Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Matt Cullen ... 39 and still Stanley Cup strong

By Larry Wigge

This was going to be it ... one last kick at the Stanley Cup can for 39-year old Matt Cullen.

But ... then he had second thoughts ... about returning to play at all and to play against the Pittsurgh Penguins.

"Pittsburgh is where I want to go," Cullen explained. "It was a pretty special place for me, and it was a great fit for me and my family. I would really like for it to work out there."

Cullen played this season on a one-year, $800,000 deal. Presumably, the same kind of deal can be arranged.

There aren't many positions open for a 6-1, 200-pound fourth-line center, who appeared in all 82 games, scoring 16 goals and 32 points, and finished second to Sidney Crosby in faceoffs won. He scored the game-winning goals four times.

Being behind Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Nick Bonino made for a unique position for the Penguins. But Cullen added another four goals and two assists in the playoffs -- twice providing the game-winning goals.

Cullen had topped out in his career with Carolina, posting 25 goals and 24 assists in 2005-06 -- the last time Matt won the Cup.

In July 31, the day the Cup was supposed to follow Cullen around all day, he still had not heard back from Pens GM Jim Rutherford with a new contract.

"When the stakes are high, he is about as even-keeled a player as you can find," Rutherford said.

"I don't know if I have ever had more fun playing the game," Cullen said. "I'm appreciating the opportunity a lot more. And it's just all about making another run trying to win another Cup.

"It's brought me a lot more clarity at this point in my career."

Growing up in the Iron Range in the mid-1980s of Minnesota, Cullen and his two younger brothers fell in love with the Oilers, the front-running Edmonton team -- not the North Stars.

The Cullen’s father, Terry, a former high school hockey coach who played three years semi-pro in Green Bay of the old United States Hockey League, would flood the backyard of their Virginia, Minnesota home.

He recalled those days at the end of July.

"We had knee-high boards so we'd lose the pucks in the snow banks because the snow would be up to our heads," Matt Cullen recalled with a giant smile.

Like thousands of other kids, the Cullen Brothers strapped on their skates, threw on some elbow pads and grabbed their sticks for hours upon hours of imagination and merriment.

"I was Gretzky because I was the oldest, so I had first pick," Matt said. "Mark, the next youngest, he usually was Mark Messier. And the youngest, Joe, he'd usually be Jari Kurri."

And Matt says 32-year-old sister, Anne, may just be the best athlete of the four. She was a national champion and All-America diver at Concordia, where she just graduated.

Cullen played for the Stanley Cup in their backyard like they did so many times after Matt won the Cup in 2006 when the Carolina Hurricanes won it all.

"We played hockey in the backyard," he remembered. "We had silver buckets ... we carried them around like the Stanley Cup.

"It was everything that you would hope."

Still ...

The best advice from my dad. He always said, "Work hard and have fun. You can't do one without the other."

That always seemed to apply.

Some take the Stanley Cup out for a night on the town. Others take it down waterslides or for an afternoon of fishing or to their favorite tavern.

Matt Cullen of the Penguins had his day with the Cup this weekend. After some family time with the trophy Friday night and Saturday morning, Cullen brought Lord Stanley to Moorhead on Saturday afternoon for local fans to enjoy. And boy did they.

But this day for Cullen's three young boys ... and it started with eating Lucky Charms with a whole gallon of milk on top. Later, Brooks, 9, Wyatt, 7, and Joey, 6, were spottedd drinking Root Beer out of it.

Bridget, Matt's wife, was pregnant with the first son in 2006 when they were in Carolina.

"This one ... meant more ... because of the boys," Bridget recalled. "They were using metal spoons at the lake and they were clanking off the bottom of the Cup. The keeper (Phil Pritchard) of the Cup was like 'Ease up on the spoons, ease up on the spoons.' And then they ate the whole bowl in about five minutes."

There's nothing like Lucky Charms to fill an empty stomach.

Now, it's the three boys that capture all of Cullen's attention.

"On a normal game day, I'll wake up around 7 a.m. and my boys will already be on the couch watching NHL on the Fly. Every morning, without fail," he said, laughing. "They're little experts. I'll make some bacon and sit down with my cup of coffee while they give me a rundown of what happened in the NHL last night -- "Dad, this guy made a terrible turnover. You just can't make that play.

"It's hilarious."

A look at the walls in Matt Cullen's room:

There are multiple Pierre Turgeon posters, one of Doug Gilmour and, of course, a Gretzky. Every hooked-on-hockey kid growing up in the 1980s and ’90s had a Wayne Gretzky poster as the centerpiece of his collection.

Oddly out of place among all the vintage 1990s NHL superstars papering the walls of Matt Cullen's old -- and still untouched after all these years -- Moorhead bedroom is a picture of Mike Antonovich.

Mike Antonovich?

"Besides hockey, I played football and baseball in high school (in Moorhead, Minn.)," remembered Cullen. "I was a quarterback, but the football and hockey seasons got so close. I didn't play football my junior or senior year because I was trying to get ready for hockey.

"The football coaches weren't overly pleased, but I think they understood. I played baseball through my senior year. I was a shortstop. I really liked baseball a lot -- loved it."

But Matt Cullen was more than just another Mike Antonovich from Moorhead.

I want my epitaph to say, "Here lies Matt Cullen, who was an honest and good family man, and a genuine, hard-working person who made the most of what he had."

I think we'll all agree to the truth of that epitaph.

But ... he may have another tour -- adding more things to a near 40-year-olds epitaph.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Chris Kunitz afterthought now 3-time Stanley Cup champ

By Larry Wigge

Chris Kunitz has always been one of my favorite stories.

He's this pugnacious player. He's still throwing his body around. He's still winning battles in the corners for pucks and doing all of the little things that has Kunitz a success in the NHL.

Not bad for a guy who not only was passed over in his NHL draft year ... and once went on waivers twice in 14 days.

"I've never been drafted at any level," Kunitz said. "So it wasn't something you were disappointed with."

But here he was, at 36-years-old, a three-time Stanley Cup champion -- 2007 in Anaheim and 2009 and 2016 in Pittsburgh.

Long road, sometimes even longer journey.

Beating the New York Rangers, Washington Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning and the San Jose Sharks en route to a 16-8 record.

Yet, there were Kunitz in Game 1 against San Jose, laying a big hit on Joel Ward ... and then swiping the puck from and thwarting a potential breakaway. Kunitz also set up Pittsburgh for the first goals of the series.

"I think it's not a surprise," Sidney Crosby said. "He's found maybe more of a scoring touch than he's had in the past, but I think he's doing a lot of the same things and it's just nice he's getting results and getting recognized. Because he does a lot of things out there that leads to success."

Assistant coach Rick Tocchet said Kunitz was THE MAN who beat Tampa Bay, "He just kept going at them. Tampa had no answer for him. He kept getting in on the forecheck. He was hitting. I think he wore down a lot of their defense with his hits. He's a small guy, but he hits like a truck."

Long roads ... long journeys.

The Penguins went 33-16-5 after Mike Sullivan replaced Mike Johnston in December, an impressive record that grows in stature when you consider they lost the first four games he coached. They were 14-2-0 in their last 16 games of the regular season, including 15 without Evgeni Malkin.

The Stanley Cup journey went from Chicago to Regina for Kunitz. While in Chicago, his family and friends gathered for dinner with hockey's greatest prize. In Regina, maybe it will inspire a young player to do the same one day and it gives him a chance to say thank you to his hometown that gave him the love for the game.

Sounds like the start of Kunitz' career.

He signed with Anaheim as a free agent in 2003 after four years at Ferris State, and put up some pretty fair numbers over parts of two seasons in the American Hockey League.

It was a promising start to his pro career ... until the franchise changed hands in Atlanta and once again wound up back in Anaheim.

In his 12th NHL season, he Kunitz has something to offer a Penguins team. Call it the IT factor.

Four goals and seven assists through the Penguins winning the Stanley Cup after scoring 17 goals and 23 assists during the regular season.

So, he is a character player, filled with energy.

Like ...

At Anaheim, he combined on a line with Andy McDonald and Teemu Selanne. In Pittsburgh, the left winger from Regina, Saskatchewan, has either played on a line with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin.

"You begin to think you've got security at one place and then BOOM, new city, new coach, new everything, a completely fresh plate," said Kunitz, who has made a home for himself with his wife Maureen.

"My road to the NHL has been kind of a work in progress," Kunitz explained. "Growing up, coaches and scouts always said I was too small to make it at the next level. My goal ever since elementary school was to get a college scholarship, go play college hockey and get an education. From there, it turned into having a great team, having success individually and team success, and from that the dream grew."

He followed his older brother, David, who matriculated to college via a soccer scholarship. At Ferris State, Chris wound up becoming the CCHA Player of the Year at Ferris State in 2002-03, being named a first team NCAA West All-American and was a finalist for the 2003 Hobey Baker Award, given to the U.S. College Player of the Year.

Said Kunitz, "It wasn't until I started playing well at the college level that scouts started to come around. And, even though I wasn't drafted, I started to become comfortable with the idea that there might be something in pro hockey for me after college. I began to visualize the success I could have when I looked around and saw that the Ducks had another undrafted free agent like Andy McDonald playing big situations and big minutes."

Don't look at the statistics alone to see what Kunitz is doing for the Penguins ... his 35-goal season in 2013-14 along with 33 assists represent his single-season NHL high.

"Chris Kunitz is a guy who will end up on the scoresheet," said former Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, now with Buffalo. "But his role is straight-line, aggressive, go-to-the-net hockey. We want him to be physical. If things aren't going well for him, he should always make sure he returns to that foundation."

Kunitz smiled me he heard that description from his coach and said, "I pride myself on being a blue-collar worker. If I don't hit and go to the net and bang some opponents then I'm not trying hard enough. If any of those things is missing from my game, I usually get uptight and hit and bang a little harder."

And that's the main strength of his game -- hard work, character and a winning attitude.

