For the first time in two years, Sidney Crosby is ready to start an NHL season.
The only problem is, there isn't a season to start just yet. With the NHL locked out, Crosby and every other member of the NHLPA is sidelined until the league and the NHLPA can reach a new collective bargaining agreement.
Crosby and several of his teammates have been renting ice time at the Penguins' practice facility at Iceoplex in Southpointe for the past month with the hopes of staying sharp in the event that the season does begin soon. For Crosby, this period follows a summer of intense training with the hopes of regaining the form which made him an MVP candidate prior to suffering a head injury at the 2011 Winter Classic.
Yesterday, he talked at length about a variety topics issues such as the lockout, his health, the Flyers, the state of the league on the ice, his team and potentially playing in Europe.
(Note: This interview was conducted before news of the NHL's new offer to the NHLPA.)
What are your emotions a month into this lockout?
"I don’t think I’m angry. If anything, it has its points where it’s just frustrating. You just try to worry about what you need to do to repair. But in the back of your mind, you figure out when the meetings are and you’re always waiting for that meeting where there’s a turning point or it seems like its going in the right direction and that hasn’t happened. I think that’s really where the frustration would come from. I don’t think you’re angry. We all understand that this is something could have been a possibility and we’re all just hoping that it’s not long as it could go. We know it could go longer. Everyone just wants to start playing."
Are you more optimistic a deal might get done than you were a month ago?
"I’m more optimistic. Just by the way things were going, it almost seemed like there wasn’t much negotiating going on. I think at this point, the only chance to really get a lot of games in and kind of salvage things would be sooner rather than later. I’m hoping everyone realizes that and finds a way to do it."
Prior to the 1994 lockout, Wayne Gretzky expressed frustration in being locked out after he had done quite a bit to promote the game. You have certainly done a lot to promote hockey and the NHL in your career. Are you frustrated over that as well?
"I don’t think my frustration stems from that. When you’re doing that stuff, you’re doing it with good intentions. You’re not doing it expecting something back, you know what I mean? It comes with the territory. The frustrating thing is that I love to play. I love to compete. I try to put myself in other peoples shoes, whether its fans or owners or even the people who work at Consol (Energy Center). They’re not working right now. It affects a lot of people. I think when you think about all the dynamics and how it affects everyone. There’s got to be some way. There’s a lot of smart people involved. Players love to play and are willing to make a deal. There’s a lot of good reasons why we can make something work and it just hasn’t happened."
Considering how much of a political issue the economy is, do you understand why fans are frustrated with both sides in this dispute?
"I understand that. There’s no really easy way to explain it aside from everyone wants what’s right. Whether that’s understood, that’s something that sometimes can’t be comprehended. I wouldn’t have been able to comprehend it growing up. I can understand their frustration 100 percent. But I think as long they know everyone has the right intentions. The players want to make something work. We all love the game and we want everyone to benefit. Not for a second, do I hold that against anyone. They should be frustrated. We’re frustrated. It is hard to comprehend or explain that. It wouldn’t make sense with everything that’s going on today (with the economy)."
Are you concerned if a new deal could impact the contract extension you signed this past summer?
"No. As far as my deal is concerned, I think it’s pretty (salary) cap friendly no matter what the circumstances and what ends up happening. I think the cap will continue to grow. If that’s the case, it will be pretty cap friendly. I don’t think there’s anything to worry about there. I’m pretty happy. When I was going through that whole process, that’s was the most important thing to me."
There are secondary issues the NHL and NHLPA must work out with matters such as discipline. Do you still feel there should be a universal ban on head shots?
"Yeah. I think you have to look at every one individually, there’s no doubt. I think you can usually tell the intent of a guy when he’s going to make a hit. But I think for the most part, they have to make sure that’s something they’re aware of. The game’s getting faster and guys aren’t getting any smaller. With everyone being so aware of concussions now, that’s something that you really have to pay attention to. You’re seeing it now in football too. They’re really cracking down on that. I don’t think football is a sport … they (don't) lose the physical part of the game by taking out head shots. It’s still pretty physical I think. I don’t think you’re going to lack anything by cracking down on that (in hockey)."
There appears to be quite a bit of resistance within the NHL – league executives, team executives, coaches, players – to instituting a universal ban on head shots. Why do you think that is?
