About Time: a Stanley Cup for Dainius Zubrus

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After 19-seasons in the NHL, San Jose’s Dainius Zubrus truly deserves to have his name on the Stanley Cup (Photo Credit: AP Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez).

With the Los Angeles King now safely eliminated by the hands of the San Jose Sharks, and with no obviously imminent playoff disaster in sight, I feel that I can safely say who I am personally rooting for in the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs – veteran Dainius Zubrus of the Sharks. I am a hockey traditionalist, and with less and less ties to the NHL’s game of the 1990s and prior, I always get a pang in my heart for seeing long time veterans getting their name on the Stanley Cup for the first time. Last year for me it was Chicago’s Kimmo Timonen. This year, it has got to be Zubrus.

It is almost difficult to fathom that the 37-year old Lithuanian has been a regular in the NHL since the 1996-97 season. How time does fly. Zubrus actually was a part of a run to the Stanley Cup Finals as an NHL rookie with the Philadelphia Flyers, who would fall in four games straight to the Detroit Red Wings. In the 1997 Finals, the 18-year old Zubrus would go pointless in the series, and would finish a minus-4.

I first became enamored with Dainius Zubrus when he briefly joined my hometown Buffalo Sabres, coming at the trade deadline during the 2006-07 season in exchange for seldom used Jiri Novotny and a 1st-round draft choice. Though I had seen Zubrus play many times prior, even in person from time to time, I had never paid him much mind until he wore Buffalo’s blue and gold. I could then see firsthand what he brought to his hockey club from night to night. Zubrus is a very large man, standing at 6-feet 5-inches and weighing 225-pounds. He is incredibly strong along the boards and in the corners. Zubrus ended up playing 19-regular season games with Buffalo that year, recording 4-goals and 4-assists to add to his point totals from earlier in the season with the Washington Capitals who had traded him to the Sabres; he finished the year with a very solid 24-goals and 36-assists for 60-points across 79-total games between Washington and Buffalo.

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Dainius Zubrus swatting for a loose puck against Vancouver. (Photo Credit: Jeff Vinnick/NHLI/GettyImages).

But where I was most amazed with Zubrus that season was how fierce he played during the Sabres’ playoff run that saw them make it all the way to the Stanley Cup semi-finals for the second year in a row. In 15-playoff games that season, Zubrus seemed to hit everything that moved, constantly throwing his imposing frame at the opposition, especially when fighting for the puck around the net. Despite knowing that Zubrus had immense size, I never had realized previously that he was the furthest thing from being a soft player. By no means did he fit the European stereotype that I immensely hate and am often infuriated by its implications. Zubrus is a prime example of how false that stereotype is. While he did not score a goal during Buffalo’s playoff run, he did put up 8-helpers for his team that postseason; third most on the Sabres behind Danny Briere and Tim Connolly. But he also played inspired, devil-may-care hockey, and that seemed to make an enormous difference for Buffalo’s push throughout the playoffs. I had greatly hoped that Buffalo would recognize how much of a positive difference having Zubrus on their roster would be and that they would decide to keep him in the offseason, but it was not to be. Dainius would end up signing with the New Jersey Devils that July, and would remain with them for 8-years.

Fifteen years after his rookie run, Zubrus would have a second shot at winning Lord Stanley’s Cup, this time with New Jersey. The 2011-12 Devils were led by the explosive firepower of sniper Ilya Kovalchuk, as well as veterans Patrik Elias, Zach Parise, David Clarkson, Petr Sykora and Zubrus, all of whom hit double-digits in goals. 33-years old at the time, Dainius Zubrus appeared in all 82-regular season games that season for the Devils (17-goals, 27-assists, 44-points) and all 24-playoff games as well (3-goals, 7-assists, 10-points). Despite the strong push from New Jersey’s offense and their ageless goaltending tandem of Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg, the Devils would lose in the Cup Finals to the Los Angeles Kings, falling 4-games to 2. In the 6-game Finals series, Zubrus would finish with 1-assist and as a minus-1. In 15-years, he would fall significantly short in both Stanley Cup Finals appearances.

After the 2014-15 season, his last in New Jersey, I had feared that Dainius Zubrus’ career was over. In July 2015, the Devils placed Zubrus on waivers, with the intent of terminating his contract. Then, after being invited to a late-October tryout with the St. Louis Blues, he would fail to earn himself a contract after the Blues decided to sign another veteran instead, Martin Havlat. Fortunately though, San Jose Sharks’ General Manager Doug Wilson, who is well-known to be a willing participant in giving veteran players the opportunity to extend their careers (i.e. Sandis Ozolinsh, Claude Lemieux), decided to offer Zubrus a tryout of his own on November 16th, 2015,and then signing him to contract a mere 8-days later.

