Monday, March 27, 2006

Welch Enjoys Early Success

Noah Welch knew that the time would come when he would get his chance, he would be called up to the Pittsburgh Penguins. He probably just didn't think that it was going to come this year. Many of his Wilkes Barre-Scranton teammates were recalled as the season moved on. Players such as Michel Ouellet, Tomas Surovy, Ryan Whitney, Marc Andre Fleury and Colby Armstrong. Most of them have enjoyed a fair amount of success in the NHL too. All the while Noah toiled on the Wilkes-Barre Scranton blue line and became one of the best AHL defensemen, he represented the team in the AHL all star game and was having a great season.

Well, his time has finally come and he has been one of the parent Penguin's best players since his recall. He has played in 2 games and has not looked out of place in the least. Welch has picked up 1 g, 2 a and has been one of the leading hitters. Welch has played along side Sergei Gonchar and has been a steady stay home type when needed, but has shown his offensive ability. Welch is being used in all situations and is succeeding. He seems to have the confidence of coach Michel Therrien and is shining.

Welch looks like he will be in Pittsburgh for the long haul. He could be the anchor of a very good core of young d-men in Pittsburgh that includes: Ryan Whitney, and Brooks Orpik. There are also a few other bright stars on the horizon such as Kris Letang and Ryan Lannon. The team could be very dangerous in scoring many goals with it's young guns up front, but the defense looks to be solid as it matures in front of Marc Andre Fleury.

Has Sidney Crosby Found His Current and Future Linemate?
Sidney Crosby has been playing with Colby Armstrong pretty consistently since Armstrong was recalled from Wilkes Barre-Scranton. Many have thought that it was for lack of a more talented winger. Well, that just isn't the case. Colby is making believers out of many in Pittsburgh. He and Sidney have definitely developed a chemistry and they seem to know where the other is going to be. Colby has posted 12g, 15a for 27 points in his 36 games. More amazing is that he is a +8 on a team that has given up an awful lot of goals this season. Colby is making a home on Sidney Crosby's wing and just may stay there for years to come.

Gonchar Improving
Sergei Gonchar has very quietly climbed into a tie for 14th among all NHL defensemen in scoring. He has posted 45 points (8g 37a) in 66 games this season. He has also notched 18 points in his past 18 games. (2g 16a) He just may start to show Pittsburgh that he was worth that very lucrative free agent contract he signed. Plus he will be invaluable in helping Evgeni Malkin adjust to North America.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Welch Makes Pittsburgh Debut

The Pittsburgh Penguins have recalled their top defensive prospect, Noah Welch. Welch, 6'4" 215 lbs, was the Penguins second round pick, 54th overall in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft. Welch is highly regarded within the organization and was the leading defensive scorer on the Wilkes Barre-Scranton Penguins with 8 G 18A. Welch played in the AHL all star game this season.

The move became necessary when Eric Cairns was suspended for spearing Zdeno Chara on Tuesday night and the demotion of defenseman Alain Nasreddine to the Wilkes Barre-Scranton Penguins.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Who Is That Masked Man???

When the Pittsburgh Penguins drafted Marc Andre Fleury !st overall in the 2003 NHL entry draft, they knew that they were getting a very special player.

Throughout Marc Andre's first two seasons as a pro he did nothing to prove them wrong. Unfortunately he was playing behind a very poor defense in his first season and faced hundreds of shots. His confidence took a little hit, and he started to let up a soft goal or two. He doesn't seem to have any real flaws in his game. If anything he was a little aggressive early on in his career, but has really calmed down. Marc Andre Fleury posted solid numbers in the QMJHL and AHL and was the best goalie in training camp for the Pittsburgh Penguins coming into the 2005-2006 season. Unfortunately he was sent back to the AHL in the last round of cuts before the season. Instead of pouting about the fact that he was probably better than the guys who were kept in the NHL, he went to the AHL and proceeded to rise to the top as the best goalie in the league. He actually won goalie of the month honors and was a major part of the Wilkes Barre-Scranton Penguins great run to start the season.

Marc Andre shuttled back and forth between Pittsburgh and Wilkes Barre-Scranton several times before finally securing a spot on the Pittsburgh roster. He had several ups and downs, but he could always be counted on to make several huge saves each game. Unfortunately the wins were not coming.

