Thursday, March 31, 2011

Pirates to go 9-153

By Joe Starkey
Thursday, March 31, 2011

Pittsburgh Pirates' Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker wait to hit before a spring training baseball game against the Boston Red Sox in Bradenton, Fla., Saturday, March 19, 2011. (AP)

The text arrived on a recent rainy morning, randomly, from a friend who has lived in Pittsburgh all his life. Grew up in Mt. Washington worshiping Roberto Clemente. Loves baseball.

"What comes first," he wondered, "insanity or talking about the Pirates all summer?"

I wouldn't know. I went insane for that very reason seven Julys ago.

But that won't stop me from making my annual prediction, and I finally figured out why I'm wrong all the time. I give the Pirates too much credit.

Last year, for example, I had them pegged for 99 losses. They finished with 105. Three years ago — during a night on the town with Charlie Sheen — I picked them to win 82 games. They won 67.

This year, I'm not taking any chances.

This year, I'm going to hit the under.

This year, to be safe, I am picking the Pirates to go 9-153.

Using sabermetrics, my theory breaks down like this: To win 10 games, the Pirates would have to average 1.66 victories per month. I'm not seein' it. Winning nine, on the other hand, would require just 1.5 victories per month.

Have you seen this rotation? Ron Villone would look like Ron Guidry on this crew. Josh Sharpless would be Josh Beckett.

It's truly remarkable. In fact, of all the remarkable things that have transpired during the Pirates' pesky 18-year losing streak — you know, like Al Martin blowing a game by failing to score from third on a single and John Russell removing Zach Duke from the 2009 home finale with two out in the ninth, nobody on and Duke throwing a shutout — one stands out: Despite drafting in the top 10 a dozen times, this franchise will begin the season without a No. 1 starter.

Or a No. 2 starter.

Or a No. 3 starter.

I'm told there are a couple of talented 14-year-olds in the system. Be patient. They have great stuff. Just like Charlie Morton ... who's still in the rotation!

The shame of it is the Pirates finally have a lineup worth watching. My upbeat prediction is that third baseman Pedro Alvarez, though he might strike out 190 times, will become the first Pirates player since Willie Stargell in 1973 to hit 40 home runs.

I'm also intrigued by the possibilities for Neil Walker, Jose Tabata and Andrew McCutchen.

Walker shocked the baseball world — especially the Pirates — by becoming an impact second baseman last season. McCutchen is the Pirates' best homegrown player since Barry Bonds. A breathtaking talent.

As for Tabata, people have been saying for 15 years — or ever since he turned 18 — that he will add power. Even if he doesn't, he has the look of a highly effective two-way player.

The platoon of Garrett Jones and Matt Diaz in right field seems sensible, as does the addition of first baseman Lyle Overbay ('course, Aki seemed like a good idea at the time, too).

Maybe since nothing is expected, this will be the year Ryan Doumit exceeds expectations. Probably not. And he'll probably be traded because even the Yankees don't keep $5.1 million backup catchers.

The bottom of the order isn't so promising. Chris Snyder, a career .229 hitter, apparently will be the catcher when he is healthy, and unless I imagined this in a hallucinatory state (Sheen again), Ronny Cedeno returns as the starting shortstop. That should be fun.

Meanwhile, in the front office, GM Neal Huntington sits in the very unusual and awkward position of having fewer years on his contract (one) than his manager (three), assuming Huntington didn't sign another secret extension this past winter.

The new manager, Clint Hurdle, is to Russell what Red Bull is to the world's heaviest barbiturate. He sure seems that way, anyhow: a hard-edged, fiery, relentlessly optimistic sort.

I wonder if he'll still be that way in the middle of September, with his team shooting for victory No. 8.

Read more: Starkey: Pirates to go 9-153 - Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

There's progess, but still no timetable for Penguins' Crosby

Thursday, March 31, 2011
By Dave Molinari, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Penguins captain Sidney Crosby has been sidelined since Jan. 5.There is progress.(Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press)

There is hope.

But there still is no target date.

And there certainly are no guarantees.

Sidney Crosby, who hasn't played since Jan. 5 because of a concussion, is scheduled to take another significant step in his recovery today, when he goes on the ice with his teammates for their game-day skate at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa.

But it is no more than that -- one step on a journey that is nowhere near complete.

One which, as general manager Ray Shero stressed Wednesday, might not end until training camp in the fall.

For while Shero did not rule out the possibility of Crosby returning at some point during the Stanley Cup playoffs, which begin in about two weeks, he did effectively snuff any thoughts that Crosby could be back in the lineup before the regular season ends April 10 in Atlanta.

"As a manager, I have no expectation that he's coming back to play in the regular season," Shero said. "I don't believe that's going to happen.

"In terms of playing in the playoffs for us, that's still two or three weeks away. I don't want to take any hope away from the players, but to return to game action for the Stanley Cup playoffs takes a certain level of fitness and game-(readiness), and he is certainly not close to that at this point."

Coach Dan Bylsma reinforced that sentiment, saying that potential return dates for Crosby have not come up in the conversation.

"Ray and I have not had discussions about [Crosby returning for] 'start of the playoffs, first round, second round,' " he said. "There are no discussions on those fronts.

"We have no anticipation for when the next step is, and where that might be, down the road. If at all, this year."

Although Crosby has clearance to go on the ice for game-day skates -- in addition to the one this morning, there will be one Saturday in Sunrise, Fla. -- he is not allowed to participate in off-day practices.

"We don't anticipate him practicing with us all the time," Shero said.

Being involved in game-day skates will allow Crosby to test whether things like the movement of players around him and the demands that places on his vision, will cause concussion-related symptoms, such as headaches or dizziness.

"It's another step in the progression for him, to introduce him on the ice with 20 other players," Shero said.

If Crosby gets through those skates, in which there is no contact, without a problem, the next step would be for him to take part in conventional practices.

Crosby accompanied the team on its flight Tuesday to Florida, the first time he has traveled with his teammates since late Jan. 5, when the Penguins flew to Montreal after a home game against Tampa Bay.

Crosby returned to Pittsburgh on a private flight the next day, however, and was diagnosed with a concussion before nightfall.

He did not skate or speak with reporters Wednesday, although he is expected to do both today.

Their vested interest in Crosby's well-being aside, Shero and Bylsma -- and everyone else in the front office -- have little, if any, direct involvement in his recovery. Dr. Charles Burke, the Penguins' team physician, and concussion specialist Dr. Michael Collins deal with Crosby on a regular basis and are the ones who decide on his regimen.

"The last thing we're going to do with any player ... is push him if they're not ready for that," Shero said. "This is doctor's orders ... and I think we're comfortable with that. I know [Crosby] is very comfortable with it."

Shero also said he is confident Crosby will not make the mistake of overstating his progress in order to get approval to resume playing sooner than would be prudent.

"This is an injury that's so symptom-based, and he knows his symptoms," he said. "He'll know when he needs to pull back a little bit."

The Penguins are 19-12-5 since Crosby left the lineup and, even though he has missed the past 36 games, he continues to lead them in goals (32) and points (66).

Dave Molinari:

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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Flyers goalie plays foil again

Wednesday, March 30, 2011
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

PITTSBURGH, PA - MARCH 29: Sergei Bobrovsky #35 of the Philadelphia Flyers makes a kick save against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Consol Energy Center on March 29, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Flyers defeated the Penguins 5-2. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Destiny might have a new home, as the Penguins insist, but so does a 22-year-old Russian rookie named Sergei Bobrovsky, and like it or not, it's the very same swanky place.

The young Philadelphia Flyers goalie might be from Novokuznetsk, but Bobrovsky looks stunningly at home on Penguin ice, unless Tuesday night's 5-2 victory against Marc-Andre Fleury was simply a bonus-content rerun of his 3-2 victory against Marc-Andre Fleury on Oct. 29, which was unlikely to have been a rerun of his 3-2 victory against Marc-Andre Fleury three weeks before that.

No, there's no need to consult your local listings. The Flyers have now beaten the Penguins in all three of this season's appointments at 1001 Fifth Ave., a virtual mirror images hat trick that might throw a shadow over the postseason.

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma declined in invitation to address the significance of three Bobrovsky victories against his franchise goalie in Fleury's building, but allowed that the Flyers got superb goaltending at critical times.

