Monday, February 28, 2011

Even with backtracking, Coonelly's recent message to fans is the wrong one

Sunday, February 27, 2011
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Pittsburgh Pirates new manager Clint Hurdle, right, shares a moment with team chairman of the board Bob Nutting, left, and president Frank Coonelly after being introduced as the 39th manager in the history of the Pirates, Monday, Nov. 15, 2010. (AP)

As it is the comfortable inclination of this column to leave well enough alone, generally, and since that policy easily can extend to leaving bad enough alone, there recently has been only spare comment in this space about the Pirates.

The recent arbitrator's award of $2,025,000 to pitcher Ross Ohlendorf actually left me feeling sorry for the ballclub. The Pirates offered $1.4 million for the upcoming season, and I figured if the system is such that the Philadelphia Phillies have to pay Roy Halladay some $20 million in anticipation of a 20-win season, I guess the Pirates have to pay at least $1 million for a guy who won one (1) game.

If you've got to pay $2 million for a starter with one win, you're talking about a pennant costing something like $190 million. The Pirates like to come in somewhere under $40 million in terms of total team compensation, which is like showing up at the best restaurant in town with $3.

"What can I get around here for $3?"

"Give ya coupla olives to put in your pocket on the way out, howzat?"

In a division where the average payroll last year was $97.2 million everywhere but in Pittsburgh, the Pirates are the guy walking around with two olives in his pocket and seem perfectly unperturbed by it.

In fact, unless I'm misinterpreting team president Frank Coonelly (you can only hope), the baseball team around here will continue to be the culinary equivalent of lint-covered olives unless attendance spikes fairly considerably.

Asked this week if the club would be able to boost payroll to between $70 and $80 million if its core players and potential free agents merited it, the president said, "Today, no, but we will be able to support that payroll very soon if our fans believe that we now have a group of players in Pittsburgh and on its way here in the near future that is competitive. We need to take a meaningful step forward in terms of attendance to reach that payroll number while continuing to invest heavily in our future, but I am convinced that the attendance will move quickly once we convince our fans that we are on the right track."

The Pirates drew 1,613,999 people to PNC Park last summer. In their 124 history, they only have had better attendance 13 times. But, in exchange for clicking Bob Nutting's turnstiles, on average, nearly 20,000 times every night, the fans were rewarded with the absolute worst kind of baseball, the kind that wins 57 games and loses 105.

That followed on the heels of Coonelly's other vintage interpretation, coming as it did almost a year ago to the day -- last winter's infamous dynasty quote.

"Don't let people tell you that the Pirates have a great future but that it's not today -- today is our future," he said.

"2010 is the beginning of the new dynasty of the Pirates, for me. The message is that this is the group that's going to turn this franchise around. For the first time since I've been with the organization, I really believe that."


So this is the guy you're supposed to believe, and, if you don't believe him, and you don't start showing up in "meaningful" numbers, there probably won't be any significant capital improvements to the track the Pirates are on, which, we keep hearing, is the right track.

Friday, Coonelly met with the Post-Gazette's Colin Dunlap to say that's not the case, explaining in part, "we are not asking for more support without demonstrating that we have a competitive on-field product."


Do any of the people associated with this ballclub understand the dissonance in this song?

When the shovels hit the dirt to start construction on the House Untruth Built, April 7, 1999, Kevin McClatchy had just spent most of the previous decade inveigling public money for this same idea. That if the new ballpark went up, the Pirates would be competitive within five years. That summer, they won 78 games.

In no summer since have they won 76. Eight times in the past 11 years, they have won 69 or fewer.

Again: Summer of shovel to dirt -- 78 wins.

Five years into PNC Park -- 67 wins.

Ten years into PNC Park -- 57 wins.

Last weekend, the owner told the players that "small bits of incremental improvements" will not be adequate. Giant leaps backward, I guess, are still OK. But, on a team that has consistently retreated from competence since 2007, I wouldn't be turning my nose up at potential improvements of any kind.

If they win two games in a row at any time during spring training, that will be an improvement.

If they get through a season without losing any games 20-0, that will be an improvement.

If they avoid getting outscored, 36-1, in a three-game series, that will be an improvement.

If they can get through the season using only 26 pitchers, that will be an improvement.

If their longest road losing streak is no more than 16 games, that will be an improvement.

If they use just seven leadoff hitters, that will be an improvement.

If they score 3, 2, 1, or zero runs in only 96 of their games, even that would be an improvement. They scored 3 or fewer 97 times last year.

Now that can't be the kind of product you're expected to be a lot more interested in than you've so far indicated, should you want a better product. That can't be what they're saying.

If it is, I mean, what olives.

Gene Collier:

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Orpik says the Penguins are not doomed

Monday, February 28, 2011
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Brooks Orpik congratulates Chris Kunitz, center, and Pascal Dupuis, right, after a Kunitz goal against Tampa Bay in January.

For a while, I thought defenseman Brooks Orpik's broken finger would be the injury that finally doomed the Penguins. Then, I talked to Orpik. He set me straight.

"It's been tough. By far, it's the worst I've ever seen," he said of the Penguins' long list of injuries. "It seems like every time you're waiting for someone to get back, you lose someone else.

"But the attitude of the team and the energy level in the room hasn't dipped at all. You would think guys might start feeling sorry for themselves. But that hasn't happened. I don't think it will happen with this team."

It didn't happen Saturday night, that's for sure. The Penguins fought back on the road from four deficits to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs, 6-5, in a shootout. It ended a 2-6-2 slide and was their most goals in regulation since Jan. 12, which is hardly a surprise considering they haven't had stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, not to mention Chris Kunitz and Mark Letestu, who returned against the Maple Leafs after missing 13 games with a knee injury.

"Guys are playing hard," Orpik said. "We're outplaying and outshooting teams, but the quality of shots and the quality of finishing aren't there. Just because you're asking guys to play more minutes doesn't mean they're going to be able to do more than they can do. They're giving everything they have."

Orpik planned to do dinner and watch the Toronto game with injured teammate Arron Asham. As entertaining as the game was, watching Orpik eat might have been more interesting. His right index finger was broken by a shot by San Jose's Patrick Marleau Wednesday night and is in a splint. He is right-handed, which means he has to do everything with his left hand.

"Putting in my contacts, brushing my teeth, stupid stuff like that takes time getting used to with your other hand."

Orpik knew he was in trouble the instant Marleau's shot got him. He skated immediately to the locker room. "Usually, you sit on the bench and shake it off for 20 or 30 seconds and wait for the pain to go away," he said. "This time was different. I was numb all the way up my arm. When I took my glove off 30 seconds later, the finger already was puffed out. It was just bad luck."

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma announced the next day that Orpik would be out four-to-six weeks. I've heard some say that seems like a long time for a broken finger because hockey players are known for ignoring pain and often don't miss a shift, let alone multiple games, because of a broken bone. Well, know this about Orpik: He's as tough as they come. He played on against Chicago Feb. 20 after a high stick from the Blackhawks' Patrick Sharp left his mouth oozing blood. Last season, he played through the playoffs with a tear in his abdominal wall that required surgery in June.

Never question this man's toughness.

"I broke my left ring finger two years ago," Orpik said. "That break was near the end of my finger so I was able to tape it together to my pinkie and keep playing. This break is higher up. I was lucky, it's not displaced. But if I kept playing with it and took any little hit on it, it would be displaced and I'd need surgery. That's the risk I would be taking."

Of course, Orpik is planning on being back sooner rather than later. He said he is hooking himself up a couple of times a day to a bone-healing system that uses ultrasound and is supposed to quicken healing by 35-to-40 percent. He is targeting the Penguins' trip to Florida at the end of March for his return.

At least Orpik has that target date. Crosby, who hasn't played since Jan. 5 because of concussion-like symptoms, has no idea when he will return. That's brutal for him, brutal for his teammates. "I don't even ask him about it. I'm sure that's the last thing he wants to talk about," Orpik said. "But he definitely looks a lot better physically. I don't know what that means. I just know, for a long time, he had a glazed look on his face. He doesn't have that anymore."

The Penguins need Crosby to make a deep playoff run. They also need Orpik, who has developed into a terrific defenseman on a team that's relying more on defense to win. They need his work in their end of the ice. They need him on the penalty kill. They need his toughness. They need his leadership.

The good news is Orpik figures he'll be healthier and stronger for these playoffs than he was last season when he was dealing with that awful abdominal issue. He has always been a maniacal workout guy. Because his injury is a finger and not a knee or an ankle or -- thank heaven -- a concussion, he'll be able to continue training. "Hopefully, once this thing heals, I'll just jump right back in the lineup and be ready to go."

Things are going to be OK, Orpik said.

You, too, have been set straight.

You're welcome.

Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Pitiful Pirates barely registering in Pittsburgh

By JOHN WAWROW, AP Sports Writer
Feb. 25, 2011 4:27 PM ET

Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle watches with his team as the pitchers take part in a bunting contest during spring training baseball practice, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011, in Bradenton, Fla. (AP)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Andrew Neft stood with his family in the Black and Gold Forever store in the heart of Pittsburgh's Strip District — looking to see what Steelers jersey or Penguins gear he might add to his collection — when he spotted six Pirates shirts hanging high up on the wall, nearly out of view.

With a smirk, Neft approached the clerk and asked when the store might be giving those away for free.


In a town where the "The Stillers" — as the locals affectionally call them — rule, and Sidney Crosby may well be king, the pitiful Pirates, with their 18 consecutive losing seasons, have been rendered near irrelevant even before spring arrives and as the team held its first full workout last weekend in Bradenton, Fla.

"Let them stay there. I couldn't care less," said the 48-year-old Neft, a born-and-raised Pittsburgher. "They're (bad), OK? They're the worst team in major league baseball."

Over at the Pirates home, PNC Park, the sentiment is similar even from fans still willing to buy tickets for the upcoming season — the franchise's 125th.

"We used to go to more games and now we've cut down to one or two a year until I see something in a positive light," said Jeff Fliss, 55, shortly after purchasing four tickets for a game against Detroit on May 21. "It's just the frustration of being a loser for so long."

Losing doesn't come easy in any town — see Cleveland or Buffalo. In Pittsburgh, though, it's unacceptable, given the Steelers' perennial dominance and the Penguins' new era of success under Crosby.

The Pirates once had all that, too, with Bill Mazeroski, Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell and Barry Bonds. But they've instead become mere afterthoughts now — a bad team with a pretty ballpark.

Their 18-season stretch without a winning record is the longest in North American pro sports.

They've gone 186-299 in the past three seasons, capped by a 57-105 finish last year, in which they earned a notorious Triple Crown by finishing last in the National League in batting, pitching and defense. Only the 1952 Pirates (42-112) lost more games in baseball's modern era.

In Florida, there is upbeat talk coming from the front office and newly hired manager, Clint Hurdle, of how the team intends to improve this season.

Pirates owner Bob Nutting was quoted in The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review this week as saying last year's finish was unacceptable and that he's intent on building a winner by developing and retaining star players.

"It's critically important that they understand that 2011 is not going to be a year where small bits of incremental progress are adequate," Nutting said, referring to the message he delivered his players. "Until we win a National League championship, we're not going to be satisfied with incremental progress."

The Pirates project a payroll of about $45 million, which will be among the lowest in the majors. Though the team's pitching rotation remains suspect, they do have a group of young players to build around, such as outfielder Andrew McCutchen (pictured at right), third baseman Pedro Alvarez, second baseman Neil Walker and left fielder Jose Tabata.

It's going to take more than talk, though, to convince the fans up north, such as Neft.

"We've got an ownership group that doesn't want to do anything to make them a good team other than make them a major league farm club," said Neft, who attended one game last year and wore a White Sox jersey to it. "They promised us a winning team when we bought them a stadium. They've had their stadium coming up on 11 years, and we have a (bad) team."

Greta Dunn is a bartender at Mullen's Bar and Grill, located across the street from PNC Park. She said the place is only busy when the Pirates hold a big home promotion — the fireworks displays are popular — or if a high-profile team, such as the New York Mets, are in town.

"It's sad," Dunn said. "Fireworks night, that's when you know we're going to be busy. It's none of this, 'This is a great team or something.'"

Now 26 years old, Dunn was 11 when her family relocated to Pittsburgh. She never warmed to the Pirates, reflecting a generation of young fans that the franchise has lost and neglected.

Asked where one might find Pirates fans in the city, Dunn said: "You've got to find the old men."

Highlights: Hurricanes 4, Penguins 1

Friday, February 25, 2011

NHL should be terrified of threat to Crosby

By Bruce Arthur
National Post
February 23, 2011 – 10:19 pm

Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images
Sidney Crosby has been out of the Pittsburgh Penguins' lineup since early January with a concussion after two hits to the head.

It has been eight weeks now. Eight weeks since Victor Hedman smashed Sidney Crosby’s head into the glass in Pittsburgh, which was four days after David Steckel ran his shoulder into Crosby’s temple in the Winter Classic at Heinz Field. Which means that it has been eight weeks since Sidney Crosby played an NHL game.

And that should make anybody who cares about hockey nauseous. It should give them a headache. It should cause sleepless nights. In other words, it should make them feel like they have suffered a concussion.

It’s not that Sidney Crosby, as a person, is more important than Marc Savard or David Perron or Matthew Lombardi or Peter Mueller, all of whom have missed most or all of the NHL season with post-concussion symptoms. It’s not that his symptoms are necessarily worse. There were 33 concussions reported in the NHL through Dec. 1. There are a lot of guys sitting in dark and quiet rooms, these days.

But Crosby is different, because he is Sidney Crosby. He is the best player in the world; he is one of the two players in the league who actually have the ability to transcend the league. And since Alexander Ovechkin has spent the season being a more physical Brad Richards — another guy who has the curtains drawn, at the moment — Crosby was, until early January, standing alone.

And then came Steckel and Hedman, neither of whom were fined or suspended for making contact with Crosby’s head from behind. And as the days stretch out, you start to wonder and worry about what comes next.

The precise severity of Crosby’s concussion has not been made public. The Penguins have said he needs to go symptom-free for 10 days before being cleared, and that has apparently not happened. On Jan. 24 he told reporters in Pittsburgh, “People say mild concussion, but I don’t know that there really is such thing. The good thing is the past four to five days have been pretty good, but that’s not to say symptoms won’t come back.”

That was a month ago, now. Then he talked about headaches, and not knowing what triggered them — light, noise, exertion, it all seemed a little random — and that he was happy to be able to drive a car again. Just 10 days ago he returned from some time away from the team, with his parents, and when Pittsburgh Tribune beat reporter Rob Rossi mentioned he didn’t have much of a tan, Crosby said, “I didn’t want to stay [outside] too long because that might bring on [headaches].”

There has been speculation that he is done for the season, but we won’t know until the season is over. So all we really know is that Crosby’s symptoms have not gone away. Or that if they have, they’ve always come back. And that the vacuum of information coming out of Pittsburgh is like the quiet between bombings.

And the NHL should be terrified. Crosby was having his finest season; he is still fifth in the league in scoring despite missing 20 games. And the greatest difference between Crosby and every other hockey player is not his skating, or his hands, or his size. It is his neural capacity to control his skating, to direct his hands, to see the ice, to think the game with a fine edge. It is his brain.

So many players have never been the same after suffering a concussion this severe, or at least, that has lasted this long. Eric Lindros, Paul Kariya, Pat LaFontaine, Keith Primeau, Savard, on and on. Not every concussion opens a window to more concussions. Maybe this is the only brain injury Sidney Crosby will ever suffer, and he will fulfill the promise of being a generation-defining player. He is just 23.

But either way, he will now play the rest of his career in greater danger of a second concussion, and a third. The worst-case scenario, of course, is that he becomes Lindros all over again. Crosby’s much better at protecting himself, but in a league where those two hits are deemed acceptable, it might not matter. When he decried such hits back in January, Crosby said, “when you get hit like that there’s nothing you can do, there’s no way you can protect yourself.”

And yet they went unpunished.

Steckel’s intent is a matter of debate — it didn’t look like an accident to me — but Hedman’s hit was reckless, and the 6-foot-6 defenceman rose up prior to impact. But the NHL refuses to ban hits to the head over fear that it will strip the physicality from the game. The NHL sells violence, red meat, up until the New York Islanders play Ogie Ogilthorpe hockey. That, these days, is the line.

And even then Mario Lemieux’s post-Penguins-Islanders brawl comments still ring true. “We, as a league, must do a better job of protecting the integrity of the game and the safety of our players.” He might employ Matt Cooke, but he was right.

And if what has happened to Sidney Crosby isn’t enough to get the NHL to significantly alter its supplemental discipline mechanisms, faulty and ridiculous as they are, then it feels as though nothing will. Last season Steve Downie attempted a sort of figure-four leg lock on Crosby as they skated side by side. No injury, no discipline. Cooke took a run at Ovechkin’s knee a few weeks back. No injury, no suspension. Headshot discipline has varied wildly, as per league policy. Inevitably, a superstar — a real superstar, in a league full of guys who don’t sell tickets — was going to get hurt. Two headshots, no suspensions, and Sidney Crosby gets headaches for two months.

