Cross Checks: 2011 NHL Training Camp Tour
The last stop of our Excellent Camp Adventure stops in Philadelphia, where ESPN.com's Scott Burnside caught up with Max Talbot. Is Talbot still getting over the transition from Pittsburgh to Philly?
VOORHEES, N.J. -- There has always been something guileless about Jaromir Jagr. Unfiltered. Transparent.
He may have had his detractors over the years, but with Jagr, what you see is what you get.
After another day of Philadelphia Flyers training camp Sunday, he was open about what motivates him as he tries to resume a Hall of Fame NHL career after a three-season detour in the Kontinental Hockey League.
He is ninth all-time with 1,599 points and will become the active player with the highest points total when he steps back on the ice, yet there remains a great sense of the unknown about him.
What can he do? How will it work?
"I don't think nervous is the word. If I do bad, I do bad, you know what I mean?" Jagr said. "But I don't want to disappoint the guys who signed me here. That's why I want to do good. I want to do good to help those guys, help the team that signed me and gave me a chance."
He talked about the down games, the years he had during his NHL career and how it won't be anything new if he can't cut it this time; but he appreciated that GM Paul Holmgren and the Flyers opened their doors to him (and gave him a one-year, $3.3 million deal) when there was more than a little skepticism about what he might accomplish.
"This situation is different. There's a lot of doubters," Jagr said. "Why [did] Philly sign me? 'Why [did] they do it? Why [did] they sign a 40-year-old guy?' If it would be about me only, I don't care. I can survive, that's life. But I don't want the other guys who took the risk to be kind of blamed. That's why I want to do good, to help them, to make it easy for them."
His situation is unique.
After winning five scoring titles, two Stanley Cups and a Hart Trophy, among other accomplishments, Jagr quietly departed for Russia after the 2007-08 season. There was always a sense he would return, but when one season became two and then three, it wasn't so much whether Jagr would return, but whether he could.
After being courted by Pittsburgh, Detroit and Montreal, Jagr made a surprise choice in signing with Philadelphia. His return and what he might (or might not) accomplish will be one of the most compelling storylines of this new NHL season. He even remains a bit of a mystery to his new team.
"I didn't know how hard he trained," Holmgren said Sunday. "I don't know if that's a change from early in his career, but he's a fanatic about conditioning, about nutrition, about doing the right thing in preparing to play the game."
The other night in his first preseason action, Jagr scored on a wicked shot, but still wasn't pleased with his play.
"We all thought he had a pretty good game the other night in Detroit and he's hard on himself. He said, 'Ah, it wasn't enough, I've got to better, I got to get quicker,'" Holmgren said. "It's actually pretty refreshing and probably shows you why he's been an elite player for as long as he has been."
Teammate Scott Hartnell referenced that goal, too, saying he figured about 30 of those will make Holmgren look pretty darned good for the signing.
"Obviously, Jaromir Jagr, just the name, it's a household name in the hockey world if you know anything hockey," Hartnell said. "Just being the player that he is, you'd think that he'd come in with a little bit of an attitude; not necessarily talk down to guys, but sometimes you have guys with a little bit of attitude that think they're better than everybody else. But it's been the exact absolute opposite of that.
"He's always got a little smirk on his face, just looks like he's a little kid, kind of almost in his first year," Hartnell added. "He's just kind of silent and he kind of hears all the chirps of other guys kind of chirping around."
Hartnell recalled a backhanded saucer pass Jagr sent him in a recent practice.
"I ended up scoring on it and it was just like, 'Geez, not many people can make those passes.' You kind of think he's been out of the league a few years, maybe he's lost a step or his skill, but obviously he was playing in a good league over in Russia," Hartnell said. "He works so hard in practices, he's up in the gym working out. He wants to prove something to all the doubters out there, and obviously for himself, to have a great season and win a Stanley Cup here in Philly."
A reporter started to ask Jagr about a comment he made after the second of back-to-back Cups he won in Pittsburgh early in his career and Jagr broke into a grin. He knew what was coming, his comment about how he didn't need anything but money, girls and beaches after winning the two championships.
"I was dumb. Maybe I still am, but I was 19, 20 years old," he said with a smile.
Certainly at this stage of Jagr's career, you would expect his perspective to be different, and it is. He believes things happen for a reason, even the bad things, and whatever individual accomplishments a person achieves, they are inconsequential compared to what a group can accomplish.
