does not make Team USA, will he be so upset that his play slips down the stretch of the NHL season? These are all intriguing and realistic questions to ask. The answers will play out once the puck drops for real. Modano is a player I have always respected, and my hunch is that he will deliver a strong season and then lend an important supporting role on Team USA in Vancouver.

Jonas Gustavsson-G-Toronto Maple Leafs: Yes, yes, I know that this 24 year-old from Sweden underwent a minor heart operation---can you really say "minor" when speaking about a heart procedure?---and that there is a good chance he will not even be on the Leafs opening night roster, and that Vesa Toskala is the current #1 goalie in TO. But so many teams had interest in this free agent over the summer, which leads you to believe there is something pretty special here. Of all the moves Leafs GM Brian Burke made this wild off-season---including the recent trade to acquire sniper Phil Kessel---the one he might be most remembered for is winning the Gustavsson sweepstakes. By all accounts he is NHL ready, if healthy, though a brief run in the AHL might not hurt his adjustment to North America. But I would expect any journey to the minor leagues to be a short one. For some reason I just keep thinking of how Henrik Lundqvist arrived from Sweden five years ago and was prepared to make an immediate impact in the National Hockey League. Lundqvist did that, and has not looked back since. I think we will be saying the same things about Gustavsson soon enough.

T.J. Oshie-F-St. Louis Blues: First of all, I just love watching this kid play. His combination of energy, determination, grit, and skill makes him a joy to watch each and every time he is on the ice. Oshie had an impressive rookie campaign a year ago with 14 goals, 39 points and an impressive +16 plus/minus rating. However, he was limited to 57 games and you do have to wonder how much of a toll the hard-charging style Oshie plays takes on his smallish frame. The Blues reached the playoffs last season, in part, because youngsters like Oshie, David Perron, David Backes, and Patrik Berglund all delivered strong seasons. For the Blues to remain a playoff team, those kids will have to take another step forward in their collective development. And since Oshie might have been the biggest surprise of that bunch a year ago, he will be the most intriguing of the group to watch as this season unfolds to see if he has what it takes to be, just say for argument's sake, a 20-goal scorer.

Clouds Hang Over Tavares' Home Debut for Isles

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Written on 9/23/2009 by Jim Cerny



This is the night Islanders fans have been waiting for ever since the club selected its next savior, high-scoring forward John Tavares, with the first overall pick in June's NHL Entry Draft. In fact, this is the night the diehards have been salivating over since the Isles won the draft lottery.

Tonight, John Tavares dons the home blue jersey and skates in his first game---albeit a pre-season one---in front of the hometown faithful at the Nassau Coliseum following training camp in Saskatoon.

It should be a happy occasion for these fans, who have been mercilessly beaten down with on-ice foibles and off-ice turmoil the past 15 years or so. Tavares' home debut should signal that there is a bright light at the end of a long dark tunnel.

Unfortunately that bright light, as Islanders fans have been reminded over and over again through the years, could very well be an oncoming locomotive headed the wrong way on the same track.

You see, just 24 hours prior to JT's maiden game at the Coliseum, Islanders owner Charles Wang was taking part in a 12-hour marathon of a public hearing regarding his Lighthouse Project, which calls for a much-needed new arena for his team---along with several billion dollars worth of other devlopment. And by most accounts, including this one from Chris Botta over at Fanhouse, it was a rough go for Mr. Wang and his Lighthouse Project.

After the hearing, Wang reiterated his October 3rd deadline for certainty that the Town of Hempstead would be willing to green light the massive Lighthouse undertaking.

That ain't happening. Too many questions. Too little time. Not enough negotiating from both sides.

"It's time for Lighthouse to push the panic button," BD Gallof, creator of HockeyIndependent.com and longtime blogger on all things Islanders, told me this morning. "Charles Wang's only leverage is that October 3rd date, and really what kind of leverage is that?"

Perhaps Wang would have had more leverage if the Isles pre-season game in Kansas City---which also took place on Tuesday night---did not play to a half-empty house. Had there been a sellout---or at the very least, a good-sized crowd---Wang could have pointed out that if he doesn't get his Lighthouse Project approved, then he'd be willing to move or sell his team to Kansas City, a market with a brand-new arena already in place.

If that was Wang's orginal plan when the pre-season game in Kansas City was scheduled, then let's just say things did not play out the way he wanted.

Pierre LeBrun at espn.com takes a closer look at the failed outing in Kansas City last night, and concludes that KC is not the hockey market Long Island is. Now that's saying something.

So circling back, what exactly are Wang's options? He is holding firm to an "all or nothing"---as Gallof refers to it---non-negotiable take on his enormous development project. It's not just the arena he wants. Wang wants the hotels, retail, etc. to transform the area by Hempstead Turnpike, as well. But without a real threat to leave---OK, perhaps Jim Balsillie could offer to take the team off Wang's hands and move it to Hamilton---Wang lacks the leverage to get the whole enchilada.

There has been talk of the Isles considering a move to Brooklyn, where the New Jersey Nets basketball team plans to move into a still-to-be-built-or-even-approved arena. But in Gallof's opinion, "Brooklyn is not an option. There are so many holes though that, not the least of which is the demographic."

The one thing that could be mutually acceptable to both Wang and the Town of Hempstead is a refurbishing of the antiquated Nassau Coliseum, though who would pay for what would also be hotly debated. There has actually been discussion about refurbishing the old barn in Nassau, one that would add the necessary suites and other popular amenities to suit Wang, though it might take upwards of two or three years to complete.

The bottom line here, though, is that, yet again, Islanders fans can not enjoy the moment without worrying what about is around the corner. Yay, Tavares is here! Ugh, the Islanders may be skipping town!

It has been this way really for the past decade or so, ever since one Islanders owner after another has tried to figure out how to land a new arena to stop the financial bleeding that, reportedly, costs Wang about $20 million annually.

"The past 15 years have been excruciating for the Islander fan," stated Gallof, who does provide some optimism on his blog in that top Town of Hempstead officials have told him they expect a new arena to be built...at some point.

"These fans are just tired of it all. They are damaged by it."

Good Weekend for Kessel and Dubinsky

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Written on 9/21/2009 by Jim Cerny



A couple of NHL mini-dramas came to a close this weekend as the Boston Bruins finally traded free agent winger Phil Kessel, and center Brandon Dubinsky ended his holdout with the New York Rangers. Now  if there could only be some end-game with the Phoenix Coyotes situation, the NHL would be soap opera-free, and we could move straight ahead and begin opining about where the Atlanta Thrashers are going to deal Ilya Kovalchuk by the trade deadline.

