One notable and rational complaint that has rise out of this first season of the post-lockout era is the killer schedule NHL teams are forced to play this season.
Several hockey pundits have noted, as well as a few of my regular readers, the folly of NHL teams playing so many back-to-back games.
There's even been a couple of reports of players privately grumbling over the pace, of playing five games in seven nights, or seven in ten, or three of four.
Not only is this sort of scheduling physically and mentalling exhausting, but it can also lead to injury, indeed, I'm willing to hazard a guess that some of the injuries we've seen at this stage of the seaon may be the direct result of the schedule. I'm even willing to bet some of those injured players, if pressed privately on the matter, would concur.
The reason for this insane schedule wasn't to bolster fan support in the wake of a season-killing lockout, but rather to fit in the NHL's participation in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, in February.
If there's a real, legitimate reason why the NHL needs to get out of the Olympics, this season's schedule is it.
We all know the reason why NHL professionals are participating in the Winter Olympics. The league took its cue from the NBA's successful participation of its best players in the Summer Olympics back in 1992.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. What would be more thrilling that the world's truly best hockey players - the overwhelming majority of them NHL stars - representing their countries in the quest for Olympic gold?
It would be a great selling point, showcasing hockey on the world stage with the intent of bolstering the NHL's popularity. After all, it had worked well for the NBA.
Of course, the fact that the Summer Olympics occur during the NBA off-season, when its best players are rested and healthy, rather than smack in the midst of a season like the Winter Olympics, was somehow lost on the geniuses who thought this would work for the NHL.
Supporters of NHL participation in the Olympics point out the NHL players would be in game shape, ready to go, at the peak of their form, thus showcasing their great skills and making the Olympic product that much better.
Of course, that failed to take into account that it would mean bunching games together during the NHL regular season, allowing players little rest or recuperation time between games thus leaving them more susceptible to injury.
NHL headquarters isn't solely to blame for this situation, as it also came with the blessing of the NHLPA's past and present leaders. The players are as much at fault for agreeing to this kind of madness as the league officials.
Already we're hearing of several Olympic bound players expressing second thoughts - publicly and privately - about participating, concerned that it could affect their NHL performance later in the season, particularly in the post-season. A few have already pulled out of their respective countries rosters, citing the need to recuperate from nagging injuries.
The Winter Olympics has done little to bolster the NHL's image or popularity. There are better ways to accomplish this than beating the players into the ground during the regular season.
But Spector! What about the 1998 and 2002 Winter Olympics, when we saw the underdog Czechs win gold and Canada finally snap it's fifty year gold medal drought? Why, that was terrific hockey!
Yes, it was, no question about it. Problem was, in 1998 the Winter Olympics were in Nagano, Japan, meaning many games televised live didn't appear in North American prime time, and were in some cases televised well after midnight or in the early morning hours in Europe.
In 2002, the games merely highlighted all that was then wrong with the NHL product, as well as the league's then-unwillingness to address the problems.
The simple fact is, we didn't need the Olympics to have great international hockey tournaments.
The Canada Cup tournaments from 1976 to 1991 provided sensational hockey action, and some of the most memorable moments in hockey history.
The NHL and NHLPA sanctioned the World Cup of Hockey, which has only run twice since 1996, but also saw some stellar hockey action and great moments, all with the participation of the NHL's best players.
Yet the Olympics make the World Cup of Hockey merely a footnote, and as such condemn it to being a nothing tournament, one that, while generating interest in Canada, provides little for European and American sports fans.
The World Cup schedule is the best time to have international hockey tournaments. Held in September, the players are rested from the off-season (for some of them, one that lasted five months) thus sparing them the wasteful NHL training camp rigours that clearly are only for the benefit of lesser players scrabbling to make a roster spot on NHL teams.
The World Cup of Hockey could be every bit as exciting as the Olympics, since true professional bragging rights could be established under this tournament if held every four years, and without professional participation in the Olympics.
And let's face it , folks, the Olympics are supposedly meant to showcase the world's best amateur talent, not professionals.
The old arguments of the past, of countries icing so-called "amateur teams" clearly made up of professionals and thus giving them an unfair advantage over other nations playing by the rules, collapsed at the same time as the Berlin Wall.
Best of all, it spares the players having to participate in a condensed physically and mentally draining NHL regular season schedule.
But if NHL pros shouldn't participate in the Olympics, who would?
The simple answer: the world's best junior players.
For three decades, the World Junior Hockey championships (WJC) are held from late-December to early-January and showcase the very best junior talent on the international stage.
The WJC is followed religiously in Canada and gaining popularity in Europe, yet it scarcely creates a ripple in the all-important US media market.
What better international stage then for those junior players to strut their stuff than to represent their countries at the Winter Olympics.
First, it represents the true ideal of the Olympics as showcase of amateur talent, rather than professionals.
Second, the respective junior leagues all shut down for three weeks in mid-season for the WJC tournament, so it wouldn't be such an upheaval to their schedules if, every four years, instead of staging a WJC tournament, they instead participated in the Winter Olympics.
Third, it would drum up more attention toward hockey, and particularly the NHL's future stars, in the US if the best junior players were playing for their countries in the Olympics.
For those who doubt this would generate interest, consider that it was a bunch of no-name college kids back in 1980 who staged one of hockey's biggest international upsets which remains the fondest memory of hockey for American sports fans.
Regardless of that fact, the juniors would showcase skilled, energetic hockey that would be fun and entertaining to watch. I know that every Canadian who follows the WJC faithfully would agree with me on this.
There've been many great moments in the WJC, and if juniors would be the one representing their countries at the Olympics instead of NHL pros, we would see many more great moments.
The WJC provided us our first look at future NHL stars, stretching from Wayne Gretzky in the late-70s to today's bright NHL rookies Alexander Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Dion Phaneuf. Imagine the buzz if budding young prospects like the aforementioned could strut their stuff on the Olympic stage.
Let the NHL pros battle it out in September in the World Cup of Hockey, and let the amateur juniors do so at the Winter Olympics. It'll be best all around.
The announcement on January 24, 2006 that Pittsburgh Penguins captain Mario Lemieux was retiring for the second time was not the nearly storybook ending that his first retirement was.
There was no final goals scored in the playoffs. No final hurrahs or victory laps like that enjoyed by his former rival, Wayne Gretzky. It's unlikely that the final retirement of his number 66 will be the drawn-out emotional farewell that Mark Messier recently got in New York.
Instead, Lemieux's second and final farewell as a player ends on a whimper, not a bang.
It wasn't supposed to end like this when he came back back in December 2000, to lead the Penguins to the Eastern Conference finals in 2001. Mario was supposed to continue to carry the team like he once did, and if the supporting cast was no longer as strong as it was during the Penguins early 90s glory years, then at least they could all benefit from Lemieux's superstar presence and skills and perhaps be a marginal playoff contender while the club rebuilt.
Sadly, injuries and money issues conspired to limit Lemieux's presence after the 2000-01 season and to gut the Penguins of their remaining veteran talent.
Sure, Mario got a last hurrah of sorts by helping Canada win Olympic gold in 2002 Men's Hockey and the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, but it was obvious in those series that Lemieux was slowing down; no longer the dominant player he'd once been.
The new rules to open up the NHL game were supposed to help Super Mario, and playing with "the Next One", Sidney Crosby, and a host of apparently skilled veterans that had been sorely lacking in Pittsburgh for years, this season was to be that of the great Penguins resurgence.
Crosby kept up his end of the bargain, but Lemieux's health and age, combined with the woeful performance of those veteran hired guns, have scuttled the Penguins high hopes. If not for Crosby and Marc-Andre Fleury, and the promise of Evgeny Malkin joining those two next season, the Penguins faithful would have nothing to cheer for.
Much has been made about Mario's ulterior motives for coming out of retirement, that he did it to get back money he was owed by the club's previous ownership.
That's partially true, but he also did it because - surprise, surprise - he missed the game, and felt he still had more to give.
Most importantly, he did it to save the Penguins franchise just like he did back in the 1980s and early 90s in his prime. No player has given more to a franchise that at times seemed less deserving that Lemieux gave to the Penguins since 1984.
That's worth remembering surely as much as the magic that he wielded during his glory days, when he battled Gretzky for the title of the NHL's best player. Gretzky may have won that one, but Lemieux did it all playing in Pittsburgh, in a small market, and that, perhaps, is more noteworthy in the long run.
Below are three articles I wrote concerning Lemieux since his return from his first retirement. I think they express my feelings about his contributions to the game and the city of Pittsburgh better than anything else I could write at this time.
DECEMBER 2000: The press conference in Pittsburgh today made official what has been known to the hockey world for nearly a week. Mario Lemieux, one of the greatest players in NHL history, is going to return to action on December 27th, 2000, against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Mario gave several reasons why he was deciding to return to the game he had retired from over 3 1/2 years ago. The crackdown on obstruction by the League was one. A rekindled passion for the sport was another, stating he missed the game more than he believed he would when he retired. He cited his children, noting that they werenow old enough to understand their father's place in hockey, he wanted them to have the chance to watch him play live.
The response to Lemieux's decision has been overwhelmingly popular. The NHL hierarchy has apparently given their blessing to his return, despite some sticky issues regarding the fact he's the first owner of a team in modern NHL history to lace up the skates to play. Nary a negative word has been heard by opposing teams, indeed, almost everyone has been looking forward to Lemieux's return with great anticipation.
Finally, there's the joy his announcement brought for Penguins fans, who haven't had a lot to cheer about this season, given their club is barely above .500. Indeed, Lemieux's return will certainly make the Pens a hot ticket in Pittsburgh again. In some circles, there's anticipation that Mario's return automatically makes the Penguins Cup contenders this season.
But not everyone is thrilled by the prospect of Lemieux's return. A minority of observers in the press view Lemieux's return in a more cynical light, taking him to task for not being truthful about his return. They say it's motivated entirely by money, particularly the amount Lemieux stands to lose as an owner if the Penguins continued to struggle at the gate this season. A few insist Mario was motivated to return by a rumoured demand by his former teammate, and current Penguins captain, Jaromir Jagr, for a trade. Jagr has been mired in an uncharacteristic scoring slump this season, and has clashed with head coach Ivan Hlinka and several of his teammates.
These critics also raise the myriad of off-ice legal concerns Lemieux's return will raise. They wonder what type of salary Lemieux will pay himself, noting that if he pays himself the league average of $1.4 million US, it throws off the players salary scale. However, if he pays himself up to $10 million US, which a player of his calibre would be worth, he risks throwing the team's payroll out of whack. Then there's the potential conflict of interest that could come up with his ownership status, with regards to his role as a player. How can he continue to participate in ownership capacities, the critics ask, yet still be a member of the Players Association?
Furthermore, there is the potential for problems within the Penguins roster itself. With Lemieux still an owner, how can the players enjoy the privacy the dressing room gives them to talk amongst themselves regarding management and ownership decisions? How would the players react if Mario is involved in a decision to trade, or demote, one or more of their number? How will head coach Ivan Hlinka be able to maintain any respect on the team at all, if any decisions he makes regarding the lineup are questioned by Lemieux?
All of these are important issues that will need to be addressed. After all, there is no precedent for this in NHL, or pro sports history. But while the critics have raised some interesting questions, they're putting far too much emphasis on them. If they honestly believe Lemieux's return is going to create some kind of legalistic nightmare, guess again. League Commissioner Gary Bettman is thrilled that one of the game's biggest draws is returning to active duty. If he thought there was going to be serious problems regarding this, he would've either blocked Lemieux's decision to return, or forced him to sell his share of the team before he could return to play.
Remember, this decision by Lemieux wasn't a spur of the moment thing, but rather one that had been thought out for weeks. Lemieux has spent the past month working out and skating again in secret, preparing himself for the eventual announcement of a return date. According to reports, Bettman knew about what Lemieux was doing weeks before the news of his comeback was leaked out. Bettman has had time to discuss this issue with the other team owners and GMs around the League. If they had a problem with Lemieux's decision, surely it would've been voiced by now.
The reason why the League and the teams have no problem with this is because they realize how important Lemieux can be in terms of bringing in more money. In a gate-driven venue by the NHL, the return of a superstar of Lemieux's calibre will be a box-office bonanza. Any issues that could come up after the fact will undoubtedly be smoothed over by the Commissioner's office.
As for the NHLPA, it's highly unlikely they weren't aware of what Lemieux was planning to do. If they have a problem with it, they certainly aren't saying anything. And why should they? The feedback from the players regarding Lemieux's return has been overwhelmingly positive. Some are almost as excited as their peers in Pittsburgh, and for good reason. It's not often one gets to play against a legend. They may be his opponents, but they're also fans. One would be hard-pressed to find a critical voice about Lemieux amongst players past and present. So far, the media critics haven't been able to find one.
But what about the claim that Lemieux isn't being entirely truthful about his return? There undoubtedly is some justification to this. The Penguins were a team that went bankrupt in 1998, and were nearly sold and moved in 1999 before Lemieux stepped in with a consortium to purchase the team. Since then, the Pens have been a good team, but certainly not one on the level of those Cup winning Pittsburgh teams of the early 1990s. The Penguins have been struggling at the gate, and with their plans to build a new arena in the future, they need the full houses to convince the city of Pittsburgh to help bring this new arena to reality, as well as the money that comes with it.
Obviously, Lemieux the owner needs the money a successful Penguins franchise will bring him, in order to ensure he still gets the money from those deferred payment contracts he signed during his original tenure as a player. But come now, do the fans really want to hear Lemieux come out and say, "the only reason I'm coming back is for the money?" Of course not! Even though most clear-headed hockey fans can acknowledge that's one of the main reasons why he's returning, none of us want him to come out and say that. Indeed, those in the press who are suggesting Lemieux should "be honest" about the "real" reason for his comeback would pillory him for having the audacity to make such a statement.
And who's to say Lemieux isn't being genuine about the reasons he stated for his return? He was right when he called the NHL a "garage league" before his retirement, and up until this season, not much had taken place to change that opinion. But the NHL does seem to be making a real effort in most games this season to crack down on the uncalled obstruction that was turning most matches into snoozefests. The game has improved somewhat this season because of it, as scoring has shown modest improvement compared to the last two years. What offensive minded player like Lemieux wouldn't want to come back to a league where the game has opened up offensively again?
Those critics who snidely put down Lemieux's claims of missing the passion of the game, because he "never played with passion" during his career, should be ashamed of themselves for spewing such hypocrisy. How the hell can a player who scored over 600 goals and 1,400 points in a 12 year playing career (he sat out the strike-shortened 1995 season) accomplish these feats dispassionately? How could a player who led his team to two Stanley Cup championships, and won numerous individual awards as regular and league MVP, as well as for scoring, do it without having a passion for the game? Why would a disinterested player battle chronic back pain and disease, yet lace up his skates and go out and be the best player on the ice?
The obvious answer is that it's impossible to pull off those achievements without some level of passion and excitement for the sport. Yet that criticism has dogged Lemieux unfairly throughout his playing career. It tends to come from journalists who mistake his quiet, private demeanor as aloof and arrogant. Lemieux has not fit into the mould most hockey reporters expect great players of his calibre to be. They expect hockey superstars to be simultaneously aw-shucks humble, yet gee-whiz excitable about the game. They're used to players who wrap their whole lives around the sport.
Lemieux's sin was that he dared to actually concern himself with other interests besides hockey, and at the same time was an outspoken critic of what he rightfully saw ruining the game. Those critics from the Canadian press continue to hold Lemieux accountable for not representing his country,when he turned down invitations to play for Canada in the 1991 Canada Cup, the 1996 World Cup and the 1998 Olympics. Of course, they conveniently forget Lemieux, along with Wayne Gretzky, was the driving force that led Team Canada to victory in the 1987 Canada Cup. They also stupidly forget Lemieux was nursing a bad back in 1991 and 1996, and had retired by 1998.
To suggest Mario Lemieux has no passion for the sport of hockey is ludicrous. One doesn't have the type of career he had without loving the game. Just because he doesn't show it like most NHL players doesn't mean it's not there. For this hockey fan, who has long admired Lemieux's great skill, my response to those killjoys would be to borrow a certain line from a popular professional wrestler: "It doesn't matter what your opinion is!"
As for how Lemieux's return will affect the morale of the Penguins roster, the fact the team was elated by the news of his eventual return should be indicative of the non-factor his ownership status will have in the room. It's bound to put the spring back in Jagr's step, who for whatever reason simply hasn't brought his "A" game to the rink for the most part this season. A first line of Lemieux, Jagr and Alexei Kovalev will be offensive dynamite, particularly on the powerplay and in four-on-four overtime situations. Jagr has never been happy playing a defensive-oriented system, so it's not hard to tell what type of game the Penguins will be playing after December 27th!
Will that offensive style loved by Lemieux and Jagr be detrimental to the Penguins? Not during the regular season, that's for sure. Indeed, it could see the return of a run-and-gun style that has been lacking in a league filled with trapping, boring teams. It won't serve them as well in the postseason, when the teams traditionally tighten up defensively, and where the obstruction crackdown will face it's biggest test. Regardless, Pittsburgh lacks a quality playoff goaltender that would make them a Cup contender. That being said, they'll be entertaining to watch for a round or two.
It certainly won't upset the fans in Pittsburgh! Exciting offensive hockey, led by one of the greatest offensive stars in hockey history? It's unlikely to bring them a Cup, but the name of the game is supposed to be entertainment, and a Lemieux-led Penguins team will have them filling the seats in the Melon arena in a hurry to watch such a show of offensive skill. As for fans of rival teams, they'll turn out in droves in their arenas to watch Mario the Magnificent return to action.
Regardless of his reasons for staging a comeback, those who love hockey should be rejoicing. This isn't the case of an over-the-hill star trying to recapture his glory days. Lemieux isn't going to embarrass himself and leave hockey fans cringing. He's only been away for a little over three years, which has allowed his body time to heal. While he's not a twenty-something youngster, Lemieux is fortunate to have been blessed with great genetics. It was these superior genes that allowed him to play through the pain of a bad back, as well as stage an incredible comeback from his cancer treatments in 1993 to win the scoring title that year.
Mario Lemieux's comeback will be a benefit to everyone. It'll benefit a league that has lacked a marquee star. It'll benefit the Penguins, both in terms of improving the team, re-energizing Jagr, boosting fan support in Pittsburgh, and bringing in much-needed dollars. It'll benefit Lemieux himself, financially and personally. Finally, it'll benefit fans of hockey in general, who have been starved for an offensive superstar of Lemieux's calibre to lift our spirits from the tedious style of defensive hockey so prevalent in a talent-thin 30 team league.
Welcome back, Mario! This hockey fan is looking forward to you, once again, proving your critics wrong!
FEBRUARY 2002: On the eve of Team Canada's first game in the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, team captain Mario Lemieux found himself dogged by controversy coming out of Pittsburgh.
Lemieux, the Penguins franchise player, captain and owner, battled injury during the 2001-02 season, and his lengthy absences from the lineup contributed to his club facing the possibility of missing the playoffs for the first time in 12 years.
When questioned why he was taking himself out of the Penguins final game before the Olympic break, Lemieux responded, "As I've said before, I'm just trying to get to the Olympics right now. That's my main focus."
