Thursday, October 28, 2010

Kirill Kabanov Traded to Lewiston

 photo by Getty Images

There were mixed feelings when the New York Islanders selected Kirill Kabanov in the third round (65th overall) of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. Kabanov's skill is undeniable; his offensive talent was good enough for him to be drafted in the first round, but his history of problems with his teams and agents dropped his draft value. Teams didn't necessarily want to risk the drama, and the Islanders took a gamble by drafting him.

Kabanov was drafted from the Moncton Wildcats of the QMJHL where he excelled on the ice. In the 2009-10 season, his first season with the club, he averaged over a point per game (23 points in 22 games). He missed the first ten games of the season due to a dispute over his rights between the QMJHL (who selected him seventh-overall in the 2009 CHL Import Draft) and his KHL club (Ufa). The IIHF, mediating the dispute, ruled in favor of the QMJHL, and Kabanov headed to Moncton.

But Moncton wasn't too secretive with their feelings on Kabanov as the season went on. After coming back in February from injuring his wrist (an injury which required surgery), he was a frequent healthy scratch, including during Moncton's playoff run. Moncton actually released him during the playoffs so that he could play in the U-18 IIHF World Hockey Championships for Russia, but he was rejected from the team due to disciplinary reasons. Russian team Head Coach Mikhail Vasiliev told Sovietsky Sport:
"I removed him from the team because we thought Kabanov would help us, but he brought only confusion to the team. Kabanov came and thought 'Here I am, a star from Canada, who will save all.' But it's the team that wins rather than an individual player."
Kabanov's father had also had a great deal to do with some of the issues clubs have with Kabanov. Kabanov has gone through at least five agents, most leaving due to the demands of his father, Sergei. Jay Grossman is a former agent of Kabanov's, and Ilya Moliver, who is an agent in Grossman's firm, spoke to Sovietsky Sport about dealing with Kabanov's father. Here are some excerpts from the English translation:
"Sergei Kabanov believes that an agent is a player's servant. He doesn't know how to communicate with people. In view of this, he incorrectly educates Kirill."
 "I've told Kirill once: 'You have to choose. We either work with you or with your dad.' Kabanov's dad is hard to please. I work with players and their parents since 1992, and I never had to deal with such a complicated person."
"When we just started working together, Sergei told me: 'My son is considerably better than Kovalchuk, Ovechkin and Malkin at 16.' Why all this arrogance? This can only spoil the kid. And I understand why scouts and agents changed the attitude towards Kabanov. Because Kirill isn't progressing as he should, but the guilty ones are the ones surrounding him."
And perhaps the most pertinent excerpt vis-a-vis Kabanov's talent:
"A couple of years ago I visited a tournament in London, Ontario, and Kirill played great. Elegant, intelligent, he made beautiful rushes to the net. It was evident that the guy can play. The fans were crazy about him and he became the top contender for the first overall pick. But what can you do when you have so much pressure from your father? And Kirill himself has a talent to get into awkward situations."
Had Moncton just had enough with Kabanov's antics?

Maybe, but the Lewiston MAINEiacs paid a big price to get Kabanov. His deal gives Moncton backup goaltender Jordan Kennedy, a second round draft pick in 2011, a fourth round draft pick in 2011, a first round pick in the 2011 CHL Import Draft, and a fourth round draft pick in 2012. And the MAINEiacs (who have struggled in recent seasons) seem to be excited about the idea of getting a talent such as Kabanov. Lewiston Head Coach Jean-Francois Houle said in the press release announcing the trade:
"He is very gifted offensively, and is a threat every time he touches the ice. Adding him to this team adds speed and skill to an already dynamic offense. With open arms, we welcome Kirill to our organization."
With his history of being late (more than once) to his first NHL Training Camp, bizarre statements to the press, and intense tattoo obsession, it's difficult to tell how Kabanov is going to take this opportunity. For his, Lewiston's, and the Islanders' sakes, I hope he takes it as a second chance, to prove that he can take his hockey career seriously and show that he's not as high-risk as initially thought. But will his father ruin everything for him once again?

Kabanov will join Lewiston once his visa is sorted out (Lewiston is in Maine, so he obviously needs a U.S. visa to play there). It should be an expedited process, so he may make his Lewiston debut as early as next week. Capitals prospect Samuel Carrier plays for Lewiston, and will have a new teammate.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Game Recap: Bears 5, Phantoms 1

After a disappointing home opener last Saturday, as well as a loss last night, Hershey needed a big win. They got it tonight, coming out hungry and putting the pressure on the Adirondack Phantoms until the final buzzer. 

