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March 5, 2014
by Rob Rossi


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Rossi: Pens not sure if Kesler is still in play.

A quick update, specifically on the Ryan Kesler watch, with about six hours remaining before the NHL trade deadline (3 p.m.):

 

>> The Penguins had not yet upped their latest offer to Vancouver – center Brandon Sutter, a choice between defensemen Simon Despres or Brian Dumoulin, and their 2014 first- and third-round picks.

 

>> The Penguins and Canucks touched based late Tuesday.

 

>> The Penguins are open to sweetening their offer, but if top prospect Derrick Pouliot were part of it the package would change in terms of draft picks. (Pouliot, whom the Penguins want to keep, was part of original talks between GM Ray Shero and his Vancouver counterpart, Mike Gillis, in mid-January.)

 

>> The Penguins would look at an expanded package that would include another roster player or prospect going to the Canucks, but they would seek another NHL player in return.

 

>> The Penguins are NOT convinced Kesler will be moved by the deadline. They sense he could be moved in the summer instead. The Penguins would chase him then, too.

 

>> There is a growing suspicion within the Penguins that Gillis may not be authorized by Vancouver ownership to move Kesler. That seems to be a new development on Wednesday.

 

>> The Penguins’ information is that Kesler would waive his no-trade clause only to play for an Eastern Conference contender with pedigree. They do believe his preference is to play for them.

 

>> The Penguins do not think for a minute that the Flyers, as had been reported by some national outlets, are out of the running for Kesler. They expect a strong push, perhaps in the final hours before the deadline.

Be EXCELLENT to each other,

Rossi

 

 

March 4, 2014
by Rob Rossi


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Rossi: A Commonwealth cold war for Kesler.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – A Commonwealth Cold War for Ryan Kesler has broken out with about 24 hours remaining before the NHL trade deadline.

It might cost the Penguins their top overall prospect, too.

The Penguins and Flyers have emerged as top contenders for Kesler, a center for the Vancouver Canucks with two years remaining on a contract that counts $5 million annually against the salary-cap.

The Penguins have offered center Brandon Sutter, a first- and third-round pick and the Canucks’ choice of defensemen Simon Despres or Brian Dumoulin.

That offer was not final and could be altered as GM Ray Shero is said to be aggressively chasing this potential move.

Derrick Pouliot, a defenseman and the Penguins’ top-rated prospect, would be in play if it meant closing a deal for Kesler. However, the Penguins would be less willing to part with the third-round pick or the other offered defensemen.

Kesler has a no-trade clause and can control where he goes, and the Penguins believe he will waive that clause to join them.

However, the Penguins also believed late Monday that the Flyers intended to make a big push for Kesler, perhaps on a multi-player proposal – though it remains uncertain if Kesler, an American, wants to play for the Flyers.

Kesler, who has publicly denied requesting a trade, was impressed by the so-called Penguins Way on display for Team USA at the Olympics. He especially was taken with Shero, who was assistant GM for the Americans.

Kesler.

The Penguins believe the Canucks’ asking price for Kesler is a forward 25 or younger, a top prospect and a first-round pick. (Sutter turned 25 in February, and he reportedly has a fan in Canucks GM Mike Gillis.)

The Penguins do not want to part with Pouliot, but that stance is negotiable.

It may have to be to sell the Canucks on moving Kesler.

Frank Seravalli of the Philadelphia Daily News reported early Tuesday that the Flyers have made a substantial offer for Kesler, and also are interested in Canucks defensemen Alexander Edler.

Seravalli’s report: http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/sports/flyers/Flyers-pursuing-Kesler.html

Kesler holds the cards, however.

As did winger Jarome Iginla last season, Kesler could agree only to a trade to the Penguins.

The trade deadline is 3 p.m. Wednesday.

The Penguins also are looking at New Jersey defenseman Marek Zidlicky and Edmonton right winger Ales Hemsky.

 

Be EXCELLENT to each other,

Rossi

 

March 4, 2014
by Rob Rossi


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Rossi: Shero’s top 3 targets are…

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Ray Shero is chasing a few players with the NHL trade deadline fast approaching.

The deadline is 3 p.m. on Wednesday, and these were players on the Penguins’ radar as of Tuesday morning:

 

>> C Ryan Kesler (Vancouver)

Nothing new here, as the Penguins had identified Kesler as their top target in January, before D Kris Letang’s stroke. Kesler is not a rental player, with two years remaining on his contract after this season; so, essentially, the Penguins are trying to get him for three postseason runs. At 29, he is hitting the end of his prime, but the Penguins believe he would have great value at a $5 million salary-cap hit. His role would look familiar. Kesler would be used as a shutdown third-line center, though he would be the lead penalty-killing forward and play over 20 minutes – maybe more than any forward but captain Sidney Crosby. Basically, Kesler would become the new Jordan Staal, who the Penguins never wanted to trade two years ago, anyway.

The Penguins have offered Vancouver a package that includes C Brandon Sutter, either of Ds Simon Despres or Brian Dumoulin, and their first- and third-round picks at the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. That they are willing now to soften on their stance against including D Derrick Pouliot, a first-round pick from 2012, is an indication of just how badly they want Kesler. Also, the Penguins believe Philadelphia and Chicago will bring big offers for Kesler.

The catch, perhaps, is that the Penguins think Kesler wants to play for them – as did Jarome Iginla last season. Kesler, like Iginla, has a no trade clause.