"If you win something together, if you win as a team, 10 years later, nobody remembers whoever scored the goal. Everybody remembers the winner," Jagr said. "When you're younger, you don't think about it. But ... how many points I scored when we won the first Cup? Nobody knows. But everybody knows I won the Cup and I was part of the team that won the Cup."
He is hoping to find that kind of shared dream here in Philadelphia.
"I wanted to come here and enjoy the hockey, and help those guys and they would help me and kind of work together through the season," Jagr said. "Whatever the coach tells me, I want to do. Hopefully, I don't have to prove anything, but I want to do the best I can."
Jovanovski, a Windsor native, had been taken with the first overall pick in the entry draft in ’94 and was an icon in the city.
He was still just a kid, 20 years old and playing in his second NHL season, when we timidly approached him at the Panthers’ practice facility.
He was gracious and patient and regaled us with stories of how he would often return from the shower to find his shoes filled with shaving cream. Or worse.
On many occasions, he would prepare to dress after a practice and discover that he had only one shoe and off he would go to the local mall in his suit and flip-flops to restock.
It’s been almost 15 years since that conversation, but Jovanovski’s eyes still light up at the memory.
At age 35, Jovanovski doesn’t look all that different, probably more toned, leaner.
We ask if he’s ever recouped the money he spent replacing his shoes, and he insists that he doesn’t know who the culprit was, although we’re pretty sure it was Jovanovski’s teammate at the time, Brian Skrudland.
To understand the passage of time and its often-cyclical nature, Skrudland is the Panthers’ director of player personnel.
Jovanovski, meanwhile, has seen his own career fulfill a kind of arc, as well, returning to South Florida.
He will be helping to guide a new crop of top draft picks, including the third overall pick in last year’s entry draft, Erik Gudbranson, who is expected to make the Panthers’ squad out of camp this year.
“The kid’s right on the cusp of playing here this year. If I can help him out any, which I can, that’s what I hope to do,” Jovanovski said.
“There’s not much I haven’t seen in this league,” the five-time All-Star added.
This isn’t to suggest this is some kind of swan song for the defenseman, who won a gold for Canada at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City and would have played again in 2006 but was injured.
Jovanovski inked a four-year deal with Florida this summer which will pay him an average of $4.125 million annually.
He is coming off a couple of solid seasons in Phoenix, where he was a big part of an overachieving Coyotes squad.
Jovanovski said he sees some similarities between Phoenix head coach Dave Tippett, who won a Jack Adams as coach of the year two seasons ago while Jovanovski was there, and Florida’s rookie head coach, Kevin Dineen. Both are former players, and like the Coyotes, the Panthers will need every player to accept his role and play it well if they are to erase years of futility.
The Panthers' lone moment of playoff glory took place in Jovanovski’s rookie year, when they advanced to the 1996 Stanley Cup finals.
Now he’s back where it started to see if he can help put an exclamation point on a stellar NHL career by rekindling some South Florida hockey pride.
From the outside there remains, at best, a wait-and-see attitude with the new-look Panthers. At worst, there is dismissiveness.
One top Canadian columnist referred to the Panthers as the “floor lickers,” a reference to this summer’s spending spree by GM Dale Tallon, which critics said was merely an exercise in meeting the minimum requirements of the salary cap.
But regardless of the position, most will agree that the Panthers’ ability to make a surprise -- some would insist miraculous -- appearance in the playoffs next spring will hinge on whether Theodore has still got it.
Standing next to him in the Panthers’ locker room at their training facility, we get no sense of angst or aggravation at what the outside world may be saying about him.
When you are 35 years old and have won a Hart Trophy and a Vezina Trophy, and have been traded and discarded and, perhaps, more to the point, have endured the tragic loss of a son, you gain perspective.
There is always pressure when you come to a new team, Theodore told ESPN.com. But it’s different than when you’re a young player and you’re trying to establish yourself.
“Now you know what to expect. You’ve proven that you can play and you want to play well,” Theodore said. “I’m not playing to prove anything to anybody but myself and my teammates.”
People can say what they want. They can think what they want. But Theodore isn’t about to engage in any debate one way or another. Neither does he particularly need to use it as motivation.
“I think that brings a negative energy when you start thinking about who you have to please,” he said.
Here is the thing that’s more than a little mystifying:
Theodore went 15-11-3 with a .916 save percentage for a pretty average Minnesota Wild team last season, playing well when starter Nicklas Backstrom was injured. The two previous years, he won 62 games for the Washington Capitals, going 30-7-7 in 2009-10. During his final 24 starts during that season, Theodore did not lose in regulation (he did get pulled in one game and Semyon Varlamov took the loss).
