Friday, September 30, 2011

Devils preseason ends tomorrow with decisions looming



With five preseason games in the books now, tomorrow the Devils will play their final exhibition against the Flyers at the Prudential Center. However that's just an appetizer for the main course next Saturday, when the Devils open their season for real against the same Flyers in the same building. While decisions over who will stay and who will go haven't been made quite yet - perhaps they will after tonight since some of the borderline guys did play in the Devils' 1-0 win over the Isles - some parts of the team picture are beginning to clear.

Let's start with the obvious, Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg will be the goalies. There's two of the twenty-three roster spots. If the Devils do ice a full roster this year (and they have the cap space to do so), odds are they'll keep fourteen forwards and seven defensemen. About the only definites on defense are vets Anton Volchenkov, Henrik Tallinder and Andy Greene although coach Pete DeBoer might have spilled the beans about top pick Adam Larsson's chances of making the club with this quote after Thursday's preseason game in Philly talking about the minutes Larsson received in that game:

"It’s not optimal,” DeBoer said of those kind of minutes for an 18-year-old during the regular season. “But the kid has handled it so far no problem. We’ve been loading him up with the regular shift, penalty kill and power play to see where his strengths lie and where we think we’ll see him during the regular season. I’m not saying he’s no going to play 24 minutes a night. On some nights in the regular season, that’s a real possibility, but I don’t see that as an every-night thing. It’s been more a situation where we’re throwing everything at him and seeing what’s the best fit for him.”

Assuming Larsson does make the team - and he has impressed offensively and shown poise defensively, even if he is clearly going to make his mistakes in that end to start with - that makes four starters in the lineup. Among the other defensemen vying for the final two-three spots are vet Bryce Salvador, who's attempting to come back after a year on the shelf, last year's rookie revelation Mark Fayne and perennial seventh d-man Mark Fraser, a former captain of DeBoer's junior team. I'd say those three are the leaders in the clubhouse for spots 5-6-7 in that order.

Also in the mix are former Blue Jackets defenseman Anton Stralman, who has the offensive skills the team currently lacks on the blueline but has been scary defensively by all reports and even if he does manage to make the team it doesn't seem as if he'll be around very long. Matt Taormina came out of nowhere last season to begin 2010 as the team's power play quarterback but is beginning 2011 the way he ended last season - on the shelf with an injury. Former Kings defenseman Peter Harrold is also in the mix, but seems to have dropped a notch in the pecking order after a strong early start to camp. One-time first round pick Matt Corrente seems to be falling more off the radar by the year. And though he played tonight and got in several games for the Devils last year, it appears that Alexander Urbom still has more of an apprenticeship to serve in Albany.

At forward, the picture's also cloudy though there are several definites in star left wings Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise, centers Patrik Elias and Jacob Josefson and right wingers David Clarkson and Danius Zubrus, though the latter may begin the season on the shelf since he hasn't played at all in the preseason with a 'lower body injury'. Mattais Tedenby is also a definite, but after playing right wing last year the diminutive Swede may be moving back to left wing this time around. Enforcer Eric Boulton and his multi-year, one-way contract will be here.

That leaves five more forward spots. After a strong camp and with an opening at center created by Travis Zajac's injury, it looks as if for now young Adam Henrique will be the one to fill it. He's been centering a third line with Tedenby and Clarkson for most of the preseason and been one of the bright spots so far. Perhaps former coach Jacques Lemaire was onto something when he said Henrique didn't look like a guy playing his first NHL game during the final game of 2011, when he was indeed debuting for the Devils. With Elias, Josefson and Henrique as the top three centers look for the dissapointing Dave Steckel to slot in on the fourth line. Steckel was brought in to win faceoffs but really hasn't done much of anything since being acquired for Jason Arnott last season. Still he's signed for multiple years and at $1.1 million a year so he'll get every opportunity to produce.

With Kovy, Parise, Tedenby and Boulton as the left wings that leaves right wing to discuss. Zubrus will slot in somewhere in the top six and Clarkson looks to be pegged for the third line but that still leaves a prime opening on the first or second line. Last year, Nick Palmeri rode shotgun with Kovy and Zajac but this preseason he's being pushed by this preseason's most intriguing storyline (other than Larsson) - Petr Sykora. Sykora's had a good camp so far, and god knows the team could use more offense from the right wing. Especially since none of the other candidates - Palmeri included - project as much more than 40-point player, if that. I could really see Sykora making the team and pushing Palmeri down to Albany, that wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. I don't see it as stunting Palmeri's development since based on his numbers last year and his lack of pedigree before being thrust onto the scene, I'm still not sure he's even in the long-term plans of the Devils.

Whether Sykora or Palmeri make the club as a top six RW, there's still an opening on the fourth line as well. By now, you know what you're getting from Vladimir Zharkov. Not much offense, but reliable defense and he'll do the 'little things' as well, such as play on the penalty kill and use his speed to draw penalties for his team. I kind of think we have to play Zharkov just for the former attribute alone, this team has a woeful lack of good penalty killing forwards without Zajac. Camp tryout Steve Bernier really hasn't impressed up to this point and I can't even see him making it as a spare forward. Although enforcer Cam Janssen remains a fan favorite, his two-way contract combined with the fact Boulton fills the enforcer role probably means he'll be ticketed for Albany.

Among the candidates for the depth forward positions are Rod Pelley, who's been hanging around a while but is just a little better than okay at faceoffs and penalty killing and doesn't add much else although he's shown a surprising ability to drop the gloves every once in a while. Probably better equipped for that role would be one-time ECHL forward Brad Mills. If one of the fourth-liners has done his best to stand out so far, it's been Mills - who endeared himself to a lot of people by fighting the Flyers' Zac Rinaldo Thursday after he took a run at Parise. Later on Mills would say this about his fight:

“I think standing up for my teammates is an important part of the role that I’m auditioning for, I guess you would say,” he said. “The fourth line needs to bring energy, but also some toughness and some grit and hold the other team accountable for what they’re doing out there.”

On the negative side, Mills has been overeager at times too, taking back to back penalties in the third period of the Devils' preseason game against the Rangers last Friday (and really he was lucky he didn't get whistled again later in the period). He was on the team for a few games last year and actually scored a game-winning goal against the Blackhawks in early November, but clearly he'll be here for grit as an occasional fill in, if anything. If I had to bet, I guess I'd pencil in Mills and Pelley as the extra forwards, with Mills as a center and Pelley on the wing.

Also unknown at this point is who the team's captain will be. DeBoer's said on more than one occasion that a captain will be named before the season starts so that'll be interesting. To me if it's anyone other than Parise, that's a severe red flag that he might not be long for this team. There's really no other reason overtly not to give it to him, he's supposed to be the face of the team (other than Brodeur) with Elias past his prime and Kovy not having been around as long and by all accounts sets a good example with his work ethic and atitude. If there was no contract situation, it would be a slam-dunk choice but some say that we should avoid giving him the C until he signs long-term. Nonsense, you pick the best person for the job and go from there. You don't use the C as an incentive to get a guy to sign a contract.

So my overall predictions are these:

Forwards (14) - Parise-Elias-Sykora, Kovy-Josefson-Palmeri (if Zubrus misses time), Tedenby-Henrique-Clarkson, Boulton-Steckel-Zharkov, Mills-Pelley (scratches)

Defense (7) - Volchenkov-Greene, Tallinder-Larsson, Salvador-Fayne, Fraser (scratch)

Goalies (2) - Brodeur-Hedberg

Captain - Parise, Assistants - Kovy, Elias

Guess we'll see how right these are soon enough, since the preseason ends tomorrow night.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Rangers Euro Tour Stops in Prague

The Rangers arrived in Prague yesterday for the first part of their Euro Tour. Shortly at the top of the hour (1 ET, 7 PM Czech), the Blueshirts will take on HC Sparta Prague at Tesla Arena. Courtesy Jim Cerny of Blueshirts United, here's today's lineup:

Wolski-Richards-Gaborik
Dubinsky-Anisimov-Callahan
Fedotenko-Stepan-Zuccarello
Rupp-Christensen-Prust

Del Zotto McDonagh
Bell Bickel
Eminger Erixon

Biron
Lundqvist

MSG won't televise it but I'm sure some will find a feed. Eric Christensen gets another chance to change Tort's mind while Brendan Bell, Stu Bickel, Steve Eminger and Tim Erixon all will be closely watched as the blueline battle heats up. We'll try to catch up on things later tonight. Happy Rosh Hashannah to those who celebrate!

League gives Simmonds free pass

Two days have passed since the controversy surrounding Wayne Simmonds and Sean Avery in a chaotic preseason match in Philly where emotions ran high. During scrums, a lot of stuff is said in the heat of battle. It was the heat of the moment cries a classic 80's Asia tune. Sometimes, it becomes personal. Perhaps Avery's threat on Simmonds' Flyer teammate Claude Giroux pushed the former King over the edge. Whatever the reason, Simmonds appeared to have crossed the line if what Avery said was true.

Homophobic overtones have no business in athletics or in the real world. They're just as offensive as the ridiculous banana peel tossed in Simmons' direction during an exhibition in Longon, Ontario a week ago. All the more ironic that the same player would be involved in two incidents that couldn't be anymore different. Following the latest gutless ruling from Colin Campbell, the thing that gets us is the lasting image of Mr. Simmonds never denying Mr. Avery's accusation following the Flyers' 5-3 win at Wachovia Center.

"I can't remember what I said," the newest Flyer told reporters afterwards while later adding, "I might've said some things he didn't like. ... It's Sean Avery, come on, now."

As if that's reason enough for the rumored slur he's accused of. Of course, 24 hours later he suddenly remembered like a light switch flipping when the gullible Campbell came calling. Simmonds did nothing wrong. So, it's over with! Why take serious something so offensive that GLAAD asked the NHL to take action? Nah. Only unless they're making the 100th tweak to rules post-lockout. As Martin Brodeur echoed regarding all the suspensions, this is what you get these days from a circus which would make Charles Wang proud. But Campbell hinted they could revisit the case. And perhaps I can date Rihanna someday. So, you're saying there's a chance?!?!?!?!?!

