Friday, July 12, 2013

One Legend In, One Legend Pre-empted

Yesterday, Derek Jeter returned to the Yankee lineup to lead the big tough nasty city slickers of N'Yawk against those Kay Cee country boys, rednecks, farmers, sheep-shaggers.

On the one hand, as a certain thief from Texas would say, MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.  He got a hit and an RBI in 4 trips to the plate, and the Yankees beat the Kansas City Royals, 8-4.

Two hits each by 3 guys you wouldn't expect to do it: Eduardo Nunez (who boosted his batting average to .222), Austin Romine (.153), and the rookie Zoilo Almonte (not yet a "rookie sensation," but he is batting a fine .284).

Old man Andy Pettitte wasn't great, but good enough to win (7-6) with that kind of run support.  The Yankees smacked around Ervin Santana (5-6), while 3 Yankee relievers -- Shawn Kelley, not-quite All-Star David Robertson, and, managing to not blow a 4-run lead in the 9th, Boone Logan -- held the Royals to just 2 baserunners over the last 3 1/3 innings.

On the other hand, Jeter left the game in the 8th inning with a tight quadriceps.  (That's the muscle on top of the thigh.) He may not have been fully ready.  He was playing a game sooner than he was intended to, and perhaps keeping him out until after the All-Star Break would have been better -- keeping in mind that our first series after the All-Star Break is on Friday, in Boston, against The Scum.

Lisa Swan of Subway Squawkers went on a bit of a rant about Jeter's too-soon return, (potentially) yet another futzup of Brian Cashman's.  Could it have been less about Jeter's bat in the lineup and his presence in the dugout and locker room (DJ's famed "intangibles"), and more about putting meat in the seats and boosting the YES Network's ratings? If Lisa's rant is correct, Cashman needs, at the least, a Gibbs-slap.  (By all means, watch the clip to the end.)

Jeter had an MRI last night.  As of this writing (10:31 AM), no results announced.  He thinks he can play today.  Well, he always thinks he can play.  Much like his fellow Tri-State Area sports legend, Martin Brodeur, unless he's in too much pain to actually move, you need a crowbar to get him out of the lineup.

*

Which brings me to the subject of Brodeur's team, the New Jersey Devils.  Brodeur is 41, and gives no indication of wanting to retire.  Nor should he, as, still, "MAR-ty's BET-ter! (Clap, clap, clap-clap-clap)"

But Ilya Kovalchuk is 30, and he announced his retirement yesterday.  He says he wants to spend more time with his family.

Uh... huh.  When a politician says he's resigning, or not running for another term, because he wants to "spend more time with my family," that means "I did something wrong, and my wife found out about it, and I have to make it up to her."

Did I mention Kovalchuk is just 30 years old? This past season was shortened because NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is an asshole and locked the players out, so Kovy only played 37 games and scored 11 goals.  But look at this chart: Year, age he was when the season ended (his birthday is April 15), goals scored:

2002 19 29 (debuts in NHL with Atlanta Thrashers)
2003 20 38
2004 21 41 (leads league)
2005 22 0 (entire season canceled, lockout, Bettman's an asshole)
2006 23 52 (Jonathan Cheechoo led league with 56)
2007 24 42 (Vincent Lecavalier led with 52)
2008 25 52 (Alex Ovechkin led with 65)
2009 26 43 (Ovechkin led with 56)
2010 27 41 (1st season w/Devils; Sidney Crosby & Steven Stamkos both had 51)
2011 28 31
2012 29 37
2013 30 11

Total goals in NHL play: 417 (well on his way to Hall of Fame election)
Total goals with Devils: 89

In 2012, the Devils reached the Stanley Cup Finals, and in the Playoffs Kovy had a league-leading 8 goals, plus 11 assists.

He came from one of the great sports clubs on this planet, Spartak Moscow, better known for its soccer team, which was the most popular sports team in the Soviet Union from its 1935 founding to this day, well after the USSR fell and was replaced with the Russian Federation.  He's also scored 6 goals for Russia in Olympic play.

