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Shocking! Cherry loves Habs

by John McGourty
The Tampa Bay Lightning have done a good job of rebuilding, the Pittsburgh Penguins won't be as good without Sergei Gonchar, Ryan Malone, Marian Hossa and Ryan Whitney, the Phoenix Coyotes will skate rivals off their feet and the Chicago Blackhawks will be better but not as good as the Detroit Red Wings, who will win the Stanley Cup again despite the great offseason moves by the Montreal Canadiens.

Oh, and Alexander Radulov should stay in Russia after breaking his NHL contract. Besides, his former team, the Nashville Predators, without him, will make the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the sixth straight season because they have great coaching.

Finns won't pay NHL prices to watch hockey, and Czech Robert Lang plays like a Canadian because he doesn't wear a visor.

No, you're not jonesing for a Cherry Jubilee in your dreams. Don Cherry is back and he's ready for another opinionated NHL season. And, he'll have six new suits for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, "If I don't get fired," Cherry said.

Cherry was joined Wednesday in a preseason conference call by fellow NHL broadcasters Ed Olczyk, Pierre McGuire and Mike Milbury, who has to lay off the swearing if he wants to continue appearing on the CBC's Hockey Night In Canada, Cherry chided.

The four broadcasters are preparing for the season-opening Bridgestone NHL Premiere 2008 games Saturday between the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning in Prague (noon EST; NHLN, CBC, RDS) and Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators (2:30 p.m. EST; NHLN, CBC, RIS). The teams will meet again Sunday in the same locations, with the Lightning and Rangers starting at noon EST (VERSUS, RDS) and the Senators and Penguins starting at 2:30 p.m. EST (VERSUS, CBC, RDS).

"I think any time Vinny Lecavalier is on your team, he's healthy, and Marty St. Louis is on your team and he is healthy, you have a potential to rip things up offensively," McGuire said. "... the addition of Ryan Malone ... (Steven Stamkos is) probably going to be the rookie of the year. You put he and Ryan Malone together, along with Lecavalier and St. Louis, this is going to be a tremendous team. Obviously they have the leadership of (Gary) Roberts and (Mark) Recchi.

"The biggest question mark will be dependability in goal. Nobody knows if Mike Smith can do it. I know Olaf Kolzig is there, but nobody knows if Olaf still has a lot left in the tank. The biggest thing beside that is on defense. I mean, Paul Ranger hasn't played in the preseason, he's still a little bit nicked up. Matt Carle to me is an overrated player coming over from San Jose. They were very fortunate they were able to move Filip Kuba. They better hope Andrej Meszaros is a lot better in Tampa than he was the last two years in Ottawa. He's never been the same player since Zdeno Chara left his side as a partner. The biggest question mark for Tampa Bay is going to be on defense and in goal. Up front they're going to rip it up offensively."

“They've thrown a whole bunch of fun at the League. If I had a couple or 500 million extra dollars running around, I might like to go out and buy a franchise and do some things like they did. They said, 'What the hell, (Lightning co-owner and horror-movie producer Oren Koules) made some money in Hollywood, (co-owner and former NHL player) Len Barrie made out in real estate, I'm going to do whatever the hell I want.' I think that's a refreshing attitude."
-- Mike Milbury

"They've thrown a whole bunch of fun at the League," Milbury said of the Lightning. "If I had a couple or 500 million extra dollars running around, I might like to go out and buy a franchise and do some things like they did. They said, 'What the hell, (Lightning co-owner and horror-movie producer Oren Koules) made some money in Hollywood, (co-owner and former NHL player) Len Barrie made out in real estate, I'm going to do whatever the hell I want.' I think that's a refreshing attitude. Nobody got in the way. They went out and rolled the dice."

McGuire gave fantasy-league owners a dark-horse candidate for their teams -- Lightning right wing Evgeny Artyukhin.

"He is a gigantic human being that can skate unbelievably well and he just pulverizes people on the forecheck," McGuire said.

Olczyk, a Chicago native, expects the Blackhawks to be much improved but not ready to overtake the reigning Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings in the Central Division.

"Detroit is Detroit," said Olczyk. “They are the envy of every sports franchise that there is. They do things the right way. They signed the right guys. They take some risks. They bring their players along slowly. Just everything that has gone on there. Hey, don't forget, it hasn't always been that way. So, I mean, they've found a way to do it.

"I still think they're the class of the National Hockey League, for sure in the division. The Blackhawks had a very good season within the division against the Detroit Red Wings last year."

"I don't see anything tripping them up along the way," Cherry said in agreement. "(Marian) Hossa? I mean, they got richer. ... I see no weakness in them at all. (Goalie Chris) Osgood is just as good as ever.  ... (Coach Mike) Babcock's doing a great job. I mean, there's nothing wrong with them. If you're betting, you've got to bet on Detroit again this year."