Over the past two days, we've seen rhetoric like Simmonds so misguided that it's left us speechless. 'Avery had it coming.' Yada, yada, yada. We get it. Avery's no angel as past evidence points. Elisha Cuthbert and Dion Phaneuf not withstanding, for all the theatrics of No.16, he's never been suspended since that foolish episode before a Stars-Flames match that earned him half a dozen games and even NHL counseling before returning to Broadway for Act II. But it's Avery and he's the saddest excuse for a player. Are there things I don't like about him? Absolutely. I'm no fan of ducking challengers. Better known as turtling. Sometimes, he gets carried away, which is not something I want from any Ranger. When he's finishing checks of which are clean unlike a few scums that shall remain unnamed, along with skating and forechecking vigorously, Avery's a valuable commodity capable of drawing penalties and driving the opposition batty. That's what we got the other night. He gives away the puck a lot and isn't consistent, which is why I remain objective when it comes to his standing. John Tortorella should use him as he sees fit.

I heard people on Twitter accuse him of saying exactly what Simmonds supposedly did. So, now we're assuming based on who he is? Come on. Every player should get a fair shake. Let's make one thing clear. I never expected a suspension. However, a hefty fine would've been enough, which Simmonds could've donated to GLAAD or a similar charity for awareness. Instead, we're left wondering again what it'll take for the league to show some balls.

Fans can continue hating Avery and even cheering an injury like some classless Flyer fans did after he blocked a shot. This is bigger than him. It's a serious issue that happens too much in society. There's no excuse. Showing respect and common decency is how I was raised. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Yes. There'll continue to be trash talk as long as there are sports. There are kids watching. Sometimes, it can go too far, which is the likely scenario that played out. The NHL had a chance to do something right and failed. If only it were a surprise.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Staal loss showing

Already, the loss of Marc Staal is showing. The Rangers have played three exhibition games and the defense has been dismal minus the 24-year old anchor who didn't accompany the club to Europe due to headaches. Even if Glen Sather's right that it might not be caused by concussions, it's still a lingering issue that must concern the organization as '11-12 approaches.

With the team still carrying 11 defensemen (10 without Staal) including Dylan McIlrathStu Bickell, Blake Parlett and ex-Sen Brendan Bell, John Tortorella's still trying to figure out what his blueline will look like when the Rangers take on LA and Anaheim back-to-back at the end of next week. Meanwhile, second-year blueliner Mike Sauer is out at least a week with a shoulder sprain after taking a spill into the boards courtesy a clean check during last night's preseason match at Philadelphia.

"My adrenaline was going so I tried to gather myself," Sauer told Blueshirts United. "But then the pain just kept coming. It's frustrating because you never want to come out of a game like that, especially before this trip we've got going. The good news is that the x-rays came back negative."

Tortorella still hopes to get Sauer into some preliminary games. With Staal's status still uncertain, the Blueshirts can't afford to lose another top four D who logs important minutes. Much depends on the sophomore tandem of Sauer and Ryan McDonagh, who last night paired with Dan Girardi. Meanwhile, Mike Del Zotto and Tim Erixon are competing for a spot while vet Steve Eminger seems a virtual lock despite a poor showing in a loss to the Devils. Brendan Bell helped his case with a good performance that included the decider in a rematch with the Devs at Newark. Tortorella will get more looks at everyone, including McIlrath, Bickell and Parlett before making more cuts.

With the back end uncertain, it's had trouble clearing the puck and failing miserably on the PK, where Rangers have made frequent trips to the box. With the Flyers lighting it up for three more, including a pair from ex-captain Jaromir Jagr, they've allowed at least half a dozen thus far with five all off uncovered one-timers. Areas where Staal excels include getting in the path of shots and making great reads defensively for key clears that allow a penalty killing unit to change and get fresh bodies.

Until Staal's given the okay, the Ranger D is a question mark with everyone except Girardi moving up on the depth chart, which means increased responsibility. When healthy, Staal works well with Danny G as a top pair that sees the league's best- allowing McDonagh and Sauer to face secondary scoring. Subtract Staal and they're broken up, which leaves a bevy of question marks (Eminger, Erixon, Del Zotto, Bell) as to how Tortorella will deploy the remainder. Unless McIlrath surprises, he's going back to Moose Jaw while Bickell and Parlett are ticketed for the Whale.

The Rangers are doing the right thing making sure Staal is 100 percent before allowing him to even have full contact. The season is 82 games. So, if it requires him to miss the crazy first part that has the Original Six club traveling all over, including a three-game Northwestern swing featuring matches in Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver before finishing at Winnipeg, they're probably better off being cautious. With stops in Prague (Thu), Gothenburg (Fri), Bratislava (Sun), Zug (Mon) before headed to Stockholm for the opening pair against the Kings and Ducks, the Rangers will be doing a lot of flying before coming back to face the Islanders on Oct.15. Their first seven games are on the road due to the renovation with 10/27 the home opener against the Leafs.

It's still hard to say when Staal will be ready. However, Slats may want to bring in an insurance policy just in case. Much depends on Tortorella, who will make important roster decisions in the next week, finalizing the roster. The Rangers don't want to rely too heavily on their offense even with Brad Richards. Defense and goaltending are what's defined them. It says here that if Staal is out a significant amount of time, the playoffs take a backseat.

Madness in Philly

A day later, I'm still not sure what happened. But all hell broke loose at Wachovia Center during last night's final exhibition in North America for the Rangers when they paid a visit to the enemy Flyers. Perhaps the barbs exchanged between Glen Sather and Ed Snider fired everyone up because it literally felt like a playoff spot was on the line instead of a meaningless preseason match.

Whatever the reason, even with several regulars out for both sides, madness ensued. The Flyers may have prevailed 5-3 on the strength of Braydon Coburn's third period decider and Wayne Simmonds' empty netter but that was irrelevant compared to the garbage we got. And by that, one of the new Flyers Simmonds is front and center still following a heated exchange with our bad boy Sean Avery, who displayed why he still should make the team. Following a certain suspendable hit from behind by Tom Sestito, Avery and Simmonds got together as Ranger teammates came to Andre Deveaux's aid. Deveaux was defenseless when Sestito flew by and boarded him, earning the rest of the night off. Defenseman Stu Bickell came to his defense immediately.

Unfortunately, there's no video but it was brutal because Sestito never let up. Well, he was put on waivers with a double digit ban coming from League Deputy VP Brendan Shanahan, who's been proactive. During the scrum, Avery and Simmonds exchanged pleasantries. A theme that continued throughout. As the old Patrick rivals combined for six goals after two periods with Jaromir Jagr (2 PPG) doing damage to his ex-team, the intensity was up with each side throwing the weight around. Dale Weise was bloodied by Zac Rinaldo in a one-sided scrap. Maybe he should stick to hockey cause he's shown improvement thus far.

Avery, who duped Simmonds into a silly penalty, was at his best getting underneath the Flyers' skin and 'his fans' booed. Beautiful really. When he plays like that, Sean is a valuable commodity who John Tortorella can insert into the lineup. He's best used versus rivals (NJD, NYI, Phi, Pit). With Mats Zuccarello again standing out, it looks all but certain Tort has his four lines when they face the Kings a week from Friday before meeting the Ducks the following day. More later.

The Flyers torched our PK for three power play goals with Jagr connecting twice, featuring that deadly one-timer. No.68 looked great, dominating shifts while having no trouble getting open for Claude Giroux or Daniel Briere. Even minus James Van Riemsdyk, Chris Pronger and Scott Hartnell, the Flyer offense was scary. For the Blueshirts, guys competing for spots impressed with Swede Andreas Thuresson (trade with Nashville) and ex-Leaf John Mitchell notching two of the club's three goals. While Thuresson was reassigned to Connecticut, Mitchell flew with the team to Europe- clearly ahead of pass happy Erik Christensen, who didn't help himself.

Brian Boyle was terrific winning a faceoff and deflecting home a Dan Girardi right point shot for a tying PPG. He also wore a mic and was seen giving pointers to Thuresson and Mike Del Zotto, who had a strong second that at least emphasized his strengths on the man-advantage. He looks bigger, which can only be a plus. With partner Tim Erixon having a rough game (2 minors) and Mike Sauer nicked up (out 7 days), the third-year blueliner could start the season.

Flyer prospect Matt Read impressed with a nice finish off a no-look Briere feed that Henrik Lundqvist had no chance on. King Henrik went the distance, faring okay despite a shaky D that hung him out to dry. He finished with 26 saves while counterpart Ilya Bryzgalov turned aside 17 of 20, including a two pad stack on Brandon Dubinsky, who otherwise took the night off.

Despite the offense and defensive breakdowns, everyone's talking about Avery's accusation which Simmonds didn't deny. Sean claimed that the same player, who a week ago, had a banana peel tossed at him in Canada, called him a derogatory name. Considering that there was video and it was homophobic, it's pretty serious.

"That type of comment has no place in the game," Maple Leaf GM Brian Burke told ESPN.COM. "If that happened, that is just so embarrassing and the league should not tolerate it. That should be treated on the same level as a racially charged incident. It's the same level of offensiveness and inappropriateness."
GLAAD (Gay And Lesbian Against Defamation) got in touch with the league today and the Flyers about possible discipline against Simmonds. "Hate speech and anti-gay slurs have no place on the ice rink," GLAAD President Mike Thompson said. "The word that Simmonds used is the same word that is hurled at LGBT youth on the playground and in our schools, creating a climate of intolerance and hostility. He should not only apologize for this anti-gay outburst, but the Philadelphia Flyers and the NHL have a responsibility to take action and educate their fans about why this word is unacceptable."