Shero is said to be as aggressive in this pursuit of Kesler as he has any player at seven previous deadline periods.

Kesler’s player profile from NHL.com: http://www.nhl.com/ice/player.htm?id=8470616#&navid=nhl-search

>> D Marek Zidlicky (New Jersey)

Pro scout Don Waddell, one of GM Ray Shero’s close confidants, had scouted the Devils in person last week – and that was to get a read on Zidlicky. He is a pure rental player, something the Penguins were not interested in before losing Letang and D Paul Martin. Letang is likely out for the season; Martin (broken hand) is out 4-6 weeks, and there are indications that will be closer to the six-week range. Zidlickly, 37, counts $3 million against the cap.

The Penguins are not planning for Letang’s return this season and they view puck-moving defenseman as a big need because of that expectation. There is growing concern that Crosby and LW Chris Kunitz, the top-line duo already dealing with the loss of regular RW Pascal Dupuis, who handled a lot of the dirty duties away from the puck, are chasing too much because neither Letang nor Martin have been in the lineup. Zidlicky is neither Letang nor Martin, but he is an upgrade as a puck mover for a defense corps suddenly lacking in that area aside from Matt Niskanen and Olli Maatta.

Zidlicky’s player profile from NHL.com: http://www.nhl.com/ice/player.htm?id=8469623#&navid=nhl-search

 

>> RW Ales Hemsky (Edmonton)

The Penguins do not have the second-round choice the Oilers seek for Hemsky, who Shero was able to scout in-person at the Winter Olympics in Russia. Hemsky, 30, is also a rental player with a $5 million cap hit. He is an alternative if the Penguins do not land Kesler – though, Edmonton is asking for a second-round pick that the Penguins do not have unless they acquire one in another trade. (The Penguins’ second-round pick was part of the cost for D Douglas Murray last season.)

Hemsky, if acquired, would play with Crosby and Kunitz. He is more of a playmaker than a sniper, though he conceivably could keep up with those two in the skating department. Also, he is a right-handed shot.

Hemsky’s player profile from NHL.com: http://www.nhl.com/ice/player.htm?id=8469466#&navid=nhl-search

>> These are not the only players the Penguins are considering, but they have emerged as the likely top three targets. Kesler is the clear priority, but the Penguins believe they could have the cap space – because of potential long-term injury designations for possibly several players, including Martin ($5 million), Dupuis ($3.75 million) and Letang ($3.5 million) – to fit all three players.

To go on LTI, a player must miss at least 10 games and 24 days. That will not be a problem for Letang or Martin, and Dupuis is out for the season.

(A player counts against the cap once he returns to the active roster off the LTI list; though teams can exceed the cap during the playoffs.)

All cap hits are prorated at this point, but for simpler purpose, consider:

The Penguins could save $12.25 million in space by placing Martin, Dupuis and Letang on LTI. Kesler, Zidlicky and Hemsky would combine to count $13 million.

By the way, RW Chuck Kobasew was placed on waivers Monday. If he is claimed, his $550,000 cap-hit could help the Penguins in a not-so-small way.

>> As always, things change fast around the trade deadline, so keep clicking.

 

LINKS N’AT

>> Shero’s history suggests whatever player/prospect he surrenders in a trade might not come back to haunt him: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5695797-74/round-nhl-penguins

>> Colleague Chris Adamski – not my intern, by the way – looks at the impact Dupuis’ absence is having on Crosby and Kunitz: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5695788-74/dupuis-crosby-game#axzz2ud8U59IJ

>> Adamski also filed this notebook: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5695792-74/penguins-players-trade#axzz2ud8U59IJ

Figures to be a busy day and a half on this end.

Still, be EXCELLENT to each other,

Rossi

 

March 3, 2014
by Rob Rossi


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Rossi: Pens see Flyers, Blackhawks as top Kesler competition.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Penguins will land in the Music City to a familiar feeling of bone-chilling cold.

As a contrast, the jostling for trade-deadline acquisitions is heating up. The deadline is 3 p.m. Wednesday.

A look at the latest regarding the Penguins, who have placed winger Chuck Kobasew on waivers:

 

>>ON RYAN KESLER

He remains their top target, as noted first here on Saturday night: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5686336-74/penguins-kesler-sources#axzz2ud8U59IJ

As of Monday afternoon, nothing has changed on the situation– except that the Penguins feel division rival Philadelphia, in addition to defending champion Chicago, is emerging as a top challenger to acquire Kesler.

Kesler does have a movement clause in his contract, as did Jarome Iginla, who famously picked the Penguins over the Bruins last season.

However, the Penguins feel that Kesler, if he does want out of Vancouver, prefers their situation as an immediate and longer-term Cup contender in an Eastern Time Zone city. Also, they believe he connected well with head coach Dan Bylsma – and especially assistant Tony Granato and GM Ray Shero ­ – while playing for Team USA during the Olympics.

The Penguins also believe Kesler, who they are told has several long-term business commitments in Vancouver, would prefer not to invite backlash by playing for perhaps the Canucks’ most bitter current rival in the Blackhawks.

Again, the Penguins would circle back to Kesler in the summer if Vancouver does not move him before the deadline. His potential acquisition is seen internally as a possible way to maximize the next couple of years with franchise centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who by the end of 2015-16 will be set to turn 30 and 29, respectively.

