Pens Push (Fantasy Draft edition): Neal nervous, Letang on defending Malkin, and wise words from a Flyer.


Some quick-hit observations from the 2012 NHL All-Star Fantasy Draft:

= So, it seems like forever has passed since I covered a hockey-related event; but for all the ones I have covered over the many years I cannot say I have experienced anything quite like the All-Star draft. This provided yet another example of how wrong a reporter can be about something. Upon stepping onto a US Airways flight at 5:15 a.m. on Thursday I was sure that this draft would be thoroughly miserable to cover and that the All-Stars wanted no part of it. Doesn’t really matter that I was stone-cold wrong on the former, but it is important for the dear readers to know that, from my perspective anyway, the NHL All-Stars really dig this concept.

The odd part is that the draft really is all about who gets taken last. In that way it’s the opposite of an actual draft – though, considering the players selected at this draft will play against one another in a game on Sunday, I take issue with the “fantasy” angle. Still, there is no denying that that last pick has taken on a life of its own, and not just because the last player chosen has received a car in the two years of this format.

It’s almost a badge of honor, near as I can tell, to be the last guy taken. It’s as if anybody can go, say, fifth – well, not just anybody, because the fifth pick in this draft was arguably hockey’s best player (Evgeni Malkin) – but only one All-Star gets to spend the entire draft backstage with the boys, and draw sympathy from the fans and media. If this All-Star handles himself with grace and humor, or just generally well, his stock goes up instantly.

Also, there is this to consider: What does anybody remember from the first All-Star Fantasy Draft in 2011? I would say that most people remember that Phil Kessel was the last man standing. They will remember that about Logan Couture from the 2012 process.

The Last Man Standing Club is fairly exclusive, and it might be fast becoming the NHL’s version of the CBGB.


= So, James Neal thought he might be part of that club, per Kris Letang.

“What was I thinking? A little nervous I guess (backstage). You never know who’s going to go next,” Neal said, adding that his Team Alfredsson squad “looks good.”

“A couple of good goal scorers there in (Steven) Stamkos and (Claude) Giroux.”

Fair enough, but for team captain Daniel Alfredsson to snag a 27-goal scorer such as Neal with the 28th overall pick – well, that is a nice haul, too.

Neal was going to spend his All-Star break on vacation in Florida, where it will be slightly warmer than Ottawa. Still, the thermals I brought on this trip probably weren’t necessary, as the All-Star weekend forecast is calling for mid-20s – not balmy by most standers, but for Ottawa at the end of January, practically sandals weather.


= Penguins fans might loather the Flyers, but they would love Scott Hartnell if he was on their team. (I’ve long though Hartnell was a Ray Shero kind of player, and I’m convinced had the Flyers not snagged Hartnell and Kimmo Timonen from the Predators in summer 2007 that the Penguins were going to make a play for both players on the free-agent market.) Anyway, Hartnell, who is as affable off the ice as he is crusty on it, placed some perspective on the All-Star experience for players:

“I don’t think it’s hard at all, these guys are all good guys,” Hartnell said of putting aside team rivalries. “Like, for example, Dion Phaneuf in Toronto. You hate playing against him. He hits you hard, finishes every check. He’s a great player, and an event like that he’s having fun, chirping around, we’re chirping each other.

“It’s amazing you can have that (type of fun) when you’re here, but we’re going to go play Toronto next week and we’ll be back to hating each other.”

Might have been my tired eyes playing tricks on me, but I’m pretty sure I spied Hartnell and Malkin sharing a laugh shortly after the Fantasy Draft.


= Letang, who will play against Malkin on Sunday, on his strategy:  

“I don’t know to do that because it’s never happened against me.”

Letang seems much taken aback by his All-Star nod given the extensive amount of time he missed because of a concussion.

“I was not expecting it,” he said. “They decided to bring me here, and it’s an honor.”

On my weekly radio appearance on “The Mark Madden Show” this week I was asked who the three stars of the Penguins’ seven-game winning streak were, and the answer did not come to me easily. Clearly Malkin and Neal and Marc-Andre Fleury – somehow not on the All-Star team even though he would be one of the five goalies any GM in this league would take as franchise player –  are in the win, place and show categories; but what about Chris Kunitz and Letang? I suspect Penguins coaches would tell you that Kunitz is playing as well as anybody on the squad, and the team has looked sure and sharp since Letang returned over these past five games.

My hunch is that if Malkin wins the scoring title, even finishes top three, and the Penguins make the playoffs, he will finally snag that Hart Trophy as league MVP. That said, I’m not so sure the player most necessary for the Penguins to make a long playoff run, save for Fleury, isn’t Letang. He is the rare player who elevates an entire unit, and if the fact that he is at the All-Star Game despite his limited play this season shows just how respected he is among his peers.


= OK, this day was long and tomorrow will rate longer if I’m to deliver my goal of providing some intriguing stories on Saturday and Sunday. Sheesh, somebody tell Josh Yohe I forgot how tiring this hockey coverage stuff can be.

A special thanks to some dear readers who kindly dropped me a note today expressing kind words about my brief return to Penguins coverage; their words were too kind, but they meant the word to a reporter who will always keep pucks close to his heart.


Cheers from Gatineau in Quebec,