Despite the Bears' recent call-up losses of Mathieu Perreault (who ended up having a productive night in Washington), Jay Beagle, and Dany Sabourin, they had no problem filling the remaining voids, absolutely dominating the very young and offense-challenged Phantoms. The Bears had control of the puck for the majority of the game, as shown by the Phantoms' 18 shots on net. The Bears, on the other hand, put 37 shots toward Phantoms goaltender Johan Backlund.

The Bears power play returned to its former glory after going 0-5 against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last night, with the Bears capitalizing on two of their eight (yes, eight) power play chances. Throughout this season, the Phantoms have had trouble staying out of the penalty box, and tonight was no exception. The Phantoms' disciplinary problems turned into an early lead for the Bears, with Brian Willsie scoring a power play goal on the Phantoms' first penalty.

Kyle Greentree followed up with another power play goal at the end of the first period, but it was really only Greentree's goal on paper. His shot deflected off of Phantom Oskars Bartulis' shoulder and went straight past Backlund for a goal. 

Greentree, on the Phantoms squad when they were based in Philadelphia, says Bartulis is a friend, and joked that he "owes [Bartulis] a beer." Previously going through a goalless streak, Greentree said he later told Bartulis, "Thanks a lot, I appreciate that, it got me out of my little funk that I was in. It's probably the easiest one I'm going to have this year."

Ashton Rome, a guy not normally known for scoring goals, netted two in the win. Rome was modest after the game, saying, "I've been told I have a pretty good shot. I look for a pass, if it's not there, just keep it and shoot and hope for the best... I think that's my first two-goal game since I was in Idaho on the East Coast [ECHL]. It's been a while."

Rome also spoke to the very physical nature of the game -- with the rivalry between the teams, it's typical for a Bears/Phantoms game to be rough, and three fights broke out (including an excellent bout between Sheldon Souray and Matt Clackson, in which Souray absolutely dominated, but ultimately as we found out later, broke his hand in the fight). Rome said, "We gotta step up when teams try to push us around and show them that they can't."

Some quick notes:
  • Zach Miskovic had his face drilled into the half wall during the second period, and stayed crumpled on the ice for about a minute as blood poured from his face. Thankfully, it seems only stitches were needed, as he returned to the game shortly thereafter.
  • Braden Holtby had a couple of worrying instances where he wandered out of his crease to play the puck, but with one awesome exception. As a Phantom player was streaking toward the puck in what could have been a total breakaway, Holtby stepped out to play the puck, and (unbelievably) passed it through his own legs to the boards. It totally confused his opponent and brought puck control back to the Bears.
  • Speaking of Holtby, the Phantoms spoiled his shutout bid with just 4:23 left in the game.
  • Trevor Bruess and Zac Rinaldo had a little re-match of their rookie game fight, but Bruess started off on uneven footing and I don't think any punches were actually landed before linesmen got between them.
  • Steve Pinizzotto's goal was a thing of beauty. He wrapped around the net, and unleashed a quick snapshot from the top of the circles. Backlund didn't have a chance.
  • Joel Rechlicz is still, to put it lightly, not looking so good. I got a closer look in the locker room and while the swelling in his face has gone down since last week, he still is wearing a bandage over the bridge of his nose and his eyes are still quite black. In short, he still looks pretty frightening.
  • Dmitry Kugryshev had a decent game. This was the first time I was really able to see him in a Bears game, and he had a fantastic breakaway chance, passing in front of the net to Willsie, who had come up behind him. How he could have possibly seen Willsie coming just speaks to Kugryshev's instincts. Heck, even I didn't see Willsie coming.
  • Assistant Coach Troy Mann seemed pleasantly surprised to have women covering the game (and not in that sort of way, more as in 'good, we haven't had enough of that diversity'). In the locker room, as I was with Hershey Bears Examiner Lauren (the only female press of the night), he turned to us and said, "Hi, ladies!"

    UPDATE: Check out the video highlights below.  And don't miss Souray's fight (starting at the 0:43 mark). It was awesome (aside from Souray breaking his hand in the fight).

      Wednesday, October 20, 2010

      The View Behind the Bench

      Johansson on the bench just after scoring his first NHL goal (photo by me)

      The best seats I've ever had for a Caps game were still in the days of the Student Rush promotion, when I sat sixth row in section 112 or 113 for a November 6 game against the Carolina Hurricanes.

