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August 13, 2015
by Jonathan Bombulie


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New top 10 prospects

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I saw that ESPN.com released its list of the top 100 prospects and its 1-30 ranking of NHL organizations the other day. It caught my attention because the Penguins were ranked dead last and the only prospect in the top 100 was Daniel Sprong at No. 43.

That’s a topic I would like to explore more, and I will write about it soon, but it strikes me that it might be good to re-rank the Penguins’ top 10 prospects first, given that there have been some changes after the draft, offseason trades and development camp. Let’s do that now. Players listed with position, height, weight and age.

I’m using the NHL.com standards, so if a player appeared in 25 NHL games last season or 50 in his career or has turned 26, he’s off the list.

1. Daniel Sprong, LW, 6-0, 180, 18
With Derrick Pouliot graduated and Kasperi Kapanen gone to Toronto, Sprong’s your man.

2. Matt Murray, G, 6-4, 178, 21
ESPN.com had him as the sixth-best goalie prospect in hockey. That sounds about right to me.

3. Sergei Plotnikov, LW, 6-2, 202, 25
He’s on the verge of being too old to be considered a prospect, but since he’s on the right side of that line, he deserves this spot. How many prospects in any organization are likely to play top nine minutes next season? Not many.

4. Brian Dumoulin, D, 6-4, 207, 23
With Scott Harrington gone to Toronto, bump Dumoulin up one spot.

5. Oskar Sundqvist, C, 6-3, 209, 21
I’m being conservative with Sundqvist. Some might have him higher, since he’s a big kid with a two-way game and hands. I still wonder how he’ll handle big-league physicality.

6. Conor Sheary, LW, 5-8, 175, 23
In the NHL.com top 100 prospects list, the only player in the top 50 that played most of last season in the AHL was Montreal center prospect Charles Hudon. Sheary compares favorably to Hudon.

7. Dominik Simon, C, 5-11, 176, 21
Pretty accomplished for a kid his age and already signed to an NHL deal. He slots in ahead of centers like Teddy Blueger and Jake Guentzel.

8. Adam Clendening, D, 6-0, 190, 22
Maybe some consider him a throw-in in the Brandon Sutter deal. I don’t. He had 105 points in his first two AHL seasons. That’s impressive. By my count, he does have to clear waivers to be sent down, however, so his stay on this list could be a short one.

9. Scott Wilson, LW, 5-11, 183, 23
Wrist injury kept him out of development camp, so it’s hard to move him much from before.

10. Frederik Tiffels, LW, 6-0, 192, 20
Loved his speed at development camp.

EDIT: I accidentally left Sheary off the original version of this list. Here’s why. The last time I made a top 10 prospects list, he was an unrestricted free agent, so I didn’t include him. When I re-did the list now that he’s signed, I forgot to add him. My mistake. Apologies.

Bye for now,

jb

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August 12, 2015
by Jonathan Bombulie


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The youth movement

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When the Penguins signed 38-year-old center Matt Cullen last week, it struck a bit of a blow to the team’s potential youth movement at forward next season.

Instead of a handful of spots open to homegrown prospects, it looks like there will be one open in the opening-night lineup while Eric Fehr is recovering from elbow surgery. Scott Wilson, Bobby Farnham, Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary, et al, can compete for one job on the wing or Oskar Sundqvist can play center and Cullen can shift to the wing.

Then, once everyone gets healthy, even that spot could be gone.

General manager Jim Rutherford said it doesn’t mean the organization has soured on any of its young forwards and that there still will be opportunity as the season goes along. Still, some fans I heard from on Twitter aren’t happy with management choosing experience over youth when push came to shove.

While I have some sympathy for that sentiment, no one should be surprised. Let’s look at a list of all the players who have played for the Penguins in the last 10 years while still qualifying as rookies as per NHL rules. The highlighted entries played at least a half season in the NHL.

rookies0812

You’ll notice that, in the last six years, only three rookies have played at least half the games in a season, and only one of those three, Olli Maatta, was really an impact player. So what do we make of this revelation?

It’s possible the Penguins have been too slow in bringing along young players. Simon Despres and Eric Tangradi, for instance, might be cited as prospects who wilted a bit on the vine.

More likely, the Penguins just didn’t have any impact prospects in the first place. Having traded away prospects and draft picks and not having drafted terribly effectively, perhaps they went with older players simply because the younger players weren’t that good.

If you go back a few years, you’ll see that the Penguins gave 30 percent of their man-games to rookies in Sidney Crosby’s first year and 15 percent to rookies in Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal’s first year and haven’t hit those thresholds since. That’s the most telling part of the chart to me. It is evidence that NHL general managers, when they think their team is rebuilding, are willing to play rookies. When their team has a chance to win a championship, they are not comfortable handing the keys to young players.