And what happens now? It was earlier this month that LaFontaine, who was a magnet for brain injuries during his stellar 15-year career, told that “Once you get to a certain point with head injuries, there’s no turning back. For some reason, we use up this reserve. We all start out with a full tank in reserve and every time we get hit, we deplete that resource. For some reason, when we’re on empty, what used to take us a week or two weeks to bounce back is now taking us months and sometimes years.”

Nobody knows how far away Sidney Crosby is from empty. Hopefully, a long way. But right now the face of the NHL is nowhere to be seen, and we don’t know if he will ever be the same.

•Email: Twitter: @bruce_arthur


Penguins' Orpik out 4-6 weeks

Friday, February 25, 2011
By Shelly Anderson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Brooks Orpik isn't flashy. He never has had more than two goals or 25 points in a season. His name isn't synonymous with Norris Trophy candidate.

Yet the defenseman's value to the Penguins is enormous, and that value that has been put on hold.

Orpik will miss about a month because of a broken finger on his right hand, the team learned Thursday.

"He's so precious to this team," goaltender Brent Johnson said. "He's out there every other shift, it seems. He's working the penalty kill. He's tough. He's rugged in front of the net. He hits hard. I'm sure he's intimidating to a lot of guys.

"And he brings a lot of leadership to our dressing room -- just the way he handles himself. He's classy, a very stand-up professional. He also works like none other I've seen in the gym, on the ice at practice."

Orpik, 30 and an alternate captain, was injured Wednesday when he got hit by a shot taken by San Jose's Patrick Marleau. He joins a long list of injured Penguins.

Even as three other injured players -- defenseman Paul Martin and centers Mark Letestu and Dustin Jeffrey -- seem ready to return as soon as tonight against Carolina, the loss of Orpik for an extended time is a significant blow.

As with the team's injured top two centers, Sidney Crosby, who has a concussion, and Evgeni Malkin, who had season-ending knee surgery, Orpik can't easily be replaced by shifting someone into his role, which was usually on the top defensive pairing with Kris Letang and as a top penalty-killer.

"There's a grit level and a physicality in his game that's apparent and holds the other team accountable even before you start the game," coach Dan Bylsma said. "They know they're going against Brooks Orpik. They know they're going to be dealing with a good defender who is good positionally and a physical guy. He's a good guy on the [penalty kill], first guy over the boards on every [penalty kill]."

Orpik, 6 feet 2 and 219 pounds, leads his team and was 11th in the NHL with 177 hits before games Thursday night. He is third on the club with 88 blocked shots. He has a goal and 11 assists and, despite playing against top offensive players and on a team that has been struggling to score because of injuries, has a plus-minus rating of plus-9.

He also altered his game some this season to fit a restructured system that requires all defensemen to move the puck well in a swift transition game.

"He's tough and physical, but I think that he's very underrated with the way that he moves the puck, his stick-handling ability," Martin said.

Several other defensemen could see their minutes rise with Orpik out, and Bylsma noted that Deryk Engelland can help fill in as a physical player, while Ben Lovejoy has a lot of minor league experience as a shutdown defenseman.

If Martin can't play against Carolina, the Penguins will need to call up a defenseman from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

"It's a fine line between coming back, wanting to help the team, and making sure you're ready to go for the stretch run," said Martin, who said he felt good after participating in a full practice Thursday at Consol Energy Center for the first time since he got an unspecified injury Sunday after being knocked into the boards by Chicago's Patrick Sharp.

Like Martin, Jeffrey and Letestu made it through practice and hope to play tonight, Saturday at Toronto or in the odd second trip to Toronto for a game Wednesday.

Letestu has made a quick recovery from Feb. 5 arthroscopic knee surgery. Jeffrey injured his left knee Feb. 10 when he tumbled over Los Angeles goaltender Jonathan Quick and into the net.

"Everything feels fine," said Jeffrey, who is wearing a brace. "I pushed it pretty hard after practice, and it felt good."

NOTES -- The Penguins reassigned Tim Wallace to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. ... The team's home game March 13 against Edmonton won't be the NBC national broadcast game and is being moved to 3:08 p.m. It originally had been listed for an earlier start. The game will be televised locally by FSN Pittsburgh. ... Winger Eric Godard will serve the sixth game of his 10-game suspension.

For much more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at Shelly Anderson: or 412-263-1721.

Photo: Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

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Bring on Kovalev

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Same old Kovy.

That was the three-word scouting report from a couple of colleagues in Ottawa on Wednesday, but it wasn’t necessarily meant as an insult to aging Senators winger Alex Kovalev. I actually considered it good news for those who want the goal-starved Penguins to rent Kovalev for the rest of the season.

I'm one of them.

We’re talking about a low-risk, potentially high-reward acquisition — and even at his enigmatic worst, Kovalev, who turns 38 on Feb. 24, couldn’t screw up a team in 20 games.

Not that he’d be a guaranteed upgrade if acquired before Monday’s 3 p.m. deadline. Far from it. Kovalev is eminently capable of making another Alex — Ponikarovsky — look like the deadline deal of the decade.

But have you seen this team try to score lately? It's was a horror show last night, even though the Penguins turned in another commendable effort while losing another game and another player. This time it was defenseman Brooks Orpik, who suffered an apparent hand injury early in a 3-2 overtime loss to the San Jose Sharks.

That makes 25 goals in 12 games for the Penguins this month.

We all know the negative connotations of same old Kovy. He is as maddening as he was when he skated into the league 17 years ago. He can look like Mario Lemieux one night, Nils Ekman the next. He makes coaches miserable (just ask Senators coach Cory Clouston, with whom Kovalev has clashed).

He can break your heart.

He can also bust your system. It’s fair to wonder if Kovalev's style would mesh with that of Penguins coach Dan Bylsma. To put the contrast in swimming parlance, the Penguins prefer the freestyle relay — go straight and get there as quickly as possible — while Kovalev is liable to break into a water follies routine at any moment.

As good as Kovalev was during his Penguins years, he was prone to fits of ineptitude and apathy. The first sign of a relapse would see him mindlessly spinning in the neutral zone. One Penguins observer even dedicated a song to Kovalev, using the lyrics and music from David Bowie's “Space Oddity.”

This is ground control to Kov-a-lev.

The good news is that Kovalev can still play. He can still score. He has half as many goals (six) in his past 10 games as any Penguins player on the ice against San Jose — besides newcomer James Neal — had for the entire season.

Kovalev has nine points in 10 games since the All-Star break. He is taking advantage of increased ice time created by an injury to Daniel Alfredsson, trades, and, perhaps, the Senators’ desire to showcase him and clear his salary (about $1 million the rest of the season).

Same old Kovy means Kovalev still has those same soft hands and that same cannon shot. It means he can still get around the ice, too, despite surgery to repair a torn ACL last spring. Those who watch him nightly will tell you he has looked progressively more fluid as the season has progressed.

What do the Penguins have to lose? A conditional draft pick? A Bill Guerin-type return sounds right, a pick based on how far the Penguins advance.

No doubt, Kovalev could help on a power play that was especially brutal last night. He could even play the right point, where he flourished during his Pittsburgh incarnation.

I always believed Kovalev’s heart was in the right place, too. He wanted to win. He was just a bit quirky.

Obviously, this team's post-season fate will depend largely on Sidney Crosby's availability, and each day he stays out is a day closer to the Penguins shutting him down. But even if Crosby is shelved with post-concussion issues, these Penguins have a chance to do some playoff damage. They deserve more help.

The worst that can happen is Kovalev crumbles. The best is that he becomes energized by a return to Pittsburgh, a place he adores, and injects some life into a dying offense.

Same old Kovy?

Could be a good thing.

Analysis: Kovalev must score to win over Pens

Friday, February 25, 2011

NEWARK, NJ - FEBRUARY 01: Alex Kovalev is congratulated by teamates after his goal against the New Jersey Devils during the second period of an NHL hockey game at the Prudential Center on February 1, 2011 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images)

The Penguins employees who offered public praise Thursday about right wing Alex Kovalev were, well, an exclusive group. There was general manager Ray Shero and ...

That's it. That's the list.

A group of players assembled by Shero, all of whom met Kovalev last night upon his arrival at a Raleigh, N.C.-area hotel, privately confided skepticism upon learning of their newest teammate.

Kovalev, whose 38th birthday present was a return to the organization for which he scored 149 regular-season goals from 1998 to 2003, will have to prove his worth to these Penguins. To borrow from one of his new teammates: Which "Kovy" are the Penguins getting?

That is a question worth $5 million — the salary-cap hit absorbed by the Penguins for acquiring Kovalev from the Ottawa Senators for a conditional seventh-round pick at June's NHL draft. That will become a sixth-round selection if the Penguins advance to Round 2 of the Stanley Cup playoffs and Kovalev plays in 50 percent of the first-round games.