Said Kunitz, "Things were great after I got to know the guys in Pittsburgh -- and I've felt a little like I was in heaven since the morning of Game 1 of the first round of the playoffs against Philadelphia, when our new son, Zachary, arrived."

The changes in Chris Kunitz' life and in hockey going from Anaheim to Pittsburgh were immediately upbeat, whether he was playing with Crosby or Malkin.

"My goal ever since elementary school was to get a college scholarship ... and go play college hockey and get an education," Kunitz said. "From there, it turned into having a great team, having success individually and team success, and from that the dream grew.

"Definitely a late bloomer. I didn't even think myself that the NHL was something that could be realistic until I signed out of college. I played Tier 2 junior, nobody very often gets drafted out of the SJHL."

Kunitz continued to talk ...

"The fact that I played in the game where we won it made up for it all," said Kunitz. "I would have liked to score a goal or make more of a contribution. But the team reassured me that I was there because I helped during the season."

Said coach Sullivan, "He's obviously an important player for us. I think he plays a lot bigger than he is. He brings a physical element to the line that he’s on. He forces turnovers, he can play with pace. So, I think he helps with the speed game with the line that he's on."

Someone is always there, it seems, to speak up and give Chris Kunitz a chance to play.

Enter David McNab. The longtime Anaheim Ducks executive -- who was assistant GM at the time -- deserves the credit for spotting Kunitz and seeing something in him that many other NHL teams did not.

"Definitely, I talked to him quite a bit starting near the end of my junior year and then throughout my senior year," Kunitz said. "I sat down and had talks with him and he told me they were interested in me and certainly he was definitely an integral part."

McNab, who worked under GM Bryan Murray at the time, signed Kunitz to his first pro contract on April 1, 2003. It was no April Fool's joke.

No April Fool's joke ... for anyone.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Brad Richards ... 15 year and two Stanley Cups later

By Larry Wigge

Brad Richards is one of those marvelous quick-twitch, now-you-see-him, now-you-don't athletes who can quickly flit in and out of the picture and in between something pretty special is likely to happen.

And it's just that kind of magic that he brought to the NHL in the playoffs, when hearts are beating faster and faster, pumping more and more adrenaline into every part of the body. The collisions are more physical, each and every battle testing the will and the body to its limit.

The playoffs is where Brad Richards made his mark for 15 seasons -- playing 1,126 games over 15 seasons with Tampa Bay, Dallas Stars, New York Rangers, Chicago and Detroit Red Wings. He wound with with 298 goals and 932 points.

Chicago's Patrick Kane remembered both Stanley Cups won by Brad Richards in 2004 for Tampa Bay and in 2015 for Chicago.

"Congrats Brad Richards," Kane recalled. "I'll never forget watching you win with Tampa in 2004 and for your no-look pass to me for the clinching goal in Game 6, 2015.

"Playing with Brad, he just makes a lot of really good plays. Plays you don't really expect most guys to make."

Instant impact. Productivity.

"This is the time of the year when you want to make an impact," Richards explained of making a pass to Kane for the clinching goal in Game 6. "The playoffs, where risk and reward become the battle cry, where paying the price to win on the ice comes into play on each shift. It was just a play of instincts."

Richards is one of those players who isn't open to hyperbole. He's like a silent assassin.

"Even though he's a quiet guy, you can see the poise and patience he obviously got from his mom and dad," Tampa Bay teammate Vincent Lecavalier told me. "The whole family is pretty down to earth ... and focused, really focused."

"He's really cerebral, always seems to be thinking about five seconds ahead of every play," Lightning captain Martin St. Louis added. "It must look to him like the rest of us are playing in slow motion."

In Game 4 of the Finals, Brad rocketed a 30-footer off Calgary goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff's left shoulder high into the net just 2:48 into the game.

Richards exploits landed him in the record book, surpassing the previous mark of six playoff game-winners in one season set by Joe Sakic in 1996 and tied by Joe Nieuwendyk in 1999. Richards' seventh game-winning goal of the playoffs tied the Stanley Cup Finals at two games apiece.

"His vision is extraordinary," explained Calgary coach Darryl Sutter. "He makes plays that you don't expect, that you don't anticipate. He's a game-breaker for sure."

Richards, Lecavalier and St. Louis captured Tampa Bay's first-and-only Stanley Cup championship in 2004, collecting 26 points in 23 playoff games and earning the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the postseason.

He was the first player in history to begin his career 8-0 in playoff Game 7's.

Richards was selected by the Lightning in the third round of the 1998 NHL draft. He made his NHL debut two years later and after helping Rimouski Oceanic win consecutive Canadian Junior Memorial Cup titles.

Richards scored a career-best 28 goals with Dallas in 2010-11 and he twice totaled 91 points in 2005-06 with Tampa Bay and again four seasons later with Dallas.

"As far as I'm concerned, Brad Richards is a sure thing," co-G.M. Brett Hull added after acquiring Richards from Tampa Bay. "We have a guy who has won the Stanley Cup, won the Olympic Gold Medal, won the Conn Smythe Trophy being the MVP of the NHL playoffs. To me, there's no risk, not when you're adding a player like this who is in the prime of his career."

Said Detroit Hall of Fame defenseman Nicklas Listrom, "You can't take your eyes off of Brad for a moment. He lulls you into thinking he's just looking to make a pass. That's when he lets go of one of his sneaky-quick wrist shots."

"Richie is an opportunistic guy, a special player," Arizona coach Dave Tippett, who was with Richards in Dallas, said. "A lot of times, he not only creates the turnover, but then makes the play that results in a goal."

Ryan McDonagh was with Richards when he played for the Rangers.

"He just really tried to show his passion for the game," McDonagh said. "His love and his work ethic is something you definitely can’t teach a player. You either have it or you don't, and he tried to spread that throughout the room so guys could all buy in and make sure they’re that much more prepared and that much more focused for the game."

Said Jon Tortorello, who coach him at Tampa Bay: "I've known him since he was a kid. You could see that he had that intangible as a young player. He makes big plays at big times."

Richards used to laugh about how his parents, Glen and Delite, and how they followed his career. You see, lobster fishing is in the blood of the Richards family -- so is their 46-foot boat that is named "Brad and Paige" after Glen's children. Brad understands his dad's dilemma.

From an early age, Brad Richards knew his future didn't lie in lobster traps.

"I'm the son of a fourth-generation lobster man ... but I don't like waking up at 4 a.m. to go out there," he said with a smile. "My dad had me on the boat a few times, but he'd be the first one to tell you it was never something I got excited about doing.

"But a lot of my friends have turned out to be fishermen. Maybe that's what drove me out of there to maybe make it the NHL. I'm not sure."

But he knew his parents watched and followed his career.

"They watch all the games," Richards said. "Even if it might mean that in staying up late the night before to watch the game that they sleep in a little longer the next morning."

Sleep in?

"Yeah," Brad Richards said laughing a bit to himself. "On those days they probably don't head to the boat until like 4:30 or 5 a.m."

Like abracadabra or magic, Brad Richards 15-year NHL career was filled with memories.

Now, POOF, they're gone.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Phil Kessel ... Stanley Cup add-on who made it work

By Larry Wigge

Exhiliration. Finally, winning the Stanley Cup was like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders.

"Who could have dreamed a year ago this could have happened?" explained Kessel. "The feeling is unreal."

After nine seasons of success, when you consider 30 goals or more as success. Kessel had achieved 30 or more goals six times in his first nine seasons in the NHL -- twice putting up 37 goals. Phil the Thrill went to the Pittsburgh Penguins and, while it was a complete turnaround, those feelings of being misjudged, mischaracterized.

POOF!!! It disappeared.

"I mean, how can you ask for anything better than this?" Kessel said. "Winning the Stanley Cup is what you dream of and what you play for."

Those three years at Boston and six at Toronto were forgotten -- as was the first two-and-one-half months in Pittsburgh after Kessel just didn't mix with either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin and a coaching change had to be made.

As a member of the Stanley Cup champion Penguins he was given two days with the Cup. He chosen Madison, Wisconsin, his birthplace, and also the Toronto SickKid's Hospital. Kessel, who survived testicular cancer after being diagnosed in 2006, was involved with the hospital during his six seasons with the Maple Leafs from 2009-15.

Kessel was selected fifth overall, in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft by Boston. He last season with Pittsburgh with 26 goals and 33 assists, including 19 goals and 25 assists after the coaching change.

He more than made up for that by tallying a club-high 12 goals and 21 assists in 24 games to give Kessel 23 goals and 20 assists in 46 career playoff games.

From persona non grata in Toronto 12 months earlier to key contributor in a Stanley Cup march in Pittsburgh -- just unreal, right?

"I felt fine with this deal from Day 1," GM Jim Rutherford said of trading prospects Nick Spaling, Kasperi Kaspanen and Scott Harrington to Toronto. "It's hard to find guys that can score goals or set them up. If it's not happening every game, I guess some people think it should. That's not the way sports works. We did what we needed to do where our team is. Toronto did what they needed to do with what they're trying to do.

"I really like how Kessel has fit into the team. We have top players -- the best player in the game -- but we also have a team concept. Phil's bought into that right from the start. So I like how he's fit into the team. The rest of the stuff? You see it on the ice."

Even sweeter for Rutherford and the Penguins is that the Leafs are paying $1.2 million a year of his $8 million cap hit. At a $6.8 million cap hit, Kessel was easily worth every dime in his first year in Pittsburgh.

Including in that clutch performance by Keseel, it was the game-winning assists on a goal by Nick Bonino in overtime to eliminate the Washington Capitals. Kessel, Bonino and Carl Hagelin were a third-line that put up first-line numbers.

Matt Cullen, who won a Stanley Cup at Carolina in 2006, was able to fit in as well ... as a fourth-line center.

"He's been so good," raved Cullen. "He's playing such a complete game right now. He's just such a dynamic player. Whenever he touches the puck, something good happens and it's not just shooting the puck. He's creating, things happen with his speed, he's finding open guys. He's such a challenge for defensemen to handle. He's been awesome."