Recently, Avery became an advocate of gay rights and supporting gay marriage.
"It's an issue," he said while indicating he didn't feel he did anything that drew Simmonds' controversial reaction. "It's an issue that people are dealing with and trying to overcome and 10 years ago, maybe it wasn't so much an issue but it's certainly an issue politically with people in the game. And just in life in general."

Former Deputy Colin Campbell will review the tape. Hopefully, the league will look make a justified decision. It's a chance to make Simmonds an example so future incidents are avoided. They must get this one right. 

Monday, September 26, 2011

Fantasy Hockey: Team Centercessssssed Set

A couple of days ago over at John's in South River, our Fantasy Hockey Draft was held. The SRFFFHL (South River Flat Fee Fantasy Hockey League) enters another year with eight participants ready to take aim at the trophy. Yes. There actually is a trophy. My name's been engraved twice. Ironically, 10 years apart with my second run to the title in '09-10.

Unfortunately, I sacrificed a plethora amount of picks to edge my brother, Justin and suffered a cruel fate last year. You guessed it. From first to worst. With a better draft, can I recover and go all the way? It's sure to be competitive. This year's defending champ John, who also won it all in '08-09, had a similar downfall before turning it around. That's the price you pay to win. Early contenders could come from league commish Harry, Jim/AJ and perhaps newcomer Marc, who is the only Devil fan in a Ranger-esque league. Though there always is the entertaining Big One, my best friend Brian, who seems to have taken this Terry Pegula thing $eriously as evidenced by the four Sabres (Tyler Myers, Ville Leino, Tyler Ennis, Nathan Gerbe) on his roster.

So, how does my roster stack up? For starters, it was nice to have most of my picks, including a couple of Bri's early on which I used to reconstruct one of the worst bluelines. Even though I had the choice of James Wisniewski or Erik Karlsson as part of my five protects, I opted instead to keep Jamie Benn, who should play a pivotal role in Dallas with the departure of Brad Richards. With an emphasis on goaltending, I kept Carey Price and Jimmy Howard while living up to my Centercessssssed mantra by retaining centers Henrik Sedin and John Tavares along with Big Benn, who is shifting to center. If only he qualified. :P

In past years, I put together an extensive list. However, this time I did it differently by doing a round by round look filled with players on my radar. For the most part, I actually stuck to the script. My main objective was to go heavy on D and scoring wings. However, when Brian kept Cam Ward over Ryan Getzlaf, he was too good to pass up with the first overall pick. Being that I had a second pick, I was hopeful Bobby Ryan would still be there but Patrick scooped him up. Instead, I went for Jarome Iginla, who had a huge second half last year, nearly pushing Calgary into the postseason. Hopefully, the Flames' all-time franchise scoring leader can have a repeat of the 43-goal, 86-point season he put together.

After grabbing Iginla, I went D back-to-back with Keith Yandle and Duncan Keith. Joining my improved corps is Chris Pronger and newest Shark Brent Burns. Up front, I did a solid job grabbing Benn's teammates Loui Eriksson and Brenden Morrow while beefing up with Dustin Brown and Centercessssssed fixture Steve Downie. As with Pronger above, I took risks going for Martin Havlat and Jaromir Jagr. Both Czechs are on new rosters and could benefit if things break right. Want youth? Super soph Taylor Hall provides that along with Logan Couture, who joins a strong batch of pivots featuring H. Sedin, Tavares and Getzlaf.

Perhaps the only area I'm concerned with is goalie because I waited till Round 14 to select vet Miikka Kiprusoff. One of the reasons I am skeptical is because in a league that emphasizes GAA and Save Percentage, Kipper isn't the best choice. However, the Finn should win 35-plus and post a few shutouts. The hope is that Calgary is competitive again and Howard takes the next step with powerful Detroit. If that happens, I should be okay. If not, that's why there's 20 Free Agent moves. We'll see.

Here's a complete breakdown of my 2011-12 Centercessssssed roster:

G Carey Price
G Jimmy Howard
G Miikka Kiprusoff

D Keith Yandle
D Duncan Keith
D Chris Pronger
D Brent Burns
D Alex Pietrangelo
D Kevin Bieksa
D Kimmo Timonen

C Henrik Sedin
C John Tavares
C Ryan Getzlaf
C Logan Couture
C Jason Spezza
C Zenon Konopka

W Jamie Benn
W Jarome Iginla
W Loui Eriksson
W Dustin Brown
W Steve Downie
W Martin Havlat
W Brenden Morrow
W Jaromir Jagr
W Taylor Hall
W Jakub Voracek


Starter Breakdown

4 C
8 W
6 D
2 G

6 Bench

Total: 26

Winter Classic Official: Rangers-Flyers at Citizens Bank Park

The worst kept secret is official. Today at a live press conference covered on NHL Network, former Flyer and current Versus analyst Keith Jones announced the obvious to the hockey world. The Winter Classic has become a signature event for hockey. The fifth edition pits the New York Rangers versus old Patrick nemesis Philadelphia Flyers at Citizens Bank Park on January 2 at 1 ET/10 PT. As usual, the game can be seen on NBC. But really, who won't be checking out the festivities in HD! That's the only way to watch this prestigous game.

It really is exciting for the Rangers to finally be part of it. Even as a road participant, it'll give our young core more exposure against one of its best division rivals in the City Of Brotherly Love. There also will be a Legends Game set for New Year's Eve two days before the teams take the ice in a unique setting where the Phillies play. The baseball home of the '08 World Champs becomes the the third ballpark to host the Winter Classic. Last year's took place at Heinz Field- home of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Here's a brief look at the history of the game:


WINTER CLASSIC HISTORY


'08 Pittsburgh Penguins 2 Buffalo Sabres 1 (Crosby shootout winner) at Ralph Wilson Stadium
'09 Detroit Red Wings 6 Chicago Blackhawks 4 at Wrigley Field
'10 Philadelphia Flyers 2 Boston Bruins 1 (OT-Marco Sturm) at Fenway Park
'11 Washington Capitals 3 Pittsburgh Penguins 1 at Heinz Field
'12 New York Rangers vs Philadelphia Flyers at Citizens Bank Park


Most notably, the Sabres hosted the inaugural game on New Year's Day 2008 at Ralph Wilson Stadium where the Buffalo Bills play. In what can be described as the defining moment of the Classic, Sidney Crosby beat Ryan Miller in a shootout to win an exciting contest while mobbed by teammates as snow fell, creating a magical scene. Seeing our heroes play the game outdoors as many did growing up on ponds is what makes it so special. Enough credit can't be given to all the people behind the scenes who work so hard to give us such a wonderful game. Without their dedication, it'd never happen. Even commissioner Gary Bettman deserves some due for this marquee game made for network TV.


At today's conference call, the 26th Ranger captain Ryan Callahan and Brad Richards were present along with Glen Sather and John Tortorella. On the Flyer side, club owner/founder Ed Snider spoke eloquently about how much hockey's grown in Philadelphia since he started the Flyer franchise in 1967. One of the highlights was when he stated that he never envisioned he'd be standing up at a podium all these years later talking about an outdoor game on a ballfield. Flyer captain Chris Pronger and I believe Claude Giroux were on hand.

Also speaking was Mr. Bettman, who didn't get booed. Neither did Sather, who was in rare form, deadpanning, "I can't remember the last time I was at a pep rally in Philadelphia (smiling)," in regards to earlier commentary on the Phillies winning the World Series. "You actually gave me a nice round of applause, so I do appreciate all of you guys down here in the orange uniforms."

It wouldn't be Slats without a bit of cockiness as the former architect of five Oilers' Stanley Cups noted who they beat twice while basically making a guarantee along with some more eye popping commentary that was hilarious.

"We're proud to play in Philadelphia against the Flyers. They're a great hockey club. Mr. Snider has been one of the greatest owners I've had a chance to be associated with in all the years in hockey. I have nothing but respect for him and his hockey club. But we're going to come to Philadelphia and we are going to win. I knew I could get a rise out of you sooner or later. That's more like it (laughter).

It's a great event. I respect the fans in Philadelphia. I'm sorry that we kicked the hell out of you twice in the Stanley Cup. We're going to do the same thing on the 2nd. At the end of the year we will be carrying the Cup, just like the Yankees are going to have the World Championship, as well. "

Even if you despise Sather, you gotta admit he has balls. The humor certainly wasn't lost on Snider, who reminded him that those two Cups came in Edmonton. Not here. And so, the most entertaining exchange in entirety:

ED SNIDER: When he says, We kicked the hell out of you in two Stanley Cups, he wasn't talking the Rangers. I remember kicking the hell out of the Rangers on the way to our Cups.


GLEN SATHER: It's nice to see you haven't lost your edge.

KEITH JONES: We told you it was a rivalry. You can see what happens (laughter).

About the only thing missing was a peptalk from Mickey and the theme from Rocky. If the game's anything like the press conference, we're all in for a treat. Regardless of the outcome, it's tremendous for the sport.

Once again, HBO will run 24/7 with the first episode debuting on Dec.14 at 10 ET with a special encore presentation at 11 ET. Road to the Winter Classic airs on three consecutive Wednesdays starting with 12/21, 12/28 and 1/4 wrapping things up. It will also air at 10 and 11 ET. Considering that our coach Tortorella doesn't mince words, it should be quite interesting to see if he becomes the star as Washington coach Bruce Boudreau did last year with his team struggling. Hopefully, the Rangers will be playing well heading into it. I'm also curious to see Laviolette and Pronger just to get a better gauge on the Flyers following their overhaul.

I definitely can't wait for the season to start. Especially after watching NHL Net's coverage. Preseason is fun just for fans to see players they're unfamiliar with who are looking to make an impression. I loved how Tortorella afterwards told Kevin Weekes that he was looking forward to tonight's exhibition against the Flyers and wanting to win it. It just gives you even more perspective into the fire that burns inside our coach.