Shero’s preference is to make a hockey trade that would address third-line scoring and add some toughness for a potential return playoff engagement with Boston. He has ownership’s blessing to go all-in on the push for Kesler because of his two remaining contract years.

With the Penguins, Kesler would essentially fill the same role – on the ice as a shutdown center with offensive punch, off the ice as a snarly, dressing-room comfort challenging presence – as did Jordan Staal, whom Shero never wanted to trade in June 2012.

The Penguins prefer to keep defensive prospects Derrick Pouliot and Scott Harrington and instead surrender picks, but those parameters could change to close a deal for Kesler. Also, it is possible the deal could involve more players from both sides, similar to the one that helped the Penguins land Marian Hossa six years ago.

 

>>ON MATT MOULSON

The Penguins are keeping an eye on his situation with Buffalo, and they may look his way if for some reason they feel Kesler is slipping away to another team.

The priority within the organization is not necessarily finding a replacement for top-line right winger Pascal Dupuis, though the Penguins are open to acquiring one if the situation presents itself.

Shero is skeptical of his chances to fill that spot with a trade, though.

Moulson is an impending free agent, and for that reason the Penguins are not willing to overpay for his rental services.

 

>>ON ANDREW MACDONALD

The Penguins, like almost every Cup contender, are interested in MacDonald, an impending free agent with a cap-friendly $550,000 hit. He is perhaps the most sought-after rental player on the trade market.

Upgrading on defense is the Penguins’ second priority after Kesler because they are operating as though Kris Letang (stroke) will not play again until at least next season. They do believe, as of now, that Paul Martin (right hand) will be ready for Round 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs – but coaches are not at all comfortable with going into the postseason possibly having to play Simon Despres, if he is not traded, or Robert Bortuzzo. Neither player is all that much trusted by the staff at this point.

The Penguins believe they can make the salary-cap work to add Kesler and a veteran defenseman. That is partly because a deal with Kesler would be a hockey move that involves player(s) taking up cap space.

To add a defenseman, the Penguins would consider adding a rental player on an expiring contract.

 

>>ON NEW JERSEY

The Penguins have sent one of Shero’s trusted staffers, pro scout and former Atlanta GM Don Waddell, to the past couple of games involving the New Jersey Devils.

New Jersey has three defensemen – Marek Zidlicky, Mark Fayne and Eric Gelinas (RFA) – on expiring contracts.

 

Be EXCELLENT to each other,
Rossi

March 2, 2014
by Rob Rossi


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Rossi: Penguins are not what they were.

CHICAGO – The Penguins are up against it right now.

Players, probably correctly, talked Saturday night about not reading too much into a one-side loss to the Blackhawks because, as Craig Adams said, “that wasn’t a regular hockey game.”

Indeed, that should be the last time this season the Penguins play a road game in a snowstorm.

Still, as March begins, it is clearly these are not the Penguins of early January, when a healthier group appeared to be handling the loss of right winger Pascal Dupuis.

A lot will be made going forward – though, why more has not been made lately is puzzling – of the Penguins being without their two top defensemen in Kris Letang and Paul Martin.

That makes sense, because the Penguins are so incredibly reliant on those players.

The Penguins are at their best, even with the adoption of a left-wing lock defensive system, when their skilled forwards receive quick, sharp passes from defensemen. That action is what fuels the puck possession the Penguins need to have to win games – especially against top teams such as Chicago or, later this week, Anaheim and San Jose.

Letang and Martin are two of the better puck-moving defensemen in the NHL, certainly the best for the Penguins. They anchor separate defense pairings because coach Dan Bylsma wants one of them on the ice when centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are out.

If Crosby and Malkin – and their respective wingers – spend most of a game chasing the puck, the Penguins are doomed.

That is what is happening right now without Letang and Martin.

The Penguins did win a lot earlier this season when hockey gods attempted to devastate this club by forcing as many as five AHL players into the lineup annually over the course of a month.

That was never going to last, though.

This season was absolutely the one the Penguins could ill afford an injury run like the one they’re having because the lower salary cap has destroyed their depth. They arrived at camp with questions about the third line.

Well, those questions remain, and the injuries to Dupuis and Letang and Martin have negatively impacted the top line and the entire defense corps.

The Penguins, admirably, raced to the top of the Eastern Conference before the Olympics because of a combination of dependably sound goaltending, high-end offensive talent coming up big and the coaching staff masterfully getting the most out of intriguing AHL prospects that management knew were not ready for consistent NHL production.

It is completely unrealistic to think that combination can work all season.

Reality is smacking the Penguins right now.

 

 

>> While walking back to our hotel from the Windy City, fellow Trib Total Media reporter Chris Adamski and I marveled that the Penguins-Blackhawks game at Solider Field was pulled off. The snow under our feet was wet, heavy and slippery, and the wind left our faces feeling raw.

Conditions were brutal for playing a hockey game on Saturday night.

Still, several NHL officials said that the conditions were much worse at Michigan Stadium for the Winter Classic between Detroit and Toronto.

That Classic and this final Stadium Series game went off mostly without a hitch, which is as close to amazing as you will see in hockey.

I’ve covered three outdoor games. Two were played in cold, windy and snowy conditions, the other during a constant rain at night.

Last month, I along with others, watched on TV as an outdoor game was staged in Los Angeles.

Think about that.

An outdoor ice hockey game in Los Angeles!

