What Do You Do With the Second Line When James Neal Returns? : 10 Questions for Dejan Kovacevic by @ChicksDigHockey - PensInitiative | Pittsburgh Penguins Blog | Rumors | News

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Monday, October 14, 2013

What Do You Do With the Second Line When James Neal Returns? : 10 Questions for Dejan Kovacevic by @ChicksDigHockey

I was honored to be granted an interview with Pittsburgh's preeminent sports columnist, Dejan Kovacevic () He's covered Pittsburgh big-league teams since 1997, the past three years as columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has enjoyed success as a regular contributor to WPXI-TV's 'Subway Final Word' and can be heard every Wednesday on Trib LIve Radio. 

Pens Initiative: Vancouver Province reporter Jason Botchford made a big splash on Thursday by reporting on Joe Thornton’s graphic plans for a possible four-goal celebration. Many players are upset with Botchford for reporting Thornton's remarks, some saying they won’t grant him interviews. How do you feel about reporters making public what’s said off the record?

Dejan Kovacevic: I've maintained a general policy that, if somebody isn't being clearly interviewed, anything that's said is off the record. But with one exception: If a coach/athlete really goes out of their way to shout something or make a display of themselves, to me, that's fair game.

A.J. Burnett flipped out on reporters two weeks ago at PNC Park. I wasn't there. Most reporters who were wrote what he said. He'd gone out of his way to be heard, so he was heard. I had a situation this summer with the Steelers' LaMarr Woodley interrupting my interview with Jarvis Jones to bark about me. I played the whole thing on the radio.

I wasn't in the Sharks' room, obviously. I don't know how Joe Thornton went about his remark. But I will say that he's a bonehead to have done it at all while the room was open.

Two reasons:

1. It's stupid.

2. NHL rooms are open for only 15-30 minutes. If Thornton really wanted to wow his peers with third-grade humor and not have it become a story, he only needed to wait a little while.

 PI: Which do you consider the best era of Penguin hockey you’ve reported on?

 DK: It's easily this one. The fan interest/intensity alone makes the franchise both fun and fascinating to cover, as does the (latest) dynamic of having the two best players in the world.

Bear in mind, my only incarnation on the actual Penguins beat -- I only do columns now -- was 1997 through Two-Thousand-And-Fata. Not exactly heady times.

PI:  You’ve covered so many great players. Is there one who made you a bit nervous or left you feeling like a fanboy?

 DK: Only Igor Larionov. He thought the game at the level of a chess grandmaster. I don't think we'll ever see his likes again. When he played at the Civic Arena or even on TV, I'd watch only him, track his touches, follow him without the puck.

Find a video and do it yourself. It's some of the most fun you'll ever have with hockey.

I've interviewed him twice, shook through both.

PI: What’s this about your man-crush on Olli Maatta?

DK:  Olli's the classic Finnish two-way D-man, maybe three parts Joni Pitkanen, two parts Teppo Numminen. I love that brand of defense. It's quintessential for this era.

I've shared this with Maatta, and he lights up at the mere mention of the names. Teppo alone is an icon for Finns.

He's headed that way. Soon.

 PI: Who was your most memorable 1 year/rental player? Who made a great/horrible impression and moved on?

DK:  Most memorable was Jarome Iginla. There's a whole lot of revisionist history going on about his brief tenure in Pittsburgh, but the fact is, he scored goals at the same rate he had been in Calgary over recent years AND he was forced to play out of position by Dan Bylsma in one of the most dumbfounding coaching decisions you'll ever see.

Memorable to me means something you won't forget. I won't forget the almost surreal impact of seeing a hockey legend take to the ice in Pittsburgh in a uniform you never thought you'd see.

Horrible impression? That had to be Alexei Kovalev, if only because I know there were so many older hockey fans in the area who were so genuinely excited, only to look like they had no clue what they were talking about once Kovy came back and did nothing.

He wanted to. Trust me on that. Just didn't have the legs anymore.

PI:  You had a birthday recently (happy belated) and shared some photos from your hockey days. What was it like growing up loving hockey in a football town? 

DK:  The issue wasn't really one I can identify with much because I've also loved football. Besides, that never really felt like the dichotomy. It was more about young vs. old. Those of us who were kids when Mario Lemieux came along embraced the game but had to deal with an overwhelmingly older population -- it still is, but not as much -- that still viewed anything other than football and baseball as being tantamount to indoor lacrosse. It was just another gimmick sport.

It really and truly didn't begin to swing until the two Cups were lifted, and Pittsburgh's hockey fans should never forget that debt owed to that extraordinary group.

PI:  Coming back from a disappointing end to last season, who do you feel is the most improved player on the roster?

 DK: Well, the easy and obvious answer is Marc-Andre Fleury, if only because we've transitioned from playoffs to regular season.

Otherwise, I'll point to Beau Bennett, who looks so, so confident in the early going. Just wait till he starts burying some of these chances all that dangling creates.

PI:  What is the one change the Pens need to make to become a championship team again?

DK:  The Penguins need to keep Maatta up. And yeah, I know that's a huge oversimplification, but this is a team that needs upside. It needs players who can improve as the season goes along. It needs Maatta and Beau Bennett and Robert Bortuzzo and anyone else they can find in that mold to add freshness.

Otherwise, again at the risk of oversimplifying, you've essentially got the same team that hasn't gotten the job done in a few years.

PI: What do you do with the second line when James Neal returns? 

DK:  I'd have a hard time pulling Jussi Jokinen off that line. There's too much happening there between Jokinen and Malkin. I also don't like taking Beau Bennett off there, if only because I want to see Bennett's role continue to expand. But the fact is, given current lines and current needs, Bennett could still have the same license to attack on the third line even as he'd add a puck-possession element to that group.

One option you'd never consider would be separating Malkin and Neal. Ever.

 PI: Pittsburgh fans are loyal to their team but can be vicious to anyone who leaves them (Jagr, Hossa, Talbot) What are your feelings about booing such players when they return to play?

DK: I'd never generalize that. Some players have it coming, and some don't. Jagr and Hossa burned bridges, and their initial returns got just about the right response. (The incessant booing of Jagr in recent years makes zero sense, but that's not the discussion point here.) Talbot really didn't get much of anything by comparison.

Every case is different. It's more common, actually, to see completely nonsensical booing of former players at PNC Park.

 PI:  You write about Pittsburgh with such affection, if you could cover any other city’s hockey team who would it be and why?

DK:  You're probably guessing Winnipeg, but the answer is none. I could never work outside Pittsburgh because I'd have to leave Pittsburgh. When Minnesota and Columbus won expansion franchises, my employer got calls from the respective papers to ask if I'd interview. I refused.

There have bee a few others.

I'll never leave. I'll dig ditches to stay.

PI: Thanks so much for your time, Dejan.

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