"You have to evolve. As players, you have to evolve. A guy who started playing 10 years will tell you his game has evolved. He’s had to work on certain things. Sometimes the game evolves naturally and you have to evolve with it. That doesn’t mean it’s bad. I don’t like change. I’m probably one of the most routine-oriented or traditional guys there is but if anything, you have to understand things evolve. It’s what’s best for the game. Not always what’s best for one guy or a group of people. It’s what’s best for the game as a whole. I think everyone has to realize that. Concussions aren’t going to go down."
Another issue which has been debated is the return of obstruction in the game. How different is the game in this regard from your rookie season in 2005-06 when the NHL instituted new rules to promote offense to this past season?
“It’s definitely crept back in. I don’t know if we need to get back to that point (in 2005-06). I think they were really trying to enforce things that first year (after the 2004-05 lockout). We probably got eight power plays a game. I think we had probably had 400 power plays that year. I don’t know what we get now. It was definitely called really tight and now it’s kind of crept back in a bit. I think somewhere in between would probably be good. If it keeps going the way it’s going, it’s probably headed down the wrong path."
Is there any one thing that can be done on this issue?
"I think it’s tough. It’s so fast. There’s things where you’re sitting on the bench you see a play, you think it’s a penalty and you look at the video and it’s not that bad. It happens so quickly. If you focus on the obvious ones, the hooking, the clutching, that stuff. That stuff is really what slows it down. You’re really taking away really good scoring chances a lot of times if you do that stuff. If they look at that and just kind of get back to that initial enforcement of the rules, I think everything will be fine. I don’t think you need to re-invent anything.”
Another thing which has limited scoring in the NHL is a team-wide approach to shot blocking by collapsing around the net which teams such as the Rangers and Capitals adopted last season. It’s all within the rules, but is that good the game?
”I think that’s the evolution (of the game). That’s coaching. I know some teams have guys with extra padding on their gloves. They have like (goaltending) blockers out there almost. I think that just the evolution. I think you can’t do much to stop that. If anything, I think selfishly you’d like to see goalie gear to get smaller but I don’t think goalies would like that. That’s something that might help in terms of helping offense.”
A few years ago, Canadiens executive Bob Gainey suggested rules making it illegal to lay down and block a shot. That might be an extreme suggestion, but is there any thing the league could legislate to address this tactic?
”You’d really have to sit down and brain storm. But how do you figure out if a guy laid down to block a shot or if he fell? Or do you put a (maximum) where could only lay down to block so many in a game? I can see the point there. I just don’t know how you fix it. Selfishly, I would love it. I would love it for the (defense) to not go down block shots but I don’t know how change it.”
The primary highlight from last season’s playoff series between the Penguins and Flyers was Claude Giroux’s hit against you in Game 6. How much have you thought about that series and that hit this past summer?
"It was a clean hit. I don’t think I would have really changed anything. Do you like putting yourself in that position? No. The odds of a guy making a hit like that at home and then having the puck end up on his stick two seconds later and scoring a goal…. That probably is the whole series in a nutshell. The series could have been over, we could have not had to play that game if we would have won the first two (games). It might not have even gotten to that point. We learned a pretty good lesson there hopefully. We didn’t execute. We lost leads. We did everything possible to lose. We let in a lot of goals. Weren’t good defensively. The only thing that really came out of that was our power play was pretty good. But that’s not usually what wins you games. We got a pretty good lesson and we’ve got to learn from it.”
During the offseason, Giroux claimed you broke his wrists while taking faceoffs. Do you recall any plays where that might have happened?
”No. I really like to win the faceoff. I don’t try to go after his wrists but if I caught it, I’m not sorry for it. I think it’s hilarious I hear that stuff from Philly. It’s comedy to me to be honest with you. They’re probably involved in that stuff more than any team in the league and they’re the ones always talking about it. I guess I’m not apologetic. I was trying to win a faceoff and if I caught his wrist, then I caught his wrist. He seemed to play okay so I couldn’t have hurt him that bad.”
The Penguins and you individually were the scorn of quite a bit of criticism from inside and outside the NHL late season. Broadcasters such as Mike Milbury and Jeremy Roenick as well as coaches like the Rangers’ John Tortorella criticized you. Why do you think the intensity with that picked up as it did?