Mike Sullivan got all the credit, taking over for Mike Johnston at midseason. Much of it was deserved, of course, for putting in working order. But ...

"Phil deserves the credit for his contribution to helping this team win. I didn't do anything," said Sullivan. "We have a very transparent relationship. I try to challenge him in areas of his game where we think he can improve, get better, help our team win.

"I think Phil has made a complete commitment to this team. We don't get to where we're at if Phil doesn't play the type of hockey that he's played here throughout the course of this playoffs. He scores big goals. His offense speaks for itself. He's dangerous on the power play. He's dangerous off the rush. But I think what his teammates admire and respect, what his coaching staff certainly does -- his commitment away from the puck and to play at both ends of the rink. He's a complete player right now. When he plays that way, he's one of the more elite players in the league, in our opinion."

Speaking of captain Crosby, "He just doesn't necessarily want to be in front of the camera. But I think he is pretty easy going, laid back and funny to be around."

St. Louis center David Backes raved about Kessel.

"He's definitely got a special ability and that's why he's got 30 goals in the NHL already and that's why he's able to score like he did," Backes said. "He's always around the puck, he's got great timing to arrive right when it does and his finish is great as well."

Backes has detected a difference in Phil within the context of the Team USA dressing room -- where all the key elements of the 2010 Olympic silver medal team are four years older and far more mature as players.

"Everyone's really had a lot of growth in their personal lives and in the poise they're showing on the ice and he's no exception," Backes said. "He's a guy that's grown as a person and shown on the ice that he can handle big-time situations. He's a player that's out there and making plays all the time."

"I'm so thrilled," a beaming Kessel said. "I, I, I don't even know what to say.

"The Cup was way heavier than I thought it was going to be. It's so special. You dream your whole life for this."

Kessel is very understated about his exploits, but his eyes light up when you discuss his favorite topic, skating.

"My parents were both good athletes, so I think I get some of my ability from the them," Kessel said. "My dad, Phil Sr., was a college quarterback and he played in the Canadian football league. My mom, Kathy, ran track in college. I think I get my speed from my mother. I just always loved to skate, loved it right from the beginning when I was a little kid. Back then, I was always saying, "Mom, I'm going skating." For me, it was always my favorite thing to do, skating."

Phil Kessel Sr. attended Northern Michigan University from 1976-81. Steve Mariucci was the NMU quarterback in Kessel's freshman season and stayed on as a graduate assistant. Mariucci helped coach Kessel in his senior year. Kessel was drafted by the Washington Redskins and spent his first year on injured reserve. The second season, "They found out I wasn't very good and released me." He went to Calgary and played for the Stampeders in the Canadian Football League and then Birmingham in the old USHL.

Amanda, his sister, herself a world-class hockey player, who won a silver medal with the U.S. team in Sochi --- also posted a picture of herself drinking from the trophy.

The father is as glib and analytical as the son is brief and shy. Dad was asked if the reticence comes from Mom.

"I was exactly the same way when I was his age," said Kessel Sr. "I really wasn't comfortable talking until almost my mid-20s. "Phil says what happens on the ice is what matters. Mostly all we heard from him when he was a kid was, 'Mom, I'm going skating.'"

Since 1996, only 13 players have produced more points per game in the postseason (minimum 40 games) than Phil Kessel (0.94). The Wisconsin native sits a touch below Alex Ovechkin (0.98), but ahead of similar scorers, past and present, such as Dany Heatley, Corey Perry, Paul Kariya and Brett Hull, albeit in significantly fewer games.

One of the NHL's most polarizing figures of the past decade pinched his eyes to try to stop the tears, the hugs from his family members only making it harder to do so.

Phil Kessel, Stanley Cup champion, playoff warrior, and now forever more seen in a different light.

"I mean, it's an unbelievable feeling, obviously it's special," said the teary-eyed Kessel.

"It's been a journey," Kessel later added, a lump in his throat.

Penguins owner and Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux credited Jim Rutherford after the Cup win.

"He deserves a lot of the credit, starting with the Phil Kessel trade," Lemieux said. "That was a big piece. You saw how he played in the playoffs, just an amazing competitor."

Saturday, July 16, 2016

At nearly 40, Shane Doan just gets hockey

By Larry Wigge

Shane Doan simply gets it.

Whether it's using his 6-1, 223-pound frame for outmuscling an opponent in from the the nets or using his quickness. It clearly works.

When it came down to the 39-year-old captain to step aside and let the younger players like Max Domi and Anthony Boisclair to move up the pecking order on offense, he helped the young players with the confidence he he learned on the job.

"He's captain, our leader, someone who brings everyone to the next level," Coyotes GM John Chayka said. "We're excited to reach an agreement with him and get him on a team we feel has a chance to be real good by the end of the season."

The 39-year-old Doan is coming off one of his best seasons, leading Arizona with 28 goals and finishing with 19 assists in 72 games. He has spent his entire 20-year career with the franchise, starting when it was in Winnipeg in 1995, and is its all-time leader in goals (296), points (945) and games (1,466).

Doan signed a one-year contract with a base salary of $2.5 million to give the Coyotes flexibility at a time when Chicago and St. Louis were fighting the salary cap level.

"I'm aware that in order for our team to be successful I'm going to take a lesser and lesser role," Doan said, he said tickling off other Dylan Strome, the third pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, and Brandon Perlini, the 12th pick in the 2014 draft. "There are going to be young guys that are going to take bigger and bigger roles ... which has already started to happen."

"Shane Doan had a great year," Chayka reasoned. "The way he impacts our team overall, I think they're all better players because of Shane."

"I can't stress enough on how the young guys made me feel relevant," he added about the young core that made big strides last season. "It could be hard being the old guy in the group. They are all ultra-respectful and eager to learn."

Doan's 31 goals in 2008-09 and 30 goals in '05-06 were clearly better, but the last three season have wound up with 13, 23 and 14. It was upbeat that Doan had 28 goals while the younger player were growing.

"He deserves it," coach Dave Tippett said. "When you look at what he's done for this franchise, it's incredible. His personal characteristics equal his abilities as a hockey player. That's an unbelievable combination. To do it for one organization for 20 years is incredible."

Whether it's in Southwest Arizona with Shane and his wife, Andrea, or it's in Southwestern Alberta with his parents, it's still home.

He talks about the exhilation of making the playoffs ...

"It's a relief, because you just want to get a chance to do something in the playoffs and make some noise," he says. "Everyone always talks about if you get out of the first round anything can happen. Now we've got to find a way to win that next round and that's really our next goal ... to win four more games. If we do that, we'll regroup again. Now, we've got that chance."

It's a long journey for a heart and soul player ... one very much worth the wait.

There's a plaque -- probably covered in dust in a closet back home at Bernie and Bernice Doan's Circle Square Ranch in Halkirk, Alberta, which doubles as a Christian camp for kids of all ages, where the youngsters come to ride horses, swim and do archery -- that chronicles a pretty interesting and intense hockey rivalry that not many people know about.

Five other members of Doan's family are already in Halls of Fame -- starting with his grandfather Muff Doan, who was the bareback champion at the Calgary Stampede back in 1937 and steer-riding champion in 1944, followed by great uncles Jack Wade, Urban and Earl and uncle Phil Doan -- all of whom are members of the Canadian Rodeo Hall of fame. But the feats of athleticism don't stop there. Shane's younger sister, Leighann, set an Alberta province record in the shot put and was a standout in the 100 meter dash before she turned her attention to basketball and led the French women's pro basketball league in scoring.

And that doesn't even take into consideration the hockey threads that marvelously are intertwined between the extended family that include the Ellerbys and Prices.

That puck history started with Shane's dad, Bernie, a defenseman who was picked in the sixth round of the 1971 NHL Draft by the St. Louis Blues and also includes the first-rounders -- Shane by Winnipeg, Carey Price by Montreal in 2005 and Keaton Ellerby by Florida in 2007. Plus, Ellerby's dad, Cal, played for the Calgary Wranglers junior team. His uncle, Dallas Ellerby, skated for Calgary, Edmonton and Victoria in the Western Hockey League. And Price's dad, Jerry, was a Calgary junior goalie, who was drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers.

Instead of calf roping and bullriding, the 6-2, 216-pound Doan chose to be an NHL power forward and crash the net, bang in the corners and hammer defensemen. In 2004, Shane made it to an All-Star Game for the first time. Now he's back in 1999 ... and Price, his second cousin, just happens to be on the other side.

Knowing the history of this highly-competitive family, I wondered if Shane had already sent a warning shot out to Price to his Cup-wandering cousin.

"No I haven't warned him about wiring a high hard one at his head, if that's what you mean," Doan said with a mischievous smile on his face.

"Nothing would surprise me with Shane. He's a great guy. I always looked up to him when I was growing up. But I really do expect him to pull something out of his hat that's a little different if he had a great scoring chance against me," Price shot back. "Every year about this time they show that All-Star Game highlight of Owen Nolan pointing at Dominik Hasek (from the 1997 All-Star Game in San Jose) and then putting the puck right where he was pointing. I can see Shane trying something like that."

Not so, said Doan, adding, "I don't have those kinds of skills. I have to keep both hands on the stick at the same time."

Typical soft-peddling added Price, saying, "Shane's got better hands than he's letting on."

Do I hear a little bit of trash-talking? Well, sort of.

Said Doan, "All I know is Carey is 2-0 against the Coyotes ... but I've got goals in both games."

Feeling that another but was coming, I encourage Shane to continue, "And in the game he won this year, I broke up his shutout bid in the third period, which kind of ticked him off a little."

The Doans, Ellerbys and Prices have a history of hard-working, hotly-competitive, argumentative parties over the years. It's not as fabled as the Hatfields and McCoys or as bloody as the McCartys and Lemieuxs, but ...

That plaque we spoke of represents a series of hockey battles between the Doans and the Ellerbys.

"Every year on Boxing Day for about five or six years between 1988 and 1994, we'd have a family party that wound up on the ice," Doan recalled, with this vicious look on his face and lively memories to spare. "It would start out like a picnic. But then it would get pretty competitive when we took out our hostilities on the ice."