Dany Heatley traded? Check. Phil Kessel traded and signed to new long-term deal? Check. Brandon Dubinsky holdout ended with new multi-year contract? Check. Francis Bouillon free agency courtship ended with one-year deal in Nashville? Well, yes, check.  But let's not get off-track here.

After Heatley was traded by the Seantors to the Sharks, even more focus was placed on Kessel's saga in Boston. A 21 year-old with one outstanding season among three in the National Hockey League, Kessel was poised to break the bank after his 36-goal campaign a year ago. With the Bruins up against the cap, it was a foregone conclusion that Kessel would be dealt, and, in fact, he was on Friday to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Sounds like a neat and tidy story, yes?

Well hold on a minute. Watching and listening to Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli during a press conference on Saturday, it was easy to see that there was more than a little bad blood built up. This whole process was a bit more complicated that a neat and tidy inevitable transaction.

"We want players who want to be here," Chiarelli stated, insinuating, of course, that Kessel had no interest in remaining a Bruin, at any price.

"This is not about frugality," he continued. "There was little to no attempt to negotiate from the other side."

Meanwhile at his press conference in Toronto, with the glow of a new five-year, $27 million contract emanating from him, Kessel showed none of the anger Chiarelli did. Similar to Heatley, he had gotten pretty much everything he wanted, so no reason to fight back, other than to state that he never asked to be traded by the Bruins.

Damian Cox at The Toronto Star has more on the he said/he said between Kessel and Chiarelli, and the bad feelings that remain.

More important now for the Leafs is how soon can Kessel get back on the ice after off-season surgery on both shoulders, and when back playing, how dynamic can he be without a star #1 center to work with? There is no Marc Savard playing pivot in Toronto like there was in Boston.

Interestingly, one of the names that cropped up in previous Kessel trade rumors was that of Dubinsky, who agreed to terms on a two-year deal with the Rangers on Saturday afternoon after a weeklong holdout.

Now I am of the mind that no player really ENJOYS holding out because of the possible damaged relationships with management, teammates, coaches, and fans, not to mention falling behind in camp. But I truly believe that Dubinsky---while still very much thinking he was doing the right thing---really HATED to holdout.

Dubinsky is, plain and simple, a really good kid. He is hard-working, passionate about the game, and very loyal to his teammates and the Rangers organization. He understands quite well, thank you, just how lucky he is to be playing in the National Hockey League, and for an Original Six franchise in a great city like New York. It is part of the reason why he has so endeared himself to his teammates, and to head coach John Tortorella.

Though Torts called Dubinsky's holdout "stupid", that was more a case of a coach wanting one of his important players in place right from the start of training camp more than anything else. Rangers fans should not worry about anyone involved---and that includes the uber-passionate Tortorella---holding any grudges here. Dubinsky will play catch up and be an integral part of this team moving forward, while remaining a popular presence within the organization.

Torts, who said this morning that he expects Dubinsky to make his pre-season debut on Thursday at home against the Washington Capitals, often speaks of the Rangers building a foundation based on youth. Dubinsky, along with Ryan Callahan, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Matt Gilroy, Michael Del Zotto, and Evgeny Grachev, is a major part of that foundation.

Phaneuf Hit on Okposo Legal or No?

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Written on 9/18/2009 by Jim Cerny

Scary scene in Calgary last night during a pre-season tilt between the Flames and New York Islanders. Rugged Calgary defenseman Dion Phaneuf absolutely crushed Isles winger Kyle Okposo (photo right) with a thunderous open-ice hit, and the 21 year-old was down on the ice for several minutes before being wheeled off on a stretcher.

According to the team, Okposo suffered a mild concussion, and there is no long-term prognosis on the injury just yet.

Debate is already raging as to whether or not it was a clean hit. Needless to say, you can check out the blogosphere and see that Isles backers thought it was a dirty hit by Phaneuf, while Flames fans see it is a perfectly legal blow.

If you have not done so already, check out the hit here.

I have watched the clip over and over again this morning, and, to me, the most troubling aspect of it is that Phaneuf seems to leave his feet when he delivers the check on Okposo. With that being the case, it is not a clean hit, and thus Phaneuf should have been penalized---he was not, by the way---and should be suspended.

The other part of the hit that is very difficult to determine from the camera angles I have seen is whether or not Phaneuf leads with his elbow. It appears to me that he is leading with his shoulder, but the elbow might fly out right before contact with Okposo's head. Again, that's a penalty and a suspendable offense if the elbow is thrown towards the head. I wish I could say definitively whether or not that is the case. Just can't tell for sure from the videos I have seen.

A couple of other things come into play here, as well. One is that Okposo is hunched over a bit reaching for the puck, so his head is lower than it normally would be if he was standing up straight. Two, Phaneuf is five inches taller than Okposo, so the combination of him being taller and Okposo being hunched over clearly puts the youngster's head in harm's way, even on a clean open-ice check

As for intent, it's impossible to get inside someone else's head and know for sure what their plan of action is/was. Phaneuf, who has a history of bone-rattling hits, as well as some borderline ones, is coming off a poor year last season. He is playing for a new coach in Brent Sutter, trying to impress the new boss and reestablish himself as one of the better defenseman in the league.

It is very likely that Phaneuf saw the opportunity to make a huge splash and first impression on Sutter, and perhaps went over the line with his aggressiveness.

Bottom line from me is that I think a game or two suspension is worthy. To me, he is leaving his feet on the hit. Otherwsie, I would not have had any problems with it, other than the very unfortunate fact that Okposo got hurt on the play.

In reading Katie Strang's story in Newsday today it seems that the Islanders players were more upset with the fact that Phaneuf did not want to fight after the hit as opposed to the hit itself, though goaltender Martin Biron did note that he---like I---thought the Calgary defenseman left his feet to deliever the check.

Not a shocker that Phaneuf said the check was a clean one. "I thought it was a clean hit. I stepped up and used my shoulder." Sutter backed his player 100 percent after the game, as well.

Flames and Isles hook up again Saturday night in Saskatoon, though I can't imagine that Phaneuf will be in the lineup for Calgary. From a common-sense point of view, Sutter needs to scratch Phaneuf in this otherwise meaningless pre-season game so as not to inflame an already volatile situation between the two clubs.

Chris Botta over at Fanhouse disagrees with my take. He argues that Phaneuf, whether the hit was legal or not, should "face the music" as part of hockey's code, especially because he refused to drop the gloves on Thursday night.

I just don't see the sense in knowingly taking to the ice with the knowledge that someone on the other bench is seeking retribution---and could be hell-bent on trying to make a name for themselves with the Islanders in the process---in an exhibition game.