"I've been there before and had some good years," Kovalev told Ottawa reporters. "I'm excited to go to Pittsburgh and play in the playoffs again."

Kovalev is a second-time Penguin because this version of the team, riddled with injuries, can no longer score enough goals. Part of that is because they have lost 117 man-games to injury since Jan. 1. They have played the past eight games without centers Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Mark Letestu and left wing Chris Kunitz — who have combined for 75 goals.

The Penguins have scored 43 goals in their past 21 games — all without leading scorer Crosby, who is out indefinitely with concussion symptoms. Their record in those contests is 10-8-3, and they have scored two goals or fewer in 11 of those games.

"Let's be honest: We have 10, 11 and 12 guys out of the lineup," Shero said. "There's no team in the league (whose) offense will come easily."

Shero is taking a low-risk/high-reward bet that offense will come from Kovalev, who is slated to play right wing on a line with center Jordan Staal and left wing James Neal tonight at Carolina.

There are reasons to believe Kovalev will be strong in stint No. 2 with the Penguins. First, he is playing for what could be his last NHL contract; this one will expire after the season.

Also, he has professed a fondness for the organization, talked of a close friendship with majority co-owner Mario Lemieux and produced consistently in the postseason with 44 goals and 98 points in 116 games.

However, Kovalev publicly clashed with Senators coach Cory Clouston, and his reputation is that of an otherworldly skilled player who is as enigmatic as his left-handed shot is powerful.

His tenure of less than two seasons with the Senators followed a run of four-plus years with Montreal, where he was beloved and often brilliant (103 goals in 314 games). That was the case during his previous stint with the Penguins, a team he reportedly never wanted to leave.

Now he is back, and as right wing Bill Guerin did two years ago, Kovalev holds the pen that could write a triumphant comeback story. Guerin was asked to restore calm to the dressing room. Kovalev needs to win over this one.

He can start by scoring some goals.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Lack of shots a weak ploy for Penguins

Thursday, February 24, 2011
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Matt Freed/Post-Gazette

Sharks forward Patrick Marleau scores in overtime on Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and defenseman Zbynek Michalek during Wednesday's game at Consol Energy Center

Most of the shots the Penguins managed Wednesday night would not have beaten your Auntie Niemmy, much less San Jose's superb goalkeeper, Antti Niemi.

But the one Kris Letang fired during a third-period power play could have and probably should have found the net, except that Niemi's glove seemed to have a mind of its own as Letang's unimpeded wrister from the right faceoff circle whistled right into it.

That was the only shot of the power play and only the 21st of a long and mostly listless game, at least until Tyler Kennedy realized it was garbage night. Kennedy's second goal, a virtual replay of his first, tied the score with 50 seconds remaining, forcing an overtime that merely extended the Penguins' offensive misery.

There's no shame in losing, 3-2, in overtime. The shame is in that three goals in one game seem a virtual impossibility around here.

The Penguins began their cameo in Shark Week with a curious solution to the growing problem of offensive ineptitude.

After 39 shots failed to find the net Monday night against Washington, Dan Bylsma's team got set for the feeding frenzy that is the San Jose Sharks (14 wins in their past 17 games) by apparently resolving to simply forget about shooting altogether.

I mean shooting wasn't working, so let's try not shooting.

So for the first 4:18 Wednesday night, the Penguins did just that, or until Pascal Dupuis could no longer help himself. They shot all of six times on goal in the first period, including the one that got slapped in by Kennedy, who saw the puck sitting on the doorstep with no one around.

Kennedy's 13th of the season made it 1-0, but it didn't create so much as the illusion that the Penguins "attack" had benefited much immediately from the addition of James Neal, a big left winger Ray Shero finagled from Dallas this week to jump-start goal production.

"It's a little nerve-racking," said Dupuis of Neal's transition to a new club, himself having arrived in a late February trade just three winters ago. "It's not like you have to prove yourself, but you want to make a good impression. He's a big-bodied guy who can shoot the puck from the half-wall."

It was Dupuis who would set up Neal for his first official shot as a Penguins player, leaving him a nifty drop pass between the circles in one of the few scoring chances the Penguins generated in the third period. Neal had his first couple of shots blocked, but on this third-period opportunity, he tried to send the puck over Niemi's left shoulder, finding his glove instead.

In the absence of offense that has pretty much been a Penguins staple since Feb. 1, the previous time they scored four goals in a game, reliance again magnetized to the defense in general and the league's best penalty-killers in particular. The two penalties they killed in the first period where the 250th and 251st of the season, but 252 proved elusive when Logan Couture rammed Devin Setoguchi's perfect pass from the back wall past Marc-Andre Fleury to tie the score early in the second period. No one should have been caught off guard by the site of Couture pumping in a big goal. His eight game-winning goals lead the Sharks.

And for the second consecutive home game, the second period was delayed as the sellout crowd again waited for the house lights to come back to full power. More evidence, clearly, that the Penguins need a new building.

Maybe one named for an energy company, or something.

The Penguins power play didn't power up any more quickly in its only attempt through two periods. With Joe Thornton off for hooking Jordan Staal, only Kennedy and Matt Cooke managed to put pucks on Niemi, with neither a great challenge. That left the power play one for its past 13 and two for its previous 19. Kennedy and Cooke had the period's best scoring chance about four minutes early, breaking in two on one, but San Jose defenseman Ian White foiled their plans, assuming they had any.

The most critical shifts again came late in the period, again by the penalty-killers, who operated without Brooks Orpik when the big defenseman apparently hurt himself killing the second penalty. But when they killed Matt Niskanen's tripping minor in the final minutes of the second, it saved them from entering the third period behind, an unfavorable climate in which the Penguins are 0-15-1.

Neal will have his impact soon. He pretty much has to.

Gene Collier:


Highlights: Sharks 3, Penguins 2 (OT)

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

For now, Neal will be Crosby

Wednesday, February 23, 2011
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A guaranteed punch line lurks in every story that includes "diverted to Newark," and Dan Bylsma had no trouble coming up with one after his Tuesday practice failed to include new Penguins James Neal and Matt Niskanen, late of the Dallas Stars and later of the Newark International Airport.

"I hope they don't think they were traded to the Devils," Bylsma said.

Not bad. Not bad.

But how 'bout this?

I hope, upon reaching their final destination, they don't think they've been traded to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

All right, that's not even a joke, is it?

When you get traded to Pittsburgh, you expect to walk into the dressing room and meet Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, two of the best players in the world, not most of the best of the top two scoring lines of the Baby Penguins, but the whole predicament is the essential irony of the Neal deal.

"James Neal didn't happen overnight," Bylsma reminded everyone shortly after the acquisitions in the Alex Goligoski trade Monday finally touched down, failing to add that neither could actually get here overnight.

"He's a guy that we've looked at and targeted and said, 'This is the type of player that we had been looking for, for our top six as a winger.' I think he's going to make us a better team going into [the game tonight against San Jose]. He's the kind of player who can make a difference. He could have made a difference [Monday] night [in a 1-0 home loss to Washington.]"

It has been years, meaning the years since Ryan Malone left, that Bylsma and general manager Ray Shero have coveted Neal's profile in an offensive player, a classical power forward with a heavy shot who creates goals and chaos and more goals in the low slot. The point was to augment the singular force that was Sidney Crosby, but now, when such a profile appears to finally have been procured, James Neal is not exactly a complement to Sidney Crosby.

He is Sidney Crosby, at least on a team without a single player with even 19 goals or 50 points. In the land of the lost superstars, the 21-goal scorer is king.

"I think right now, there is [some] leaning -- to use your word -- on the guys like Jordan Staal, and now like James Neal, guys that have more points than the other players," Bylsma allowed.

"Jordan Staal, while he's playing a few more minutes and he's playing more power-play time, we're not asking him to do more than he's ever done for us in the past. We're not asking him to stop playing like he played when Sid and Geno were here and now really emerge. He's playing exactly how he played for us before.

"James Neal, we're not going to ask him to do anything different than what his game is. That will add to our team. That adds a shot presence, something we can use on the power play, an offensive-zone presence. But we're not going to ask him to be Sidney Crosby. We don't want to pay him like that, either."

That's probably a better line than the Devils crack, Dan, but go ahead.

"We want him to be James Neal, a big power forward with a heavy shot, and hard-working. He's got to be real consistent in how he plays his power forward game, which is something he needs to do, I think, to get his game to the next level. He needs to bring a little more consistency and use that work ethic and that physicality and be a factor for our team, and that will help us."

A scorer of Neal's pedigree would help just about anyone, but, when he shows up on Staal's left wing tonight, he'll bring the bonus of impeccable timing, for this is a hockey team whose last 42 shots on goal have failed to cross the line. Fortunately, Bylsma's offense does not present a steep learning curve, unless Neal feels some kind of internally pressurized impetus to freelance.