You can like it or not like it, but it’s not likely to change anytime soon.

Bye for now,

jb

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August 10, 2015
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Ciao, Luca

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(mapleleafs.nhl.com)

(mapleleafs.nhl.com)

One-time Penguins prospect Luca Caputi announced his retirement from hockey today, accepting an assistant coaching job with the Ontario Hockey League’s Guelph Storm.

After the Penguins took Caputi in the fourth round of the 2007 draft, he blew up for a 51-goal season with the Niagara Ice Dogs. At the end of that year, he joined the Baby Pens for the AHL playoffs and had eight points in 19 games. Then a 45-point rookie season in Wilkes-Barre followed.

By the time he got called up and scored a goal on his first NHL shift, Caputi-mania was growing. Someone even made this ridiculous song about him.

Caputi had 23 goals in 54 games in his second season in the AHL and looked to be on the verge of becoming the home-grown top-six winger the Penguins had craved. Instead, he was traded to Toronto for Alexei Ponikarovsky in a deal that did neither side any favors.

Caputi bounced around the minors for a few years after that, then went to play in Sweden for a couple of seasons. Citing injuries, he hung it up today.

Caputi’s rise and fall in pro hockey is a cautionary tale for prospect-watchers for one reason. Don’t forget about skating. Caputi did a lot of the things an NHL goal scorer has to do. He went to the net. He could shoot the puck. He’s a great guy, the kind of coach who will probably be immediately popular with his players. He just didn’t have the lower-body strength to compete with the biggest, strongest, most talented players in the world. There are prospects who succeed in spite of not being terribly strong on their skates, but they’re the exception rather than the rule.

Bye for now,

jb

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August 6, 2015
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Coming to Pittsburgh to win

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When Matt Cullen signed with the Penguins today, he said he was looking forward to joining a championship-caliber team.

That used to be a common sentiment among players coming to the Penguins, but it hasn’t been heard all that often lately. Could GM Jim Rutherford’s busy summer be changing the perception of the Penguins around the hockey world?

“I’ve been sitting here watching the moves they’ve made all summer,” Cullen said. “It’s really clear they’re going after it. For a guy like me that’s later in his career, I want to win another championship. That’s first and foremost on my list. This may be my last chance to do it.”

Here are five other notes on the Cullen signing.

1. It’s not hard to see why Rutherford has a positive opinion of Cullen. He was a stud in 2005-06 when Rutherford’s Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup — 25 goals in the regular season and 18 points in the playoffs.

So Rutherford thinks highly of Cullen, the Penguins needed a fourth-line center and Cullen was an unrestricted free agent. This signing was practically inevitable, wasn’t it?

“All along it felt like a good thing,” Cullen said. “Just recently, things kind of heated up as far as talking numbers and contract. As soon as it was brought up that Pittsburgh was maybe a possibility, I was really excited. It did feel like a good fit and a team I think I can help.”

2. Rutherford said one reason he signed Cullen was for his leadership abilities. How does one lead a team that already has a cadre of accomplished, world-class players?

“It’s a good question,” Cullen said. “I’m excited about it because it’s nice when you have a big group for your leadership group. Especially in Pittsburgh, you have guys that have been to the mountaintop and they want to get back there. It’s pretty clear the organization is making a strong push to get back there.”

(He went back to that championship-caliber theme, you’ll notice.)

3. The Penguins have five centers on one-way contracts. If all five are healthy and coach Mike Johnston asks Cullen to play the left side, how will he react?

“Last season, I played the majority of the year on the left side. Then we came into the playoffs and Mike Fisher got hurt and I moved into the middle and played there for the majority of the playoffs,” Cullen said. “I like playing them both. I feel comfortable playing them both. The year before that, I played about half the season in the middle and half the season on the wing with Fisher and Hornqvist. I’m comfortable playing it either way.”

4. The first pro team Cullen played for was the Baltimore Bandits, an AHL team that has been defunct since 1997. In other words, he’s been playing for a long time. What would Cullen have said if I told him, as a sophomore at St. Cloud State in 1996-97, that he’d still be playing in the NHL almost 20 years later?

“I would have probably given a pretty good laugh,” he said. “It’s not something you ever think about. The funny thing is, and it’s a cliché, but it goes by so fast. I don’t even really believe it. I remember my first couple years playing with Selanne and Kariya in Anaheim and gosh, it doesn’t seem that long ago, but when I look at it, it’s a lifetime ago. It’s an absolute blessing. It’s hard to play in the NHL. No one is guaranteed another season ever. To be able to play that long, I just feel lucky.”