And really, do we need a full-fledged brawl, another black eye for this league? I say, No.

But I do believe that Colin Campbell has to serve justice on Phaneuf for leaving his feet when he delivered the damaging blow to Okposo.

Gaborik Scrimmages as Rangers Trim 20 From Roster

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Written on 9/17/2009 by Jim Cerny

Long day, and a busy one at that, here at the MSG Training Facility.

In the morning, high-flying winger Marian Gaborik took part in his first scrimmage of Rangers training camp. Though he didn't go full throttle due to his sore groin, Gaborik still looked good, even scoring a goal against Henrik Lundqvist.

Perhaps equally as important as playing in the scrimmage was the fact that Gaborik then followed up by participating in an hour-long practice, and reported no issues with the groin.

"I watch the scrimmages and I watch the games, and I want to be out there," explained Gaborik, who will definitely sit out Friday's pre-season tilt in Detroit and likely Saturday's in Boston, too. "This is a new team for me, so I definitely want to get out there and get to know the guys on the ice, and just be a part of it. So today, I had fun out there."

Rangers coach John Tortorella was pleased to have Gaborik on the ice for a third straight day, and taking part in a scrimmage for the first time. He also explained that he respects Gaborik, and the star's battle with hip/groin injuries in the past, though he is also trying to gauge when to push him and when to pull back.

"With Gabby I think it's him feeling mentally comfortable with it," noted Tortorella. "He skated well, and it was good to see him scrimmage today....we have time here...so hopefully we can be smart here and get him geared up for that opener."

Gaborik is not the only player who will miss Friday's game against the Red Wings. The Rangers trimmed the roster by 20 players today, with five others---forwards Tyler Arnason, Dane Byers, Patrick Rissmiller, Corey Locke, and Jordan Owens---continuing training camp in Hartford so that they do not have to clear waivers just yet.

No surprises as youngsters like Ryan Bourque, Scott Stajcer, Roman Horak, and Ethan Werek were returned to their Junior teams.

Among the bigger names sent to Hartford, the club's AHL affiliate, were defenseman Mike Sauer---whom many thought heading into camp had a legitimate shot as a 6th or 7th blueliner---and forward Dane Byers.

Tortorella clearly stated, however, that just because a player is sent to Hartford, it doesn't mean "out of sight, out of mind". Those players will still be evaluated and could work their way back into the mix at the NHL level.

Ten defensemen remain on the roster. Four---Michal Rozsival, Wade Redden, Marc Staal, and Dan Girardi---are veterans with locks on NHL jobs. 25 year-old rookie Matt Gilroy is among a group of prospects still battling for the other two or three spots, and he has been very impressive so far in the pre-season---just check out his highlight-reel goal last night against the Devils.

2008 first rounder Michael Del Zotto is making a spirited run at a spot on the varsity. Bobby Sanguinetti (another former first round pick) and Finnish import Ilkka Heikkinen will make their pre-season debuts this weekend, and Corey Potter remains in the mix, too, along with veteran camp invitee Alexei Semenov.

Four goalies remain---largely for practice and game purposes. Lundqvist and Steve Valiquette will form the NHL tandem come October. But Chad Johnson, the rookie from Alaska-Fairbanks who played well last night in Newark, has impressed enough to hang on a bit longer, along with Matt Zaba.

There are 15 forwards left vying for 12 or 13 spots. The biggest surprise of those remaining is Paul Crowder, a star at Alaska-Anchorage, who turned pro last spring. Expect a fierce battle between the likes of Brian Boyle, Aaron Voros, Evgeny Grachev, PA Parenteau, and Crowder for those final few roster spots up front.

I spoke to Boyle this afternoon, and he said he learned from overanalyzing and worrying about his situation last year with the LA Kings. So this year he is more calm, worrying less, and playing better. He also credits Tortorella for communicating effectively with him throughout camp and for playing him in big spots last night against the Devils.

"I let that affect me last year, kind of looking over my shoulder, and I'm not going to do that this year," said Boyle. "If I worry about it, I get in my own head too much. If I keep working hard, like I have been doing, I think I'll give myself a really good shot."

I'll have a full story on today's activity at newyorkrangers.com later on this evening. 

Resolution on Horizon for Kessel

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Written on 9/17/2009 by Jim Cerny

I've got a couple of quick hits while in a brief lull here at the Rangers training facility. I'll be back with another post later this afternoon about the Rangers cutting roster to 30 players, as well as the latest on Marian Gaborik's health and first scrimmage.

But first....as I speculated yesterday, Boston GM Peter Chiarelli and his Toronto counterpart Brian Burke did meet face to face to discuss a potential Phil Kessel trade. Pierre Lebrun over at ESPN.com is reporting that the two met for about an hour yesterday since Chiarelli's Bruins were in town to face Burke's Maple Leafs. Lebrun says that a deal could be struck by the weekend or the middle of next week.

I am hearing---and Lebrun is also reporting---that the Nashville Predators are also in the mix for Kessel, and have offered an NHL player or two along with draft picks. Reportedly, the Leafs offer has included only draft picks, though featuring a pair of first rounders.

The Preds really could use Kessel to add juice to their offense up front, which falls off considerably after Jason Arnott. Having Steve Sullivan healthy again is great for Nashville, but he can't be counted on to be a go-to offensive threat. And Martin Erat, David Legwand, and JP Dumont are nice complimentary players, with Colin Wilson an intriguing prospect. Phil Kessel, though, would be the star forward the Preds do not have.

But Toronto needs Keesel, too. Burke has rebuilt his club in the off-season, but the emphasis has been more on grit and size, not so much on skill. Plus the best players brought in by Burke---Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin---are defensemen. Kessel is a 21 year-old stud forward. And the Leafs need him just as much as the Preds---as do many other teams in the NHL, for that matter.

BTW, in their quest to beef up the offense, the Maple Leafs have 34 year-old Jason Allison in camp on a tryout. Allison---a two-time 30-goal scorer---has not played since the 2005-06 season, so this is a reach, for sure. Certainly not a bigger reach than Theo Fleury in camp with the Flames, but really every team has one or two of these veteran invites in camp, looking to catch lightning in a bottle.

Nonetheless, Allison did play last night against one of his former clubs, the Bruins. I didn't see the game---was at The Rock in Newark for Rangers-Devils instead---but the stat sheet reveals a fairly nondescript night for him: a bit more than 14 minutes of ice-time with nearly 4 minutes on the power play, zero shots, zero points, 2 hits, lost 7 of 10 draws.