"I think we, somewhat disappointingly, didn't capitalize on some good chances," Bylsma said. "But the Letang play was a strong save certainly, and he made some strong plays in traffic. I think we probably left him off the hook early when we had some pretty good shots on net, and we get only 11 shots halfway through the hockey game, that's not where we want to be."

What this third flop to the Flyers means in the stark aftermath is merely that the Flyers will almost certainly hang on to win the Atlantic Division and the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, or at least without further protest from a battered Penguins team that insisted its post-Crosby goal was nothing less than that.

There's little point in even the suggestion that Philly does not deserve it, as Tuesday night's effort means the Flyers have not only set a franchise record with 25 road wins, but now own a thunderously efficient 16-3-2 record against its Atlantic whipping boys.

That Flyers coach Peter Laviolette has continued to waffle on the identity of his postseason goalie, perhaps in an attempt not to ruffle the veteran Brian Boucher, seems just a little anti-climactic as the Broad Streeters head toward the playoffs as a pretty clear conference favorite.

The difference between the Flyers and the Penguins might best be expressed in the way they've played 5-on-5 this season, as neither team has been even competent with a man advantage (the Penguins are two for their past 59 on the power play). With all hands on deck, the Penguins have scored just 12 more goals than their opponents. In that same situation, Philly's goal advantage is 32.

But for this final regular-season episode, the difference was clearly Bobrovsky.

"This is always such a big rivalry so this was a really big win, obviously," said Flyers defenseman Sean O'Donnell, who set up Claude Giroux for the goal that overturned the Penguins' 2-1 lead just 47 seconds after Scott Hartnell tied it in the second period. "It was nice to get that lead back because their team is playing really structured now. When you're missing two key players like they are, they don't give you many chances when they get the lead.

"I think Bob[rovsky] played well but the big thing was the timing of his saves."

Bobrovsky was colossal at the start of the third period, turning away both Max Talbot and Pascal Dupuis on a two-on-one less than two minutes in. Talbot had a great chance and Dupuis an equally hugh opportunity on Talbot's rebound, but neither shot went in. Thirty-five seconds later, Bobrovsky stoned Talbot again, and two minutes after that, frustrated the snot out of Letang on the play Bylsma cited.

"Normally before games I'm a little nervous, but once it started I settled down right away," Bobrovsky smiled to a translator on the matter if the urgency of Tuesday night had impact on him. "It doesn't matter that I've beaten Fleury three times here. It's always good to get any win against any goalie."

He wouldn't likely have gotten this one had it not been for a brilliant cadenza midway through the second, when Bobrovsky stopped Chris Conner and Letang with dazzling saves 19 seconds apart. Leading at that point 2-1, the Penguins missed a chance to blow the game open and perhaps alter the course of near-term Atlantic Division history.

This is the same 22-year-old who prevented the Penguins from opening the new playpen with a victory, the night he became the youngest Flyers goaltender ever to win an opener. He might not be able to prevent from winning something a lot more meaningful in the coming month, but I wouldn't put it past him.

Gene Collier:

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Highlights: Flyers 5, Penguins 2

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Hart should go to MVP Fleury

With Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin out, no player has contributed more of an MVP effort to his team than Marc-Andre Fleury

Tuesday, March 29, 2011
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

PITTSBURGH, PA - MARCH 27: Marc-Andre Fleury save against the Florida Panthers at Consol Energy Center on March 27, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Give Vancouver's Daniel Sedin the Hart Memorial Trophy as NHL MVP. He's the best player on the league's best team. He has 40 goals and a league-best 96 points. He deserves it in Sidney Crosby's absence.

As for you Marc-Andre Fleury supporters, including Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, who pushed Fleury hard for the Hart Sunday?


I have a better award in mind for Fleury.

Conn Smythe Trophy.

You know, as playoffs MVP.

It's an easy call, isn't it? Who wouldn't prefer the Smythe? I'm starting to think it could be Fleury's year. The way he's tending goal, it's not hard to picture him leading the Penguins to the Stanley Cup.

With the great Crosby, certainly. But maybe even without him.


Bylsma doesn't think so. Nor does Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik. Both talked about the confidence that Fleury brings to the rest of the team. Each game, he makes the players believe as if they don't have to score three or four goals to win. Each game, he makes them believe they can win without Evgeni Malkin and even the concussed Crosby, if they must.

That's why Bylsma is right when he says Fleury deserves strong Hart consideration even though only two goaltenders -- Montreal's Jose Theodore and Buffalo's Dominik Hasek -- have won it since 1962. It's hard to imagine any player more valuable to his team than No. 29.

Look at the past three Penguins games, all shootout wins. They beat the Florida Panthers, 2-1, Sunday, the New Jersey Devils, 1-0, Friday night and the Philadelphia Flyers, 2-1, Thursday night. Fleury was the star each time. There's no reason to think he won't be a star again tonight in the rematch with the Flyers at Consol Energy Center with nothing less than the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference possibly at stake.

"He just constantly finds way to win games for us," Orpik said.

It's no secret that Fleury almost always is smiling, especially these days. But you should have seen him grin after the Florida game when he was asked if the puck looks bigger than normal. Like a beach ball, perhaps? "No, no, same size," he said, holding his fingers in the shape of a puck-sized circle. "I checked."

You could have fooled a lot of us.

"By far, this is the most consistent I've ever seen him -- and I've been with him here since he was 18 years old," Orpik said. "That's the biggest difference in his game. Consistency is the hardest thing for any athlete in any league to find. He's found it."

It didn't come easy for Fleury, 26, this season even though he had a great playoff run in 2009 when the Penguins won the Cup and another great run the year before when they lost in six games in the final to the Detroit Red Wings. His 1-6 start and temporary benching for backup Brent Johnson have been well-documented, as has the rather fierce criticism directed at him by a sizable portion of the Penguins fan base. The mere mention of it still rubs Fleury's raw nerve.

"Why do we have to talk about that now?" he growled after the Florida win. "That was 5 1/2, 6 months ago."

No, he wasn't smiling.

Moments later, Fleury apologized for being so uncharacteristically short. "I just didn't think that was the right time to be talking about a negative."

No worries, eh?

But Fleury missed the point in this case. His rough start might have been a negative, but the way he responded to it was an overwhelming positive. It was inspirational for his teammates, actually. Beginning with a 5-1 win Nov. 12 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, his record is 33-12-5.

"Obviously, a strong-minded guy," Orpik said of Fleury.

The man will have to prove it again at playoff time. He wasn't close to his best in the 2010 postseason in a six-game series win against the Ottawa Senators and a seven-game loss to the Montreal Canadiens, going 7-6 with 2.78 goals-against average and an .891 save percentage. It's no coincidence the Penguins were bounced out so early.

"I don't think I played that bad [against the Canadiens]," Fleury said. "I had three wins. I had a shutout. I didn't get lit up every night. Other than Game 7 ... "

Alas, Game 7.

Fleury allowed a power-play goal to Montreal's Brian Gionta just 32 seconds into the final game at Mellon Arena, and the Penguins never recovered. It was the third time in the final four games of the series that he allowed an early first goal. The Penguins lost all three. Game 7 would turn a lot uglier for Fleury. He was pulled by Bylsma in favor of Johnson at 5:14 of the second period after giving up his fourth goal on just 13 shots. The Canadiens held on after that 4-0 lead and won, 5-2.

But, hey, that was 10 1/2 months ago.

Fleury is hardly giving up any goals now, early or late ones.

I'm guessing he won't start doing it anytime soon.

"I always look forward to the playoffs," Fleury said. "It's the most fun in hockey. Every game counts. Every game is intense."

Fleury sounded as if he can't wait.

"I just want to be there for the guys."

Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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Give Penguins 'D' an A

Monday, March 28, 2011
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Pittsburgh Penguins' Brooks Orpik checks Florida Panthers' Evgeni Dadonov in the third period of an NHL hockey game on Sunday, March 27, 2011, in Pittsburgh. The Penguins won 2-1 in a shootout.(AP)

It's not just about goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, Brooks Orpik was saying Sunday, although he acknowledged Fleury will give the Penguins their best shot at a deep playoff run in the next month or two or three.

"It's the back end. That's a lot more solid," Orpik said. "It's the seven guys we have on 'D.' Those guys have been playing really great."