It appears we are completely taking for granted how unheard of the outdoor game concept was only six years ago.

Now, they’re being staged in blizzard conditions and near beaches.

Outdoor hockey isn’t just one of the best ideas the NHL has ever had; it is also the one of the league’s most impressive accomplishments because the games outside have all actually happened.

Back in 2007, a few months before the original Winter Classic, there was doubt within the hockey community that an outdoor game could even be played.

 

 

>> LINKS N’AT

 

The Penguins did not find their game as the Windy City lived up to its moniker: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/pensgalleries/5655854-74/penguins-blackhawks-game#axzz2ud8U59IJ

 

Ray Shero wants Ryan Kesler: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5686336-74/penguins-kesler-sources#axzz2ud8U59IJ

 

Gary Bettman took time to speak with Trib Total Media on a variety of subjects: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5684472-74/game-bettman-cap#axzz2ud8U59IJ

 

Chris Adamski braved Chicago’s weather to find Penguins fans ready for some frozen fun: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5684455-74/penguins-game-fans

 

Also from Adamski, the Penguins notes: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5655856-74/penguins-saturday-game#axzz2ud8U59IJ

 

Jonathan Bombulie’s weekly AHL report: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5655293-74/payerl-games-goals#axzz2ud8U59IJ

 

Pens-Hawks photos from our Chaz Palla: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/pensgalleries/

 

>> Josh Yohe is set to have himself a big Sunday. Join me in welcoming, hopefully at some point on this day, a healthy addition to his family.

 

 

Be EXCELLENT to each other,

Rossi

February 28, 2014
by Rob Rossi


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Rossi: Chicago weather and trade winds.

CHICAGO – Oh yeah, and a storm is threatening…

A quick hit from this Windy City, with another to follow later Friday after the Penguins practice at Solider Field in advance of their outdoor game against the Blackhawks on Saturday night.

It promises to be quite cold in Chicago this weekend, so the 15,000 or so who are traveling for this game should bring layers. WPXI Sever Weather is calling for the zero degrees-feeling temperatures (wind chill); but snow – and it’s coming – will just miss the event.

That said, if you are going home Sunday – leave early, or make plans to stay in Chicago; because it sounds as though the drive back will be quite unpleasant and perhaps extremely dangerous.

A look at the weather: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5674760-74/game-harbaugh-chicago

= The trade deadline is 3 p.m. on Wednesday, and there are already a lot of my colleagues talking about who the Penguins are targeting.

Unlike last year, when it was clear what the Penguins wanted to and could do, this trade-deadline season look a bit cloudy so many days out.

A bit of information that could signal what the Penguins are thinking short- and long-term, though: They inquired with Vancouver about center Ryan Kesler before the Olympics.

Read into that what you want. Just passing along the information.

 

= The details of Kris Letang’s stroke experience are harrowing, as Josh Yohe reports: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5668844-74/letang-stroke-doctors

= Also from Yohe, who wrote the entire Trib print section Thursday, this gem about Blackhawks’ second-season stud Brandon Saad: http://triblive.com/sports/nhl/5673439-74/saad-game-blackhawks

= From the game (a sloppy loss) to the latest on Pascal Dupuis (injured, but vowing to lead), there was a lot to cover from Pittsburgh on Thursday. Read all of Yohe’s hard work at our Penguins page on the site: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/

Be EXCELLENT to each other,
Rossi

February 27, 2014
by Rob Rossi


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Rossi: Latest “NHL Revealed” to shed light on Crosby’s Olympics

John Collins has a slight problem on his hands.

The NHL’s high-energy chief operating officer, Collins is the man behind turning the league onto an events-driven methodology. Under his watch, outdoor hockey became an annual Winter Classic that is now a Stadium Series, and the once two-day Entry Draft has taken to stretching over almost a half-week.

Collins’ problem isn’t that things are becoming too big. He, as does his boss, commissioner Gary Bettman, want all things NHL to become bigger.

Specifically, Collins is working towards a day when the NHL has produced enough original programming that its fans, who he concedes are generally tribal and territorial, have interest in watching TV shows that aren’t built specifically around their favorite teams.

That happened with the HBO “24/7 Winter Classic” series that bowed to rave reviews in 2010.

The “NHL Revealed” series has looked a lot like “24/7” – no coincidence since its executive producer, Ross Greenburg, who was president of HBO Sports when it first partnered with the NHL.

“NHL Revealed,” which resumes Thursday night with two hour-long episodes starting at 10 p.m. on NBC Sports Network, is a seven-part series build around behind-the-scenes footage of players for teams participating in the Stadium Series.

One of those players, by no coincidence, is the NHL’s top draw – Penguins captain Sidney Crosby.

Crosby’s popularity has helped to create Collins’ slight problem.

During the Winter Olympics men’s ice hockey tournament, Collins’ young soon took a serious rooting interest. His support was for Canada, because Crosby – his favorite player – was a member of that national team.

Young hockey fans around Pittsburgh also had their allegiances tested during the Olympics.

Fans of Crosby – and maybe more so, those in the hockey audience that cannot stand him – will enjoy the Thursday night episodes of “NHL Revealed,” because they are centered around the NHL players’ Olympic experiences.

“It’s almost like a Hollywood ensemble film where every character is a star.,” Collins said. “There’s a piece of footage where Teemu Selanne is talking about how it was really important for his young (Finland) team to play the Canadians in the preliminary round – and to actually play with them, and how it might help them down the road. Knowing what we know now, it was foreshadowing.