Speaking of the 41-year-old Fleury, he will suit  up tonight against the Islanders, his first NHL action of any kind in six years. Fleury told the Calgary Sun, "The hardest part for me is leading up to the game. Once the puck's dropped, I know what to do."

Fleury also revealed that he will four years sober tomorrow. Good for him. And good luck to him on his long-shot comeback. May he enjoy it no matter how long or short it lasts.

Back later on with Rangers news and quotes....

Bruins Visit to Toronto Sparks Kessel Trade Talk

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Written on 9/16/2009 by Jim Cerny

The Phil Kessel rumor mill will be in full swing tonight when the Bruins travel up to Toronto to face the Maple Leafs in pre-season action.

Kessel, of course, is the Bruins coveted RFA who is priced out of cap-stressed Boston, and who is awaiting either an offer sheet from, or more likely a trade to, another team.

That other team---whether it be through offer sheet or trade---has long rumored to be the Toronto Maple Leafs. That, of course, is based largely on the comments from Leafs GM Brian Burke, who has openly expressed his desire to acquire Kessel, the 21 year-old who potted 36 goals a year ago.

"We know we would like this player," Burke said yesterday. "We'll see what happens."

Over at Kukla's Korner, Elliotte Friedman of CBC Sports is quoted as reporting that the Leafs are offering at least a pair of first rounders to Boston as part of a packge for Kessel, even though the talented wing is out until at least November following off-season surgery on both of his shoulders.

With the B's, and GM Peter Chiarelli, in town today, the hockey-mad media in Toronto will be frothing at the mouth in anticipation of Chiarelli and Burke getting together face to face to discuss a possible deal. Don't expect any quick resolution, however, no matter how badly Burke longs to see Kessel in the blue and white this season.

Speaking of the Bruins, Chiarelli had to be happy to see Marco Sturm skating freely, bouncing back from some tough hits, and picking up an assist in last night's 2-1 pre-season victory over the Rangers. With Kessel's departure considered a given, the Bruins need Sturm to have a strong season, coming back from January knee surgery.

Sturm told Stephen Harris of the Boston Herald, "I'm really happy with the game. I had no pain at all. Overall I didn't think very much at all about my knee."

Chiarelli also had to be pleased with Tuukka Rask's first outing of the pre-season between the pipes. The 22 year-old Rask stopped 31 of 32 shots, and seemed to be in perfect position all night long.

With Manny Fernandez no longer serving as Tim Thomas' partner in Boston, Rask needs to beat out Dany Sabourin to claim the #2 spot with the Bruins. I think that Rask not only claims that role, but will start 20-25 games this season, and will play a big part in Boston's success. The kid is that good. And the more work he gets, the fresher Thomas---who turns 36 in April---will be come playoff time.

By the way, the game tonight in Toronto---featuring free tickets to those attending---will be televised by the NHL Network.

Isles Captaincy, Rangers Camp, 'Yotes Woes

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Written on 9/14/2009 by Jim Cerny

Many topics on the hockey front, what with training camps now in full swing, and I've got a few thoughts to share. If there are topics/questions you want addressed in the days and weeks and months to come, leave them in the Comments section and I promise to blog about them.

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Katie Strang of Newsday is the only reporter from New York covering the Islanders training camp out in the metropolis of Saskatoon, and she is doing an excellent job already. It's a shame for the Islanders organization---as well as it's fan base---that the excitement of John Tavares' first pro camp is an afterthought in the local media since camp is being held thousands of miles away from the team's base on Long Island.

Nonetheless, Katie chatted with veteran Doug Weight today about him possibly being named captain. Not surprisingly, Weight---a former captain of the Edmonton Oilers, and a well-respected man, both on and off the ice---would love that opportunity.

Weight told Katie, "I'd take it in a heartbeat and run with it," if given the chance.

While it makes almost too much sense not to name Weight as Bill Guerin's successor as Isles captain---especially with him already forging a strong relationship with Tavares---I'd reason that a better long-term choice for captain is defenseman Mark Streit.

Weight may only be on the Island for another season---if he doesn't get dealt at the trading deadline---while Streit is going to be a vital cog on this team for years to come. Streit also is coming off an All Star season, is well respected in his own dressing room, and has a strong relationship with the media, all pre-requisites for the position.

This is coming from the outside looking in, but why not name Streit captain, hand an "A" to Weight so that he could help mentor the talented Swiss defenseman, and finally stabilize the captaincy?

By the way---and totally off topic---Isles and Canucks in Hockeyville Game tonight on NHL Network. Let the games begin!

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In a posting here on Rink Rap  a couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the difficult position Don Maloney is in as GM of the Phoenix Coyotes. Of course, things only got worse on the hockey front when training camp started and head coach Wayne Gretzky was a no-show.

I saw Don's brother Dave---the Rangers former captain and current radio analyst---at Rangers camp the other day and asked him how his younger brother is holding up. Dave told me that that Don is doing his best, but that the situation "is just brutal".

And that is just on the hockey operations side of the business. As for selling tickets, forget about it. Not shockingly, it has been nearly impossible to sell any form of season tickets this season in Phoenix, since the fans have no confidence in the future viability of their team.

No matter the outcome of the bankruptcy court ruling, the business is dead in Phoenix. It was dying already---hence the bankruptcy in the first place. But this whole dance between the league and Jim Balsillie, and perhaps the club moving to Hamilton during the season, or being sold and moved next year, has driven a final stake into the Coyotes' surivival in Phoenix---er, Glendale.

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Am up at the Rangers practice facility for training camp, and have just about Tweeted my thumbs off the first three days for all of you hard-core Blueshirt fanatics out there! But here are a few more tidbits following today's first two scrimmages of camp.