Theodore said he enjoyed his experience in Minnesota and felt it proved he was still capable of stepping into a No. 1 netminder’s role.
Obviously Tallon felt the same way and when it became clear Tomas Vokoun was going to test the free-agent waters on July 1, the Florida GM made a quick call to Theodore’s agents.
“They called right away,” Theodore said.
When the netminder heard Tallon’s plans for this team and saw the mix of youth and skill that was being assembled, Theodore signed a two-year deal worth $3 million total.
“As a player you want to be part of that. I was really excited,” he said.
“With all the new faces we know what it takes.”
Florida goaltending coach Robb Tallas recalls facing Theodore in his first exhibition game when Tallas was in Boston and Theodore was about to become the darling of Montreal with the hometown Habs.
“I know a lot about him,” Tallas said. And after the Panthers signed Theodore, Tallas went back and began going over Theodore’s game tapes.
Tallas agrees that in some way Theodore’s play the past few years has been under the radar. Playing in a wide-open system in Washington, Theodore faced a lot of quality scoring chances and still put up good numbers.
“He’s a guy that wants to win in the third period,” Tallas said.
Whether you’re up a goal or down a goal in the crucial moments, Theodore thrives on those critical situations, he said.
“And that’s not something you really teach,” he said.
Florida winger Matt Bradley played with Theodore in Washington and thinks the veteran netminder is the right guy for this renovated Panthers squad.
“To me, he’s one of the top goalies in the league,” Bradley told ESPN.com. “He doesn’t get rattled by things. I love playing with Jose,” he said.
In the summer of 2009, Theodore lost his infant son, Chace, who was born prematurely in Washington. He returned and found solace at the rink and in the routines of the game.
He remains at peace with his own game and where his career has been -- and where it’s taking him.
What he has gone through “reminds you that the most important thing is to be healthy and to be with the people you love,” he said.
“I was always a guy that stayed positive. But these things make you realize we’re playing a game.”
CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon is giving us a tour of the team's practice facility in South Florida.
Outside, it's humid and sunny and raining all at the same time; but inside, Tallon is hopping with enthusiasm about his new team and the possibilities of the coming season.
As we move from the weight room, which this morning included a couple of yoga instructors, to the training room to the coaches' offices, we are struck by a similar conversation we had with Tallon not so long ago in Chicago.
We were at the team's practice facility near O'Hare Airport. Back then, the passion was just as strong, the optimism just as keen as Tallon talked about young players like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith.
It would take some time, he said then, but it would work. It did, of course.
It's easy to forget in the wake of the Blackhawks' sudden rise to prominence in the past three years (which yielded a Cup win in 2010) that Tallon's team there had a season-ticket base of about 3,500 after the lockout.
Tallon, forced out of his job as GM before the start of the Hawks' Cup season in 2009-10, has now turned his eye to rebuilding a moribund Florida franchise whose last playoff experience was more than a decade ago in 2000. The franchise has also enjoyed only one season in which it won a playoff round, when the Panthers made a surprise Stanley Cup finals appearance in 1996.
Many, then, see South Florida as a wasteland. Tallon sees ground rich for seeding.
For now, we'll give the guy with the Stanley Cup ring (he got one from the Hawks, as he should have) the benefit of the doubt.
"It's just night and day from last year," Tallon said Thursday morning after the tour ended and the Panthers took the ice.
He searches for the word to describe last season's squad that finished dead last in the Eastern Conference. "Just blah," he said. "No spark."
This summer, though, Tallon was a virtual managing dervish. He reunited some of his old gang from Chicago by acquiring smooth-skating defenseman Brian Campbell, former rookie of the year nominee Kris Versteeg and skilled forward Tomas Kopecky, along with former Chicago first-round draft pick Jack Skille. Tallon also added a core of proven NHL forwards to help out an offense that ranked 27th in goals per game and was dead last on the power play last season, including Tampa Bay playoff scoring hero Sean Bergenheim, the skillful Tomas Fleischmann and speedy Scottie Upshall.
The skill level, clearly, has been raised, but the GM also insisted the attitude is markedly different.
"They're all happy guys," Tallon said. "They're all quality people. They enjoy playing hockey. You don't see many good teams with bad attitudes. You do see a lot of bad teams with bad attitudes."
At least you knew the fans were there in Chicago. They may have been dormant and angry, but they were there and they came back with a vengeance when the Hawks turned that proverbial corner under Tallon's tutelage.
