- John Buccigross, SportsCenter anchor
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This is Year 7 of this weekly hockey "column."
It will appear from now until the Stanley Cup goes from museum item to a John Cena-approved military press device used to build the shoulders of ice hockey champions.
Until that day in early June, the best we can hope for is that the Penguins, Rangers or Hurricanes win it all and raise Lord Stanley's Cup ... so all of us can be invited to the Staal Family after-party at Thunder Bay farm to be named later. Good times. You can't spell "ArreSTed And out on baiL" without STAAL!
For those of you who have clicked on this space since 2001, you have a basic understanding of what is done and who I am. While recently at a rest area in rural Pennsylvania, I "Googled" the information superhighway and found my inaugural column. These words appeared as I attempted to describe what this space would attempt to do:
"Who knows how this will evolve? I live my life around a James Joyce quote -- Joyce being the Irish writer who died in 1941, never having a chance to utter: 'Jarkko Ruutu slew foots Espen Knutsen deep in the Columbus zone.' Instead, he wrote: 'Chance furnishes me what I need. I am like a man who stumbles along; my foot strikes something, I bend over and it is exactly what I want.' I don't know how I got here, but here I am. I love hockey. You love hockey. Game on."
From the get-go, I've always hesitated to call this a "column," even opting to use quotations because so many sports columns across the Internet and newspapers are sometimes uninteresting and many times appear to be "mailed in." Or "e-mailed in." So, I've always tried to ride the James Joyce wave in life; and, in this space, I attempt to keep it interesting, try new things and pour everything I have into it despite having a full-time television job. And for those of you who have been here from the start, thank you. When my meaningless career ends, writing in this space and corresponding with you via e-mail will be the most meaningful and memorable to me.
For you newcomers, or those in the early stages, I figured I would do perhaps the most egotistical thing a television anchorman can do -- interview myself. So, while I do my shirtless concentration curls in my ESPN anchorman work space, here's an interview for those of you who still don't understand what the goal is here in this "column." Those of you who have been here for a while, here's a preview of some new things we're trying. As always, chance furnished me what I need, and things can change. They are my rules, I make them up.
John: You like quotes. Give me one that's caught your eye recently.
Bucci: "Never grow up and they keep their curiosity." -- Nobel Prize winner Isidor Isaac Rabi.
John: How was your summer vacation?
Bucci: Sweet. It officially ended this past Monday after getting my second career hole-in-one. It came on a par 4 at Newport Country Club in matchless Newport, R.I. I used my TaylorMade SuperQuad driver and hit my TaylorMade No. 1 ball into the hole for my second career ace and my first career double-eagle. From that moment on, my only thoughts were on Christoph Schubert, the backyard rink and waiting to hear if ESPN will televise hockey next season.
John: What's up with that book you allegedly wrote with alleged former NHL player and Versus and Flyers analyst Keith Jones?
Bucci: It comes out next Tuesday. It's called "Jonesy" and then has a bunch of other words in the title because that's what you do nowadays. Raymond Bourque wrote the forward. It is available at all of the usual Internet locations and certain bookstores. If you like this column, you will like the book. It is inexpensive and Keith is giving all proceeds to Alex's Lemonade Stand, a charity that battles childhood cancer. It's my first effort writing a book, so I hope it turned out OK. It makes a great holiday gift, so buy two! Or three! Let's get a hockey book on the best-seller list! Who's with me!?
John: What is the goal of this column?
Bucci: I'm not much of a goal guy. I avoid packs of runaway zebra, don't wear my wrestling singlet to church and start every day eating a just-turned-yellow banana. After that, I live by feel. Generally and historically, this column is 95 percent hockey and 5 percent music, golf, baby names, swimsuit models, otters, cheese, front porches, bonfires and an occasional reference to Denny's. I write a lot of words every week. I randomly picked one from last March that came in at more than 6,000 words. This includes e-mails, so I get some help. Every sentence will not be to everyone's liking and a lot of it is tongue-in-cheek. I love the sport and believe it is my job to watch all the games every night to be properly informed and get into the rhythm of the 8 1/2-month aria. It's love and duty. My job is to get the college student though biology, the accountant through his work day and the woman at the Titleist golf ball laboratory in southeastern Massachusetts through her work day. It's a public service I take seriously.
John: Anything new for the column?