  • 25 year-old defenseman Matt Gilroy might be a self-professed "late bloomer", but the reigning Hobey Baker Award winner is in peak physical condition, and he really impressed me in the morning scrimmage. Clearly heeding John Tortorella's call for defensemen to jump into the play, Gilroy confidently led the rush over and over again. Though he didn't score a goal---he did ring a shot off of the crossbar---Gilroy created several good scoring opportunities for his team. Good start for the rookie. John Tortorella agreed, saying after practice today, "He's one of the better fit athletes out here...he did some things we wanted him to do...he was up the ice...we'll see as the grind of camp goes on where he sits."
  • Marian Gaborik, bothered by a sore groin, not related to his surgically-repaired hip, did not take part in either scrimmage, but he did skate in the afternoon practice. Afterwards he said, "The first few days, I did not want to overdo things, so (today) I went out there to do some skating and felt pretty good." Tortorella, who called Gaborik a "helluva player", said, "He's out practicing, which is good news....we just need to get him healthy, and this is just a little bump."
  • Say what you want about Sean Avery, but this guy is a physical speciman. He is in outstanding shape, and really stood out to me during the team's conditioning testing the first two days. Avery showed a lot of jump and spark in the scrimmage, as well. Crazy thought maybe, but does Tortorella consider giving Avery a letter this season? Just a thought...
  • Among the newcomers, Vinny Prospal and Donald Brashear had strong scrimmages in the afternoon session. Torts has said that Brash is here instead of Colton Orr because he is a better skater and could play off of the fourth line at times this year, too. Brashear showed that in the scrimmage, for sure.
  • Defenseman Nigel Williams, who was picked up in a summer trade with Colorado, threw some big hits during the afternoon scrimmage. A long-shot to make the varsity, the 21 year-old at least tried to make a solid first impression.
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Finally, I will be the guest on the Blueshirt Banter talk show tonight, beginning at 7:30 pm, on BlogTalk Radio. Here is the link to listen. I will also take phone calls from the fans. The phone in number to participate is 646-479-4692.

Hope to chat with you tonight!

Ottawa Finally Rids Itself of Heatley

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Written on 9/12/2009 by Jim Cerny

On his club's first day of training camp, Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray was finally able to purge his team of disgruntled star winger Dany Heatley. In exchange for the former 50-goal scorer, Murray was able to pick up wingers Milan Michalek and Jonathan Cheechoo, along with a second round pick, from the San Jose Sharks.

Was it a good trade for the Senators? Value-wise, not so much. But Murray had to unload Heatley. The soap opera surrounding Heatley's desire to be traded---which was first raised in May---had gone on far too long and had been enough of a distraction for the team. And with camp beginning, the negativity of Heatley needed to be eliminated from the equation in Ottawa.

Thing is, Murray's first trade of Heatley---to the Edmonton Oilers for Andrew Cogliano, Dustin Penner, and Ladislav Smid earlier in the summer---was a better deal for the Sens than the one Murray was able to swing today. Heatley, of course, refused that trade. And Murray still has to be pissed with Heatley, who claimed that he only wanted "more options" to consider.

In truth, Heatley wanted no part of Edmonton.

So Murray and the Sens end up with a worse deal---plus two extra months of agita---and the Oilers have to explain to three vital cogs of its team why they were almost traded away.

And Heatley? He gets what he wants. He is out of Ottawa, where he complained that coach Cory Clouston had "limited" his role too much. And he winds up in a beautiful city that features one of the league's elite regular season teams, albeit one that still needs to find its way in the playoffs, where he likely will skate alongside one of the NHL's top playmakers in Joe Thornton.

"I don't think I did anything wrong in asking for a trade," Heatley told reporters today. "I have my reasons for it. If people think differently of me, that's fine. But I believe I did nothing wrong, and I am happy to move on."

In the 29 year-old Cheechoo, the Senators do receive a former 50-goal scorer, though that incredible 56-goal campaign is now four years removed, and his goal totals have dropped each year since to a low of just 12 last season. He is a hard worker, and maybe the change of scenery will do him some good.

Michalek is more likely the bigger catch for Ottawa in this deal. Still just 24 years-old, the former 6th overall pick has put up three straight 20+-goal seasons. He looks capable of being a 30-goal man.

Credit Sharks GM Doug Wilson for being patient on this deal, and certainly for not giving up Patrick Marleau, which had been rumored repeatedly. Wilson also added only $1 million to his payroll. Heatley makes $8 million this year, but the two players Wilson dealt to Ottawa combined for $7 million. That's a good job of managing.

Now let's see if the President's Trophy winners, fortified even more by the Heatley addition, can figure out a way to navigate the post-season.

Or is the Sharks next move to reel in a proven winner---perhaps at the expense of a Marleau---to show the others---Heatley included---what it takes?

Torts' Shorts (Part Two)

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Written on 9/11/2009 by Jim Cerny

Earlier today I posted comments Rangers head coach John Tortorella made this morning about several of his key players on the eve of his first training camp as bench boss on Broadway. Torts addressed several other topics during his media session, and I wanted to share some of those things with you here.

  • Tortorella voluntarily brought up his battle with fans during Game 5 of the Rangers first round playoff series against the Washington Capitals last spring---actions which caused him to be suspended for Game 6---and stated emphatically that he if expects his players to show discipline then he needs to be more disciplined in controlling his own emotions. "I need to be accountable for myself in not getting to a point that I lose control. I think emotion from a coach is a very important thing. I think it can be a strength. But emotion can be a weakness, too, when it gets the best of you."
  • The Rangers coach also added, "It's funny. The only way a coach gets feedback is when they say 'you're fired!'. So a coach always has to self-assess, and that's a constant thing with me." Torts added that he will turn to assistants Mike Sullivan and Jim Schoenfeld for feedback on a regular basis, as well.
  • And, yes, you read that correctly. At the request of the head coach, Jim Schoenfeld, the Rangers assistant GM, will also serve as an assistant coach this year, just as he did last season when Tortorella took over the coaching reigns in late February. "Schoeny cares and has a heart as big as the building...I thought he did such a great job last year in some of his individual teaching and his relationship with the players." Schoenfeld will not be behind the bench during games, so as not to interfere with his management duties, but he will be on the ice for all practices. My complete story about the Schoenfeld decision is available on the Rangers official web site. 
  • Tortorella spent much time explaining the details of his grueling training camp, one in which the players will spend the first two days taking conditioning tests. They will not partake in hockey-related drills or scrimmage until Monday. "I just believe so much that conditioning is such a huge part of winning because you are not chasing the game, the game's coming to you when you are in top shape...the players are going to make the decisions for us as far as where they sit with the team."
  • The Rangers head coach stated that he sees four spots available for younger players to step up and grab, which is excatly what he wants to see happen. He mentioned two spots on defense and two at the forward position. Torts did not mention all the contenders, but he did speak about defenseman Matt Gilroy and center Artem Anisimov at different times during his media session. "I am really hoping that there are some surprises with the kids...we have to keep growing our base of the Callahans, the Dubinskys, the Staals, the Girardis, and add a few more here. Then you are building your team, and maybe there won't be as much turnover as you go through the years because you have your foundation of youth."
I'll be at Rangers camp when it opens Saturday morning, though I also have quite a bit of information from around the rest of the league---as well as opinions on the Heatley saga, the Coyotes mess, etc.---that I plan on blogging about, as well.

Stay tuned. Post your comments. And, as always, thanks for reading!