Well, that is starting to change. Since the Olympic break ended, Marc Andre has been a different player. He looks more confident on the ice and has been stealing points for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Even on nights that he isn't able to secure points for the team, he is very tough to beat. His play has been even more impressive over that past 2 weeks. He has allowed only 10 goals in his last 5 games, one of which was a shut out. He has also compiled a .935 sv% and a 2.00 gaa during this stretch.

Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will obviously play a huge role in the future of the Pittsburgh Penguins, but they may not be near as important as Marc Andre Fleury. Those young men will chip in with plenty of points, but no matter how much they are able to score, it won't matter if the team cannot prevent goals. Marc Andre will be the man between the pipes for years to come and may be just the right ingredient necessary to help secure a third Stanley Cup for the city of Pittsburgh.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Penguins Impressive in Weekend Sweep

The Penguins played what could arguably be their two best games of the season over the weekend. They won consecutive games for only the 4th time this season, but did so in very convincing fashion, against two very tough opponents.

The Flightless Bird came out flying on Saturday night against the New Jersey Devils and jumped to a quick 1-0 lead 42 seconds into the game on a goal by Sidney Crosby. Sidney was flying and his line controlled the play all night. Sid the Kid seems to be much more relaxed on the ice since the trade deadline. I am not going to speculate about the collective relief that seems to be felt around Mellon Arena these days, but everyone seems a little more at ease since number 8 made an exit. I will leave it at that, but local media seems to have noticed the same thing. Sid had taken a leadership role early in the season, but he now seems to have claimed the Penguins as his own. It was obvious as he directed traffic on the power play, and lead by example by busting his tail throughout both weekend games. The Pens continued to pressure the Devils and went on to win the game 6-3, chasing Marty Brodeur in the process. That in itself is a success.

Sidney finished the night with 2G and 1A. The Penguins also got immediate results out of Andy Hilbert, claimed on waivers from the Chicago Blackhawks Thursday, who cashed in with 1G and 1A. Marc Andre Fleury shined in stopping 38 shots!

Sunday the boys took the ice against the hated Philly Flyers. The game was tightly contested, but the Penguins got a goal from Colby Armstrong, who has been on fire, to make it 1-0. Marc Andre Fleury finally got a couple breaks as the goal posts help him out on 4 different occasions. Colby went on to score another goal and the Pens had a late 2-0 lead. That is when Andre Roy (understatement alert) lost his cool and pummeled Denis Gauthier, who he felt had elbowed him. Gauthier turtled and the Pens found themselves short handed for 7 minutes! This could have been the turning point in the game. Well, it was......for the Penguins that is. They held Philly to 1 shot during the entire power play! This was one of the most unbelievable things I have ever been a witness too! MA Fleury went on to post his first shut out of the season and Sidney Crosby picked up assists on both Armstrong goals.

Hopefully this past weekend is a sign of things to come. The team played great hockey. Their team defense was solid, they got great goaltending, and everyone contributed to the cause. They will face a New Jersey team Thursday night who is looking for revenge.

Rookie Watch
Sidney Crosby, who has 13 pts (5G 8A) in his last 10 games, trails league leader Alexander Ovechkin by 8 pts. Sidney has been picking up points at a torrid pace lately and is in striking distance of AO. Ovechkin is approaching a tough point in the Washington schedule which could help Sidney catch him. Time will tell, but I am not counting #87 out of this race just yet. Let the experts award the Calder right now, there are still 19 games. May the best man win!

Will Patrick be GM Next Season??
No one knows if General Manager Craig Patrick will be back next season, and no is talking about it either. CEO Ken Sawyer had no comment this week when asked about the status of Craig Patrick. He stated that it was a private matter and it would not be handled in the media. I have the sneaking feeling that this is Patrick's last go round. He seems to have grown stale in Pittsburgh and both he and the organization could use a change.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Scouting the New Pens and Some Thoughts

Well, the deadline has come and gone and the Penguins have probably set themselves up to finish last overall again! The trades that were made yesterday were underwhelming at best. Things did sort of shake out as I speculated here over the last week. Several players were acquired to step in to try and fill the scoring void in Wilkes Barre-Scranton. Namely, Kris Kolanos and Petr Taticek.

Kolanos was drafted by the Phoenix Coyotes 19th overall in the 2000 entry draft. He is 6'3", 206 pounds. He has great hands and big time scoring potential. He does need to work on his defensive game and has some concussion problems. He hasn't really been given a good chance since his rookie season in '01-'02 when he posted 11g 11a in 57 games.

