Tag Archives: kovulchuk

The Kovulchuk Konklusion

Apologies for abusing my minimally competent knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet, but I’m at a loss for a more respectable post title.

[Updated/Edited July 22: OK, only #4 is right. Kovulchuk is the A-Rod of the NHL, and should be pilloried accordingly. Yes, his “retirement” helps the Devils out of a cash flow problem now and in the waning years of the CBA, but basically, he’s a selfish, greedy player, now demonstrated on and off the ice.]

Kovulchuk is going back to Russia. His contract is void, with 11 years left on it. After all the strum und drang over the terms and conditions, the final cut was foreshortened by a decade: he’s leaving early.

Here is my purely speculative thinking on the situation. I know nothing, I am merely attempting to read the tea leaves left in the Russian room (even my word ordering fails at punnery here). Below are my stabs at four explanations, in what I think are the likely order; there may be more than one reason in which case they are presented with Gartner-esque probabilities of 0.5, 0.3, 0.15 and 0.05.

Explanation #1: Kovy really wants to go back to Russia, to represent his home country in the Olympics, perhaps to raise his family there, or to be with his own family. Sometimes Occam’s Razor slices the news along the simplest explanation lines. The impact on family, particularly an ex-patriate family, cannot be underestimated in professional sports. Based on my 38 seconds of more than arms’ length interactions with him, Kovy has strong family feelings (I write that looking at the signed t-shirt I received for supporting Kovy’s fundraising for the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv families). Petr Nedved’s wife nixed a centering role in Edmonton, and Janet Gretzky brought the Great One out of the Great White North. It happens, and we should respect it.

Explanation #2: He’s hurt, and the nagging injury that slowed him in the 2012 Cup Finals hasn’t fully healed. Rather than facing a potential “unfit to play” issue, everyone saves face through retirement, and any injury spectre doesn’t impact his future signing ability with the KHL. “Retirement” is another way of saying “I cannot play at the level the fans and I expect, and I’m going to stop instead of not playing at 100%.” If this is the case, Kovy should be held up as an exemplar of good behavior, of proper sportsmanship, and of being one of the only athletes who actually do something good for the fans. There are precedents for athletes retiring for non-sports reasons. Kovy could well be the anti A-Rod.

Explanation #3: The team is facing such a cash flow problem that it can’t be sold “as is”, and removing the Kovulchuk contract is the only way someone with an operative hockey operations plan will buy the Devils from Vandebeek. I’ve alternately thought this was the first reason, given the post-draft timing and recent rumors about the impending sale. Sadly, if there’s even an element of truth to this explanation, then the Devils will replace Kovulchuk with someone from my beer league (contract value: -$420, we pay to play).

Explanation #4: He’s the A-Rod of the NHL, with all invective, derision, and scorn heaped upon him. I really don’t think this is the case; he’s a significantly harder worker, a better team player, and a more honest and less self-centered person than that. Turning your back on what you wanted — a $100M+ contract in a major market with a contending team — doesn’t make sense unless there are complicating factors.

Rueing Clarkson’s departure doesn’t help; Clowe and Ryder will replace Clarkson with proper coaching (watch him as a Shark, not a Ranger — Tortorella managed to even make Brad Richards suck). Time for the Devils to invest in some up and coming talent — who heard of Matt Moulson before last year? And if the Devils front office wants to regain some fan cred, why not offer 75% off jerseys (basically: at cost) if you trade in a Parise, Kovulchuk, or Clarkson sweater for a Schneider, Henrique, Elias, Clowe, Ryder or M. Brodeur?

Not With A Bang

Every post-season ends for every team but one with a loss. When it’s a team you love, that makes it further than you dreamed hope on Opening Night, that loss hurts. It’s worse than finding out the cute girl in 5th grade thinks you’re weird. It is, in the words of the Bubba, heart breaking, and often it’s breaking younger hearts that haven’t been through the ups and downs memorialized in a Sinatra song.

What a season for the Devils. I am immensely proud of the team, and proud to have been a fan right through Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals tonight. The overcame adversity from all corners, make smart trades, gelled as a team and had fun right til the final buzzer. In my oft-quoted words from hero Willie Stargell, that is what sports is about — if you aren’t having fun, you’ve missed the whole point. We beat the Rangers and Flyers in the playoffs, showed poise in taking down the team that fired our coach, and started as a six seed in a year when The Hockey News picked us to miss the playoffs completely. As Adam Sandler would say, not too shabby.