"It's a pretty simple system to play within," said forward Pascal Dupuis. "But, if you try to cheat, to push things, well, there's leadership here among the coaches and in the room where that will be addressed."

The Penguins would urge you not to be fooled by this little scoreless streak that now measures 63 minutes 18 seconds and three useless shootout attempts, because they felt their offensive effort overall against Washington was one of the best of the month.

Thus the addition of the long-sought scoring winger has to make a difference. We've long since memorized that part of the catechism.

"He's a great hockey player," Staal said of Neal. "Big guy, plays hard, plays physical. It's tough when you have guys shuffling in and out of the lineup, but you just have to keep the effort up. Injuries are going to happen and, sometimes, when it rains it pours. You just make sure you don't change the player that you are."

Neal shouldn't be trying to be Crosby, obviously, and the Penguins shouldn't be expecting anything like it, even more obviously. But a couple of goals here and there are likely going to be required.

Gene Collier:

Photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Trade makes sense now, later

Tuesday, February 22, 2011
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

PHILADELPHIA, PA - FEBRUARY 05: James Neal of the Dallas Stars skates against the Philadelphia Flyers on February 5, 2011 at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Getty Images)

So the Penguins traded their No. 5 defenseman for a young winger with the potential to score 30 goals or more?

This is a bad thing?

Are you kidding me?

It's no surprise Penguins general manager Ray Shero didn't wait until the trade deadline Monday to make his big move to make the team better. Taking advantage of the Dallas Stars' apparent willingness to dump a little salary, he jumped at the chance to acquire promising forward James Neal and young defenseman Matt Niskanen for defenseman Alex Goligoski Monday afternoon. "This is the hockey trade that we've been looking for," Shero said.

No wonder.

It makes the Penguins better now, next season and beyond.

I know the argument against it. Defense and goaltending have been the Penguins' strengths, especially since centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were lost with injuries. Why break up a good thing? Why risk hurting one of the areas that gives the team its best chance to be successful in the playoffs?

Sorry, I'm not buying it.

For one thing, you have to give something to get something. Teams aren't in the habit of giving away young power forwards. "Neal, on our list, is one of the better ones," Shero said. "He becomes part of our core group going forward. He's a top-six forward with the potential to become a top-three."

For another, Goligoski was expendable. The organizational depth on defense is significant. Paul Martin, who missed the game Monday night against the Washington Capitals with what's believed to be a minor injury, should take Goligoski's spot on the top power-play unit. Niskanen, 24, who had two strong seasons before slumping last season and this one because of what Shero described as a possible "confidence thing," could step into Goligoski's even-strength spot.

"A change [of teams] might help him get back to where he was," Shero said.

Young guys Ben Lovejoy, Brian Strait and Robert Bortuzzo will be waiting should Niskanen struggle. Down the road, former No. 1 pick Simon Despres, 19 -- the jewel in the system -- is coming.

Calgary Flames' Tom Kostopoulos gets knocked away from Dallas Stars' goalie Kari Lehtonen by Matt Niskanen during the first period of their NHL hockey game in Calgary, Alberta, February 16, 2011.(Reuters)

Shero admitted it was tough for coach Dan Bylsma "to wrap his arms around" the trade. "He really likes Alex." But there's no reason the Penguins shouldn't be just as strong defensively without Goligoski. And they still have goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. His role hasn't changed. He has to play spectacular hockey for the team to have a chance to go deep in the playoffs, especially if Crosby doesn't play again this season because of his concussion.

Shero said he has no "inside knowledge" about if or when Crosby returns. I have no reason not to believe him. If Crosby is back for the playoffs, the Penguins will be legitimate Stanley Cup contenders even without Malkin, who was lost for the season with a knee injury. If Crosby doesn't come back, they still will have a chance to make a nice run now that they have added Neal.

Shero cautioned he doesn't want anyone to think Neal is "going to be the savior right away." But asked if Neal is a serious upgrade to the Penguins' collection of wingers, he responded, "Oh God, yes ...

"It's exciting for us that he's 23. He's an unfinished product. He needs to find the consistency to take it to another level. We're hoping he'll do that here. That's the challenge for him and what's exciting for us."

Neal scored a goal Saturday night against the Vancouver Canucks, his first goal in 11 games. That's the inconsistency Shero mentioned. But Neal had 20 goals in his first 48 games this season so the talent is there. He had 27 goals last season and 24 in 2008-09. Don't be surprised if he gives a lift to the struggling power play.

Shero pointed out the Penguins control Neal's contract rights through 2015. That's the best part of the trade. You can't give up a player of Goligoski's quality for a rent-a-player, especially with Crosby's return this season so uncertain. Neal should play with Crosby for a long time.

Shero is expected to make at least one more move to bring in another forward before the Monday deadline, although it probably won't be a major deal. "I'm not going to give up a No. 1 pick or anything like that," he said. Should Shero be interested -- and there's reason to believe he is -- he could get Ottawa Senators forward Alex Kovalev for a lot less. There aren't a lot of other rent-a-forwards out there who could help more.

Even if Shero doesn't make another trade, he has accomplished his goal.

"We're going to be in the playoffs and we're going to be a hard team [to play against]," he said. "We're looking to give some teams a hard time."

With Crosby, for sure.

Maybe now without him.

Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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Highlights: Capitals 1, Penguins 0

Monday, February 21, 2011

Bylsma has that special touch

Monday, February 21, 2011
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma achieved two important milestones earlier this month. You might have missed them because of the now infamous Friday Night Fights on Long Island and the subsequent Mario Lemieux-driven fallout. But they were significant accomplishments nonetheless. Bylsma got his 100th victory when the Penguins beat the Los Angeles Kings Feb. 10 at Consol Energy Center, then, five days later, celebrated his two-year anniversary on the job. He recognized the first feat in typically understated fashion. "My wife [Mary Beth] doesn't usually come back to my office after a game, but she and my son [Bryan, 12] came back that night and we spent a brief moment together." It's that second achievement that's worth shouting about. Bylsma is a little more than halfway toward becoming the longest-tenured coach in Penguins history. It's unreal, if you think about it. The Steelers have had three coaches in 42 seasons. The Penguins haven't had a man last four consecutive years since they dropped their first puck in 1967.

"I'm well aware of that," Bylsma said, wryly, the other day.

It's probably just as well that Bylsma has little time to think about how his organization -- his sport, really -- has had such little regard for its coaches. He is pretty busy trying to keep the Penguins together through an unbelievable run of injuries and suspensions to key players. He has done a great job. Despite the 3-2 shootout road loss to the Chicago Blackhawks Sunday, the team is 10-7-2 without Sidney Crosby, 7-5-1 without Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

"There aren't a lot of references made to the people we don't have," Bylsma said. "We don't sound alarm bells. There's no panic. We don't have to re-do things. We don't ask our players to step up. We don't ask them to change. We just ask them to focus more on being themselves and playing their game. It's not about who's not in the room. It's about who is in the room right now. It's all about right now."

All coaches preach that sermon in tough times. "There's no secret to it," Bylsma said. "It's not a Kool-Aid. If you want to find the secret to success, go to a bookstore and pick up any one of the 2,000 books on that subject. They all say the same thing." But that doesn't mean some coaches aren't more successful than others. What separates the truly good ones is the ability to get their players to buy into their message and keep them from growing tired of hearing it. It's a real gift. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has it. "The standard is the standard," he must have said a million times during the team's run to the Super Bowl a few weeks ago. Clearly, Bylsma has it, too. You see it in the way his players react to him. That's why it's nice to think he'll break Eddie Johnston's franchise record for coaching longevity. Johnston coached the Penguins from the 1993-94 season until he was replaced after 62 games of the 1996-97 season.

"It's an energizing thing, a passionate thing," Bylsma said of his coaching style. "My goal is to be actively involved with my players. I know everyone wants to win and wants to do well. But are they willing to get off the couch and do what it takes? I try to encourage the players in what they want to become. You've got to talk about it with them and come up with a plan. I try to create a picture for them of what [success] looks like. And I try to show them how to get there."

A lot of it involves setting a work-ethic standard. It doesn't matter if you're Sidney Crosby, superstar, or Tim Wallace, just up from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. There's a certain way things are done. The right way.

But Bylsma is able to reach his players in a deeper sense. He decided it was OK to invite you into the team's room for a brief glimpse of how he operates. The subject of conversation with his players was leadership, which he defined as "the effect you have in any moment or in any situation on yourself or anyone else."