Taticek was drafted 9th overall in the 2002 entry draft. He is 6'3", 195 pounds. This young man has very strong playmaking ability and is strong in all three zones of the ice. He is developing into an above average offensive center. He does need to add some bulk to his frame to compete on a regular basis in the NHL. He could be the gem of this trade deadline if he continues to develop.

The team also acquired two bodies for the NHL roster: Andy Hilbert and Niklas Nordgren. They aren't the type of names that were being thrown around prior to deadline day, but they do bring some intriguing potential to the table.

Hilbert was drafted by the Boston Bruins in the 2nd round, 37th overall of the 2000 entry draft. He is 5'11", 194 pounds. He is a gritty player feels comfortable on the wing or the center position. He has also had some experience on the point during the power play. He may need to bulk up a bit, but the new NHL may serve him well. Should be able to post solid numbers if given a chance too.

Nordgren is playing his first season in the NHL, he was drafted in the 8th round, 195th overall in the 1997 entry draft. He has good speed and skill. He was having trouble cracking Carolina's roster this season, but was putting up solid numbers in the Swedish Elite league prior to this season. He will probably log some top 6 forward ice time on a Pittsburgh team that going to be looking for scoring, maybe even with Sidney Crosby.

The team also was able to acquire two additional draft picks for the 2007 entry draft, one that is thought to have a deep draft class.

The Mark Recchi trade definitely looks like one that will allow him to become a free agent next season and to possibly return to the Penguins. Carolina will most likely pass on picking up the $2,228,000 million team option and Recchi will probably command more in the open market than his player option will pay him. I strongly suspect that there could have been a gentleman's agreement made saying just that between Jim Rutheford, Craig Patrick and the Wreck'in Ball. The Hurricanes had to give up some pieces, but nothing that seemed to be a big part of their future. They essentially got Mark Recchi for a second round pick, and if he is just a rental and they win the cup, it will have been well worth it. Every one is happy, Recci gets another cup, the 'Canes win a cup, the Pens get a 2nd rounder, 2 younger assets and maybe even their old player back in the end.

Pittsburgh Deputy City Controller Tony Pokora has urged the PA Gaming Board to award the Stand Alone Slots license to a group that is promising funds to build a new arena. He stated that arena activities provide $3.5 million in amusement and parking tax to the city. Not to mention the money brought in on patrons eating and drinking in city restaurants and bars. He claims that he isn't offering support to one plan over another, but in reading between the lines you discover that only one group is pledging to build an arena, the Pittsburgh Penguins/Isle of Capri. Every little bit of local political pressure helps!

The Penguins have again made it known that they will begin to entertain offers by potential host cities this summer. They are not going to stand by and wait, only to find out that they are not getting the Gaming License. They want to have the ball rolling if it turns out that they have to move. Team President Ken Sawyer told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette yesterday in regard to entertaining offers this summer: "We'll see where we are at that point. I think it's fair to say that I owe it to our investors to protect their investment and to consider all options."

General Manager Craig Patrick has said that the team intends to go with a bare bones roster the rest of the way. Meaning they are going forward with 12 forwards, 6 defensemen and 2 goalies. They are planning on putting Marc Andre Fleury and Ryan Whitney on the Wilkes Barre-Scranton clear day roster, making them eligible for the Calder Cup Playoffs. It isn't known if any other players currently in Pittsburgh will be added to the roster. Potential candidates could be: Colby Armstrong, Tomas Surovy, Michel Ouellet and Konstantin Koltsov. All of these players would have to clear waivers and the Penguins have stated that they do not want to lose any of them that way. The only other option would be sending them on conditioning assignments for the length of the playoffs. It would be nice to see some of these young Penguins taste some success.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Ric Jackman Goes to Florida

The Penguins made a final move late in the day sending defenseman Ric Jackman to the Florida Panthers for Czech center Petr Taticek. Taticek was the 9th player taken in the 2002 entry draft. He has 9 goals 21 assists for Houston in the American Hockey League.

Cross to Detroit

Cory Cross, who really hasn't played much since being acquired from Edm, has been shipped to the Detroit Redwings for a 4th pick.

No other moves seem to have been made. So the Pens exit deadline day 05-06 pretty quietly. John LeClair is still a Penguins, as well as Ryan Malone. Just as is typically the way, the rumor mongers were all but wrong. Recchi was obvious trade bait.....I think that this deal all but says Recchi tries to come back next year. Time will tell.

Recchi to the Canes.....