What bothers me about Kovy's "retirement" is not that it happened, but how, when, and the appearance of why:

How: At the age of 30, when most hockey players are well in their prime.  True, since the 2010-11 season began, he hasn't been what he was from 2002-03 to 2009-10.  But he sure seems like a good option, especially since there are only 2 players on the Devils who scored more goals in 2013, and one of them, David Clarkson, has already buggered off to his hometown team, the Toronto Maple Leafs.  (Right. Have fun trying to win a Stanley Cup there.  It's only been 46 years.) The other is Patrik Elias, and he signed a new contract with the Devils, and at age 37 shows no sign of slowing down.  Indeed, this should be another sign: For whatever reason, hockey players maintain their peak longer than athletes in the other major sports.  Dainius Zubrus just turned 35, and while he's not an out-and-out scoring cog, he's still a good all-around player, and shows no sign of slowing down.

When: After the NHL Draft, making it harder for Devils GM Lou Lamoriello to make the kind of moves that have Devils fans frequently saying, "In Lou we trust."

Why (apparently): The rumor is that he's sick of Bettman's assholery and the shenanigans of his puppetmasters, the NHL team owners, and would rather play back home in Mother Russia, in the Kontinental Hockey League.  (That's not a purposeful misspelling, meant to tweak the Russkies: It is actually spelled with a K.) On the other hand, playing in the KHL, which doesn't have a salary cap, means that he can pretty much make as much money as he can con someone into paying him.  (Considering that Spartak are building a new stadium, I'm guessing it won't be them.  Anzhi Makhachkala, for the moment, only play soccer, not hockey, but if they start a hockey team, they can certainly afford Kovalchuk.)

Ilya, you could have been a Devils Legend.  Instead, you're a weasel.

Granted, there have been more hated former players.  The most hated would have to be Scott Gomez, for going to the hated Rangers for more money.  But he has done nothing since leaving the Devils: Not for The Scum (hockey edition), not for the Montreal Canadiens, not for the San Jose Sharks.  Whereas, for the Devils, he appeared in 3 Stanley Cup Finals, winning 2 Cups.

Eventually, we should forgive Gomer.  But Kovy? He's a rat jumping off a ship he thinks is sinking.

In the short term, we're going to have to come up with a player, or players, capable of scoring 30 goals in a season.  In the long term, that's a lot of money we won't have to pay him.

But I'm reminded of something that Angelo Cataldi of Philadelphia sports-talk station WIP said of the only 2 coaches ever to lead the Philadelphia Eagles to a Super Bowl berth, and how Delaware Valley fans compare them.  Hint: In spite of winning more regular-season games, winning more Playoff games, reaching more Playoff berths, and reaching more NFL or NFC Championship Games, than any other Eagles coach, Andy Reid, now gone, is not as loved as Dick Vermeil, who was bossman of the Broad Street Birds for a comparatively brief time and left while he still should have had a lot of good years left -- but, by his own admission, might not have if he had stayed, because he was running himself ragged, and since he's still alive and won a Super Bowl with another team after a long layoff, it's hard to say he made the wrong decision.

Cataldi: "Vermeil has friends all over America.  Reid has money under the cap."

So, again, in another league, a salary cap dictates how competitive a team is allowed to be.

I hate salary caps.  Sure, they give lesser teams a chance.  But they don't give them much of a chance.  And when your team does start winning, it means that winning has to stop sooner than it would have if you were allowed to make the adjustments necessary to stay on top.

So Kovalchuk is gone.  He could have been a Devils Legend.

Instead, he's a reminder that, while our club is a good one, with a good history, it could have been so much better.

This is not the time to rip into the Cult of Saint Lou.  There will be other times to expose Lamoriello as The Big Bald Cheapskate.  This is not his fault.

This is Gary Bettman's fault, for being an asshole who has harmed the National Hockey League far more than he has helped it.

And this is Ilya Kovalchuk, for taking a bad situation, and making it worse, when he could have stayed and, at least for his own team, made it better.

The dirty Russian weasel.

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