That defensive unit became whole again when Orpik returned to the Penguins' lineup in their 2-1 shootout victory against the Florida Panthers after missing 13 games with a broken right index finger. Just in time, too. The playoffs start in a little more than two weeks. The Penguins are going to need Orpik. Big time.

"He just means so much to us in so many ways," coach Dan Bylsma said.

Orpik's teammates proved that by giving him their highest honor -- the Players' Player Award -- despite the fact he has missed 19 games this season, including six in October when he had a groin issue. It's the only team award voted on by the players. That makes it the most significant, if you ask me.

"It's not a popularity contest by any means," Bylsma said. "It's about respect and the way you carry yourself every day. It's about being a professional."

"The ultimate compliment," Orpik called it.

Orpik, who immediately was given back his "A" as alternate captain, played nearly 21 minutes against the Panthers and was paired with Kris Letang. He was a minus-one because he was on the ice for Florida's only goal. He had four hits and helped kill the Panthers' two power plays.

Neither Orpik's hits nor his penalty-kill work came as a surprise. He has long been known as a physical player and he is at his best when the Penguins are short-handed. I've got the numbers to back it up. Orpik has 181 hits, second-most on the team behind Matt Cooke (192) despite missing almost a quarter of the season. The team's penalty-killing unit has an 88.3 percent success rate with him in the lineup, 79.7 percent without him. Those numbers are hard to ignore.

"I thought his timing and skating looked good today," Bylsma said of Orpik.

Orpik figures his game will get much better once he settles back in. Sitting out since taking a shot by San Jose's Patrick Marleau off his right hand Feb. 23 wasn't all bad. "I don't have the aches you usually have this time of year when you've got to just grind it out," he said. "I wasn't getting hit for a month. I got four good [weight] lifts in each week and skated five or six times a week in the morning. My body feels great."

Unlike last season.

"I didn't practice. I just played in the games. That was tough," Orpik said of a painful abdominal issue that bothered him much of the season. He wasn't the same player in the playoffs -- the Penguins were knocked out in the second round by the Montreal Canadiens -- and he had surgery in June followed by a brutal rehab.

Orpik wasn't happy with how the Penguins played against the Panthers. "Not our best effort," he called it. "We got outworked in the first 20 minutes and I thought we were sloppy at times." That could have been because this was the team's fifth game in eight days, the previous three going to a shootout. Or it could have been because the Philadelphia Flyers come to town for a game Tuesday night that could go a long way toward deciding the No. 1 playoff seed in the Eastern Conference.

Orpik is looking forward to all of it. The game against the Flyers. The five regular-season games after it. The playoffs ...

He is especially looking forward to the playoffs.

"Confidence is the big thing," Orpik said. "We're going into games expecting to win. I think last year we sort of tiptoed into the playoffs. It just seems like the overall energy is better going down the stretch this year."

Fleury is the biggest part of that. But don't overlook that seven-man defensive corps. Letang is a Norris Trophy candidate. Offseason acquisitions Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek have been terrific. Trade-deadline pickup Matt Niskanen has been solid. So have Ben Lovejoy and Deryk Engelland, who are in their first full NHL season. Lovejoy scored the Penguins' only goal in regulation Sunday with a dandy little wrist shot.

Now, Orpik is back.

The Players' Player.

"I didn't even get to vote for it this time because I wasn't around that day," he said.

And if he had a vote?

"There are so many deserving guys," Orpik said. He thought about it for several seconds before saying, "It would be pretty hard to ignore [Engelland]. He's such a selfless guy. He doesn't care if anyone notices him. He just does his job. And, obviously, he sticks up for his teammates pretty well, too."

Engelland was the defenseman scratched by Bylsma against the Panthers.

Orpik's right.

That's a pretty strong defensive unit.

Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Giants' Freddy Sanchez counting his blessings

By Andrew Baggarly
San Jose Mercury News
Posted: 03/22/2011

San Francisco Giants' Freddy Sanchez hits an RBI triple off Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Tim Redding during the first inning of their spring training baseball game in Scottsdale, Ariz., Saturday, March 12, 2011. At right is Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Rod Barajas. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Freddy Sanchez's baseball life has taken a few wary, unexpected turns, including two trades that he met with initial reluctance.

But now the Giants' second baseman is a World Series champion. He is entering the season with two relatively healthy shoulders and knees. He knows he is blessed.

Every time he sees non-roster right-hander Jeff Suppan in the clubhouse, he's reminded just how much.

Sanchez was a hot prospect who was nevertheless blocked in the Red Sox system when he was traded in July 2003 to the Pittsburgh Pirates -- a deal that sent Suppan to Boston. A week earlier, the teams had a different trade worked out, but reliever Brandon Lyon failed his physical and the Pirates rescinded the deal. Ultimately, talks expanded to include Suppan, a two-month rental for the Red Sox, and Sanchez. Thanks in part to Lyon's fraying elbow ligament, Sanchez went to the Pirates -- where he got the opportunity to play every day.

"I think about that sometimes," Sanchez said. "You don't know what might have happened if that trade doesn't get made. The Red Sox had Todd Walker, Bill Mueller and Nomar Garciaparra in their infield. Where was I going to play?"

That wasn't all. Sanchez was a shortstop in those days. The Red Sox had another young prospect, Hanley Ramirez, playing a level below him.

"Oh yeah, everyone knew," Sanchez said. "They had a special player there."

The Red Sox eventually traded Ramirez, too, for pitcher Josh Beckett. The Florida Marlins gained one of the game's most talented players. Sanchez turned into a star in his own right, winning a batting title with the Pirates in 2006.

He hasn't contended for batting crowns in his season and a half with the Giants, but now the No. 2 hitter is excited at the prospect of entering the season without any significant aches or pains.

Sanchez is hitting .256 this spring with two homers, a double and a triple among his 11 hits. He said he doesn't pay attention to numbers in the exhibition season, caring only about seeing pitches and getting his body prepared for the grind of the season.

He confessed to a fit of bat-throwing rage, though, after striking out with one out and a runner on third base Sunday.

"That was crazy -- just crazy," Sanchez said, smiling. "Especially for me. I just had a bad approach, swinging at a slider away. I wasn't seeing the ball. I wasn't frustrated that I struck out. It was the way I struck out."

The blowup gave manager Bruce Bochy a chance to show his sardonic side. After Sanchez already had stormed back into the clubhouse, Bochy calmly said, "I think that's enough for today, Freddy."

Sanchez will be a free agent after this season, and while there haven't been any substantive talks this spring about an extension, he said he hopes to be a Giant beyond 2011.

"I don't think it's a secret that I'm happy here," said Sanchez, who wasn't initially thrilled when the Pirates traded him in July 2009. "I feel part of the Giants family. This is a place I'd love to retire. But they've got to feel that way, too.

"I'm not going to worry about it. If I stay healthy and play the way I can play, things will take care of themselves."

A glance over at Suppan's locker provides all the encouragement he needs.

"Yeah, we both knew when we first saw each other," Sanchez said. "We talked about it a little bit, but not in depth. You look back at what could have happened, and you just think, 'Wow.' "

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Matt Cooke's suspension, and reaction to it, now sets standard for NHL

By Scott Burnside
March, 21, 2011

First, let us give credit where credit is due.

After staggering around the discipline forest much like the proverbial blind squirrel, the league finally found something approaching an answer Monday afternoon.

By suspending Pittsburgh's serial headhunter Matt Cooke for the rest of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs for his nasty elbow to the head of New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh on Sunday, the league set the gold standard for punishing blows to the head.

The incident in question wasn't as bad as other hits we've recently seen (for our money, the Pavel Kubina elbow on Dave Bolland two weeks ago and Brad Marchand hit on R.J. Umberger last week were more egregious), but this was about Cooke's body of work, not just one incident.

And for failing to alter his behavior, he was rewarded with a big-time suspension.

Last week, the NHL's GMs asked for this kind of suspension when they met in Florida. The implication was the GMs were looking for this kind of discipline to kick in next season. Then, in a matter of days, the league suspended three players for elbows to the head, including Cooke.

At the risk of giving the league a rash in the middle of its collective back with relentless praise, we will stop. This was as easy as it gets in terms of hammering the message home. It was almost as easy as suspending Chris Simon for his stick attack on Ryan Hollweg four seasons ago.

