Always humble, Letestu happy in Columbus

The board game Sorry! can be a maddening experience.

Just when you’re about to move one of your Hershey’s Kiss-shaped pawns into the “Safety Zone,” an opponent invariably draws an 11-card and swaps positions with you on the board.  Or lucks into a SORRY card that sends you home.  All that progress around the board, the anticipation of victory … and poof!

You’re back to square one.

On Nov. 8, the Pittsburgh Penguins traded Mark Letestu to the Columbus Blue Jackets.  The deal sent Letestu from the second-best team in the NHL — an organization that is a perennial Stanley Cup favorite — to the league’s worst outfit, a dead-last team that lost eight games in a row to start the season and at one point had the worst record (2-11-1) of any professional hockey team, minors included, in North America.

Letestu had been traded for the first time in his life.  And he dropped 29 places in the standings.

SORRY!

“At the time, you’re giving up a chance to play for a Stanley Cup because that’s just the way Pittsburgh is every year,” said Letestu, who signed with the Penguins in 2007 after one stellar season at Western Michigan.  “In Pittsburgh, when Sid (Sidney Crosby) or Geno (Evgeni Malkin) (were injured), I knew I was going in.  With those guys getting healthy, it was just kind of natural to bump me out.  At least I’ve got a job and I’m somewhat comfortable now.”

Comfortable.

It’s a word that means one thing for Crosby and Malkin: players with millions in the bank, millions more scheduled and no threat that they’ll be traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets.  But for Letestu, a young husband with a five month-old son and a reputation as a mid-level forward with a little scoring punch, “comfortable” means simply having an NHL contract for more than one year — which Letestu does, though his expires after next season.

“I just played my 100th game a couple weeks ago,” Letestu said.  “Especially when you never think you’re going to get one game, and then you get your first you want another one.  It’s kind of a cool thing.  I’m still trying to establish myself; there’s still something to learn every day about how to be a pro, it seems.”

To play in Columbus might seem like a nightmare; but not for a guy who simply wants an opportunity to play regularly and prove he’s worth another contract.  The Jackets are 7-7-2 since Letestu arrived.

“He’s spent a lot of time (among the top-six forwards),” said Aaron Portzline, who covers the Blue Jackets for the Columbus Post-Dispatch.  “I think he’s a well-liked guy in terms of being a good character guy; I think he’s highly-regarded.  The question mark with him is where does he fit in?  What type of player is he?  You see moments where you think, ‘OK, this guy can play in the top-six with really good linemates on a good team’ but then you wonder if he fits into the bottom-six?

“Honestly, I think his skill level is a reach to be in the top-six on a really good team.  He might be a ‘tweener’ on a really good team.  I think Pittsburgh liked him; they just didn’t know where he fit.”

Here’s a wacky stat: Letestu’s power play goal in St. Louis on Dec. 18th was his team-leading fourth of the season.  “Not Jeff Carter, not (Rick) Nash, not (R.J.) Umberger,” Portzline said, rattling off the names of highly-paid and much-hyped Blue Jackets, one of whom should probably be the rightful owner of Letestu’s statistic.

“The last couple games I’ve played right wing, so they’ve moved me up and down the lineup,” Letestu said.  “I’ve played the point on the power play.  The whole roster seems like it’s centers here, so the ability to be able to play all over the lineup is key.”

Pittsburgh leaves a mark

To leave the Penguins meant to leave perhaps the best team, certainly the best coach, arguably the best player and memories of an appearance on HBO’s 24/7 behind-the-scenes series that will go down as one of the funniest in the show’s short history (start at 2:30 mark):

“Tons from there, obviously,” Letestu said when asked what he takes with him from the Penguins.  “I had Dan (Bylsma) for the better part of five years as a coach.  Obviously, the practice habits and the work ethic that comes with having to play (for) him and what’s required to play from him.”

What about WMU?

Letestu says he’s paid attention to the Broncos’ success the last two seasons.

“I couldn’t recite the roster player-for-player or recruit-for-recruit, but I know they’re playing well and went to The Joe last year,” Letestu said.  “Somebody I was talking to recently said that (Dan DeKeyser) might be the best defensive prospect in college among free agents.”

Like DeKeyser, Letestu was also a 21 year-old free agent at WMU who generated NHL interest.  Some observers might suggest Letestu could have used another season to mature, but he has no regrets.  His route to the NHL might have taken a little longer than it will for DeKeyser, who could play immediately, but Letestu has not only arrived — he’s still here.

Even if it is Columbus.

From the archives: Dating is like sports free agency

The following post originally appeared on my other blog It’s Only a Movie.

…………………………………………

Dating is like sports free agency.

Like athletes, we’re players who possess unique talents and characteristics that determine our place in the dating game.  There are stars.  There are washed-up veterans.  There are mediocre contributors who drift from team to team, forever mired in a cycle of short-term contracts that ultimately lead to the socio-romantic equivalent of broke retirement (i.e. cat lady).

Like the small world of sports, we can’t hide from our reputations.  We’re on stage for all to see.  Mutual acquaintances provide scouting reports.  Weaknesses are exposed.  Skeletons fall out of closets.  Like free agency, we court teams and teams court us.  We look for potential.  We evaluate.  Negotiations begin.  The media (our social network) interviews us and speculates.  If we’re already under contract, trades can happen (though we often find out after the fact).  Sometimes we’re placed on waivers.  Sometimes we opt not to renew a contract and test the market, instead.  Like teams, we make depth charts of prospects.  Finally, we settle on one.  A contract is offered and signed.

Market Value

Every free agent has strengths and weaknesses that define him or her: attractive, fun, smart, cooks, good job, nice ass, etc.  Like a big, puck-moving defenseman, some dating free agents are more desirable than others and generate more interest.  For these superstars, it’s not hard to secure a long-term contract (marriage) with the best team (Miss Michigan).  Other free agents are not so coveted.  Like a corner outfielder with so-so power and a decent arm, these people fill short-term needs (i.e. “want someone to cuddle with”) while the team searches for a better option.

Just like in sports, the older a dating free agent gets, the more his or her physical tools deteriorate.  There is something to be said for the smarts and experience of grizzled old vets (low-maintenance, don’t mind if you watch football), but these players also come with baggage (divorce, children, bitterness).  As a result, most teams search for young talent with raw physical power (example: 36-24-36, no silicone performance enhancers) whose career hasn’t peaked.

Leagues

There are four levels of play into which each person fits based on age, talent or a combination of both:

  • Major league
  • Minor league
  • College
  • High school

Note: College teams may scout high school players, but any direct contract talks must take place between the team and the player’s agents (parents).  Contract offers made by major and minor league teams to high school players is prohibited and punishable by federal law.

Scouting

Every free agent has a reputation and resume.  Teams do their homework about a prospect in a few ways:

  • Conversations with a previous team (ex-fiancée)
  • Discussions with other players (the person’s circle of friends)
  • First-hand experience (remember that night she got drunk and threw up all over the hostess stand?)

Scouting plays a major role in whether or not contract talks begin.

Contract Talks

Also known as “first dates,” contract talks begin when a team and free agent show mutual interest.  Early negotiations usually take place with the player’s agent (BFF) present and, in many cases, the agent acts as a bellwether during the first few weeks of talks.  For example:

You: How did she feel it went the other night?

BFF Agent: She enjoyed herself and thinks you’re a great guy, but other teams are in the mix.

You: Where do you think I rank?  How serious are the other teams?

BFF Agent: Pretty serious.  After all, my client is highly-coveted.  She thinks you’re cute, though.

Initial interest is generally expressed to the player’s agent (BFF), who takes the information back to her client.  From there, each side states its terms for making a deal through the BFF.  Sometimes, negotiations never begin.  Other times, teams and free agents meet, but  interest is lost and talks break off early.

Note: It is crucial that contract talks – especially in their early stages – remain private so they are not influenced by the media (Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, etc.).

All of this is, of course, pending a physical.

Oprah hockey: Everyone scores in BG blowout

Saturday’s 6-1 victory over Bowling Green was like class with a substitute teacher.

The sub doesn’t really know the lesson plan, doesn’t really know what it takes to challenge the students for a full 60 minutes, doesn’t really know that you’re lying when you claim that Mr. So-and-So said you and your best friend could go to the library all hour.

WMU: And we’re going to put a half-dozen goals in your net.

BG: Well, if Mr. Murray said it’s OK…

It became pretty evident after the Falcons went the first 13 minutes without a shot that WMU was going to make this a looooong hour on the ice — especially given their desire to atone for Friday’s hiccup in Ohio, where Bowling Green scored twice in the final four minutes to force overtime and a shootout that the Broncos won to avoid being known the rest of the year as the kids who peed their pants back in December.

Bowling Green now has a 1-11-2 record in the CCHA and is 6-11-3 overall, with victories against the University of Connecticut, two each against Alabama-Huntsville and Canisius and a 1-0 shutout of Lake Superior State for which the Lakers are still serving time in the principal’s office.  Not to pile on the struggling Falcons, but their lack of speed and skill ultimately gave the Broncos nothing more than a classroom Christmas party on the last day before break.

Well, and five standings points for the weekend.

“It was a fun night,” forward Dane Walters told the Kalamazoo Gazette.

“ALONG THE RAIL”

Note: After struggling to find a consistent headline to frame random thoughts, the blog has finally settled on “Along the Rail.”  Next time you’re at a game at Lawson Arena, note how all of the NHL scouts, hockey executives and local hockey people perch themselves along the railing in the north end of the building.  It’s where deals are made, laughs are had and gossip runs thicker than the mini liquor bottles students use to spike their concession stand Cokes.  

  • “Snipe!” Dan DeKeyser could have yelled after he rang a wrist shot in off the far post from a bad angle with 15 seconds left in the second period to make it 4-1.  OK, Dan, enough with the video game goals.  We get it.  You’re pretty good.
  • Think that’s what super agent Don Meehan said?  You could have asked him, because it happened right in front of his face.  Meehan — the Ari Gold of hockey agents, though not in terms of personality — was at Saturday’s game.  Meehan owns Newport Sports Management, Inc., the Toronto-based mega-agency whose client list includes, among others, Chris Pronger and Phil Kessel, currently the NHL’s goal-scoring leader.  DeKeyser’s “family representative” (a legal term for “agent” until a kid turns pro) is Ed Ward, the former NHLer who works for Meehan and lives here in Kalamazoo.

    The legendary Stan Smyl photo button

  • Lorne Henning and Stan Smyl of the Vancouver Canucks were also in attendance to scout DeKeyser.
  • Western’s top-four scorers struck for points Saturday:  Shane Berschbach had an assist, Chase Balisy had two, Walters had four points — a hat trick and an assist — and defenseman Matt Tennyson continued his hot streak with two assists.  Tennyson’s assists were actually slap shot blasts that teammates Trevor Elias and Justin Kovacs were fortunate enough just to live through, let alone have credited as their fourth and first goals, respectively.
  • Tennyson’s second slapper came from between the circles with plenty of time and space.  To watch the puck jump on Tennyson’s stick in that location with all that room was like that helpless feeling you get when your bubble hockey opponent maneuvers the oversized plastic puck into the same location on the table and just out of reach from the vaunted long-stickers: it’s not a matter of if the puck ends up in your net, but in which side it enters.
  • At 5-9 and 152 pounds, Berschbach is one of the smallest players on the team.  Watching him work the corners, he seems like one of the biggest.
  • If you were at the game, did you notice how many times a player dropped or broke a stick?  It was like someone in the stands possessed a wireless gadget that, when they pressed the button, made two or three players simultaneously release their grips.  It’s probably also why the shot total was only 26-18 WMU.
  • Well, that, or more likely because the Broncos couldn’t hit the net.  For every shot that arrived at Bowling Green goalie Andrew Hammond, it seemed like three others crashed off the glass four feet over his head.  #checkyourflexandlie?
  • Another start, another win for freshman goalie Frank Slubowski, who was basically perfect except for the goofy change-up bounce off a skate in the second period.
  • WMU only had two power plays Saturday, which meant the Lawson Lunatics had little opportunity to perform their penalty routine.  Since the Broncos don’t return home until Jan. 6, we leave you with this.  Study up, kids:

 

 

 


 

Dan DeKeyser’s unlikely road to Kalamazoo

 

“Hi, Danny…”

“Danny, I’m…”

“Hey, Dan, got a second?”

“Dan…”

“Yeah, Danny, this is…”

It wasn’t always this way for Danny DeKeyser.  NHL general managers didn’t charter private jets to Kalamazoo to see him, as Capitals boss George McPhee did recently.  There was no Steve Yzerman, Ken Holland or Brian Burke.  No Joe Nieuwendyk or Jay Feaster.  No Mike Babcock perched in the stands.

Just Marc Fakler.

“When I saw him at Sioux City’s camp (USHL), I saw a kid who had a long reach, nobody could go around him, he had tremendous poise and just made great decisions with the puck all the time — it was just effortless,” says Fakler, the former WMU assistant with a knack for noticing what other scouts don’t.  “If you watch, he isn’t the prettiest skater, but he has that long stride and big base and he just has a presence about him and I think that’s what I liked about him at that camp.”

Marc Fakler, now the head coach of the Kalamazoo Junior Wings in the North American Hockey League, discovered DeKeyser.

Thus began the journey of Danny DeKeyser — the journey from obscure defenseman built like a parking meter to perhaps months away from playing in the National Hockey League.

“I don’t think anybody watching him play midget hockey thought he was going to play in the NHL,” Fakler says.  “He was a tall, gangly kid who continued to develop and he went out to the Trail league, the B.C. (British Columbia) league.  While he was out there, he sent me an e-mail and said he had a strong interest in becoming a Bronco.”

Fakler and DeKeyser were familiar with each other through Detroit’s prominent Compuware junior program, where DeKeyser played Midget AAA and Fakler got his coaching start — albeit separate from each other.

“And seeing how his sisters went to Western Michigan, he figured he’d try to make the connection,” Fakler says.  “At the time, we didn’t really have anything open.  He ended up getting drafted in the 14th round of the USHL draft by Sioux City after a year in Trail.  I happened to be out at a bunch of USHL camps and we had just found out that we’d lost Kevin Connauton over the summertime.”

Connauton, another Fakler special, had just been plucked from WMU by the Vancouver Canucks after just one season.

“So we wanted to bring (Danny) in before he even played a game for Sioux City.  We agreed he’d be a great fit, but unfortunately he wasn’t eligible.  So we bit our lip and continued to recruit him.  We weren’t even sure he was going to get in that next year.  We recruited a backup defenseman.  And then through ACT preparation, he raised his score on his ACT and, low and behold, he was eligible.”

But Fakler was out of a job — fired along with head coach Jim Culhane and assistant Scott Robson in February 2010 to make way for Jeff Blashill and, thus, the rebirth of hockey at Western Michigan.

“Obviously, we weren’t around as a staff to get the fruits of our labor, but he’s a great young man,” Fakler says.  “I’m happy I helped the kid follow his dream.”

Danny DeKeyser

Speaking of that: what on earth, given the frequent high-profile visitors to Kalamazoo, could Andy Murray possibly say to encourage DeKeyser to stay for his junior year?  He’s only a sophomore, but he’s 21 years-old and no longer draft-eligible.  That means he can sign an NHL free agent deal anytime.  Tonight.  Tomorrow.  End of the season.  Whenever.  As soon as Ken Holland and the Red Wings slide a contract across the table – and rumor has it that’s the one DeKeyser wants to sign – he’s gone.

“I think if you’re a coach – and I don’t want to even think about putting words in Andy’s mouth – but if you’re a coach with any salt, you have to know a kid like that, his next step is to play professional hockey,” Fakler says.  “If Danny has a deal to play immediately in the National Hockey League, I don’t know how you can look that kid in the eye and say don’t do it, don’t fulfill your boyhood dream of playing in the National Hockey League.  It’s all about opportunity and going where you’re wanted, when you’re wanted.  It’s about timing of things, and if now is the right time for one of those organizations, whether it’s Detroit or whoever, if he can start his NHL career right away, more power to him.

“Hopefully in the situation they’re in at Western they’re kicking him out the door instead of holding him back.”

Defense dominates weekend sweep; DeKeyser featured on TSN

  • Like most national rankings, college hockey’s polls are an inexact science – which Western Michigan proved with 4-2 and 3-0 victories against No. 6 Ferris State over the weekend.
  • The Bulldogs are big, mean and well-coached by Bob Daniels, Mark Kaufman and Drew Famulak, but if they were the sixth-best team in America I’ll drive over to your garage and untangle your Christmas lights.  Western executed a four-goal third period surge Friday and dominated in all aspects Saturday, including a 42-25 shots advantage, to topple the rankings again this week (WMU, formerly 12th, is now No. 8; Ferris State No. 9).
  • In fairness: the Broncos likely weren’t the fourth-best team in the country, either, when they went into Ann Arbor and split with then-No. 3 Michigan in November.
  • How lopsided was Saturday’s shutout at Lawson Arena?  Even Andy Murray’s Satisfaction Search Engine – a feature surgically implanted in a person when he becomes a head coach – yielded no nitpicky results.  From the Kalamazoo Gazette: “I thought we played a pretty complete game,” Murray said. “You’re always looking for that best-ever one, but tonight was as good as we’ve played for a while. The big thing is that we played well with the puck tonight. We protected it. When you’re protecting the puck, it’s the best form of defense.”
  • It’s especially helpful when your defensemen protect the puck … and move it up the ice … and put it in the other team’s net.  A lot.  WMU’s defensemen account for 30 of the team’s 110 points this season.  Matt Tennyson – a junior and the most overshadowed of the bunch, although he was named CCHA Defenseman of the Week today – had two of the third period goals Friday and assisted on another Saturday.
  • Speaking of headlines, Danny DeKeyser is officially on the Canadian media radar as of late last week, thanks to TSN’s Bob McKenzieThe clip — edited by an apparent Red Wings fanatic — cuts out the part where McKenzie mentions that Toronto’s Brian Burke and Calgary’s Jay Feaster were also in town to see the second coming of Lidstrom (full TSN clip here). Says McKenzie: “I think this kid will get 30 offers from 30 different NHL teams by the end of the season.”
  • Bold statement: This corps of Tennyson, DeKeyser, Luke Witkowski, Dennis Brown and freshmen Garrett Haar and Jordan Oesterle  is the best seen at Western Michigan in a decade.  Perhaps longer.
  • As an amateur men’s league defenseman, I notice minutiae like how sweet and mesmerizing it is to watch DeKeyser and Witkowski pass the puck D-to-D as they break it out of the zone. They look like hockey-playing figure skaters on a Foosball stick.  Said an area high school coach who played Canadian juniors and attended Saturday’s game: “They make the right play every … single … time.  No wonder the forwards look so good.”
  • When you’re the undersized participant on a defensive corps of perfectly-built puck-moving robots, you’re going to look like the black sheep.  Still, the more I watch Dennis Brown the more I think he’d be a better fit at forward. He has the hands of a surgeon and, apparently, the brain of Bertuzzi:It’s not Brown’s offensive mentality that’s the trouble. It’s his offensive mentality when he’s playing defense that’s the trouble. He tends to hold the puck too long and rely on his hands to Copperfield himself out of situations, which doesn’t always work (Exhibit A: the third-period giveaway at his own blue line Saturday night because he jiggered with it too long). Though Brown stayed out of the penalty box Saturday, he is also among the team leaders in PIMs and – here’s the kicker – many of his penalties are of the “I can’t keep up” variety: holding, holding-the-stick, hooking, tripping.  Considering he doesn’t face the other team’s top line too frequently (a job reserved for DeKeyser and Witkowski), could it mean he’s overmatched as a defenseman?
  • Hey, freshman goalie Frank Slubowski won both games over the weekend.  And had a shutout.  #sayhellotoyourstarter
  • Besides thanking his defense for its help in the shutout, Slubowski could also thank the Bulldogs’ Justin DeMartino for coming unglued shortly after Ferris State went on the power play with 1:18 left in the game. DeMartino turned what should have been an innocent, post-whistle face wash into a two-minute roughing penalty, which ended the Bulldogs’ man-advantage at six seconds and erased any hope they had of souring Slubowski’s night. Watching DeMartino was like watching a guy at the mall spend his last 20 bucks on crap from one of those overstuffed kiosks: he knows he probably shouldn’t do it, but he’s about to lose everything, anyway, so, “Eh, might as well get my money’s worth.”
  • Unfortunate that lifelong friends Tommy Hill, a Ferris State senior, and Alex Carpenter, a Bronco freshman, couldn’t suit up against each other. Not because we wanted to see them compete on the ice; because it would have been logistical hilarity trying to fit their massive families and groups of friends together in one section.
  • Hill has played nine games this season while Carpenter has yet to crack the WMU lineup, though if you believed Friday’s box score you would have thought Carpenter made his debut in Big Rapids. The box score indicated Carpenter took one face-off and lost it, but it turns out the press box people in Big Rapids goofed. Perhaps they were pre-occupied with learning how to spell “Ewigleben Arena?”

The goalies: Who does Murray start Friday at Ferris?

(L to R) Frank Slubowski, Nick Pisellini, Kris Moore. Courtesy: Jonathan Gruenke/Kalamazoo Gazette

Before we break down who should be in goal Friday night when the Broncos head to Ferris State (cough cough Frank Slubowski), first I’d like to have a word about this win/tie/shootout business in the CCHA.

Last week, Western Michigan (and cough, cough Slubowski) beat Notre Dame in a shootout, 3-2. However, according to the CCHA, the final score was a tie: Broncos 2, Irish 2, with WMU gaining an extra point in the standings for winning the shootout.

Question.

Yes!  You in the front row in the Jimmy John’s stain.   

Yeah, uh, Western put more pucks in Notre Dame’s net in the shootout than Notre Dame put in Western’s, right?

Correct.

And by virtue of this, Western received an extra point in the standings.

Right.

Would you agree that two standings points is greater than one standings point?

Well, of course.

OK, so if both teams “tied” — which, by definition, means they accomplished identical tasks — why did Western receive two standings points and Notre Dame only one?

Well, because Western won the shootout.

Excuse me?

Because they won the shootout.

Say that word again.

Because…?

No…

They…?

Closer.

… Won?

Hey, you said it.

THE GOALIES

On second thought, it’s kind of a waste of time to predict whether Andy Murray will start Slubowski or Nick Pisellini this weekend.  For starters (heh), they have almost identical numbers.  And the team hasn’t played in 10 days, so we’re kind of back to square one in terms of any momentum Slubowski might have derived from the Notre Dame win.  Then again, Murray doesn’t believe in momentum:

“There’s two words that are the most over-used in sports. There’s momentum and there’s confidence,” Murray told the Kalamazoo Gazette. “You’re only as good as your next shift so there’s no such thing as momentum. Confidence isn’t something you pull off a tree. You either play good and feel good, or you play lousy and feel lousy.”

Alrighty, then.

(Prediction: Slubowski eventually wins the permanent job this year because he’s more consistent in his technique and, it appears at least, more confident in his mind.)

RIGHT THIS WAY, GENTLEMEN…

Another game at Lawson Arena on Saturday, another round of NHL scouts and executives who will be in attendance to see thoroughbred defenseman Danny DeKeyser for their own eyes.  Dave Poulin, the former Notre Dame head coach who is now the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Vice President of Hockey Operations, will saddle up alongside co-worker Claude Loiselle, Toronto’s Assistant General Manager.  Apparently, Leafs President and GM Brian Burke liked what he saw last week.

The recently-retired Craig Conroy, now a scout for the Calgary Flames, will also be there.  But forget scouting — Conroy should do radio.  Maybe he can fly in early and do The Rocker Morning Show.