"I remember one year my cousin Darcy ran over my dad," Shane said with fire in his eyes. "I HAD to get back at him for that.

"Another year my uncle Cal was creamed. And I had to stand up for my teammate in that situation, too."

And that plaque? "It shows that the Ellerbys won most of those games," Shane said proudly.

Wait a minute, Shane. Don't you mean the Doans?

"No, back in 1988, I was only 12 and the Doans thought they were the greatest thing in hockey since Gordie Howe and Rocket Richard and they didn't want a kid on their team," Shane laughed. "The Ellerbys didn't have as many players as the Doans and my dad (whose wife is an Ellerby) said they would be glad to have me play for them.

"After a few years, the Doans wanted me to change sides and play for them. But I told them, 'No way. You had your chance.' "

Price was only four or five when he got his first taste of the family rivalry ... but only as a fan of those games.

"I always thought that Shane was always the best player," Price added. "Those games were hotly competitive. I remember a couple of games were real bloodbaths.

"The men in our family are not known for having soft hands -- not when they all were a bunch of farmers and ranchers."

I wondered if Shane Doan had ever thought about following in the footsteps of his uncles and being a rodeo star.

"Not me," he laughed. "They're all tougher than me. It takes a different breed to do that."

I think we'd all agree that Shane is a different breed as well -- great character, leader, hard to play against.

Shane Doan and his wife have a similar type of ranch in Phoenix. Call it Halkirk East, which doubles as a Christian camp for kids of all ages, where the youngsters come to ride horses, swim and do archery.

So you see, Shane has those same hard hands of a farmer or ranchers. But you see, the goals his parents set forth make him a true human being.

And 40 is not retirement age for Doan, who is four goals shy of 400 and 15 points shy of 1,000 for his career.

"The big thing that sticks out for me is probably his work ethic," said Coyotes rookie Max Domi. "I mean, he's out there right now taking one-timers, trying to get better, and he's been in the league for 20 years. That just shows how much he wants to help the team and how much he wants to be the best.

"Hes's a guy that I've kind of grown up idolizing and now to get to play with him, it's pretty sweet. To get a front-row seat to watch him make history is pretty sweet, too."

Home games on makeshift rinks made with spray from the volunteer fire department's hoses, leisurely rounds of golf with buddies, marbles --whatever it is, Doan is coming after you.

"You name the game, he wants to win," said Colorado Avalanche veteran Jarome Iginla, Doan’s teammate at Kamloops and Team Canada. "Any little game and he's very competitive at whatever we’re playing. I have to bow out when it’s wrestling, though. He likes to wrestle, too, but I have to bow out against him in that."

Hockey players are usually down-to-earth and hardworking, at least as the stereotype goes. Many come from small Canadian outposts, where failing to pull your weight isn't an option and the only way to make a name for yourself is the dirt-under-the-fingernail route.

Doan is the personification.

Growing up on a ranch was a blast because he got to play all the games like the other kids and didn’t have to abide by all the same rules. But running the Circle Square Ranch, one of several across Canada, wasn't just for fun, it was a business. Everyone in the family had to chip in, so Doan spent most of his days working in the barn, taking saddles on and off, leading rides around the ranch, then cleaning up at the end of the day.

Secret to his longevity?

"I really like to play," Shane Doan replied. "I mean, I'm going to play hockey when I'm done playing in this league -- I'll play somewhere else. It's fun to play. That's the biggest thing. I enjoy coming to the rink. If you enjoy the game, it makes it a lot easier."

You see, Shane Doan get's it.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

A cinch ... Matthew Tkachuk ... POWER to draw from

By Larry Wigge

Keith Tkachuk's basement used to carry on some heated battles.

The battles were intense. The walls would shake, rattle and roll as the former St. Louis Blues power forward would play host the one or more or his rookie roomies David Backes, Lee Stempniak and Philip McRae all lived in the Tkachuk basement when they first joined the team ... and Matthew Tkachuk has pictures with all of them on the wall of his room.

"I used to play hockey in their basement with him with mini-sticks," explained Backes. "I can't believe he's going to be draft eligible."

Tkachuk was actually chosen sixth overall in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft by the Calgary Flames.

"He was kind of a reckless ball of energy," Backes continued. "He just kept on going and I think that's served him well in his growth in the game and his prospects for playing pro hockey."

Basil McRae remembers those days.

"Matthew's what I would call a modern-day power forward," says McRae, GM of the London Knights team Tkachuk suited up for last tseason. "He scores nice goals and makes nice plays ... but he's also kind of a junk-yard dog in front of the net."

You could see the kid shaping up an intimidating power forward much like his father. And you could see Backes and Tkackuk's learning from the feet of the master power player with some nifty moves down in Keith and Chantel's basement.

Keith Tkachuk high was 52 goals in 1996-97 -- twice he topped the 50-goal mark and two more time he had 40-goals as he combined with power forwards ... Phil Esposito and Tim Kerr, Cam Neely and Kevin Stevens, Joe Nieuwendyk and Dave Andreychuk, Brendan Shanahan and Jaromir Jagr, and Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf.

Backes has exceeded 30 goals twice in his career. Watching Tkachuk and Backes could show a young-and-inspired power forward some nifty moves growing up.

Scoring in front of the nets, where the truly great power players get down and dirty. Finding the right spots -- holes in the defenses as well. If anything is missing -- it's the snarly look from Tkachuk.

Matthew contributed 38 goals for the US Development Program in 2014, after getting 13 goals for the US Juniors in 2014-15. He moved on to the London Knight in 2015-16 and won the junior championship. First, he scored 30 goals and 77 assists for London and in the playoffs 20 goals and 20 assists in 18 games.

"He's a huge influence. I mean I look to him whenever there's a problem, whenever there's something good ... I tell him everything," said Matthew. "He's been there every step of the way for me so far and he'll continue to be."

As an NHL player, Dale Hunter saw first-hand the skills that made Keith Tkachuk an elite power forward.

"You see Keith's stature," London coach Dale Hunter said. "He could score goals, played hard. He finds good areas to score and he plays hard and he's hard to play against.

"He's in front of the net, he's got no fear, he's got great hands in tight. He gets them off the rush but he also gets them NHL style, standing in front, tipping pucks and winning battles."

Hunter continued, "Keith was very hard to play against, he's a lot like his son. They're sort of a spitting image."

That attitude was instilled in him by his father. The advice he handed out was always the same.

"Whenever we drove home after practice, or talked about hockey, he would just always say compete hard and be a good teammate ...

"His two main points of focus, always, is about compete and be a good teammate," Matthew Tkachuk explained. "So that's what I focus on every day."

Keith Tkachuk was one of the best power forwards of his era. He made his debut with the Winnipeg Jets in 1991-92 and finished his career with 538 goals and 527 assists in 1,201 games with Winnipeg/Arizona, St. Louis and Atlanta.

He was an all-star five times. Internationally, he represented the United States at four Olympic Games and helped the Americans win the 1996 World Cup.

Like Matthew, Brady, the youngest son, is a product of the suddenly fertile St. Louis minor hockey system. Unlike his brother, he's headed for BU next year, where his grandparents and an army of aunts, uncles and cousins await.

Keith’s father, John, was a Boston firefighter who worked the bulldog crew at the old Boston Garden, putting down the parquet floor for Celtics games after Bruins games. His mother, Gerry, is the aunt of former NHLer Tom Fitzgerald.

"They wanted one of us to go (to BU)," Matthew says. "They're all excited."

Keith says, "He's doing a good job. At the end of the day it's not easy for him. He's been at the mercy of his brother and his father. He's got the Boston temper and I'm trying to manage that a bit."

He's asked about his father and whether that name has been a burden or a blessing.

"It's never been a negative," says Tkachuk. "The only way it would be a negative is if I compare myself to him. I don't do that. I'm my own player. I know that. He knows that. But I think I'm on the right track to achieve some of the things he achieved.'

And that’s an enticing thought for anyone who drafts the left winger.

Matthew is 6-1, weighs in at 195 pounds.

"He's the best player in the draft from the (faceoff) dots in,' says Canucks GM Jim Benning, who's seen Tkachuk play 15 times this season. Just saying.

"He's more skilled than I was," Keith says. "These kids do stuff at a young age I couldn't do as a pro .... I just wish I got a chance to see him more."

The growth of Matthew Tkackuk.

"I was 3 when I started playing hockey," Tkachuk said. "I just fell in love with it from the beginning. I used to go to my dad's games and he forced me into skates but I just loved it.

"Being around the guys and seeing how they cared about themselves as professionals. I saw what it takes to be a pro hockey player."

After Keith finished his pro career, he served as one of Matthew’s hockey coaches for a few seasons.

"It wasn't easy, but he wants the best for me. He pushed just as hard and didn't give me anything easy," Matthew said. "I feel because of that I have become stronger and better because of him. It's unbelievable when I look back. I wouldn't be here without him or my mom."

Matthew, who hails from St. Louis, credits the NHL's Blues for making his hometown a "hockey hotbed" for the next generation of players.

"Growing up, when I was really young, the Blues were not that good," he said. "Not everybody was into hockey. In the last five years, the former pros have really been promoting the game around St. Louis, helping out with youth teams and camps.

"They are making St. Louis a hockey hotbed. I look at the players that have made it, playing for Team USA and going onto the pros. They want to do the same things. It is the coaching and parents who are willing to do whatever
for us."

Director of amateur scouting for the Flames Tod Button explains, "We call him an 'inside-the-dots' player. He's got really good hands and he can make good plays in traffic. He's got really, really soft hands and he can make soft little passes in tight areas which is a skill in itself. But he can also play hard. He can get the shot off in traffic when guys are cross-checking him and hacking him. He's always in the mix and always in the middle. It's a hard game he plays. He plays hard and it's not easy to succeed that way.

"He's got a great compliment in the two guys he plays with but he adds a lot to that line with his physicality and creating space for those guys."

Another of Keith's favorite teammates was Jeremy Roenick. He, too, has connections with Matthew.

