The sad fall of Angelo Esposito, who was traded to Florida for Kenndal McArdle today

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Every now and then, a hot sporting prospect falls far in a sport’s draft.

Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers weren’t just the last two NFL quarterbacks to win the Super Bowl, they also were players who waited longer than they expected to be drafted. Corey Perry won the 2011 Hart Trophy, but he was only the 28th player chosen in the historically strong 2003 NHL Entry Draft. The Anaheim Ducks might have gotten a steal in the 2010 draft as well when Cam Fowler fell to them at the 12th pick. For at least a few years, many NFL teams were chastised for passing up Randy Moss because of character issues that did indeed crop up during his Hall of Fame-worthy career.

Of course, for every should-be star who gets the cold shoulder from drafting teams after being fawned over by scouts, there are several guys whose nosedives end up being justified. While there’s always time for a sad story to take a happy turn, it’s tough to deny the feeling that NHL teams were right in passing on Angelo Esposito in 2007 until he fell to the Pittsburgh Penguins with the 20th overall pick.

Red flags on draft day

At the time, it was a jaw-dropping fall for a once-hot prospect who received at least some buzz to be the top pick of the ’07 draft. (Even ESPN’s mega-star columnist Bill Simmons swooped in to offer his take on Esposito landing to Pittsburgh, which he framed as a move so beneficial to the Penguins that there might have been a borderline conspiracy going on.) If there was some negativity about the move by Penguins GM Ray Shero, it was that the team was already well-stocked with centers.

Yet when you look at Esposito’s jagged path since then, it’s almost tough to believe that he was drafted just four years ago. After struggling at the lower levels of hockey compared to pre-draft years, the Penguins made him part of a February 2008 trade package that yielded them a rental run with Marian Hossa and solid years (still coming) with Pascal Dupuis. Esposito, Colby Armstrong and Erik Christensen were supposed to produce a nice long-term return for the Atlanta Thrashers franchise in exchange for that short-term pain yet none of those three played for the team in 2010-11.

Jets trade Esposito to Florida for Kenndal McArdle

None of them will make an appearance for the newly christened Winnipeg Jets, either, as Esposito was traded to the Florida Panthers for fellow first round letdown Keendal McArdle (pictured) today. (Want a depressing sign of Esposito’s struggles? The main photo of this Esposito-centric post is of McArdle instead of Espo because McArdle was the only one of the two who actually played at the NHL level.)

Interestingly enough, McArdle was also a 20th overall pick in the NHL draft in 2005. He’s played 33 games at the NHL level – all for the Panthers – and scored three points in the process. Perhaps that makes him fitter for immediate use because Esposito hasn’t played at the pro level yet and really hasn’t been a standout player at the AHL level either (just 13 points in 57 games with the Chicago Wolves in 2010-11). Some might look at this swap as a trade of reclamation projects if they’re able to shake that feeling of what could have been for Esposito.

Could Esposito’s luck change?

The one hope the Panthers organization can hold out for Esposito is that he simply might be due for some good luck. He’s been traded by two different NHL teams and dealt with two different ACL tears in his short career. Maybe a little bit of health and a big change of scenery could do him a little good?

Ultimately it is tough to shake the feeling that Esposito is already a lost cause, but at 22 years old, maybe he just faced some serious bumps in the road.

High-schooler ‘sticks it to cancer’ with surprise comeback

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NBC Sports is celebrating Hockey Day in America with an NHL Sunday tripleheader on NBC and NBCSN, as well as a collection of stories and features which explore hockey’s impact and influence across the U.S.

It was standing room only in the rink, with those in attendance unaware of the surprise that was to be announced in a few moments. Derek Zacchino was lined up on the blue line in full uniform next to his Bethpage High School teammates prepared to take part in the ceremonial puck drop for a benefit game in his honor.

It had been a trying three months for the junior defenseman and his family. A surprise diagnosis after the first practice of the year changed the entire season. Now here he was inside the Town of Oyster Bay Ice Skating Center holding a secret that only few people there knew.

Hours before the benefit game Derek learned that partaking in the pre-game puck drop wouldn’t be his only on-ice duties that evening.

***

September 4 on Long Island was a hot one. Temperatures reached the 90s the day before many schools opened in the area. That Tuesday also marked the first day of practice for the Bethpage Eagles hockey team.

The 2018-19 season was to be one of transition for the Eagles. Despite losing the league’s top goaltender and scorer, and some of their top defensemen to graduation, they were hoping to build off last season’s run where they won their conference, reached the Nassau County final, and participated in the New York State tournament.

