Matt Reitz

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Lokomotiv will not play in KHL this season

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As the city of Yaroslavl honors those lost in Wednesday’s plane crash, word out of Russia is that Lokomotiv’s season will be placed on hold. Pavel Lysenkov from Sovietsky Sport is reporting that Lokomotiv club president Yuri Yakovlev has said the team will not play in the KHL this season. The announcement comes while 7,500 friends and fans gather outside of Arena 2000 to pay their last respects to the players and staff members who lost their lives on their way to Minsk, Belarus.

Obviously, any decision after the crash regarding the immediate future of the team had to be handled with care. With all of the logistical problems in building a team from scratch at the beginning of the season, Yakovlev decided it would be best if the team’s return wasn’t rushed. There is no blueprint for a catastrophe of this nature. There is no acceptable norm. In a time with bleeding hearts and gut-wrenching grief, it’s easy to understand that the city and the organization would take their time as they contemplate their future.

It had been reported that KHL President Alexander Medvedev supported the idea of existing KHL teams aiding Yaroslavl to restock their team this season. League vice-president Ilya Kochervrin explained that hockey had the potential to help the city and fans recover from the devastating pain associated with the crash.

Still, with the support of the league and opposing teams, it was too daunting to put together in such a quick fashion. Kochevrin explained that it would be Lokomotiv’s management that had the final say regarding this season.

“”The final decision is going to be (from) the team management. It’s not going to be the league or administration or anybody else. It has to be team management because they’re the ones who will be responsible for building up the team.”

Even though Lokomotiv will not participate this season on the ice, they will still be remembered around the league. Representatives from each and every KHL were in attendance during Saturday’s memorial at Arena 2000. In addition to the representatives, Atlant, AK Bars, Moscow Dynamo, CSKA, Spartak, Severstal, and Torpedo all sent their entire teams to pay their respects. KHL club AK Bars has already pledged to donate all of the proceeds from ticket sales of their first game against Dinamo Riga on Tuesday, September 13. Aeroflot has even offered better planes for KHL teams to use throughout the season.

They will be remembered.

All we can hope is that time helps heal the emotional scars left after this catastrophe. People will never forget – nor should they – but the decision to cancel the season is understandable as the fans and organization try to pick up the pieces. When they finally do come back next season, something tells me they’ll have a few more fans pulling for the team (and city) to succeed.

Is it now or never for Alain Vigneault?

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Expectations are a funny thing. Take a coach who was a Jack Adams Award finalist, won the President’s Trophy, led his team to within a single game of their first ever Stanley Cup and you’d think he had a little job security.

That’s not the case in Vancouver these days.

It’s not like Alain Vigneault’s success during the regular season or playoffs last year were a fluke. In five seasons with the Vancouver Canucks, Vigneault has a 236-133-41 record and a Jack Adams Trophy for the work he did in the 2006-07 season.  In the “what have you done for me lately” department, he led the Canucks to their best season in franchise history. Over the course of the 82 game schedule, the Canucks were the best offensive and best defensive team in the league. They had the best power play and up until the final week of the season, they had the best penalty kill as well. Talent is one thing—but to have 20 guys to be that dominant for an entire season takes above average coaching.

So when Mike Brophy of SportsNet puts together a list of coaches who are potential on the hot seat next season, should fans be surprised to see Vigneault’s name show up on the list? Here’s Brophy’s explanation:

“The Canucks’ failure to win the Stanley Cup after taking a 2-0 series lead in the final against the Boston Bruins has Vigneault on thin ice. It didn’t help matters that the Canucks lost Game 7 on home ice. Sometimes a team has to experience such failure before it emerges as a champion. In any case, expectation for the Canucks will be at an all-time high this season and Vigneault cannot afford for his team to start slowly.”

It sounds like Vigneault is an impossible position next season. If he doesn’t continue winning at a historic pace and exceed last year’s standards, he’ll be on the unemployment line? Let’s put the Canucks year in perspective: even if you ignore their 15 wins in the playoffs, they still had more wins (54) than the Edmonton Oilers have had in the last two seasons combined (52). If Tom Renney won 54 games next season, they’d name a street after him. In Vancouver expectations are so ridiculously high, if the Canucks don’t get off to a white-hot start, they would seriously consider throwing their head man out onto the street.

It’s important for the Canucks and their fans to remember the alternatives on the market. Each coach that would be available is a guy who was passed over by six different teams this offseason. Before they even contemplate firing Vigneault, they should think long and hard about who will come in and replace him.

It may not be a popular notion, but perhaps Vigneault is a good coach who gets the very most out of an extremely talented team? The major downfall of the team had nothing to do with coaching—it was injuries. If the Canucks defense stays healthy throughout the course of the playoffs, there’s a good chance things are different in the Finals. Regardless, they were a single game away from the Stanley Cup. There are 28 other teams in the league that would have killed for that kind of season.

