Monday, August 22, 2011

A Mixed Bag: Drury, Islanders, Zajac, Rick Rypien

With less than 10 days left in August, hockey's around the corner with Traverse City getting underway in the second week of September, just as the U.S. Open finishes. Yes, I'm a huge tennis fan who follows the grand slams and can't wait for it to kick off next week. Once the first ball is served, you know our sport's finally on deck. By show of hands, who can't wait? The #IsItOctober trend on Twitter's been increasing by the minute. For yours truly, it's all about September with the big prospect tournament that MSG airs along with training camps and preseason.

With the NFL also two weeks away with the first Sunday set on the Tenth Anniversary of 9/11, it's going to have extra significance for everyone. There's so much going on that Opening Night will be here before you know it. Personally, this is my favorite time of year with summer fading away while leaves change colors and school restarts. That might not be so thrilling for some of you. But I'm becoming a substitute teacher and am looking forward to a new challenge just as our hockey teams prepare for their own.

A lot's happened lately. So, let's try to cover it:

1.Chris Drury Retires- For most observers, it isn't a surprise that one of America's finest hockey players called it a career due to a chronic knee issues. Of course, it came after the Rangers bought our former captain out, clearing room. Whatever happened to Dru the past two years, it's easy to forget that he was one of our best performers in Years 1-2, averaging a shade over 23 goals with nearly half the production on the power play while also averaging over 56 points. Sure. It wasn't the 37 markers or 69 points the former Little League World Series Trumbull, Connecticut hero put up in his final season in Buffalo- haunting us with a tying goal in Game Five. However, what gets lost is that was his best statistical year, coming on a much more talented squad that advanced to its second consecutive Conference Final. Drury was never about stats but rather intangibles like winning faceoffs, outhustling opponents on the PK and making the right play. Don't forget he had a knack for scoring big goals as a good chunk (47 of 255 goals) backs up. The Avalanche don't win a second Cup without Captain Clutch. A hardworking, well respected player loved by teammates and peers, who poured overwhelming support last week. Over 12 seasons, he handled himself like a true professional. The 615 points (255-360-615) in 892 games are a good measuring stick for any third round pick, originally drafted by Quebec in '94 (72nd overall). I think everyone will agree that if Brandon Dubinsky or Ryan Callahan come close to those figures, the Rangers just might not wait another 37 years for Cup No.5. Congrats to Chris Drury on an outstanding career!

2.Islanders- No matter what they're involved in, chaos is the buzz word when it comes to the Islanders. So, Charles Wang's referendum failed. For now, the Isles were supposed to concern themselves with the upcoming '11-12 season, commemorating the franchise's Forty Year Anniversary. One which is filled with promise thanks to a young nucleus led by John Tavares. Instead, the Isles found themselves mixed up in another controversy involving one of their Top 10 games last season. This past Friday, they were expected to hold a Viewing Party to air the club's 9-3 melee-induced 2/11 win over the Penguins. However, due to opposition from a Pens blog and even the league, the organization decided against showing the bloodshed. Instead, they substituted one of their most exciting wins over the Sabres that occurred two days later- a 7-6 treat that featured a hat trick from Calder runner-up Michael Grabner, who finished third behind Jeff Skinner and Logan Couture. It's understandable why there was some resentment to showing such a game. While it was quite entertaining with Jack Capuano's club exacting revenge on the Pens for their cheap antics in a prior match that included laughing from the Pittsburgh bench after Rick DiPietro was concussed by Brent Johnson, the general consensus is that they went overboard- turning the third period into a circus. Given the sensivity to violence, the Islanders made the right decision here. Besides, the combined 13 goals in what was a seesaw battle between two Battle rivals, was a better game.

3.Travis Zajac Injury- The Devils were dealt a significant blow when it was learned that top center Travis Zajac tore his achilles during a training session. He's expected to miss at least the first month and possibly half of November. Considering the club's recent history with injuries, figure the Devs to use caution, which could mean Zajac doesn't return until December. How that impacts them under new coach Pete DeBoer remains to be seen. Considering that they subtracted Brian Rolston to save cap space, New Jersey is pretty thin up the middle with Patrik Elias probably shifting to center the top line. Elias has had success there and could find chemistry with a healthy Zach Parise, who's in his final year before potentially testing the market. The question is how will DeBoer handle the loss. Last year, Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk couldn't co-exist. It probably makes sense to split them up, balancing out the lines. If say you keep complement Nick Palmeiri with Kovalchuk and substitute Dainius Zubrus, it would allow Elias and Kovalchuk to perhaps team with David Clarkson, who could provide the meat and potatoes while Swede connection Jacob Josefson and Mattias Tedenby remain on the third line. That assumes Clarkson reestablishes himself. Keep an eye on prospect Adam Henrique, who should get an extended look with Zajac out.

4.The NHL is mourning the loss of Rick Rypien, who was found dead at his Alberta home last Monday. The popular tough guy, who took on all comers despite his smallish 5-11, 190 pound frame, had battled demons off the ice. He took a leave of absence nine months ago to address personal issues. At age 27, another extended member of our family is gone too soon with many questions left as to why. That it came three months after Ranger enforcer Derek Boogaard passed away due to a mix of alcohol and the painkiller oxycodone, has raised concerns about player mental health. Rypien had dealt with depression. It's unfair to compare the untimely deaths of Boogaard and Rypien even though they were basically the same age with the Boogey Man passing away at 28. The former Canuck was excited to be returning to Manitoba where he starred for the Moose under current Winnipeg Jets Assistant GM Craig Heisinger. Like Boogaard, his death was a shock to the hockey community. To hear Vancouver GM Mike Gillis tell it, it sounded like Rypien was improving.

"Over the course of the last three seasons, we participated in a variety of different initiatives with him and we were all really close with him," Gillis expressed last Tuesday in Toronto. "We had an understanding of what we thought was going on and had a number of outside agencies involved in assisting us, and we felt we were on course.

We felt he was making progress in a lot of different areas. When he signed with Winnipeg, we were all really happy for him."

It's extremely difficult to think that two players we watched and cheered for are gone. The NHL definitely must put more emphasis on finding out why these tragedies happened. It's not good for the league and sports as a whole. Anxiety and Depression are serious issues that we are seeing more and more of with players taking time off to try to address these matters. Whether it's Substance Abuse or Mental, we tend to forget that these are people just like us with everyday problems. The more we learn, the better each league will be at helping treat their employees. Preventing future tragedies should be priority. Here's hoping things improve to the point where we don't have to eulogize another stunning death. Life's too short.

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