Some thoughts and hopes to close out the hockey ramblings (at least until the trade rumors and free agency begin):

1. Sign Parise. I believe he’ll stay in NJ, because NJ believed in him when he was passed over in the draft, and he’s seen what happens to players who amble across the Hudson in pursuit of money and glory. The end up going 100 games without a goal (Gomez), getting bought out (Drury), or being booed forever (Holik). Parise has more cachet, more integrity, and more loyalty than that. He may not sign a 10-year deal, nor should he — but five years at $7M is a nice chunk of change.

2. Fix Kovulchuk. Can we please hear the truth? He’s hurt, he was coasting through most of the Finals, and tonight he looked like he belonged in my inhaler league. He should stay in NJ and get team-supervised treatment until he’s capable of skating at full strength and speed again.

3. Build a base. Retain the playoff fan base. The Devils proved that the Rock can rock. No reason it shouldn’t be like that every single game, every single season. It’s a house built for hockey, and with the clown circus (sorry, the Nets) moving to Brooklyn, it’s mostly hockey again. The Devils need to market, adjust ticket prices, and recapture that noise any way possible. The team deserves that kind of welcome even when playing the Oilers on a Wednesday in mid-December.

4. Don’t blame Bernier. This series had more bad breaks (crossbar in game 2, slow whistle on first goal in game 3) than dumb plays, and he shouldn’t be pilloried for a mistake early in a tight game. Lots of if only, would have, could have scenarios, but the fact is – the Devils played it out, and played all but the last possible home game of the year. How cool is that?

5. Sign Marty. Give him a 2-year deal and let him mentor his successor, playing no more than 50 games a year, so he’s ripe for another playoff run.

On that note, hockey people, it’s baseball season, free agency is arond the corner, we’ll be watching for Livingston native Nick Ebert at the draft, and we’ll see who gets traded, fixed, sold out, bought out and heaped with praise in the next month.

It was wonderful to watch hockey in June. And it’s only a year until the Bubba is home from college for the summer and we can do it again. I hope — for that is the lifecycle of a fan.

Round Three

The Devils win four in a row to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in nine years. There aren’t that many bills I look forward to getting, and Round 3 Stanley Cup Playoff tickets set the bar pretty high.

Where do you start being proud of this team, as a fan? Playing hard every shift, consistently sticking to a system? Avoiding retaliatory penalties, even when Rinaldo, Giroux and Simmonds were dirtier than the bathroom in a South Street Philadelphia bar at three in the morning (they’ll have plenty of time to verify my comparison now). Marty not being at all fazed playing the puck, even under pressure? Stephen Gionta hitting about a foot larger than he stands? Kovulchuk’s power play goal, coming from Zubrus winning a monster faceoff in the zone? Even JR gave Kovy props in the post-game.

It starts behind the bench, with DeBoer retaining his composure through every situation. Compare him to Tortorella, who must be nursing a sore throat by the midway point of most games, or Laviolette, who pouts, frowns and gesticulates like he’s a marionette whose strings are wrapped around a drill bit. Up and down the coaching staff, you can see the development of the younger plays, the poise that the playoff newbies have exuded, and how every player focuses on every small detail.

This team is fun to watch. And we get to watch for at least another round of playoffs.

Five Reasons The Devils Can Knock Off The Flyers

The Devils can knock off the Flyers, probably in six or seven games, because they have the right ingredients with the right blend at the right time.

1. They do the little things. Clarkson’s Game 2-winning goal doesn’t happen if Elias doesn’t poke-check the puck away from his man on the half-boards. It’s not on the scoresheet, but that play turned a Flyers breakout into a goal-scoring chance for the Devils. Elias, Greene and Henrique have been executing the small area game very well.

2. Bryzgalov lost the nerves contest. Bryz started looking shaky handling a puck in front of the net, and shortly after that Larsson went top shelf on him; a few bouncing pucks didn’t take Larsson off his game. I don’t think the Rock needs to filled with fans wearing bear masks or carrying boxes from Build-A-Bear Workshop (although that would be really funny), but keeping Bryzgalov thinking is to the Devils’ advantage. Philadelphia can’t put their other Bob-lehead in net; the Devils owned him this season.

3. Matching lines and hitting hard works. Briere was -3 in Game 2, mostly because Larsson and Volchenkov, along with Henrique’s line, were pounding him and Giroux with regularity. The fact that Wayne Simmonds went flat-line stupid at the end of Game 2 indicates that frustrations are high.

4. The fourth line has stepped up. When you can roll four lines your top two lines are more productive. And the Devils’ fourth line has been outstanding through the playoffs.

5. You add by subtracting a negative. Kovulchuk wasn’t at his regular performance level, and finally resolving his status make everyone else’s job more clear. The Devils have shown they can stick to a system and work through adversity.