Remember the blind squirrel? Well, this would have taken some bumbling not to get it right given Cooke's history and the timing of the hit on McDonagh. And this really counts as getting it right only if it becomes something else: a benchmark, a standard against which others will be punished.

Still, it was an inspired decision to keep Cooke out of the playoffs when a player with his skill set (let's not forget the man owns a Stanley Cup ring and is one of the top penalty killers on the NHL's top penalty-killing team) truly earns his keep. Cooke's selfish hit will punish his pocketbook (he will forfeit $219,512.20 to the players' emergency assistance fund) and his teammates, players he loves and who, in general, love him. That is the deepest cut of all.

Which brings us to the Pittsburgh Penguins and their role in this.

Everyone knows the backstory here. Owner Mario Lemieux publicly slammed the league for not handling the New York Islanders/Penguins dustup to his liking several months ago. The letter was ill-planned and earned Lemieux as much scorn as praise in large part because he did not acknowledge that his own team might be part of the larger problem facing the league.

But Lemieux redeemed himself when he sent a letter to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman last week, proposing a series of fines to clubs based on players' reckless behavior. In the letter to Bettman, obtained by's Pierre LeBrun, Lemieux noted his own club would have been fined $600,000 under his plan of accountability -- and that was before Cooke's latest escapade.

Then, in the wake of Cooke's suspension Monday, the Penguins answered the bell again, publicly agreeing with the decision.

"The suspension is warranted because that's exactly the kind of hit we're trying to get out of the game. Head shots have no place in hockey," GM Ray Shero said in a statement. "We've told Matt in no uncertain terms that this kind of action on the ice is unacceptable and cannot happen. Head shots must be dealt with severely, and the Pittsburgh Penguins support the NHL in sending this very strong message."

If the Cooke suspension is to be the gold standard for how the league deals with repeat offenders in the head shot category -- or frankly in any kind of repeat offense -- the Penguins set the gold standard in how to respond.

The tried and true response, sadly, is just the opposite: to circle the wagons.

Look back at how teams like the San Jose Sharks, Calgary Flames, New York Islanders and even the Boston Bruins (who lost top center Marc Savard's services for the balance of this season in large part because of Cooke's blindside hit last season) responded to far lighter suspensions to players like Joe Thornton, Curtis Glencross, Daniel Paille and Trevor Gillies. They whined. They rationalized. They whined some more.

In trying to support their own players, those teams did a disservice to every one of their players that has ever been the victim of a dirty or questionable hit. In the name of loyalty, they undermined the entire process of trying to clean up the league.

Even when some players like Boston's Andrew Ference had the temerity to suggest his teammate Paille deserved to be suspended, he was thrown under the bus in some quarters for not blindly supporting players on his own team.

We have habitually hammered the league's dean of discipline, Colin Campbell, for how he has handled his job. We suggested last week he should step down if the league is serious about establishing a new mindset about discipline and on-ice behavior. We still think it's the right call. But the GMs around the league defy those efforts every time they complain.

On Monday, the Pittsburgh Penguins didn't take the well-worn path. They did what was right. They were honest. And don't think for a minute it was easy.

The Penguins will presumably welcome Cooke back to their dressing room if they survive the first round and will need to be on the same page if they want to move on in the playoffs. Unless they buy him out or trade him or send him to the minors next season, he'll be back in the dressing room chasing another Stanley Cup.

"[Cooke] takes full responsibility. He sent Ryan McDonagh a text," Shero told local reporters before Monday's game against the Red Wings. "The words are great, but it's going to be your actions when you come back as a player and still be a productive player in the league. That's going to be up to Matt Cooke."

There may be hard feelings, the kind of hard feelings teams work hard to ensure don't exist within their own dressing rooms. But if people are truly interested in making the game safer, then everyone has to be accountable, including the players in your own room wearing your jersey.

So, here's hoping the NHL will continue to send strong messages when it comes to head shots.

And here's hoping the Pittsburgh Penguins become the rule not the exception when it comes to acknowledging that everyone has to be part of the solution ... everyone, even one of your own.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

Nothing harsh about Cooke's suspension

Tuesday, March 22, 2011
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

Penguins winger Matt Cooke is escorted from the ice by NHL linesman Derek Amell after Mr. Cooke was ejected for elbowing New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh in the head in the third period Sunday at Consol Energy Center. Monday, the league hit Mr. Cooke with a lengthy suspension.

First blush? The suspension handed down Monday by the NHL to Penguins winger Matt Cooke for his malicious cheap-shot elbow Sunday to the head of New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh seemed harsh. The final 10 games of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs? That's a bit excessive compared to some of the other discipline given out by the league for similar hits.

But after further review ...

Cooke is lucky he wasn't banned from the NHL for life based on stupidity alone.

Really, has the man been living under a rock?

Never before in sports have head injuries and player safety been such hot-button topics. That's especially true in hockey because Cooke's teammate -- star and face of the NHL Sidney Crosby -- has been out of the lineup and spotlight since Jan. 5 with concussion-like symptoms.

And Cooke goes out and tries to take out McDonagh? While having a significant leadership role wearing an "A" for alternate captain on his Penguins sweater? After being suspended four other times in his career, including a four-game suspension last month for hitting Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Fedor Tyutin into the boards from behind? After getting away unpunished with a reprehensible blind-side head shot on Boston Bruins center Marc Savard a year ago?

That's inexcusable.

Forget that Cooke embarrassed owner Mario Lemieux and general manager Ray Shero and made them look like fools. They have been front and center leading the fight against flagrant head shots, pushing for the NHL to take a tougher stance against the players who deliver them.

How about the way Cooke let down his teammates? That's what's really offensive. The Penguins were going to have a tough time winning a playoff series with him, especially if Crosby isn't able to play. Now, their chances of winning the first round are much less. They might not even be able to hang on to fourth place in the Eastern Conference and the home-ice advantage that goes with it in the opening round.

"We need [Cooke] on the ice," Penguins winger Chris Kunitz said Sunday.

It's no wonder so many of the Penguins were irked at Cooke after their 5-2 loss to the Rangers. Those same players have been busting their fannies trying to keep the team competitive without Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (knee). And now they have to be without another veteran player at the most important time of the season? For a needless reason?

Shame on Cooke.

The sad part of the story is that Cooke is much more than a dirty player. He has hockey skills. He scored 15 goals last season, was a plus-17 and had four more goals in 13 playoff games. He has 12 goals this season and is a plus-14. He's a terrific penalty killer on the NHL's best penalty-killing unit. And the really frustrating thing? He can be a physical presence without the cheap shots. He can check with the best -- cleanly -- when he wants to do it.

The Penguins know Cooke's value. Shero gave him a guaranteed three-year, $5.4 million contract before the season. That's a rare deal of that length for a role player of Cooke's age. He's 32.

"He won a Stanley Cup with us," Shero said at the time. "He fits the identity of our team."

Not anymore.

I repeat:

Shame on Cooke.

Shero called this latest Cooke suspension "warranted because that's exactly the kind of hit we're trying to get out of the game." There wasn't anything else he could have said, right? Not after the way he and Lemieux have challenged the NHL to do a better job with player safety. League officials had to come down hard on Cooke. Lemieux and Shero backed them into a corner.

"You want tougher penalties, Mario? Here you go, baby! You got 'em!"

But that's OK if commissioner Gary Bettman and his cronies take this Cooke suspension and run with it. They need to be just as tough with the next cheap-shot perpetrator and the one after that. The tough message they're patting themselves on the back for sending with Cooke will serve its purpose of making the game safer only if they are consistent with the discipline.

Bettman and the league need to take the next step, actually. They need to adopt a new fine system proposed by Lemieux. Under the Lemieux plan, teams would receive a stiff fine based on the length of a suspension when one of their players is involved in a headhunting incident. If it were in effect now, the Penguins would be fined at least $750,000 for Cooke's hit on McDonagh, $1 million if his suspension lasts more than 15 games. The Lemieux proposal also calls for the fines to be doubled for repeat offenders.

If the NHL does adopt the Lemieux plan or at least one similar to it, there won't be a place in the league any longer for the Matt Cookes of the hockey world.

No team would be able to afford those players.