Rangers face Jagr, Flyers before Europe: Tonight is the final tuneup before the Rangers fly to Europe. Ailing defenseman Marc Staal will not make the initial trip but did practice. It's hard to see the organization taking any risks with our top defenseman, who still has his best years ahead of him. Considering all the heavy travel due to Part I of the World's Most Renovated Arena, I see them playing it safe which means we might not see Staal until the October 27 home opener at the earliest. Much depends on how he progresses. Head injuries are so unpredictable. Sidney Crosby hinted that he's closer to returning to full contact. A great sign for everyone. Hopefully, Staal won't be out long.

The Rangers and Flyers both will ice lineups close to what we'll see when '11-12 kicks off. Jaromir Jagr will play against his former teammates for the first time since he left for the KHL. Catch all the action on MSG at 7 ET.

Nieds' number to be retired 12/16, plus more ownership news



Confirming a rumor that had made the rounds on the internet for the last couple of weeks, the Devils announced they will in fact retire the number 27 of long-time defenseman Scott Niedermayer before their December 16th home tilt versus the Dallas Stars. Niedermayer's number will be just the third to go up in the rafters, after Scott Stevens' #4 and Ken Daneyko's #3 both went up in 2006. Unlike the first two retirees, Nieds did not finish his career with the Devils, a fact that's led to much consternation and debate throughout the fanbase over whether his number should be retired.

I say that's nonsense. Clearly the HOF-defenseman to be deserves the honor on merit, after being an intregal part to three Stanley Cups and a Norris trophy winner during his ten plus years in New Jersey. Not to mention a gold medal during the 2002 Olympics. Yes, it's odd that Nieds' number will be going up after it's been on the back of workmanlike defenseman Mike Mottau the last couple of years and clearly his ceremony won't have the same juice as Stevens' or Dano's did. Hopefully the fans show some class though, and give Nieds the respect his career deserves.

Yes, he left the Devils - big whoop, he left to go play with his brother (and ultimately help get Rob the Stanley Cup he was denied in 2003 during a back-and-forth finals with Scott's Devils). Very few players actually finish their career with the team that drafted them, and Stevens didn't start his here. Fans do tend to hold grudges longer than GM's, especially Lou Lamoriello - who didn't hesitate to bring guys like Claude Lemieux back after his messy departure during the '95 offseason, or Petr Sykora this year for that matter after the cloud he left under following the '02 playoffs. If Lou - who values loyalty to the nth degree - can 'forgive' these players, fans should be able to as well.

In other Devils news, it appears that the sale of Ray Chambers' 47% of the team has finally reached a resolution, with Chambers agreeing to pay $25 million and give current majority owner Jeff Vanderbeek his share of the team in exchange for being absolved of any debt responsibility. Granted, I'm glad Vanderbeek has undisputed control of the team now since he's a hockey guy that genuinely seems to be a fan...but honestly the terms of the sale concern me. It's unheard of - at least to me - that anyone would have to pay money just to 'get rid' of almost half a major professional sports team. If the current debt level is so high that the better option is to give up $25 million and 47% of the team without getting anything in return, then how much of a problem is the debt going to be down the road?!

In a way it's like the Devils trading a first-round pick just to rid themselves of the Vladimir Malakhov contract, only on a much larger scale. Hopefully Vanderbeek will be able to resolve the team's current financial state now that he's the only voice that counts, seeing as he has 94% of the team at this point. Perhaps the team's finances a concern for down the road (starting with this season and the Zach Parise negotiations), but in the short term hopefully things stabilize both on and off the ice.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Bell's late goal edges Devs in rematch

It's only preseason. But you wouldn't know it based on the two games the Rangers and Devils played. The Devs took Round One in overtime courtesy of Patrik Elias. Last night, the Rangers returned the favor at The Rock thanks to Brendan Bell's late goal to edge the Jersey hosts 4-3 in a game that had plenty to get fans of both clubs pumped.

The Hudson rivals combined for seven goals in a seesaw affair that featured a scrap between ex-Devil Mike Rupp and Eric Boulton. Boulton was a pest throughout, again emphasizing why Lou Lamoriello signed the ex-Thrasher. He's always drove our team nuts. Finally, Rupp accepted his challenge and had a decided size edge even though Boulton did a decent job late. That's the kinda spunky exhibition it was with the physical play ratcheting up in a wild third.

The Devils rallied back from a 3-1 deficit. Jacob Josefson cashed in a Brad Richards turnover and went top shelf on Martin Biron. After having the play taken to them the first half by a Ranger lineup that included Richards, Marian Gaborik, Wojtek Wolski, Brian Boyle, Ryan Callahan, Ruslan Fedotenko, Derek Stepan and Mats Zuccarello up front. In particular, Stepan's line stood out with superb forechecking while the Richy top line looked cohesive. Callahan played with Boyle and Fedotenko, who as predicted, wore Erik Christensen's former No.26. Feds' old number since Brad went back from the cool 91 he donned in Big D to his original 19 that he likely wears for Steve Yzerman.

Encouraging for the Devs was the play of hot prospect Adam Henrique, who flourished with Petr Sykora and Mattias Tedenby. Henrique opened the scoring with an early power play goal that showed off his skills- combining with Adam Larsson and Ilya Kovalchuk and then flying into the slot where he pulled off a nifty backhand deke upstairs on Biron. Highlight reel. If there's one noticeable difference with the Devs, it's their power play thanks to the point tandem of Larsson and Kovalchuk, who later snapped a perfect pass from the bright Swede that tied it. With the addition of Sykora, who's shown flashes of his A-Line days, it looks like Lamoriello might've struck gold. If the former '00 Devil Cup hero sticks, that gives them another skilled forward with experience that can create and finish. Who would you rather have on a third line? David Clarkson or Sykora? He played right wing and wouldn't be a bad choice if Henrique centers Tedenby.

The Blueshirts answered quickly thanks to a nice play by Richards, who took a Gaborik feed and then abused a Devil before centering a pass off Larsson past Martin Brodeur. Before you knew it, a great shift from the Stepan unit saw D-Step roof one over Brodeur's glove for two in a 81-second span. The Rangers also connected on the power play thanks to another smart decision from Richy Rich. Instead of being fancy, he passed for Callahan in front forcing a juicy rebound that Gaborik cashed. We hope to see more North American style during the season. Simple is better. Callahan did a great job screening. He also had a nice one-time try from the slot prior that Marty gloved.

Though Brodeur could've had the Stepan shot, he still made a few sparklers when his younger squad was under siege. At one point, the Blueshirts led in shots 20-8 before the Devils came on late to close the gap. I think the final totals were 31-26. Confirmed. Nice to see my memory still works. :P Brodeur went the distance in his debut making 27 saves while Biron permitted three on 13 shots before Chad Johnson turned aside the remaining 10 before getting reassigned today with Cam Talbot to Connecticut.

The Devils had an apparent tying goal waived off after Kovakchuk redirected a Larsson shot past Ocho Cinco. Palmieri was called for goalie interference. Though it looked more incidental which still would've disallowed the goal even though Ilya vehemently protested.

Here are last night's rosters:

NYR F: Boyle, Callahan, Fedotenko, Gaborik, Hagelin, Newbury, Richards, Rupp, Stepan, Weise, Wolski, Zuccarello

D: Bell, Del Zotto, Erixon, McDonagh, Sauer, Valentenko

NJD F: Boulton, Henrique, Josefson, Kovalchuk, Mills, Palmieri, Pelley, Sestito, Steckel, Sykora, Tedenby, Zharkov

D: Fayne, Greene, Larsson, Salvador, Taormina, Volchenkov

Friday, September 23, 2011

Staaling For Time

As the Rangers magical mystery tour continues tonight in a Hudson rematch with the Devils, they might not have Marc Staal to start the season when they go to Europe. The 24-year old All-Star defenseman who only missed five games last season, is still having lingering post concussion symptoms stemming from a concussion suffered at the hands of older brother Eric during a 4-3 win last February 22.

Reflecting back, it was a ferocious hit near the end of the second period. At the time, nothing was made of it. Funny how things turn out. While the Pens foolishly brought Sidney Crosby back too soon from his first concussion only to see their captain suffer a second on a Victor Hedman check from behind, the Rangers kept and Staal kept his under wraps. Instead, the former '05 first round pick sat out three games for a knee injury and missed two more down the stretch for unspecified reasons. The club's top blueliner played 20 more games, including all five alongside overlooked partner Dan Girardi in another physical showdown with Alex Ovechkin. Perhaps that explains a couple of hiccups that led to two Washington goals in Game One.

Nobody can question Staal's toughness. His willingness to compete is commendable. Especially without Ryan Callahan. However, where was last year's team going even if everyone was healthy? In hindsight, it probably made better sense to rest the kid from Thunder Bay with an eye towards the future. At 24, he's entering his fifth year. Following career highs in assists (22), points (29), power play goals (4), and shorthanded goals (2), expectations have increased for the budding shutdown defenseman. However, with Staal unable to participate in full body contact drills and still having lingering effects (headaches), the Rangers are being cautious. It's unlikely he'll fly to Europe for the season's start. Like Crosby, he'll continue to practice on his own and rest.

Could all this have been avoided if the club was more careful? When it comes to head injuries, nothing's minor. You're entering the unknown. Some athletes recover better while others need more time. With the news not encouraging, the Blueshirts very might be without their D anchor for October. If that's the difference between health and risk, the organization is better off long-term. Sure. With Brad Richards' arrival, most Garden Faithful can't wait for the season to begin. Count us in. Regardless, it'll still be a challenge in an improved East just to reach the postseason. If that means Staal sits and we miss, it's for the best. You don't toy around with a player's future. We've seen some sad cases of great talent (Lafontaine, Lindros, Kariya, Stevens) who were never the same. While all the hoopla has been over Crosby, the Blues' David Perron still hasn't been medically cleared to practice a year later- only emphasizing how scary head injuries are.