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After being released of opportunities to play with New Jersey and St. Louis since this past summer, an opportunity to win the Cup with San Jose is maybe Zubrus’ final chance to do so (Photo Credit: Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports).

In 50-games this current 2015-16 season with the Sharks, Zubrus has recorded 3-goals and 4-assists; the lowest point total of his 19 NHL seasons, although he would finish the season as a plus-4. And while he was also a healthy scratch for the five games of the Sharks’ opening round defeat over the Kings, I feel content in knowing that Zubrus played enough games during the regular season to qualify for having his name engraved on the Stanley Cup should the San Jose Sharks finally get the monkey off their back and win it all for the very first time.

And that’s what I want. For I believe that if a player like Dainius Zubrus devotes 19-years to playing in the greatest hockey league in the world (it would have been 20-years if it were not for the lockout), then he deserves to finally have him name placed on the Stanley Cup. It would be a storybook ending, both for Zubrus and for the Sharks. San Jose has three players – Zubrus, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau – who having been playing in the NHL since the 1990s. I suppose that I could have even highlighted Marleau or Thornton instead of Zubrus, but Marleau and Thornton have also won Olympic gold medals and neither really had to worry about not being on an NHL roster this season. Zubrus on the other hand was close to going three strikes and out since the summer after failing to gain a spot with either New Jersey or St. Louis previously. He instead had demonstrate his workhorse capabilities once more, despite having 37-year old legs, in order to garner a spot on the Sharks roster. And now, he has earned himself one more, possibly final, opportunity to win the Cup. So as these 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs continue, and with the first round underneath their belts, I finally feel comfortable announcing that I want the Sharks to win it all. For San Jose. For Marleau and Thornton. And for Dainius Zubrus.

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Andy Moog: not to be overlooked

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A 3-time Stanley Cup champion with the Edmonton Oilers, Andy Moog is too often overlooked for his accomplishments on the ice.

In front of him during his 18 NHL seasons was a long list of Hall of Fame caliber teammates. Gretzky. Messier. Fuhr. Kurri. Bourque. Recchi. Neely. Modano. Nieuwendyk. So many other names, that the 1990 Jennings Trophy and 3-time Stanley Cup winning goalie, Andy Moog, often gets overlooked. Closing in on twenty years since his last NHL game, Moog’s accomplishments to the game of hockey are nearly forgotten. This is a shame in my eyes. Not only because Moog was always one of my favorite goaltenders, but also because I believe his achievements are noteworthy. The argument could even be made that what Moog did on the ice should make him a consideration for Hall of Fame candidacy.

I will focus on a couple of key numbers. First, and perhaps the most remarkable – Andy Moog was the second fastest goaltender in NHL history to record 300-wins. It took Moog only until his 543rd game to reach this feat. The only goaltender that did it faster was the great Jacques Plante. But what makes this achievement so much more significant is the fact that Moog never played more than 62-games in a season, and only 5-times did he play at least 50-games in a season during his 18-year run. Plante, on the other hand, had 9-seasons of at least 50-games played, including the 1961-62 season when he suited up for all 70 of Montreal’s games (Plante also played in 69 of 70 games of the 1959-60 NHL season).

Take a look at a few particular contemporaries of Moog’s that are also members of the 300-win club. Martin Brodeur, Dominik Hasek, Grant Fuhr, Curtis Joseph, Eddie Belfour. All five goaltenders played during the same era as Moog, have at least 300-wins and in some cases well over 400-wins (Brodeur leading the pack with an astonishing 691), and all had at least one season where they played in 70 or more games. Moog still reached 300 career wins faster than any of them. Of these same contemporaries, only Brodeur and Hasek have better career win percentages than Moog; Andy having won 52.17% of his career regular season games. No matter how you splice it, to recognize that Moog was able to hit this milestone faster than anyone else except for one other goaltender, and in less games, has to count for something.

The other number that I would like to pinpoint about Andy Moog is career appearances in the Stanley Cup Finals. Not only did Moog win three Stanley Cups during the Edmonton Oilers dynasty years (Moog was a member of Edmonton’s championship teams in 1984, 1985 and 1987), but he also played in the Finals on three other occasions. In fact, between 1983 through 1990, only two years did a team make it to the Stanley Cup Finals that did not have Andy Moog as one of their goaltenders. Only former teammate Grant Fuhr equaled that task of six Finals appearances during the same time period. Fuhr and Moog being teammates for the first four Finals series together in Edmonton (1983, 1984, 1985, 1987), and then adversaries for the later two (1988 and 1990). Moog tended goal for a total of 15 Stanley Cup Finals games, and although his record in those games played is not ideal (3-wins, 10-losses), Moog still has his name inscribed on the Cup three times as a player.