TSN in Canada is reporting that Mark Recchi has waived his no trade clause and is on his way to the Carolina Hurricanes. No specific word on what is coming back. It is rumored to be future considerations and a pick. Craig Patrick apparently strikes again....Recchi was supposed to be in such high demand and he gets a draft pick from a team who is a cup favorite.....More to follow.

Recchi has been traded to the Carolina Hurricanes for Niklas Nordgren, Krystofer Kolanos and a second-round pick in 2007. Both players have shuttled back and forth from the minors throughout the season.

Pens Claim Forward Andy Hibert From Chicago

The Pittsburgh Penguins have yet to make any trade leading to today's 3:00pm deadline, but they make a personnel move. They have claimed forward Andy Hilbert off of waivers from the Chicago Blackhawks. Hilbert, a 2000 2nd round draft choice, has 5 goals and 4 assists in 28 games this season.

He has posted a total of 8 goals and 7 assists in 66 NHL games.

More as it happens!

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Pens Come Up Short Again

The Penguins have made quite a habit of falling behind early and making a game of it late. Hmmm, sounds an awful lot like the team that they were putting on the ice in October and November. What would this season have been had they played with their 3rd period energy throughout the entire game. We will never know the answer to that, but I have to admit the games have been entertaining! Last night was no different. The Penguins found themselves down 4-1 going into the 3rd period against the defending champs. Tampa Bay had taken control and were looking to finish off another win. Well, that didn't come easily! The Penguins fought back with 3 goals, 2 from Defensemen! Josef Melichar and Ryan Whitney each picked up their 2nd of the season and Sidney Crosby tried to get his post Olympic monkey of the back by posting a 1 g and 1 a. The Flightless Bird had gotten themselves to overtime and looked to take control of the game. They probably could have won too, if anyone on the team could get a shot on net. They had numerous chances to end the game, but several broken sticks and a couple of fanned shots ended all that, and it was off to the shoot out. The Penguins have not fared so well in that regard this season, and were beaten 2-0 for a 5-4 loss.

This has been the formula in their past 3 games, all against very good opponents. They were down against the Ottawa Sens to restart the season, fought back to lose 4-3. Were getting blown out by the Carolina Hurricanes and wouldn't go away, losing 7-5, and finally the events of last night. They really didn't look out of place in any of these games, just were not getting the goaltending needed to win, but their offense has definitely come on. They are getting burned with some defensive breakdowns. I do not think conditioning is the problem that it was early in the season. Even Johnny LeClair has been flying around out there. They just need to refocus, and to occasionally get the big save.

Marc Andre Fleury has all the tools and there is no doubt that he will be one of the best, some day! The kid makes unbelievable saves on a nightly basis, but it seems that he lets in one of those "Mr smoothy soft serve" goals each game. That is something that he will need to take control of. Sebastian Caron has not been any better, it is looking more and more like his play will take him out of the organization or back to the AHL. The goaltending has got to be better. Now that the team is scoring some goals, the defense has got to limit the scoring chances. There are not many times that you are going to score 4 to 5 goals a game and lose, and that is precisely what the Pens have made a habit of doing.

The Flames have apparently denied that they are or were shopping Jordan Leopold. I guess we will see what pans out! Pittsburgh's Mark Madden is still hyping Recchi and Malone to either the Flyers or the Flames. I am very anxious for Thursday. I always get so excited for the trade deadline, even the years that we get nothing aside from Sean Pronger....It is always exciting!

The Penguins have recently changed their opening montage, the jumbotron piece that plays as they hit the ice. It previously was a "super hero in Gotham" video set to Vertigo from U2 along with game highlights. The new is very entertaining. It shows highlights of each player with a James Bond theme and music, ie. Agent 043 for Surovy, 087 for Sid etc. One of the best is Marc Andre Fleury, "the man with the golden pads." It isn't available on yet, but if they put it up, I suggest you watch it. It is very entertaining.....

Well, by this time tomorrow we will know who is ending up where. If anything happens this evening I will post it for you!

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Trade Bait...Player Moves

We are days away from the most exciting time of the hockey season, the trade deadline. I look forward to it on a yearly basis, checking the web incessantly throughout the day until the 3:00pm deadline. Who will end up where, is your team buying or selling, maybe they are looking for some pieces for next year. Either way it is an exciting time of year. In Pittsburgh, we just saw the 15th anniversary of one of the most exciting trades in team history, a trade the clinched a Stanley Cup for the Penguins. On March 4, 1991, General Manager Craig Patrick sent fan favorite John Cullen, along with Zarley Zalapski, and Jeff Parker to the Hartford Whalers for Ron Francis, Ulf Samuelsson, and Grant Jennings. The trade will go down as one of, if not the best trade in franchise history. It isn't every deadline that you can acquire one of the best all around players of all time as he is entering his prime. Unfortunately for Patrick, he hasn't been able to come close to a move of that stature since.

