Mario Lemieux’s message to the NHL both right and wrong all at once

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When the NHL handed down their punishment for what went down on Friday night at Nassau Coliseum between the Penguins and Islanders, I opined here that while the punishments were severe for the Islanders and for Eric Godard of the Penguins, the NHL seemingly had their hands tied by trying to figure out how to best punish players for the Isles that they weren’t going to miss in the first place.

When Penguins legend and owner Mario Lemieux issued his tersely worded takedown of the NHL for what he felt was the league’s failing to do the right thing and punish the Islanders harder for failing to set an example for how to best protect the other players in the league, the reaction to Lemieux’s words across the hockey landscape was wide ranging.

Nick Cotosonika of Yahoo! Sports said that Lemieux’s words smacked of hypocrisy. Greg Wyshynski of Puck Daddy said that Lemieux’s point is true and that his take on what’s ruining the game has never wavered over his career as a player and now as an executive. Tim Panaccio of CSN Philly echoed Cotsonika’s thoughts in that what Lemieux says rings hollow because he employs noted dirty player Matt Cooke.

If you missed out, Lemieux had this to say about the NHL’s handling of the situation:

“Hockey is a tough, physical game, and it always should be,” Lemieux said in a statement. “But what happened Friday night on Long Island wasn’t hockey. It was a travesty. It was painful to watch the game I love turn into a sideshow like that.

“The NHL had a chance to send a clear and strong message that those kinds of actions are unacceptable and embarrassing to the sport. It failed.

“We, as a league, must do a better job of protecting the integrity of the game and the safety of our players.  We must make it clear that those kinds of actions will not be tolerated and will be met with meaningful disciplinary action.

“If the events relating to Friday night reflect the state of the league, I need to re-think whether I want to be a part of it.”

Lemieux’s takedown has full and complete merit when it pertains to the situation at hand.

The Islanders were dead wrong with how they decided to go about seeking retribution for what they felt was a dirty hit on Blake Comeau by Maxime Talbot. It’s very difficult to ignore the elephant in the room, however, when it pertains to the guys that he employs in the Penguins locker room. Like it or not, Lemieux’s silence when it pertains to Matt Cooke is a similar problem.

If Lemieux’s takedown of the league also includes the punishments given out to Cooke for his malicious actions in the past then all is well and Mario’s words stand out as strong as ever coming from an icon of the game.

Instead, we’re left to assume that Lemieux is looking past the problem child in the Pens locker room and that when Cooke goes out of his way to deliver a knee-on-knee hit to Alexander Ovechkin, charges Fedor Tyutin from behind, or makes it a point to nearly take Marc Savard’s head off that Lemieux is all right with that because Cooke is a good player on his own team.

If Lemieux would open himself up to questions to get to the bottom of his statement to make it abundantly clear who he’s addressing then we’d know just how big of an advocate for player safety he really is. Instead, Lemieux comes off as an angry owner advocating from the bully pulpit that problems only exist when his team is victimized. If that’s what it is in this situation, that’s selfish.

We can take what Super Mario has said and apply it justly, however. Loading up your lineup with thugs to engage in a virtual riot on the ice is no way to go about solving problems and GM Garth Snow doing that on purpose is horrible. If the Islanders are that bothered by what happened, crushing the Penguins on the scoreboard should’ve been message enough for their liking. Seeking redemption through blood and violent disgusting acts taking out players at will is 1,000 kinds of wrong and Snow essentially condoning Gillies’ actions against Eric Tangradi is proof enough as to why the organization was fined $100,000.

Don’t get lost in the discussion here. The Isles are wrong. Wrong in every way possible for what they did. Lemieux coming out from behind the desk to issue his statement made it clear that he’s not happy with how the league is conducting business and that’s good. Given how the league has handled their way of punishing players that have run afoul of the law Colin Campbell and the rest of the front office need a wake up call like that.