How quickly he surmounted 300 career wins and the number of appearances in the Finals are what I find to be most impressive about Moog’s NHL career. But most certainly, there are other numbers of Andy’s that can be looked at and appreciated. Fast approaching twenty years since his last NHL game, Moog still sits at 15th place for all-time career wins with 372. That is more wins than Hockey Hall of Fame enshrined goalies Gump Worsley, Harry Lumley, Billy Smith, Bernie Parent or Ken Dryden.

Playing during a time period when goal scoring was at its most prolific, Moog still possesses a solid career save percentage. In 713 regular season games, Moog finished his career with a .892 save-percentage. You have to take into consideration that this number was attained throughout seasons when opposing players like Brett Hull and Mario Lemieux were scoring over 80-goals a season, and Bernie Nicholls, Teemu Selanne, and Alexander Mogilny were surpassing the 70-goal plateau (obviously I did not count Moog’s teammates during a portion of this era, Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri who put up astronomical numbers themselves).

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In between the pipes for the Boston Bruins, Andy Moog would win the Jennings Trophy with Rejean Lemelin for fewest goals allowed during the regular season.

Andy Moog was also an NHL All-Star in 1985 and 1986 when both he and Grant Fuhr were selected together as goaltending teammates, as well as selections in 1991 and 1997. In an era before NHL players were allowed to play in the Winter Olympics, Andy Moog shared the goaltending duties for Team Canada during the 1988 Calgary Olympics and helped lead Canada to a fourth-place finish, after he decided to leave the NHL briefly in 1987 to play for the Canadian national team. These are just a couple other achievements of Moog’s that I feel are worth noting.

This is what often happens when you play on great teams. Superb players like Andy Moog fall into the backdrop. In Edmonton, there were just too many great names during those dynasty teams and everybody remembers Grant Fuhr as the cornerstone in goal. Moog gets forgotten. Especially because Fuhr became the frontrunner in net for the Oilers, and at best for Andy, he and Fuhr were a tandem; it was never really the case that Moog was the number one guy while the Oilers were winning Cups; it was either Fuhr or the duties were shared.

In Boston, Moog’s heroics were kept out of the limelight by the accolades achieved by Bruin superstars Ray Bourque and Cam Neely, not to mention the fact that once again the goaltender duties were shared concurrently with Rejean Lemelin, although this time Moog had the edge towards being number one. Then in Dallas and in Montreal, Moog was certainly the number one goalie, but it was achieved during the final leg of his long career. Moog put up very solid numbers with both the Stars and the Canadiens, but I think arguably his best years in the game had already been played by that point.

Yes, this is what happens when you play on great teams. I think Ken Dryden experienced it in Montreal playing behind Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson, Guy Lapointe, Serge Savard, Bob Gainey and all those great Habs players. I think that Chris Osgood can also relate from his time with the Detroit Red Wings teams of the late-90s and 2000s. Most people do not even know that Osgood is in eleventh place on the all time wins list by a goaltender and that he reached the 400-mark.

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In his final NHL season, Andy Moog suited up for the Montreal Canadiens.

I hope that in writing this I can at least draw some attention back to Andy Moog and what he accomplished during his NHL career. Do not overlook him. I remember seeing Andy in net in Buffalo at the old Aud on November 15th, 1995 when he was with the Dallas Stars. The Sabres won the game 2-1 (it was also the same night that “The French Connection’s” jerseys were retired in unison), but Moog turned in a decent 17-save performance for a 0.895 save-percentage that evening. Sitting in the stands with my father, I felt fortunate that I was getting to see Andy Moog play in person. I hope that anyone else who got to witness him play, whether as a fan, teammate, rival, coach, or official, feels at least a little privileged to have seen Moog play. Or at the very least, is able to recognize that they were witnessing a player who was better than most. Not to be overlooked.

Coming up short: Brian Propp…

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In a 15-year NHL career with the Philadelphia Flyers, Boston Bruins, Minnesota North Stars, and Hartford Whalers, Brian Propp made it to the Stanley Cup Finals five times only to come up short on each occasion.