There's no magic potion. With Staal, the Rangers must hope he has a full recovery and returns up to speed. They won't rush him. What that means for their season is very much up in the air. Staal is part of a strong core (Girardi, Dubinsky, Callahan, Anisimov, Lundqvist) that want to take the next step as a team. Richards' addition should aid Marian Gaborik. There's also the anticipation of sophomores Ryan McDonagh and Mike Sauer while fans are optimistic about Tim Erixon. Subtract Staal and expectations decrease. The Rangers don't exactly boast a lot of talent. Defense is still the team's biggest strength. Take out our top minute logger who's a superb penalty killer and it throws everything out of wack. Do we really want Mike Del Zotto and Steve Eminger both playing if Erixon is sent down? The team is said to have interest in ex-Ranger Paul Mara, who knows the system. That would be just a stop gap.

Nobody knows how long Staal will be out. That's the unpredictable nature of the human brain. For now, it's keep your fingers crossed after Halloween. No tricking or treating about it.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Rangers-Devils Preseason Review

Last night, exhibition got underway for half the Battle population. The Rangers and Devils renewed blood and hatred with two familiar faces helping the Devs prevail 2-1 in overtime at Pepsi Arena at Albany. I caught a good chunk and instead of just recapping, we'll look at some highlights of the first of two preseason meetings with the Hudson rivals again doing battle tomorrow night in Newark.

Goals were scored by Petr Sykora (remember me???), Dale Weise and finally Patrik Elias, who cashed the OT winner off a dreadful Steve Eminger turnover. For the most part, New Jersey dictated play due to a stronger crop up front led by former A-Line members Elias and Sykora, who thus far has looked good in his tryout. It certainly wouldn't be the worst thing in the world if he made the cut and got to play with his Czech pal and perhaps a healthy Zach Parise on a first line B. If Ilya Kovalchuk plays on the top line with Dainius Zubrus and Kyle Palmeiri, it's not like there's much of a drop off. Kovalchuk also took part, getting robbed by Cam Talbot, who flashed some leather. More on him in a bit.

The Devils outshot the Rangers by a wide margin (42-21). With rookie Adam Larsson also debuting to oohs and ahhs, Pete Deboer had to like what he saw. The No.4 overall pick is as advertised. A smooth skating D who is a good passer with a nice shot- showing poise when he was on the power play, including a nifty set up for Sykora's marker. You can tell that pro experience back home has aided the mature Swede, who paired up alongside Henrik Tallinder. While he did get pushed off the puck by an aggressive Weise leading to the tying goal late in regulation, there was a bit of a mix up with Tallinder and Sykora botching the coverage. Artem Anisimov made a good play, using his strength to find Weise for the equalizer past backup Jeff Frazee.

Most encouraging for the black and red was Parise, who was flying all night. It was intercept of a poor Eminger pass off the mark for intended target Weise, that led to Elias' winner. Zach Attack simply passed for the Devils' all-time leading scorer, who neatly deflected it home in the first minute of OT. The Devs should benefit greatly from Parise, who always seems to be in the right place. In his walk year fully recovered, he should be dynamite. The Devils also were encouraged by Union College product Keith Kincaid, who blanked the Rangers before Frazee took over. He was fine but only faced 10 shots due to a lineup mostly comprised of kids, including top pick J.T. Miller, Christian Thomas, Ryan Bourque, Carl Hagelin, Shane McColgan and '10 first rounder Dylan McIlrath, who fared better than in last week's prospect tournament. Tim Erixon also took part, again not damaging his chances. Ironically, he faced former Swede 'mate Larsson with both demonstrating why scouts like each. I particularly enjoy Erixon's poise, which is similar to Larsson. Perhaps the Rangers stole him from Calgary with Roman Horak going the other way.

-There were fisticuffs with behemoth Andre Deveaux going after David Clarkson at the end of a shift, earning 17 penalty minutes for instigating with the smaller Devil, who doesn't back down from anyone. Sure. Deveaux gets the edge but only due to his size. In another scrap, gritty Brad Mills got the better of Weise with a unanimous decision. Mills hustled all game, providing energy for the Albany hosts- also turning in exceptional PK work.

-Erik Christensen has been put on notice already, not even wearing his No.26 which maybe going to Ruslan Fedotenko following Brad Richards' arrival. Christy didn't exactly standout. Sean Avery, who's no lock to make it, was okay. John Tortorella was pleased even though you hardly noticed him. The Rangers didn't attack much but picked up their forecheck in a more competitive third.

-The MSG broadcast included Chico Resch to the already annoying Joe Micheletti and voice of reason, Sam Rosen. While Chico went gaga over Kincaid, Michidiot kept trying to get his attention following a couple of sparklers from Talbot, who was more impressive due to quality of shots. His takeaway of Kovalchuk's high rocket made it look easy. There was absolutely no chemistry between the Odd Couple. I guess it was expected. The rivalry won't be the same without Doc Emrick, who at least we'll see on Versus/NBC.

-They showed a new rule to help determine goals with a green line added behind the goal line. It only confused me more. I guess I just prefer one stinkin' line. Sometimes, this league overdoes it. Though this was Brendan Shanahan's concoction. Hopefully, it will work. Kudos to Shanny for fully explaining Jody Shelley's 10-game suspension, including the first five regular season games after foolishly boarding Darryl Boyce during last night's Flyers-Leafs match. I like how he stated that Shelley had time to slow up and was a two-time repeat offender. Excellent stuff. He also explained a four-game ban for former Devil Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond, including the Flames' season opener following an incident with Vancouver's Matt Clackson, who cameback to win an entertaining scrap between the two.

-Some other players of note who played Wednesday:

Devils-Anton Volchenkov, Jacob Josefson, Eric Boulton, Anton Stralman, Cam Janssen, Steve Bernier

Rangers-Brandon Dubinsky, Dan Girardi, Henrik Lundqvist, Mike Del Zotto

-Del Zotto was shaky getting taken off the puck by Mills, who got a shorthanded chance out of hustle.

-Lundqvist was sharp, only permitting Sykora's PPG. He finished with 16 saves.

-Girardi and McIlrath were the team's best blueliners with each making solid plays in their end. Dylan blocked a couple of shots, threw a nice check and played poised.

-Janssen struggled throughout and didn't go. Signed teammate Boulton was a pest.

-Stralman, who had stints with Toronto, Columbus and Calgary, was active and did a nice job jumping in. He definitely should be on an NHL roster.

-The rematch tomorrow should see Martin Brodeur debut while Mike Rupp does the same for the Blueshirts.  Game time is 7 ET and MSG will have it.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Devils begin preseason with both optomism and questions



After being in Turkey for two weeks and arriving home just yesterday, it's nice to actually have NHL hockey to watch tonight, much to my surprise since usually the Devils only get one preseason telecast a year. Apparently we're getting at least three of our six preseason games on TV this year - both Ranger/Devil tilts tonight (in Albany) and Friday as well as one of the Flyer games on VERSUS, who's actually telecasting preseason hockey this year! As negative as I've been about the Devils' chances at times during this offseason you pretty much can't help but look at the sunny side this time of year.

And make no mistake, there is a lot to look forward to in this Devils season. Young players such as Mattias Tedenby, Jacob Josefson, Alexander Urbom and Mark Fayne got invaluable experience last year and should continue to grow with more playing time this year. Yet, none of those kids come with the buzz of this year's fourth overall pick, defenseman Adam Larsson - who's already been turning heads in camp, and got his preseason off to a fine start with an assist in the first period tonight on a goal by Petr Sykora (yes that Petr Sykora, but I'll get to him later).

You have to have vets to supplement the kids though, and the Devils have that starting with their 'seasoned' goaltending tandem of Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg, both of whom played unbelievably in the Devils' second half surge last year. Of course you have $100 million man Ilya Kovalchuk, the ultimate pro in Patrik Elias and UFA-to be (?) Zach Parise spearheading an attack up front that has nowhere to go but up after a franchise-worst goal total last year. In the back you have recent UFA signings Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder, as well as Andy Greene and possibly even Bryce Salvador (attempting to return after missing an entire season with inner-ear problems) providing the vet leadership on defense.

Apart from the core vets and kids, you need role players and we still have those in abundance, including tough guy Eric Boulton, grinder David Clarkson , faceoff man Dave Steckel and versatile Danius Zubrus, a RW'er by trade but a candidate to shift over to center with the offseason injury to Travis Zajac leaving a hole in the middle.

Finally, you have the camp stories - longshot prospects that make a name for themselves, or vet tryouts looking for one more chance. In that vein, GM Lou Lamoriello decided to help fill his ex-Devil quota by bringing in former A-line standout Sykora for a tryout, as well as one-time Jackets defenseman Anton Stralman (a power play specialist) and forward Steve Bernier, a former first-rounder who could be another intriguing project.

Surely, the return of Sykora was as newsworthy as anything the Devils did while I was away though, especially given the cloud under which his first tenure ended with the Devils after he didn't play Game 5 of a 2002 first-round playoff series against the Hurricanes with a leg bruise. Soon after the Devils lost to the Canes, Sykora was shipped out of town after having great success in the prior few seasons as a member of the A-line with Elias and fellow two-time Devil Jason Arnott. Pity that Sykora didn't get the tryout last year, we could have at least seen the A-line together again. Early on in camp, he looks hungry though, scoring a hat trick in a scrimmage yesterday and getting the first goal tonight.

Of course, the Devils have plenty of questions to answer and camp will only start to sort those out. How many of the kids will make the big-league roster? Will Parise and especially Salvador be able to come back from serious injuries? Can new coach Pete DeBoer strike a balance between offense and defense that's been missing in recent years? Do the Devils attempt to replace Zajac (out around half the season) with kids Josefson and Adam Henrique or go outside of the organization to make a trade? And is the franchise really in financial trouble, as has been speculated ad nauseum including by the Post a week or so back? Honestly I don't believe either the Devils' vehement denials or the wild Post speculation on that issue, most likely the answer's somewhere in between the extremes but it's hard to trust the Devils after already hearing this song and dance from the Mets about how they had no financial issues.