"His compete level and intelligence really stood out," Roenick said. "If you watch him, he plays a lot like Keith Tkachuk. He's not the fastest, but because of his hockey sense he puts himself in good position. That's engrained in his blood from dad.

"I was there when Matthew was born and watched him grow up and then I saw his name on the list and made a couple phone calls to make sure he was on my team," Roenick continued. "Keith said, 'You better play my kid a lot, he needs to get drafted high.' I said, 'Don't worry, I'm gonna try and get him to play the whole game.' "

Matthew Tkachuk went through the first ordeal to the draft. Next ...

"I'm a guy who's a winner," he said. "I can contribute on offense and be an offensive weapon. If I play my game, I think I can be one of the best in the draft."


With such father as Keith Tkachuk to draw POWER from ...

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Whether he No. 1, 2 or 3 Pierre-Luc Dubois is climbing fast

By Larry Wigge

So much for those favorite TV lists.

Going into the NHL Entry Draft last weekend somebody listed Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi were the Top 3 picks in the draft.


Do your own scouting. Don't take for granted that the Top 3 players are right there for you to scoop up.

"Everybody keeps assuming, everybody keeps asking me the same question," explained Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen. "For me, it's the excitement of picking the best possible player for the Blue Jackets that counts."

It's funny because Kekalainen is from Finland and Laine and Puljujarvi both are former countrymen.

"I'm proud of country," Kekainen continued. "I'm not giving up my citizenship."

Kekalainen has worked to Ottawa, St. Louis and now Columbus. He and Ville Siren, his chief scout who also comes from Finland, so they are not going to give you the stock answer.

"That's all right, I don't need to go to Helsinki and walk around the city," Kekaainen answered. "I really don't think of that, to be honest with you. I work for the Columbus Blue Jackets and I want to get the best possible player for the Columbus Blue Jackets. That's my only priority."

The question not was speculative and Kekainen doesn't buy into that. If the Blue Jackets had the No. 2 pick in the draft would they have passed on Laine.

I'll answer it for Jarmo. He would have taken Pierre-Luc Dubois second after Auston Matthews.

Dubois showed me Jamie Benn is a Cape Breton uniform last season -- 42 goals and 57 assists for 99 points with 112 penalty minutes and a +40 plus/minus rating in 62 regular season games. He's a Benn-like attacker, a big, fast, skilled guy with some real determination and savvy, especially when he gets the pucks on his stick. He's at his best on the rush or making a quick stickhandling move to free himself for a shot.

But the major aspect of his game is stickhandling, deking and getting off shots. Dubois has excellent stickhandling skills, absolutely fantastic, and he flashes them now and then to great advantage.

Now, Jarmo you can answer:

"We believe in skill and character -- and Dubois has it," Kekainen said. "To me, character and skill make a player stand out. That's why are here today."

The Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, Quebec native has recorded 52-92-144 with 170 penalty minutes and a +44 plus/minus rating in 116 games since making his junior debut with Cape Breton in 2014-15.

Futhermore ...

"It's harder to find centermen and defensemen, that's for sure, and we always take the best player available in our opinion," he said, "so I don't think we would have taken a center just to get a center if we had a winger ahead of him. He was No. 3 and that's why we picked him and that's why we didn't want to take any chance of moving down unless we knew for sure we were going to get him."

"Everyone talks to you about rumours and stuff like that and you try not to pay attention to it that much," added Kekalainen.

The big news was the rise of Cape Breton left wing-center Pierre-Luc Dubois from No. 7 among North American skaters in the mid-term to No. 1.

Dubois has blossomed into a two-way forward who depends as much on his size and snarl as his skill in patrolling all 200 feet of ice.

"In the corners, I had to out-think the opposition, out-skill them," said Dubois. "Now, I can outsmart them and be doing it with my strength. It helped a lot."

In his second season in the QMJHL, Dubois finished third overall in scoring with 42 goals and 99 points. The strong finish came after a post-Christmas position change from the wing to center. That's a position now that he feels very confident in playing at the NHL level.

"I'm a fast learner," Dubois admitted. "I'm a guy that can play any position anywhere on the ice in any situation. In the long run I think I have the skillset to play center.

"I haven't touched my ceiling and my potential is still far away. You're drafting for what you're going to be -- not for what you are now."

His coach Marc-Andre Dumont said, "He takes care of his body. He's a smart player. What does that tell you? His hockey IQ is outstanding."

"He's a big man and I really like the presence he brings to the room when he enters and the leadership qualities he has at that age," said Kekalainen. "Everything screamed, 'This is our guy.' "

Hockey runs in the Dubois family. Eric Dubois played 11 seasons in North American minor leagues and in Europe. He met his wife Jill while he was playing for Atlanta in the International Hockey League. As a child Pierre-Luc played baseball, soccer, golf and football, but he loved hockey the most.

"I am a dual citizen, Canadian and American. My mother was born and raised in Georgia," says Dubois.

"Right from the start you could see he had a passion for hockey," his father said. "You tell he loved being around the rink."

Pierre-Luc's earliest hockey memories were skating in Germany, where his father's pro career ended. He also recalls the different coaching stops Eric has made in the QMJHL, from Baie-Comeau to Acadie-Bathurst to Rimouski, where he's been since the 2012-13 season.

"I grew up in junior rinks with my dad, watching his teams play," he said. "I'm still like that today, even though he's in Rimouski and I'm in Cape Breton. I still follow pretty much everybody in the CHL."

Eric Dubois said he watches his son via the Internet as much as his job allows. He said he's learned to pick his spots when it comes to fatherly advice.

His son may be a left-shot forward while he was a right-shot defenseman, but Eric knows the game. He was selected by the Quebec Nordiques in the fourth round (No. 76) of the 1989 NHL Draft, and in 1990 he helped Laval of the QMJHL advance to the Memorial Cup.

"First and foremost I want to relate to my son as a dad, not a coach," Eric said. "He has a coach. If he wants to talk about hockey, ask me for advice, then we will talk. But I'm not going to force the issue."

Dubois' favorite player is Claude Giroux. Though now he likes to study the game of Dallas Stars forward Jamie Benn. Benn is listed at 6-2 and 210 pounds, so there's a similar build to Dubois. Dubois said he likes the two-way game of last season's Art Ross Trophy winner.

"I think I'm working in the right direction," he said. "I see myself as a power forward with strong offensive ability. I like using my size to drive the puck to the net. I’m a competitor who likes to be a difference-maker in a game.

"Every week in the summer, I take part in four power-skating sessions in Rimouski and another one in Quebec City. I'm also planning on taking part in a clinic organized by Pierre Aubry later this summer in Shawinigan."

Jamie Benn look out. Pierre-Luc Dubois has the rest of the NHL in his sites for 2016-17.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Remember the Finnish Flash ... Patrik Laine is the latest

By Larry Wigge

Give it to Patrik Laine for honestly stating that he was the No. 1 player in this draft.

Maybe yes. Maybe no he wasn't. But he had the nerve to state it out loud.

"I want to be No. 1 because I want to show people that I want to be the best player in this draft and that's the thing that I wanna be," Laine explained. "The first one."

He continued, "I would be lying if I said I couldn't go first. That's always been my goal. After this season, I think it's really possible to go first."

That second part of the story is Laine saying that Toronto, you had it, and you messed up.

The Maple Leafs bypassed Laine for center Auston Matthews as the No. 1 pick the 2016 NHL Entry Draft.

Marc Scheifele, now a teammate, got to face him in the World championship's.

"He's a really good player," Scheifele said. "He’s got an unbelievable shot. You know, he thinks the game well. He's got a lot of skill to his game and he's going to be a special player."

Starring as a teenager for Finland's silver-medal winning squad at the world championships last month, he tied for the tournament lead with seven goals and was fourth among all players with 12 points in 10 games.

During the regular season, playing for Taprara Tampere Laine came up with 17 goals and 16 assists in 46 games in the Finnish league regular season.

Laine is the flashier, more explosive of the two top prospects, an exciting goal-scorer capable of wowing a crowd. Matthews has the size (six foot two, more than 200 pounds), skill and speed.

The way he sets up in the high slot and waits for the one-timer is straight from the Alex Ovechkin playblook and Laine has the shot to pull it off. That's going to be a nightmare to deal with for the Central Division.

Here's another Ovi-type goal from the World Championships. This is what he does. Try and stop it.

Comparisons have been made to fellow Finn Teemu Selanne as well as minted snipers Alex Ovechkin and Brett Hull. He makes reporters laugh and loves to smile. When he wears his hair long he looks like a rock star.

Laine has a powerful confidence. It's hard to look away from him when he's in the room or on the ice. He draws your attention. When Team Canada tried to give him a rough go at the recent World Championship -- a late and dirty hit from Corey Perry and lots of chirping -- Laine revelled in it.

"I like it when the other team loses its focus and does bad and dirty things to me," Laine said. "When they start talking at me it means they've lost their own game.

"If they focus on me like that, it makes it easier for my teammates to make plays. I keep my cool and play mine and our game. I like it when the other team tries to get me. It makes me play better and it means they're distracted."

Take it from the draft of 1980, when Jari Kurri was the 69th pick by the Edmonton Oilers and in 1988, when Selanne was the 10th pick overall by the Jets for the Finnish invasion into the NHL to begin.

"He's a powerful kid who probably doesn't realize yet what he has in his toolbox," said TV analyst Ray Ferraro. "Right now it's all about his shot. Why not? If you popped him into the NHL right now on this day, he's got a top-five shot in the entire league. His shot is unreal. And it's not just the one-timer. It's his wrist shot too. His mechanics and his release are elite.

"You know how some guys just hit the golf ball farther than anyone else and you don’t know why? Well, that's this kid and his shot. But he's going to figure out he has more than just the shot. He's almost 6-5 and his reach is Mario Lemieux-like. When he puts his body between you and the puck and extends his arms, you're seven feet away from the puck. It's impossible to take the puck from him. I'll say this: He really won me over at the worlds."