Bucci: I don't want to commit and limit, so the formula will be similar, but I'm always thinking of new things. You'll probably hear podcasts with me and Barry Melrose linked in the column, so that's new. We also might break up the e-mails from the column to give you two days of fresh content. Maybe have one or two e-mails within the normal column. This gives me a chance to comment on things more quickly instead of waiting six days if something happens the day after my column appears. It also helps me avoid staying up until 4 in the morning beating my deadline. The day the column appears might also change (we're thinking Tuesday).
The preview setup is different. In the past, I did 15 teams one week and the other 15 the next. This year, we are spreading out the 30 teams over six days in reverse order. We start with the West today since a Western Conference team won the Cup. We'll have teams 15-11 today, 10-6 on Thursday and so on. I wanted to write more on each team and didn't want to kill my editors. ESPN.com is getting six days of columns for the price of two. I really need to get an agent. Remember, I love all 30 teams equally. This is just a Malcolm Gladwell "Blink" kind of preview. Some will be right on and some will be way off. Last season, I was 6-for-8 in both conferences in picking playoff teams. About the best one can hope for. With the higher salary cap and more player movement, I'll be happy being over 50 percent this season.
Thanks for coming back or coming aboard. We have fun in this space. It's for people who love life, live it passionately and enjoy everything that the greatest game gives. "And" -- in the words and stylings of Rob Base -- "it goes a little something like this ... HIT IT!"
15. Phoenix Coyotes
Silence means security, silence means approval
On Zenith, on the TV, tiger run around the tree
Follow the leader, run and turn into butter ...
Let's begin again, begin the begin
-- "Begin The Begin" by REM
The house has been somewhat cleaned and the Coyotes are basically starting over again. Even the play-by-play man is new (Dave Strader has left the Florida Panthers to be reunited with ex-ESPN puck pal Darren Pang "Chung Tonight" to call games in Phoenix). The hundreds who watch in Arizona will be happy with what they hear with Strader and Vera Pang, but they will be a tough watch with Alexei Kaigorodov and Zbynek Michalek. What fans will see is a lot of losses and a whole lot of defense. The Coyotes will have to play strong defensive hockey just to stay in games because they have an anemic offense. They will play low-scoring, low-shot games. With their goaltending and solid defensive corps, they should have stretches of decent hockey; but once the injuries hit, it could get ugly.
Wayne Gretzky remains behind the bench, although I'm not sure why The Great One wants to put himself through all the losing that he will endure (at least this season). Poor drafting and trading has put the Coyotes in this position of having an underwhelming roster, waiting for young players not quite ready for prime time. The drafting appears to have improved in the past few years, and the gap will be painful for a franchise still trying to get regional traction. Kyle Turris, the third overall pick in June, appears to be the best of the recent bunch and probably will be in the NHL soon. Still, there is still plenty of losing to do between now and when the Coyotes are ready to become a serious playoff contender again. At least they are "all-in" in the rebuilding process. They are the clubhouse favorite to have the first overall pick in next June's draft.
Perhaps Phoenix will use that pick to select John Tavares. Last season, the Oshawa Generals forward was named the CHL's Most Valuable Player after scoring 72 goals, which is more than Gretzky scored at age 16. The 16-year-old Tavares was born on Sept. 20, 1990, five days too late to be drafted next summer in Ottawa (players who turn 18 before Sept. 15, 2008 are eligible for the draft). Tavares and his representation have sent a request to the NHL and the NHL Players' Association to allow Tavares entry into the 2008 draft. I've been told, however, that everyone is not unconditionally in love with Tavares. His release is phenomenal. His skating is not. And while he looked as if he belonged at the recent Canada-Russia series, he did not look special. That being said, looking at the Coyotes forwards, one wonders if Tavares could make the Coyotes roster this season. The Dogs are woefully short on goal scoring.
Moving Ed Jovanovski and his $7 million salary is the next move. I imagine the Coyotes hope he can get off to a good start and get the price up to a reasonable amount. But if someone takes that salary for the next four seasons, Phoenix can't expect much in terms of prospects or draft picks.
Yes, Phoenix fans, the growing pains will be plenty this season, but your team is on the right track. The Coyotes are young and fast and should do OK against teams who lack speed. They are collecting blue-chip prospects and ensuring that they collect more in the future. It is the right plan for the long term, but one that at times will be painful to watch in the short term. Let the losing begin.
Oh it's taking so long I could be wrong, I could be ready
Oh but if I take my heart's advice
I should assume it's still unsteady
I am in repair, I am in repair
-- "In Repair" by John Mayer
"In Repair" is the second-best song off John Mayer's 2006 CD "Continuum." Back in 2001, when Mayer sang "You're Body is a Wonderland," I would ever so slightly ralph in the back of my mouth. Today, I am a Mayer fan. He has discovered his foundation as an artist and will probably only get better.