"Let’s be honest. Our team is talked about a lot. We watch ‘NHL on the Fly’ and ‘Gino’ (Evgeni Malkin) had such an unbelievable year. Our team was on fire last year at certain points. We’re talked about a lot. Ask other teams, I’m sure they get sick of hearing about us. Everybody’s competitive. That’s the way it works. That’s fine. Honestly, I don’t like that part. There’s some things that can stay on the ice and there’s some things where there’s mind games using the media. There’s a certain level of respect that isn’t there anymore. People have pretty loose lips when it comes to saying things that sometimes isn’t really justified or doesn’t really need to be said. It’s just a way of getting attention. That’s unfortunately what it’s come to. Everyone has easy access to give their opinion. And some people are more apt to share it quicker than others. If you look at John Tortorella, he’ll be the first one to tell you what he thinks right away. Not everyone’s like that. Unfortunately we’re the ones who have to answer questions about it. That just depends on the person and the way you do things. For me personally, I think the game is intense and competitive and as much as you don’t like the guys you play against, the game is played on the ice. That nonsense (off the ice) I think goes on too much and more than it should these days.”
Does criticism from someone directly involved in the game – a coach or player – carry more weight than someone outside the game such as a commentator or a fan?
“I would say it used to. It don’t know if it does now with Twitter and stuff. I think the fact that is used to weigh more was for that reason. It didn’t happen as much. Now, every night, someone’s always Tweeting or has a comment toward another player. I don’t know what that is. I think the game has grown. There’s more coverage and more media and that’s part of what creates that. But I think there could be a certain level of respect. Maybe is the fact that the game’s covered more. I always kind look at those players from before, as ugly as it got, it always kind of stayed on the ice. Ugly things happen out there but it’s not something you need to dissect for three days and have a quote war with someone."
Since even before you came in the league, you have always been a lightning rod for criticism. Is that something you have always just tuned out as much as possible?
“I think everyone deals with it different. You’ve got to enjoy it (the game). Things go by fast. This is going to be my eighth year. It’s gone by really quick. You have a window to play in the NHL. If you dwell on that stuff too much, you’re not going to enjoy your time. “
You mention the window you have to play. For much of the past two years, that window has been shut to you in terms of how much you can play, primarily due to health and now due to the lockout. What has that been like?
"It’s been frustrating but I think I’ve really tried to appreciate feeling good. Coming off a year and a half where I couldn’t even push myself. I could barely do anything without getting symptoms. I wasn’t able to do any of that stuff. The fact that I’m able to do that now, I look at that as a small victory. Now that’s been pretty constant, you look for more. You want to play. You want to compete. You want to be part of a team. That’s what we’re all patiently waiting for. But I think if anything, I have a pretty good appreciation for being able to do that stuff now and I don’t take it for granted."
Where were you physically this past summer in terms of training compared to the summer of 2011?
“It was completely different. I was working out two summers ago to be symptom free. So basically, just to go and do exercise was a victory. I was pushing myself just to get my heart rate and not get a headache, not get dizzy, not get sick. This summer, I got up every day with the purpose of not just getting my heart rate up. That was something I enjoyed. It was tough at some points. It was really rewarding and felt really good to be able and do that. I think that’s what you crave as a hockey player. Pushing yourself, getting better and seeing results and I was able to do that.
Why did you train in Southern California?
“My trainer has a lot of guys he works with on the West Coast. We kind of talked about being out there a little bit more just for him. It was more convenient for him. And I had been out there for a couple of when I was younger and I liked it. And me having my agency out there, knowing a few people out there, that really made sense. There’s good facilities out there. It’s so easy to eat healthy. It’s just a good environment to train in. That being said, I was able to get home for all of July and had a great time being home. It was a good balance. I was able to get away for a little bit but also enjoy home. Get to see all my family and friends. It was a good summer as far as training but also mentally too."
Did you add any muscle this summer?
“I actually lost weight. I probably lost I would say about seven pounds. I used to be 210. I’m probably closer to 200 now. I’ll probably gain a little bit of weight once the season starts. Just having three months to go hard, I was able to lean up a little bit. You go a year and a half without doing anything, it catches up to you a little bit. You lose your speed a little. You lose that strength. As much as skating is good, you need to do stuff off the ice. I basically was like a guy cramming for a test when I was ‘studying’ for the playoffs. I was trying to cram everything into three weeks trying to play. Even though I thought I felt pretty good when the playoffs came around, having skated this summer and trained, now I know I wasn’t really close to where I should be. I feel like I’ve improved a lot."