What else do I want? I’d like Sherry Ross to stop making inane comments and then repeating them ad nauseum. I’d like the NBC commentators to listen to Doc Emrick to hear how play by play can flow beautifully without comments that sound like Ross cast-offs. I’d like to understand how an obstruction penalty can be called after the horn has sounded (end of Period 2, Game 2) when there’s no movement in on-going play with which to interfere. And I’d like Bryce Salvador to score another goal.

Teamwork and Accountability

We can dish out blame for last night’s Devils playoff loss all over the place: the inconsistent referees, the fact that Kovulchuk skated like he’s got a “lower body injury” (groin, hamstring, torn back), DeBoer’s line shuffles that accomplished nothing, Marty’s decision to play the puck without looking at the forecheckers, Volchenkov once again managing to take himself (stickless) and Zach Parise (borrowing a stick) out of the play. This one is way beyond blame for individual details or efforts.

The Devils lost as a team, just as they did in the Game 3 disaster. The question is: do the Devils have the team work and the individual accountability, and those things in the right proportions and blends, to win two games in a row, and make a playoff run that doesn’t end with a May Day call? As players, coaches, and trainers, when you look in the mirror, before, during or after Game 6 and (hopefully) Game 7, please make sure you can honestly say that you’re delivering on your end of the experiences we expect, we demand, and we hope for as your fans.

I had hoped, entering this season, that it would be a neat bookend to the first year in which Ben and were season ticket holders – the 99-00 Cup run, the first year he played ice hockey. In this last year regularly sitting next to me at dinner, on the couch and at games, I’ve probably over-rotated on high expectations, facing a shortly empty nest. But at the same time, sports memories from our last year in high school sit on the saddle point of experience. They are the net summation of people, places and things chosen for us by older family members, and the first events we can pick through given the independence of spending money, a driver’s license and formal adulthood.

Baseball had diminished interest for me in 1979 until my first sports hero Willie Stargell led his Pittsburgh Pirates to the World Series as I wrestled with college applications and parallel parking. Stargell united a diverse group of players; the “We Are Family” soundtrack to their pennant run wasn’t just a media post-production effect. They came together as a team, played as a team, and won as a team. Everyone did their part. Just a few months after he died in 2001, I had the opportunity to pick a jersey number of my own and I remembered my fondness for all things related to first baseman, number 8, Willie Stargell. The twin circles on my back are a continuous refresh of those memories that illustrated sportsmanship, leadership, bridging differences and taking personal responsibility for winning.

There are lifetimes of memories waiting to be created – for our families, for the Devils team’s families, for fans and potential fans across the Garden State – and two games in which to make them.

Taking Lazy To A New Level

The Devils are not going to make the playoffs because they are a lazy team. Even if they get a few wins in a row, it’s not enough to offset the institutional laziness that has become acceptable on the ice.

Exhibit A: Ilya Kovulchuk does not skate hard to the end boards with four minutes left in a one-goal game. He lets the defenseman beat him to the loose puck. Again. He should be skating as hard as he can, playing the body, and gaining control.

Exhibit B: Forty seconds left and Langenbrunner dumps the puck into the zone, while Elias is in full stride on his wing. “Keep your head on a swivel” is a mantra for youth and high school players, but when you wear the “C” on this team it’s no longer necessary.

Exhibit C: On the first Penguins goal, Colin White doesn’t fill the slot, and lets Kunitz take a one-timer uncontested. If Zubrus had skated hard back into the play he may have had a chance to break up the feed from Crosby. Zubrus glides over the blue line; his body is upright and relaxed as Kunitz releases the shot. On the game-winning goal, White doesn’t bother to notice that Crosby was behind him, untouched. The Devils seem to watch the puck movement more than the MSG cameraman, but hockey plays develop in the space away from the puck. What’s even sadder is that White is playing some of the best defense on the team.

There are very few cures for laziness, other than bringing in a coach that makes the players ride the bikes for an hour after an effort like the last few. Or who dumps a bench on the ice. Or who demands that his players play the game with a modicum of respect for their leaders, their staff, their fans and themselves. What the Devils are doing now is taking lazy to a level that induces nausea.

How Not To Start A Season

The Devils are off to their worst start in 27 years. As far as I’m concerned their 1-4-1 record is an overstatement. They’ve lost five games and haven’t won a game in regulation yet this year. Their inability to score goals is a sign that something is very wrong with this team, and with the talent that was paid for this summer, it’s not pure capabilities.