So, the pure, elite goal-scoring winger can be just as cherished in the recipe of a champion. If not for Jamie Benn, Ovechkin, Vladimir Tarasenko, Perry and Patrick Kane, where would their teams be?

He's listed as 6-foot-4, but he says he's bigger.

"Six-foot-4.7," Laine said, careful to make sure the decimal is heard. He wants to wring every inch out of his height and prodigious talent.

Dressed in a blue suit with no tie, he's got the last few pimples of his teenage years and a beard that is little more than a patch of light blonde scruff here and there.

His hair is neatly cut -- not the stringy flow that leaked out of his helmet late this past season.

"That's my tradition. I let it grow all season and then cut it down," Laine said.

"From the moment we won the lottery, we knew we were going to have the opportunity to get a very special player," said Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff. "Being able to continue some scouting and watch him play at the world championships, it only went to confirm how excited we were to have the opportunity to draft him.

"Meeting him at the combine, his personality is fantastic. We had some great conversations, some good laughs and it's going to be a really great fit for the City of Winnipeg and certainly for our franchise."

For the Winnipeg Jets franchise, it has been since 1991 when the Jets took Dale Hawerchuk No. 1 overall in the NHL Entry Draft and to the selection of Selanne -- never did the quality rise to the front.

"Those are the things that separate the good players from the very good players ... and the fact that the bigger the stage, the better he played," Cheveldayoff said. "When you talk to players of that kind of caliber, you expect those kind of answers. But I think it's how you deliver it and the context of everything, so when you're sitting in the confines of the meeting, that's what you're looking for, you're looking for how it's delivered and how it's handled.

"When you're asking those kinds of questions, you see a kind of humility when he's saying it. It's like, 'Look, I know I'm a good player, but I just want to play hockey. I want to be the best and the best at everything I do and I'm driven towards it.' I would venture a guess that within the confines of a lot of meetings over the course of time, the good players probably said that as well."

Laine's sense of humor also stood out.

"There are lots of little things you talk about and he's quick to answer," Cheveldayoff continued. "He's got a good command of the English language, so he understands and he's thoughtful in his answers. There's always that dry sense of humor."

Selanne broke into the NHL as a dynamic rookie of the year.

"It would be nice to play in the city where he played. They city is crazy about him. And he's coming back to the outdoor game," said Laine. "They have the smallest rink and the best fans in the NHL, I've heard. It's a cold city, which I'm of course used to."

Will he be the next Finnish Flash or a flash in the pan?

For Patrik Laine, he of the booming shot, being compared with Alex Ovechkin or Brett Hull, their must be some Flash to his game.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Auston Matthews, No. 1 with a bullet

By Larry Wigge

Scottsdale, Arizona and this little kid who wanted to play hockey: Who wouldn't say no?

Auston Matthews has followed a road not travelled. After skipping major junior and U.S. college hockey, an 18-year-old kid from the Sunbelt known for its cacti, golf courses and desert nightlife, chose Zurich in Switzerland to become the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft.

"Zurich is a really good fit, a good place to develop," Matthews explained.  "The skill level is very high. It's a pro atmosphere."

While in Switzerland, Matthews put up 24 goals and 22 points in 36 games, won the league's Rising Star award and was second in voting for Most Valuable Player.

One year earlier, playing for the U.S. National Team Development Program, Matthews registered 117 points, shattering the program record of 102 set by Kane in 2005-06.

Matthews became the first No. 1 overall pick to come out of the Southwest, but he was first seventh American-born player selected first in the draft since Patrick Kane to the Chicago Blackhawks in 2007 ... but also the first player starring in Europe to go No. 1 since Alex Ovechkin to the Washington Capitals in 2004.

The 6-2, 205-pound Matthews became the first No. 1 pick by the Toronto Maple Leafs since Wendel Clark in 1985.

Like Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh, Alexander Ovechkin in Washington, Kane and Jonathan Toews in Chicago, and, more recently, Connor McDavid in Edmonton, Matthews is that once-in-a-generation prospect capable of raising up a moribund franchise and banishing decades of futility and angst in the blink of an eye.

That is certainly the hope of long-suffering Toronto hockey fans.

On Friday night, Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock called Matthews an "elite player" with an "elite drive train."

"He can be Auston Matthews, a real good player who is going to be a dominant center for the Leafs playing with or without the puck," Babcock said. "He'll be a championship-style center."

"Coach Babcock's resume speaks for itself. Olympic champion. Stanley Cup champion ... I think I can learn a lot from a guy like him," Matthews said of his new coach.

There have been four great Leafs centermen in my lifetime: Dave Keon, Darryl Sittler, Doug Gilmour and Mats Sundin. All in the Hall of Fame. And now a new day. A new name. A new possibility to build around.

"At times Auston reminds me of Anze Kopitar and at times, Jean Beliveau because of his reach and seemingly effortless stride," said Marc Crawford, the Zurich coach who held the same job in the NHL for 15 seasons. "His puckhandling skills are off the chart. I'm always amazed at the things he can do. And it really translates in a game. His short-area game is at an NHL level for sure ... and it's at an NHL elite level.

"I believe that's a lot of what the game is becoming. Those little plays that you make when you’re getting checked. People are pinching up so much more now and there's so much confrontation at the bluelines that you've got to be able to make plays in that five-foot area. You've got to be able to protect the puck and get by people. He does those things exceptionally well."

Matthews says his game compares to Kings center Kopitar and Chicago's Toews. Both players have five Stanley Cups between them.

And now comes the best part of this story.

Auston comes from a very athletic family ... not just hockey.

"I was really into baseball because my dad and grandpop played it growing up," he remembered, telling me that his father was a former college pitcher. "I really enjoyed hitting the most and that was really my strong suit. I enjoyed catching as well."

His uncle, Wes Matthews, played for the Miami Dolphins in 1966 where he finished the season with one catch for 20 yards. Auston's 14-year-old sister Breyana is one of the top 14-year-old golfers in the state.

This, you must remember, was a kid who wanted to learn about everything.

As a two-year-old he attended his first NHL game with his Brian, his father, and his uncle, Billy Matthews, a Coyotes season-ticket holder.

The young fan was captivated by the Zamboni machine that cleaned the ice during intermissions.

"I remember it being really loud," Matthews recalled.

Shortly after his sixth birthday, Matthews surprised his father by stating a desire to play hockey. His father has videotape of Auston's first trip around the ice.

"He had a very big grin on his face," Brian Matthews said. "I remember seeing that smile and thinking, Dang! This is going to be an expensive sport."

"I think he loved baseball," Brian Matthews said, "but there was too much standing around for him. If he could have batted every 15 seconds he would have loved it. Waiting around for the pitcher to throw the ball, it wasn't active enough for him."

Growing up in Scottsdale, Auston's favorite players were Shane Doan and Daniel Briere.

Matthews first expressed a desire to play hockey shortly after his sixth birthday and began playing with the Arizona Bobcats minor hockey program.

"When I was young, we were always traveling to Detroit, Chicago or Canada to find competition," Matthews said.

Brian is the chief technology officer for an east-coast firm, and Ema, his mom, is a former flight attendant from Hermosillo, Mexico, who has also worked in real estate and education. The two met at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and Auston was born a bit north in San Ramon, just outside San Francisco, though he was raised in Scottsdale.

Brian Matthews met his wife in college while working for an airline in Los Angeles. He didn't want the assignment that day -- a Mexican airline needed a hand with something -- but then the plane door opened and there she was.

"She spoke no English," Brian Matthews said of his wife, who grew up in a family of nine on a ranch in Mexico, before becoming a flight attendant. "I spoke no Spanish. I got fluent in about six months."

Matthews himself said he didn't go to Switzerland to be any sort of pioneer. He just wanted to play and get better.

"I felt like I was ready for the next step in pro hockey and in my development ... to prepare for the NHL," he said.

Under the terms of his work visa, he couldn't play until he turned 18, so he watched Zurich's first 12 games from the stands. On September 17 a Swiss television crew came to Zurich's practice rink with a birthday cake with 18 candles. Ema Matthews and the stadium crew whipped up a Mexican dinner for the team.

"I love mom's chicken tortilla soup," said Matthews. "She made it for the team for my birthday in Zurich, and afterwards the wives of almost half the players were asking for the recipe."

Emma served as the parent-figure for Auston in Switzerland. When Auston isn't playing hockey, he's on his computer taking classes online, spending a few hours each day in the evening.

"Alex (his sister) helps tutor Auston with some of his classes he takes online," Ema Matthews said. "She didn't take the entire semester off, so she has some college classes she's taking online as well. When she's not tied up with Auston, she'll help me around the house."

Ema never thought twice about packing her bags and joining her son to help live out his dream. At one point, she worked two jobs – at Starbucks and as a waitress at a high-end restaurant – to help pay for Auston's hockey.

"The whole family felt it was important for Auston to have family support in another country," she said. "It was a relatively easy decision for all of us. We understood the sacrifices we were making, and any of them would have done the same for the others if asked.

"I cook every day ... typically breakfast and dinner. I don't have to make lunch that much as Auston will go out with teammates after practice.

"Every now and again we'll go out to eat, but mostly I'm cooking to make sure he gets the nutrition he needs."

The trip to Switzerland became an accounting trip. How could the Matthews make hockey work?

"It was difficult," Brian Matthews said of making the costs work. "There were times where it was like, 'How are we going to do this?' But you find a way. Our son had a passion and one way or another we found a way to get things done."

Matthews exploded for 55 goals and 100 points in 48 games with the AAA Arizona Bobcats, gaining the attention of the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Lou Lamoriello, Toronto's GM, says, "He looks fast and strong. He's not your typical franchise centerman who can do everything. He competes at both ends. He has the size and strength to play a 200-foot game."

Auston Matthews has made a long journey to be the No. 1 pick in the draft -- from Sunbelt to Toronto.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Kris Letang from 5-8 to the Stanley Cup

By Larry Wigge

He carried the puck down the left wing, looking to make a play. Then he continued on, circling behind the net. Always surveying for the best scoring chance.