You mentioned the mental part this summer. Did you do anything away from the ice just to unwind?
"A lot of times, we would go play volleyball on the weekends. For me, even the simple stuff. For instance, grocery shopping. I don’t usually go grocery shopping. I was going grocery shopping there. I was going to movies. When you’re here during the season, you’re probably not doing that much in the season. You’re traveling and stuff. When you’re home, you just want to be home. I’m a bit of a homebody. So it was just nice to get out. I played a lot of tennis which is something I really missed when I was hurt. I used to play prior to getting hurt. If anything it was really healthy."
So you were able to be “Guy Incognito” out there more so than you could be that here in Pittsburgh or in Nova Scotia?
"People would laugh about grocery shopping. Usually I go grocery shopping when it’s a little bit quieter closer to closing time. I could just jump in the car and do whatever. It’s usually where I have to plan it a little bit more. It was good from that side of things."
"There was. It was the first time I ever experienced one. I was up high on the 18th floor. Now you understand why people get so scared. I think it was a 3.2 or something but it lasted three or four seconds. It was an experience.”
You were in California for much of the Kings’ run to the Stanley Cup.
“When I was going out there… I’m going to be able to just going to focus on training. I’m going somewhere where there’s not a lot of hockey going on. Then I get out there and the Kings are in the Stanley Cup Final. There was a buzz around everywhere. It was kind of motivating. I was just starting my summer training and they were playing in the Stanley Cup Final. I would much rather be reversing roles there. It was a little weird but it was a good I think. It motivated me."
Your former teammate, Rob Scuderi won his second Stanley Cup title. Are you jealous?
“Really happy for him. I saw him at a couple of weddings this summer and saw him when I was training. He is a great teammate. A guy you’d love to have on your team. He’ll do anything it takes to win. Just tough. Tough as nails. To see him take that hit (a boarding major from Devils forward Steve Bernier in Game 6). Saw him play numerous times for us and get banged up. He’s ‘The Piece.’ What can I say? He just has that element he brings to a team. He’s playing with Drew Doughty. Fits right in there. Consistent and reliable.”
What made them click? They didn’t just win the Cup. They nearly swept their way throughout the entire playoffs.
“First of all, I think they were a pretty good team prior to. If anyone would have said at the start of their year (they could contend), we would have all had agreed. They were there at the start of the year and then they just kind of started to struggle. Then for whatever reason, they started to get hot at the right time. That’s the way it is. You see that in all sports. You just got to get in (the postseason). Everything is so competitive. But for them to roll through like they did, that’s impressive. They made it look pretty easy."
What kicked in for Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick that allowed him to dominate the postseason?
“I don’t know if it really kicked in. I think anyone I talked to in the (Western Conference) prior to, would talk about how good he was. He just didn’t get a chance to showcase it. He was on the big stage and showcased it pretty well. I think that if you ask guys on his team, they wouldn't act that shocked. He won a lot of game for them. I’m sure he’ll get better and better. He’s athletic, he competes and challenges really well."
Former Red Wings captain/defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom retired this summer after 20 years in the league. What is the league going to be like without him?
"You can’t replace him. There’s no chance with what he did. He’s going to go down as one of the best ever. I think if you ask anyone, he’s so respected. He could have kept playing. That’s the scary part. It’s not like this guy was really struggling. He retired on his own terms. He did what was best for him. For his age, it was incredible for what he was still doing. If we had to start camp in a couple weeks, I’m sure he’d find a way to look good out there."
As a captain, was he more of a vocal Mark Messier type or more of a quiet Mario Lemieux type?
"I think he’s more of a quiet leader. You don’t see much emotion. He was pretty steady. Pretty even-keel as far as his demeanor. There’s a lot of ways to display leadership and I think he’s got every quality of a great captain. I think he’s a role model for a lot of players. I even took a lot of things away from when we lost (to the Red Wings in the 2008 Stanley Cup Final), I think we all learned about the demeanor. The year we won, you could see our demeanor was a little different."
What was the toughest thing about playing against him?
