Saluting Sidney Crosby, Balsillie's next battle, more notes

Publish date:

The NHL -- for reasons inexplicable to anyone who doesn't understand that it is always sniffing for potential expansion cities -- convened in Las Vegas to hand out its rotating collection of silver not named Stanley. All and all, a slick affair worthy of a watch.

One player you didn't get to see: Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who didn't place in the top three in balloting for the Hart Trophy (MVP). I have no problem with that, given the season-long numbers the finalists -- Alexander Ovechkin (56 goals, 110 points, +8), Evgeni Malkin (35 goals, 113 points, +17) and Pavel Datsyuk (32 goals, 97 points, +34) -- put up. All are deserving.

Crosby, past Hart winner and one of the game's most dynamic players, also didn't win the Conn Smythe Trophy (playoff MVP), though you can make a strong argument that he should have, considering his body of work through the entire two-month run. It's something of a shame, though, that he won't be there on the stage in Vegas. Over the course of the now completed season, he (along with Malkin) led what had become a dysfunctional and, given the ravages of free agency, somewhat lesser team back into the playoffs after the dismissal of head coach Michel Therrien.

Crosby played the more complete game. He didn't always score like Malkin, but he never took a night off like his superbly talented teammate sometimes did. Crosby also led with an effort and wisdom far beyond his 21 years. Simply put, he's the reason the Penguins found themselves and why they prevailed over Ovechkin and the Capitals in a dramatic seventh game in Washington during the second round. He's also the reason they never lost hope against Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Osgood and the rest of that superb Red Wings team in a great seven-game Cup final that was also decided on the home ice of Pittsburgh's opponent.

Too bad there isn't an overall award for a player who does that.

The complaint has been made loud and long by the Red Wings: Crosby snubbed them, especially their captain who stood at the head of the handshake line for too long after the Penguins won the Stanley Cup.

The gripe won't go away, but it should. It's reached the point of absurdity in that some writers and other media types have timed how long it took the Penguins to line up and shake the Red Wings' hands after Detroit won the 2008 Cup in Pittsburgh, and compared it to the amount of time before the line formed last Friday in Detroit.

The conclusion: two minutes in Pittsburgh; two minutes 30 seconds in Detroit.

Now, 30 seconds is a professional lifetime for Usain Bolt, but it's nothing in the postgame chaos of a championship victory, especially a hard-fought series in which few people believed the Penguins would prevail. In addition, the NHL puts more media people than players on the ice immediately after the Cup is decided. The demand for interviews coupled with the raw celebration and the players' quests to locate family and friends in the stands for at least a brief connective shared moment, is intense.

So Crosby got there a little late -- literally seconds after some of the Red Wings, several of whom clearly didn't want to be in that line anyway -- had left for their locker room. This is a serious offense?

Memo to offended Red Wings: Stuff happens. If you feel the need to complain, complain to each other about how, in the most important game many of you will ever play, your vaunted shutdown defense failed, your offense didn't ignite, your imported gun (Marian Hossa) was a no-show to the point of embarrassment, and your slow start allowed the Penguins to stay in the game long enough to get a pair of goals from role player Max Talbot. Maybe you thought it was going to be a slamdunk, given your 11-1 record (the one loss coming to Anaheim in overtime) at Joe Lewis Arena, but the game proved otherwise.

From here, the carping smells like the kind of whine best served with sour grapes -- a mere attempt to deflect attention from a team-wide failure to get the job done. Sure, your side had some hurts, but so did the Penguins. And it's hard to argue that you didn't get the officiating break of the playoffs when Crosby was put out of the game with a knee injury by a hit along the boards late in the second period -- when he wasn't even in possession of the puck.

The truth is that the game was there to be won and the Red Wings couldn't make it happen. Grousing about Crosby demeans Detroit's otherwise shining legacy, one built on accomplishment and class. Win or lose, the Red Wings of past seasons were bigger than that.

I still can't figure out what New Jersey Devils coach Brent Sutter did exactly when he quit the team some 10 days ago. No doubt, he takes exception to the Q word and said as much in one of several departing press conferences: "I don't feel like a quitter."

Fair enough, we'll accept that. Feel whatever way you like. We also understand the pull of family and home. Among hockey people, and this includes writers who regularly travel with teams, NHL stands for No Home Life. It seems glamorous and certainly has its upside, but it takes a toll on family, personal relationships, and the like. There are moments missed that can never be replaced, so when Sutter said his family "gave up a lot" and were "happy and excited about the decision" he made, he will get no argument here.

But if Sutter didn't quit, exactly what did he do?

He made it clear he wasn't retiring. He said he "still loved coaching" and that any team interested in obtaining his services would "have to go through (Devils general manager) Lou Lamoriello." And he didn't directly address any interest he may have in coaching the Calgary Flames, which are managed by his brother, Darryl, but he didn't rule it out, either.

All of that would be understandable if Sutter had honored the last year of his contract with the Devils. If he does return to coaching at any level, it will be hard to side with his claim that he didn't quit on them. He wasn't in danger of being fired even though did the team no favors by stating at various points in the season that he maybe didn't want to come back.

This was to be a Cup-contending year for the Devils. Any player, coach or manager who has been in that position knows it takes a total commitment to team and organization to be successful. Sutter didn't give that. His players know it and so does Lamoriello. If Sutter doesn't stay home, he'll be known not for what he says but what he does, and coaching another team after he walked away from a contract will surely fit him for a big red "Q" to wear on his chest.

Earlier, we mentioned a favorable call the Red Wings got, and we can't let the season go without stating once again that NHL rules truly are different in the playoffs -- and not just in the area of wide discretion regarding supplemental discipline or missing the occasional too-many-men-on-the-ice.

The late hit on Crosby in the second period of Game 7 of the Cup final is only the latest in a long string of calls that were routinely made during the regular season but not in the playoffs. Most opened the door to more physical play, and many fans -- and seemingly most TV personalities -- embraced it with their usual open arms and clenched fists. But did the game really benefit from the obvious change?

I'd argue no. I see no value in players being free to run goaltenders in the crease, as happened so often in these playoffs. I'd also argue that it's an embarrassment to the two-referee system to have missed so many obvious infractions, like closing a hand over a puck in the crease. But it's a much bigger failure to again have a set of rules that are honored first-to-third period in the regular season and then largely overlooked in the playoffs.

Interference didn't just happen with goaltenders, it happened all over the ice. Late hits were constantly ignored, supposedly because players were allowed to finish their checks, but the amount of time they have to finish checks has been fairly well established by rulings from the director of hockey operations office the past two seasons.

The move back to "letting them play" won't just be an isolated event, either. GMs build their teams around the way they see the game, and if more physical play trumps skating and speed, then more physical players will be making their way back into lineups instead of the occasionally smaller but more talented variety. The league needs to be aware of that and must try to keep a balance.

The NHL came back strong from the lockout by giving fans what they said they wanted. Fans responded by pouring through the turnstiles and liking what they saw. It's a wise league that listens to what its paying public wants, even if it draws the criticism of a stuck-in-the-'70s corps of commentators who want the knuckle-dragging elements of the game back in a starring role.

There's a perception, especially in the U.S., that the NHL won its battle with mavreick Jim Balsillie over the rights to the Phoenix Coyotes and his attempt to move them to Southern Ontario. Not so, according to several legal scholars and Balsillie's lead attorney, Richard Rodier.

Rodier claims that Judge Redfield T. Baum made the narrowest of rulings in stating that he couldn't meet Balsillie's June 29 deadline for being awarded the team because there were too many complicated matters that can't be resolved in time. Rodier also said that bankruptcy court is a somewhat strange animal and a great many things can still happen between now and the time the judge does have to rule.

A lawyer we spoke to, who is not associated with any of the parties, said a second filing made shortly after the bankruptcy has the Coyotes' owner of record, Jerry Moyes, asking the court to also deal with anti-trust issues. That one is of great concern to the NHL and the commissioners of the three other major leagues. In that filing, Moyes (likely with the support of Balsillie) claimed the NHL is a cartel operating as a monopoly that's keeping him from doing what is best for his business.

That's a case built largely on U.S. anti-trust law, and it has some deeply-held precedents that do not favor the NHL. In that kind of proceeding, rulings that led to free agency in baseball and football, and to franchises like the Oakland Raiders moving to Los Angeles (and later back to Oakland) as well as the Colts going from Baltimore to Indianapolis, are likely to come into play.

Moyes and his lawyers will have a formidable adversary in NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who cut his sporting teeth as an anti-trust expert when he was with the NBA. But there are formidable obstacles for Bettman if anti-trust comes to the forefront in this case, and the majority of legal rulings are presumed to go against what all the commissioners will be attempting to defeat here.

Many thought that Rodier was just trying to put a positive spin on a setback when he said he fully expects the Coyotes to be playing in Hamilton by the start of next season, but he may well have a case. Anti-trust or the threat of same has been known to make for some "creative" settlements regarding issues that leagues would rather not see in a courtroom.

It remains to be seen if that's the case regarding Phoenix, but it is definitely on the judge's agenda.