What do you think? Do you think Vigneault has earned a little bit of security or is it imperative that the Canucks take the next step and win the Cup next season? Let us know what you think in the comments.

The forgotten arena: The Sprint Center in Kansas City

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Most of the time, NHL teams and their arenas have the same types of problems. The Islanders live in the old, Nassau Coliseum and are desperately trying to get funding for a better home on August 1. They went through a similar situation with the Lighthouse Project referendum last summer. Edmonton residents are also going through a taxpayer/arena debate revolving around a downtown home to replace Rexall Place. The teams and cities may change, but the story is usually the same: an NHL team needs a new place to play because the old arena isn’t cutting it anymore.

Then, in the middle of the United States, there’s a curious case of the Sprint Center in Kansas City. It’s peculiar because their problem is the contradicts just about every other arena dispute in any other sport. The fine folks in Kansas City have already forked out taxpayer money and have already built a beautiful, state-of-the-art building that would be great for hockey. Now they just need a team to fill the building.

Unlike the residents of Nassau County, taxpayers have already agreed to a publically funded building. They did so without the tangible benefit of a team already in town. No, their problem isn’t a suitable building—it’s getting a team to play in the building. Luc Robitaille was the point man to find a permanent tenant for Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) when the Sprint Center opened its doors in 2006.  He’s seen the obstacles to bringing hockey Kansas City.

“You have to have some kind of local buyer. I don’t know to what level were the talks in Kansas City, but there were some rumblings from time to time. But you have to have a buyer. What happened with Winnipeg is they had this buyer who was willing to do whatever it took for that.”

It’s been five years since the Sprint Center opened for business and it’s never been further from landing a team. First there was the possibility of the Pittsburgh Penguins relocating to Missouri. Then there were rumors that Boots Del Biaggio would buy the Predators to relocate the team to Kansas City. But after both of those deals fell through and the respective franchises stayed put, Kansas City and the Sprint Center have gradually fallen off the map.

A pair of preseason games with poor attendance certainly didn’t help the market’s cause either. A preseason game between the Coyotes and Kings only registered 11,603 tickets sold at the box office. The following year, the Islanders and Kings played in front of only 9,792 fans for a preseason game. It shouldn’t be surprising that Kansas City is barely even mentioned when a team is moving now.

Like Robitaille said, local ownership is a must if the Sprint Center is every going to house an NHL team. But for the market to be successful, fans in the area are going to have to be as passionate about the sport as any potential owner. True North and the residents of Winnipeg had the passion and determination to make it happen when the Atlanta Thrashers became available. Kansas City and their beautiful arena weren’t even on the radar. If the city of Glendale is unable to get a deal worked out with a new ownership group before the 2012-13 season, there’s a very good chance that the Coyotes will be on the move as well. There’s probably not a better arena in all of North America that is looking for an NHL tenant. But is there a demand to bring professional hockey back to Kansas City?

Until there is a local ownership group willing to make it happen, the building and fans will just have to settle for concerts and Big XII basketball.

6th overall pick Mika Zibanejad signs entry-level deal with Ottawa

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The Ottawa Senators came to terms with their first round selection in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, Mika Zibanejad on Wednesday. The three year entry-level deal comes with a $1,775,000 cap hit per season. For the 18-year-old, he’ll head back to Sweden to continue his training before he joins the Senators for their preseason training camp in September. From there, the Senators will give the first round pick every opportunity to make the team to start the season.

The timing of the signing is interesting as the team was up against a July 15th deadline to sign the Swedish Elite League prospect. As The 6th Sens pointed out, Ottawa would have been forced to pay an extra $100,000 if they waited until after the 15th; and if they couldn’t sign him by August 15th, he would be guaranteed to play in Sweden next season. They avoided the potential mess entirely by signing him while he was in North American for Ottawa’s prospects/development camp.

Moving forward, Senators GM Bryan Murray was asked whether Zibanejad will be ready to make the jump next season:

“In July, probably not,” Murray said. “In September, hopefully. He has a little time here. There’ll be an adjustment and I think when you see a whole group of young people competing, it will be quite different when they come to training camp — they’ll get playing with veteran players and we’ll get a better comparison.”

The Senators had three first round picks in June, but only Zibanejad has a serious shot of making the team for the 2011-12 season. Both Stefan Noesen (#21 overall) and Matt Puempel (#24 overall) are expected to return to the Ontario Hockey League to continue to develop their overall games. Zibanejad, on the other hand, has been touted as one of the most NHL-ready players in the 2011 Draft. The 6’2, 191 pound center has already played amongst men in the Swedish Elite League and throughout the second half of the season proved that he belonged with the big boys. Ottawa will either give him a shot to show what he can do in the NHL or allow him to continue his development with Djurgarden in the SEL.