We just hope that if/when a Penguins player is put under the microscope that Lemieux will accept the punishment delivered by the NHL and say that while it pains the team it’s best for the league. Otherwise his proud stand ends up just being selfish grandstanding in order to catch a break. That’s not the Mario Lemieux we want to believe in as fans of him and the sport, we’d rather he be Super Mario and do something to affect change for the good of the game.

Blackhawks fire assistant coach Mike Kitchen

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Stan Bowman promised there’d be changes, and today those changes began.

The Chicago Blackhawks have fired longtime assistant coach Mike Kitchen. A member of Joel Quenneville’s staff since 2010, Kitchen spent seven seasons in Chicago, winning two championships along the way.

“We believe this decision is best for our organization moving forward,” said Bowman, the general manager. “Mike had an impact on two different Stanley Cup championship teams during his tenure in Chicago. We appreciate his many contributions and wish he and his family success in the future.”

Kitchen was in charge of the Blackhawks’ penalty kill, which finished 24th after a terrible start to the regular season.

Though the ‘Hawks only surrendered one power-play goal in four losses to the Predators, Quenneville’s staff was bound to change in the wake of such a disappointing postseason performance.

Quenneville’s other assistant, Kevin Dineen, is still on the staff.

Two days after elimination, Montreal’s focus turns to Price extension

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On Saturday, Carey Price‘s season came to an abrupt end with a Game 6 loss to the Rangers.

On Monday, Price’s offseason got underway.

During his end-of-year media availability, Montreal’s prized netminder was faced with questions about his contract status, foreshadowing what Price will likely be dealing with until pen is put to paper.

Here’s an excerpt of part of the exchange, from Hockey 360:

Q: What are your expectations about your contract situation?

Price: I don’t have any worries about it. I’m sure it’ll all take care of itself.

Q: Would you be open to talk about an extension for July 1?

Price: Yeah, of course. I love playing here. I’m sure we’ll figure something out.

Price, who turns 30 this August, is heading into the last of a six-year, $39 million deal with a $6.5M average annual cap hit. As mentioned, he’s eligible to sign an extension on the first of July, and there’s already been speculation as to what that deal would look like.

Armed with leverage at negotiating table — the 2015 Hart Trophy, nominated for the Vezina in two of the last three years — it’s feasible Price could command similar money to Henrik Lundqvist, currently the NHL’s highest-paid netminder (a seven-year, $59.5 million deal with an $8.5M cap hit).

But there are factors to consider.

The first, of course, is that Habs GM Marc Bergevin has other significant spending to do this summer. Alex Radulov, who finished second on the team in scoring during the regular season and led the Habs in the playoffs, is an unrestricted free agent. Per reports, he’s looking to cash in.

Alex Galchenyuk, the former 30-goal scorer and at one point the club’s No. 1 center of the future, is a pending RFA. That negotiation alone will be fascinating.

Price was asked about his negotiations, and how they might reflect the club’s need to be cost-effective in order to remain competitive. He dodged it artfully — “that’s a tough question to be asking me right now,” he said — but later acknowledged he understood the business side of things, and that the club is currently in its Stanley Cup window.

“I want to stay here,” he explained. “[I want to] figure out a way to make all the pieces fit, and bring a championship here.”

Five impressive stats from the first round

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.976Pekka Rinne‘s save percentage in four games against Chicago, all of them victories, two of them shutouts. Rinne only allowed three goals on 126 shots by the Blackhawks, who had all sorts of trouble generating quality scoring chances against the tight-checking Predators. Though Rinne may not have had the toughest saves to make, he kept the mistakes to a minimum, and he was a big reason for the sweep.

11 — Points for Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin, who had two goals and nine assists in five games against Columbus. Malkin is now just seven points shy of the 18 he registered in last year’s playoffs, and that took 23 games. His career high in the postseason is 36 points, which earned him the 2009 Conn Smythe Trophy.