      My friend's fiance is a season ticket holder, and while she usually accompanies him to games, I tag along if she's unable to go. So I was planning to be at last night's game against the Bruins anyway. But turns out, through some miracle twist of fate, he managed to snag glass seats behind the Capitals bench.

      It was an unbelievable experience sitting right there. I couldn't see much of the action due to Bob Woods being parked in front of my face for 2/3 of the night, and Dean Evason for the other third, but it was interesting to watch the players interact on the bench no more than two feet from where I was sitting. So here are some random observations of the evening, since my night was near limited to watching the guys on the bench.
      • No one seemed more excited for Marcus Johansson's first NHL goal than Alexander Semin. Off on the other, small bench where the backup goaltender usually sits, Johansson joined Semin there after coming to the bench from his goal shift. Semin gave the rookie a huge hug.
      • Speaking of Semin, he had a great game. In one shift, he picked up at least three giveaways that his linemates gave up and singlehandedly kept the puck in the offensive zone. He also was very in tune with what was happening on the ice while he was on the bench. He jumped to his feet and protested a questionable penalty call on the Capitals (I believe it was when David Steckel was taken to the box for tripping in the second period).
      • The guys who ask the most questions to coaches on the bench are David Steckel and John Carlson.
      • Michal Neuvirth must have really been sick, because not only did I not even see him leave the ice, but he never returned back to the bench.
      • The smell of sweaty hockey equipment does get pretty rank as the game goes on, but for me it just brought me back to my days of playing hockey and smelling like crap.
      • A big chirper on the bench is Jason Chimera. I'm not sure who the Bruins player was (it was quick, it may have been Brad Marchand), but as he skated by the Caps bench, Chimera said something to him and the player responded, "Hey, f**k you." That's hockey, folks.
      • Matt Hendricks is a creature of habit and has OCD tendencies worse than most goalies. I've noticed that when the guys get on the ice for the game, he instantly starts stretching his arms and shoulders using his stick. Sitting behind the bench, I discovered that after every single shift, he takes a water bottle and douses the back of his neck. Every shift. Without fail.
      • I situated myself at the tunnel as the guys came down to take the ice for the first period. Getting the glove bumps from several of the players was awesome.
      • For my first appearance on the Versus telecast... I was busy tweeting. Quite fitting, really. (on second look, I may have actually been taking a picture)
      My photos from the evening are on flickr. Despite the loss, I think it was a pretty hard-fought game from the Caps.

      Monday, October 18, 2010

      Anton Gustafsson Hangs Up His Skates

      photo by Getty Images

      In a shocking move, it was announced today that Anton Gustafsson has quit the South Carolina Stingrays and is headed home to Sweden, per Mike Vogel.  Instead of trying to prove his worth (being the Capitals' first first-round draft pick at 21st overall, John Carlson was also selected in the first round at 27th) to the Capitals organization in the ECHL, he has informed the team that he is "not enjoying hockey."  The Capitals have made moves to immediately suspend Gustafsson's contract.

      Gustafsson, the son of Capitals great Bengt Gustafsson, was ranked by scouts as 5th among Europeans in the 2008 Entry Draft, but ended up going at 21st to the Capitals, who presumably decided to keep the organization in the family.  Reading the scouting report, now having seen him go through three NHL camps, is interesting:
      "Anton is a highly skilled player with strong puckhandling skills and playmaking ability. He is an effective passer through traffic who also has a good selection of shots. He's a tall, strong and talented two-way center with good vision and a fine understanding of the game. He plays a mature game even when playing against opponents who were two or three years older."
      One scouting report even stated that he could end up replacing Michael Nylander as the second-line center behind Nicklas Backstrom.

      But in camps with the Capitals, he never seemed to show those abilities.  Though the talent level was there, the motivation was not.  He had great success with his junior club in Sweden (the Frolunda Indians' U-20 team), registering nearly a point per game in 2007-08.  After being drafted in 2008, he attended Capitals training camp, but was extremely limited due to a back injury.  

      Regardless, Gustafsson was signed by the Capitals in May 2009 to a three-year entry-level contract.

      In 2009 during development camp, he suffered a concussion (his second of the year) after falling and going headfirst into a goalpost.  In training camp, he still was battling injuries, but was sent to Hershey and played in a handful of preseason games before returning to Sweden once again for the 2009-10 season.  