Torts' Shorts (Part One)

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Written on 9/11/2009 by Jim Cerny

On the eve of his first training camp as head coach of the Rangers, John Tortorella sat down with a group of hockey writers this morning to discuss many various topics, the most surprising of which might have been his admission that he took part in media training during the summer.

Never known to be a fan of the media---or as Torts clarified today, he doesn't necessarily dislike the reporters, he just doesn't like how the media interferes with what he is trying to accomplish with his team---Tortorella, nonetheless, was engaging and thoughtful today.

But it did not take him long to break---and continue to repeatedly break---one of the things he was taught in media training: don't curse when speaking to reporters. He literally broke that rule within his first couple of sentences today!

While there were quite a few laughs during his near-60 minute media session this morning, Tortorella did not duck any difficult questions, and answered each and every one in his usual passionate way. I'll share some of his quotes on player-related topics here, and will follow with another blog entry detailing his take on other issues a bit later.

  • Of a possible training camp holdout by restricted free agent center Brandon Dubinsky, Torts said, "This happens, and I'm not sure where this is going to go...it's not like we hold grudges....it's not going to affect our camp. We are going to go about our business as a team as we're supposed to."
  • Tortorella explained that he has spoken twice already with goaltender Henrik Lundqvist about limiting the number of games he starts this season. And Torts emphasized that this decision was not based solely on the fact that Henrik will also be taking part in the Olympics, tending goal for Sweden come February. "Even if it was not an Olympic year, I think we need to manage (his minutes) better. I'm not sure if Hank likes that...." Torts also said, "You look at some of the goalies that ended up in the Top Four in the playoffs and look at how many games they played...Hank will not play the amount of games he played last year. How many he does play, I don't know....He loves to compete and I love him for that. But we need to manage that better."
  • The Rangers bench boss also discussed how he reached out to team captain Chris Drury several times this summer in an attempt to forge a stronger bond between the two. He said that Drury was receptive, and that he believes they are on the right track. "I wanted to get to know him. I wanted him to get to know me because he is the captain of this hockey club. I think he is beginning to feel more comfortable with me, and I feel more comfortable with him." Tortorella also mentioned that he spoke to 3 or 4 other players this summer on a regular basis, though he refused to divulge any names.
  • Torts spoke quite a bit about Vinny Prospal, whom he coached in Tampa Bay and who just signed with the Rangers as a free agent. He believes that Prospal will be quite motivated this season, playing for a contract next year and also looking for redemption after being bought out by the Lightning. "It's good to have a player in that situation." Torts also said that having someone who understands his coaching and motivational style as well as Prospal does will be a benefit in the dressing room this year. "Vinny Prospal definitely understands me and will carry the message for me" despite a much-chronicled combative relationship with Tortorella, which the coach also tried to dispell. "Don't misconstrue all of that stuff that goes on. That's heat of the battle stuff. We have a tremendous relationship."
  • As for the decision to sign free agent enforcer Donald Brashear instead of resigning popular heavyweight Colton Orr this summer, Tortorella said that the decision came down to the fact that Brashear is a better skater and could possibly play in situations other than fourth-line duty, unlike Orr. "Colton did a lot of heavy lifting for this team, so I don't want to disrespect him at all. I just think Donald is a little bit better skater. Let's hope that's the case."
  • On inking free agent Marian Gaborik this summer, Torts said, "As I told Glen (Sather) when I first got here, I think you need a gamebreaker, that guy who can make that huge offensive play." But Tortorella is mindful that Gaborik has been injury prone throughout his career, and he plans on monitoring Gabby's health all season long and provide him the proper rest along the way. "It's about the games, playing in the games. It's not about pushing him too much in practice," noted the head coach.
I'll have more from John Tortorella, including his announcement that Rangers assistant GM Jim Schoenfeld will join him as an assistant coach this season, a bit later today. For more on Schoenfeld, check out my story on the Rangers official team site.

Flyers Could be Filthy Good This Year

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Written on 9/09/2009 by Jim Cerny

The Philadelphia Flyers were the most penalized team in the National Hockey League last year. So what did GM Paul Holmgren do in the off-season? Of course, he went out and acquired two of the grittiest---dare we say, dirtiest---players in the game in Chris Pronger and Ian Laperriere. Plus, he also added a feisty battler between the pipes with the signing of goaltender Ray Emery.

This Flyers team is going to be an absolute bitch to play against this year, adding Pronger and Laperriere to the rugged and abrasive group that consists of Daniel Carcillo, Scott Hartnell, Riley Cote, Arron Asham, and Braydon Coburn.

But like the Broad Street Bully Flyers of the mid-'70's, this group is not just filthy. They are filthy good.

The team toughness is there in spades. However, so is the explosive offensive talent.

Last year, the Flyers had the fifth most potent offense in the NHL, featuring four 30+ goal scorers on the roster, and six players who netted 25 or more. Though two of those players---forwards Mike Knuble and Joffrey Lupul---are no longer with the club, there is still plenty of offensive skill on this Flyers' squad.

Jeff Carter is emerging as one of the true superstars in the league. The 24 year-old exploded last season with career-high numbers across the board---46 goals, 38 assists, and 84 points---and surrounded by so much skill and muscle up front, he should be able to continue to meet and exceed those numbers again.

Captain Mike Richards is a powerful offensive force, as well, as his 30-50-80 numbers indicate. Plus he plays with an edge that belies his smallish (5'11", 195 pound) frame. He is the quintessential Philadephia Flyers player, cut right from the Bobby Clarke mold.

Richards did have off-season surgery on both shoulders, which raises some concern heading into training camp. But all in all, this crop of forwards---led by Carter and Richards, and assisted by Danny Briere, Simon Gagne, and the youthful pair of Claude Giroux and Darroll Powe---is as deep as any in the entire league.

And in my opinion, the Flyers made a quietly smart move that winning teams make the other day when they invited penalty killer extraordinaire Blair Betts to their training camp. Betts, who led the Rangers league-best penalty kill a year ago, is coming off a concussion in last spring's playoffs, but he is a tremendously hard-working player who is well respected by his peers. Teams with championship aspirations---like the Flyers---go out and add character players like Betts, and Laperriere.

If there is an achilles heel for Philly, as it has been for years and years, it is in goal where Martin Biron and Antero Niittymaki have been replaced by Emery and Brian Boucher. Is that really an upgrade over last season?

Emery is the X Factor here. He has shown in flashes what he is capable of in the NHL, like when he helped lead the Ottawa Senators to the Stanley Cup Finals in the spring of 2007. But Emery has also proven to be a difficult talent who has had several run-ins with coaches and teammates, and who last year played in the KHL in Russia to reestablish himself.

