A Veritable Mishmash Of Sports Information And Downright Bologna!

Marc Elliott

PHOENIX… I met up this Wednesday eve past with my nephew Paul Jr. for dinner in the shadows of the home of the Arizona Coyotes, Jobing.com Arena. When he was a baby we called him “Paulie,” and when he got older, as my brother and I call each other “Dude,” we started calling him that as well, or Dude Jr. And now, since he and his son and my son and I are all huge Montreal Canadien fans, he is now known as Dude Junier (joon-yay). That would be the French Canadian pronunciation, or at least what we think it would be. Never mind that none of us knows a lick of French.
Before the Coyotes were sold to their new owners, the arena and its location were much maligned as a reason for the club’s attendance woes. It was said that the area the arena and adjoining shopping-entertainment complex are in was too far removed from the greater downtown Phoenix area, that there were parking challenges, and so on, and those were the major reasons fans weren’t latching on to the team. But NHL attendance figures would show that while the Coyote attendance numbers weren’t the greatest, they weren’t the worst in the league. And I seriously cannot recall a playoff game when the place wasn’t packed to the gills with crazy, rabid Coyote hockey fans. The arena is also in the general vicinity of the Arizona Cardinals football stadium, which, from the outside, looks pretty cool.
Things are by and large looking up for the team. The new owners have stabilized the team financially and are able to spend money marketing the team, which is one thing the league wasn’t doing when they were operating it. At the NHL entry draft, the team announced their name change from Phoenix to the Arizona Coyotes, so as to enable them to market the team on a more regional level. They have a good front office in place and a good coaching staff as well, and even in the tough Pacific Division they have been pretty competitive. On Thursday afternoon the team was having a session for their prospects camp at the Scottsdale Ice Den. We both wanted to go, but neither of us could make it, and the irony is that the Dude Junier’s office is fairly close by. Plans are underway for a winter trip to the desert to take in a game or two, and hopefully it will occur when weather in the Northland is at its most winter-like, miserable worst…
AS EXPECTED, THE MINNESOTA WILD have signed free agent winger Thomas Vanek to a contract. It is for $19.5 mil over three seasons. The former Golden Gopher star has had a whirlwind year of sorts. In the final year of a seven-year deal with his original team, the Buffalo Sabres, it was long thought that with that club in a rebuild stance, Vanek would look elsewhere for a new hockey home. And with Vanek and his family spending their summers in the Twin Cities area, where they own a home, it seemed the “hometown” team would be a natural. The Wild, however, never really said yea or nay as the season went on.
Meanwhile, the Sabres traded him to the NY Islanders, and he developed some chemistry with line mates John Tavares and St. Paul homeboy Kyle Okposo. At one point they were one of the hottest lines in the league. Then Isles GM Garth Snow made a seven-year, $49 mil offer to Vanek to stay, and he informed the club that he wanted to exercise his UFA rights at the end of the season. The Isles then traded him to Montreal, where his results were mixed. Throw into the mix that there were rumors of partying at the Olympics and a so-so performance during the Habs’ playoff run, and the Habs decided they were out of the Vanek sweepstakes.
At that time it was thought the Wild were cooling on him as well, but on the opening of free agency, July 1st, the team announced it had come to a deal with him, and that’s that. I was of the opinion that perhaps it was time to forego their pursuit of him and go after UFA defenseman and former Bulldog standout Matt Niskanen. If you are building from the net out, you can’t go wrong with a solid defender. Niskanen had a very good year with the Pittsburgh Pengwah, and I would have liked to see the team pursue him over Vanek. But then Vanek, since coming into the NHL, is, I believe, eighth in overall scoring. That is huge, and I hope he can carry that forward with the locals. Welcome back, Thomas….
SPEAKING OF MATT NISKANEN, things turned out pretty well for the former Bulldog. He inked a seven-year, $40.25 mil deal with the defense-starved Washington Capitals. Niskie had a very good year on a team that suffered defense injury after defense injury. I am absolutely positive that there were many nights when based on the lineup the Pengwah were putting on the ice, Niskie was in the number-one slot for many a game. So, is he a true number-one defender? Honestly, more likely a two or a three, depending on the team and who he is playing with. But make no mistake about it, he is a gamer.
The Caps? I have looked at them in the recent past as kind of a train wreck. They have a good, really financially stable owner in Ted Leonis. They let George McPhee (GM) and Adam Oates (coach) go after an unremarkable season. They elevated former assistant GM Brian MacLellan into the GM slot and brought in former Nashville Predator coach Barry Trotz to take over a team that just could not defend well most nights. Trotz could be a breath of fresh air from the recent carousel of inexperienced NHL coaches who couldn’t get it done. He demands defensive responsibility, and that has been missing from the Caps in the recent past. Congrats on the contract, Niskie, and best wishes to you with the Capitals…. PEACE

Marc Elliott is a sports opinion writer who splits his time between Minnesota and his hometown in Illinois…