Sunday hockey notes

Gripe from the greatest Penguin just doesn’t fly

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / February 20, 2011

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Great player, Mario Lemieux, but he shot himself in both feet with his remarks last Sunday, criticizing the league for what he felt was its insufficient doling out of penalties in the wake of the epic Islanders-Penguins dustup the previous Friday night at Nassau Coliseum.

Lemieux, Hall of Fame center and part-owner of the Penguins, felt league disciplinarian Colin Campbell should have dealt more harshly with the Islanders, whom he felt perpetrated all forms of skullduggery and crimes against hockey, encapsulated in a series of brawls.

“It was a travesty,’’ harrumphed Mario Magnifique in a prepared statement. “It was painful to watch the game I love turn into a sideshow like that.’’

As regular readers of this space are well aware, your faithful puck chronicler grew up watching those travesties on a near-nightly basis, the enduring love of which has carried him through to these decaf, oft-emotionless, sometimes feckless days.

But I also can appreciate the viewpoint that those days are long gone and don’t fit comfortably into today’s far more politically correct times. Today’s litmus test: If a soccer mom can’t endure it, then Peoria Rules apply and we shouldn’t play it or watch it. Again, I’ve never been a big fan of Peoria, but I know it exists for Puritans and pacifists.

The NHL had a chance, said Lemieux, “to send a message’’ by imposing deeper supplemental discipline. The Islanders were hit with a $100,000 fine, the Penguins zero.

“It failed,’’ he said.

Your FPC has said much the same, repeatedly, when Campbell reviewed some near-crippling head shots. When, in this opinion, he failed to get it right, particularly on the debilitating hits last season to David Booth and Marc Savard, I twice called for Campbell to be given the heave-ho from his disciplinary duties. Like Lemieux, Campbell is a great guy, but, shall we say, inconsistent with his view regarding important issues.

“If the events relating to Friday night reflect the state of the league,’’ lamented Lemieux, “I need to rethink whether I want to be a part of it.’’

OK, folks, time to take out the secret decoder ring of double-standardness and examine what Lemieux is saying here.

Apparently, the Pittsburgh icon was unaware that day — that very day of his issued statement — that his Penguins led the league with 61 fighting majors, some of which were accumulated during the Friday night fights in Uniondale that led to 10 ejections and 346 penalty minutes. A good number of his guys were willing combatants.

Lemieux’s employees, as Boston fans are well aware, aren’t shuttled to games and practices by soccer moms. If it’s a fight anyone wants, or in some cases would care not to accept, the Fightin’ Pens have proven themselves eager to join the fray.

But the maraschino cherry on Lemieux’s banana split of hypocrisy is the fact that he keeps one Matt Cooke on the Penguins payroll. If Lemieux is really looking for a good reason to walk away from the game, well, hey, he need only look down his bench to that No. 24 sweater and ask himself, “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, why’d he have to walk into mine?’’

Cooke, who was serving a four-game suspension for an ugly, cowardly hit to the back of Columbus defenseman Fedor Tyutin at the time of Lemieux’s remarks, has long been a blight on the game. Had he put a touch more mustard on that blind-side hit to Savard’s chin last March, he might have inflicted even greater damage to the Boston center’s head, neck, and spine.

Back then, of course, Lemieux had nothing to say. He was equally mum on the blast to Tyutin’s back. Were both delivered in the rink’s travesty-free zone? But, gee, when the Islanders decided to go all “Slap Shot’’ on his guys, on a night when he didn’t have Cooke proudly trooping the colors of his flightless birds, Lemieux found the throwback display of the fight game just too much to stomach.

This is the same Lemieux, let us remember, who labeled the NHL “a garage league’’ in 1992 when hooking and holding tactics were the bedbugs of the game. One of hockey’s all-time great offensive performers, he was rightly ticked off by all the tugging, slashing, hooking, holding, and lassoing. Little coincidence that he was the one most victimized by all that trash.

Look, we should all listen when Lemieux chirps. But what’s painfully apparent and risible in these two episodes is that he chirps when it scrapes close to his bone. It was a garage league because he was being impeded from displaying his sublime, abundant talents. Last Sunday, he hinted that he might walk away from the game because, in his view, those who govern it were too easy on another team, the one that happened to smack his team so violently and effectively across the kisser (final score: Islanders 9, Penguins 3).

If Lemieux really wants to hold the game and its administration up to scrutiny, then bully for him. The more examination, the better, especially when it comes from such a respected member of the game. But with scrutiny comes self-accountability, and Lemieux’s 2010-11 Penguins are just as dirty a group as many other teams — and singularly disgusting and hypocritical in their continued employment of Cooke.

If Lemieux is really interested in making it a better, safer workplace, and preserving the game’s integrity, then he ought to start with his own team.

Until then, he’s just another guy throwing sucker punches.

Johnson heads for mountains Hours after the Bruins completed their dealings on Friday, the day’s headline-stealer had the Blues surrendering prized young defenseman Erik Johnson, the No. 1 pick in the 2006 draft, in a swap with the Avalanche that delivered forward Chris Stewart and ex-Boston University defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk to St. Louis.

Johnson, the 6-foot-4-inch Minnesotan who played on the US Olympic squad a year ago, was chosen ahead of Jordan Staal, Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom, and Phil Kessel in that year’s draft. Stewart, considered a core piece in the Colorado rebuild, was the 18th pick in that draft.

Once again, we see the high premium to pay for elite blue line talent. Johnson was not the Entire Package the Blues hoped for, but he’s only 22 and still considered a sublime talent, a big box (6-4/235) who finally gives the Avalanche a stud to anchor the blue line.

