Friday, 9 January 2009

Friday's Drive For Five

I'm not selling juice for anyone so don't think I've sold out to the nearest citrus fruit stand. Instead, I simply wanted to look at a few stories that I think could have some serious impact on teams. There most definitely will be five stories that I want to cover, but there could be more. Heck, we could make this blog entry into a V-8 entry if we really wanted to run with the fruit juice metaphor. But we don't. Because that's just bad taste. I do, however, want a little time to expand on each story, so I'll mark each story with its corresponding number before I break into my diatribe about each. I'm hoping that each one will illicit a little thought and, perhaps, a chuckle. I'm going off the board with some of my comments, so let's start the Drive For Five!

Current KHL All-Star team captain, Jaromir Jagr, let it slip today that he would be willing to return to the NHL as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins for the league's minimum salary if owner Mario Lemieux would ask him. Said Jagr to Ken Campbell of the The Hockey News: "I would play for the minimum salary. I would play for $350,000 just for him because I owe him my hockey life. I want to pay him back because he has made me what I am... besides my parents."

I'll admit it: I am a closet Jaromir Jagr fan. No one could turn a seemingly harmless play into a masterpiece of art on the ice like Jagr could when he wanted to. But that was the key - when he wanted to. And nothing infuriated me more as a fan of his play as when he would appear to be going through the motions.

Despite the Penguins scouring every outpost and Arctic research station for a winger to play with Sidney Crosby, I'm not so sure that Jagr would be the right fit. For starters, he scored a lot of goals that didn't require a setup. He simply turned defencemen into pylons, and then had the goaltender looking for his jockstrap in the fourth row of seats before the lamp was flashing red. Crosby is a phenomenal setup guy, so there's no doubt that Jagr would benefit, but it would take some time for Jagr to adjust to Crosby's dishes.

If Jagr wants to return to the NHL, he'll be 38 at the end of his current contract with Omsk after the 2009-10 season. If he's truly serious about taking the league's minimum salary, Mario Lemieux can charge the call to me. I don't mind.

But if the Penguins are looking for a winger this season, there's a great finisher who is sitting at home right now named Brendan Shanahan. I'm not sure why the Penguins haven't called him yet, especially in the midst of scoring drought not seen since the 2004-05 lockout. Let's put the wheels in motion, Mr. Shero.

If you're Brian Burke, and you're looking at your collection of ragtag misfits, where do you start purging to create a better team? The Maple Leafs are a team that is literally testing the Old Mother Hubbard theory of having bare cupboards, and anyone who is contributing is being suspended because he feels the need to be Belarus' Jonathan Roy. While I feel that there are a few no-brainers on this roster, adding a marquee player like Brad May doesn't exactly set the world on fire.

Luke Schenn and Vesa Toskala would be my untouchables right now. Sure, both have had off-nights where bounces have gone against them again and again, but even Gretzky had an off-night or two. Everyone else should keep their bags packed right now because it could be anyone, anytime, anywhere.

Burke really needs to take a look at trying to acquire Jay Bouwmeester from Florida. It has become apparent that Bouwmeester has no intention of staying to make sand castles in Miami, so offer up something for him. Ponikarovsky, Kubina, and a third-round pick would do nicely for Florida, but is it enough to pry Bouwmeester away from the Panthers?

Honestly, aside from those two, the only other player I'd have any interest in if I was one of 29 other GMs in the league would be Nik Antropov. And if you're Brian Burke, that means you have a lot of work to do this summer. Perhaps it's time to invest every last cent into scouting. The draft could hold the key to a faster recovery from this rebuilding period.

I'm not saying that there's a problem with how the Ottawa Senators are being coached because it appears that coaching is not the problem. Jacques Martin couldn't keep this train on the tracks. Bryan Murray struggled to keep the rails on the right track. The entire unit derailed under John Paddock. And now Craig Hartsburg is struggling with the controls. In viewing the good men who have coached this team and been dismissed, perhaps the problem isn't the conductor, but the train itself?

