Friday, October 17, 2008

Should He Play or Should He Go. . .?

I have read, listened to, and literally gotten sick keeping track of all the talk over keep him/trade him, like him/think he's not worth it, on Petr Prucha, and I've waited a long time to respond. So, now that I am . . . let's go. . .

I've listened to it all. Really. And I'm not saying he is blameless. I'm not saying he is perfect. I'm not saying anything really. Except give the kid a damn break. There, I said it. Give him a break. Whether he sticks with this team for ten years or gets traded tomorrow. . .this is a kid that has, honestly, tried his best. Really. I'd like to see someone argue that he hasn't.

And now the facts and then my honest to goodness opinion.

Petr came into the league as an unknown in the 2005-2006 season. During which, he came in under the radar and at a time when almost everything was clicking on the Rangers. Guys like Jaromir Jagr, Martin Straka and Michael Nylander were resurrecting their careers. Hank Lundqvist emerged, also as a relative unknown, to lead the team into the playoff picture. The way the team was clipping before the Olympic break, I'd be hard pressed to believe they wouldn't have continued on into the late rounds of the playoffs and perhaps even the Final. As it was, the team fell apart post-Olympic break and stumbled into the playoffs, leading to a quick, painful exit in four to the team from NJ.

Regardless, Jagr would go on to have a career type year, setting all time records for Rangers goals and points in that year. Prucha would get prominent time on the Powerplay with Jagr, and on the team's top lines. He managed to score 16 goals on the man advantage that year- a Rangers record for a rookie. He scored in six straight games in December of that year, tying a franchise mark for rookies. His shooting percentage was one of the highest in the entire league.
A knee injury right before the 2006 Olympic break set him back a little. His heart was bruised most of all, but he still managed to have a great rookie year.

The following year, in came Brendan Shanahan. And, because I grew to like the guy, I will not say I'd want to take that back. He provided strong leadership, proved he was not washed up, and came through with goals (especially timely shootout ones). However, if I were Petr Prucha, I'd wish that Shanahan never came to the Rangers at all. (I also feel Petr is probably too nice a guy to say that himself but it's true). He went from starring on Broadway with Jagr and piling up Powerplay goals, to sitting on the bench during those key stretches. His numbers were good, but they weren't as good as the previous year. Am I suggesting that the only reason he didn't produce OR that the equation is a simple as << shanahan =" Prucha's">>? - no. But I am saying that to not think one has anything to do with the other is maddening.

During Petr's first year here, they had more role and support type players, and in my opinion more success (05-06 could have won the Cup. 06-07 they beat themselves in the playoffs. 07-08, not a good year at all really). That team was built around one or two really good guys. But when you added Shanahan to a team that already had Jagr and Straka and co. . . things were going to be different. A coach like Renney and/or a GM like Glen is not going to have a player like Petr Prucha out on the Powerplay when he could have Brendan Shanahan out there. Bottom line. So, those numbers went way down. Also for whatever reason (blame Jagr, blame Renney, blame Glen, blame Perry Pearn - take your pick. Although if seriously, if any of the guys in suits were letting Jagr dictate everything that happened on that PP and who should be on it - the team was doomed anyway. So much for democracy) the powerplay failed to score as much in 06-07 and especially 07-08, and the guys on it were rarely changed. It was the same thing night after night, month after month. Again, blame who you want for that. But Petr went from 16 PP goals, to 8 the following year, to finally 2 last season.

Year three for Prucha on Broadway was the most frustrating yet. He scored in his first game, I believe, but then took a long time to score again. He totaled merely 7 on the year after getting 30 and 22 in his first two campaigns. His two best stretches of the year were towards late December 2007, where he scored two goals in a game against Toronto, and a good stretch in January where he played on a line with Nigel Dawes and Brandon Dubinsky. His best game (ironically one I missed - damn business trip) was a 2-1 win over Buffalo on January 16th, where he scored a goal, got an assist and was named the game's first star. That seems a thousand years ago for me. Probably for him too.

But those moments were few and far between. Why? Because as a result of that 2 goal game in Toronto, his hand got slashed and he missed some games. Luckily he came back during a time he could fit in on a line with Dubinsky and Dawes. That line worked for probably 2-3 weeks. Then, Petr got injured again, I believe in an early February (10th?) game against Washington. This time it was his knee and he was held out a little longer. And longer still when guys like Callahan (who had been in Hartford rehabbing his own knee) came back into the lineup and deserved to stay. Dawes, for his own, played well in the tail half of the season. Jagr, obviously, did not have a great year. Dubinsky was called on to play with Jagr. Two $7 million centers and he has to play with the 21-year-old kid. (Which for the record, is fine by me; I'm not attacking what worked. He and Dubinsky looked great at times last year and both benefited from each other). My point is, there really wasn't a place for Petr to come back to. He finally got a sniff in the lineup for two games when Scott Gomez needed a few days. But for the most part, he didn't play. Even when guys like Shanahan should have been resting so that someone would be fresh for the playoffs the team was limping towards. But, no, no one did rest.