To get him, they willingly forked over Stewart, considered one of the game’s top young forwards (64 points last year), and Shattenkirk, who showed surprising pop earlier in his rookie season, although he has tapered off of late (not unlike Steve Kampfer’s Hub initiation).

The Avalanche also picked up Jay McClement as a stocking stuffer (depth forward/penalty killer), and the two clubs will swap high picks this year or next.

Bruins score with Peverley One Western scout was impressed enough by Rich Peverley’s game early last year in Atlanta (season totals: 82 games/55 points) that he figured the ex-Predator might cash in for upward of $3 million a year as a free agent July 1. That’s saying a lot for the St. Lawrence grad who entered the league as a free agent with Nashville, then moved to Atlanta as a Jan. 10, 2009, waiver claim and was only making the league minimum through 2009-10.

Role: third-line center, penalty killer, able to move up and down the lineup and provide scoring.

The payoff wasn’t that high, but Peverley nearly tripled his annual take with a cap figure of $1.325 million. He is on the books through next season, one of the factors the Bruins liked in the swap Friday that sent Blake Wheeler (rising RFA) and Mark Stuart (rising UFA) to the Thrashers.

“A terrific offensive player,’’ said Boston general manager Peter Chiarelli. “He is a shooter. He plays center and wing.

“With his number of shots — I think he has 161 shots — he’d be second on our team. He has a really good wrist shot and a good one-timer and he’s got a bit of an edge when he plays.’’

Leafs improve draft position Just one of the sidelights to follow in the wake of the Boston-Toronto dealings Friday is to what degree the loss of Tomas Kaberle will deconstruct the Leafs. The lower they go, of course, the better the chances of Boston selecting No. 1 overall in the June draft, by virtue of the Bruins owning Toronto’s top pick again (the remaining big shoe to fall in the Phil Kessel swap). Meanwhile, the Leafs, previously tapped out of Round 1, now own Boston’s and Philadelphia’s top picks, both all but guaranteed to slot deep into the lower third of the round. Not great position, but hey, you have to have them to make something of them, and that bottom third historically turns up some gems. To wit: In 2003, Ryan Kesler went No. 23 to Vancouver and Mike Richards No. 24 to Philly. They are both on long-term deals now that average a $5.375 million cap hit. But also don’t bet against Toronto GM Brian Burke moving both those picks and perhaps a roster body to land a ready-to-play No. 1 or 1A center.

Trading ice for diamond Hate to scoop pal Nick Cafardo on the baseball beat, but one of your faithful puck chronicler’s seamhead insiders says Trevor Gretzky, son of the Great One, could go in the top three rounds of the next major league draft. He’s a catcher/first baseman and has a scholarship waiting for him at San Diego State, but could opt to turn pro, depending on what happens in the draft.

Falling short of goals When the Bruins handed Micheal Ryder $12 million over three years as a free agent, the read here was that he would have to produce 100 goals in the regular season for the Bruins to receive full value. As of this morning, he has scored 61 times in nearly 2 3/4 seasons. He’ll likely end up with around 70. Overall grade: a gentleman’s C-minus.

The dunk tank Idle dressing room chatter in Uniondale, N.Y., Thursday, sparked by ESPN’s incessant replays of college basketball action, led to the discovery that Bruins winger Milan Lucic performed his first successful slam dunk last summer. “Just one, and one-handed,’’ said the Bruins’ 6-3 power forward, who also claims to be an accomplished outside shooter. Then-teammate Blake Wheeler, 2 inches taller, said he routinely can slam home the one-hander. As for the dunking skills of 6-9 Zdeno Chara? “Pfttt, easy,’’ said an admiring Wheeler. “Z’s a ballplayer.’’

Loose pucks That sound you hear out West is from the free-falling Stars, who entered last night’s game with three straight losses and a 2-7-1 record in their last 10. Suddenly, maybe it makes a lot of sense that they deal No. 1 pivot Brad Richards, provided his “upper-body injury’’ (concussion?) doesn’t deter bidders. Richards, on target to be a UFA July 1, would be a perfect fit as that missing franchise center in Toronto. And with Joe Colborne in the pipeline. Hmm . . . Mark Stuart’s addition in Atlanta could lead the Thrashers to move Ron Hainsey, another client of agent Matt Keator, prior to the trade deadline. Vastly different players, but the Thrashers are expected to offer Stuart an extension, and Hainsey, with two more years to go and a $4.5 million cap hit, hasn’t provided the point production the front office envisioned . . . Did speedy Austrian Michael Grabner, just named a Player of the Week, really go from Florida to Long Island as a waiver claim? Yes, he did, on Oct. 3. How the Panthers could use his goals these days. He was also Vancouver’s top pick, No. 14 overall, in the ’06 draft, prior to being dealt to Sunrise . . . As expected, Terry Pegula was approved by the league Friday as new owner of the Sabres. The King of the Queen City officially will be handed the keys to the club Tuesday . . . Look for Matt Hulsizer finally to take full possession of the Coyotes at the tail end of March, some 90 days later than expected. It’s just never easy in the desert . . . What will it cost to keep Kaberle in Boston? Hunch here says something in the $4 million-$4.5 million range, be it for three or four years. Keep in mind, Kabbah turns 33 next Wednesday . . . Not sure what disappointed me more, seeing Peter Forsberg return in the first place or pack up after only two games (0-0—0, minus-4) with the Avalanche. Like decaf cappuccino, fat-free pizza, and seedless watermelon, I mean, what’s the point? And if Foppa isn’t a first-ballot selection to walk with the giants of the Hall of Fame, they should move the whole thing to Lilliput (now home to newly elected Mayor Bobby Lalonde).

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at; material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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