"The nice thing was he wasn’t going to crush you. You didn’t have to worry about him. He didn’t look for you in the middle too often. He conserved his energy that way. He was so positionally sound. The one thing that always sticks out to me that I always laugh about, was seeing guys try to chip pucks in. A skilled defenseman like that, you think I just put the puck behind him and maybe get a few hits on him and wear him down. I saw guys try to chip pucks behind him and he’d bat them out of the air. When you’re going against a guy who is so good one on one, you’d think that’s the only way to beat him. And you’d see guys try to chip it in and they still couldn’t beat him. He was so good positionally. You’d look up and he’d be half a zone away. Then you’d put your head down and all of a sudden he’d be in your face. He just knew the game so well. He was positionally sound and knew the game so well."
Former Penguins coach Michel Therrien is back in the NHL having taken over the Canadiens. He was able to turn this team around in one year and return to the postseason in 2007. Is he the perfect coach for a team in that situation?
"Oh yeah. I think he’s going to do a really good job. He’s in a similar situation as he was in Pittsburgh with them coming off a tough year. With the expectation they want to change the environment and atmosphere. He wants to win. He thrives on winning and demands a lot from the players. I think he’s going to do a good job."
Your former linemate Colby Armstrong is reuniting with Therrien in Montreal. Was that surprising?
“I’m not surprised. I know they have a good relationship. Mike gave ‘Army’ a great opportunity to play. ‘Army’s’ one of those guys that you know what you’re getting every night. He’s going to compete every night. I think that’s something they’re both comfortable with what’s expected. That’s really a pretty easy fit for the two of them.”
This summer the Penguins went through a few changes. Most notably, Jordan Staal was traded to Carolina. Did you have a sense that was possible?
“Later on. I think as it got closer to free agency. I found out there was an (contract) offer there. 'Staalsy' got offered a contract and was kind of on the fence there. I talked to him and knew there was a possibility that he might want to play with his brother (Hurricanes captain/center Eric Staal) and things like that. You don’t ever really know but I don’t think it was a complete shock. I think for us, ‘Staalsy’ let us know that was something he was thinking about. We all have to do what’s best for ourselves in that situation. He basically didn’t commit to extending. That’s the business side of things and I think it worked out for both teams. He got an opportunity to play with his brother and we got some good players in return."
One of the other motivating factors for him was to take on a greater role with Carolina that he couldn’t take on consistently behind yourself and Evgeni Malkin. Do you understand that motivation?
"You have to live with your decision when you decide to sign a long-term contract. In the back of his mind, he felt like he wanted to see what he could do and see himself in that role, he’s allowed to want that and to kind of expect that. It’s too bad we lost a good player and someone who is a friend and someone you win with. That’s never easy. That being said, he’s getting a great opportunity there and we got quality player and a quality person back in ‘Suttsy’ (Brandon Sutter) and some of the other players we got too (defensive prospects Brian Dumoulin and Derrick Pouliot). Both teams got what they wanted."
His trade and one involving former Penguins defenseman Zbynek Michalek occurred during his wedding day. What was that like?
"I still remember, ‘Staalsy’ was up at the head table with his new bride. We all kind of got the text at the same time. We were in shock. It was kind of weird. A lot to happen in one day, especially for him and Heather. If anything, when we all sat down and absorbed it, it was probably a good thing we were all there. Usually a guy gets traded, it’s quick. You see him and ‘See ya.’ It’s good. It actually worked out better that we were all there. We knew it was a possibility. We just didn’t know it would happen at that exact moment."
You’ve faced Jordan Staal in countless scrimmages and drills here in Pittsburgh. What will it be like playing him in a real game for the first time whenever that might be?
"It’s going to be weird. It will be tough too. He’s a big body. Strong as a horse. We always enjoyed seeing him do that to opposing teams when he’d wear them down and protect the puck and be strong in both end. It’s going to be a challenge. It’s something we’ve already kind of talked about and had a few laughs over. I’ve played against Eric quite a bit. They’re pretty similar. Big bodies. Strong. They compete hard. He’ll just add to that competition. That’s the fun part of the game."
You get Brandon Sutter in that trade. What does he bring to this team as a third-line defensive center?