“But as he’s doing that interview, the ‘NHL Revealed’ cameras catch Sidney Crosby, who just happens to be walking behind him on his way to Canada’s dressing room. You get to see Crosby kind of take a quick, knowing glance at Selanne. It was a pretty cool moment.”

If anybody knows something about being the hockey faces of their respective nations and the importance of saying the right things even after difficult losses, those anybodies are Crosby and Selanne, respectively.

Moments away from the arena are what excite Greenburg about “NHL Revealed.” He said viewers should really pay attention to sequences when players are walking around the Olympic Village in Sochi, Russia.

Crosby’s interaction with Olympic athletes from Canada and other nations struck Greenburg as he reviewed raw video for the latest “NHL Revealed episodes.”

“There are some wonderful exchanges between him and (Team Canada defenseman Drew) Doughty when they are walking to practices,” Greenburg said. “People were coming up asking for pictures. Sidney was there smiling – at first giving them a nod, but then it became some fun dialogue between him and those people.

“We’re just getting to know these guys, specifically Sidney.”
Crosby, Greenburg said, “has taken to the camera crews” that has been with the Penguins for a couple of months.

So, too, has his fellow Penguins center Evgeni Malkin.

A few weeks before the Olympics, Malkin started making grand post-practice entrances into the Penguins’ dressing room. He was playing to the cameras.

Greenburg said one of the aims for “NHL Revealed” – specifically when it comes to Crosby – is to “humanize NHL players, instead of putting them on pedestals.”

Collins’ aim is to continue pushing with programming such as “NHL Revealed.” Clubs, he said, are becoming more open to granting behind-the-scenes access because of the response to shows like “24/7” and “Revealed.”

A behind-the-scenes look at the Stanley Cup playoffs is not on the horizon, Collins said; but gaining exclusive access to the big-buzz Olympic tournament was something for which the NHL could shoot that North America’s other major pro leagues could not.

No other sporting league in North America shuts down for the Olympics. Collins and Greenburg figured “NHL Revealed” could use the Olympics to help promote the NHL product after the Games.

That is what viewers will see with Episodes Four and Five of “NHL Revealed,” which can also be streamed online.

In all, Greenburg said a crew of about 50 people worked an average of 17-hour days for nearly three weeks, cutting across three countries and two continents, to put together the next two episodes.

Episode Four, in fact, promises to live up to the program’s name.

“There’s plenty from the Russian team in the first hour,” Greenburg said, adding that cameras tracked Alex Ovechkin – Russia’s version of Crosby in terms of mass appeal – for the entire tournament.

“He stayed around after Russia lost, so we were able to get the feeling of the Russian people in Sochi. The disappointment is pretty vivid on the screen.”

Normally, Penguins fans might not have a lot of interest in a behind-the-scenes look at Ovechkin – Crosby’s historic rival.

However, given what is now known about how Ovechkin and Malkin, never close friends, were on the same side of feeling mostly ostracized during their home country Olympics, Episode Four of “NHL Revealed” is probably worthwhile for its unique look at Team Russia’s dynamic.

 

Be EXCELLENT to each other,
Rossi

February 22, 2014
by Rob Rossi


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Rossi: I am a terrible fan.

In a few days, the Penguins personnel who were in Sochi, Russia, for the Winter Olympic Games will have returned – and I’ll be riding comfortably again.

The NHL beaks for the Olympics, at least it has since 1998, so that an international hockey tournament on a grand stage can include the world’s finest players. This break is for about three weeks, and most of what happens at any Games is often a fast fading memory by the midway through Round 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

What happened for me during the Winter Olympic Games was something that seemed neat at first only to feel regrettable by the end.

I became a fan.

Not a very good one, either.

 

***

 

I was raised in suburban Pittsburgh – Crafton and Green Tree, represent! – and there was a time, though it has been almost two decades, when I cared deeply about the local professional sports franchises’ success and failures.

At its height, my boyhood fandom was irrational. Some examples:

>>God cost the Pirates at Atlanta in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS. Of that I was sure. Also, I was 14.

>>I was the reason the Steelers lost Super Bowl XXX about four years later. Had I not spoken so brazenly that Neil O’Donnell was going to drive the field and score the touchdown that lassoed the Cowboys, surely – in front of my eyes at Sun Devil Stadium – O’Donnell would not have thrown that killer interception.

I was 17. I could handle the blame. I would be back someday to see the Steelers win a Super Bowl.

Around a decade later I was, but as a reporter – and my only interest on a cold night in Detroit in February 2006 was that Hines Ward actually win the MVP, because I had kind of committed to writing about him doing that anyway and deadlines were tight.

>>The first time I ever lost it as a childhood fan of a Pittsburgh club was during the third period of the Penguins’ Game 7 home loss to Philadelphia in the 1989 Patrick Division final. It had never crossed my mind that Mario Lemieux would lose that game.

I was 11, and I knew that Lemieux won or lost games by himself. That’s what happened in hockey.

I cried while half-watching the final minutes of that Game 7 on a TV at my parents’ house. Dad, as I recall, told me to stop. Mom, as I remember, promised things would be OK.

I did stop… eventually. Things were OK… eventually.