In less than a minute early in the second period of Game 6, Kris Letang went from playmaker extraordinaire to settling into one of those famous holes that goal scorers find.

He got in position to take a feed from Sidney Crosby behind the net and banged in a one-timer at 7:46 for a 3-1 victory over San Jose.

"I like to be dynamic. I like to be on the rush," Letang admitted. "Sometimes we're not winning or we're trailing or I don’t see our game creating chances and stuff like that, so I try to go and I try to do something more and I try to bring a little more to the table.

"You're not going to beat five guys on your own. You have to play the same way, the same game and things will open up."

Letang scored the winning goal for the Pittsburgh Penguins in their Stanley Cup-clinching victory over the Sharks. This is the third consecutive year that the Stanley Cup-winning goal was scored by a defenseman. The Kings' Alec Martinez scored the Cup winner in double-overtime in 2014 and the Blackhawks' Duncan Keith scored the Cup decider in 2015.

Defensemen scoring the winning goal in the clinching game of a Stanley Cup Final series had been a rarity. In fact, before this three-year streak it had happened only four times in the previous 40 years (1973-2013), with those goals scored by Paul Coffey (1985 Oilers), Ulf Samuelsson (1991 Penguins), Uwe Krupp (1996 Avalanche) and Frantisek Kaberle (2006 Hurricanes).

What's more, Letang managed to have a hand in all four of his team's game-winning goals in the Cup final. He becomes only the fourth player to accomplish this feat, the other three are among the greats of the game, Milt Schmidt in 1941, Jean Beliveau in 1965 and Wayne Gretzky in 1987.

It's playoff time and every team is looking for a game changer or a player who can literally change the complexion of the game. Be a difference maker. A quarterback.

Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin can change the complexion of a game ... just like that. Kris Letang is a difference maker or a quarterback as well.

At 6-0, 201-pounds, Letang orchestrates the Pittsburgh Penguins offense.

In each game you can find several game-changing differences that this little defenseman can affect.

All great playmakers ad lib improvising. Letang can often be found working his magic in and around the net, at the mid-boards or at either of the point positions.

This season started out as one to forget for the Penguins. On December 12, Pittsburgh stood in 12th place in the Eastern Conference. The Penguins also replaced coach Mike Johnston with Mike Sullivan.

After a slow start under Sullivan, Letang finished with 16 goals and 51 assists -- the highest point total in his nine-year career. He then scored three goals and 12 assists in 23 games of the playoffs.

He averaged 28:52 per game, taking on top forwards such as Rick Nash of the New York Rangers, Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Joe Thornton, all the while getting hit by opposition forecheckers every time they got the chance.

"Tanger is invaluable," Sullivan said. "He just plays so many important minutes for us and in so many situations. He's an elite defenseman. I think he's one of the top defensemen in the league."

Letang is perfectionist who is notorious for watching and re-watching game tape to figure out what he did wrong on plays where goals were scored.

"Kris the best defenseman now in the league," Malkin explained. "He stars in the offensive zone. He makes our offense go."

Crosby adds, "You see how many minutes he logs a game and how important those minutes are --– he's playing power play, penalty kill, he does it all. I think everybody recognizes when he's on the ice and what he generates and the way he can control a game."

New Jersey GM Ray Shero says he like Letang's progress better than when he was with the Penguins.

"I like what I see," Shero said. "He's a smart player. Really good footwork. One of those new-rules guys, obviously. They should be good for him.

"He's a puck-moving guy which, for us moving forward as an organization, we'll be looking for more guys like that."

To think, it wasn't until midget hockey that Letang grew from 5-9 to 6-0 feet tall and was switched from forward to defense. He was just developing on defense when when was the 61st chosen by the Penguins in the third-round of NHL Entry Draft in 2005.

"I was 5-9, 155 pounds when I switched to defense," the Montreal native explained. "I was still pretty small -- 5-10, 185 pounds when I was drafted. I worked out each year to build myself up. I don't want to be the small player."

It's the evolution of Letang's defensive game that has earned him a place in this team's core, making him a considerable candidate in the Norris Trophy race for the best defenseman in the game.  He's a very smart power-play quarterback and plays a clean, efficient, mistake-free game. He's a very subtle player, but very underrated. His poise under pressure, neat spin moves and great puck movement decisions give him a good shot to overcome the size handicap.

Growing up, Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr were his favorite players.

"Mario came over and talked to me and gave me a lot of tips," Letang explained. "Even now that he's retired, he still stops in our locker room all the time to make sure we're never too nervous about a game."

Kris Letang has grown up a lot.

"When I was 5 my Mom (Christiane) was carrying me everywhere," Letang recalled with fondness. "I alawys had a passion for the game of hockey."

After taking his turn to hoist the Cup, Letang carried his son in his arms on the ice and took a moment to reflect the journey he has made since first hoisting the Cup with the Penguins as a kid himself in 2009.

"Second year I won the Cup, so I thought it was a guarantee, you know?" Letang said. "Seven years without it. I enjoyed this one. It's a hard accomplishment."

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Matt Murray got his name on the Stanley Cup

By Larry Wigge

Matt Murray has put up some pretty good numbers over the years. But no team he had ever been on ... until now has ever won.

Now, his name will be chiseled into the Stanley Cup.

Murray peeked at the clock several times throughout the third period of Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final. He wasn't looking upward in hopes that time would fly. His mind was still in game mode and with the Pittsburgh Penguins clinging to a 2-1 lead over the San Jose Sharks, this was no time to get ahead of one's self.

"After we got that empty-netter they still had a minute left, so I knew they were going to make a push," Murray reasoned. "I knew we had to stay on our toes there for the last minute ... and that's what we did. They only had one or two shots the whole third period. What an effort by everybody. It was unbelievable."

Murray finished with 18 saves and could finally disengage from game mode once the clock read 0.0 and the Penguins were Stanley Cup champions.

"I probably won't believe this is real until at least ... I don't know, who knows, but I'm just enjoying the moment right now like I was trying to do all playoffs long," he said. "This is when you really get to enjoy things."

The Thunder Bay, Ontario, native's name will be in the NHL record books for most playoff wins by a rookie netminder -- 15, along with Cam Ward, Ron Hextall and Patrick Roy.

Murray also becomes the seventh rookie goalie to win all four games in a Stanley Cup Final.

Yet, Murray, who turned 22 years old less than three weeks ago, is the second-youngest goaltender to record the clinching win in a Stanley Cup Final since the NHL took exclusive possession of the legendary piece of silverware in 1927. The youngest was Patrick Roy, who was 20 years old when he won the Cup with the Montreal Canadiens in 1986. Three other 22-year-olds won Cup-clinching games, though each was an "older" 22 than Murray: Detroit's Terry Sawchuk in 1952, Edmonton's Grant Fuhr in 1985 and Carolina's Cam Ward in 2006.

Forty minutes later, Murray was asked: "I can't even remember ... how many minutes has past ... I do remember going through the handshake line, but ..."

Gone are the bus rides in the American Hockey League, which have turned into charter flights in March when Murray was recalled from Wilkes-Barre. He was brought up in December for four starts, but for this late-season call up, he wouldn't be going back down.

"I think this playoff run goes to show you, you can never predict what's going to happen," Murray said of his 9-2-1 regular-season record with the Penguins that included one shutout, a 2.00 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage and his playoff run of 15-6-2, which included a 2.08 GAA, .923 SPct and one more shutout. "My mindset has been this whole time to stay in the moment, take things as they come, focus on being in the present and taking things one shot at a time. I think that's been working for me. Like I said from day one, I'm just trying to have fun through all this. It's been an absolute blast so far. I'm going to look to keep that same mindset going forward."

After dropping his first game back in net, Murray would help the Penguins win his next seven starts before his status on the organization's depth chart would change.

A concussion felled Marc-Andre Fleury following his start on March 31, opening the door for Murray to take the starter's reins just two weeks before the playoffs arrived.

Following that seventh straight win, Murray himself suffered a concussion during a game against Philadelphia, putting the Penguins in the precarious position of having their No. 1 and No. 2 goalies injured with the first round days away.

Jeff Zatkoff would start the first two games of their series against the New York Rangers before head coach Mike Sullivan turned to Murray for Game 3, one of his many wise decisions this season.

There were nerves during that first playoff start at Madison Square Garden, but Murray overcame them and made 16 stops en route to a 3-1 victory. Nearly two months later, he's now a Stanley Cup champion.

"As a kid you grow up thinking about this stuff, getting to raise that Cup. It was a lot heavier than I thought it was, to be honest," said the 6-4, 178-pound netminder. "What a moment. I'll never forget this moment for the rest of my life, that's for sure."

Still, the number that stay with Murray until the 3-1 series clinching victory over San Jose in Game 6, was 6-0 with a 1.65 goals-against average after a loss this postseason, allowing two goals or fewer in five of those six starts.

"He's really calm in there," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. "He shows a lot of poise. Every night it's the same thing, no matter what happens. And I think that's really important for a goalie.

"I'm sure every goalie wants to have that type of demeanor. I think it comes very easy for him to be like that. That's naturally the way he is. But deep down inside, I think he's very competitive, and I think the fact he's that competitive allows him to compete like he does every night."

Matt Murray was selected in the third round, 83rd pick, in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.

Used to be the goalies were seen as like the oddballs before
games. Seems there's a new generation of goaltenders that aren't like
that. Have you seen more of a change into what you just described?

"Certainly with Matt, he's a pretty composed kid," coach Mike Sullivan said. "What I've really grown to admire about him is just his professionalism. He comes to the rink, he controls what he can, he works hard every day, he prepares the right way.

"There isn't a whole lot of drama surrounding him. He doesn't really get on an emotional rollercoaster, so to speak. He just controls what he can. I think that's one of the reasons why he has the ability to endure some of the challenges that this league presents.

"I think one of the things that young players have to learn when they
establish themselves in this league is how to handle the emotions
associated with wins and losses, highs and lows, when you're feeling really confident, when maybe your confidence gets shaken and how do you get it back. Those are all human emotions that players, athletes, have to deal with.