The past few years have seen the Penguins largely as sellers come the deadline. We have watched the likes of Martin Straka, Alexi Kovalev, Jaromir Jagr, and Darius Kasparaitis move in exchange for the ever popular "picks and prospects." Each time GM Patrick has tried to lure us into believing that some opposing GM who had just acquired a Pens superstar has been fleeced. He actually said that his scouting department was jumping up and down after they moved Jagr to Washington for Kris Beech, Ross Lupaschuk and Michel Sivek. Beech is the only left in North America and he is in the Nashville system. Ultimately the past 5 to 6 trade deadlines here in Pittsburgh have been a bust. Which brings us to this year...

Patrick will hit the deadline with a couple of assets this year. He can actually look to pick up a couple pieces for the future, since it will not be a straight salary dump situation. Mark Recchi has been the teams best player as of late, posting 7 goals and 6 assists in his last 10 games. John LeClair has also looked more like his old self over the past 10 games, posting 4 goals and 5 assists. Teams such as the Flyers, Montreal, Ottawa and Boston may be interested.

There are a couple rumors floating around Pittsburgh talk radio. One has the Penguins swinging a deal with the Calgary Flames to acquire Jordan Leopold. The thinking in that situation is that the Flames have a little depth on the blue line with the emergence of Dion Phaneuf. The Penguins could really use a steady d-man like Leopold. The other has the Pens trying to get Pittsburgh's own RJ Umberger. Both trades would see Mark Recchi and Ryan Malone going the other way. Not sure I could actually see either going down, but it is always fun to speculate!

The roster probably will not be radically different come Thursday at 3:01pm, but I do think that Mark Recchi, John LeClair, Eric Cairns, Cory Cross and maybe Rick Jackman could be moved. At that point some decisions will be made on who to reassign to the WBS Penguins for their Calder Cup run. The team has already said that they will not risk losing any player, so that means no one who must clear waivers will be reassigned. Eric Christensen has already been sent back to WBS and probably will remain there for the duration, barring any injuries to the parent team.

Are Recchi and the Pens in Cahoots?
Are the Penguins planning to move Mark Recchi to get something for the future and then re-sign him in the off season as a free agent? I think it is a definite possibility. Recchi's deal has a two way option: a team option that would pay him $2,228,000 for the 06-07 season, and a player option that would pay$760,000. I cannot see either being activated. Recchi could command much more than $760,000 on the open market and there aren't many teams that would want to pay a 38 year old $2,228,000. If neither option is activated, Recchi would become a free agent, thus clearing the way to come back to the Penguins. A conspiracy theory, yes, but definitely a possibility.

Malkin Madness is Running Wild!
The Penguins have begun to tout the arrival of their next big thing with teasers in game on the jumbotron. Showing clips of the youngster's greatness during the Olympics. I personally cannot wait for this young man to make it to Pittsburgh. There is supposedly an agreement with his Super League team that would allow him to come to the NHL next season, but it will probably cost the Penguins a chunk of change with no transfer agreement. Malkin looks to be the total package. He has great vision on the ice, nice hands, can score as well as set up his wingers, and play defense as well as anyone on the ice. Some of what he did in the Olympics reminded me of a young Mario Lemieux. I am not saying that he will be as good, but he definitely has that monster reach and deceptive speed. He also seems to have perfect the point pass pick off move that could send him on many a short handed breakaway. In the Bronze medal game against the Czechs, Malkin created several chances for himself with just this move. He didn't seem to be moving all that fast as he skated through the neutral zone, but no one seemed to be able to catch him. Between, Sidney Crosby, Marc Andre Fleury, Ryan Whitney, and Mr. Malkin, the Penguins future is very bright!

Congrats AO - Alexander the Great Nets 40 and 41
Alexander Ovechkin became the first rookie to net 40 plus goals. Though I am not enamored with this young man, you cannot deny what he has accomplished this season. He is a very exciting young player and is definitely going to be a great ambassador for the game. Unfortunately a lot of the greats from the 80's and 90's have moved on, but I think that the game will be in great hands moving into the future. AO, Sid, Dion, and gold medal winner Henni Lundqvist will lead the way!