      He returned just before Hershey headed to the Calder Cup playoffs, and played his first game in April, recording two assists in his professional debut and earning the game's third star in the win over Norfolk.  While he was on the roster for the Calder Cup playoffs, that April game was the first, and last, game he played with Hershey.

      2010's training camp was his chance.  He was healthy and in his third camp.  It was one of his last shots at cracking the roster in Washington, or at the very least, Hershey.  But he still didn't seem to be all-there.  After Coach Boudreau had pointed him out during development camp as being a player who had improved from the previous year, Gustafsson was nearly invisible in training camp.  Subsequently, on September 22, he was sent down to Hershey.

      There, he appeared in one preseason game for the Chocolate and White, notching one assist on a goal by Nikita Kashirsky.  On October 3, it was announced that Gustafsson was sent down to South Carolina.  He played in their opener, a 3-2 OT loss to the Greenville Road Warriors, but failed to record a single point and went -1 for the night.  He also had zero shots on net.

      Who knows what is going through Gustafsson's head right now, but perhaps it is a good idea for him to step back and re-evaluate himself and what he expects out of himself.  If he decides to come back at some point, he's able to - the Caps are suspending his contract, not voiding it.  With his attitude lacking at training camps, he needs to make a decision about whether or not hockey is something he really wants to do.

      Monday, October 4, 2010

      Is There Such a Thing as Career AHLers? The Case of Alexandre Giroux

      photo by AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jonathan Hayward

      It was tough for Bears fans to say goodbye to AHL All-Star winger Alexandre Giroux, but I know at least I wished him the best in his quest to finally break into an NHL lineup - in Edmonton.  This summer, Giroux accepted a one-year, one-way deal with the Oilers, and he went into camp in the hopes of surviving cuts.

      But today, it was announced that he didn't survive.  He's been put on waivers, and if he clears, will be starting the season with new AHL affiliate the Oklahoma City Barons.  It was clearly a disappointing end of camp for the 29-year-old Giroux, who has gone through nine NHL training camps in his career without being offered a roster spot by close of camp. 
      "In four [preseason] games, I had one goal.  I'm a goal-scorer, I've got to score goals.  I'll work on it and we'll see."
      Not like he hasn't been working on it for the last nine years in the AHL.  Drafted by the Ottawa Senators in the 7th round of the 1999 NHL Entry draft, Giroux began his AHL career with the Grand Rapids Griffins in 2000-01.  His rookie year, he racked up 27 points in 70 games.  His AHL numbers steadily improved through free-agent signings to several other clubs, but he always ended up in the A.

      He finally landed in Hershey in 2006, and instantly made an impression.  In the next four seasons with Hershey he broke several AHL records (including Brett Hull's record for most consecutive games scoring a goal), and in the 2008-09 season, was MVP of the league.

      But in 30 total games with the Capitals, he tallied four goals.  So why can't his success in the AHL translate to the NHL?

      One thing that Oilers coaches pointed out was that Giroux's skating was not very strong.  He can put pucks in the net, but it can be difficult to score when there are NHL defensemen in your way who are stronger and faster than you.

      The other issue with Giroux is that in his case, there is someone better available.  After the most recent cuts, the Oilers are still two bodies over the roster limit.  With powerhouse rookies like Jordan Eberle, Magnus Pääjärvi, and Taylor Hall, it may have just been a poor time to come into Edmonton.  Those are three forward roster spots that weren't filled last season, and while Giroux could have fit into the lineup at that time, the three rookies are ready for their NHL debuts.  A top line of Shawn Horcoff, Taylor Hall, and Jordan Eberle combined for ten points in four preseason games.

      Giroux encountered a similar problem in Washington.  In an interview after his signing with the Oilers, Giroux talked about his and Keith Aucoin's similar problem (Aucoin was cut from Capitals camp last week):
      "Me and Keith Aucoin had a lot of points (in Hershey) and a lot of good stuff on the ice the last two years, but with Ovechkin and Semin and Brooks Laich there, it was hard for us.  I don't want to give up. I want to get better."
      Though "getting better" now looks to mean starting a new legacy for the Oklahoma City Barons, Giroux can at least take solace in the fact that this is not his last chance.  The Edmonton Journal predicts that should an injury occur in Edmonton, Giroux will likely be at the top of the list for a call-up.  If he can finally prove that his talent can also work in the NHL, he may be able to make that temporary call-up permanent.

      In the meantime, best of luck to Alexandre Giroux.  In my fan dealings with him, he's been nothing but kind and professional.  Hershey fans are rooting for him.