Kovulchuk is out of place on the right side. He belongs on the left side. The very pretty goal he scored on Friday night came on the left side and involved footwork, stickwork and a slick wrist shot, all from his preferred angle of attack. Part of the reason Kovulchuk is turning the puck over more than shooting it is that he’s not used to that side of the play. Move Elias to right wing (Elias has played all three forward positions, with success, in the last few seasons), and use Parise and Kovulchuk as left wingers. Why is this so hard for Maclean? Is it any wonder the top line isn’t producing?

The power play seems better than last year, but still miserable. If guys are standing around, nothing will happen. You either create space by moving without the puck or create time for the play to develop by moving with it.

Brodeur needs to be told he’s 38 years old and cannot play back to back games. He looked miserable last Saturday night in the second half of a weekender, and he looked just as bad tonight. This is the test of a coach – get Brodeur to behave like a team member and not a spoiled, selfish player.

Light a fire under Langenbrunner to start leading by example, or rip the “C” off his jersey. And trade him. Anywhere for anything, just to remove the cap hit. Josefson was skating with purpose, finishing checks, and moving on every shift. Langenbrunner lollygagged back to the puck during a 5 minute major power play last night. If he’s not going to skate fast and start the play, nobody else will either. Have a closed door meeting. Better yet, just stop the nonsense that started during last year’s playoffs. It’s horrible to watch, and it sends the wrong message to his teammates, the fans, youth hockey players, and just about everyone else.

For all of the ownership’s self-congratulatory noise about their “Jersey Tour” this summer I haven’t seen one thing to improve attendance. Where are the day-game cheap tickets (if there are tickets left for Capitals games, you can buy them for $10 once the puck drops)? Where are the promotions to get first-time fans to the Rock? Where is the fan outreach? Stupid in-game production where fans start cheers are annoying at best, and do nothing to fill the 5,000 empty seats a night. Friday night you had your choice of seats in Section 118. There were maybe 14 people there, and nothing but empty rows above them. What message does it send to the players when they look behind the opposing goalie and see black chair backs?

This season started going down hill when ownership insisted on doing the Kovulchuk deal. Don’t get me wrong; I’m thrilled he’s a Devil and think he’ll gel well with the team over the next few weeks. But running a professional sports team isn’t about doing a “big deal” like a Wall Street bank or law firm. It’s not about attention and being a Master of the Universe. It’s about building a winning team and a winning tradition, so that you have a fan base that passes on loyalty, pride and respect for the team like family heirlooms.

If we’re going to keep Kovulchuk with his $102 million price tag, other players have to go to keep the team balance. That means ownership has to tell Lamariello that White must go, even though White was a big part of two cup teams — 8 seasons ago. White looks miserable next to Taormina. He’s not helping Urbom, and he takes stupid penalties because he’s not in the play quickly or strongly. Ownership has to get Langenbrunner to either step up or step out, because he’s exuding negative leadership. That’s the hard work of running a team, and it’s everything that the big press conferences isn’t. But it’s time the Devils got a team effort from the front office to the box office.

Puck Drop Time

It’s been way too many months since I’ve said something about hockey. Quite honestly, this was one of the strangest off-seasons (long free agency periods, contract bumbling on Sixth Avenue, dismantling of the Blackhawks) and one of the most encouraging ones (Kovulchuk, Mottau, Arnott, MacLean). With a mere eight days to the season and home opener, here’s what I’m thinking.

John MacLean is a huge upgrade behind the bench. I don’t remember a time when the Devils had a coach with a background in modern (post 1980, and ouch, it hurts to write that) hockey offense. Lemaire’s last season playing forward was in the wooden stick era. MacLean brings the touch of a scorer to a team that desperately needs to inject some life into “Devils hockey.” And if the same guys stay on a line long enough to remember each others’ nicknames, that might be a suitable win.

Jason Arnott is the secret ingredient. Not just because he’s huge in person, but he’s huge off the ice as well. My gut feeling is that the Devils locker rooms have lacked that secret sauce that binds the different groups of players together – the Europeans, the Canadians, the Minnesotans. For the past seven off-seasons I’ve remembered a comment Scott Gomez made when 4th liner Jim McKenzie left the organization: “We needed him in the locker room.” I think Arnott can fill that role now, with or without a captain’s letter on his sweater. He’s just a huge person; see him up close and personal and well, he’s kind of imposing. One of my friend’s late fathers had that effect on me, just a kind of look that lets you know he could liquefy your insides if required. Arnott is going to keep the slot much less trafficked than in previous years.

