A couple of late arrivals still merit warm welcome
A quick update on a couple of guys long in the tooth and even longer in dreams. In an era when NHL clubs crave the next 18- or 19-year-old able to rush into the lineup and take control of the show, players with incubation periods longer than, say, the time it takes to read John Grisham’s latest thriller, are an anomaly in the New NHL.
But two cases that run against the current teen-angel trend:
Corey Potter, D, Edmonton.
“It’s good to come in as a nobody,’’ said Potter, only a few days into his rookie season at age 27.
Potter was chosen No. 122 overall by the Rangers in 2003, but the 6-foot-3-inch, 205-pound back liner got lost in the Broadway shuffle, the Blueshirts constantly giving the next young phenom longer, more serious looks.
Born in Michigan and a 2006 Michigan State graduate, he spent four seasons in the Ranger organization, called up from Hartford for only eight games (1-1-2). He signed with the Penguins as a free agent last summer, then left there this summer after playing only one game with the varsity.
He signed with the Oilers, now coached by Tom Renney, the ex-Ranger coach who liked him - just never enough for regular work.
Well, Renney likes him these days, even with Ryan Whitney recovered from ankle surgery and back as the power-play quarterback. Potter (0-2-2 in four games entering last night) has a big shot from the point and has been averaging 20:04 in ice time, which should leave him tucked among the starting six back liners after five seasons and 364 AHL games.
Bracken Kearns, C, Florida
Kearns made his NHL debut Thursday night, and played only seven shifts for 6:30 of ice time in a 3-0 loss to the Sabres. Hardly a Hall of Fame dash out of the gate, but that’s not really the point. Kearns, born in North Vancouver, British Columbia, is a 2005 University of Calgary grad, was never drafted, and will be 31 in May.
Now, twentysomething rookies are rare - Tim Thomas was 28 when he played his first NHL game with the Bruins in 2002-03 - but thirtysomethings? They’re met at the Zamboni entrance by the AARP color guard and reps from AmeriGlide stair lifts.
The son of former Canucks defenseman Dennis Kearns, Bracken entered the game essentially as a walk-on in Toledo (ECHL), and was spotted by Nashville (the same outfit that spotted Rich Peverley in the “E’’). He kicked around the minors for six seasons before signing a two-way deal with Florida this summer as insurance (it helped that Florida general manager Dale Tallon was his dad’s teammate 30-plus years ago in Vancouver).
“My dad didn’t make it to the league until he was 26,’’ said Kearns. “So he was no spring chicken, either.’’
Kearns, an economics major at Calgary, said he felt lucky just to make his college team as a freshman walk-on. By his senior year, he was captain of the Dinos.
“I kept going all these years because I just felt I was getting better,’’ he said. “You see guys who go to Europe in their 20s, they’ve given up the dream, and I think mostly it’s because they feel their game has plateaued. I’ve just never felt that way.’’
Potter is likely to have a longer, richer run in Edmonton than Kearns in Florida, but they both serve as a reminder that it’s not just the young and gifted who get through the gate. As of Friday morning, these two guys had five NHL games on their career résumé, along with 836 games in the minors.
Fans give it to Gonchar
Ex-Bruins defenseman Sergei Gonchar has become Ottawa’s new Alexei Yashin, identified by Senators fans as the stick carrier most deserving of their wrath. Whenever “Sarge’’ touches the puck these days at Scotiabank Place, the boo-birds and leather-lungs let him have it, similar to the days leading up to Yashin being shoveled off to the Islanders in June 2001 for that package that included Zdeno Chara, Bill Muckalt, and the first-round pick the Senators used to select Jason Spezza.
“I don’t know why he’s the lightning rod,’’ first-year coach Paul MacLean told the Ottawa Sun early last week. “We haven’t played very well.’’
MacLean figures if Gonchar, 37, is moving his feet and dishing pucks, then everything is fine. That’s what puck-moving/power-play specialists are paid to do, after all. If Senators fans were looking for the former Moscow Dynamo star suddenly to channel his inner Slava Fetisov, well, that never happened in his 1,058 NHL games prior to this season.
Yashin, whom Islander fans soon wished never found his way to Uniondale, was disliked by Ottawa fans for two reasons: his repeated demands for more money, followed by his indifferent, underproductive play once he had it. But he was only 27 when he was traded, and Senators fans were well within reason to think he was a superstar lost in cruise mode.
Gonchar, on the other hand, was 35 when signed as a free agent in July 2010, for what most believed was a bloated, if not desperate, package (three years/$16.5 million). He then delivered only 27 points and has started this season in the doldrums (six games, 0-2-2 prior to last night), on a club few expect to qualify for the playoffs.