He should be quite motivated to prove that he belongs in the best hockey league in the world. And he will benefit from a strong corps of defensemen playing in front of him, led by Pronger, who even at age 35, is a threat to win the Norris Trophy.

This could be a special year for Philadelphia. It is true that they still play in a tough division that features the Stanley Cup champs in the Penguins and the perenially good Devils, who won the division last year. But these Flyers seem poised to improve upon a 99-point regular season and first-round playoff ouster at the hands of the Penguins a year ago.

They look to be scary good.

Make that filthy good.

Goaltenders and the 4,000 Minute Barrier

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Written on 9/08/2009 by Jim Cerny

Was perusing stats from last year and noticed that only four NHL goaltenders logged more than 4,000 minutes of playing time: Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff, Marty Turco of Dallas, Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers, and Minnesota's Niklas Backstrom.

My hunch is that Kiprusoff---barring injury---may be the only one of that group to exceed 4,000 minutes this season, at least as far as NHL action is concerned.

The reasons for this vary depending upon the goalie in question.

Turco, who played more than 4,300 minutes---the first time he was over the 4,000 mark since the 2003-04 season---, will see less of the ice this season now that the veteran Alex Auld was signed by the Stars as his reliable foil. This should greatly enhance the play of Turco, as well as Dallas' chances of making the playoffs.

Lundqvist, who has logged more than 4,000 minutes in each of the last three years, will be Sweden's starting goaltender in the Olympics, adding to his big workload. To avoid completely wearing his franchise goalie out, Rangers coach John Tortorella has already hinted that Steve Valiquette---who won over the coach last season with his strong work ethic, and play when called upon---likely will get the starting nod more often than in the past.

And while Backstrom thrived under the heavy workload a year ago (NHL's 3rd best goals against average and 4th best save percentage), he also benefited from playing behind a Jacques Lemaire-coached team. Now that the defensive guru has left Minnesota for a return engagement in New Jersey, Backstrom might be in need of a few extra days off, with Josh Harding and Wade Dubielewicz both capable of proving adequate relief.

As for Kiprusoff, without a top backup---Curtis McElhinney again will be his understudy---he will almost definitely surpass 4,000 minutes for the fifth straight season, though he might benefit the most from fewer starts and minutes played. Kiprusoff's Flames have been bounced in the first round of the playoffs in each of the past four seasons. And the one year Calgary made a run to the Stanley Cup Finals in the spring of 2004, it came after Kiprusoff logged only 2,301 minutes during the regular season. You can argue that the lighter workload in the regular season helped fuel his magnificent playoff run that year.

Of course, what often dictates whether or not a goalie these days makes 70 starts and logs over 4,000 minutes is where the team sits in the standings. Kiprusoff, Turco, Lundqvist, and Backstrom all could not afford too many nights off last season because their respective teams were in dogfights all year to make the playoffs---Kipruoff's Flames and Lundqvist's Rangers did ultimately crack the top eight in their conferences while the other two were on the outside looking in.

Of the goaltenders who might make a run at 4,000 minutes this year, add the names of Roberto Luongo and Martin Brodeur. Both of these franchise netminders are annually among the league leaders in games, and minutes, played, though both were limited by injury a year ago. Also, with his star on the rise---and no significant backup behind him---Carolina's Cam Ward could break into the 4,000 minute group this year, as well.

What will bear watching, in an Olympic year like this, is to see how the condensed NHL schedule and grueling Olympic sked affects the likes of Lundqvist, Ward, Luongo, Kiprusoff, Brodeur, and others who represent their respective countries come February in Vancouver.

And on the other hand, will there be some goaltenders not playing in the Olympics who will be more fresh and able to start more games because they will have a two-week vacation in the middle of the season? Will their teams benefit, while others with Olympic goalies will be hurt?

The answer to those questions lay ahead, playing out in the months of March and April.

Last Labor Before Holiday Weekend

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Written on 9/04/2009 by Jim Cerny

I was up at the Rangers practice facility today for another informal group workout, the last one before the center is shut down for the next three days due to the Labor Day Weekend holiday.

Several of the players, like Aaron Voros, are contemplating heading to Randalls Island for a music festival this weekend, while some others, like Marian Gaborik, are intrigued by the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament over in Queens. Funny, no one, except for PR Director Brendan McIntyre, had any interest in checking out the Mets and Cubs at Citi Field. Can't imagine why....

Had a nice get-to-know-you chat with winger Ales Kotalik, who told me he is very much looking forward to playing and living in a big city like New York after spending his career so far in Buffalo and Edmonton.

"I really liked both Buffalo and Edmonton, the people were very nice, and I liked the cities," said Kotalik. "New York is much bigger, and I am looking forward to it as a great life experience."

Kotalik looks to be in tremendous physical condition; and he told me he is not worried about John Tortorella's expected grueling training camp. He also said that playing for Tortorella should not be too dissimilar from playing for Lindy Ruff, his coach in Buffalo, because Ruff was quite the intense leader, as well.

On a side note, the hard-shooting winger became a big fan of American Football while playing in Buffalo; and he says he will remain a Bills fan, with no plans to switch allegiances to either the Jets or the Giants now that he is in NYC.

"It was amazing how that city shut down at 1:00 every Sunday! The city would be completely dead. They really love the Bills up in Buffalo!"

I'll have a feature on Ales Kotalik up on the Rangers official web site by Monday.

A couple of other quick hits with the Rangers:

*Henrik Lundqvist arrives in town this weekend, but likely will not meet the media until next Thursday due to several obligations he has in representing the league early next week.

*John Tortorella is off to watch the youngsters take part in the Prospects Tournament in Traverse City. He will hold a pre-training camp media briefing late next week, with camp set to open on Saturday the 12th.

*Aaron Voros is champing at the bit to win a spot on the team. He has remained in New York virtually all summer, working out at the training facility, and said "I'm probably in the best shape of my life".

* Defenseman Corey Potter is impressed with the talented group of young defensemen---like Matt Gilroy, Bobby Sanguinetti, Michael Del Zotto, Ryan McDonagh---the Rangers organization has assembled. He, of course, will be battling those players as well as several others like veteran invite Kyle McLaren for one of the top seven spots in camp. The 25 year-old Potter told me that he gained "extra confidence" from his five-game exposure at the NHL level a year ago.

REMINDER: The Comments section is now working. Apologies for the past malfunction, but please feel free to share your thoughts moving forward!

