[NHL] On The Blue Line

Well, let’s get to the biggest story currently going on in the NHL and that’s the New York Islanders hiring TED NOLAN and NEIL SMITH. Not too many people saw that coming at all as Nolan (who had been “blackballed” by many teams when it came to coaching in the NHL again) has not coached since winning the Jack Adams Trophy as best head coach after the 1997 season with Buffalo. Smith was fired from his GM spot for the New York Rangers in 2000 after being blamed for not being able to maintain a winning team in NY thus causing the ‘early’ retirement of Wayne Gretzky. Both men are just good, good hockey guys. They’re going to bring a terrific mindset to a team that has struggled the past couple of seasons due to Alexei Yashin’s bloated contract, the lack of goaltending and you can toss in playing at Nassau as well. Add to that their will to prove everyone else wrong. Neil Smith sat as an NHL analyst for about 6 years, just watching people coming and going from NHL team to NHL team all the while he was granted some go nowhere GM interview every now and then and went right back to chatting it up with John Buccigross. Plus you must also consider the advent of Brian Trottier being hired as the Islanders new executive director of player development and Pat LaFontaine will join the team as a senior advisor to Isles owner Charles Wang. That’s a WHOLE lot of Fishstick heritage right there.

There is some sort of Stanley Cup Finals going on, too.

In an interesting twist to the upcoming free agent season, the NHL and the NHLPA have agreed to ‘unfreeze’ the final two weeks prior to the beginning of the free agency period in July. NHL free agency usually begins on July 1st but at this point no one is really sure if that’s going to happen, least of all Gary Bettman. What all this means is that teams have an extra 14 days to try and sign their UFA before they’re allowed to go on the open market. This is pretty big for a team like Ottawa who can now focus a little more on signing their free agents, mainly Zdena Chara who will undoubetdly be the most sought after defenseman and for the Devils who can now haggle with Patrik Elias.

Way down south, Roberto Luongo continues to sing the tune of wanting to stay in Florida (Why?) but apparently only wants a 1 year deal that will allow him to become an unrestricted free agent next summer. Sounds like Paul Kariya mischief to me.

However, before the NHL free agent bonanza, shopping spree, overpriced talent party can get started the NHL needs to get through the NHL draft. The draft will take place on Saturday, June 24th in Vancouver. After the NHL rigged the draft lottery selection (If Los Angeles isn’t at #1 something has got be going on!), here are the cities to which the first 14 picks will be sent to:

1. St. Louis
2. Pittsburgh
3. Chicago
4. Washington
5. Boston
6. Columbus
7. New York
8. Phoenix
9. Minnesota
10. Florida
11. Los Angeles
12. Atlanta
13. Toronto
14. Vancouver

As always the other 16 teams will get their slot once the Hurricanes finish up their business with the Oilers and win the Cup.

From the looks of that list, Alexander Ovechkin might be getting some help as this year’s draft has about 4 or 5 kids are who ready to play in the NHL. However, the Capitals might be best served to try and get some offers from other teams for some already established NHL players. The current crop in Washington has not come close to impressing anyone. Or perhaps the Caps are eyeing a free agent or two….nah.

In long overdue NHL and personal news, Luc Robitaille retired after 19 NHL seasons this past April. Robitaille goes out as the highest scoring left wing in NHL history. A record that still makes you think, “Really?” because Robitaille was hardly flashy or even noticed for much of his career. Always a tremendously gifted goal scorer Robitaille amassed 668 goals, and 726 assists for a total of 1,394 points in 1,431 games. Which is nearly an average of a PPG.

Luc’s final game in Los Angeles on Saturday, April 15th, 2006 against the Calgary Flames at Staples Center in front of a sold out crowd. Each seat at Staples held a placard that read “Thank you 20” on it and you can only imagine the sight of an 18,000 seat arena sporting a yellow placard
with a purple font. A sort of nod at history and comedic rib at Luc’s start with the Kings in the old gold and purple uniforms.

Robitaille didn’t have a spectular game but came very close to capping it off right. Regulation and OT both ended with a 1-1 tie and after Pavol Demitra scored a sick goal on Kiprusoff, Kings goalie Jason Labarbera followed up by stopping Tony Amonte.

This set up Luc as the Kings second shooter and the shot that could win the game in his final game in Los Angeles. The crowd was going crazy, Luc was skating in slooowly and Kipper caught the puck underneath his arm as Robitaille tried to go high right. The crowd got a kick out of it and the Kings went on to win 2-1 that night as Luc took a final lap and spoke to the fans, all of which had no intention of leaving until Luc was sick of the adulation.

The Flames, as only an NHL team would do, congratulated Luc beofre heading off to their locker room and the Staples crowd chanted Luc off to San Jose and his final NHL game.

That took place on Monday, April 27th, 206 at the HP Pavilion. For those not in the know, the Kings and Sharks aren’t exactly the best of friends. The Sharks are probably right next to the Ducks in terms of a rivalry with the Kings but fans in San Jose set that aside and gave Luc a standing ovation before and after the game as the Kings ended their season with a 4-0 win. The Sharks also shook Luc’s hand before heading off the ice and allowing Robitaille to soak up the fans final applause.

As a long time Kings fan, there was never a moment where you couldn’t help but cheer for Luc Robitaille. When he won the Cup with Detroit, he declined taking it to Montreal and brought it over to Los Angeles because as we all know, the Cup has no idea what L.A. looks like save for a game or two back in 1993. He’s always spoken of Los Angeles as if it were the end all and be all of sports cities. Having been able to see Luc play so many times, it started to become almost like a must here. Bob Miller had to be in the broadcasting booth and Luc Robitaille had to be on the ice. Every night, every game, it had to be that way. Within the next year another constant will replace Luc on the ice and thats having Luc’s #20 hanging high at Staples Center.

For the Kings and for Luc, former Kings owner Bruce McNall rather puts it best:

“I bought the team the year he was a rookie, and it’s 20 years ago now. Luc deserves every bit of this. He’s been a great ambassador to the sport and a great player for the Kings – the one constant they’ve had all these years.”

It’s good to be King, it’s good to be Luc.