If there is a potential silver lining here for Gonchar, it’s that he got off on the same bad foot with Penguins fans when he signed as free agent with Pittsburgh in August 2005. But in his five years there, he won a Stanley Cup (2009) and delivered 259 points in 322 games.
Having to say you’re sorry
If you get a chance, go on line to find video of Don Cherry’s on-air apology last Saturday night to the Tennessee Three: Chris Nilan, Stu Grimson, and Jim Thomson. He sounded sincere enough, but his eyes kept darting off-camera, to his right, like a guy at the plate looking constantly to the third base coach for signs. Grapes looked totally goofy. Cherry had ripped the three, referring to them on-air as “pukes’’ for what he believed, incorrectly, was their current stance on fighting in the game. Grimson, a Nashville attorney these days, helped cobble together a threat of possible legal action against Cherry, which was widely seen as the motivating factor in his mea culpa. Believe that if you will, but I’d like to believe it was CBC, funded by government dollars, that finally had the good sense to step in and tell the 77-year-old TV icon that he violated, oh, a decency standard. If there is such a thing anymore.
Seeing stop signs
It’s probably too early to say that Dwayne Roloson has been struck by the cudgel of Father Time, but Tampa’s 42-year-old goalie looks ready to start leafing through AARP Monthly for comfy retirement spots. He was scorched for seven goals on home ice in a 7-4 loss to Florida, leaving the former ULowell star with 17 goals allowed in his last three starts. It has been a heck of a run for Rollie the Goalie, who didn’t become a full-time starter until age 32, playing for his third NHL team (Minnesota). He was excellent in last year’s playoffs (10-6, 2.51), but he started leaking like a junkyard 1962 Studebaker in the Cup semis vs. the Bruins.
A hit and an error
Flyers rookie sparkplug Zac Rinaldo, who debuted in two postseason games in the spring, knocked both Drew Doughty and Dustin Penner out of the Kings lineup Saturday. Noting that he caught Doughty “coming across the trolley tracks with his head down,’’ Rinaldo, a Toronto kid, left the star blue liner with a shoulder injury that is expected to keep him out until later this week, if not longer. Penner took after Rinaldo to avenge the hit on Doughty, leaving the ex-Maine Black Bear with a slightly wrenched knee. Big, clean hits are embarrassing for the victim, but it makes no sense to go after guys who deliver them if they’re deemed legal. Uh, it remains a contact game, until further notice. Rinaldo’s hit was stiff but clean, and Penner’s reaction only hurt his team more. A bloated Flyer roster led Rinaldo back to Adirondack (AHL) Wednesday.
Follow the bouncing puck
Born-again NHLer Jaromir Jagr, now in Philadelphia after a three-year tour with Omsk Avangard in the KHL, offered the New York Times an interesting perspective on how the NHL changed in his time away: “How to explain it? It’s different for one reason. The puck is everywhere. Not as much on your stick. The players don’t play the position game as much as we used to play. A lot of young guys go up and down, shoot the puck, go for the rebounds. You’re getting tired quicker because the body has to react where the puck is going to go. You cannot read it, because you don’t have the puck on your stick.’’ Read: dumbed down, frantic, a hybrid game that blends go-kart, pinball, and slot hockey. What it may lack in style it makes up for, in large degree, with speed, unpredictability, and bone-rattling checks. Not your daddy’s NHL, but it’s selling better than ever.
Jets haven’t taken off
Hard not to be impressed by the enthusiasm and incredible roar generated by Jets fans in Monday night’s welcome-back-to-Manitoba home opener, a 2-1 edging of the Penguins. Especially liked coach Claude Noel, after his ragtag squad opened 0-3 on the road, musing, “It looks like our team thinks it has a free pass to fail.’’ It seemed that way for much of the club’s 11-season stay in Atlanta, prior to bolting back over the line to the hockey heartland. Through their first six games as made men of Manitoba, ex-Bruins Blake Wheeler and Mark Stuart were a combined 0-2-2 and minus-2.
1 plus 1
Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, picked first overall in the last two drafts, look like they could be a dazzling combination for years in Edmonton. RNH connected for his first career hat trick last Saturday vs. Vancouver, in only his third career game. It’s the first time that a pair of back-to-back No. 1 picks has played on the same squad since the Nordiques rolled out Mats Sundin (’89) and Owen Nolan (’90). Sundin, by the way, is back living in Sweden after getting married in August ’09, only weeks after playing his final NHL game with the Canucks. Nolan played 24 games in Zurich last season and attempted a comeback as an invite to Vancouver this season, only to be sent packing after about 10 days. The Nordiques also picked No. 1 in ’91, the year L’Enfant Terrible, Eric Lindros, said he had no interest in wearing the fleur-de-Lis, forcing a trade of his rights to the Flyers.