In South Florida, the path is less clear, although the fan base isn't as bad as many outside the area believe. The Panthers actually ranked 22nd in average attendance last season and the season-ticket base is in the neighborhood of 10,000. That's not to suggest this is Hockeytown South; but, as with so many markets, the key to finding out what this market is capable of is to put a decent product on the ice.
The Panthers have not finished better than third in the Southeast Division since 2000, never mind actually qualifying for the playoffs. The key for the Panthers will be whether this curious collection of players from another place can become something greater than the sum of the parts.
Can Jonathan Huberdeau, the third overall pick in June's draft and a head-turner thus far in his young career in Florida, make the jump from junior hockey to the NHL as a young Kane did?
Can franchise defenseman-in-waiting Erik Gudbranson, the third overall pick in 2010, find his way in what is expected to be his first NHL season?
So many questions. So many possibilities. Did we mention so many questions?
"I wouldn't say it's a challenge. I would say everybody's got to prove themselves and be better," said Kopecky, who signed a rich four-year, $12 million deal this offseason and will be counted on to produce as a top-six winger after playing a smaller role in Detroit and Chicago, both of whom won Cups while Kopecky was part of their rosters.
"Once you start winning, the people are going to come in the stands," Kopecky said. "Hopefully we're going to be seeing that in no time."
The man in charge of making sense of all this is rookie coach Kevin Dineen.
"We have a real mix of depth that we're going to have to depend on," he said.
"There's a lot of options as a coach to slot players into different roles."
Whether it's unnerving or invigorating, the Florida Panthers will soon venture down a different path. Where that path takes them, who knows; but one thing seems certain, that path will be far from where they've been.
"Nobody's expecting much from us and that's fine," Tallon said. "I don't know what to expect, but I do know we're going to be a lot more fun to watch."
DALLAS -- The wind-up and the shot were unmistakable Thursday morning at practice.
Sheldon Souray is indeed back in the NHL. Just what he brings back with him after a year of exile in the AHL will be intriguing.
“I don’t really expect anything from myself in terms of numbers or anything like that; I expect to be a player who takes a strong leadership role for the team, be a player that can be a good role model on and off the ice,” Souray told ESPN.com Thursday after the morning skate. “And I’ll go whatever the coaches ask me to do. I’m really looking at this as starting with a clean slate, coming back in the NHL and proving myself to be a top-tier player and a player that’s going to contribute nightly. Where that leads, we’ll see.”
“For us, I don’t view it as high risk,” Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk told ESPN.com on Thursday while watching Souray on the ice.
“It’s a one-year deal. He gives us a couple of different elements: One is a power-play presence. We really haven’t had that shot from the point for a number of years here. He brings an added element of toughness to our back end, which we can use. He has a presence about him. But we’re not asking Sheldon to come in here and be the guy. I think his last two stops that’s what they asked him to do -- and rightfully so as they gave him a big contract.”
The expectations and the big five-year, $27-million contract in Edmonton eventually made for a sour script after injuries limited his productivity. He asked for a trade; the Oilers couldn’t find a taker because of his $5.4-mllion cap hit. They even waived him a few times, but there were no takers.
So off to AHL Hershey he went last year, waiting and waiting, and hoping and hoping for a way out.
“As a person, I don’t think it changed me that much,” said Souray. “It didn’t kill me anyway. I was more a victim of circumstances more than anything. It was unsettling, and it definitely tested my patience. You certainly have a lot of time down there to think about things. But it didn’t change me. I’ve always tried to be the same guy on and off the ice, in the AHL or the NHL. I’ve always tried to be a stand-up guy.”
He posted four goals and 15 assists in 40 AHL games. Wrist and knee injuries, and some back issues, limited his production.
“It was just one thing after another,” said Souray, who says he’s fully healthy now. “For whatever reason it wasn’t happening last season. But I’ve moved on. I’m focused on getting myself to where I think I can be.”
“I had a few options,” said Souray. “I’m thankful I had to opportunity to come to a place where I wanted to come to. This is a team five years ago that I was close to coming to. I’m thankful they wanted me and I think I have a lot to offer them. Hopefully it works out for everyone.”
Souray is motivated to prove he can still play in this league. But to prove to whom?
“I think he’s motivated not so much to show people he’s still a good player; I think he’s motivated to show himself that,” Nieuwendyk mused.
Said Souray: “There might be a little extra motivation, but other than that, I’m really just looking to turning the page.”
After all, he now has a new perspective on his career.
“You don’t want to take anything for granted,” Souray said. “This is a great league to play in. You’re playing in the best league in the world. I’m definitely thankful to be able to be here now and prove that I still have some game left.”