 

***

 

That specific memory came back to me Friday, the tail end of two weeks over which I pushed myself to invest emotionally in the United States men’s ice hockey team at the Winter Olympic Games.

It was probably better for me, financially, if Evgeni Malkin’s Russia squad won the tournament. Gold, seemingly, could help sell a biography.

It was probably easier for me, professionally, if Sidney Crosby’s Canada squad won the tournament. He isn’t going anywhere, and neither am I on this Penguins beat for the Tribune-Review.

I knew seven players, two coaches, and a handful of management personnel headed to the Winter Olympic Games; but I cared not to think of any of them during the hockey tournament, instead I focused on being a fan of my country’s hockey program.

My front was strong, too.

To me – at least from what I remembered – being a fan of Team USA also meant digging in to wish for the demise of my squad’s archrival. In this case that was Team Canada.

My “Know Thy Enemy” movement on Twitter started there.

From the minute the NHL’s Olympic break began, I decided that if the United States and Canada met after the preliminary round, I would take it in as a fan and a fan only.

I tried.

I could not.

While watching my team battle its enemy with several friends on Friday afternoon, my mind was elsewhere.

Being a fan again, actually, was easier said than done.

 

***

 

Paul Martin deserved better than to exit the Olympics with an injured right hand. A Minneapolis native, he grew up a fan of the American hockey that Minnesota-legend Herb Brooks helped shape.

Upon initially awaking Friday morning, I had only one thing on my mind:

Know Thy Enemy.

That thought was fleeting.

Dejan Kovacevic, the Tribune-Review columnist in Sochi for coverage, had filed a breaking news story that Martin was out of the USA-Canada semifinal game. His story cited reports by other outlets that Martin was sick, but also that he had been spotted with a wrapped hand.

Thy Enemy was now this limited information about Martin’s state of being.

Eight years into covering the Penguins, I know by now the quickest way to figure out how to track down information – or, at least, figure out if that information can be tracked down. (Sometimes, for various reasons, it cannot.)

Within about an hour of first seeing Dejan’s story on my email In Box, I had learned – thanks to multiple sources – that Martin was indeed injured, not sick.

Thy Enemy was in trouble from there.

So was my fan plan.

 

***

 

Chasing a story, especially one of interest to the audience, is pretty much the closest beat reporters come to feeling like we are competing like the athletes we cover. The pursuit, not the result, is the fun part; but it is not without challenges, obstacles, adversity and second-guessing.

Still, chasing a story becomes all that a reporter knows.

For me, chasing the story is the only thing that really makes sense in life, and I live for it. I become irrationally passionate, often to a fault, and usually to the point that others prefer not to be around me because I am demanding and caffeinated and rambling and edgy and all over the place, and generally unpleasant.

I was all of those on Friday morning while chasing the story about Martin’s injury.

A letdown loomed, and it came during the USA-Canada game.

My letdown had nothing to do with the score.

Martin’s injury was a terrible break for a really cooperative player who I have enjoyed covering for parts of four Penguins seasons.

It kind of helped me deal with Friday, though.

Instead of caring about a game that was out of my control, I was able to focus on finding out information and controlling how I presented it to an audience that thirsted for it.

That made sense to me. That felt right.

The sitting then standing then pacing then yelling about something that was happening on a television screen – that did not make sense, did not feel right.

A thought occurred to me on Friday night:

I probably went into sports reporting, on some subconscious level, because I never liked being a sports fan. I never liked giving strangers control over my happiness or believing in logos and color schemes.

Still, everybody else was doing it…

 

***

 

My greatest fear as a beat reporter is losing The Spark.

I am told it happens without warning, that one day I will finish with a practice or game, call my editor and say, “I’m done.”

Foolishly, I figured the Winter Olympic Games would provide me a chance to stoke my fires as a beat reporter by being a fan of Team USA. I was not covering the Games in Sochi, so there was neither harm nor foul.

Parts of fandom felt good, really good. The rooting against Team Canada – yeah, I dug that. It had been a long time since I rooted against anything other than third-period comebacks off 7:30 p.m. faceoffs.

Mostly, though, I spent my return to fandom during the Winter Olympic Games feeling like a fraud.

I never felt as invested as the fans I knew who were all in.

I slept through the first period of USA-Russia in the preliminary round. I barely paid attention to the epic shootout, too.

I had lunch with a colleague during the USA-Czech Republic elimination game. There was a TV on the wall in our booth at the restaurant, and I did not change the channel from a talk show.

USA-Canada would shake my true fandom from its slumber, or so I figured. However, by the time it started on Friday afternoon, I was already too deep into my chase of the Martin story to really care.

Watching the game with friends, I acted the way I thought I should as a fan – nervous, fidgety, angry, tense, whatever.

It was all an act, though.

I keep peeking at my cell phone, looking for something I may have missed about Martin and trying to see if anybody else had reported what I had.

My heart was never into USA-Canada.

I was being a really bad fan.

 

***

 

During the first week of the Winter Olympic Games, I went on vacation to a resort in Mexico. One day there, I tried to take a bicycle tour of the facilities.

I lasted one stop on the tour.

My twice surgically repaired right knee flared, so there was that. Also, though, I could never get comfortable on the bike. It wobbled and I felt unsettled. Something seemed amiss.

Nobody forgets how to ride a bicycle, right?

 

Be EXCELLENT to each other,

Rossi

 

February 22, 2014
by Rob Rossi


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Rossi: NHL, Olympics should divorce.