5. Baltimore’s No. 1 goalie when Cullen played on the team was Mike Bales, who is now the Penguins’ goalie coach. A player with a 17-year career develops quite a few ties like that.

“I just remember a couple years ago and Danny Bylsma and Joe Sacco and a list of guys I played with early on in my career were starting to coach,” Cullen said. “That’s how you know you’re getting old, when guys you played with are coaching. I played with Pascal Dupuis in New York. I played with Hornqvist. I played against those guys in the playoffs. It’s funny. When you play a couple of series against a team – we lost to Pittsburgh in the conference finals one year and we lost to them in the first round when I was in Ottawa – and you start to feel like you almost know them. It’s kind of weird. You play them and you develop respect for them. I have a lot of respect for what they’re doing and I’m glad to be a part of it.”

Bye for now,

jb

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August 6, 2015
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Three questions: The Cullen signing

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The Penguins got the fourth-line center they’ve been talking about for more than a month now, signing 38-year-old Matt Cullen to a one-year, $800,000 deal.

The details are covered in the story, but there were three questions about the fallout of the signing that I asked general manager Jim Rutherford.

1. Cullen gives you five centers on one-way deals. When everybody gets healthy, who moves to the wing?

“I don’t know. That’s going to really be up to the coach. It’s going to depend on how everyone does at camp. The nice thing about these guys is that we have Eric Fehr as a two-positional player. Matt Cullen is a two-positional player. You can never have enough centericemen. You can never have enough depth at that position. We’ve been able to put together a good group. We already had two of the top centermen in the game and we’ve added to that group with real nice additions.”

2. Are you going to have to make any moves to free up salary cap space in light of this move?

“That $800,000 doesn’t really affect our cap all that much. (The fourth-line center) was going to be a player making between $600,000 and $800,000 anyway.”

3. Is there still a chance for a younger player or prospect to make this team?

“Absolutely. One, Fehr is probably not going to be ready to start the season. We were aware of that all along. It could be as late as December. We’re going to have injuries and we have training camp for guys to show what they can do. We’re still real high on some of these young players. They’re still going to get some good opportunity this year. Just because we made these additions, we have not forgot about some of these players that are coming along.”

To illustrate points 2 and 3, here’s the salary cap depth chart thing I’ve been keeping all summer.

capchart0806

Stay tuned for some comments from Cullen himself.

Bye for now,

jb

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August 6, 2015
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Bingo hopper line combinations

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There’s an old saying in hockey about a coach pulling numbers out of a bingo hopper to choose his line combinations.

I think Mike Johnston might actually be able to do that this season. Here’s why.

The Penguins have 10 forwards on one way contracts, plus Sergei Plotnikov, plus one winger who will earn an NHL job in training camp. I would say Scott Wilson is the favorite for that job.

If you take those 12 forwards, you’ve got four wingers with left-handed shots (Kunitz, Dupuis, Plotnikov and Wilson), four centers (Crosby, Malkin, Fehr and Bonino) and four wingers with right-handed shots (Kessel, Hornqvist, Perron, Bennett). Four, four and four.

Some are obviously more suited for the top six and others more suited for the fourth line, but in general, you could put together any combination of left-handed winger, center and right-handed winger and have a workable trio.

So I put that theory to the test. I don’t have a bingo hopper, so I used a random number generator online to randomly match up the forwards.

Here’s what it spit out:

Plotnikov-Malkin-Kessel
Wilson-Bonino-Perron
Kunitz-Fehr-Bennett
Dupuis-Crosby-Hornqvist

Reorder them based on centers and it looks like this:

Dupuis-Crosby-Hornqvist
Plotnikov-Malkin-Kessel
Kunitz-Fehr-Bennett
Wilson-Bonino-Perron

Slot in Oskar Sundqvist for the recovering Eric Fehr and would it surprise you if that’s the opening night lineup?

Therefore, in conclusion, hey Mike Johnston, go ahead and buy a bingo hopper. You’re good.

Bye for now,

jb

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August 4, 2015
by Jason Mackey


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Grove out; Penguins revamp role, online station

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In a desire to turn pregame and postgame hosting duties into a full-time position, one that fits within the revamped structure of Penguins Radio 24/7, longtime Penguins radio host Bob Grove is out of a job.

“We’re making a strategic move on radio,” Penguins VP of communications Tom McMillan told Trib Total Media. “We’re going to make the radio host job full-time for the first time. Since 1999, it’s always been game night.