Thankful. Souray uses that word a lot these days.
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- In the summer of 2009, Czech star winger Martin Havlat could see what everyone else saw while with the Chicago Blackhawks: a team seriously on the rise and ready to challenge for the Stanley Cup.
But when talks failed to yield a new contract between Havlat and the Hawks, former GM Dale Tallon stunned the player and the rest of the hockey world by turning around and inking Marian Hossa instead.
See ya later, Martin ... don't let the door hit you on the way out.
Then, his agent, Allan Walsh, got him a lucrative deal in Minnesota, but you can imagine Havlat's tortured soul a few months later when his former team in Chicago delivered on that Cup. That's why, when the Wild came calling this offseason, asking him to waive his no-trade clause for a move to a perennial contender in San Jose, it was a no-brainer.
"The Sharks have been one of the best teams in the league the last two years," Havlat told ESPN.com on Wednesday at the club's practice facility. "They've gone to the conference finals the last two years; it's not easy to do that. They're hungry to win here. There's a lot of great players, and I'm excited to be part of it."
Almost anything would be more exciting than what he went through in Minnesota. He just never quite fit in there. He wasn't on the same page as then-Wild coach Todd Richards. It just wasn't working.
Swapping spots with Dany Heatley in the trade, Havlat appreciates the chance at another shot with a Cup contender. This time, Havlat wants to be around for the ride.
"I play hockey to play in the playoffs," Havlat said. "The last two years were disappointing because we didn't make the playoffs. I was done in April, and that's when the most fun starts for some of the fortunate teams. At least I want to have a chance to battle for the Cup, and I hope to get that here."
Havlat and blueliner Brent Burns headlined another busy offseason for Sharks GM Doug Wilson, who hasn't been all that content with back-to-back conference finals appearances. Wilson had targeted Burns a while back before finally being able to sign him and fill what he believed was a long-standing need: another top-four blueliner and talented puck-mover who will help ease the minutes burden on Dan Boyle.
Havlat became part of the equation once Wilson had to pay up with Devin Setoguchi to get Burns. The Sharks believed they needed to replace Setoguchi's speed in their top six. Enter Havlat.
"That's the plan, but Plan A doesn't always come to fruition," McLellan told us Wednesday. "But we'd like him to move there. We like the years Clowe and Logan had, and those two feed off each other. There's a good combination. To add Havlat's speed and puck skills would be a nice addition on that line."
Havlat's ice time and role with the Wild were at times contentious issues, but the second-line assignment in San Jose with Couture and Clowe looks appealing to Havlat.
"I've been practicing with them the last few days," Havlat said. "Those two guys are great players. The whole lineup is full of skilled players. Whoever I'm going to play with, hopefully I'll fit in. It's up to the coach."
First, the Sharks have to get Havlat healthy. He's still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, and while he's been practicing in camp, he's been wearing the orange no-contact jersey.
"I'm getting better every day," Havlat said. "I'm just trying to get stronger. This is where it was supposed to look right now. I hope to be ready soon."
Ready for the season?
"We'll see; we'll take it step by step," Havlat said. "Working on it every day."
McLellan is hoping Havlat will be ready, but can't force the healing process.
"The fortunate thing is that he's been able to take part in practice to the extent where he understands what we're talking about and gets to know his teammates," the coach said. "Just the physical part isn't there yet."
Havlat was tremendous during his last season in Chicago; the bigger the game, the more clutch he was. That's what the Sharks are counting on. But his recovery is a reminder of the list of injuries Havlat has had to battle in his career.
"We just got to keep him healthy," Boyle told ESPN.com. "He's had a few rough years where he's been injured. If we can keep him healthy, he's one of those guys that can make things happen. He kind of got lost in Minnesota the last few years, but I remember when he was in Ottawa. He was one of the most dynamic players in the league, and we're looking forward to seeing that again."
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- If the Honda Center was made entirely of wood, one figures Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle and GM Bob Murray might spend their entire time these days knocking on every inch of the building.
And holding their breath, too.
For if there's an overriding factor that will help shape the success of their NHL season, and one that's completely out of their control, it's the health of No. 1 goalie Jonas Hiller.
"Arguably, before he got injured last year, he was an MVP candidate because he carried our team through November and December," Murray told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "If he's healthy, I think that puts us in the running for a playoff spot. And all indications right now is that he's fine. He's not in the trainer's room. He's going about his business."