I am not at these Winter Olympic Games. Full disclosure: I have never been at an Olympic Winter Games.

This is noteworthy only because it feels important to acknowledge that being at an Olympic Winter Games seemingly could change my mind, but I suspect not.

I hope the NHL is done with the Olympic Games.

Admittedly, this is a totally territorial view. The NHL is home to the finest hockey players, and these athletes have wanted, will want, and probably should receive the opportunity to represent their respective countries at probably the world’s most magnificent sporting event.

However, John Tavares’ season-long skate toward Elite Player status was halted by a season-ending left knee injury to at the Olympics ­– and that is not fair to New York Islanders ownership, management, coaches, players or especially their fans.

Injuries are part of hockey.

Tavares may have been injured in an NHL game.

He was not, though.

Neither was Paul Martin, who looks to be out a month – the Penguins will not know for sure until he is evaluated by team medial personnel in Pittsburgh – with an injured right hand.

Tavares and Martin are not the only players that will leave the Olympics and not return to NHL hockey clubs that are paying them.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is now on the record about no committing to sending NHL players to the 2018 Winter Olympic Games:

“There are mixed views among the owners,” Bettman said to NBC Sports.

“There are lots of quotes going in both directions. It’s a real balancing act. Coming to the Olympics is a lot of fun when we are here, and the hockey’s fun. … But it requires us to shut the season down in the middle. It’s a break in momentum. It’s at a point in time when the NFL has stopped and it’s really our time. And our teams come back in different shape. We’ve had five players who are pretty banged up already from this tournament. Some NHL teams have sent 10 players and some have sent two and some teams are going to come back more well-rested than others.”

Players, and thus union leadership, feel strongly that the NHL should be involved with future Winter Olympic Games. Any push by the NHL to make the Sochi Games the last to feature NHL players will be met with a stern labor battle.

I suspect there are a lot of hockey fans that want to see NHL players at Winter Olympic Games. To them, I offer this dose of reality: Winter Olympic Games are absolutely not about the fans.

They are about the athletes.

Also, they are about the wow-gosh advertising fees that broadcasters in many countries pay to show the Olympics.

Those big fees were being paid before the NHL first sent its players to the Winter Olympic Games in 1998.

The men’s ice hockey tournament being staged in Sochi has sparked buzz on Twitter and Watch Parties at bars. If only any of that translated to anything substantial for the NHL.

It does not, and will not.

NHL players at the Olympics do not spark ticket sales in non-traditional markets such as Florida, Nashville, Dallas or Phoenix. NHL players at the Olympics do not benefit local broadcasters, such as Root Sports Pittsburgh, for whom the Penguins are a big money maker with advertisers.

Heck, NHL players at the Olympics was not even enough to get the league’s national broadcast partner, NBC, to broadcast arguably the most anticipated hockey game in four years for a casual North American sporting audience. That thrilling USA-Canada semifinal was not broadcast live on the network that will air the Stanley Cup Final in June.

Local NBC affiliates like WPXI pay good money to carry NBC’s Olympic programming. WPXI not only could not broadcast the USA-Canada semifinal, but it, like others, could not even show highlights.

Over the last two weeks, the NHL players at the Winter Olympic Games have been not easily found on cable while NBC prime-time programming has focused on ice skating, skiing and X-Games sports.

How is any of that good for the NHL?

February, the one month the NHL basically owns in America, has mostly passed without weekend games that are important for probable sellout-revenue and big local TV numbers.

How is that good for the NHL?

Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin – the two signature NHL stars – have spent the past two weeks absorbing daggers to their respective professional reputations.

How is that good for the NHL?

The men’s hockey in Sochi, save for a few games involving Team USA, has mostly been a brand of plodding wall-play dominated by defensive schemes that, on the bigger international ice surface, lends itself to low-scoring snooze fests.

How is that good for the NHL?

The Winter Olympic Games are not good for the NHL.

The Winter Olympic Games are gripping and great and usually once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for participants.

Crosby has participated twice now. He will be 30 when the next Winter Olympic Games come around, and the hope here is he watches them on off-nights from Penguins games.

NHL players have gone to five Winter Olympic Games, including ones in the United States, Canada and Russia. The NHL has sent its players to Winter Olympic Games in all three zones, so to speak.

Basically, the second best NHL tournament played every four years has been covered.

The Winter Olympic Games does not feel special anymore. It feels forced. It looks unnecessary.

What seemed like a winning proposal – NHL players on the Olympics stage – has become a marriage that has run its course.

There were some good times, but an amicable split is best. The NHL, at least, needs to be on its own for a while – and that will still be true four years from now.