Fountains of Wayne
A Great get by TSN’s Darren Dreger, corralling the elusive Wayne Gretzky into a sitdown that you can watch on tsn.ca. The Great One isn’t formally attached to an NHL team these days, but he told Dreger that he is happy to help out the Oilers and Kings whenever they ask. Those clubs, along with the Blues and Rangers, are the ones he roots for, said Gretzky. The glaring omission, of course, was Phoenix, where he pledged his allegiance and coached four years through 2008-09 before the whole Glendale operation imploded, leaving Gretzky shortchanged on his contract. In case you missed it, Gretzky’s son, Trevor, signed recently with the Cubs organization, which means come March we should see pictures of Gretz and Theo Epstein schmoozing in spring training. Also, if he could make one rule change, Gretzky said, he would prefer to see clubs start power plays in their own zone rather than be given the advantage of the faceoff in the attack zone. The edge, he said, doesn’t allow puck-handling defensemen - he named Bobby Orr, Paul Coffey, and Ray Bourque - to work their magic. “Puck-handling,’’ said the Great One, “is an art.’’ And, increasingly, a lost one.
Making his points
Former Bruins first-round pick Joe Colborne, flipped to Toronto in last season’s deal for Tomas Kaberle, connected for 1-2-3 and hit a post last weekend with the Toronto Marlies, leaving him with 3-4-7 totals in four games. Jumbo Joe Jr. was among the Leafs’ final cuts in camp, but that kind of production could have the 6-foot-5-inch, 213-pound pivot back in Toronto soon.
Bob Waterman, at the Elias Sports Bureau, informs that the oldest player to make his NHL debut in the “modern’’ era was Connie Madigan, who was 38 when first pulling on the blades for St. Louis in February 1973. A career minor leaguer, he played 20 games for the Blues that season, his only NHL duty . . . Matt Kalman, who puts great effort and dashes of humor into his Bruins Blog (@TheBruinsBlog), tweeted the other day that he’s less engaged by Toronto’s results this season because the Bruins have been paid in full for the September 2009 trade of Phil Kessel. Good point. But can’t agree with Kalman’s added note that the Leafs don’t look any better this season. I wasn’t particularly impressed by their pickup of the oft-injured Tim Connolly, the ex-Sabre, but they’re showing enough moxie and skill to overcome six postseason DNQs and get back in the playoffs . . . The Toronto Star reported that Gentleman Jim Gregory, ex-GM of the Leafs and one of hockey’s greatest goodwill ambassadors, had been battling amyloidosis, an oft-fatal disease in which abnormal proteins build up in vital organs. Gregory told the paper that he underwent 14 chemotherapy treatments and now has a clean bill of health . . . Horrid start (0-6-1 entering last night) by the Blue Jackets, who knew they were in trouble when top UFA signee James Wisniewski was suspended for the first eight games because of his dastardly preseason hit on Cal Clutterbuck. Now top forward Jeff Carter has been hobbled by a cracked foot bone, which is one of those injuries that can impair a player’s performance all season . . . Shouldn’t NHL rinks sell British sausage instead of just ho-hum hot dogs? Hockey fans crave bangers. Faithful reader Alan Steele suggests a breakfast special for matinees that would include bangers, high stick taters, a cup of misconduct coffee, and an order of concussed eggs . . . His amateurish diving antics aside, Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban has bountiful talent, but he is not ready for the team-high 25:08 he was averaging entering last night, pressed into extra service because of injuries to Chris Campoli, Andrei Markov, and Jaro Spacek. The Bruins see Subban twice this week, here Thursday and in Montreal Saturday. Wonder what brave soul will sport a No. 76 bleu-blanc-rouge Speedo and scuba goggles and snorkel to the Garden . . . With Marty Brodeur nursing a shoulder injury for likely another week or more, the Devils last week called up Keith Kinkaid to back up Johan Hedberg in net. Kinkaid played the last two seasons at Union College, then signed as a free agent last April after going 25-10-3 . . . The Flyers on Tuesday called up former Brown left winger Harry Zolnierczyk, who signed as a free agent with the Broad Streeters in March. He scored in his NHL debut and was returned to Adirondack the following morning . . . The site of the June draft could be announced this week or next. Rumors over the summer had it going to Pittsburgh, where it was held in 1997. It would be a quick return, given that there are 29 other clubs, but the league staged the draft in Buffalo in ’91 and again in ’98, the old Aud having been replaced by HSBC Arena. In Pittsburgh, the old Igloo is being dismantled and the Penguins now play in their sparkling new CONSOLeum.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.