Derek left that first practice early feeling ill. He found himself experiencing double vision and ended up vomiting in the dressing room. Having experienced headaches over the summer, he chalked it up to being related to concussions he’d suffered in the past. One week and numerous tests later, he found himself on the way to Cohen Children’s Medical Center after doctors discovered a large mass.

“Sorry I couldn’t come to practice tonight, I had to go to the hospital. Turns out I have fluid on my brain,” was the text Derek wrote to Eagles head coach Jeff Schmier, who initially thought he was feeling dehydrated.

Doctors had found a tumor on Derek’s brain and were able to take most of it after emergency surgery the next day. After some tests, it was discovered the tumor was malignant and he was diagnosed with Glioblastoma, an “aggressive type of cancer that can occur in the brain or spinal cord,” according to the Mayo Clinic.

“[My wife and I] were just numb. I just thought life as I know it was ended,” said Derek’s dad, Don. “If something takes Derek away from me, I don’t see how I can ever be the same, let alone move on.”

But seeing Derek’s attitude after surgery and the diagnosis, especially as his concern focused on when he could play hockey again and not what he’s been through, helped Don and his wife Dawn deal with the situation.

“He never complained,” said Don. “He never showed sadness or [asked] ‘why me?’ That’s what carried us through. People ask me at work all the time, ‘How are you going through with this? You’re amazing.’ I’m not amazing. My son’s amazing. When I grow up, I want to be Derek. He was leading my wife and I in this journey of positivity. He never let us break down, because how could we? It doesn’t seem to be affecting him.”

Following the surgery, a schedule began that featured radiation treatments five times a week and a chemotherapy infusion every Monday. Derek still wanted to attend school, so treatments took place after classes ended for the day. His new challenge also didn’t keep him away from rink. He was still able to attend practices and games just to be around his teammates and help keep a sense of normalcy.

“It wasn’t too hard being away,” said Derek. “It was more tough not being able to play in the games.”

***

As Derek went through his cancer battle, the community rallied around the Zacchinos. Plans were made to turn Bethpage’s Dec. 19 game into a benefit for the hospital, which saw T-shirts featuring the slogan “Stick It To Cancer” sold in large quantities, as well as gift baskets and signed items donated by various NHL teams to be raffled off.

The night that was expected to raise only few hundred dollars ballooned into something bigger.

Once the crowd filed into packed rink, the atmosphere by those in attendance was likened to that of an NHL playoff game. Everyone was there to support Derek, but earlier in the day some surprise news changed the entire feel of the night.

As Derek sat down for his lunch period, Don called with the news that his doctors had cleared him to play that night. Now he had to go the rest of the day without revealing the secret.

When they arrived at the rink later that day, only Derek, his parents, Schmier, and the head coach of the opposing team, Oceanside High School, knew he was playing.

Derek arrived about 90 minutes before the game because he wanted to beat the crowd and say hello to everyone he needed to and then get ready. “I came in and I’ve never seen so many people in such a confined space,” he said. Schmier had arranged to have each team in the league have a representative in attendance, some of whom sent a number of players from their roster.

A former member of the Eagles’ team who now helps out assisted Derek in getting his equipment into the dressing room without anyone noticing. As Schmier did his usual pre-game pep talk, he emphasized to his players the importance of focusing on such a big night, especially as they were facing a 9-0-1 team. He finished by revealing the secret.

“One more thing,” Schmier said to his players. “I have some news that is going to rock your world. Like I say, defense wins it. We have someone that’s going to be joining us playing tonight and I need one of you players not to dress tonight. Talk about it amongst yourselves. Derek’s going to be playing tonight.”

From there the dressing room erupted in cheers, some players even broke down in tears at the news. It was a needed emotional boost for a team that was going through an up-and-down season.

Once the furor died down, Derek started getting ready, but kept getting interrupted by requests from local news stations for interviews. He didn’t really get to settle in until later on, and once he hit the ice he was running on adrenaline.

Still, while he took part in warmups in full uniform and all of his equipment on, no one in the crowd knew he would be playing. It was Dave Schneider, Bethpage superintendent of schools who made the announcement, which resulted in a roar from the crowd.

There was still a game to be played and the Eagles came out gave their best performance of the season, one that was capped by a strong defensive effort in the final moments.

As Bethpage held a 4-3 lead with under a minute to go and after some penalties, Oceanside found themselves with an empty net and a 5-on-3 advantage. 