"Zbynek Michalek was injured early on and I knew he felt bad," Bylsma said. "I asked him, 'Are you a leader on this team?' He said, 'I'm new. I haven't played much ... '

"Then I asked Brooks Orpik if he had noticed [Michalek] 'Yeah, I've noticed him. He's worked as hard to get back as anyone I've ever been around,' he said. I asked another injured player and he said, 'Sure, I've noticed him. He's worked so hard that it makes me feel guilty. I know what I have to do now to keep up with him.' I think 12 players must have said they noticed [Michalek's] work ethic and commitment. That told me he's one of our leaders."

More important, it told Michalek the same thing.

"That's why I hate when players say, 'I'm too young to be a leader ... I'm not playing well ... I can't lead right now.' That's bull," Bylsma said. "You lead by the way you practice, the way you work. You make an impact on other people on the team by the way you conduct yourself, by what you say. I don't care who you are, you are definitely a leader. The question is, how are you leading?"

That special touch has worked for Bylsma since he took the Penguins job. They were in 10th place and out of the playoff field when he replaced Michel Therrien Feb. 15, 2009, then finished the regular season 18-3-4 under him before going on to win the Stanley Cup. Last season, they had the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference before losing in seven games in the second round of the playoffs to the Montreal Canadiens. This season, they still have the second-best record in the conference despite 201 man-games lost to injuries and suspensions.

Bylsma's two years-plus record is 101-50-16.

That should be good enough for the Penguins to keep him around for a while.

Maybe even for four years.

Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

Photo: Getty Images

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Highlights: Blackhawks 3, Penguins 2 (SO)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Woodley deserves the big bucks

By Mike Bires
Beaver County Times
Sunday, February 20, 2011

LaMarr Woodley is proof that there's value in keeping your yap shut and just doing the job you‘re paid to do.

Last summer at training camp, Woodley could have easily bickered about his contract. He was vastly underpaid in 2009 when he led the Steelers in sacks. He was going to be underpaid again in 2010. And the Steelers hadn't offered him an extension like they've done to so many of their stars in recent years.

But Woodley, the Steelers' left outside linebacker, never complained. He was the antithesis of Jeff Reed.

In fact, one particular day at camp last August, Reed and Woodley were cornered by the media and asked about their contractual status. Reed chose to whine about his situation. Woodley refused to utter a discouraging word.

Reed went on to kick his way out of town.

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley celebrates after he sacked New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez in the second quarter of the AFC Championship game in Pittsburgh, January 23, 2011.(Reuters)

Woodley went on to have another strong season, and on Friday, he was justly rewarded for his productivity and his patience. When they Steelers put the franchise tag on him, Woodley was guaranteed to make $10.2 million in 2011 provided NFL owners and players eventually end their labor dispute and there is a 2011 season.

"Just got a well-deserved, $9.5 million raise," Woodley wrote on his Twitter account. "Here's to a long-term deal."

Woodley, the Steelers' second-round pick in the 2007 draft, will eventually get his long-term deal. The Steelers would be crazy not to lock this guy in for years to come.

Obviously, he's a terrific player.

In each of his three years as a starter, Woodley posted double-digit sack totals. He's one of only two players in team history to record at least 10 sacks in three straight seasons. The other is James Harrison.

Woodley's 39 sacks in his first four seasons are the most of any Steelers defender in the first four years of their careers. He is also the only player in NFL history to post at least one sack in six consecutive postseason games.

Beyond his playing ability, Woodley is also a good guy. He's a great locker room guy and he's active in community affairs. He's a model citizen.

One day during Super Bowl week in North Texas, I asked Woodley why he never threatened to hold out or complain about his contract.

"I didn't want to be a distraction," he said.

In a season in which the Steelers had plenty of distractions, Woodley just played and played well. He was second on the team with 10 sacks (Harrison had 10.5) and was paid just $550,000. That's close to $1 million less than the Steelers paid backup nose tackle Chris Hoke.

In ‘09 when Woodley led the team with 13.5 sacks and made the Pro Bowl, he was paid $460,000. That was $160,000 less than the Steelers paid Andre Frazier, the man who backed up Woodley.

But now, that is history. Woodley is now a millionaire 10 times over.

Good for him. His patience has paid off. If anyone deserves such a raise, it's him.

Mike Bires can be reached at

NHL fights should be KO'd

Sunday, February 20, 2011
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Demonstrating again his stranglehold on the obvious, National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman said the other night in Tampa that he will not be engaging Penguins owner Mario Lemieux in any further debate on the fighting issue or the discipline issue.


Lemieux is more likely to frequent a karaoke bar than debate anything publicly. He said his piece to the relevant factotums, and that is that.

But that doesn't mean the NHL can plan on a long-term future in which fighting maintains its dubious status as one of the game's essential entertainment elements. Cooler heads with bigger brains eventually will rid the league of its fistic profile, and don't be surprised if that political effort isn't led by the Penguins.

For the moment, however, we're again in this rhetorical hockey ditch where people are trying to explain why such things as assault and battery are somehow impossible to disentangle from the game's heavy historical fabric.

Trouble is, we're really overcomplicating it.

Just as a matter of taste, in the interest of full disclosure, I've always been generally OK with situations where players are battling for the puck, become frustrated, and sometimes fail to control the competitive instinct to lash out, especially in a league where the fist is an honored tool. When on-ice officials arrive at this kind of scene and immediately try to separate the combatants, if a punch or two lands, I can attribute that to the game's great passion.

But that's not the answer to why fighting exists.

The answer to that is, because the NHL wants it to exist.

Otherwise, you would not see two players squared off, their gloves on the ice, and not three but now four officials standing around waiting for some mysteriously prescribed number of permissible punches to land.

Could you maybe step between these guys?

Some nights, I think they're waiting for a ring card girl.

In the HBO series 24/7, the exquisite four-episode look at the Penguins, the Washington Capitals, and the Winter Classic, part of the early game footage shows a fight involving Penguins forward Arron Asham. As Asham comes out of the corner to engage his opponent, the referee actually moves the net from its moorings and instructs the other players in the vicinity to give the assailants room.

That is the National Hockey League, in the person of the official, clearing ice for boxing. Not figuratively, literally. If the league didn't want fighting, how could that happen?

Obviously, there are penalties for fighting, but they are clearly not deterrents. Micheal Haley, the minor league pit bull unleashed on the Penguins on Long Island last weekend, put up a rap sheet that read:







And he was still in the game in third period.

The problem is, Haley had been prosecuted to the fullest extent of NHL law, the fullest extent being three five-minute fighting majors. By contrast, Penguins enforcer Eric Godard was automatically suspended by 10 games for leaving the bench because Rule 70.11 states that a player can't do that to engage in an altercation.

Well, there's an idea. Maybe there should be some rules regarding the other stuff. I know why the NHL is apparently serious about not wanting players leaving the bench. They might break up a fight.

The NHL needs completely overhauled protocols for discipline when it comes to fighting, unless it is perfectly fine with television ratings that still settle somewhere between soccer and auto racing.

Someone in the league office has to have noticed that, in the so-called major sports, players who punch people are immediately ejected and/or suspended, not sent to a neutral corner for five minutes again and again and again.

Research has shown that American audiences, which represent the majority of the still considerable potential to grow the game, are not only intolerant of the fighting, but confused as to the ethos of hockey fights and retribution, the so-called code. They don't want to be excluded. They want things in black and white. They want rules that make up the law of the game. In this aspect, there is too much gray in the NHL.

All of which makes for an interesting if tedious cultural tug-of-war.

In Canada, the game was not diminished by an ounce as a result of the Penguins-Islanders mayhem, because the NHL's popularity virtually saturates the landscape. Similar was the nonexistent impact on the popularity of the NFL owing to James Harrison's escapades last fall.

But Canadian teams now constitute only 20 percent of the league. If the game is going to grow, and there are progressives in the other 80 percent who'll demand that it grows, it has to grow clean. No head-hunting. No head hits. No fighting.

It's not just time to grow, it's time to grow up.

Gene Collier:

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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Highlights: Penguins 3, Avalanche 2 (OT)

There’s more to Mario Lemieux’s Statement than you think

Posted by Mike Colligan on Feb 15 2011

Mario Lemieux coaching his son's youth hockey team in October (Credit:

Ask anyone who remembers Mario Lemieux’s playing career and they’ll tell you he was a player who wasn’t afraid to speak his mind. They’ll even point to a number of well-documented examples when ‘Super Mario’ seemed to be begging for special treatment.

Like in 1992 when he called the NHL a “garage league” because of the baffling rules (or lack thereof) that benefited the marginal hockey player.

Or the time he lost his mind and confronted referee Kerry Fraser after he was mauled in a 1994 game against Tampa Bay.

But for the most part, Lemieux quietly accepted the constant physical abuse that accompanied his role as a superstar in that era. He absorbed the slashes and the punches and cheap shots that took a serious toll on his mind and his body over time.