“We’re going to go away from 24/7 as an online radio station. We’re going to keep the brand, but there’s going to be more podcasts and vignettes that will get out on our website and social media.”

Grove is probably the premier historian in the field of Penguins hockey. He started covering the team in the newspaper business in 1981. He started working for the Penguins in radio in 1998. He literally wrote the book on the topic, “Pittsburgh Penguins: The Official Story of the First 30 Years.”

“Look, I’ve had an amazing 10 years doing this,” Grove said. “I want to thank the Penguins for giving me the opportunity 10 years ago and also thank them for the way they treated me. Just fantastic. Definitely want to thank the team that I work with – Mike Lange, Phil Bourque and Ray Walker, who were there with me all those years. What a team. What a bunch of guys to work with. I’d also like to thank the fans. We needed the fans to listen to the show, too. I want to thank them all for listening to me in the pre- and postgame shows. Had a lot of great times in those 10 years for sure.”

McMillan said the Penguins would still like to “engage” with Grove and showcase his knowledge on the club in some capacity.

“This is nothing about Bob,” McMillan said. “This is about making the position full-time. He was a loyal soldier, and we hope to continue engaging him in some way.”

Grove works full-time for Comcast and would be unable to make the time commitment necessary for such a job.

As a result of the restructuring of Penguins 24/7, hosts Steve Kolbe and Brian Metzer won’t be back in their present roles either.

A job posting on NHL.com says the Penguins are looking for a host to handle pre-game and post-game shows on the radio, live on-camera intermission updates for the video board at home games and hosting duties for a weekly audio magazine and various podcasts, among other tasks.

– Jason Mackey and Jonathan Bombulie

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August 4, 2015
by Jason Mackey


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Close to the ceiling? Yeah, so what?

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The Penguins are again bumping their heads on the salary-cap ceiling.

It’s a directive from the top that general manager Jim Rutherford spend as much of the $71.4 million salary cap as he needs. He, of course, has shown no problem obliging.

The Trib’s Jonathan Bombulie estimates that, with this 22-man roster, the Penguins are $415,834 under the cap. That’s less than the NHL minimum salary, but Rutherford isn’t worried.

I caught up with Rutherford Monday night — yes, I still work for the Trib; have been using comp time and vacation — and he expressed no concern about the Penguins’ current situation.

Having a few two-way contracts on the books should help give the Penguins flexibility. They also will likely reap the benefit of being able to put Eric Fehr (offseason elbow surgery) on LTIR, a move that will allow them to spend an extra $2 million, should they choose to, while he’s out.

“I’m not as concerned about where we are with the cap because we have some guys on two-way contracts,” Rutherford told me. “We can create flexibility if we get into any cap issues. I would prefer to be lower than that, but it’s not something I feel like we have to do right away.”

The Penguins could still make a move, but I wouldn’t look for anything huge. Unless someone swoops in with an offer the Penguins can’t refuse, trading Rob Scuderi or Chris Kunitz appears unlikely at this point.

Don’t rule out Rutherford adding a fourth-line player, someone who can play center or wing, but we’re not talking about millions of dollars here.

I also asked Rutherford about the whereabouts of Russian winger Sergei Plotnikov, whom Rutherford previously told me should arrive here sometime in August.

Rutherford said Plotnikov is not here yet, and he expects to learn more this week.

“I know he’s coming in early,” Rutherford said. “But I don’t know for sure (when he’ll be here).”

Be GRATEFUL to each other,

Mackey

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August 3, 2015
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Goalie depth

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Ty Conklin (NHL.com)

Ty Conklin (NHL.com)

The Penguins have raided the University of New Hampshire alumni association to fill out their minor league goaltending depth chart. Famous Wildcats alumnus Ty Conklin is retired, so they signed Brian Foster to an AHL deal with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton today after the Wheeling Nailers signed Casey DeSmith to an ECHL deal last week.

Penguins goalie development coach Mike Buckley worked at UNH for a year, so that might explain the pipeline a bit.

The top three spots on the Penguins organizational depth chart are written in ink, it seems – Marc-Andre Fleury backed up by Jeff Zatkoff in the NHL and Matt Murray as the No. 1 in the AHL.

The two UNH goalies will presumably battle rookie Tristan Jarry for the No. 2 spot in Wilkes-Barre.

I wrote about Jarry during development camp. I think the Penguins would like to see him take off, have a great year and push Murray for playing time. There are indications, however, that he has some work to do before reaching that goal.

Regardless, if the Penguins have indeed set up a competition for the fourth spot on the organizational depth chart, it’s a competition Jarry can win. It’s not like they signed guys with bona fide AHL credentials that Jarry has little chance to surpass.