Not-So Random Hockey Musings

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Written on 9/03/2009 by Jim Cerny

Some interesting stuff from NHL deputy Commisioner Bill Daly, heard on XM's NHL Home Ice this morning. Among the highlights:

  • on Jim Balsillie's offer to keep the Coyotes in Glendale for part of the season before moving the club in-season to Hamilton should he be awarded the team through bankruptcy proceedings: "It is disrespectful to the fans and players involved"
  • on Balsillie's claim that the Toronto Maple Leafs will sue the NHL if there is ever a team in southern Ontario: "The Maple Leafs do have a say. They have one vote out of 30 on the Board of Directors...the majority vote of the board will apply." and "It is factually untrue. It wreaks of desperation from the Balsillie group."
  • on the job Coyotes GM Don Maloney has done despite being surrounded by chaos this off-season: "Don has done a fantastic job in very tough circumstances....he has isolated the hockey operations from everything else...he is executing on his long-term plan."
  • on the NHLPA's firing of Executive Director Paul Kelly earlier in the week: "I was very, very surprised by the steps they took there" and "We are committed to working with anybody who's in charge of the Players Association in order to grow the game."
  • on Direct TV's decision to drop Versus: "Certainly, at the end of the day we hope this is worked out....there is still time to get a deal done...both sides are working hard at it....we'll be as helpful as possible in the process."
Check out XM Home Ice to listen to the entire interview with Daly.

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Not surprisingly, another Kelly loyalist has left the NHLPA. Darren Dreger is reporting that Glenn Healy has stepped down as Director of Player Affairs. That is now three union officials---including a pair of highly regarded former players in Healy and Pat Flatley---that have resigned since Kelly was ousted from his post as Executive Director late Monday night.

There have been reports that the union has reached out to former boss Bob Goodenow about reclaiming his position as Executive Director. If that is the case, we may be headed for Armageddon 2 when the current Collective Bargaining Agreement comes to an end. Goodenow is a hard-liner, who clearly has shown in the past a distaste for partnering with the league.

We can only hope that both sides have learned some lessons from a lost season several years ago, though I am afraid that is not the case.

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Quick thoughts on Roberto Luongo's 12-year extension with the Vancouver Canucks yesterday:

  1. The longer deal makes the cap hit less painful for the Canucks.

  2. BUT, Luongo will be 42 when the deal expires, meaning that a buyout likely will take place at some point and there will be cap ramifications for that.

  3. BUT GM Mike Gillis surely doesn't expect to be around when that buyout takes place, so his concern is about the here and now.

  4. AND the here and now is that, in my opinion, the Canucks are a legit Cup contender in the West with a healthy and happy Luongo between then pipes.

  5. Finally, the cap loophole being exploited in the contracts for the likes of Luongo and Marian Hossa will most assuredly be addressed during the next round of CBA negotiations.
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On a less serious note, I attended the Rangers Season Subscriber "Meet the Blueshirts" Fan Forum last night at the WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden. I conducted video interviews for the Rangers official team site with Donald Brashear, Marian Gaborik, and Christopher Higgins, had a chance to chat backstage with team captain Chris Drury, and was able to meet some fans who are followers of this blog.

The fans asked the players some hard-hitting questions, but all in all it was a light and fun event.

Here is the story I wrote for the official Rangers web site about the fan forum.

NHLPA's Ouster of Kelly Still Somewhat a Mystery

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Written on 9/01/2009 by Jim Cerny

Many hockey writers and columnists, including Rick Sadowski, here on World Sports Blogs' Through the 5-Hole, have done an excellent job covering the ouster of NHLPA Executive Director Paul Kelly on Monday, as well as analyzing its ramifications down the road, the most important of which will be negotiating a new Collective Bargaining Agreement with the league in either two or three years. Ken Campbell of The Hockey News wrote a great piece detailing why Kelly's departure from the league is so important to fans of the sport, as well.

But instead of offering up my opinion on the matter, I have been most interested in trying to find out what actually went on during the 11-hour NHLPA meeting that took place in Chicago on Monday.

Today I received some insight into the grueling get together of union leaders and NHL player representatives when I chatted with Steve Valiquette, the player rep for the New York Rangers.

"We were presented with information that I can't share with you yet because I have to first share it with the other players, but let's just say that if you knew what it was, you would have made the same move we were forced to make," said Valiquette.

The back-up goaltender offered that the player reps had been aware of certain "unacceptable" actions by Kelly dating back to his early days as Executive Director less than two years ago. But what the representatives heard during Monday's meeting united them into action against Kelly.

And by united, Valiquette says the player reps were absolutely united, despite published reports to the contrary.

"It was 100% unanimous to remove Paul," stated Valiquette firmly. "We would not have done it if we weren't all in agreement. If one rep was against the move, we would not have done it."

Just because the player representatives were all in agreement does not mean that the meeting was not without some dissension and tense moments. In fact, two key union leaders---including former Islanders captain Pat Flatley---have resigned their posts in the aftermath of Kelly's firing.

"We had to make the right decision to be able to move forward as a union," said Valiquette. "We have great experience in the union now, and a great chain of command."

Still, when it was time for Kelly to join the meeting at 3:30 a.m. Tuesday morning and be told of his fate, Valiquette---despite his strong beliefs---was extremely uneasy.

"It was not fun at all to see him come in the room to be told of our decision," explained Valiquette. "It was very uncomfortable."

Now the NHLPA will be seeking its third leader since hard-liner Bob Goodenow left the union near the end of the league's last labor stoppage. Ted Saskin, who brokered the salary cap and escrow holdings the players now work under, was fired for misdeeds as Executive Director; and then Kelly, who had a less contentious relationship with NHL Commisioner Gary Bettman and his top lieutenant Bill Daly than his two predecessors, did not last two years on the job.

While there was physical proof of Saskin's misdoings---breaking into players' private e-mails, for example---nothing of the sort has been attached to Kelly just yet. Perhaps his greatest misdeed is that the players perceived Kelly to be too cozy with Bettman and Daly, though he often publicly---and in a gentlemanly way---opposed the league on several key matters.

Valiquette just smiled when asked if this is the case, or if the players are seeking a tougher leader for the next round of CBA negotiations.

What Valiquette and the other 29 player reps need to do now is educate their constituency as to why Kelly is no longer the union boss. As reported in The Toronto Sun, there are players clearly baffled as to why Kelly was voted out as Exceuive Director.

In fact, in the Rangers dressing room today---no more than 15 minutes after I spoke with Valiquette---veteran defenseman Michal Rozsival asked a group of reporters if they knew why Kelly had been fired. We referred him to his team's player rep, Valiquette, who promises a team meeting once training camp starts to answer any and all questions.