"I think he’s really going to embrace that. I think the expectations will probably be high. ‘Staalsy’ did an unbelievable job. I don’t think he has to put the pressure on himself to be Jordan Staal. I think he has to be the best he can be. He does a lot of really good things. He’s really detailed. That’s a big part of the game to be successful. He’s committed to blocking shots and being good defensively but he’s got great hands and some offensive awareness too. He’s going to bring a lot. I think people are going to enjoy watching him play.”
The team added goaltender Tomas Vokoun in the offseason. What does he offer the Penguins?
"I think he’s going to be good. He’s probably going to play a good chunk of games too. I’m sure that will be good support for ‘Flower’ (goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury). I think ‘Johnny’ (former goaltender Brent Johnson) and ‘Flower’ had a good thing going. I’m sure once (Fleury and Vokoun) get to meet one another, they’ll have a good thing going too and he’ll bring some experience as ‘Johnny’ did. That will be a good tandem. He’s a ‘silly-sider’ (right glove hand) so that will be something new to shoot against in practice.”
Last season, head coach Dan Bylmsa had a goal of playing Fleury around 60 games and Johnson around 20 games. Injuries and other factors forced Fleury to play 67 games. Are goaltending tandems a necessity in the NHL these days to keep a No. 1 goaltender fresh for the postseason?
“I think it really comes down to the goalie. That’s part of the coach’s job. Getting to know your goalie and knowing when he’s sharp and when he needs a rest and knowing how much your back up needs to get in to feel comfortable. I don’t think you can paint the same picture for everyone, but stats don’t lie either. The more rested your goalie is going into the playoffs, the better. But what that takes is different for every goalie. That may be 65-70 games for one goalie and maybe 60 or 55 for another. That’s just communication and knowing your goalie. Having a guy who’s played a pretty good chunk of games in Vokoun can’t hurt.”
Fleury didn’t have a strong postseason. How does he rebound from that? He’s rebounded plenty of times before from bad games and stretches of play, but that was pretty ugly.
“I think like all of us, we have to. It was ugly. There’s no real explanation. It’s brought up when we see our friends in the summer or we run into people and they say that series was incredible. You talk to (fellow NHLers) who were playing during the playoffs, they say, ‘We were glued to the TV. We’ve never seen anything like that.’ If anything, that might help that it was so weird. There was so many goals. Maybe that makes it easier since it was so uncommon and weird, that will allow us to erase it. I think it will. Like us as a whole, maybe ‘Flower’ individually, I’m sure he’s moved on. Every goalie that’s has success has to have a pretty short memory. I think ‘Flower’s' learned that over the course of his career.”
The entire team defense also imploded in the postseason. What needs to be addressed in that area?
"I think our defensive zone was a little loose. When they got pressure in our defensive zone, I don’t think we didn’t do a good job of getting out as quickly as we needed to. We allowed them to get a lot of pressure. When you do that, you usually give up something and make a mistake. I think we gave up big chances. They weren’t little mistakes where maybe we eventually got a stick on the puck. It was big chance. You can’t give those up. We just really have to tighten up our defensive zone and make sure we’re getting out of there quick and not allowing teams to sustain pressure."
The power play had success in the postseason but allowed several shorthanded goals. It’s been inconsistent for several seasons. What needs fixed?
"When you look at the goals against, it wasn’t a lack of backchecking or some lazy stuff. It was just mistakes. We had one we coughed up at the blue line. One ‘Flower’ would like to have back where he tried to cover it and it pops in. I think the power play is pretty good. Having four forwards, you really have to be aware. Teams are going to be trying (to force a shorthanded goal), especially Philadelphia more so than probably a lot of other teams. They’re really trying to create (shorthanded) offense. It was kind of like a perfect storm. I think our power play is pretty good. If anything, when you have four forwards, you got to make sure you’re responsible and backcheck and not take any chances at the blue line."
For several seasons, the team has been trying to find a long-term winger for you. Former Devils captain/forward Zach Parise was targeted by the Penguins and several teams but ultimately signed with the Wild. Were you involved in trying to recruit him at all?