What does seem obvious is that financial concerns at least played a role in the inability to sign Parise long-term this offseason, and the earliest he can extend his deal with the Devils now is in January. And it's unlike Lou to just give away players the way he did this offseason by jettisoning Brian Rolston and Colin White, essentially for salary and cap relief. Of course it's possible those moves were also about changing the culture in a locker room that fractured in 2010, as well as the trades of Arnott and former captain Jamie Langenbrunner during last season.

Either way, the off-ice concerns are secondary at this point...except perhaps for being able to see my new seats on Friday. That'll be a treat, especially assuming Larsson plays in front of the home fans that night as well.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Fantasy Drafts

One of the exciting aspects of a new season is Fantasy Hockey. Finally with preseason underway calendar, we're closing in on 2011-12. While we try to predict where our teams wind up, fantasy drafts are heating up. As players gear up with ranking lists, fantasy magazines, etc, the more preparation the better your chances. Like my favorite teacher in high school once said:

"Failure to prepare is preparing to fail."
Of course, the Battle staff are all taking part in fantasy leagues. Whether it's Free Yahoo for Hasan or Sportsline with a bit more on the line for Brian and yours truly, it's supposed to be fun. You can certainly share laughter while also putting together a winning team. When it comes to competition, we all want to succeed. What would be the point? Nobody likes to come in last. Last year was a 180 for me going from the penthouse as league champ to the basement, finishing in the cellar. Such is life in fantasy where one great year can be followed by a complete dud. In our league, we have rental agreements that can help bolster contenders, who pay the price by coughing up high draft picks which can sometimes comeback to burn them. Let's just say I went for it and edged my brother Justin, who actually had the better team. It's not always how you draft but rather what risks you're willing to take.

I've been involved in Fantasy Hockey since the mid-90's when Mr. Sanborn introduced me. Even though I had no idea what I got into, I was hooked. The idea of drafting your own team was something I was familiar with from the classic days of Micro League with the VG crew. Now, I finally got to experience a rollercoaster of emotions with puck. One minute, you're up. The next, you're falling apart faster than Michael Douglas in Falling Down. So, what are the keys?


A.Best Available Player (BAP): A term frequently used by scouts in June certainly applies when drafting. Everyone has their philosophies but you can't go wrong getting the best player still around. Especially early on. These are where your stars come from who will get you valuable points/categories.


B.Team Need: Sometimes, you'll load up on one or two areas and forget another. Always check off by position(s). I usually try to have my goalies set up early and centers. Hence, the team name Centercessssssed. Without quality finishers and blueliners, I hurt my chances. In our league, we have five protects. I already have goalie covered and half my pivots along with a guy who should get a lot of categories.

CENTERCESSSSSSED PROTECTS

G Carey Price
G Jimmy Howard
C Henrik Sedin
C John Tavares
W Jamie Benn

With higher picks recovered, the emphasis will be on scoring wings and D in this Saturday's Draft.

C.Potential: Around the mid-point is where your insight could pay off. There are always breakout players with potential who can make a difference between winning and losing. It's easy to draft proven talent. However, finding a gem or two are what separates contenders from pretenders. Whether it's a hotshot rookie or a player entering their third year, being able to forecast the future is key. Here are some candidates:

RW Chris Stewart 30+ goals, 65-70 Pts, double digit PPG, 5+ GW

LW Evander Kane 25-30 goals, 60 Pts, 100 PIM

C John Tavares 35-40 goals, 80 Pts, double digit PPG, 5+ GW

LW Taylor Hall 30+ goals, 60+ Pts, double digit PPG, 5+ GW

LW James Neal 30 goals, 60 Pts, double digit PPG, 5+ GW

C/LW Jamie Benn 30 goals, 30-35 assists, 100 PIM, 5+ GW

C Marcus Johansson 20+ goals, 30-35 assists

RW Devin Setoguchi 25+ goals, 55-60 Pts

RW Jakub Voracek 20-25 goals, 35 assists

D Alex Goligoski 15 goals, 55-60 Pts, 10+ PPG

D Cam Fowler 10+ goals, 50+ pts, 30 PP Pts

D Erik Johnson 10+ goals, 30-35 assists, 100 PIM

G Semyon Varlamov 28 Wins, 2.64 GAA, .910 Save Pct

G Jaroslav Halak 35 Wins, 2.38 GAA, .915 Save Pct, 8 SHO

G James Reimer 30 Wins, 2.65 GAA, .912 Save Pct, 5 SHO


Rookie Watch:

C Ryan Nugent-Hopkins

LW Gabriel Landeskog

D Adam Larsson

LW Nino Neiderreiter

C Adam Henrique

C Mika Zibanejad

D Erik Gudbranson

C Ryan Johansen

D.Depth: Once you've covered every ground, it's still vital to bring in good depth in case of injuries. The IR is the most feared aspect of fantasy sports. Luck plays a role but also ensuring that you have decent options if a key cog goes down helps. In our league, I try to have at least six centers, three goalies and two extra wings. Seven D is fine if you draft well. It depends on what your biggest weakness is. Our league includes 20 starters and six minors. A quick breakdown:

-4 Centers
-8 Wings
-6 Defensemen
-2 Goalies

If I go with two extra at center, there's four left for 1 goalie, 1 extra D and 2 more wings. A good balance. Hopefully, goalie is strong because if it isn't, it becomes a sore spot.

E.Categories:Last but not least, you must take into account the categories your league emphasizes. For us, we must also draft physical types who hit, block shots and rack up penalty minutes (PIM). A couple of power forwards or a great D (Chara) who gets all three along with the offense helps. Unless there are any changes, here's what it looks like for offense and goalies:

OFFENSE: Goals, Assists, PPG, SHG, GW, PIM, Hits, Blocks, +/-, SOG

GOALIES: Wins, GAA, Save Pct, SHO, Saves, Assists

Note: If you have a goalie who picks up an assist on a goal, that counts toward your points.


Whether it's head to head or overall, covering every category becomes a chore. Game-winners is the luck of the draw, which drives our Buffalo resident crazy. I still say it should be included cause it's part of fantasy hockey. When it comes to plus/minus, take players who play on good teams or are sound defensively. Offense is still the most imperative. If your team can score and the goalies do their part, that should boost your chances.

That wraps up this special Fantasy Hockey entry. Happy drafting!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Sabres defeat Rangers to win Traverse City

A good prospect tournament was once again held at Traverse City, concluding earlier this week with the Buffalo Sabres just a bit stronger than a younger New York Rangers squad that reached the Final. Both teams fought hard the other night but ultimately, the bigger more experienced club pulled away for a 5-2 championship win.

Playing their fourth game over five days, the Ranger prospects coached by a determined Ken Gernander certainly gave it their best, rallying from a two-goal deficit thanks to goals from 2011 first round pick J.T. Miller and they're most consistent forward, Ryan Bourque. Miller put away a Carl Hagelin feed in the slot that got them back in it despite Sabre dominance mostly on the strength of big line Luke Adam, Zach Kassian and Marcus Ruutu. That line combined for six points, including Adam's early power play tally followed by Ruutu's sweet finish off a Kassian set up.

The trio took advantage of a turnover that allowed Kassian to find an unchecked Ruutu 10 feet away for a quick shot that beat Ranger goalie Scott Stajcer for a two-goal lead. However, the Blueshirts replied back 19 seconds later thanks to some nice work from Hagelin in the corner, allowing Miller to cash in. After a stern talking to from Gernander who was displeased with their lack of discipline, the club cameback with a strong middle stanza. Similar to their struggles in the first, the Sabres hurt themselves with a lazy turnover resulting in Bourque's equalizer. Thanks to great pressure from Christian Thomas, the son of former NHLer Steve Thomas intercepted the puck and then got the puck to Bourque, who buried his fourth past Nathan Lieuwen.

Dylan McIlrath, who captained the Rangers- nearly put them ahead with a strong move to the net but his backhand try slipped wide. The '10 No.1 pick was alright during the tournament but definitely still needs work. Another year of juniors should help. He did use his size during a few instances, throwing some good checks and challenging when needed. He also showed off underrated passing skills, finding teammates for chances. The skating and decision making can still improve as evidenced by a pinch that forced him to take a penalty in the third.

Jason Wilson lost a scrap to Buffalo's Corey Tropp, who seemed to enjoy the festivities. Ironically, Tropp notched the winner 78 seconds into the final stanza thanks to a nice set up from Jonathan Parker. The Sabres then played steady D, limiting the Rangers to the perimeter, allowing Lieuwen (21 saves) to see everything. Gernander emphasized taking 10-15 shots but his troops couldn't break the Sabre D. Eventually, they took chances that led to Stajcer getting victimized with Daniel Catenacci beating the netminder on a clean breakaway, backhand five-hole. A move I called. The sweet finish came with five minutes remaining. Kassian put the icing on the cake with 2:13 left.

Finally, the clock wound down and the Sabres celebrated a well deserved victory. Both teams shook hands before the winners took a nice photo with their trophy. Buffalo replaced Tampa Bay, who didn't participate this year- opting to stay close to home with rival Florida.

POSITIVES

-Tim Erixon stood out on defense, making a lot of good reads while also contributing offensively. He's not expected to provide a ton of offense like now project Mike Del Zotto but it's the Swede's uncanny ability to be in the right positive defensively that has Ranger management excited. In a game they gave up a tourney high five goals, Erixon managed an Even rating while teaming with McIlrath, who finished plus-one. Erixon definitely will compete for a job with Del Zotto in camp that began today.