29.4% — Washington’s power play in six games against the Maple Leafs. That’s not the highest success rate in these playoffs — Calgary’s was 37.5 percent, Pittsburgh’s 33.3 percent — but in a series that saw five games go to overtime, the Caps could’ve easily been eliminated if they hadn’t converted five times with the man advantage. Alex Ovechkin scored twice on the PP, while T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams, and John Carlson got the other three.

9 — Different goal-scorers for the Edmonton Oilers, who showed they can be more than just Connor McDavid in defeating the Sharks in six. True, McDavid led the Oilers with four points (2G, 2A). But it was bottom-six winger Zack Kassian who played the hero early on, with back-to-back winning goals in Games 2 and 3. Then David Desharnais notched the winner in Game 5, followed by Anton Slepyshev in Game 6.

5 — Points for Ducks rookie defenseman Shea Theodore (2G, 3A) in four games against the Flames. Only Erik Karlsson has more points (6) among d-men in these playoffs, and Karlsson played six games against the Bruins. Theodore downplayed his postseason production, telling reporters, “You get good bounces every once in a while.” But the 21-year-old put up piles of points in junior, and he did the same in the AHL. So really, we shouldn’t be all that surprised that he’s doing it in the NHL now.

Wild owner confirms Fletcher safe as GM

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After a disappointing first-round playoff exit, Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold has given GM Chuck Fletcher a vote of confidence.

Per the Star-Tribune, Leipold confirmed on Sunday that Fletcher’s job was safe, potentially to quiet speculation about the longtime GM’s job security in the wake of a disappointing finish.

But Leipold’s vote of confidence also provides an interesting backdrop for when Fletcher meets with the media this week.

There’s no denying that, after a 49-win and 106-point campaign, crashing out in five games to St. Louis — and to former head coach Mike Yeo — is unacceptable. But how Fletcher positions this will be telling. There’s a chance he could pin the Wild’s lack of success on the tremendous goaltending of Jake Allen, much like head coach Bruce Boudreau did. He could also argue Minnesota was, by nearly every metric, the better of the two teams over the course of the series, and chalk up the loss to a lack of puck luck.

But that won’t be easy.

This marks Minnesota’s second consecutive first-round exit, having been bounced in six games by Dallas last year. And it comes after Fletcher went big at the trade deadline, acquiring Martin Hanzal and Ryan White from Arizona in exchange for a bevy of draft picks.

“We’re just putting our chips in the middle of the table for this year,” Fletcher said at the time, per NHL.com. “We like our group and we think our players deserve the best chance possible to compete [and want to] see what we can do. Again, nothing’s promised and we know it will be tough, but I think our thought is we may as well take a swing and see how far we can go.”

More: Fletcher went all-in at the deadline, and now… this

At this stage, the GM has some serious questions to ask of his team. How much longer can things revolve around the aging core of captain Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter? All have been quality players during their time with the Wild, but two facts cannot be ignored: 1) Koivu just turned 34, while Parise and Suter turn 33 later this year, and 2) the trio has never made it past the second playoff round.

Interestingly, Leipold has suggested the current group might not be championship caliber. “I don’t know, they could surprise me,” he said in January. “But I don’t think we’ve got that type of team. We haven’t built it yet.”

And to be fair, the Wild do have building blocks in place for the future.

Four of Fletcher’s draftees starred on the international stage at the 2017 World Juniors — Kirill Kaprizov, Joel Eriksson-Ek, Jordan Greenway and Luke Kunin — and it has to be exciting that a pair of young skaters, Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter, took significant leaps forward this season.

Granlund, 25, led the team in scoring with 69 points and emerged as one of the club’s most important players. Niederreiter, 24, posted career highs in points (57) and goals (25), suggesting he’s also ready to embrace a bigger role with more responsibility.

And to that end, Fletcher has huge decisions to make on both players, who are pending RFAs. The Wild don’t have a ton of financial flexibility, and it’s fair to suggest Granlund (who made $3M last season) and Niederreiter ($2.66M) will both need significant raises.

There’s a lot of work for Fletcher to do this summer.

But at least he’ll get a chance to do it.