"I think Matt has shown a great ability to navigate through those

Even as Murray took on the role as the team's No. 1 from Fleury over two months this spring, the long-time Penguins netminder provided plenty of wisdom and encouragement to his young partner.

"He's been unbelievable. I don't know where I would be without Fleury's mentorship, his advice," Murray said. "There was a couple of times where I was struggling throughout the playoffs and even during the season and I think that's normal for a rookie. This is my first time in the league and first time going through this.

"Of course I had some ups and some downs. He was there all the way through to help me through the downs. I'll remember our friendship forever."

Despite the multigenerational gap, Murray knows all about former Montreal goalie Ken Dryden, one of the game's great intellectuals as well as a Hall of Famer.

"He's more than just a hockey player. He's a very smart man," Murray said of Dryden. "I read a little bit of his book, 'The Game,' when I was younger. I know a lot of stuff about him."

Murray was asked to name the two goalies he looked up to the most while he was growing up. His reply: Roy and Martin Brodeur.

Do you remember your first set of pads?

"Like, ever?" he questioned. "I remember that the first time I played goalie, I used a rental set. And because I didn't know how to get dressed, my parents put them on the wrong way. I could hardly move. I was basically just lying on my side the whole game. That's what I remember the most.

How old were you?

"Oh, man," he said. "I would have been like 7, probably -- 6 or 7."

What made you want to be a goalie?

"It was probably that I used to love playing catch when I was a kid," he reasoned. "So I think the glove -- and that chance to catch pucks -- definitely had a lot to do with me wanting to be a goalie. As I got older, I started to watch Patrick Roy. He was one of my favorites. And Marty Brodeur. The way they played, they looked like they were having so much fun out there.

Did you always play goal?

"No. When I was 10 years old, we had the double-A house league and you had to sign up for tryouts," he said. "The two years leading up to that I would switch every game, so I would be a goalie one game and then play defense the next game. We had another goalie on our team, so we would just switch like that every game -- and I kind of liked playing both.

"So when I was 10, I tried to apply for both, but they said, 'No, you have to pick one.' So I don't know what it was that swung me toward being a goalie, but I chose goalie and stuck with it. And here we are."

Did your parents have any influence? Because sometimes parents are like, 'Goalie? Oh no.'

"My parents were unbelievably supportive. I can't thank them enough," he said. "You can't even imagine how much money it costs to play Triple-A hockey in Thunder Bay, because it's a 100 percent travel team, so you have to pay for all the flights and all the hotels -- and that's kind of combined into one lump payment at the start of the season. It's a crazy amount of money. My parents paid that. I played five years of Triple-A, so my parents paid that for five years in a row and never once complained about the equipment. Never once complained about paying so much money for me to play. It's crazy how supportive they were."

What do your parents do?

"My dad, Jim, is a lawyer. He has his own law firm in town," said Murray. "My mom, Fenny Seinen, does bookkeeping for a bunch of businesses around town."

"Every little thing that happens you can learn," Murray said, "and that's what I try to do."

Said Sullivan, "One of the things we love about him is his demeanour. He really has a calming influence on the group and he's done a terrific job in such a high-stakes environment all season for us."

Matt Murray got his name on that big Stanley Cup as a rookie.

What kind of future will he have?

Sidney Crosby now has two Stanley Cup rings

By Larry Wigge

They say that Sidney Crosby was like the compass of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

You know, nowhere to go and ...

The Penguins were 12th in the Eastern Conference on December 12 and has just replaced coach Mike Johnston with Mike Sullivan. Six months later to the day, you're a Stanley Cup champion. What was the big difference?
"After a coaching change, I think everyone takes that personal, puts the responsibility on their shoulders to be better," Crosby explained. "I think individually and as a group we had high expectations, we knew we needed to be better.
"Mike came in and made it pretty clear how he wanted us to play, what he expected from each individual guy. I think guys just welcomed the opportunity, welcomed the challenge, tried to get back on track.

"It took some time. Didn't happen overnight."

Compass. A device or gadget -- something, a navigational device, that helps a person make choices about what is right or effective.

You can see it in Sid the Kid's face. He knows how hard it is to get to where they're at right now. And he’s playing out of his mind. He's got a side to him that I think you have to be born with. He's like Michael Jordan. They wanna stomp on your throat. That's what makes them great.

Crosby, who had six goals and 19 points in the playoffs, did not lead the Penguins in scoring. In fact, he did not even score a goal and had just four assists in the Cup final. But he was hardly a passenger.

He dominated in the face-off circle, blocked shots and took hits.

As Pittsburgh head coach Mike Sullivan said, "Sid has been a force every game."

He had 29 goals and 37 assists after Sullivan took over ... plus.

"I give Sid a lot of credit. He's the ultimate competitor," Sullivan replied. "I don't that I've been around an player that has a work ethic like Sid's.

"He comes to the rink every day. He's got an unsatible appetite to be the best. I thought did a tremendous job as being our leader. The calming influence he brought to our bench was incredible.

"He's a complete player. He plays at both ends of the rink. He's a great faceoff guy. He kills penalties when we need him to. He plays in all the key situations.

"I don't think his point production indicates how well he played. He may not have scored, but he certainly is a handful out there regardless of who they put out on the ice against him."

Said GM Jim Rutherford, "He does things quietly. Sid's a great leader. It really gets overlooked.

"Everybody judges Sid on his points and how many goals he gets and things like that. But he's really an all-around player. He plays in all zones on the rink. He plays hard. He leads his team. He leads by example and he does things quietly. He's a quiet leader but a really good one."

The 28-year-old Crosby has now two Stanley Cups 2008 and 2016, won two Conn Smythe awards, won two Hart Trophies (league MVP), won two scoring titles, won two straight junior titles and won two Olympic gold medals. Only Joe Sakic accomplished the feat.

The only other forward to win the Conn Smythe Trophy without scoring a goal in the Stanley Cup Final that year was Chicago's Jonathan Toews in 2010. Toews scored 29 points in the playoffs that year but he notched only three assists in six games in the Final series against Philadelphia.

Sid is the ninth player in NHL history to win the Stanley Cup twice and two Olympic gold medals.

Crosby joins Igor Larionov, Viacheslav Fetisov, Peter Forsberg, Martin Brodeur, Scott Niedermayer, Duncan Keith, Jonathan Toews and Drew Doughty.

All of the above brings us back to the Genius Factor of Crosby.

Crosby, in a motion so effortless it is unclear even after replays how he did it, reached to the puck and, without a millisecond of hesitation, passed it back through his legs. The puck obediently slid to the right of the net, just out of Andrei Vasilevskiy's reach and onto the stick of Pittsburgh’s Patric Hornqvist who -- holy cow, where did he come from? -- was all alone at the net's doorstep.

"Sid's a great leader. It really gets overlooked," said Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford, who surrounded Crosby with some new talent this season. "Everybody looks at how many points he gets, but the fact of the matter is he's become an all-around player. He deserves the Conn Smythe, and he's become one of the great leaders of the league."

"That's the character he's had," Penguins left wing Chris Kunitz said. "The guy has been in the media since Day One, and the guy has never changed. He had to grow up through all of this and always take it on his shoulders. That's the role he has in the media. He does it every single day.

"The expectation is always above and beyond everybody else."

Crosby's dominance was evident throughout the final game as Pittsburgh spent most of the time when he was on the ice in San Jose's zone. His pass from behind the net to Kris Letang put the Penguins ahead 2-1 just 1:19 after the Sharks tied the score. Crosby then blocked a shot from Marc-Edouard Vlasic late that helped set up Patric Hornqvist's empty-netter that sealed it.

Offense. Defense. All wrapped into one. The Penguins were 33-16-5 under Sullivan in the regular season and rolled into the playoffs as the NHL's hottest team.

There's more ...

The Cole Harbour native did something similar, delivering a message to his teammates that helped spearhead their overtime victory over the Capitals that propelled them to the Eastern Conference Finals.

"It was quiet," Ian Cole said. "We were all sitting around, not saying much at all. And, you know, it started with Sid. He was the first one to stand up and say something."

Crosby felt it was time to speak up after watching his team surrender a three-goal lead.

"He said, 'Boys, let's raise the energy level in here right now. Let's do it right now. It's too quiet in here. We're in a good spot here. We're playing the best team in the league. We are one goal away from ending this series.' "

"You can't say enough about him," said Hornqvist. "He's always on the ice in the big moments of the game. He was our best player ... by far."

"He wears the 'C' for a reason. He's our leader," said winger Conor Sheary. "I know the Conn Smythe means the best players and he's been our best player and he has been all year."

Oh, yeah, Conor Sheary.

Kris Letang had Sheary to move from his normal position on a faceoff in the left wing circle and ...

Crosby won the draw, got it back to Letang from where he would pass it to the rookie up the middle of the ice, where the Sharks weren't going to expect him to be.

Sheary took the pass and wired it high into the net for a 2-1 OT win. The goal at 2:35 of overtime was another of the famous Genius Factor tags in Game 2.

So how does the second Stanley Cup fit into your legacy when you take a look at the arc of your career?

"I think the best way I can describe it is, like I said, I have a greater appreciation this time around," Crosby reasoned about 2008 and '09 Cup visits. "At a young age, going back-to-back like we did, you just think it's going to be an annual thing.
"With the core we have, you think everyone's going to stay together, the team's not going to change. But it does. That's kind of the reality of playing hockey."

Crosby continued, "You don't know if you're going to get that opportunity again. You just kind of try to be the best cheerleader you can be in that situation I guess, try to be supportive and hope they get the result.

"I wasn't really thinking about '09 that much. I was just thinking about how hard it was to get to this point and just trying to enjoy every second of it. It's not easy to get here and having won seven years ago at a young age, you probably take it for granted a little bit. You don't think you do at the time. But it's not easy to get this point, so just try and enjoy it as best as I can.

"I have a greater appreciation this time around."

And the rest of the NHL has a greater appreciation of just how well Sidney Crosby can do things.