For his part, Zibanejad sounds like he has a healthy mix of excitement and perspective going forward:

“I’m excited. It’s a dream coming true, for sure. You’ve always been dreaming (since you were younger) and you always have a goal to make it to the NHL. I think I’m one step closer, but there’s so much hard work left.

“I’ll try to do everything I can to make the team and help the Ottawa Senators win the Stanley Cup someday. It’s very exciting and I’m really happy.”

One of the biggest determining factors for Zibanejad next season may have nothing to do with the player at all. On paper, the Senators look like they could be in for a rough season. Do they want to “waste” an expensive year on his entry-level deal as he goes through some growing pains on a team that isn’t expected to make the playoffs? Or would he organization rather have him develop his skills and grow into his body in Sweden where they’d still maintain all three years on his first contract?

It’s a part of the business that has become increasingly important as teams are forced to maximize every penny in the salary cap era. Would they rather have him next season on a struggling team for less than $2 million or would they rather have him for the same price in four years as the Senators try to put all of their young pieces together? These are the decisions that GMs like Bryan Murray are forced to deal with these days.

For today, fans in Ottawa can celebrate an exciting prospect putting his name on the dotted line. Can we just fast-forward to September to see what the guy can do?

Short man complex? Five little guys proving the critics wrong

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Hockey writers around North America are contractually obligated to compare every single hockey prospect under 5’10” to Martin St. Louis. It seems like when a player is small and talented, scouts are automatically trained to look for reasons the prospect will never make it to the NHL level. Sometimes, they don’t even need another reason; even if they’re productive against other prospects, scouts will shy away from a player because it’s so difficult to compete against the larger players of the NHL.

Here are five of the smallest prospects who were drafted this year. Each and every one of these players has been told they are too small; yet each and every one of them continues to succeed.

Rocco Grimaldi (5’6” – 163 pounds)
Florida Panthers – 2nd round, 33rd overall

Grimaldi is a first round talent who slipped to the Florida Panthers (#33 overall) on the second day of the draft because of his size. Perhaps the most electrifying player in the entire draft, International Scouting Services rated him as the best skater and one of the best puck-handlers available. In a telling comment, Harvey Fialkov of the Sun Sentinel explains: “the scouts agree that if he was 5-10 his skills would’ve made him the overall top pick ahead of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.” Next season Grimaldi plans on continuing his development at University of North Dakota. He may not be able to improve on his size, but if he can improve on his skills, the NHL won’t be able to ignore him.

Ryan Murphy (5’10” – 166 pounds)
Carolina Hurricanes – 1st round, 12th overall

At 5’10” and 166 pounds, Ryan Murphy would be undersized whether he played up front or back on defense. Since he’s a first round blueliner (and one of the smallest picked in the draft), he must have some spectacular skills to get scouts attention. He does. Murphy is one of the best skaters in the entire draft, he’s the best pure offensive defenseman, and has a booming shot from the point. The best NHL comparison for Murphy is that he’s like a smaller, faster Mike Green. He still struggles in his own zone, but he’s such a dynamic player, the Carolina Hurricanes were willing to overlook his shortcomings.

John Gaudreau (5’6” – 137 pounds)
Calgary Flames – 4th round, 104th overall

Selected in the 4th round by the Calgary Flames, Gaudreau was the smallest player selected in the 2011 Entry Draft. Not surprisingly, he’s a great skater who thrives when the game resembles a pond hockey game. He was able to score 36 goals in 60 games this season in the USHL; we’ll see if he can step up his game next season as he’s already committed to Northeastern University for the 2011-12 season.

Jean-Gabriel Pageau (5’9” – 163 pounds)
Ottawa Senators – 4th round, 96th overall

Pageau is a little different that most of the smallish prospects that catch the scouts’ eyes. Usually the undersized prospects have lightning fast speed that makes them impossible to ignore, but Pageau doesn’t fall into that category. He’s skating is good—not great, but certainly not bad. The quality that sets him apart is that despite his size, he’s willing to go into the dirty areas to do whatever his team needs to win. This year in the QMJHL, he managed 32 goals and 79 points in only 67 games. The Senators will let him continue to develop in Gatineau, but if he continues to produce he could be an exciting player that the organization takes a look at in a few years.

Shane McColgan (5’8” – 165 pounds)
New York Rangers – 5th round, 134th overall

McColgan is the quintessential example of a player who drops simply because of his size. He’s an elite playmaker who finished 2nd in the WHL Rookie of the Year voting in 2009, behind Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Even though he’s an undersized, electrifying player, he’s still strong on his skates and isn’t easily knocked off the puck. Not only that, he’s not afraid to mix it up when he’s protecting his teammates. If a player with all of McColgan’s skill and heart was in a 6’1” frame, he would have been selected at the top of the first round.

If you’re still looking around for more information about this year’s draft, check out our NHL Draft Headquarters.