“There’s no way I’m getting off this ice,” Derek told Schmier when asked if he wanted to stay on for the final shift.

A complete 60-minute effort wouldn’t be without some luck. As Oceanside pressed for the tying goal, their best chance clanked off the goal post with seconds remaining. The ensuing face off was tied up in the corner by Bethpage and time ran out with the Eagles immediately surrounding Derek in celebration.

“I have never been involved in a sporting event like that night. It was so emotional,” said Schmier, who still remains impressed at the level his team played at that night. “I’ve watched games since… I actually told them, I don’t ever want to hear that that team was better. I saw what you could do tonight, you have no more excuses because they were capable of that.”

Northwell Health

The game took place two days before Derek’s 17th birthday and the victory only added to a night that was a complete success. By the end, $21,016 (Derek wears No. 16) had been raised for pediatric cancer research at Cohen Children’s Medical Center.

“I don’t think anything really changed me,” said Derek of his cancer experience. “I learned that there’s a lot more good people out there than you think.”

Derek was unable to finish two other games the rest of the season, as the effects of his radiation treatments were too much for his body. His fight wasn’t over yet as there was a second surgery on Feb. 1. Another MRI in January showed doctors that part of the tumor that was left there originally did not go away and it had grown a little. The good news was that the surgeon was confident he could go in and get it, mainly because there was more room between the tumor and the brain than he originally expected.

Pro-active treatments are now being done to prevent the cancer from returning and eventually he’ll begin an oral chemotherapy treatment. The fatigue he experiences from the radiation treatments is expected to wear off by the end of the month and while they’re not focusing on it yet, he should be fully ready to return to the ice next season.

A week after the second surgery, Derek was a guest of New York Rangers defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk during his annual Kancer Jam fundraiser. The two connected thanks to a teacher at Bethpage High School and met after a game at Madison Square Garden in late December.

Shattenkirk wasn’t the only NHL player to reach out. Fellow Long Island native Charlie McAvoy of the Boston Bruins sent a signed jersey, as did Alex Tuch, who got his Vegas Golden Knights teammates to autograph one for Derek.

***

Through this experience, nothing phased Derek. While his family were concerned about his health, he never complained about what he was going through. His only concern was when he’d be able to play hockey again.

“I don’t even think it’s still hit me,” said Derek, who was named after Boston Bruins great Derek Sanderson even though Don is a die-hard Rangers fan. “When I found out that my last surgery went well, as the doctor said, in remission as of right now. I never really freaked out. So I don’t think it’s even hit me that I was diagnosed with it yet, let alone healed.”

“He was never high and low,” said Don. “He’s Derek. This is Derek.”

That was never more evident as the four of us sat for an interview last week and Schmier casually broke the news to Derek that he would be the team’s captain next season.

“I guessed my senior season year would be our best season,” said Derek. “That’s what I’m hoping.”

The Eagles will only graduate four seniors in June, which means the 2019-20 season will feature an upperclassmen-heavy roster. That will be a team led by a motivated captain who has conquered the ultimate obstacle.

“I didn’t know until this happened, the magnitude of [nothing phasing Derek] and really how impressed I am,” said Don. “Looking back, this is Derek’s personality. The strength and the poise, this is a whole other thing.

“Like I say, when I grow up I want to be him.”

Pre-game studio coverage begins at noon ET on NBC with NHL Live, which will be on-site in Hockeytown at The Rink at Campus Martius Park in downtown Detroit, Mich. Liam McHugh and Kathryn Tappen will anchor pre-game, intermission and post-game coverage throughout the day alongside analysts Mike Milbury, Keith Jones and Jeremy Roenick. In addition, Tappen will provide reports and interviews from the Team USA vs. Canada women’s hockey game at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit on Sunday afternoon.

NBC Hockey Day in America schedule:
N.Y. Rangers at Pittsburgh – NBC – 12:30 p.m. ET (Watch live)
St. Louis at Minnesota – NBC – 3:30 p.m. ET (Watch live)
Philadelphia at Detroit – NBCSN –  6 p.m. ET (Watch live)

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Panthers’ Barkov scores candidate for goal of the year

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Well, this is beyond filthy.

Scoring a goal in the NHL is hard enough. Dropping it between your legs and roofing it while being hacked by a defenseman who’s in close proximity? Impossible, you’d think.

Aleksander Barkov: “Hold my drink…”

Barkov pulled off the impossible on Sunday against the Montreal Canadiens, making Victor Mete look silly and Carey Price, too. Two good players, both left embarrassed.