It was bad enough when the Eastern Conference champion Penguins announced this summer that Whitney would be lost for several months after foot surgery, but the team said earlier this week that Gonchar would miss 4-6 months after shoulder surgery. They are Pittsburgh's best puck-moving and point-producing defensemen. A lot of responsibility now will fall on Kris Letang, a smallish defensemen with only 70 games of NHL experience.

Milbury was asked if Letang has the experience and the size for that kind of a role.

"Detroit is Detroit. They are the envy of every sports franchise that there is."         – Ed Olczyk

"No, he doesn't," Milbury said. "Pittsburgh lost a lot of glue on their roster. I think they're going to struggle. Gonchar is one of the most underrated offensive players in the league as far as I'm concerned. I think that's a huge loss. And along with Whitney out of the lineup, they've got a huge challenge.

"I mean, the good news is they've got world-class players in (Sidney) Crosby and (Evgeni) Malkin, and (Jordan) Staal hopefully will rebound and have a better year. But the Pittsburgh Penguins have some hills to climb, especially early on. I don't expect them to dominate coming out of the gate.

"And the other question I have, and I know that he was good in the Stanley Cup playoffs, I'm just not as sold on (Marc-Andre) Fleury as they seem to be by offering the long-term contract.  I think the Penguins are going to be good and I think they're a playoff team, but whether they get home-ice advantage or not this year, that's a question mark for me."

"Without Hossa, without Ryan Malone, you can say what you want about Miroslav Satan and Ruslan Fedotenko, to me they're not in the same area code of those two other guys," Olczyk said. "When you take out arguably two of the your top four (defensemen), two of your top six forwards -- I think that all of us would agree that Hossa and Malone were in the top six forwards with the Penguins -- you still got Sid, obviously you have Malkin.  When you talk about maybe taking a step back and not having those guys on the blue line to start the year, to me the Penguins could be the team that takes a step back.

"Are they going to drop out of the playoffs? Absolutely not. But 101, 102 points like last year? They might be hard-pressed to do that."

The broadcasters agreed that the Canadiens, reigning Northeast Division champions, got better with the additions of Alex Tanguay, Lang and Georges Laraque.

"(GM) Bob Gainey has done a great job," Cherry said. "...  They've got a great coaching staff. Guy Carbonneau never seems to get much credit. He's sort of an ornery guy. Never smiles, stuff like that. He's done a great job, too.

"Carey Price looks like he's back. They're tough now. They've got everything going. I told them they had to get bigger. The very last thing I told them when they were shaking hands and that, I said they got to get bigger and they got to get tougher. They're too small. He went out and got them bigger and tougher. (Gainey) always listens to me."
"We all listen to you," McGuire teased. "(Canadiens Director of Player Recruitment and Development) Trevor Timmons is a name that nobody knows. He's a guy that's helped rebuild this thing. I know Bob Gainey gets all the credit, as he should, because if they fail he'll get all the blame. But Trevor Timmins is a chief scout there. He's assembled a massive array of young talent.

"That defense is going to be great for a long period of time. Whether they're players that are already in the NHL like Andrei Markov or Mike Komisarek or players on the come like Pavel Valentenko, I can go down the line. Alexei Yemelin, Ryan McDonagh, they've got an unbelievable amount of defensive wealth.

"They're going to have to address some free-agency issues. Eight of their players going into next season have the potential to be unrestricted. Two of them are key in Mike Komisarek and Chris Higgins, and Saku Koivu as well. But the big thing is Carey Price, the ultimate opportunity to be one of the most dominating players in the game. He really does. And if he follows through as much as I think he will, I think people will say he's the next Marty Brodeur or Roberto Luongo. That's how good this guy can be."

"(Laraque) was always one of my favorites," said Cherry. “He can play. I don't know why they don't play him more. He's not one of those guys that should sit on the bench and just (fight). I think third and fourth line, he'd do a great job. The players all love him. Nobody's going to push around the Montreal Canadiens any more, I guarantee you. They get pushed around a lot. They were small last year. They're a good size now. ... He's French, too, so he's got everything going for him there."

Leave it to Milbury to knock motherhood. In the wake of Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin's description of herself as a hockey mom -- saying the only difference between a pit bull and a hockey mom is lipstick -- the broadcasters were asked to define the term. Olczyk said some loving things about his mom's sacrifices and encouragement. Not Milbury.

"Don't get me wrong, I love my mother dearly," Milbury said. "She's not with us any more. But she was a pain in the (butt). I mean, all I heard was, 'You got to hustle more, you got to work more.' She drove me nuts."

"She was right," Olczyk teased.

"Probably, yeah," said Milbury. “But whatever I got from her was genetic. The rest was aggravation."

"You needed it," pushed Olczyk.

"She was part bulldog?" asked Cherry, Canada's most famous dog owner.

"With lipstick," Milbury said with a laugh.
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