The Columbus Blue Jackets have never had a foundation and, thus, are in repair. GM Doug MacLean's impatience and shortsightedness cost the Blue Jackets. Columbus had a patient, excited market that would have been OK with losing terribly in an effort to collect top-three overall draft picks since 2001. Here is a greatest hits list of the top three overall picks since 2001: Ilya Kovalchuk, Jason Spezza, Rick Nash, Jay Bouwmeester, Kari Lehtonen, Marc-Andre Fleury, Eric Staal, Nathan Horton, Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Jack Johnson, Erik Johnson and Jordan Staal. The Blue Jackets have one of those players (Rick Nash from 2002), but they should have more.
We've been writing that here for the entire decade. Play young players, build an identity and collect top-three overall draft picks. New Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson seems to be on board with this philosophy. Howson told The Columbus Dispatch this summer, "You don't miss the playoffs by  points one year, add a high-priced free agent and make that leap. That just doesn't happen. We're at the point where this club needs to grow and needs to develop from within." The Blue Jackets made no significant signings in the summer. They have the perfect teacher in coach Ken Hitchcock, the anti-Keenan, who thrives in this role of mentor and molder of young men. Demanding, but not demeaning.
Sergei Fedorov and Adam Foote are in the last year of their deals, which pay them salaries far exceeding their current value. Fedorov makes over $6 million and Foote is at $4.6 million. That's over $10 million that will be off the books. The plan this year is simple: (1) Play the young players in all key situations; (2) Begin to plan for Fedorov and Foote deadline deals now. Zero in on teams who most likely will seek them out through direct conversations, cap numbers and assets. Perhaps packaging them to one team will garner the best return. Imagine Colorado acquiring both Foote and Fedorov at the deadline? While you are at it, see if anyone will bite on Nikolai Zherdev. The Jackets tested him as the No. 1 center in camp with the hopes of lighting a fire under his keister. That hasn't worked and now ol' ZZZZZZ might not even be a top-six forward in Columbus.
Columbus will not make the playoffs this season, but that's OK. They need to reboot the computer, clean out the viruses and start downloading a new plan. It looks like the Howson/Hitchcock pair embraces this plan of attack. Columbus will continue to struggle to find enough offense and struggle to keep the puck out of the net on a consistent basis. The Blue Jackets are in repair but should soon see the fruit of their ways. To quote Mayer, "They are not together, but they are getting there."
We got you here selling rag and bone
Bring out your junk and we'll give it a home
A broken trumpet or a telephone
Ah, come on, come on, come on
Come and give it to me
-- "Rag and Bone" by The White Stripes
Michal Handzus. Ladislav Nagy. Kyle Calder. Jon Klemm. Tom Preissing. Brad Stuart. Jean-Sebastien Aubin. What? Radek Bonk wasn't available? Oh, wait -- he was, but he signed with Nashville. "Bring out your junk and we'll give it a home." OK, maybe that is a little harsh, but I was hoping the Los Angeles Kings would stay young and keep giving those young players all the important blocks of ice time.
Mike Cammalleri was better than a point per game in the second half of last season. Is he still going to play as much? Patrick O'Sullivan finished strong. Is he going to get a good chunk of power-play time and play 18 minutes a night? Is Dustin Brown going to be given room to grow? I don't mind the blue-line signings, but I don't understand a signing like Ladislav Nagy. At least it was a one-year deal. Michal Handzus, who looks like the bass player from Dokken on his ESPN.com player page, is a nice player, but why give him four years at $16 million and not develop a young checking center?
Perhaps all of these Dean Lombardi offseason signings are just offseason depth moves to sell tickets ("Ooooh, Ladislav Nagy! I'll take two!") or "futures" with the intention of moving someone like Nagy or Handzus at the deadline until younger players are ready, but I'm usually against those kinds of moves. The Kings have a nice group of young players who would be fun to watch grow together. But getting another high lottery pick when you're not ready to contend for a championship is never a bad thing. Play all of these young guys in key situations and let them own the room.
The Kings are not going to make the playoffs. They are not a 90-95 point team. They don't have the goalie. Instead of winning 29 games, they will win, what, 34? It's not an all-out Phoenix Coyotes approach from the past couple of seasons, but it's usually a detriment to sign marginal veterans. It takes time from your young players; it takes you from a blue-chip lottery pick to an average first-round draft pick.
Maybe Lombardi is the smartest man in the room; maybe Calder, Handzus and Nagy are going to fill out a playoff-worthy roster of top-nine forwards. And, barring injury, Los Angeles' defensive corps look solid, especially if Jack Johnson gets out of the gate quickly. Maybe the blue line can help improve a penalty-killing unit that was the NHL's worst last season. And L.A. will have a good power play this season. It was sixth-best in the West and I don't see it getting worse (likely only better than the 18.3 percent from 2006-07). And maybe goalie Dan Cloutier, who had surgery on his hip in December and says he is ready, will be healthy and return to the form he had in Vancouver, where he had a strong defense in front of him and was a .900-save percentage, 30-win goalie. Maybe all of this will happen. And maybe monkeys will fly out of Bonk's butt.
12. Edmonton Oilers
And I've looked high, low,
Everywhere I possibly can
But there's no tryin' to get the feelin' again
It seemed to disappear as fast as it came
-- "Tryin' To Get The Feelin' Again" by Barry Manilow
The title song from Barry Manilow's 1975 effort helped that album go triple platinum. (Barry Manilow's peak years were 1973-78; he released an album each year except 1977. Wouldn't it be great if your favorite band released a new CD every year like Manilow did in the '70s? Good god! I'm breaking down Manilow! Slew foot me now; but, man, he was the Martin Brodeur of his day.)
Edmonton's fall from almost Stanley Cup champion to long-shot playoff hopeful is reminiscent of Manilow's fall from a relevant pop-culture icon to cable-television-MTV-hip-hop-era cover artist searching for a new identity -- any identity. The difference is Manilow's transformation happened over 20 years and 13 sequined jumpsuits; the Oilers' transformation feels like it's been 20 minutes since Ryan Smyth gave up half his teeth for a shot at glory. Chris Pronger, Jason Smith and Smyth are not walking through that door this winter. And if they do, they will be rich, wearing a different jersey and singing "I write the songs that make the whole world bling."
How did we get here? How did the Oilers fall so hard and fast?
Well, it is well-documented. Bad Chris Pronger trade. Bad negotiating with an Oilers icon. Fifty goals from Ales Hemsky in his first 250 NHL games. And all the scrambling ever since. The only question worth talking about now is: Where do they go from here? Well, the Oil were the only NHL team not to score 200 goals last season. They have major goal-scoring issues and that's why they went hard after restricted free agent Thomas Vanek of the Sabres.
The Oilers will still have problems scoring goals. Dustin Penner will help, but he won't play with a player like Ryan Getzlaf in Edmonton. I wouldn't expect Penner to score much more than the 29 goals he had last season playing all 82 games on Anaheim's second line, a line of size made for his game. He may reach that 35-40 goal level if he is a monster on the power play, which could happen with Sheldon Souray's slap shot and Hemsky's overpassing. Penner will also play a lot this season, which makes his durability and stamina something worth watching as he gets more chances to score. I'm aware he is built like a piece of farming equipment. That helps.
I'm sure the Oilers are hoping Penner can be the new and younger Smyth, and I bet the Oilers' brass will secretly be comparing Penner's stats with Smyth's to prove a point. But, make no mistake, Edmonton fans know Penner is a different cat than "Captain Canada." Penner is more Captain & Tennille than he is Captain Canada. Merlin Olsen, Father Murphy on skates. Marty Reasoner had more penalty minutes than Dustin Penner last season (60-58). Who would have though Penner is more Manilow than Marty? Penner didn't have to fight or lead in Anaheim. He needs to do a little bit of both this season and that could knock things off kilter a bit. Or it could inspire him to great new heights. I think the former is the more likely scenario. At least Penner doesn't wear a visor and the Oilers seem to like stuff like that.
The Oilers have 16 centers in camp, no bona fide No. 1 guy and a hodgepodge of parts from a scrambling summer. It's like a post-1970s Manilow album. There are no hits on this CD. They do have players with something to prove and a nice crop of young players with talent who they can choose to go with; but, boy, if they keep playing that same old Edmonton style with young players, they will get run out of the building on most nights. They still have good character guys and a decent amount of leadership. Unexpected blooming from Hemsky and others could move them up a notch in the expectation department.
But it appears they just can't score enough. Souray can fire a slap shot across Alberta and he will stand up for his teammates, but he's not exactly Nicklas Lidstrom in his own end. It will take 40-45 wins to make the playoffs in the West. That seems like a bit much for the Oilers, who appear destined to be a lottery team without a lottery pick. Ouch, babe.