It's hard to think that would be a bad thing.

Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

Read more:

Is Cooke worth the trouble?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Penguins Matt Cooke during the Rangers game at Consol Energy Center Sunday.
(Chaz Palla Tribune-Review)

We might have seen the last of Matt Cooke in a Penguins jersey.

That was one thought upon learning of the minimum 14-game suspension levied on "Mr." Cooke by NHL dean of discipline Colin Campbell. Another was whether Campbell and his cronies wanted to stick it to the Penguins by suspending Cooke not only for the final 10 regular-season games but also for a playoff round.

That wouldn't surprise me. I'm sure the old-boys-network NHL hated the fact that Mario Lemieux reprimanded them in a scathing letter after the Islanders debacle. I'm sure some resent the fact that general manager Ray Shero and team president David Morehouse represent the minority voice in calling for a ban on head hits.

How dare anyone mess with the Neanderthal Headshot League.

The predominant thoughts, however, were these, in descending order:

4. Cooke earned this suspension and richly deserves it, no matter the league's agenda.

3. I would put Cooke back into the lineup the instant he is available; he is that valuable to a severely short-handed club.

2. The Penguins should trade Cooke in the offseason; he's not worth the trouble.

1. I doubt Cooke is going to change, even if he is $219,512.20 lighter in the wallet.

In the wake of a brain injury to their best player, the Penguins cannot continue to lead a crusade against head shots while Cooke makes a mockery of their mission. They'd look like fools.

Besides, one more hit like the one he laid on Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh, and Cooke will be benched for, what, a quarter of a season? The man isn't far from ruining his career.

He also might need more than just another suspension to change his ways. He might need behavioral counseling.

Cooke is out of control, perhaps caught up in the "NHL's Dirtiest Player" persona. His hit on McDonagh wasn't just mindless, gutless and reckless, it was selfish. It could cost the Penguins dearly.

Cooke has embarrassed Lemieux, Morehouse and Shero, who just got back from the GMs meetings in Florida, where he was a rare sensible voice twisting in the winds of old-school ignorance on the matter of head injuries.

Kudos to Shero for strongly backing Cooke's punishment, saying, "The suspension is warranted because that's exactly the kind of hit we're trying to get out of the game." It's not often a GM endorses a suspension of his own player.

Now, we'll see if Campbell & Co. have the stomach to make this a trend. They have ample reason to: One in 10 NHL players has sustained a concussion this season.

But I have reason to doubt the league is serious. Consider the following scenario, which would be funny if it hadn't actually happened: As the GMs were in Florida pretending to address the plague of head injuries, two illegal and incredibly dangerous hits to the head went virtually unpunished.

On one, Boston forward Brad Marchand cracked Columbus winger R.J. Umberger from behind with an elbow -- and got a measly two-game suspension.

On the other, San Jose's Dany Heatley elbowed Dallas' unsuspecting Steve Ott in the skull. His punishment? Two games.

There you have it: Two sneak attacks targeting the head merited a total suspension of four games.

What kind of deterrent is that?

Then there is the Trevor Gillies case. Gillies was suspended nine games for his ridiculous act in the Islanders-Penguins debacle. He concussed Eric Tangradi, continued to assault a defenseless Tangradi, then taunted him from the runway. In his first game back, Gillies showed how contrite he was by blind-siding Minnesota's Cal Clutterbuck.

For that, Gillies only got 10 games -- one more than his first punishment!

Meanwhile, Cooke, with previous suspensions totaling 10 games, got a possible 17 -- including a playoff series -- for his hit on McDonagh.

That's hardly consistent.

But it's not surprising or unwarranted, either -- and don't be surprised if Matt Cooke never plays another game for the Penguins.

Read more: Starkey: Is Cooke worth the trouble? - Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Highlights: Penguins 5, Red Wings 4 (SO)

Monday, March 21, 2011

Power play, behavior need fixing

Monday, March 21, 2011
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Peter Diana/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist makes save on Penguin Matt Cooke in the third period the Consol Energy Center.

Ten games are all that separate the Penguins from the spring awakening of postseason hockey, and yet two chronic issues refuse to lean even a little bit toward resolution.

Two issues that don't even include the still awfully elusive availability of Sidney Crosby, which might or might not have crawled an eighth of an inch toward the positive in the past week. Surely we'll interrupt network programming if the captain is able to actually break a sweat at any point while his concussed gray matter tries to knit itself back together.

But in the meantime, the Penguins got to show the New York Rangers and NBC's national television audience exactly what has been ailing them for most of everyone's available memory, namely their comical power play and their league-worst behavior.

Dan Bylsma's team rang up another 21 penalty minutes Sunday afternoon, surpassing their typical 17.8-minute average of shame time.

The head coach mentioned the avoidance of penalties as a priority a couple of weeks ago, and said he was reasonably satisfied with the fellas' progress right up until Matt Cooke staged yet another Exhibit X of Volume 12 of his incorrigible on-ice villainy.

"We've done a decent job of staying out of the box recently and we were doing a pretty decent job tonight up until we took the major [penalty]," Bylsma said, choosing his words prudently. "Unfortunately we had a clearing attempt where they lifted our stick and on the subsequent play we caught the guy and left the referee with no choice but to call a four-minute penalty on [Matt] Niskanen."

Cooke went out of his way to elbow New York's Ryan McDonagh in the head at 4:36 of the third period of what was still a 1-1 hockey game, collapsing the Rangers defenseman to the ice and eliciting a five-minute major and a game misconduct penalty.

Cooke should be suspended and certainly should expect nothing less if for no other reason than, as Bylsma pointed out, you can't have an organization that is so up front about wanting to eliminate all head hits and not expect the league to rub your nose in it when your own attack dog mauls again.

He didn't say it in those words, of course, but he could not have been clearer.

When Cooke departed, Chris Kunitz instantly inverted the karma by scoring short-handed at 6:26 for a 2-1 Penguins lead, the main feature of which would be brevity.

When Niskanen high-sticked Ryan Callahan, whose blood promptly plopped onto the pond, the Penguins found themselves skating three-against-five for nearly two minutes.

Marian Gaborik made them pay, tying it at 9:29, and then the wounded Callahan, the red rut on the bridge of his nose temporarily sealed, flipped a bad angle shot over Marc-Andre Fleury's near shoulder to set up New York's third comeback victory in three visits to the new building this season.

"Yeah I saw it, an opening," Callahan said. "He was down a little bit and I thought I could get it through. My nose was hurting but it feels better right away when you get one like that."

It was a day of semi-miraculous recoveries for the Rangers, now winners in six of their past seven and one of the Eastern Conference horses that seem to be gaining strength down the stretch. Goalie Henrik Lundqvist didn't even know if he would play Sunday with a neck still hurting from being knocked to the ice Friday night in Montreal.

"I couldn't tell them one way or another when I woke up," Lundqvist said. "I didn't know how I'd feel with a mask on or anything, but I wanted to play. It's really fun to play right now."

That's what happens when you're back-stopping a team that scored five times in the first period Friday night, six times in each of its previous two games, and five times again Sunday by the time Brian Dubinsky finished it with an empty-netter 39.2 seconds from the final horn.

"It was tough to see some pucks on the blocker side," said Lundqvist, who still managed to withstand two Penguins 3-on-2 breaks in a brilliant second period, "but we've been playing some really solid defense all year."

The Rangers killed three Penguins power plays, but that is simply no longer a barometer of any NHL defense, or any feather in the helmet of your standard penalty-killing unit.

The Penguins are 2-for-the-last-50 on the power play.

Two for 50.

If the playoffs started today, even if these Penguins suddenly became a highly disciplined hockey club led by Sidney Crosby, they wouldn't want to head into that first series with the power play converting at a rate of 4 percent.

Note to the uninitiated: No, you cannot just decline the penalty.

Gene Collier:

Read more:

Highlights: Rangers 5, Penguins 2

Friday, March 18, 2011

History, Identity and Baseball: Wilfred Santiago Tells 'The Story of Roberto Clemente'

By John Seven
Feb 22, 2011

The great Roberto Clemente is more than a baseball legend to cartoonist Wilfred Santiago. A native Puerto Rican, Clemente looms large, as much a part of the Puerto Rican cultural landscape as coffee and Catholicism. Santiago set out to try and capture the cultural realities underlying the legend in his new graphic biography, 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente, to be published by Fantagraphics Books in April.