When he got back in for a random game or two in the playoffs, he looked lost. And who can really blame him. Think about it. As a goalie can tell you how hard it is to play after not playing for a while, it is no easier for a young skater to do so.

Sports are funny. Chemistry and confidence are everything. Well maybe not everything, but two of the most important aspects.

Excuse what I'm going to say next. I realize there is more to it all that just this. But I'm allowed my opinion.

I personally believe we can bring all this back to Michael Nylander's departure from the Rangers. If Nylander stayed, Jagr would have been fine. He would have scored more goals, triggered his contract and would probably still be a Ranger today. That's my opinion. But Nylander couldn't get his 4 year $4 million contract, and they gave $7 million a piece to both Gomez and Chris Drury instead, neither of whom could play with Jagr. I personally, and I won't know for a few years, maybe more, think this was the turning point for the franchise. Now, if the Rangers go forward and succeed, fine. But if they go back to the dark ages before the lockout, I'll look back to that moment. That's my lesson on chemistry. Savoring it when you have it because you don't know when it'll come again. Or if. . .

As for confidence, it's a mental thing. Hockey is a mental game. Most sports are! And you can't take a kid who has all the confidence in the world and loves playing the game, and use him in a game of musical lines. It hurts their progress. If nothing else, when all is said and done I hope (I hope!) whether it is in NY or on another team, that Prucha can rebound and be a good player. Because he was without a doubt and with no uncertainty in my mind - misused. His progress was halted. He was, of course, also the recipient of bad luck and bad timing. Those things happen. But to be misused as so many young athletes have been on this team before him, must sting even more.

I have an analogy for you. In baseball when a player is slumping, you don't keep him on the bench, at least not usually. You let him stand there and hit .100 while he figures it out. You count on the other guys in the batting order to pick up the slack for him. And he does other things, like field and make defensive plays. True, hockey and baseball are not the same, but you tell me how a kid is going to gain any confidence by being shuffled in and out of the lineup every third or fourth game? And when its his turn to be shuffled in, it's with completely different linemates that he finds himself. Because I don't think that's how it works. And that's what's been asked of Petr for the entirety of last season and so far again this year.

All I'd have hoped for to start this season was for Prucha to get a chance to get into a groove. If he played the first 10 or so games, game in, game out, with the same line, and he still didn't produce anything - then maybe it can be called a failed experiment. But to shuffle him (and the other poor guys in this horrific and saddening game of 3rd line carousel) around like this, does nothing for his own confidence or for any chemistry that he might build with anyone.
The only thing beyond that I can say is that while everyone wants to do well, I'm not sure everyone else shows it more than Petr. (Except perhaps the former Ranger Marty Straka). Pete wants to play, wants to contribute, and wants to get the chance, and it shows. The concentration on his face during the pre-game skate and during the game on Wednesday were particularly visible. This guy wants to be there. He wants to be counted on. And to contribute. And the fact that he didn't score, probably plummeted his confidence still. Even more, the fact he doesn't know when or if he'll get another chance.

Right now, thanks to the above and the fact that the Rangers already HAD a bunch of excess forwards and proceeded to go out and sign even MORE guys during the off-season, there is little room for Petr. And he's not alone. Dan Fritsche, Patrick Rissmiller, and Dawes are the other guys in this roulette wheel, and I honestly feel for all of them.

But I feel the worst for the guy that never complained, did everything with a smile, and put his heart on the line over and over again.

If Prucha can't be on this team - and I mean truly, truly, on this team - and be given a chance to regain his former status, then for his own sake, I hope he gets traded. It will break my heart, but I hope that if he gets traded, he goes to a team that can let him play solid minutes for all 82 games and that he gets into a groove and shows the hockey world something. That he shows the 30 goals his rookie year were more than just a fluke, shows that he can contribute more than just goals for his game to be effective, and shows that he can be confident and productive in this league.

For him, I hope. And I hope soon. Because to watch the roulette-carousel-musical chairs charade, it's getting old. And just imagine how he feels.

*Note: as of 11:30 am this morning, Prucha is scheduled to be scratched for tonight's game, after what was in my opinion, a v. strong effort on Wednesday. My previous line suggestion of Callahan, Fritsche and Prucha, is almost complete again, minus one. Dawes is scheduled to skate with those two tonight. If Dawes stubs his toe, will Prucha play with those two instead? Will he play with them Saturday, or Monday? Time will tell.*

*Note 2: A bunch of people will be saying that Prucha is first in line to go and/or should be producing more because of his $1.6 million contract. Right. Sure. I'd blame a kid for taking what was probably a fair amount of money two years ago when he signed the contract. (And I mean fair cause he had a great year and because look at what other guys get after having crappy years!!) Cause we all thought that in two years people would be jumping to trade a guy for the extra $0.6 he is making. The argument makes me sick. Don't blame him. Blame Sather for paying four guys 49% of the team salary when only one (Hank) of which deserves it! Prucha and his $1.6 should have nothing to do with it!*

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