11. St. Louis Blues
I've been waiting on this my whole life
These dreams be waking me up at night
You say I think I'm never wrong
You know what, maybe you're right, aight
-- "I Wonder" by Kanye West
John Davidson is a smart and confident hockey man who has seen every nook and cranny of the hockey business. His boss, Dave Checketts, is a polished, smart businessman with a fine head of hair and a politician's aura in the mold of Mitt Romney. Under coach Andy Murray, a smart hockey dude, the Blues finished 27-18-9 last season and missed the playoffs by 15 points. Everything seems to be looking up. The front office is confident, competent and committed. Since there are a handful of NHL organizations that are not these things, it gives a team a leg up from the get-go. I have not seen a preseason prediction page on what people are thinking when it comes to the Blues this season, but I imagine a lot of them will like St. Louis. Checkett's white teeth will tell them so. They have no choice.
I do have concerns:
In net, Hannu Toivonen will begin the season as Manny Legace's backup after the Blues sent Jason Bacashihua and Juuso Riksman to their AHL affiliate in Peoria. Both had to clear waivers. Can the Legacy/Toivonen combo lead the Blues to that 40-win, 95-point area likely needed to make the playoffs? That seems like a bit much; I don't care how much gel you use.
As far as scoring goes ... the Blues scored just 214 goals last season. Doug Weight led the team with 59 points. Signing Paul Kariya was a must and he will likely lead the Blues in scoring. He was 24-52-76 in Nashville last season. Keith Tkachuk turns 36 in March. He had 27 goals in 79 games in 2006-07 and is 27 goals away from No. 500. I think that's just about as good as one can expect from him. Defensively, the Blues look pretty solid. After one season at Minnesota, rookie Erik Johnson is going to be a very good pro and begins his NHL career with some good blue-line mates.
But the Blues lack goal scoring and have a questionable, if not average, goaltending situation. That's not a combination one can confidently ride into the playoffs. Rookie winger David Perron has Davidson talking like this: "He's only 19 and he's trying like heck to make this club. It depends on where we are, how he plays. He's a kid that's worked his tail off and I don't care if the guy's 19, 29 or 39. If you're good enough to play for us, you're good enough to play." There was also some bad news on defense. Jay McKee will be out four-to-six weeks with a fractured right foot that he suffered in Thursday night's preseason game at Minnesota. It's the latest setback for McKee, who played only 23 games last season in the first year of a four-year, $16-million contract. He was hindered mostly by a hip injury. Dr. Rick Wright, the Blues' team physician, said the injury will not require surgery.
The Blues are a smart organization run by smart people, but those smarts can't make up for a lack of forward pizzazz. They will be competitive most nights, but are they better than .500? Anything can be pictured in the NHL. The expectations are high and the attitude is good. It always has been in St. Louis, and Davidson and Checketts will see that players and coaches have everything they need to win. And free hot dogs for the fans! The Blues at least have hope that, if everything goes right, they might get 92 or 93 points and squeeze into the playoffs. But to expect that wouldn't be smart.
A mini-mother of mailbags
(Sorry, couldn't resist a few e-mails in my first column of the new season!)
In its search for higher scoring, why hasn't the NHL removed all the restrictions on blade curvature? Curvier sticks make shots faster, and faster shots make for more goals. I know they loosened restrictions before last season, but letting players use banana blades again is certainly a lot less dramatic than bigger nets. Not to mention that it could be considered a return to tradition, rather than a departure.
The concern is players in front of the net, without facial protection, would get peppered with slinging shots in the throat, mouth, nose and eyes.
Just wanted to let you know that me and all my college friends think that the new NHL jerseys are HIDEOUS. Keep rocking. Go Flyers!
I know your column hasn't officially started yet, but I've searched the rosters in vain and cannot find Peter Forsberg listed on any team. I haven't been able to find any information about what he's going to do this year. (Of course, no one really knows what he's going to do until the last minute, anyway.)
Peter Forsberg is a free agent and has officially begun the Roger Clemens portion of his career. He will wait, chill in Sweden and see you in January.
John Buccigross is an Anchorman for SportsCenter and ESPNEWS. For questions, comments or cross-checks, e-mail him at email@example.com. To check out his new book, "Jonesy: Put Your Head Down And Skate", click here.
Bucci is back for another NHL season, so you know what it's time for: a little music and a few predictions.