"I talked to him at one point. I think he was trying to figure out where he was going to go. I knew we were in the mix. I was excited he was considering us. I played against him a lot and knew what he brought. I think like everyone else, I waited to see what he was going to do. It didn’t work out. I don’t dwell or think about it. That’s something that’s talked about a lot. I’m pretty confident with the players we have here and being able to work with those guys. I think we’ve proven we can create a lot whether it’s playing with ‘Kuny’ (forward Chris Kunitz) or ‘Duper’ (forward Pascal Dupuis) or whoever it is, I think we have chemistry there and it’s not something we need to worry about."
Several of the teams which pursued Parise as well as defenseman Ryan Suter such as the Penguins, the Red Wings and the Blackhawks have their hierarchies established on the team. In Pittsburgh, it’s yourself and Malkin. In Detroit it’s forwards Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. In Chicago it’s forwards Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. The Wild doesn’t really have that established on paper at least. There were family ties which came into play for them in Minnesota, but do you think having the chance to be ‘the guy’ in Minnesota appealed to Parise and Suter?
"Oh I’m sure. There’s a lot of factors. When you have the opportunity to sign long-term deals, to go somewhere and be a part of building that and to have that challenge. Some guys really want that challenge. Not every guy wants that. I think some people assume that sometimes. That’s not always the case. There’s some guys who prefer to have a supporting role I guess you could say. And some guys really want to have that pressure. They want to be the go-to guy. I think those guys wanted that responsibility. You can’t blame them for it. The situation for both of them, Zach grew up around there and Suter doesn’t live too far from there. The contract they were offered didn’t hurt either."
You probably don’t mind seeing a player like Parise leave the Atlantic Division.
"Yeah. Exactly. Getting him a little further away doesn’t hurt. The thing is, you look at our division every year, free agency or trade deadline, there’s always movement. It seems like our division is the most active of any of them in the whole league. It’s competitive. Every team it seems like it trying to improve and make moves and find a way to get to that next level."
You probably aren’t terribly excited to see forward Rick Nash join a division rival like the Rangers.
"He’s going to be great for them. He’s big, fast, creates a lot. He’s a dangerous player. He’s a good addition for them. They got ‘Ash’ (former Penguins forward Arron Asham) now. That’ll bring some more toughness. It will be some good intense games against them. That’s what you learn to expect and come to expect. Our division is competitive and intense."
Is it safe to assume you were happy to see defenseman Shea Weber stick with the Predators after he initially signed an offer sheet with the Flyers?
"Yeah. That was really good to see. He’s a tough guy to play against. He’s got a great shot. He would have been good for them but I’m glad he’s staying in the west."
Nash’s name was in play going back to the trade deadline in February. Ducks forward Bobby Ryan’s name was in play after he criticized the Ducks in the offseason. Were you curious if general manager Ray Shero would pursue them?
"Yeah. It’s almost always automatic when those names are talked about, you always hear Pittsburgh is interested. It think we have a great going thing here. A great organization. A great fan base. You look at the facility, there’s a lot of things to like about our team. I’m sure when people hear about guys going somewhere, I’m sure it’s always an interest. It’s pretty natural for that to happen."
In the offseason, Bylsma suggested three internal options to play with you on a wing, Beau Bennett, Tyler Kennedy and Eric Tangradi. What is a quick scouting report on them?
"In ‘Tango’s’ case, he’s a big body. He’s going to create space. He’s going to be good around the net. He likes create a lot of havoc around the net and put in rebounds and create screens. ‘T.K.’ is a shooter. He’s going to find those soft areas. He’s a guy who’s going to get on the forecheck and create loose pucks. Beau Bennett, probably a little bit different. Beau Bennett is more of a finesse guy. He gets it in on the forecheck but probably doesn’t bring the physical element that those guys bring. He’s got some really good hands. I haven’t seen him play a lot. I’ve skated with him a bit when I was in California. He’s got some great hands."
You’re a hockey geek more or less. With the NHL on hold, what are you doing with yourself right now?
"It’s been good. I got a chance to go see my sister play in (Shattuck St. Mary’s) in Minnesota. I haven't see her play before. She’s 16. I left home when she was six. She started playing and skating when she was like eight or nine. I was always here while she was in her season back home. To be able to go see her play and to also to go back to Shattuck where I went, to hear about her experience there. To watch a game with my parents, I’ve always looked up and see them watching (me) but I’ve never watched a game with them. That was kind of interesting. You hear that a lot. We have guys on the team who get to do stuff with their kids that they probably typically wouldn’t do. You love to play but you try to make the most of the chance you have of not playing and take the positive out of it. I’m building a house here. Whether that’s a good thing or bad thing, I’ve had time to do that. Depending on what it is that I have to pick out that day or make a decision."