The Swiss netminder was going about his business last season, turning in a brilliant first half that saw him selected as the only goalie from the Western Conference to make the All-Star Game. His name was routinely on most people's Vezina lists. Then, out of nowhere, vertigo-like symptoms annihilated his second half, limiting him to three appearances.
"It was a tough stretch at the end of last year," Hiller told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "Just mentally ... nobody could really tell you what caused the whole thing or how long it would take. It was really a tough second half last season. I'm glad to be feeling better and being able to play again."
The concern, of course, for Hiller and the Ducks is, since no one quite knows how he got the condition to begin with, it might return. But so far so good at camp, and there have been no symptoms since June.
"Hopefully it was a one-time thing," Hiller said. "But I can't worry about it. I'm just happy I feel better. I feel good on the ice."
Hiller is going through his normal routine so far at camp, although the Ducks are keeping a closer eye on him than usual. It's a concern the Ducks can't ignore. Carlyle couldn't help but think about it all summer.
"In reality, you can't do anything other than worry," Carlyle said Tuesday. "You worry about it and then you try to deal with the 'if.' There's Plan A and Plan B. Obviously when a player missed the amount of time he missed ... we talked about monitoring the situation more in depth, and that's what is taking place right now. It'll all be about what the player has to say. If he says he's 100 percent ready, when it's time to go, he'll play."
And five days in, camp has gone as planned.
"Yeah, I've been skating normally with the team," Hiller said. "It hasn't been an issue. I also skated before camp at home [in Switzerland] for quite a while, which gave me confidence, allowed me to feel the puck again and get the timing right."
Hiller first returned to the ice at Francois Allaire's Swiss goalie camp in mid-July. That was a big test.
"That was pretty good for me because I already felt better than I did when I left Anaheim after the season," Hiller said. "That gave me confidence. And from the second week of August, I skated with the team in Bern, and that was good. Every day that went by, I started feeling better and feeling right again."
The real test, of course, still awaits.
"Those first preseason games will be a test," said Hiller, who wasn't in the lineup for Tuesday night's preseason opener at the Honda Center.
The expectation is he might make his preseason debut sometime this weekend when the Ducks have three games in three days.
"Games are different than practice," Hiller said. "I have to figure out how that's going to go, but I'm confident, I feel good on the ice and in practice, and hopefully the same will be the case in the games."
Only the Ducks' season is riding on it.
PITTSBURGH -- And so the great experiment that is the rehabilitation of Matt Cooke begins.
Arguably the most hated man in the NHL, Cooke was suspended for the final 10 regular-season games of 2010-11 and the first round of the playoffs.
A chastened Cooke spent the ensuing weeks and months preparing to remake himself and change his hockey DNA so he could stay in the game.
Now it's going to be time to figure out if such a radical makeover is possible.
"I'm interested in seeing what the product is going to be on the ice from Matt Cooke and where his mindset's going to be at," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma recently told reporters. "I know Matt is in a different position now mentally. He's in a different position in his focus on being a physical player and what he's looking for and what aspects of hitting he can still do and be within the guidelines and with a new mindset."
We admit we have a soft spot for the gritty Pittsburgh Penguins winger. Two springs ago, a couple of months after he laid out Marc Savard with a hit that can be directly linked to what is likely the end of Savard's career, we sat with Cooke at the Bell Centre in Montreal and talked about the perceptions of him. We spoke of his wife, Michelle, former teammates and general managers like Brian Burke. He is universally described as a good friend and teammate and husband.
But Cooke has also established himself as a dangerous player with a reputation for exploiting vulnerable opponents with dirty hits.
With the memory of the Savard hit in March 2010 still fresh, last season marked a seminal moment for Cooke, the Penguins and possibly the league, as NHL officials wrestled with how to make the game safer. Across the league, there was a clarion call for stiffer penalties for players like Cooke. The Penguins themselves called for stiffer penalties in the wake of an ugly display against the New York Islanders.
Then, in early February, Cooke leveled Columbus defenseman Fedor Tyutin from behind and was suspended for four games. A little more than a month later, he decked New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh with an elbow and was suspended for the rest of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs.
"My changes are for me and my family and for my teammates and our organization, because I hurt them last year," Cooke said. "I let them down and I feel that."
Give Cooke credit for acknowledging his mistakes and outlining plans to reinvent himself. But talk, as they say, is cheap, and the proof will be in whether Cooke can put into practice his plans to approach the game differently.
Cooke, for one, doesn't see the process as being all that radical.
