The700Level's Interview With Puck Daddy Greg Wyshynski on the State of the Devils

The700Level's Interview With Puck Daddy Greg Wyshynski on the State of the Devils

Readers of this site will no doubt be familiar with Puck Daddy, Yahoo's outstanding hockey blog. Greg Wyshynski, Puck Daddy's editor, has put together a great site that highlights everything going on in the NHL, and we think he does it with just the right amount of objectivity and natural bias. That's saying something, too, considering that he's an unabashed New Jersey Devils fan, so his natural biases contrast our own. Coming out of the recent Flyers-Devils home-and-home, we asked Greg if he'd answer some questions on the state of the Devils, who have fallen from first in the Atlantic to last overall in the NHL in just one half season. Here's what he had to say.

At any point in the 2010 playoffs, which were obviously a disappointment for the Devils, or in the off-season, could you have imagined the team in dead last place halfway through the next season?

No, of course not. It’s one thing to be heartless, aged and overwhelmed in the playoffs. But if there was one consistent thing about the Devils in the last decade, it’s regular season dominance no matter how the playoffs turned out.

What the hell happened? I mean, it’s obviously a lot of things, but it’s not often you see a division winner go to the NHL cellar in just one off-season. What’s the short answer on what made the floor fall out beneath the Devils?

The best way I can describe it: Picture your wife telling you she’s moving out because she’s sleeping with your brother and she ran over your dog as she was taking your baseball cards to the dump. Oh, and she’s keeping the condo. In other words, it was a combination of devastating injuries, poor goaltending, worse coaching and players that couldn’t live up to the expectations of their contracts.

When the Devils landed Ilya Kovalchuk in a trade, you were understandably excited. But looking back, was he the wrong piece at the wrong time?

Not at all. Nothing they gave up for Kovalchuk would have made a difference in the playoffs, and he was a point-per-game player in the regular season for them. He freaked out and pressed in the postseason, but I’d have made that trade again. Lou was swinging for the fences.

To us, the move was incredibly out of character for a system-first franchise like the Devils, and the extension was that times ten. What do you think caused the philosophical change in the organization?

I was excited, but I was honestly in a “take it or leave it” place with him. Philosophically, nothing about the Kovalchuk signing made sense for the Devils, from his not fitting the system to his being the third all-star left wing on the roster.

The assumption is that ownership forced the signing, but that’s speculation.

Where people really miss the boat on the Devils is that the Kovalchuk signing was part of a larger, systemic problem with the team. As all-star defensemen kept leaving, little effort was made to replace them with equally talented D-men. Instead, millions were spent on retaining veteran forwards or bringing in new ones.

Lou Lamoriello has indicated that Martin Brodeur won't be among the cargo thrown off his sinking ship, and he also shuns any notion that the team is rebuilding. With the Devils in last place and looking likely to miss the playoffs, if not remain in last, would you prefer to see Brodeur end his legendary career in Jersey black and red, or that the team get as much future stock as they can in exchange for the guys looking likely to depart?

No, I’d rather he retire as a Devil. Sooner rather than later.

If you’re Lamoriello, what moves are you making? Are you willing to call the rest of this season a rebuilding period, even if he isn’t?

I don’t even know how to approach this team or this season. It’s still a shock. Part of you wonders if this is a good team that was simply crushed by an avalanche of different factors and didn’t have a chance to gel. Another part wants Lou to blow up the roster, get younger and rebuild around Kovalchuk and Parise.

The priority is re-signing Parise, longterm. If he’s up for it.

What is the future of the Devils goaltending situation? After years of domination by Brodeur, we’re enjoying some downtime in the Jersey crease.

Well, I’m happy to hear poor goaltending is such a source of enjoyment. You must have been in ecstasy when Kane scored that OT goal …

I imagine when Marty retires, there will be some veteran stop-gaps until they can develop another young goalie (which they don’t have in the system).

A lot of Fans in the northern parts of New Jersey support the Rangers (or in some odd cases the Islanders), and South Jersey is the domain of the Flyers, from the Delaware to the Atlantic. What’s it like to be caught in the middle of New Jersey’s hockey fan identity crisis?

That’s a really odd question. I never thought of it as an identity crisis at all. Jersey’s big enough for different fan bases, in different regions. And it’s an accepted part of Devils fandom that there are going to be NY and Philly fans in your school, in your neighborhood and your arena. 

This seems like a question you might have asked in 1991.

I’d get into the challenges for the Devils in drawing fans to the arena, and their own failings to that end, but I’m afraid my fingers might cramp up from the amount of typing it would take.

To an outsider who supports a team that has never won a Cup in his lifetime but is used to a mostly packed building, it seems the Devils will never have truly great fan support at home. Does it bother you to see so many empty seats in the home building of one of the most successful franchises in terms of relatively recent Stanley Cup championships?

Sure. You’d love to see the arena full every night, because it’s a better atmosphere.

But I stopped staring at the attendance figures in the box score a long time ago. It is what it is, and just like it’s been for the last 20 years, it’s up to the Devils to cultivate a broader fan base. Lou and management didn’t feel that was vital during the Cup years, and it’s a never-ending debate for Devils fans about whether a catalyst for that success was the Devils not over-marketing their players and product.

I think for a team that’s competing with roughly 12 other teams for entertainment dollars, they do OK, considering their allergy to marketing and their style of play.

What would it take to change that reality?

More Devils fans. And lower ticket prices during winning seasons, rather than giveaways when the team is ass.

Soul's ArenaBowl chances hinge on slowing Rattlers' potent offense

Soul's ArenaBowl chances hinge on slowing Rattlers' potent offense

GLENDALE, Ariz. – The postseason accolades and awards are nice, but Soul defensive back Tracy Belton has a much higher goal.

Named as the Arena League Football Defensive Player of the Year during an awards ceremony Friday, Belton, considered the passion and spirit of the Soul defense, is more than comfortable putting aside individual honors and pushing his teammates to greater heights.

Reaching the ArenaBowl against the Arizona Rattlers Friday in the Gila River Arena (7 p.m./ESPN) the prize is out there, and Belton has his blinders firmly affixed. The focus and concentration is not in question, so the task ahead remains paramount.

“I want that ring, I need that jewelry,” Belton said during media day Friday. “Oh yeah, it would definitely be nice to get that ring.”

To obtain that shiny piece of hardware, Belton and his defensive teammates have the task of trying to shut down the most potent offense in the league.

Guided by quarterback Nick Davila, the AFL’s Most Valuable Player, the Rattlers are averaging 80.3 points per game. From an offensive standpoint, Arizona led the AFL in many offensive categories, including scoring, total offense, rushing, third-down conversion and fourth-down conversion.

To complement the offense, the Arizona defense ranked first in the league in defensive scoring defense, rushing defense, interceptions, turnover ratio and sacks allowed.

In a league which glorifies offense, the task ahead for the Soul defense is considered a challenge. After all, these teams each finished with a 13-3 mark and each defeated the other team on their home turf.

“To win this game, we hope they make mistakes,” Soul head coach Clint Dolezel said. “They are very explosive, but our secondary is playing at a high level. For us, we need to limit our mistakes.”

If Davila, who is the first player in AFL history to win the MVP award three times, is to be challenged, the Soul’s offense need to be proficient. Coming into the ArenaBowl, the Soul averaged 59.0 points per game. That was good enough for fourth in the league, but quarterback Dan Raudabaugh put up better numbers, in certain categories, than Davila.

In head-to-head competition, Raudabaugh tossed more touchdown passes (14 to 13), passed for more yards (541 to 431), completed more passes (48 to 32) and averaged more yards per game (270.5 to 215.5) through the air. Yet, the Rattlers’ offense is swift, quick, efficient and lethal.

“In this league, the quarterback is the most important position,” Davila said. “You have to make decisions quickly, and facing a defense like Philly, that’s the challenge for us. It’s about limiting mistakes. The team which makes fewer mistakes is the team that usually wins.”

Notes
Since the Phoenix Mercury are scheduled for a home game in Talking Stick Arena in downtown Phoenix Friday night, home site for the Rattlers, the title game was switched to home of the NHL's Arizona Coyotes. … Among league leaders this past season for the Soul, Belton was fourth in tackles, Jake Metz led in sacks, Darius Reynolds was sixth in receiving and Jeramie Richardson was second in rushing. … In comparison of QBs, Raudabaugh was second in the league in passing (101 TDs, 63.3 passing percentage) and Davila placed third (110 TD passes, 69.6 passing rating). … This is the third league title meeting between these two teams. The Soul dropped the previous two championship games, 72-54 in 2012 and 48-39 in 2013.

You gave us the 'Good One,' Chooch, thanks for the memories

You gave us the 'Good One,' Chooch, thanks for the memories

The Phillies were one strike away from winning the World Series and Citizens Bank Park was in a full roar.

Carlos Ruiz trotted to the mound for a quick chat with closer Brad Lidge.

Lidge wanted to try to put away Tampa Bay’s Eric Hinkse with his signature slider, a pitch that had helped him go 48 for 48 in save chances during that magical season. Ruiz was in complete agreement. After catching the pitcher all season, he knew how good Lidge’s slider was. He also knew that Lidge threw three versions of the pitch, a get-me-over offering that he used to get a first-pitch strike, a backdoor bender that he used against lefty hitters, and The Good One, a sharp, downward-breaking dagger that left hitters flailing at air as it cork-screwed toward the dirt.

On that spectacular October night nearly eight years ago, Ruiz looked into Lidge’s eyes and issued a directive: Give me the good one. Lidge complied. Hinske swung over the vicious slider. Ruiz fished it out of the dirt and Harry Kalas shouted, “The Philadelphia Phillies are 2008 World Champions of baseball” as the stadium erupted in euphoria. Ruiz, the kid who wasn’t even a catcher when the Phillies first scouted him in the summer of 1998, sprinted to the mound, collapsed to his knees and joined Lidge in a joyous hug, the image of which will remain emblazoned in the minds of Philadelphia fans, well, forever.

Ruiz’s words to Lidge — Give me the good one — gained new resonance on Thursday because the veteran catcher, beloved by teammates and fans, was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers for catcher A.J. Ellis, minor-league pitcher Tommy Bergjans and a player to be named later (see story).

Ruiz spent 11 seasons with the Phillies and when you consider where he came from and what he accomplished, well, he always gave the team and its fans the good one.

“I’m excited, but also sad,” Ruiz said moments after the trade became official.

Excited because at age 37, and firmly in the twilight of his career, he has the chance to join a first-place team and get to the postseason one more time.

And sad because, “I have so many memories in Philadelphia.”

The greatest, of course, was the World Series championship, catching the final out and rushing to the mound to join Lidge as the pitcher dropped to his knees, looked to the heavens and shouted, “Oh, my God, we just won the World Series!”

But there were so many others.

Ruiz was a backbone member of five NL East championship teams and the best catcher a Cy Young winner named Roy Halladay ever pitched to. Halladay said it himself. Ruiz caught four no-hitters, including two of Halladay’s. He was an All-Star in 2012.

All in all, it was a pretty good run for a guy who signed for $8,000 off a sandlot in Panama in 1998. That same year, the Phillies signed Pat Burrell for $8 million. Ruiz would have signed for nothing.

“All I wanted was a chance to play professional baseball,” he said. "I'm thankful the Phillies gave it to me."

At the time of his audition for the Phillies, Ruiz was a 19-year-old second baseman. Phillies scouts were skeptical of his ability to make it as an infielder. They warmed to him when he said he’d give catching a try. He learned the position on the fly and made a steady progression up the ladder until arriving in the majors in 2006 and becoming a regular in 2007, the year the Phillies broke a 14-year playoff drought and won the NL East.

Ruiz was a favorite in the clubhouse for his good nature and team-first attitude. He would do anything for the team, anything to win, and you can’t fake that stuff. That won him the admiration of teammates. In 2012, Jonathan Papelbon expressed his love for Ruiz in typical Papelbon style. He called Ruiz “a Panamanian redneck.” Years later, Cameron Rupp, the man who supplanted Ruiz as starting catcher, praised Ruiz for his mentorship. It’s not easy for a player to groom the man who will take his job, but Ruiz did it earnestly and graciously. Today, Rupp is arguably the most improved player on the Phillies’ roster.

“Carlos was the everyday guy for more than eight years,” Rupp said. “I’m sure it was hard. It can’t be easy. But he never stopped helping me. There might be guys who wouldn’t do something like that, but not him.