If this lockout drags on, playing in Europe is an option for you. Some things such as insurance are out of your control. As far as what you can control, what factors do you consider as far as where you might go? Travel, money, facilities, etc.?
“I don’t think you want to get too selective that way. I think you just go somewhere where you’re comfortable. I think what would make me comfortable is somewhere where I know a couple of guys. Other than that, a rink’s a rink.”
Maple Leafs forward Nikolai Kulemin is playing with Malkin for Metallurg Magnitogorsk in Russia’s KHL. Malkin recently joked that while it’s nice to play with Kulemin, it would be better with you. Have you talked to him about playing there?
"We’ve texted. I’ve been texting him basically to keep him updated on what’s going on here. I think once you get into the season as he is over there, as much as he’s trying to understand what’s going on here, he’s got to focus on playing. He can’t have his mind in two places or else it’s going to be hard to perform. I texted him the other day after he scored that nice one. He doesn’t look like he’s too rusty."
Malkin had such a strong season after his knee injury. Does that motivate you at all to match his level?
"That’s not really where I get my motivation. You’re happy to see him do well but I think my motivation comes from being my best. I think if anything, you just want to make sure you’re doing your part. Whether it’s (forward Joe Vitale) or ‘T.K.’ and those guys doing what they need to do, you have a responsibility to do the same. It’s fun when ‘Gino’s’ going. I think that’s something that you realize you can benefit from when he’s going like that. That’s a real luxury we have. That’s something when he’s going, I can make the most out of my opportunities if I’m maybe playing against a second (defensive) pairing. That’s a fun situation to have."
His MVP season of 2011-12 versus your MVP season of 2006-07. Which was better?
"Mine was so long ago. How old was I? 20? No, it was my second year. I was 19. What are the stats?"
He had 109 points. You had 120. He had a few more goals. But you didn’t have a 40-goal guy like James Neal on your wing.
"That’s right. You be the judge of that. Me and ‘Gino’ have some good arguments about that. I don’t know. I don’t remember the power plays and stuff like that. There might have been a few more. I did have 120 points so I’ll always have that on him."
If we get some semblance of 82 games in for a season, what are your goals?
"You never go typically into a season of playing a full year but it would pretty good to get close to a full year. It’s been a couple of years since I was able to do that. I look back to when I got hit at the (2011) Winter Classic, the level I was at, that’s what I went to get to. Whether or not that’s possible, time will tell. But that’s where my mind is at. That’s where I want to get to. I think that’s probably the best I’ve felt since I came into the NHL. Once I get playing, personally that’s where I want to get to. As far as (the team), I think we all aren’t happy with what happened last year. We all realized we’re a good team. We proved that last year throughout the regular season but that’s not where you’re judged. I think that throughout this year, we’ll hopefully have that in the back of our mind and we won’t have that little lapse that we did have at the end of last year going into the playoffs. We really should be playing with something to prove. If we want to be a great team, we can’t let that happen. We have to find a way to be better for it. I think if anything, myself and the rest of the guys feel like we have something to prove."
This team has had three quick exits from the postseason following the 2009 Stanley Cup title. How much responsibility do you bear – 2011 notwithstanding given your health – for this team not having the success expected of it?
"I think Montreal (in 2010), it’s the second round, there’s always high expectations. You want to get there every year. But it’s hockey and things happen. The fact is, we went to the Finals two years in a row. It was an Olympic year. I think we, looking back, we were just a run down team. That’s not an excuse. That’s just facts. Sometimes that happens. That one, you don’t like it but it's a little more understandable. Tampa (in 2011), that one’s tough (due the injuries). There’s no excuse for what happened last year. You can’t really explain it. There’s no point in dwelling on it. I don’t think we look at those three years as a whole. I think we look at last year and know that’s just not acceptable. Obviously, nobody’s going to win every single year but we expect to be in a better position than we were. We definitely have something to prove this year."
(Photos: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images; Bruce Bennett/Getty Images; Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images; Harry How/Getty Images; Jim McIsaac/Getty Images; Christian Petersen/Getty Images; Keith Srakocic/Associated Press)