Make sure you’re sitting for this one:

As the color man said on the Fox Sports broadcast, “There are some things you just cannot analyze.”

Indeed. You can only marvel at this one.

If you missed any of the Hockey Day in America stories, check out NBC Sports here. 


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Hart stands tall as Flyers win again

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Last night, the Philadelphia Flyers made a mess of it but still managed to beat the Detroit Red Wings 6-5 after blowing a four-goal third-period lead at home.

A day later, the Flyers made sure not to make the same mistake twice, defeating the Red Wings in the second half of a back-to-back home-and-home 2-1 on Hockey Day in America on NBCSN.

The Flyers were lucky to escape with those two points on Saturday but regrouped in overtime to take both points with them. On Sunday, the Flyers played a tighter game and found the game-winner from defenseman Ivan Provorov 2:11 into the third period to break a 1-1 tie.

The goal proved to be enough, with Carter Hart making 37 saves for his 11th win in his past 13 starts.

The Flyers have won 12 of their past 14 games (12-1-1) and now sit six points back of the Pittsburgh Penguins (who won earlier on NBC) for the second and final wildcard in the Eastern Conference.

Oskar Lindblom scored two goals in the game, giving him 10 on the season. His first, as you’ll see below, was a tad lucky.

Lindblom followed that up with No. 10 into the empty net late in the third period.

The Red Wings, not in the playoff picture due to a 15-point gap between themselves and the Pens, entered the game with points in six of their past nine games but couldn’t find the late spark that ensured they grabbed one on Saturday.

Jonathan Bernier got the start in goal but left after the first period due to an upper-body injury. Jimmy Howard, who started the night before, came in and made 11 saves in relief, giving up the game-winner to Provorov.

If you missed any of the Hockey Day in America stories, check out NBC Sports here. 


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Devils’ Gabriel sets bait, Sabres’ Bogosian takes it in warm-up fracas

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Kurtis Gabriel doesn’t play a pile of minutes, so it’s a little surprising that Zach Bogosian took such an interest in the 25-year-old forward prior to puck drop between the New Jersey Devils and Buffalo Sabres on Sunday.

It must be something he said.

Indeed, Gabriel got under the veteran defenseman’s skin well before the game officially started. A heated conversation at the center line during warmup seemed to spark an extended battle between the two as the usual pre-game skate progressed.

Bogosian took issue with something Gabriel chirped in their first exchange and swatted the latter in the back of the leg before departing, momentarily at least.

Bogosian hooked Gabriel on another pass-by later on, then proceeded to fire a puck his way before the intense death glare. Of course, Bogosian wasn’t finished. He got in a solid cross-check to Gabriel’s arm followed by a quick slash — Bogosian’s version of a 1-2, apparently.

Here’s the tape:

Gabriel didn’t budge. Instead, he mocked Bogosian before Drew Stafford skated between the two to diffuse the situation.

Nothing seemed to come of it during the game and the pair didn’t drop the gloves.

Bogosian finished with nearly 21 minutes of ice time while Gabriel had 7:03.

The Devils got the last laugh, winning 4-1.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Coyne Schofield’s global impact empowering women

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The past month has been a whirlwind for U.S. Women’s National Team member Kendall Coyne Schofield. And that might just be understating an understatement.

Indeed, Coyne Schofield hit the ground running at the 2019 NHL All-Star Skills with her blistering time in the fastest skater, and since then, she’s been promoting the women’s game like none other.

Coyne Schofield spoke of the past month on Hockey Day in America on Sunday.

NBC Sports is celebrating Hockey Day in America with an NHL Sunday tripleheader on NBC and NBCSN, as well as a collection of stories and features which explore hockey’s impact and influence across the U.S.

Pre-game studio coverage begins at noon ET on NBC with NHL Live, which will be on-site in Hockeytown at The Rink at Campus Martius Park in downtown Detroit, Mich. Liam McHugh and Kathryn Tappen will anchor pre-game, intermission and post-game coverage throughout the day alongside analysts Mike Milbury, Keith Jones and Jeremy Roenick. In addition, Tappen will provide reports and interviews from the Team USA vs. Canada women’s hockey game at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit on Sunday afternoon.

NBC Hockey Day in America schedule:
Penguins beat Rangers 6-5
Blues shutout Wild 4-0
Philadelphia at Detroit – NBCSN –  6 p.m. ET (Watch live)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck