Fact-finding tour begins
The NHL's exhibition season is a time for discovery.
Coaches and GMs are trying to discover which players -- rookies, free-agent signings and pro-tryout veterans -- can help their franchise for the upcoming season. The players, both young and old, are discovering whether they have what it takes to play at the game's highest level, against hockey's top talent. And fans are busy checking on the progress of veteran favorites and identifying new players to adopt and follow through their team's developmental system.
All of those tasks, along with renewing old acquaintances and forging new ones -- were on my agenda as I walked into Continental Airlines Arena Tuesday night for the preseason matchup between the New York Rangers and the New Jersey Devils, the first of more than 100 games I hope to attend this year.
Despite the familiarity of it all -- the Meadowlands has been my second home since 1994 -- Tuesday night was full of excitement as a new season got under way for me with my first live game of the 2006-07 season.
Here, in no particular order, are some observations from the night:
* It's easy to see why new Devils coach Claude Julien is high on unheralded defenseman Johnny Oduya. The 25-year-old Swede, originally a late-round pick of the Caps in 2001, had three assists in the Devils win against Boston on Sunday and played well in extensive action Tuesday against the Rangers. Oduya, at 6-0, 200 pounds, is similar to Brian Rafalski, but far more physical and compact. He could make the team out of camp after two solid seasons with Djurgarden in the Swedish Elite League.
* The Rangers are loaded with young prospects, many of whom were on display Tuesday night. Brandon Dubinsky, Nigel Dawes and Lauri Korpikoski all displayed skill and high energy.
* Highly touted Ranger defenseman Marc Staal is a big boy. He played alongside veteran Aaron Ward, no small man in his own right, for much of the game and towered over his defensive partner. He exhibited considerable jam in front of his own net and bounced right up from a wicked, penalized hit from bruising winger Grant Marshall.
* Speaking of Ward, he looked good wearing the A on his sweater in his first appearance with the Rangers. It was a natural fit.
* Sergei Brylin is the consummate pro. The only skater left from the Devils first Stanley Cup win back in 1995, played last night and was his usual effective self. This despite pervasive rumors that he is on the trading block to help alleviate the Devils' salary-cap woes.
* Blair Betts, who scored one of the Ranger goals, was dominant in the faceoff circle last night, taking 24 draws and winning 18 of them. The Rangers, as a team, out-classed the Devils in the faceoff circle all night.
* This year's first-round pick for the Devils, Matthew Corrente, played last night and did not look out of place on the blue line. He struggled at times with the speed and physicality of the game, but was not afraid to shoot. The youngster took three shots in the first two periods and fired wide or was blocked on several other attempts.
* Ryan Hollweg has not lost any of his trademark aggressiveness. Playing most of the night on an intimidating line that featured Francis Lassard and Lee Falardeau, Hollweg was running around, hitting everything that moved. He also fought Marshall after the Devil forward ran Staal.
* The Devils deployed an unusual mix of players when killing 5-on-3 penalties. Julien consistently sent out two forwards and one defensemen on the kills, a tactic he says he will use during the regular season.
* "Walk" by Pantera was played during a stoppage in Tuesday's game. There might not be a more hockey-appropriate song played in an arena this year. Speaking of mood-setting music, "Escape From the Prison Planet" by Clutch, heard on my drive up the New Jersey Turnpike Tuesday afternoon, was a mighty fine mood-setter for the night. Check out Clutch, a hard-driving and underrated band, if you like straight-ahead, smash-mouth rock and roll.
* Hugh Jessiman, a former first-round pick, played his first exhibition game with the Rangers. He is certainly big -- in fact, he looks a little like Eric Lindros in a Ranger uniform -- and can play the physical game, but he will need to drastically improve his skating stride to be successful at the NHL level.
* Adrian Foster earned an assist on New Jersey's only goal, by Tuomas Pihlman. It was nice to see Foster, the Devils' first-round pick in 2001, have an impact after battling through a series of catastrophic injuries during the past six years.
Look out for the knee jerk!
The word started leaking out of Long Island early Tuesday morning -- Rick DiPietro, 15 years, $4.5 million annually -- and the guffaws were not far behind those whispers.
What in the name of Alexei Yashin were the Islanders thinking? No wonder Neil Smith jumped ship before the boat even left the dock. Party on, Garth! There was no need for comedic genius to get off a good one-liner with material like this.
But that is the easy way out. Negativity comes naturally to most of us, an innate tendency to tear down that which we do not understand, rather than examine it. Media types, myself included, revel in spouting the knee-jerk reaction.
But, by late Tuesday, my opinion was slowly changing about this deal that turned the NHL on its ear. I'm still not sure if the deal will work -- history suggests no, but their is a first time for everything, right?
In many ways, DiPietro and the Islanders are now married, indivisible until retirement or career-ending injury do them part. DiPietro will be 25 next week. So, he will be 40 -- relatively ancient for a goaltender -- when this deal expires.
History shows any long-term union demands a leap of faith.
Few believed country star Johnny Cash could make his union with June Carter work. He was the wild child of country, an untamable rebel in the eyes of many. But, June Carter, no shrinking violet herself, came to believe they could make it work. So, she put her money where her mouth was and took a leap of faith. The result was a long and prosperous relationship that, in the end, shaped both parties for the better and provided the world with unforgettable music.
Could the same dynamic be at work on the Island?
For years, DiPietro has paid lip service to the notion that he wants to be an Islander for life -- a bromide uttered by countless athletes until the money comes from another team. Suddenly, the seemingly unshakeable home-town allegiances are rendered meaningless as the lust for a new challenge becomes the new flavor of the month.
Tuesday, DiPietro took that temptation away, certainly leaving money on the table for long-term security with a team he loves. He signed a deal that has been offered, to varying degrees, for the past two years. Now, by the time DiPietro reaches his goaltending prime -- usually early-to-mid-30s -- his $4.5 million annual compensation will likely be chump change for elite-level goaltenders. But, he says, he can live with that.
"One of the biggest things for me is that you don't have to worry about your contract being up every year and having to fight for a new deal," DiPietro said Tuesday afternoon. "The comfort in knowing that not only does (owner) Charles (Wang) and (GM) Garth (Snow), but also the rest of the organization, feels that I'm their guy and they've got me for the next 15 years. Hopefully, we can do some great things."
If DiPietro continues to deliver on the promise that made him the No. 1 pick in the 2000 Entry Draft, and if the Islanders use their new-found salary-cap flexibility going forward to strengthen the team with wise free-agent signings, the potential for a prosperous union is certainly there.
But, those are some pretty big ifs, for sure. Will it happen that way. Nobody knows.
There is no denying that it has potential. The business of hockey is changing before our very eyes. The lockout, and the resulting CBA, have introduced a brave new world where salary-cap acumen is just as important as identifying and accumulating talent in assuring the long-term viability of a franchise. Money alone can no longer buy competitiveness. Now, it must be combined with a fair amount of shrewdness and a discerning eye to the future.
That is the way most businesses operate. And, it is the way that Wang -- a very successful businessman, by all accounts -- runs his other businesses. Now, he has imported that business model to his Islanders.
"I can't speak for other teams, but I think what we are trying to do is basically build the right foundation with the right kind of players, people that want to be here long-term and that we want to be here long-term," said Wang, who spearheaded the negotiations with DiPietro. "I don't know what the other teams are doing in the terms of long-term contracts, but if you are building a business, you want continuity, you want the same people to be working with you, you want the winners to be with you. That's what we're trying to do here."
Have they succeeded? Is DiPietro the right person to merit such faith? I don't know. Nobody will know for years to come. The proof, as they say, will be in the pudding. But, DiPietro believes and the Islanders believe, and that has to count for something.
"We did discuss it last year and it didn't happen for a variety of reasons," said Wang. "It just didn't happen, but our intent was there to do something longer term. Rick wanted to do something longer term. All the stars lined up right this season and I think it's a happy, happy day for all of us."