 

Be EXCELLENT to each other,

Rossi

February 17, 2014
by Josh Yohe


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Yohe: Understanding what drives Crosby

Three games. No goals. Two assists.
What’s wrong with Sidney Crosby, you ask?
I’ll be the first to admit that Crosby hasn’t been his dominant self in these Olympics, that the lightning bolt speed, precision passes and otherworldly work along the boards haven’t been especially evident in Sochi.
But really, we’re all missing the point here.
Partially because of this era, and also because of the way Crosby is wired, we can’t measure him on statistics. Legends of hockey’s past are measured on statistics, but they played in a different time.
Follow me here.
Historically speaking, we’ll only be able to compare Crosby to Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. He’s fourth behind those two (and Mike Bossy) in NHL all-time points per game. Crosby is also arguably the most hyped and publicized player of all time.
He’s the player of his era, much like Gretzky and Lemieux were. All three are much different, but how we must judge Crosby is radically different.
When you think of Gretzky and Lemieux and their respective greatest international moments, you think of the 1987 Canada Cup, right?
You think of Gretzky leading the tournament in points, and of Lemieux scoring and astounding 11 goals, including four in the final two games against Russia. Great stuff, with Gretzky nearing the end of his prime and Lemieux entering his.
Now, let’s take a look at the final score of the three games involving Russia and Canada at the 1987 Canada Cup.
6-5, 6-5, 6-5.
That’s right, 33 goals in three games.
Fast-forward 27 years. Can you imagine any game the remainder of these Olympics being played at a 6-5 clip? Did you watch Canada play Finland today? Both teams were trying to win 2-1. Only one managed to pull it off.
Perhaps a better example is when the United States played Russia on Saturday. The U.S. team is blessed with speed and does nothing but attack. Russia offers Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk.
And we got four goals out of that game until the shootout.
But, you see, we still remember Wayne and Mario putting up points whether their team was winning or not. They were savants that way, really. Honestly, Lemieux probably would have put up seven points against Norway if he felt like it. Maybe more. That’s how he was. He craved producing points, and Gretzky did also.
This brings us back to Crosby, who is entirely different. Those early round blowouts feel like all-star games. Mario and Wayne put on shows in all-star games. They loved it. Crosby stinks in all-star games. It’s not what makes him tick. It’s not real. Now, the games start to matter.
Has he been great? No, certainly not. But what exactly do you expect him to do? What has Jonathan Toews done in this tournament? How about Patrick Kane? What have Ovechkin and Malkin done since that first period of their first game?
Zero points, that’s what.
The game is different now. Defense rules. Allowing infractions to go uncalled rules. Goaltenders have never been better. Scouting reports have never been better.
Hockey, in essence, has minimized star power. Take the NHL’s current season, if you will. One man (Ovechkin) is on pace to surpass 50 goals. One man (Crosby) is on pace to surpass 100 points.
Think about that.
Listen, I could recommend some strategies that will ignite Crosby. And, in fact, I will.
= He played 10 minutes through the first two periods. What is Mike Babcock thinking? Either he’s trying to keep everyone happy, or he’s displaying the height of arrogance, letting the world know that Canada is so deep that it can roll four lines with no drawback. Either way, it’s insane. Great players need lots of ice time. Ryan Getzlaf is terrific. He isn’t Crosby.
= Crosby is at his very best when he receives the puck with speed in the neutral zone. It’s during these times that he draws penalties, creates opportunities for his wingers, and scorers many of his goals. The defense that Finland played today – calling it passive wouldn’t be a stretch – never allowed Crosby time to maneuver with speed. Also, the Canadian defenseman, none of whom have played considerable time with Crosby, don’t know when to give him the puck. I counted three times today when Crosby skated with passion through the neutral zone, clearly wanting the puck, and did not receive it. That will come with time, though there is only so much time in such a tournament.
= Leave him with Kunitz. Seriously. He’s the creature of habit in a world of people who are creatures of habits. Canada put Jamie Benn on Crosby’s left wing. The only time I noticed Benn all game was when he crosschecked a Finnish defenseman from behind late in the third period. Nothing was called on this play, which is typical. The officiating was very NHL-like today, as in, stars were being restricted throughout with no penalties being called. That doesn’t help Crosby either.
Aside from these thoughts, my ultimate suggestion for the restless Canadian faction of people expecting more from Crosby is to be patient.
Maybe he won’t lead the tournament in scoring. Maybe he isn’t producing points the way legends before him did.
But remember this about Sidney Crosby: He isn’t a man of statistics. He’s a man of moments.
His highest career goal total isn’t etched in our minds. But that shootout goal in Buffalo is.
His highest career point total isn’t something that every Canadian kid remembers. But they sure remember the Golden Goal.
I couldn’t tell you, off the top of my head, how many goals he has scored in personal matchups with Ovechkin. But we all remember that breakaway in Game 7 in Washington, when Crosby stripped Ovechkin, buried a shot and announced that the hockey world was his.
How many power play points has he produced in his career? I don’t know. But I still remember everything about that night when he returned from a concussion against the Islanders. You do, too.
Crosby is a man of moments. We can’t measure him any other way.
Will he have his moment in this tournament? It’s tough to say. Tournaments like these aren’t really made for stars to shine. His own country, more than any other, likes it that way. It’s all about the team, eh?
But the coach of the team has to ride Crosby, and I expect him to sooner rather than later.
I’ll never forget an answer from Mike Babcock to a question I asked about Crosby one month following the 2010 Olympics.
“The thing about Sid,” Babcock said, “is that he seems to have a magic about him.”
That’s just it. And you never know when magic will appear.
The Russians feel it’s their birth right to win this tournament, and make no mistake, the Americans have clearly been the best team in Sochi.
Meanwhile, the Canadians have looked lifeless and a tad slow. They don’t look like champions right now, and their captain doesn’t, either.
But before we dismiss mighty Canada, and before we dismiss its captain, we must realize that moments remain in this tournament, and he hasn’t had his yet.
Crosby, you see, does not dream of points or pretty goals. He dreams of the moment. We better not sleep on that.

- Yohe

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