"I don't describe it as a makeover. I still have the body shape and physique that I have. What it is, is a change in my approach," Cooke said. "We're into analogies, so let's relate it to golf. Most pro golfers, when they're inside 30 yards, they use a lob wedge and they flop it to within three or four feet. Most amateurs can't do that. They take a 7-iron and they bump and run.
"I'm changing my approach. I always went for the big hit. Whenever I had a chance to hit, I tried to make it as impactful as I could, trying to stay within the rules. The problem with that is, there are a lot of situations during that game where that approach didn't allow for much room for error and, in a hurry, things can go bad. That's only been proven more and more -- the more I watch video, the more I watch other games, the more I watch other players."
He knows the issue will continue to be debated until the games actually start, and beyond; that's the reality of his past.
"It's not frustrating [being asked about the issue] because I know and understand the situation I'm in," Cooke told reporters this past weekend. "I also know the situation the media is in. Like I said yesterday, I can sit here and talk about it until I'm blue in the face. I'm not that naive to believe that's where it stops."
Skeptics -- and there are many -- believe such change will be impossible, that playing recklessly is inherent to Cooke's nature, and by changing that, he will cease to be himself and cease to be an effective player.
The 33-year-old Cooke, however, likens the process to a lawyer preparing a case.
"I not curious about it because I think when you're prepared, when you put the work in, you can relate it to any athlete, you can relate it to a lawyer or anybody you want," he said. "When they do the preparation and they put the time and effort in before a trial, before camp, sure, there's some anxious moments before; but when push comes to shove, they're ready and they're prepared. They go out and do what they have to do.
"That's how I feel right now. It's not like I said the things I said after I was handed my suspension and was like, that will just happen. That has not been the case and a lot of people can attest to that."
Remember this: Cooke's transgressions do not necessarily define him as a player. He and Jordan Staal formed one of the toughest penalty-killing duos in the NHL over the past few seasons. He has decent scoring skills and is one of the most aggressive forecheckers in the league.
"I think he's also ready to come back to our team and help in the areas that make him a good hockey player for our team, being a penalty killer, being a leader in that regard," Bylsma said. "He's a guy who's an aggressive player for us and he leads the charge in the offensive zone and in and around the net. So what's the product's going to be? We're going to have training camp to figure that out a little bit. But his mindset, his preparation going into this season in terms of being a physical player is much different than it has been."
If Cooke is able to complete his rehabilitation, it will be a bonus for the Penguins. It will also be a strong signal across the league that players can adjust and there is a way to get the job done without the carnage.
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Mike Richards' phone beeped. It was a text from a familiar name asking him to call, sent almost immediately after the forward's blockbuster trade in June.
It was John Stevens, Richards' former head coach in Philadelphia and his new assistant coach in Los Angeles.
Still shell-shocked, Richards obliged.
"I told Mike he would love it here," Stevens told ESPN.com on Monday during a break at the Kings' camp scrimmages. "I told him he's going to love the way we play, he's going to love the city, he's going to love living here. As hard as it was that day to know he wasn't in Philadelphia anymore, I told him there was lots to look forward to. And Mike and I have been through a lot together. I'm really excited that he's here. He's really one of the players that I truly enjoy having."
That immediate bond, that instant relationship he could tap into, cannot be overlooked in Richards' transition. It was a life-changing trade. Richards thought he'd be a Flyer for life.
"There are a lot of emotions when you first get traded," Richards told ESPN.com on Monday at the Kings' practice facility. "John and I had a great relationship in Philly. It was tough when he left Philly. ... It's remained a great relationship. We talk and it's an open-ended relationship where we talk about everything on the ice. Coming into a team where you know the coaches trust you already, that's going to be the biggest thing."
The connections in Philadelphia run deep, which is why it shouldn't surprise anyone the Kings were the club that scooped him up. Kings coach Terry Murray was an assistant coach under Stevens, Kings GM Dean Lombardi was a pro scout in Philadelphia before coming here and, of course, Kings assistant GM Ron Hextall was a Flyer all his life before coming to Los Angeles.
If there was any team in the NHL that was going to get Richards, it was the Kings. They knew what they were getting.
"You always try to do your undercover work [scouting]. This league is a pretty small league, but that being said, there's nothing like having firsthand knowledge," Lombardi told ESPN.com on Monday. "The bottom line with Mike, nobody questions this guy's competitiveness; his leadership comes natural. He's a guy that's won at every level."
Signing Richards' former Flyers linemate, Simon Gagne, was another touch in helping the former Philadelphia captain adjust.