Bobby Orr once told CBC that Lemieux was “the most talented player I’ve ever seen. If it were not for health problems, God only knows what his numbers would have been.”

Lemieux’s transition into an ownership role has been relatively quiet as well after he won city and state support for a new arena that opened this fall. A wave from the owner’s box or a timely text message is about all fans get anymore from the man Orr spoke so highly of.

This weekend that changed.

Brawls erupted in a Friday night game between his Penguins and the New York Islanders that left the entire hockey world stunned. Pittsburgh’s Eric Godard received an automatic 10-game suspension for leaving the bench to join in a fight, Matt Martin of the Islanders was suspended four games for punching Max Talbot from behind, and Trevor Gillies was given a nine-game suspension for a vicious elbow and attack on defenseless Penguins prospect Eric Tangradi.

Tangradi remains out of the lineup with his second concussion in less than a year and the Islanders organization was fined $100,000 for a “failure to control their players.”

When details of the suspensions and fines were finally released late Saturday night, Mario decided he had seen enough.

The following afternoon he released a seething response to the league laced with words like travesty, sideshow, and embarrassing:

“Hockey is a tough, physical game, and it always should be. But what happened Friday night on Long Island wasn’t hockey. It was a travesty. It was painful to watch the game I love turn into a sideshow like that.

“The NHL had a chance to send a clear and strong message that those kinds of actions are unacceptable and embarrassing to the sport. It failed.

“We, as a league, must do a better job of protecting the integrity of the game and the safety of our players. We must make it clear that those kinds of actions will not be tolerated and will be met with meaningful disciplinary action.

“If the events relating to Friday night reflect the state of the league, I need to re-think whether I want to be a part of it.”

What happened on Friday night was a complete embarrassment, but it wasn’t rock bottom for the NHL. Dozens of disgusting incidents have happened in the past and with the snails-pace of change in today’s NHL it’s certain to happen again.

So what prompted Lemieux to snap?

ESPN’s Scott Burnside took the opportunity to attack Lemieux’s character in a column calling him out as a ‘petulant child stomping his feet’. [Burnside's personal insults of Lemieux and the Penguins organization stem from the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals when the writer in question wasn't granted a sitdown interview with the owner.]

Others like Joe Yerdon at ProHockeyTalk on NBC offered a more reasoned critique wondering if Lemieux’s method of delivery was selfish.

Penguins General Manager Ray Shero told Kevin Allen at the USA TODAY that the statement even caught him off guard.

“[Mario] just saw something that disturbed him in the game and he spoke out about it,” Shero said. “It’s out of character. So when he does say something, you know how strongly he feels about it.”

To pinpoint the origins of Lemieux’s uncharacteristic reaction, it’s worth taking a look at who he’s become in the five years since he walked away from the game for the final time.

Mario the Coach

The challenge for any supremely-talented athlete is finding an avenue to satisfy the competitive juices long after a playing career ends.

Wayne Gretzky dabbled in coaching at the NHL level for a few years after retirement, but the ‘Great One’ managed just a 143-161-24 record behind the bench of the Phoenix Coyotes before getting hung out to dry by the team in bankruptcy court.

Mario possesses a similar interest in sharing his hockey knowledge with others, but prefers to mentor the younger generation.

For the past few years Lemieux has coached his son Austin’s traveling team which recently competed in the Tier 1 ’96 Super Series amateur hockey tournament at Pittsburgh’s CONSOL Energy Center:

“My son, he is the reason I got involved,” Lemieux said. “It’s been a joy to be around him and teach him the stuff that I know, and to the other kids as well. When he started playing I wanted to be involved in his hockey career. It’s a lot of fun for both of us.”

Lemieux went on to explain that helping Austin and his teammates develop and improve is a rewarding role that most hockey parents don’t get the opportunity to experience.

He said that winning and losing isn’t important to him as a coach, as long as the kids learn to play the game the right way and always put in a solid effort.

Mario the Landlord

Away from the rink, Mario serves as a father-figure and a mentor to another hockey-obsessed ‘kid’.

Lemieux has never forgotten the treatment he received from Tom and Nancy Matthews in the mid-80′s as a French-speaking teenager stepping foot in an unfamiliar city. The Matthews treated him like a son and Mario has made it a point to pay-it-forward by opening the doors of his home to a number of young Penguins over the years.

Sidney Crosby moved into the Lemieux residence during his rookie year when the two played briefly as teammates and he was just beginning to adjust to the NHL, a new city, and a brighter media spotlight.

Crosby took such a liking to Lemieux and his family that he still remains a member of the household six years after making his way to Pittsburgh. Six years seems like a long time, but for Crosby the last six weeks have proved to be the most grueling.

Recovering from a concussion(s) he suffered in early January remains a frustrating day-to-day process for Crosby as he itches to return to the ice. But this isn’t your normal hockey injury.

Crosby didn’t suffer a broken hand from a slash like the one Adam Graves laid on Lemieux in the 1992 playoffs.

This wasn’t even like the high-ankle sprain that kept Crosby off the ice for long unpredictable stretches of the 2007-08 season.

Lemieux witnessed one of his most-talented rivals, Pat Lafontaine, lose his career to concussions in the late 90′s and over the past six weeks has had to watch a 23-year-old kid battling the same brain injury in his own home:

“It’s brutal. You sit around and can’t do anything. Early on, I could barely watch TV. I’ve been able to do that more. It’s the things you take for granted and do everyday, like driving. That would set me off. That kind of stuff you take for granted. You realize going through something like this that being able to drive is a good step. I’ve been driving since it happened. Just getting through that without getting a headache or feeling a little off are the things you take for granted.”

-Sidney Crosby, Jan. 24

Lemieux and the Penguins never complained publicly about the hit Crosby sustained in the Winter Classic from Washington’s David Steckel, but you can sense the team’s quiet frustration as the future of the NHL’s greatest star remains an unknown.

Mario the Owner

Mario Lemieux the owner isn’t one to speak publicly either. He spoke at a press conference in the 2009 Cup Finals and again after the Alumni Game last month, but he doesn’t want the Pittsburgh Penguins to be about him.

Shero adopts a similar approach as the team’s general manager. He doesn’t publicly respond to daily incidents like his equal in Toronto, but admitted behind closed doors that he’s had conversations with Matt Cooke about playing the game with more respect for opponents.

Critics call Shero and Lemieux hypocrites for employing a serial cheap-shot artist like Cooke, who was recently suspended four games by the NHL for a hit from behind on Fedor Tyutin of Columbus.

But Matt Cooke’s recent actions were illegal under the rules of hockey.

Players like Cooke, Sean Avery, and Jarkko Ruutu aren’t paid millions of dollars for their sleek offensive abilities. Today’s NHL agitator is incentivized to carefully toe the blurry line between illegal and irritating. When they pester an opponent into a senseless penalty, we applaud them and say ‘that’s the type of player you want on your team’. When they take one step over that line, we crucify them mercilessly for their lack of respect.

What the Islanders did on Friday night was illegal under the rules of law.

A premeditated attack on another person without consent is deemed assault or battery in most jurisdictions.

When players step on the ice each night they assume the risk that injury could occur as a normal result of hits and the high speed the game is played at. Guys like Max Talbot, Eric Tangradi, and Steve Moore (Todd Bertuzzi’s defenseless victim) don’t sign up to have someone attack them blindly and try to break their neck.

Lemieux watched on Friday night as a 31-year-old journeyman with one career goal elbowed the career and the life of his organization’s top prospect into uncertainty.

“If the events relating to Friday night reflect the state of the league, I need to re-think whether I want to be a part of it.”

When Lemieux says he needs to re-think whether he wants to be a part of it, he isn’t just talking about his role as co-owner of an NHL team.

He’s speaking as an ambassador of the game, an influential youth hockey coach, a landlord of a concussed superstar, and a father to hockey-playing children.

Call him selfish; a hypocrite; a petulant child.

Lemieux has witnessed the dramatic impact headshots can have on the life of a person firsthand. He doesn’t want to be the one telling CBC in fifteen years that Crosby was “the most talented player I’ve ever seen. If it were not for health problems, God only knows what his numbers would have been.”

He also doesn’t want to watch his own children suffer a similar fate at the hands of the game he loves.

Can you blame him?

Ugly hat trick for NHL as mayhem spins out of control

By Michael Farber
Inside the NHL
February 16, 2011

BOSTON, MA - FEBRUARY 09: Johnny Boychuk #55 of the Boston Bruins fights with Jaroslav Spacek #6 of the Montreal Canadiens is Shawn Thornton #22 of the Bruins and Brian Gionta #21 of the Canadiens fight on February 9, 2011 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. The Bruins defeated the Canadiens 8-6. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

This is connect-the-dots time for the NHL, and the picture is not exactly pretty.

