Friday, June 1, 2012
Scuderi a key piece to Cup puzzle
By Scott Burnside ESPN.com
NEWARK, N.J. -- No matter what Rob Scuderi does, no matter what he accomplishes, where he goes, he will always be "The Piece."
That's because in many ways the hardworking, no-nonsense defenseman is just that, "The Piece."
The nickname was given life in the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs when Scuderi, then a cornerstone of the Pittsburgh Penguins' defense, in an attempt to describe his role as being simply a piece to the Penguins' puzzle inadvertently described himself as "the piece."
But he turned out to be "the piece" in Game 6 of that series when he made two crucial defensive plays to stop sure goals to preserve a 2-1 victory against the Detroit Red Wings and send the series to Game 7, which the Penguins would also win.
Not surprisingly, his teammates in Pittsburgh made great sport of the misstatement, referring to Scuderi simply as "The Piece." Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero still chuckles at the moment as there could hardly be a player less likely to draw attention to himself than Scuderi.
Even now a mention of the moment causes the understated Scuderi some discomfort.
"I tried to leave that in Pittsburgh but thank you very much for bringing that up," he said with a wry grin Friday afternoon after the Los Angeles Kings practiced in preparation for Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals.
"No one's called me it here. Every once in a while someone says it and I'll kind of make the shushing [sign]. It was funny. It's not like I said it on purpose. It's more of a funny thing that we can all laugh at."
The native of Long Island, N.Y., was part of a Penguins team that grew up together. He played in the AHL at Wilkes-Barre after graduating from Boston College and then with the big club. Along with players like Brooks Orpik and Maxime Talbot, Scuderi became part of the backbone of a club that would go to the 2008 finals before winning it all the next year.
Ed Olczyk was the head coach of the Penguins when Scuderi got his first extended taste of NHL life in the 2005-06 season. The former NHLer and broadcast analyst said that with Scuderi you always know what you're going to get.
"We projected him to play against the best guys in the league night in and night out," Olczyk told ESPN.com Friday.
"Just the way he goes about his business. Not a lot of flash, just a lot of heart and a lot of consistency."
He's not the fastest skater or the most physical defender, "but he can play the game," added Shero.
"He's got such a great stick. He's very, very good defensively. He's the kind of player the coaches really like. I'm really happy for him."
Within weeks of winning the Cup in 2009, Scuderi hit the market as an unrestricted free agent as the Penguins couldn't make room for him under the salary cap. He became a member of the Los Angeles Kings by the end of the first day of free agency, signing a four-year deal worth $13.6 million.
Sometimes a contract like that creates unrealistic expectations for everyone involved -- team, player, fans.
In this case, GM Dean Lombardi and assistant GM Ron Hextall made it clear to Scuderi that they wanted exactly what he'd proved to be in Pittsburgh.
"Real pro. That's the first thing that comes mind, [he] is a real pro," Dean Lombardi said of Rob Scuderi.
"I don't think it was hard just because I'd talked to Dean and Hextall within the first few days I'd arrived in Los Angeles with my family and they pretty much just told me we want you to be the same player, we want you to be the same person we've heard about," Scuderi said. "It really took the pressure off because you got a big contract. I don't mind the expectations that comes with the territory and that's fine, but I was real glad those guys kind of came in and said we don't want you to do anything different than what I did in Pittsburgh.
"I didn't think it changed me. I think I've been the same person I was in Pittsburgh. I think just going to a different team in a different area on the opposite coast, I think that was the biggest adjustment for my family and I."
Although the Kings were bounced in the first round the first two springs Scuderi was on the West Coast, he never got discouraged at the team's evolution; and now the Kings are three wins away from their first-ever Stanley Cup.
"When I made the decision you can only make the decision on the facts that you have at the time," Scuderi said. "I thought the team was on the upswing, I don't think that was a surprise to anyone, and I thought maybe we'd have a chance to win. Even though I'd been fortunate just to win the Stanley Cup you still want to be on a winning team. No one consciously makes a decision to be part of a loser. It was something that I thought had a chance."
Obviously Lombardi felt Scuderi's presence would be an important building block in constructing what he hoped would be a championship lineup.
"Real pro. That's the first thing that comes to mind, [he] is a real pro," Lombardi told ESPN.com Friday. "There's a workmanlike presence to him; just does the right thing. His personality is very much like he plays: focused. There's not a lot of the rah, rah, rah stuff but you just have to watch him do the right thing every day. It's real simple.
"The thing now [is] his stature kind of rises as we've gone through this process because he's been there [the Cup finals] twice back-to-back and he's been matched up against top players."
Throughout the playoffs, Scuderi has been paired with former Norris Trophy nominee Drew Doughty, who missed training camp in a contract dispute before signing a long-term deal. Later in Game 1 of the Cup finals, they were matched up more frequently against Ilya Kovalchuk's forward line. Kovalchuk registered one shot and zero points in the game.
"Now you get to the intangibles," Lombardi said. "I think we've all seen Drew pretty excitable. I don't know if you guys saw the Phoenix series and that little temper tantrum. And Drew in this year I think he's put a lot of pressure on himself. You've clearly got a calming influence there [with Scuderi]. When a guy's been there twice like that and has a ring, that rings with Drew, even though Rob's not a high-profile guy."
Shero jokes that Scuderi may have the fewest shots blocked in the NHL in part because he rarely directs any at the net. Through 15 playoff games this spring he has nine shots in total -- tied for the fewest of any regular player on the Kings. He has one assist.
And yet when head coach Darryl Sutter needs to send someone over the boards to preserve a lead or kill a penalty, you can be sure he'll be looking to Scuderi.
"One of those old-school, classic, comes to work every day. He's a good pro," Sutter said.
"I think as we've went along and down the stretch, the playoffs, he's shown that even more."
As Lombardi finished his discussion of Scuderi, he paused.
"But isn't it true that with any good team there's always those guys that just do their job and are real good pros? He's a great fit for us," Lombardi said.
Whether Scuderi is a fit or the piece, in the end the results speak for themselves.