-As noted above, Bourque was Mr. Consistency throughout- notching a shorthanded goal while outworking opponents. A small guy who's unfairly viewed by many fans who don't pay attention, Bourque could be another gem who overachieves. He's sound overall and uses his speed effectively. Another short kid with a big heart.

-Hagelin impressed, demonstrating what four years at college can do for an afterthought. There's a lot to like here. Perhaps we'll see the Swede sometime soon.

-Of all the guys, Shane McColgan was the biggest surprise, showing off tons of grit and speed. He was willing to get dirty, scoring both his goals from in tight while providing energy and even standing up for a teammate. Looks like a character player Garden Faithful will be rooting for.

-Both Miller (2 goals) and Thomas (1-4-5) showed flashes of why they are highly regarded. Each possess speed and playmaking abilities. In particular, Thomas was really strong at finding open 'mates. Both are slippery and look like fun prospects who could be heard from.

-Randy McNaught provided a lift physically, even going in a 5-2 win over the Blues while also notching a goal.

-Jonathan Audy-Marchessault was a revelation offensively (2-3-5) but needs work in his end.


NEGATIVES

-Jyri Niemi struggled badly, often caught out of position. One such poor read led to a goal against versus Buffalo.

-Niemi wasn't alone with Blake Parlett lost defensively in spite of five helpers. He has a good shot from the point but must improve in other facets.

-Sam Noreau and Kale Kerbashian were pretty blah.

-Of the two netminders, Stajcer's considered the better prospect but was beaten easily a few times. It wasn't all his fault with plenty of breakdowns. He needs to work on challenging shooters. Especially on breakaways where he was beaten twice in the third by Catenacci and Kassian. It wasn't all bad for Staj, who made a couple of nice sprawling saves that allowed his team to get back in it.

-I didn't see enough of Jason Missiaen, who went 1-1 in his two starts.


Overall, it was a chance for the hockey community to get a closer look at their teams' prospects. One of the cooler aspects was the interactive questions used via Twitter by John Giannone and Dave Maloney, who asked guests such as Adam Graves, Mark Messier, John Davidson, Darcy RegierKen Holland, etc. quite a few. It was nice to see some familiar faces in Tweepland getting through!

All in all, a great tournament well put together and outstanding job by MSG, who when they really cover something, always go the extra mile. Kudos to the entire production crew for all their hard work and dedication.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Afternoon Puck!

Don't forget puckers to check out today's Traverse City Round Robin match between the Rangers and Hurricanes. Our squad is a perfect 2-for-2 with convincing wins over St. Louis and Dallas. Now, they'll aim to go undefeated. The game can be seen on MSG at 3 ET. I'll have more thoughts on who's stood out tomorrow.

Callahan named 26th Ranger captain

The mantle has officially been passed. In a move that was expected, the Rangers named Ryan Callahan the new captain. At age 26, Callahan is the fifth youngest captain in club history. Ironically, the 26-year old is the franchise's 26th captain. Destiny much?

"Ryan Callahan embodies all the leadership qualities we seek from our Captain," Ranger Team President and GM Glen Sather said.  "He leads by example with courage and a tireless work ethic on and off the ice, which is why he is so deserving of this honor."

Joining Cally as alternates are defenseman Marc Staal and much publicized new No.1 pivot Brad Richards. Staal had an 'A' last year while Richy Rich commands respect as a former Cup winner, who teamed with coach John Tortorella in Tampa. Most reaction was positive with everyone thrilled for our do everything forward who leads by example on and off the ice. Well deserved for 'C'allahan, who registered career highs with 23 goals, 25 assists, 48 points while pacing the club with 10 power play goals and five game-winners despite missing 22 games. A former '04 fourth round selection, the Rochester native is the classic overachiever who does everything well. It's not about stats with Cally but much like recently retired former captain Chris Drury, intangibles. To borrow a phrase from WFAN Ranger talkie Steve Somers:

'Number 24 in your programs is No.1 in our hearts.'

Whether it's diving in front of a dangerous shot for one of his many blocks or dishing out the punishment with a thunderous check despite his 5-10, 190 frame, Ryan exemplifies what it means to be a Ranger. The kind of gritty, in your face, hard working guy who New York City identifies with. Even if you despise the Blueshirts as our rival blogger does, there's a level of respect for how Callahan plays the game. His effort along with Drury's helped Team USA to a silver medal at the 2010 Games in Vancouver. There's no doubt that this is the right choice for a still young nucleus that boasts home grown products Brandon Dubinsky, Derek Stepan, Artem Anisimov, Henrik Lundqvist, Staal, Dan Girardi and Mike Sauer, going forward. With a core that includes key pieces Ryan McDonagh, Brian Boyle, Brandon Prust along with Richards and Marian Gaborik, Garden Faithful are looking forward to the season.

Some wondered why Dubinsky was passed over for the other 'A,' that was given to a player who's never played for us before. However, I don't think anyone would argue that an experienced player like Richards is a bad choice. He not only won Lord Stanley but was the Conn Smythe winner during the '03-04 Lightning's run to the Cup- posting 12 goals, 14 helpers and 26 points. At 31, the former '98 third round pick who wasn't taken until 64th, has plenty to prove in the Big Apple. He's not just here for show but to try to help lead the Rangers into serious contention. Something we haven't seen since '94 hero Mark Messier teamed with Wayne Gretzky, Brian Leetch, Mike Richter, Adam Graves and Jeff Beukeboom- making a surprising run to the Conference Final before being overwhelmed by the Legion Of Doom.

Since '07-08 when he was dealt to the Stars for a package that included Mike Smith and Jussi Jokinen, Richards has only seen the postseason that same year when he helped get Dallas to the Conference Final, tallying 15 points (3-12-15 in 18 GP). Despite putting together back-to-back big seasons averaging 26 goals, 58 assists and 84 points, it still wasn't enough to get the Stars into the playoffs where they weren't helped by the competition. With uncertainty surrounding the franchise, Richards bolted for Manhattan. If you've seen the promo, then you know what lies ahead. All eyes will be on him like never before. Can he revive Gaborik, who is mourning the loss of close friend Pavol Demitra? Is he the right fit? He'll start with an 'A' while last year's leading scorer Dubinsky tries to live up to a new contract. So must Callahan.

It won't be easy. Not in a conference that boasts defending champ Boston, Richards' ex-team, the Ovi Caps, the revamped Flyers, improved Sabres and Pens, who hope to have Sidney Crosby back at some point. The East is getting better with the Habs, Canes, Devils and Leafs all expected to be in the mix while a rebuilding Islander club boasts great potential. You never can tell when another team will emerge. In this league, much can change year to year. Expectations are up. Now, it's up to the Rangers' 26th captain and the rest of his teammates to prove they're ready for a new challenge. Let's drop the puck already!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

In Remembrance

Death is never easy. Especially when it comes suddenly during a tumultuous summer that saw the hockey world lose three high character guys who lost their battles off the ice. That Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and recently retired Wade Belak all shared something in common playing our sport, has led to a plethora of feedback from tough guys, who at least agree that being an enforcer is a very challenging occupation that can lead to anxiety or depression. Whether it's Georges Laraque, Cam Janssen or once troubled Boogaard ex-Wild teammate Todd Fedoruk, the compassion and understanding expressed give fans a better glimpse into the life of an enforcer.

I think it has something to do with the job. Absolutely,” Janssen told James O'Brien in an NBC sports feature on depression. “People look at the fame and the money part of pro athletes and they don’t understand how hard and stressful it can be. Listen, I have the absolute coolest job in the world, but it’s also one of the most stressful jobs in the world, too.


If you look at me, talk to me and see me every day, you’d say, ‘This kid has absolutely no depression.’ But everybody has depression. Some have it more than others. It’s how you deal with it. You can feel sorry for yourself, lock yourself in your room all day and kind of crawl into a hole and deal with it that way. Or you can go out and get something accomplished, work out and do the right things to get over it. There are different ways of coping with depression.

Fedoruk, who once was laid out by a Colton Orr right during a Flyers/Rangers game on NBC- has battled his own demons. The vet's being given a tryout with the Canucks but recently discussed his struggle with The Province's Tony Gallagher.

"Depression is a disease of the mind and if you haven't experienced it, a lot of people don't feel it's real. It is. And it needs to be dealt with because it's a disease of the mind, body and spirit. You need help. Alcohol is a depressant and I only know about this because I've screwed up so many times trying to beat it by myself.


"If I wasn't feeling good I used alcohol to feel the way I wanted to feel. If it was there, I was using it. I used it to go from A to B, but it's A you have to deal with."

Sometimes, pride can get in the way of admission. In a sport where a majority of the audience supports their fighters for the tough role they play protecting teammates, perhaps the perception keeps them from coming clean.

"You're conditioned not to show weakness at any time, and that's the way you think," added Fedoruk. "You go out and you get punched in the face for a living and we've all taken those punches, so you're thinking, 'What does feeling sad for a day or so matter? If I can handle punches in the face I can certainly handle a bad mood. I can get through this, no problem, if I can get through those guys.'


"You never want to show weakness, but that's not the way it's beaten. I know because I've fought it so many times and lost. You have to surrender to it first to win.

To hear Laraque on the issue, he sounds off an even bigger alarm about life after hockey.

"This job is so hard, physically and mentally," Laraque told the Edmonton Journal's Jim Matheson. "You can go to a movie theatre the night before a game and you're thinking of the fight you're going to get into the next day.

"Like, you have to fight Boogaard. Then that game's over and it's like, 'OK, I have to fight Jody Shelley.' After that it's Brian McGrattan. You try not to think about it, but you start with the drugs or the alcohol and that creates the problem," Laraque continued.


"And, when you retire, most of the tough guys aren't set (for life). You don't make a lot of money as a fighter, so they're thinking 'OK, now what do I do?' So they go back to drugs and alcohol. There's no options.
While Boogaard lost a bout with an addiction to painkillers, Rypien fought depression. Of the three deaths, Belak's has drawn the most reaction. The vet had recently hung up the skates and was set to compete on Battle of the Blades.