Beginning with a mean-spirited game in Pittsburgh between the Penguins and Islanders on Feb. 2 that included a dodgy hit and a goalie fight, and concluding with the pre-Valentine Day's Massacre rematch between the two teams on Long Island, the NHL has descended into the gutter -- a refuge of rancor, vitriol and vengeance. In the 18 years of Commissioner Gary Bettman's stewardship, a period in which when the league has shed its mom-and-pop veneer and become a growing part of the sports entertainment industry, this is the first time that the NHL has seemed circa-1970s small.

There have, of course, been incidents during the Bettman years that obliged the generic sports fan to cast a rheumy gaze at the league -- Marty McSorley stalking Donald Brashear (video) and Todd Bertuzzi assaulting Steve Moore (video) to name two -- but, after a few reflexive rounds of a national tsk-tsking, these events came to be viewed almost as one-offs, spasmodic eruptions of hockey's basest instincts. They were horrific events, but they were not necessarily defining ones for a league that was trying to honor the old trappings while modernizing its ways.

But now a disturbing pattern has emerged, and the NHL can't seem to get out of its own way.

Since Feb. 2, the NHL has seen a) two goalie fights; b) three bouts in the first four minutes of a Stars-Bruins game that also included a vicious blindside hit; c) unbridled brawling between two Original 6 rivals, the Bruins and Canadiens, that included the son of the NHL's dean of discipline as a major combatant flailing away as his elbow pad flapped; d) a match between the Penguins and Islanders featuring 346 penalty minutes that would have been better handled by a SWAT team than two referees and two linesmen; and e) one of the biggest names of the past quarter century, Penguins co-owner and Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux, decrying the violence directed at his team, a plaint that was greeted with widespread, if not universal, derision because his team leads the league in fighting and employs arguably the most destructive player in the NHL.

The film classic Slap Shot is starting to look like a documentary.

Now there are antecedents for every outbreak of the recent lunacy. There are rationalizations. There might even be reasons that go beyond naked revenge and have something to do with the sport. And in some cases, there might even be a salutary effect on teams as the battling fosters a degree of closeness, a brothers-in-arms kind of deal.

But woven together, the brawling, the tepid punishments for certain kind of hits, and the self-pitying if not baseless complaints by Lemieux make the sport look petty and fractious at precisely the time of year -- post-Super Bowl and pre-NCAA basketball tournament -- when the league has a relatively short window in which it can grab a disproportionate share of national attention.

Descent into madness

Selecting Feb. 2 as the start of the NHL's descent into madness is, in a sense, arbitrary. (You can make a compelling argument that NHL vice president Colin Campbell, because he did not use "intent to injure" and suspend the Penguins' Matt Cooke for his predatory hit that concussed Boston's Marc Savard last March, laid the foundation for much of what has followed. As always, antecedents.) But the mood was set when the Penguins' Max Talbot laid out Islanders winger Blake Comeau with a blind shoulder-to-shoulder hit in the first period on Feb. 2, and when New York goalie Rick DiPietro went high with his blocker on Cooke as he buzzed the crease in the dying seconds of the game. Pittsburgh goalie Johnson subsequently skated some 180 feet to engage DiPietro, and the stakes were raised significantly. Johnson's left hand broke DiPietro's face and elicited silly grins on the admiring Penguins bench.

The following night in Boston, the Stars and the Bruins engaged in three fights mere seconds after the opening faceoff, which sort of undercuts the argument that hockey fights are essentially spontaneous outbursts that reflect what has occurred in a game, don't you think? Of course, these fights actually did reflect what happened in a game -- one that occurred in November 2008. The Stars jumped the rails that night in a 5-1 loss and Mike Modano later said he found it "idiotic and stupid ... one of the most embarrassing things I've seen." If Lemieux seemed to echo Modano's long-ago comments on Sunday, remember that Modano was throwing a probing jab at his own team, not exonerating it.

The most egregious act occurred midway through the second period when Boston's Daniel Paille became a poster boy for Rule 48 with a blindside hit to the head of Dallas forward Raymond Sawada, earning a match penalty and a relatively tepid suspension of four games from the NHL. (The rule was instituted this season in an effort to eliminate the kind of hits that Cooke planted on Savard.)

"The problem," said Mike Keane, who played 16 NHL seasons, "is (chief disciplinarian) Colin Campbell and the NHL aren't suspending players for a long enough period to hurt them. It's always two, three, four games. They should impose penalties that start with five or ten games. They show a lot of old-school thinking. Their first reaction seems to be that a guy shouldn't have put himself in a position (to be injured)."

After muddling along three years without a goalie fight, the NHL had its second within a week on Feb. 9. Not quite two weeks earlier, the Bruins' Tim Thomas and Montreal's Carey Price were All-Star game teammates, sitting side by side and chatting like old pals during the player draft. Now, two Vezina Trophy candidates were attempting to fight, even if it looked more like frat house wrestling.

Price never threw a cocked right after Thomas fell, an act that, by the low standards of the evening, seemed worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize. There were 187 minutes of penalties and 12 fighting majors. At one point there were six Bruins and five Canadiens in the penalty box; the scene looked like a college prank from the 1950s when students stuffed themselves into Volkswagens.

The final minute featured Bruin Gregory Campbell's flapping elbow pad as he beat a tattoo on Canadien Tom Pyatt's face as Boston's Johnny Boychuk continuing to hammer away at an overmatched Jaroslav Spacek of Montreal.

"Guys weren't going to take it any more," Bruins rookie Brad Marchand said that night, an apparent reference to Max Pacioretty's schoolboy shove of Bruins captain Zdeno Chara after a Montreal overtime victory in January. Or maybe Marchand meant P.K. Subban's alleged slew foot of Campbell. Of course, he could have been talking about three straight Canadiens wins over the Bruins before this match. The bullying appeared more tactical than truly vengeful -- the Bruins are the bigger and more physical team than swifter and softer Montreal -- but the end-game punch-ups seemed like gratuitous exclamation points on a thumping 8-6 win.

A major outrage

But all of this was a mere warmup act for the Islanders-Penguins game last Friday. That one was near mayhem. Matt Martin of the Isles sucker-punched Talbot at center ice, faintly echoing Bertuzzi's attack on Moore. Minor league call-up Micheal Haley later fought Talbot and then skated the length of the ice to engage Johnson, the goalie. New York's Trevor Gillies went upside the head on the Penguins' Eric Tangradi with an elbow, and then punched the helpless player several times when he was down.

The next day, Colin Campbell clearly identified the aggrieved party: the Penguins. Although Pittsburgh enforcer Eric Godard received a mandatory 10-game suspension for leaving the bench to join a fight -- he bolted to try to protect Johnson -- his coach, Dan Bylsma, escaped punishment. Meanwhile Gillies earned a nine-game suspension, Martin four, and the Islanders were fined $100,000. Somehow Haley skated, but NHL discipline has seen worse days.

Said Campbell, "The actions by the Islanders' Gillies and Martin were deliberate attempts to injure by delivering blows to the head of players who were unsuspecting and unable to defend themselves. The message should be clear to all players: targeting the head of an opponent by whatever means will be dealt with by suspension ...The Islanders also must bear some responsibility for their failure to control their players."

The message seemed forceful enough, but Lemieux bridled. In a statement released through the Penguins on Sunday, Lemieux said, "... what happened Friday night on Long Island wasn't hockey. It was a travesty. It was painful to watch the game I love turn into a sideshow like that. The NHL had a chance to send a clear and strong message that those kinds of actions are unacceptable and embarrassing to the sport. It failed. We, as a league, must do a better job of protecting the integrity of the game and the safety of our players. We must make it clear that those kinds of actions will not be tolerated and will be met with meaningful disciplinary action." He added that if the game on Long Island "reflect(s) the state of the league, I need to rethink whether I want to be a part of it."

The general response in the hockey world was incredulity, the message lost in Lemieux's melodrama. Ex-Vancouver captain Trevor Linden, a former president of the NHLPA, "What do you want (the NHL) to do? Give guys life (out of the league)?"

At times, Lemieux's statement verged on the absurd -- now that he can splash in the revenue streams of Pittsburgh's lavish new arena, it's dubious that he would be in a hurry to share his stake in the club -- and self-serving. In 1992, when Lemieux called the NHL a "garage league," there was a similar whiff of self-pity. (If we cut out clutching and grabbing, then my job gets easier.) But Lemieux wasn't wrong when he spoke out almost two decades ago -- the post-lockout rule standards validated his view -- and he is not wrong now. The messenger is an inviting target -- unfortunately his statement was a one-and-done and not the start of a crusade; he is declining interviews -- but that doesn't invalidate the core of the message.

Travesty. Sideshow. Embarrassing.

A neat hat trick, eh?