What do you say for those players who came so close to a Stanley Cup championship, only to have lost? Even harder, what can you say for those players who came so close, only to lost three, four, even five times?! Few would know better what it feels like to lose in the Stanley Cup Finals than 15-year NHL veteran and 1,000-point scorer Brian Propp. After all, Brian Propp made it to the championship round FIVE times in his career, and each time came up short.

The 14th-overall pick in the 1979 NHL draft, Brian Propp made it to the Stanley Cup Finals in his rookie season as a member of the Philadelphia Flyers. Propp played in all 80-regular season games for the Flyers that year, as well as all 19-playoff games. As a rookie, Propp finished third overall in team scoring with 75-points (34-goals, 41-assists) during the regular season, and tallied another 15 (5-goals, 10-assists) during Philly’s run to the Finals. The Flyers were laden with high-energy youngsters like Propp that season, but would fall to the New York Islanders in six games in the Stanley Cup Finals; it would be the first of four consecutive championships for New York.

Certainly not a bad set of circumstances at the time for Propp. Making it to the Finals in only his rookie season, most youngsters might take the experience for granted and think that achieving a Stanley Cup championship might be easier than expected and happen with some regularity. But for Brian Propp it would not be the case. Propp would make it all the way to the Finals round two more times as a Philadelphia Flyer; once again in 1985 when they would be backstopped by the late Swedish goaltending phenom Pelle Lindbergh, and then in a 1987 seven-game heart breaker in which their own goaltender, Ron Hextall, would win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs, despite being the losing netminder. Both Finals losses coming at the hands of the Wayne Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers dynasty.

I suppose in some ways for Propp it may have felt like three-strikes and out. Propp would move on from the Philadelphia Flyers via a mid-season trade with the Boston Bruins in March of 1990 for a 2nd-round draft pick. In less than a season with his new team, Propp would find “immediate” success once again, as the Bruins, backstopped by the eventual Jennings Trophy winning goaltending tandem of Andy Moog and Rejean Lemelin, and the eventual Norris Trophy winning defenseman Ray Bourque, would make it to the Stanley Cup Finals; a fourth time for Brian Propp. In 20-playoff games, Propp would chip in 4-goals and 9-assists. For a fourth time though, it was all for naught – Boston would be knocked off in 5-games by the Edmonton Oilers who would win their fifth Stanley Cup. The 5-game series was extremely lopsided with Propp’s Bruins mustering a mere 8-goals in the series while Edmonton exploded for 20. Propp himself would go pointless in the series.

Propp’s fifth and final shot at a Stanley Cup ring would be right around the corner. The following season, his first as a member of the Minnesota North Stars, Propp finished third in team scoring during the regular season by tallying 26-goals and 47-assists in 79-games. Of the 16-teams that qualified for the playoffs in the 1990-91 season, the North Stars finished 15th and went on a Cindrella-esque run. Averaging a point per game during the playoffs (23-games, 8-goals, 15-assists, 23-points), Propp was one of the driving forces behind Minnesota’s improbable run. And despite a strong level of experience from other veterans like Bobby Smith, Neal Broten, Stew Gavin, and Curt Giles, the North Stars would prove no match for Mario Lemieux’s Pittsburgh Penguins who would claim the Stanley Cup in Minnesota during Game Six.

Brian Propp certainly played his heart out to win the Stanley Cup; he just came up short. If you add up the totals of the five Finals series that Propp played in you can certainly appreciate the effort, at the very least. Propp played in a total of 29 Stanley Cup Finals games, and recording 10-goals and 12-assists for 22-points. His best effort would be the 1987 Finals series, when Brian led the Philadelphia Flyers in scoring for the Finals with 9-points (4-goals, 5-assists) in 7-games.

In one’s own heart and mind, how can it be resolved to come so close on five separate occasions only to come up short? If I was in Brian Propp’s shoes I may have a difficult time reconciling this with myself. But Propp also had a very successful NHL career. In over 1,000 regular season games, he averaged nearly a point per game; 1,004-points in 1,016-games. Propp played in the NHL All-Star Game in 1980, 1982, 1984, 1986 and 1990. Propp also holds the NHL records for most career playoff power play goals, most career playoff assists, and most career playoff points all by a left-winger. Those are all noteworthy accomplishments in a lengthy career.

While he never got to raise the Stanley Cup, nor was his name ever inscribed for permanent display, it would be tough to say that Brian Propp did not have a superb career. I think of the Buffalo Bills losing four straight Super Bowls in a row. At the time, it is heartbreaking if not downright embarrassing. But as the years pass and more time to reflect has gone by, to make it to a championship series five times is remarkable for any athlete, in any sport, win or lose. Brian Propp, you were one of the elite competitors of your sport.