“I can’t tell you how much he helped me. He’s awesome.”

Ruiz’s hustle, his non-stop effort, and, oh, yes, his place on championship teams — that’s what Philadelphians love most — earned him a special spot in the hearts of fans. Cup your hand to your ear and you can still hear those fond shouts of Choooooch from the stands.

They will be heard again when Ruiz goes on the team’s Wall of Fame someday. But for now, he heads off to Los Angeles to join another former Phillies fan favorite and champion, Chase Utley, in a late-career run at one more moment of postseason glory.

You gave us the Good One, Chooch.

NFL Notes: Browns trade '13 No. 6 pick Barkevious Mingo to Patriots

NFL Notes: Browns trade '13 No. 6 pick Barkevious Mingo to Patriots

CLEVELAND -- Barkevious Mingo never really fit in with the Browns.

The Patriots will try to find an ideal spot for him.

A major disappointment in Cleveland, Mingo, the No. 6 overall pick in the 2013 draft was traded to New England on Thursday.

The Browns received a fifth-round pick in the 2017 draft for the linebacker.

Mingo, a former LSU standout, has recorded just seven sacks in three seasons and spent much of last season on special teams.

Mingo's size -- 6-foot-4, 240 pounds -- and speed have made him intriguing, but Cleveland's coaching staff couldn't find the best way to utilize him. The Browns moved the 25-year-old Mingo from outside linebacker to inside earlier this summer.

Cleveland declined to exercise the fifth-year option on Mingo's rookie contract in May. With the trade of Mingo, left tackle Joe Thomas and cornerbacks Joe Haden and Justin Gilbert are the only first-round selections by Cleveland from 2007 to 2014 that are still with the team (see full story).

NFL: Harrison, Matthews and Peppers talk with PED investigators
Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison and Green Bay Packers defensive players Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers met this week with NFL investigators looking into allegations linking them to performance-enhancing drugs, the players' union said Thursday.

Matthews and Peppers met with league representatives on Wednesday, while Harrison did so on Thursday, according to the NFL Players Association.

Last week, the league threatened Harrison, Matthews, Peppers and free agent Mike Neal with indefinite suspensions if they did not meet with investigators. All of them were mentioned in an Al-Jazeera television interview with Charlie Sly, who worked as an intern at an anti-aging clinic. In the December report, Sly made claims of PED use by several athletes, including Harrison, Peyton Manning and the three others, but later recanted his claims.

The since-retired Manning was cleared after a separate NFL investigation in which he granted interviews and provided all records sought by league investigators.

The league's deadline for cooperation from the four current players was Thursday. The NFL first notified the four on Jan. 11 about the investigation into the Al-Jazeera report (see full story).

Dolphins: Team intensifies efforts for Zika control at stadium
MIAMI -- The Miami Dolphins and Miami Marlins say they've intensified mosquito-control treatments at their stadiums because of the Zika virus.

The Dolphins' stadium is more than 10 miles from the nearest area of the virus outbreak. Even so, the Dolphins say they decided weeks ago to undertake additional treatments as a precaution.

Construction workers are at the site daily completing the latest phase in a $500 million renovation. The first home preseason game is next Thursday against Tennessee.

The Marlins and Miami-Dade County have stepped up spraying in and around Marlins Park "in an abundance of caution," team president David Samson said Thursday. Treatments targeting the mosquito that transmits Zika are being used even though the Marlins play most of their home games indoors under a retractable roof.

Marlins Park is about 2 miles from the nearest area of virus outbreak.

Treatments at the 265-acre Dolphins stadium site include the parking lot and follow recommendations by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention using chemicals approved by the Environmental Protection Agency. Those treatments are expected to continue through the football season and beyond.

Vikings: New stadium sells out for inaugural season
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings have sold out their new stadium for the inaugural season.

The team announced on Thursday that they've started waiting lists for tickets and suites. The official capacity at U.S. Bank Stadium will be 66,655, with more than 60,400 seats committed for the entire season and the remaining single-game seats also sold out.

Returned tickets from visiting team allotments typically make a small number of seats available the week of each game.

The Vikings host San Diego on Sunday in an exhibition game, their first action at the $1.1 billion venue. The regular-season opener is on Sept. 18 against rival Green Bay.