“He was somebody who, even after he’s dead, people talk about him,” Santiago said about the Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder and humanitarian who died in a plane crash in 1972 while delivering emergency supplies to Nicaragua after a massive earthquake. “I don’t follow sports as much as when I was younger, and I wasn’t quite a fan because I never saw him play, but I heard about his playing style or things he did outside the field and such. And there are coliseums named him.”

Clemente seemed a natural choice for Santiago, who was working on a follow-up to In My Darkest Hour, a 2004 graphic novel published by Fantagraphics in which he explored the grim dead-end life of a depressed young man. He knew he wanted to do a biography—partially for the challenge—and Clemente was the figure who leapt off his possible projects list for several reasons. Santiago felt that he might be able to tackle the baseball star’s life from an angle usually not taken by others biographers — that of a fellow Puerto Rican.

It was also a chance to explore Puerto Rican politics and history — and the nature of the island’s relationship with the United States — in the context of a well-known figure. Santiago said that while he didn’t want to “beat people over the head,” but he believes that the backdrops of cultural history were “important in the context that he lived two political realities at the same time,” that of being an Afro-latino in racist 1960s America. By widening the scope beyond Clemente’s baseball life, he was able to make the storytelling more intimate.

“I tried to look from the outside,” said Santiago. “I wanted to tell the story as if you asked me about somebody that I knew and I just started rambling and telling you about him. I wanted the book to have that free flow to it.” In doing so, it gave Santiago a chance to look back at his culture and realize that the distance between it and life on mainland American provided some clarity about the culture in Puerto Rico and how it shaped Clemente.

“I know as a society Puerto Ricans are very religious, we are mostly Catholic Christians,” Santiago said. “Being in the United States and looking back, it seemed like there was more religion than I thought, and a lot of the values that Clemente had, whether it’s his eagerness to help people he thinks are in need or help sick kids or other things, these are pretty much values inculcating him into [Puerto Rican] society itself because they are values that are taught by the Christian faith.”

Catholicism is so much of a part of Puerto Rican culture that it becomes an unconscious guide to the direction of an individual’s life, Santiago explained, as well as that of its broader citizenry. This Catholic subtext to everyday behavior is something that Santiago has discovered in his own life, despite his distance from religious practice.

“I’m not a religious person, but at the same time when I call my mother, I ask for her blessing, because it’s something I’ve always done,” Santiago said. “Why do I ask for her blessing? I don’t believe in God, but I still do because it’s part of the country itself.”

Santiago also pointed out that the Catholic religion is of course influential in many Latin American countries, but it is Puerto Rico’s history with the United States—its status as an unincorporated territory of the United States that has flirted realistically with actual statehood—that differentiates it from all the others. And Santiago said that this duality—the split between the nature of life on the American mainland and Puerto Rican culture—is another aspect of Puerto Rican life that each native feels and which shaped Clemente.

“It’s completely strange — I grew up with David Lee Roth and American television that is translated in Spanish,” he said. “I was more attuned to American pop culture than Latin culture. I think every Puerto Rican has a relative in New York or somewhere in America. There’s nobody on the island that is completely disconnected.”

While Santiago identifies with this dual cultural heritage, it was Clemente’s dark skin that brought him into the harsher side of American life, a side that Santiago cannot really identify with. Because of that skin tone, Clemente was often mistaken for African American and encountered the outright racist prejudice of the times—as if Latin Americans didn’t have to face enough of their own battles against prejudice. This was something that Clemente found confusing, and the language barrier did not help either his understanding of the situation or any racist perception of him.

“He was a dark skinned Puerto Rican and during that period in the 20th Century, that was a big deal in the United States,” Santiago said, “and that was a completely foreign experience. There’s racism in Puerto Rico but there’s no institutionalized racism like there was in the United States for a very long period.”

“He gets treated like some sort of African American because on the outside he looks like one, but at the same time he’s Latino, so he has an issue with language, for example,” Santiago explained. “He’s a public figure so he speaks and sometimes he found it difficult to translate perhaps not words or grammar or sentences, but perhaps more the emotions--more of what’s behind a statement that you might say in Spanish.”

But the core of this complicated cultural relationship, Santiago said, is that Puerto Ricans are American and have suffered, sacrificed and died for American freedom. “My father was a Vietnam veteran, and once you start entrusting a society with things like that, it becomes a deeper tie,” said Santiago. “When people die representing certain things, it’s not just a colony now. You are an American, you have people who die defending the values and goals of the United States. And even though Americans are not that familiar with Puerto Ricans or the island, that’s still not going to change that fact.”

Santiago’s challenge was to take all this history and culture and translate it into something more than a dry biography, to make a book that would be an enjoyable sequential story that didn’t require a deep knowledge of Clemente or Puerto Rico or baseball, and wasn’t an illustrated text book. To do this, he pulled from some unlikely conventions within the comics form and applied them in a way that he thinks will keep Clemente’s story more vivid and less conservatively told than other graphic biographies out there.

He even compared his story to a superhero comic. “There are certain similarities between baseball and a superhero comic,” Santiago said. “Whether it’s the costumes or two teams battling it out. I wanted to capture that sense of comics--a lot of biographies, it seems to me have this static feel, whether it’s the heavy reliance on picture reference or biographical data,” Santiago said. “I was trying to walk this fine line: I wanted a baseball fan to read it and be crazy about it, but at the same time I wanted the same for someone who might just like to read comic books.”

Fantagraphics plans an 11,000 copy initial printing and the book will be published just as the Major League Baseball season begins and Fantagraphics associate publisher Eric Reynolds—a self-acknowledged “huge baseball fan”—couldn’t be more excited. Fantagraphics sent out more than 50 galleys to comics shops; Reynolds is targeting sports media like ESPN (he's gotten impressive blurbs from ESPN sports writers Rob Neyer and Jim Caple), while his Latina publicity director Jacqueline Cohen said she is putting her conversational Spanish to work on American Spanish-language and Latin American media. Reynolds said that although the Clemente family has not been involved in the book, copies have been sent to Roberto Clemente Jr. and the Clemente Museum in Pittsburgh. In addition, will run an interview with Santiago in early May and baseball sites including and are also slated to interview him.

Santiago will appear in conversation with Rob Neyer at the Fantagraphics Bookstore & Gallery in Seattle on May 4 and on May 28, he'll appear at Chicago Comics, his hometown comics shop. Reynolds hopes to set up events in Pittsburgh and at the Clemente Museum and he is also reaching out to the Mariners as well as the White Sox in hopes of getting Santiago a chance to throw out the first pitch.

"How many times will I ever get to contact the Mariners or the White Sox in any professional capacity? I've had more fun publicizing this book than anything in recent memory,” Reynolds said. “I’ve been amazed at how many baseball fans are also comics fans. There’s a lot of overlap.”

NHL GMs whiff on open net

Thursday, March 17, 2011

New Jersey Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello raised a fascinating philosophical question the other day at the GM meetings in Florida amid the furor surrounding head shots.

Said Lou: “What is a hit to the head?”

Hmmm. I guess I always thought of a hit to the head as ... a hit ... to ... the ... head. As in, I use part of my body — say, one of my shoulders — to deliver a check to the area where your neck stops and your chin begins. Most cultures refer to it as the head.

Am I missing something?

The GMs sure did, whiffing on the equivalent of an open net by refusing to recommend a full ban on head shots in a league where 1 in 10 players has been concussed this season. This was their chance. And while it’s nice the topic finally reached the table, these guys have been known to move slower than former Penguins center Milan Kraft when it comes to making fundamental, safety-enhancing changes.

I remember covering the All-Star Game in 1998, my first year as a Penguins beat writer, and hearing players voice concerns about the seamless glass surrounding rinks. They said it had no give. Some had suffered head injuries. Their concern sparked a discussion.

One that has lasted 13 years.

Incredibly, we still have several arenas sporting seamless glass (Consol Energy Center is not one of them). Thankfully, part of commissioner Gary Bettman’s plan to reduce concussions is to recommend the removal of such glass.Other initiatives are coming, including more caution in assessing players suspected of having a concussion.

All of which is appropriate, but banning head hits would have been the revolutionary change hockey needs — and the change old-school GMs such as Toronto's Brian Burke couldn't stomach.

Why does it have to be so complicated? Obviously there would be issues in implementing such radical change. That was the case coming out of the lockout, too, when the league instituted a zero-tolerance policy on clutching and grabbing in an effort to open up the neutral zone. Players adjusted. So did referees. And there are still many gray areas.

One of the big worries about banning head hits is how taller players could legally check smaller players without making contact to the head. That is a legitimate concern. It would be a gray area. As would players attempting to draw penalties by ducking.

That’s why referees get paid.

I asked 6-foot-5 Penguins winger Mike Rupp about the tall-guy argument. He wasn’t buying it.

“The first piece of my body should not be hitting the other guy’s head first,” Rupp said. “Any first contact to the head, I don’t think should be allowed.”

Bingo. And it’s worth noting again that many of the NHL's major feeder systems already ban head shots. That would include the Ontario Hockey League, the NCAA and the International Ice Hockey Federation. Does anyone watch college hockey and think it’s soft?

Bettman trotted out some intriguing numbers from the league’s recent study on concussions, or at least the 80 or so reported this season. It revealed that 44 percent resulted from legal hits, 26 percent from accidental hits, 17 percent from illegal hits and eight percent from fighting (five percent were undetermined).

What to make of it? First, the elimination of fighting apparently could eliminate nearly 1 in 10 concussions. That’s notable, though I’m sure many would look at the above numbers as proof that only so much can be done to reduce concussions in a high-speed, collision sport.

I agree to an extent — there will always be concussions in hockey — but that's not the point.

The point is how concussions can be dramatically reduced, and here's the most disturbing number of all, as reported by the New York Times: Of the 44 percent of concussions caused by legal hits, 14 percent can be attributed to what Bettman called “legal head shots."

"Legal head shots" should be outlawed.

Fifteen years and hundreds of concussions from now, maybe they will be.

Read more: Starkey: NHL GMs whiff on open net - Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Lemieux outlines proposal for fines

Current system does little to deter instigators

Tuesday, March 15, 2011
By Shelly Anderson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- It turns out that while critics were whaling away at Mario Lemieux, the Penguins owner and Hall of Famer was busy crafting a proposal that might help silence his detractors.

Lemieux earlier this month sent a letter to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman outlining a tiered set of automatic fines that he would like to see the league levy against teams whose players are suspended.

The fines -- ranging from $50,000 to $1 million and doubling for repeat offenders -- would make teams "accountable for the actions of their players," Lemieux wrote. "We propose instituting a policy of automatically fining a team when one if its players is suspended -- with the amount of the fine based on the length of the suspension. This should serve as a disincentive for teams as well as players to employ these kinds of tactics."

Lemieux's letter was sent nearly a month after he issued a scathing statement criticizing the league for, in his view, not handing out sufficient punishment in the aftermath of a 9-3 Penguins loss to the New York Islanders in which 346 penalty minutes were assessed. The Penguins' Eric Godard was suspended for 10 games for leaving the bench in an altercation. The Islanders' Trevor Gillies was suspended nine games for elbowing Eric Tangradi, and Matt Martin was suspended four games for a hit from behind on Max Talbot of the Penguins.

The Islanders also were fined $100,000.

The NHL barely reacted to Lemieux's statement, with officials saying only that it was comfortable with the discipline the Islanders received.

Lemieux was denounced in some quarters for chastising the NHL but not commenting further or offering a solution. He was also labeled a hypocrite because he employs hard-hitting winger Matt Cooke, who is considered one of the league's dirtier players.

Lemieux asked that his ideas be used in a discussion with general managers and the board of governors because the NHL's supplemental discipline "affects not only the integrity but the perception of our great game," he wrote.

"The current system punishes the offending player but does very little to deter such actions in the future. We need to review, upgrade and more clearly define our policies in this regard, so that they can provide a meaningful deterrence and effectively clean up the game."

While not acknowledging Lemieux's letter, Bettman announced Monday during scheduled general managers meetings that he will address the board of governors at their June meetings and let them know "that clubs will ultimately be responsible for the actions of their players so that if a player or players on a club are the subjects of repeat disciplinary procedures that result in supplemental discipline, ultimately it is the club and perhaps the coach that will be held responsible."

Bettman mentioned that the NHL "fined the Islanders for a game we thought was out of control," and said the league will crack down starting next season. He did not spell out what fines or other punishment might be instituted.

"The notion is, if there is a situation or a club where this seems to be out of the norm, something that continues to happen on a routine basis, it should be addressed," Bettman said.

That seemed to be the gist of what Lemieux was calling for in his earlier statement, when he described the Islanders game as a "travesty" and a "sideshow" and said the NHL failed to protect the integrity of the game by issuing inadequate supplemental discipline.

Under his plan, if a player is suspended one or two games, his team would be fined $50,000; three or four games, a $100,000 fine; five to eight games, a $250,000 fine; nine or 10 games, a $500,000 fine; 11-15 games, a $750,000 fine; and more than 15 games, a $1 million fine. Those dollar amounts would double for a repeat offender.

Lemieux pointed out in the letter that if his system had been in place this season, the Penguins would have been fined $600,000 so far, for Godard's 10-game suspension and a four-game suspension to Cooke.

Shelly Anderson:


Crosby skates, but return uncertain

Tuesday, March 15, 2011
By Michael Sanserino, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Penguins captain Sidney Crosby was back on the ice for the first time in more than two months Monday morning.

When he returns to the lineup is still anybody's guess.

Crosby skated for about 15 minutes at Consol Energy Center before a scheduled practice Monday morning, He wore full pads and handled the puck with his stick.

It was the most visible step in Crosby's recovery since a concussion that has sidelined him since Jan. 5. But he is not sure if he will be back at all this season.

"I have no clue," Crosby said.

"I'm not thinking too far ahead as far as a time frame. I just want to get better. This is part of the way to do that. I'm just kind of taking that step and seeing how it goes."

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said though he has not ruled out Crosby rejoining the team this season, he was not counting on the star center's return.

"In terms of planning toward the future in April I have not thought about making a plan with Sidney Crosby," Bylsma said.

"I'm not saying that I've thought about ruling him out, but that's not the approach right now that we've taken.

"We play with the guys in the room, and that's what we anticipate going forward, planning-wise. But he's obviously symptom free and skating, so whatever timetable, whenever that can happen, we'd be glad to welcome him back."

Crosby said it has been at least a week since he experienced any symptoms and that "everyday things" have been symptom free for some time. His success on the exercise bike allowed doctors to clear him for on-ice activity.

"We'll just go day to day," Penguins general manager Ray Shero said.

"When Sid feels better, he's going to let us know. He got back on the ice. That's a good step. Hopefully, he can progress from there."

Crosby has been feeling better in recent weeks -- well enough to start riding an exercise bike and shooting pucks in a Penguins practice room.

He said he felt "all right" Monday morning after the skate but said the next several hours were the most important in evaluating his progress.

"With these things, I kind of tended to get symptoms later on in the day, so we'll see how it goes," Crosby said.

If he does not develop any post-concussion symptoms, which include headaches, dizziness and nausea, he could continue to progress, though he declined to discuss what his next step might be in terms of getting himself ready to play.

"Today is progress, but I'm nowhere close to where I need to be as far as being in shape." he said. "I'm not even going to talk about that, I just want to be able to get through that without getting a headache."

Shero said he learned Sunday that Crosby wanted to get back on the ice, but the captain's presence Monday caught his teammates by surprise.

"We didn't know," Pascal Dupuis said.

"We got here and he was on the ice. That's good."

Dupuis said it was scary to watch his good friend, Minnesota winger Pierre-Marc Bouchard, miss most of last season with a concussion.

"It's something that you can't put a timetable on -- something that you have to wait to get symptom free," Dupuis said.

"[Crosby] is right now, so he's going to start going through it and see what it's going to be like."

Crosby said the entire experience has been eye-opening.

"It's scary for sure," he said. "But thinking about it or dwelling on it isn't really going to change anything. You've got to listen to yourself and what's going on, provide doctors the most information you can about how you feel and trust them in what they're telling you is going to happen. And that's been the case.

"Everything has gone well that way and it's a matter of time. I'm waiting for everything to feel better."