Defensive options. The words “puck moving defenseman” are among the most over-used in the hockey writing business. When the Islanders signed Mike Mottau Snow called him a “puck moving defenseman” and I blew coffee out of my nose at the thought. Mottau’s lack of confidence with the puck last year was evident in bad turnovers, coupled with failure to contain his guy and a general lack of speed. Replace him with Tallinder and Volchenkov, and I’m thrilled. I’m loving Taorima in camp, and hope that one of the other frosh make the team as well. I won’t cry if Colin White ends up a cap hit himself – there are a half dozen options that work, and improve the blue line in every area from confidence to power play.

Kovy. He’s got something to prove to the league, the contracts office, the fans, himself, MacLean, and the Washington hot shot. I cannot wait to see the fireworks.

At the same time, I approach this season with a bit of sadness. Elana is in Israel and unavailable to cheer in real time; Bubba is entering the dreaded junior year when everything else seems to conspire against a Friday night out at the Rock. I’m hopeful for a long playoff run that lets me turn hockey time back into family time.

Kovulchuk Is A Devil

I’m flat-out delighted that Ilya Kovulchuk will be a New Jersey Devil for the next 17 years. The last time I was this happy was when Elias signed a 7-year deal assuring he’d play in New Jersey until the Bubba graduated from high school. Kovulchuk might be the first player that we cheer through four generations of my family: my parents, me, our kids, and with the length of this contract, possibly some grandchildren. Don’t tell my kids.

Kovulchuk wears #17 in honor of Valeri Kharlamov, whom he was only able to watch on tape, sitting with his father. It’s a story I wouldn’t mind telling to some new leaves in the family tree.

Blogging during the press conference now being streamed on the Devils website

Parise, Brodeur and Elias sitting in the front row, talking like it’s the first day of school and they’re all discussing what they did on summer vacation. Kovulchuk looks relaxed, he’s making jokes, and he said quite simply “there is unfinished business from last season.” He admits to being nervous, and he’s joking from the stage. It’s hard not to like this guy. “I’ll be a Devil for life”. Jersey does that to you.

Do Stan Fischler’s questions add value or only repeat the obvious? I think the question answered itself.

Here is some of my own thinking about this 17-year deal: The Devils are thinking long-term, and are building the value of this franchise. Every playoff game played in the Rock earns the Devils about $1 million (16,000 tickets at an average of $50 plus concession sales net of operating costs). If the Devils play five more playoff games over the next few years, the team could eat the end of this contract and still be ahead on operating margin.

Pathetic Devils Effort

Why are Colin White and Mike Mottau together? On the winning goal, Colin White (a) followed his guy behind the net (b) reached, leaned and otherwise made lazy swipes at the puck and (c) left Mottau to remember to cover the weak side (oops). These two don’t belong on the ice at all, let alone playing first pair defense. The same dumb mistakes re-inforcing each other. It’s like the cyclotron of stupid. The particle accelerator of bad defensive plays. Who needs the Large Hadron Collider when you have these two ejecting pucks to the Flyers at near-relativistic speeds?

Will Elias hold on to the puck? Patty, we love you, but shoot the puck, control it, and more crisp passes please?

I’m laughing that Kovulchuk believes this post-season will help set his market value. It will, but his stock is taking it in the shorts worse than Goldman Sachs right now.

Langenbrunner either needs to step up and get pissed off, like Scott Stevens, or step down as captain. Amazing that the biggest emotional outburst from him all season was when Lemaire sat him for a game. Go listen to some more emo music, maybe that stack of Coldplay albums and Dave Matthews whining will help you find a way to get your teammates to step up.

No shots in the last fifteen minutes of regulation is a sign that either the wrong guys are on the ice, or the right guys are on the ice too long. Stop juggling the lines, let guys know who they’re skating with, and then demand that they produce. Or sit them. Why is it every coach gets this except Lemaire? No forecheck, no pressure, no movement. If you don’t create time and space, all you do is drop back and set up a shooting gallery for Marty – an appropriate description of tonight’s game.

Pair Mike Mottau with whoever else is in the press box on Tuesday. It’s a must-win game, and he’s a must-move player.

And finally, Devils fans – can we please sell out a home playoff game? I know it’s hard to cheer for an effort like the one tonight, but if we come back to the Rock even up, Game 5 matters. Let’s support the team. Then everyone who paid for a ticket can join in the call for White, Mottau, Langenbrunner, Kovulchuk and Lemaire to collectively figure out which end is the one they’re supposed to shoot in.

I don’t mind watching the Devils lose games. It’s a game, it happens. I hate to see them lose games when they look like they’re already packing it in. That’s not what professionals are supposed to do, and the lack of professional effort is flat-out disturbing, from behind the bench to lazy plays behind the net.

Marty looked great. Without him, it would have been a 6-2 drubbing. I know the Devils haven’t won in Philadelphia since my hair was all black, but three of the remaining games are there. Figure it out.

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