This team has three capable engines in Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley, and Alex Auld. Outside of those three, there is a dressing room full of guys playing below their potential (Spezza, Vermette), guys who are career underachievers (Fisher, Phillips), and guys who will never be more than bulletin board fodder (Ruutu, Neil).

I think my concern has to be with the guy who put this team together. After Bryan Murray received a lot of credit for building Brian Burke's Stanley Cup-winning Anaheim Ducks team, he has single-handedly dismantled the team that lost to those Anaheim Ducks in the Stanley Cup Final. Gone are Radek Bonk, Zdeno Chara, Wade Redden, Andrej Meszaros, Ray Emery, Mike Commodore, Cory Stillman, Martin Lapointe, Joe Corvo, and Patrick Eaves under the Murray regime. And the team, whose pinnacle was an appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals thus far, has gone from being perennial powerhouse to potential lottery-pick team.

If I was Eugene Melnyk, I'd take a look at the names of the coaches who have been dismissed. There are the names of very capable and accomplished coaches in various levels of hockey, and yet none of them could put the Senators back on track. If it's a problem with the way the train is built, the only person to blame is the person who built it. That's who I would relieve of all hockey-related duties first. And his name is on that list of coaches as well.

If I had a vote, which I don't, to submit for Rookie of the Year, I'd be voting for Steve Mason of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Kris Versteeg of the Chicago Blackhawks is having a tremendous season in the Windy City, and he deserves some recognition. Blake Wheeler of the Boston Bruins has also produced some highlight reel goals. But the guy who has flat-out been the best first year player every night has been goaltender Steve Mason.

Mason posted his sixth shutout of the season tonight with a 45-save performance against the high-octane offence of the Washington Capitals, snapping the Capitals' seven-game winning streak with an exclamation point. It was actually Mason's second shutout of the season over the Capitals as the Blue Jackets won on November 29 by a similar 3-0 score.

Mason leads the NHL with a 1.74 GAA, a .939 save percentage, and six shutouts. His numbers aren't just impressive playing for a weak Blue Jackets team riddled with injuries, but the fact that he's doing this at 20 years-old means we could see a lot of Mason when it comes to the NHL Awards Night in future years.

Oh, and in case you think his six shutouts came against pushover teams, think again. He's shutout Atlanta, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Anaheim, and Washington twice. The 2008 World Junior Championship tournament MVP appears to have a very long future ahead of him in the NHL.

Sometimes, there are downright ridiculous minor-league promotions, but occasionally a team will go for broke and do the promotion right. ECHL teams are notorious for both instances, from the absurd to the absolute genius. The ECHL's Las Vegas Wranglers have decided to mark January 30, 2009 as a dress-up day on their calendars as they celebrate "Rod Blagojevich Prison Uniform Night".

The Wranglers take to the ice wearing jerseys with broad, horizontal black and white stripes. The front of the jerseys will have small nameplates that read "ILLGOV - ##" where the ## is the number of the Wranglers' player. The rear will feature the normal nameplate and large number.

Their opponents that night, the Bakersfield Condors, will suit up in bright orange jerseys designed to look like Department of Corrections coveralls. The officials will take to the ice in special officials' jerseys that are designed to look like police officer uniforms.

The Wranglers are even pushing for their off-ice officials to get into the act. "We envision goal judges in powdered wigs and black robes and bars on the penalty boxes," said Billy Johnson, the Wranglers' president and COO in a statement.

The good news? All of the jerseys will be auctioned off after the game to raise funds for the various charities that the Wranglers support. The bad news? I really want one of these promotional jerseys. I think this is a fun idea by the Wranglers' front office staff, and should be good for a few laughs. Well done, Wranglers!

I apologize for posting this late, but a few things were pressing and I needed to tend to them. I also went for a lovely dinner this evening, and a had a ton of laughs with a friend. She even put up with me talking hockey for a few minutes as we shared in a pile of laughs and smiles. Thanks for the good time over dinner tonight, Jenn!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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