Foster, 28, was a regional all-American at UNH, graduating in 2010. Florida’s fifth-round pick in the 2005 NHL draft, he spent the first four years of his pro career bouncing between the CHL, ECHL and AHL, getting a cup of coffee with the Panthers in 2011-12.

He spent last year in the Norwegian league, which is an odd place for a kid from New Hampshire to end up. He had a 2.94 GAA and .905 save percentage in 43 games with Lillehammer, which I’d bet has a very nice, 21-year-old rink.

If you’re a real hockey nerd, you should read up on the Norwegian league. Its leading scorer last year, for instance, was one-time Penguins draft pick Brian Ihnacak. Wacey Rabbit and Jean-Michel Daoust played there too.

Anyway, Foster is 69-40-12 in his ECHL career, which indicates he could have success with the Nailers. If his year in Europe has helped his development, maybe he beats out Jarry.

DeSmith, 23, was a very good goalie at UNH from 2011-14. Career stats: 48-36-8, 2.32 GAA, .923 save percentage.

In August of 2014, he was arrested and charged with assault and resisting arrest after an incident with a girlfriend. He was kicked off the team at UNH.

In December of 2014, he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and agreed to alcohol counseling and community service. The other charges were dropped. After a hearing, he was re-admitted to school, but he wasn’t reinstated to the team. He tried to get an NCAA waiver to transfer but was denied, so he turned pro instead.

Judging by his results at UNH, DeSmith has a chance to become a prospect.

If you’d like to read more about the incident in 2014, here’s the coverage from New Hampshire.

First, coverage of the original charges. Then, coverage of the dispensation of the case. Finally, a statement DeSmith and his family released.

Bye for now,

jb

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July 31, 2015
by Jonathan Bombulie


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Breaking Down the World Juniors finalists

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It might have been overshadowed by the other hockey news of the day – the Brandon Sutter trade – but Pittsburgh was named one of five finalists for the 2018 World Junior Championships on Tuesday.

USA Hockey plans to narrow down the field and then make site visits in the next 60 days.

It’s an awesome tournament, with the world’s best under-20 players playing with passion and fire. It’s also fun when Canada loses and the whole country flips out.

Anyway, Sen. Bob Casey announced his support for the Pittsburgh bid a couple of weeks ago. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York did the same for the Buffalo bid yesterday. Let’s leave the politicians out of it and really break down where the 2018 World Juniors should be held.

rjames

BUFFALO
CASE FOR: Did a great job hosting the 2011 event. Has a really sweet second rink that Terry Pegula just built. Close to Canada, so the seats will be filled.
CASE AGAINST: Snow. Cab drivers are afraid of hockey players.
HOMETOWN HOCKEY HERO: Patrick Kane’s mullet
CELEBRITY HOCKEY FAN: Rick James. He died in 2004 and I have no idea if he was a hockey fan, but he was from Buffalo.

punk

CHICAGO
CASE FOR: Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz is a supporter of the bid – perhaps as a way to get a new practice rink built near the United Center, but a supporter nonetheless. Hot hockey town.
CASE AGAINST: Wind. Pizza is very filling.
HOMETOWN HOCKEY HERO: Eddie Olczyk
CELEBRITY HOCKEY FAN: C.M. Punk

hamm

ST. LOUIS
CASE FOR: It’s a pretty good hockey town with good amateur programs and whatnot.
CASE AGAINST: The place is filled with Cardinals fans.
HOMETOWN HOCKEY HERO: Joe Vitale
CELEBRITY HOCKEY FAN: Don Draper

hogan

TAMPA BAY
CASE FOR: The best sun belt hockey town. Received rave reviews for hosting 2012 Frozen Four, so much so that it’s hosting again next year.
CASE AGAINST: Dickie Dunn says there’s lots of shysters in Florida.
HOMETOWN HOCKEY HERO: I don’t know. Jayson Megna is from Florida, I guess.
CELEBRITY HOCKEY FAN: Now accepting applications. Position formerly held by Hulk Hogan, but he’s been fired.

batman

PITTSBURGH
CASE FOR: Location – in the sense that, it’s the closest location to my house. Seriously, though, one of America’s great hockey towns.
CASE AGAINST: If there aren’t enough Pittsburgh-born players on the U.S. team, fans could riot.
HOMETOWN HOCKEY HERO: Brandon Saad took the torch from R.J. Umberger who took it from Ryan Malone
CELEBRITY HOCKEY FAN: The Batman

CONCLUSION
As you can see, Pittsburgh is the obvious choice, mostly because it’s the location closest to my house.

Bye for now,
jb

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