On the ice, Richards wants to erase a painful and frustrating season. He battled a hand/wrist injury all season before having surgery in May. He appeared in 81 regular-season games, but was never the player he could be because of it.
"I just had no strength," Richards said. "As the season went on, it got worse and worse. I couldn't shoot the puck very well, had no strength in battles and was poor at faceoffs. I feel better now. I'm shooting the puck better and there's no pain. It's going to be good."
It's a clean slate.
"For me, it's just getting back to playing the way I can," Richards said. "Last year with my hand, it was a frustrating year with a lot of pain and a lot of headache because of it. ... This is an opportunity this year to get back to the top of your game."
Richards is slated to begin the season between Gagne and Dustin Brown. Talk about a line that can do damage at both ends of the ice. And the Kings view the 26-year-old Richards as a burgeoning star who can take yet another step.
"I think Mike is still evolving," said Lombardi. "I think he's only going to keep getting better."
The Kings' GM evoked the name of Steve Yzerman as an example of a star center who took his game to yet another level midway through his career. Richards will have every opportunity to do that in Los Angeles.
"He'll be counted on in all situations here," Stevens said. "I know in Philadelphia, I probably played him a bit too much. He's one of those guys that you want on the ice all the time. If you had to win a game, you had to catch up, you had to protect a lead, he just seemed like the type of player that crossed your mind all the time. He's a guy we really, really trust and I think Mike is the type of guy that wants that responsibility."
Cutting those Philadelphia ties won't happen overnight, though. Richards came out of the locker room Monday wearing a T-shirt from a Philadelphia restaurant. It just so happens he'll get the big game out of the way nice and early -- the Kings face the Flyers in Philadelphia on Oct. 15.
"It's going to be interesting," Richards said with a smile. "I'm not sure what type of reception I'm going to get in Philly, but I enjoyed my six years there. We did a lot of good things there, had a lot of success. I'm excited to get back there. I'm excited to see everyone again, friends and teammates and people in the organization, and playing in front of that crowd again will be nice. I enjoyed that every time I stepped on the ice there and I thought I played my hardest every time I did. It's going to be weird being on the opposite side, but at the same time, I think I'm going to enjoy it."
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Kings head coach Terry Murray stressed Monday that Jonathan Quick is the No. 1 goalie on his team after a standout year last season. But he also opened the door a little in saying the emerging Jonathan Bernier has a chance to push.
We asked once again, just to be clear, whether the Kings coach was saying that he would go with the hot hand in goal.
"That is what I'm saying yes," Murray said. "Quick is our No. 1 guy and, every game he played last year, he was outstanding. You know how every point and every game is in this league, the ones in the first quarter are just as important point-wise as the second quarter. So I'm going to go with the guy that's playing really well. Quick will be the starting goaltender coming out of training camp and that's how we'll deal with it moving forward."
Still no DoughtyDay 4 of Kings' camp and still no Drew Doughty as the defenseman remained unsigned.
With each passing day, the concern intensifies in terms of planning for the Kings.
"I've been through it before with other players in the past," said Murray. "Some have turned out to be the right decision to miss training camp and get the deal done and come in in great shape and ready to go. And a couple of other guys I remember it's a concern coming back in after missing a lot of time with your teammates and practice and the extra work that we do with the skating.
"But the bottom line is, I have to get the team ready to play. I have players on the ice that are getting themselves in that position, they're hungry. We've got a bunch of young guys here that are looking for an opening and want to play. If Drew Doughty is not able to get signed right away, then I have to find that player that is going to take up some of those minutes."
Rumors in cyberspace over the weekend had the Kings in talks to trade Doughty. General manager Dean Lombardi laughed Monday when asked about that.
"I'm not trading Drew Doughty," Lombardi said. "He's going to be a franchise player."
Murray added that contract negotiations are all part of the business.
"Hey, I miss Drew Doughty, believe me," said the Kings coach. "He's a great player. He's going to be here one day. I miss him here in the locker room because he always has a smile on his face, he's a happy guy to be around. But this is the way the business is. And I understand it is a business, so I hold no animosity towards Drew Doughty whatsoever. When he comes in, I'm going to give him a big hug and say, 'Let's get ready to play hockey.'"
Stoll's visorIt was notieable on Monday that Jarret Stoll was wearing a visor. While he has never worn one in his pro career, Stoll said he would try to stick with it after the scary eye injury Canucks forward Manny Malhotra suffered last season.
"I'm already used to it," he said.
Stoll said he had a few close calls last season, which was another factor in his decision. Not to mention his mom bugging him to wear one, he said with a chuckle.