Ekman fizzles, while Penguins sizzle

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NEW YORK -- The Penguins brought in Nils Ekman last summer to be a top-six forward, and he was on Sidney Crosby's left wing when the regular season began.

The Penguins clearly expected very good, if not great, things from him after sending a second-round draft choice to San Jose for Ekman and goaltending prospect Patrick Ehelechner July 20.

But, in a season in which the Penguins -- and many of their players -- have exceeded all reasonable expectations, Ekman has been a major disappointment. And, more to the point, become pretty much of a non-factor.

He has dressed for one of the past 36 games (he missed the first 28 of those because of a dislocated elbow) and, heading into the Penguins' game against the New York Islanders at 7:38 p.m. tomorrow at Nassau Coliseum, has six goals and nine assists in 33 games.

That puts him 15th in the team scoring race, a four points ahead of defensive defenseman Rob Scuderi and still comfortably in front of goalies Marc-Andre Fleury and Jocelyn Thibault.

His most eye-catching stat, though, is a plus-minus rating of minus-14, easily is the team's worst and a surprise for a player regarded as a solid two-way performer.

Ekman's personal statistics undoubtedly have suffered because he has not been involved in the Penguins' surge toward the top of the Eastern Conference during the past few months, but the fact that they have done it without getting anything from Ekman says something, too.

Coincidentally or otherwise, the Penguins are 13-14-6 when Ekman plays. His is the only player whose presence in the Penguins' lineup is linked to a losing record (aside from defenseman Joel Kwiatkowski, who has dressed for one game since being acquired from Florida).

Ekman acknowledged that he had hoped to have a more productive season, but focused mostly on the elbow injury he got Dec. 29.

"You can't help that you get injured," he said. "It's part of the game."

So is losing your place in the lineup when you don't perform to expectations, which means Ekman is a near-lock to spend the Islanders' game in street clothes.

The Penguins have won five of their past six games and, even though some players' games aren't fully in sync -- first-line right winger Mark Recchi, for example, does not have a goal in 14 games -- there is no obvious candidate to lose his spot to Ekman.

"He's in a position right now where other guys are getting a chance and they're doing the job," assistant coach Mike Yeo said.

Ekman's only appearance since he was injured came March 6 during a 5-4 shootout victory in Ottawa. He played seven minutes, 58 seconds, did not record a point or a shot and was a minus-1.

Until coach Michel Therrien decides to reconfigure his lineup, Ekman's time on the ice will be limited to practices and game-day skates. He and a handful of other rarely used players such as Chris Thorburn, Ronald Petrovicky and Kwiatkowski, along with Thibault and injured defenseman Mark Eaton, were the only players to skate the morning of the Penguins' 2-1 loss at Madison Square Garden Monday.

"He's out of the lineup, but I have to say that I'm very impressed with his attitude out on the ice," Yeo said. "He works hard every day, and I know that if he continues that and gets his chance, he'll get a good shot."

Ekman isn't just trying to keep an edge on his game with his work during practices; he's looking to shake the lingering effects of the injury he got when he went into the boards awkwardly after a collision with Toronto forward Matt Stajan.

"I still have work to do to get my arm stronger," Ekman said. "I consider myself healthy [enough] to play, and I am healthy to play, but I'm not where I should be."

Whatever else might be motivating him, Ekman, who is 31 and being paid $1.1 million this season, has a financial incentive to claim a spot in the lineup, because he will be an unrestricted free agent this summer.

The Penguins have given no hint of their plans for him, but it's far from certain that they'd invest a seven-figure salary in someone who can't crack the lineup.

Especially one who was expected to contribute so much, but has done so little.

NOTES -- The Penguins, who had yesterday off, will work out at the New York Rangers' former practice facility in Rye, N.Y., today and will conduct their game-day skate at the Islanders' practice rink tomorrow morning. Nassau Coliseum will not be available then because of a Justin Timberlake concert there tonight.

Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press
Penguins left winger Nils Ekman slips his first of three second-period goals past Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Johan Holmqvist Nov. 8 at Mellon Arena.
Click photo for larger image.

Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com .


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