"The thing with Belak that's hard to understand is he was going to be on Battle of the Blades (a TV figure skating show). After the first day of practice, he was talking about his daughter, and he seemed pretty happy. He didn't have any drug or alcohol problem. It doesn't make sense. We don't know what caused this. He had a job waiting in Nashville in broadcasting," a startled Laraque said.




"But we've talked about Boogie and Rypien and now Belak. Before that it was Probie (Bob Probert) dying. All fighters. On top of the people who've died, we could talk about all the other guys who've had trouble with alcohol or drugs, but they're not dead yet."

"I was very upset when I heard that Wade had died," former Ranger Jason Strudwick admitted. "He was full of life, and today he's not with us anymore. He was a tough guy, but we used to hang out. He was fun guy, he had a great spirit.

As a league and players association, we have to offer more support somehow. I don't know what that would entail, but we have to do it."
With camps a few days away from opening, it will be harder for players to focus more than ever. How they cope with the loss of friends and foes will be extremely important. Combined with the terrible KHL tragedy that took the lives of almost the entire Lokomotiv roster, including ex-Rangers Alexander Karpovtsev and former property Jan Marek, former Devil Alexander Vasyunov and one-time Islander Josef Vasicek, the NHL must ensure that everyone has plenty of outlets. Everyone handles death differently. Whether it's a close relationship like the one current Ranger Marian Gaborik shared with former Slovakian hero Pavol Demitra or ties that bond like ex-'94 Cup hero Karpovtsev, this season will be more challenging than any other.

With the Ten Year Anniversary of 9/11 this Sunday, the Rangers visited FDNY firehouses, paying tribute. There is much to mourn. The games will go on. But how we remember those lost shall live on.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

KHL Tragedy kills 43

In what's already been a melancholy time for hockey with three players passing away, the news became even worse today when a Russian jet carrying the Lokomotiv team in the KHL (Continental Hockey League) crashed into a river, near the city of Yaroslavl- killing 43 and injuring two others.

The awful tragedy occured around 4 PM in Russia, devastating the KHL and hockey. Lokomotiv Yaroslavl were traveling to Minsk for their first regular season match against Dynamo Minsk when the Yak-42 crashed on the Volga river. Weather conditions weren't an issue for a plane that's been in existence since 1993. It was carrying 37 passengers and eight crew. Of the 45, only two survived including player Alexander Galimov, according to officials.

Lokomotiv, a three-time Russian League champion, included former NHLers Pavol Demitra, Karel Rachunek, Josef Vasicek, Ruslan Salei, Karlis Skrastins and new coach Brad McCrimmon, who spent 18 years in the NHL. He recently was a former assistant of the Red Wings. Former Swedish netminder Stefan Liv also was on the team.

According to resident Gina Pryakhova, who witnessed the horrifying plane crash, it was in bad shape. A chaotic scene saw rescuers pull bodies out of the Volga River as tons of police rushed to Tunazhna- a nearby village.

"It was wobbling in flight, it was clear that something was wrong," said Pryakhova. "It went down behind the trees and there was a bang and a plume of smoke."


"I saw them pulling bodies to the shore, some still in their seats with seatbelts on."

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sent his transport minister to the site.

"We will do our best to ensure that hockey in Yaroslavl does not die, and that it continues to live for the people that were on that plane," said former hockey legend and current Russian Ice Hockey Federation president Vladislav Tretyak.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Janssen vs Belak Mar 20, 2007



In what can only be described as a classic fight, Wade Belak and Cam Janssen go toe to toe at Air Canada Centre. Who else but legendary Doc Emrick and the always entertaining Chico Resch call the action. Of course, Chico's right about fighting. "It keeps the game clean."

It would be a mistake for the league to overreact and eliminate fighting. Enforcers stand in and protect teammates, including stars. If you took it out, there would be dirtier cheapshots and more dangerous stick swinging incidents. Of course, nobody knows the full extent of how much the combatants suffer when blows are exchanged. We've seen players KO'd a la when Colton Orr decked Todd Fedoruk, who's had his own personal issues off the ice, according to close The Program pal Chris Wassel.

The nature of fighting is rough. However, they'll need to do extensive research on why players are dying. Anxiety/Depression is a serious life issue that can affect anyone. Not just athletes. It doesn't discriminate. Let's try to remember Belak, Boogaard and Rypien for what they stood for. Quality individuals who came to the aid of teammates, who were very popular in the locker room.

Wade Belak vs Derek Boogaard Dec 2, 2009



It's hard to fathom that we've lost three enforcers over the summer. Here, we see two big heavies do battle in a rematch between Derek Boogaard and Wade Belak. Not the prettiest scrap but a lot of defense and grit along with a few body shots.

I also stumbled across two bouts between Belak and Cam Janssen that were fun viewing, including a great rumble when Belak was a Leaf with Janssen wearing Devil colors. We'll try to get that up.

Belak death latest NHL tragedy


Three tragedies in three months. All equally mystifying and horrible for hockey. Yesterday, popular tough guy Wade Belak was found dead at his Toronto condo. The recently retired big man, who made a living with his fists for 15 years was 35. Belak concluded his career in Music City with Nashville. The Predator organization released a statement:

The entire Nashville Predators organization and family is shocked and saddened by the sudden and untimely passing of Wade Belak. Wade was a beloved member of the organization, a terrific teammate and wonderful father and husband who will be greatly missed. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his wife Jennifer and children Andie and Alex. We offer our full support to them at this very difficult time.

Regrettably, Belak became the third enforcer to die over the summer, joining brethren Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien. The stunning news passed like wildfire in the early evening on the East coast, sending more shockwaves throughout the hockey world. erhaps former Leaf teammate Owen Nolan summed it up best when he tweeted:

"I'm lost for words. Wade Belak RIP my friend."

The original Quebec Nordique first round selection in '94 (12th overall) did it the hard way, playing for five different teams, including the Maple Leafs where he was most popular sticking up for teammates for nearly seven seasons spanning '00-01 to '07-08. Belak began his career with Colorado following their first Cup and played parts of three seasons before moving onto Calgary (included in the Theo Fleury blockbuster) where he started to establish himself, putting together consecutive 100+ penalty minute (PIM) campaigns in '99-00 and '00-01.

That included a trade to Toronto, who were serious contenders. Over 16 games, he even notched his second career goal (first since '97-98 w/Avs) while adding an assist along with 31 PIM. Though he didn't get in a postseason which saw the Leafs go toe to toe with the defending champion Devils before falling in a grueling second round rematch, Belak continued to impress Leaf Nation. In '01-02, he registered a career high 63 games along with four points (1-3-4), plus 142 PIM. It was that year when they made it to the Conference Finals before losing to Carolina when Belak debuted and scored his only career playoff goal during 16 games that Spring. Not surprisingly, he racked up 18 minutes. The following year ('02-03), he established career bests with three goals, six assists and nine points to go with 196 PIM.

Belak registered at least 100 penalty minutes in seven straight NHL seasons sans the lockout. Of his eight goals, seven came wearing the Maple Leaf. Seventeen of 25 helpers also came with Toronto where he played 318 of 549 career games, including a personal best 65 in '06-07. The following year, he was dealt to Florida where he had a brief stay before being traded to Nashville, where he spent a majority of his last three seasons before being waived last 2/25. On April 9, he announced his retirement. Belak finished with 1,263 PIM in 549 contests.


"Now I think people will realize the tough job of playing in the NHL and the tough job of being a heavyweight," former NHLer Georges Laraque said. "It takes a lot mentally. It's really hard."


"When you retire after being a heavyweight for as many years as you played, most of those guys didn't make [much] money, so there's no options for them after. So, after you have all this pressure of playing and fighting for a living, now you have to fight to live when life after hockey is over."

Belak's tragic death leaves more questions than answers. We're seeing more and more extreme cases of Anxiety/Depression in athletics. Not every single one has resulted in tragedy. However, it begs the question if troubled athletes are getting enough attention. As someone who deals with this important life issue daily, it can be very challenging. Just imagine how it must be for a player, who's dealing with more pressure along with extensive travel and expectations.

It's hard to pinpoint the reason(s) why the NHL lost three popular players who all were tough customers. Former troubled star Theo Fleury overcame great obstacles that included a long bout with alcohol and drugs stemming from anxiety and depression due to sexual abuse at the hands of monster Graham James. He had several strong tweets on post-retirement/depression. This was one of the highlights:

"The drug companies make billions on pain meds with no consequences or claim any responsibility for overdoses or deaths."
This is an epidemic that isn't covered enough. While it's probably not the only reason, there needs to be more emphasis on the drug industry so we can prevent future tragedies such as Derek Boogaard's. It's important for the NHL to closely examine each case and discover if there are any similarities between Belak, Boogaard and Rick Rypien. What we do know is that Boogaard was an accidental overdose of dangerous painkiller oxycodone mixed with alcohol while Rypien's is rumored to be suicide. Privacy concerns have kept anything from being official.  

According to an ESPN report, Belak hung himself. At least that's what one person who had knowledge of the case believes.

"It's not only about the deaths, it's the deaths that surround similar type players," former Calgary GM and current NHL Network analyst Craig Button told The Canadian Press. "It's not just getting hit in the head, it's everything that goes with that (enforcer) role. I think that people are paying very, very serious attention to concussions and blows to the head and the role of the enforcer.


"I don't think anybody can stop until we really understand the impact it has not only physically, but emotionally as well."
All these factors must be considered along with a way to encourage more troubled athletes to come forward and seek help. Sometimes, it can be a matter of pride. Even for myself, I kept everything buried inside and it finally manifested itself five years ago. Anxiety and Depression can strike at any time. It can be lethal. The sooner you deal with it, the better.

Prayers go out to the Belak family and friends. Our thoughts are with the Boogaard family and the Rypien family. Let us pray.

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