Photo credit: AP

Staff writer Shelly Anderson contributed to this report. Michael Sanserino: or 412-263-1722.

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Highlights: Penguins 5, Oilers 1

Monday, March 14, 2011

Time for NHL to outlaw head hits

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The NHL ruled that Zdeno Chara's brutal hit on Max Pacioretty was clean.
(Jean-Yves Ahern/Icon SMI)

Sorry if you're sick of hearing about head injuries in sports, but it's perfectly impossible to ignore the topic when you're watching an NHL game.

Which is all Sidney Crosby is doing these days.

Crosby was one of four concussed Penguins unavailable for Saturday's game against Montreal, which has a concussed player of its own. Top-line winger Max Pacioretty has a broken neck, too, after Boston defenseman Zdeno Chara slammed him face-first into a stanchion between the benches.

The NHL didn't think it was intentional. Pacioretty apparently did, unless I'm misreading his following quote, as told to TSN: "I believe he was trying to guide my head into the turnbuckle."

You might remember similar quotes from Hulk Hogan in the 1980s, brother.

According to The Concussion Blog website, 72 NHL players — 10 percent of the league — have been concussed this season. That should make commissioner Gary Bettman sick. How can you run a league when your work force is being ravaged?

Bettman tried to douse the flames last week by claiming most of the hits that have caused concussions this season were inadvertent. As if nothing can be done.

Hey, Gary: One of 10 players in your league has suffered a brain injury this season.

It's time to take serious action, and the NHL's 30 general managers are just the men to do it. They convene this week in Florida and will at least discuss the possibility of outlawing checks to the head. That would mark a dramatic extension of Rule 48, an edict instituted this season banning hits to the side and back of the head.

All that's left is the front.

"I'm on record for saying I really want to look at it," said Penguins general manager Ray Shero. "(The issue) is something that's on everybody's plate."

If there is sufficient support, GMs could recommend to the league's Board of Governors to make a rule change, though I wouldn't count on it. Too many hockey people are afraid the game would be irrevocably pansified.

Consider the answer I received during a radio interview when I asked Versus analyst and former NHL forward Keith Jones if he thought the GMs would call for a ban of head hits.

"I won't be watching if they do," he said. "It'll be difficult to throw a body check at all."

That is an understandable concern, shared by many, though I happen to disagree. The game would still be plenty physical. And if the worst thing that happens while players adjust is an inordinate amount of power plays, so what? More offense isn't a bad thing.

Nobody's saying this would be an easy rule to implement. But here's hoping common sense prevails over blind allegiance to the status quo. Here's hoping GMs summon the courage for radical change. One look at the league landscape, littered as it is with dozens of concussed carcasses, calls for it.

Shero made a critical point when he reminded me that head hits are banned in the NCAA, the Ontario Hockey League and the International Ice Hockey Federation and that "the NHL gets 75 percent of its players from those leagues."

To get a feel for how the OHL ban works, I spoke with several men involved in the league, a major junior league for players ages 15-20. Five years ago, the OHL deemed any hit to the head illegal. The penalty could be as minimal as a two-minute minor, cleverly termed a "check to the head," or carry major consequences.

"This rule has in no way deterred physicality in our game," OHL commissioner David Branch said.

Others I spoke with, including ex-NHL player Warren Rychel, disagreed. Rychel is part-owner of the OHL's Windsor Spitfires.

"Every time there's a loud noise (big hit) in our league, a hand goes up," Rychel said. "Everybody thinks it's a head shot, and it's often not."

Still, Rychel isn't against the NHL adopting the rule. Neither is longtime NHL star Doug Gilmour, whose blood-and-guts career lasted 1,474 games. Gilmour coaches the OHL's Kingston Frontenacs.

I wondered, do OHL games still qualify as full-contact hockey?

"Yeah, very much," Gilmour said. "But we're talking about kids. It's different when you're talking about grown men in the National Hockey League and the speed of the game. Still, something has to be reviewed because you can't keep losing players."

So NHL, watcha gonna do?

Read more: Starkey: Time for NHL to outlaw head hits - Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Canadiens' Price tough egg to crack

By Gene Collier
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Sunday, March 13, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - MARCH 12: Goaltender Carey Price #31 of the Montreal Canadiens keeps his focus on the puck as James Neal #18 of the Pittsburgh Penguins moves in for a shot on goal on March 12, 2011 at CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Price stopped all 26 shots he faced in Montreal's 3-0 win over Pittsburgh. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Historical milestones were piled on both sides of Saturday's hockey game, so it was something of an icy little oddity that 18,310 citizens left the building feeling as though very little was accomplished.

Unless you count spending the 200th consecutive Penguins sellout booing Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban, still clearly unforgiven for the Jordan Staal injury that marred last year's playoffs and much of the remainder of 2010.

Staal is back, of course, and it's a new year, but even if you thought there was no way last year's Penguins should have lost to Montreal in the playoffs, you should not need any persuading this time around.

"They were the Stanley Cup champions a year ago so we have a lot of respect for the way they play," said Canadiens' forward Michael Cammalleri. "They just seem to bring out your best."

Cammalleri had a goal and an assist in a 3-0 skunking Saturday of the Penguins, so make it four goals and four assists he has accumulated in his last 10 games against the Penguins, then add that to the seven goals he scored in last spring's Eastern Conference semifinals, and you might be looking at a trend.

The win bumped the Canadiens right up against Tampa Bay's taillights for the fifth seed in the postseason tournament that likely begins a month from tonight, the fifth seed being exactly what could see them return to Pittsburgh for some very serious hockey.

That possibility doesn't look for the moment like something these Penguins should embrace, especially the way Montreal goalie Carey Price is playing. The Canadiens stunned a lot of people last June when they traded Jaroslav Halak, the Savin' Slovak, who back-stopped them all the way to the conference finals.

Maybe they knew something.

Price stopped all 26 Pittsburgh shots Saturday and is the clear No. 1 reason Montreal has won seven of its past nine.

"Our guys were just awesome today," Price, 23, said. "Credit the players in front of me and our commitment to defense. That was an Exhibit A road game. We played exactly the way we planned to play."

Nobody plans to play the way Dan Bylsma's team did in this episode, giving the puck away like it was Puck Day, giving up goals in the first minute of periods one and two, then allowing a one-timer by Cammalleri on a pretty centering pass from Jeff Halpern that chased Marc-Andre Fleury to the bench in favor of Brent Johnson.

Bylsma thought the Canadiens weren't compelled to work hard enough for that 3-0 lead after just 12 shots, but he didn't seem a bit disappointed with the Alex Kovalev line, or with Kovie himself, despite his one goal and no assists in seven games since that trade that brought him.

"On the power play we haven't gotten the right fit yet, but we missed a couple of good chances," Bylsma said after the power play faded to 1-for-its-last-31. "I think there's been decent chemistry between [Mark] Letestu and [James] Neal, and Kovie had a good shot at one point. Neal had a good shot and Neal had a second one. I thought they were our best line tonight. They haven't gotten everything together but that's a group that will stay together for awhile."

For the moment, this entire Penguins team looks as though it will stay together for awhile, as there is still no word on the availability of Sidney Crosby. Saturday was the 66th day without him, one of the days when they looked very much the worse for that, and no match, frankly, for the time-tested Canadiens brand.

Montreal's second goal, as it happens, was another milestone -- the 11,000th in the history of a franchise that dates to 1917. Travis Moen got it, and I'm sure he is aware that it came on the 40th anniversary of The Egging of Gump Worsley.

The legendary Canadiens goalie, working against the New York Rangers March 12, 1967, was forced to leave the game when an egg thrown from the stands resulted in a head injury. Presumably a hard-boiled egg.

The final milestone Saturday was Price's victory, his 93rd, which moved him into 12th place in team history ahead of -- who else? -- Gump Worsley.

"Really, I didn't know that!" Price said. "Cool!"

For the first time in a long time, the Penguins rolled into Saturday's third period with no palpable chance. It wasn't so much that they're now 0-17-1 when they trail after two periods. It was more that they are just not fully equipped to beat Price when he has a three-goal lead and just 20 minutes to seal it.

For that you need No. 87. And No. 71. Or, in lieu of one or both, No. 66.

Gene Collier:

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