When a reporter asked Lemieux if he was concerned over the local viewpoint he was putting the Olympics above the Penguins, Mario replied, " "You know, you can't please everybody. That's what I've found out in my career, that it doesn't matter what I do, there are always going to be people who are going to be happy and people who are going to be ticked off. As long as the people close to me know the purpose and agree with my decision, that's all that matters. As long as my teammates and the people in the organization understand the situation, that's all that matters for me. There are always going to be people who are bitching. That's part of life."
Needless to say, the poop hit the fan in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Dejan Kovacevic indignantly suggested Lemieux had insulted the fans of Pittsburgh, or at least those who were complaining about his playing for Team Canada. The reporter then took those reporters outside the Pittsburgh area, particularly those in the Canadian media, to task for calling the fans in Pittsburgh spoiled and ungrateful.
The problem here was no one took a moment to get their emotions in check and to look at this situation with a cooler head.
First, the fans in Pittsburgh had every right to be concerned about Lemieux playing for Team Canada. Their club was in danger of missing the playoffs, meaning a loss of much-needed revenue for the cash-strapped franchise. Lemieux was hobbled by injury all season, and if he re-aggravated his hip or back in the Olympics, the Penguins fading playoff hopes would be struck a lethal blow.
Lemieux's Olympic quest was obviously driven by the desire to play, one last time, among the very best players in the world, and to achieve a Gold medal, something not even Team Canada GM Wayne Gretzky was able to do during his playing days. Yes, it may be selfish to a degree, but if Lemieux helped Canada win gold, nobody was really going to be that upset about it. If anything, it would add to his already considerable legend.
I do believe Lemieux should put his Penguins ahead of Team Canada. But the man has obviously made up his mind. If we have to live with and respect Patrick Roy's decision not to play in the Olympics, then we should do the same for Lemieux.
Mario's comments were obviously being whipped up by the local Pittsburgh media into being something more than they really are. Lemieux didn't publicly piss on Penguins fans with his comments. Indeed, he appreciated how much the Pittsburgh fans mean to his struggling franchise, particularly in their long quest to obtain the funding they need for a new arena.
Lemieux isn't going to dismiss his loyal fans so blithely, nor is he going to dump on them. If one looks at Mario's comments again, one can see he's aiming them at his critics in the press.
For years, Lemieux put up with columns written on both sides of the border, questioning his integrity, his heart, and his love of the game. He faced them in 1984 when he refused to don a Penguins jersey on draft day. He faced them in the late 1980s when he was accused of being a "diver" and a "puckhog" and a "goal-suck". He faced them after the 1987 Canada Cup, when health reasons and his growing frustration at the deterioration of the NHL game made him pass on the 1991 Canada Cup, the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, and the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. He faced them again in the early-90s, when some scoffed he wasn't a worthy leader of a Stanley Cup champion. He faced them when he returned from retirement by cynics who believed it was motivated more by getting back money he was owed than for his claims of missing the game.
Put up with that steady diet of media crap for over fifteen years, and it's no wonder Lemieux, a hockey god but still a human being, got a little testy over claims he wasn't giving his Penguins his best prior to the Salt Lake City Olympics.
As a Canadian, I'm more insulted by Kovacevic claiming we Canadians have little use for Lemieux, except "when it has been convenient for them to do so." He based this swipe at comments made by unnamed "high-profile" Canadian hockey writers, and even claimed Canadian hockey fans treat Lemieux as a "pariah".
Although Kovacevic is right regarding those in the Canadian press who've dumped on Lemieux over the years, most notably Red Fisher of the Montreal Gazette and Al Strachan of the Toronto Sun, Canadian hockey reporters clearly do not speak for Canadian hockey fans when it comes to Mario Lemieux.
If we supposedly hate his guts so much, why do the arenas of Canada's teams sell out whenever Lemieux comes to town with the Penguins? Why aren't they booing him mercilessly, as they did Alexei Yashin during his final year in Ottawa, and Eric Lindros at any time during his career? They don't, because contrary to Kovacevic's insinuations, Canadians are as much in awe of "Mario the Magnificent" as their US counterparts are.
Kovacevic was right in saying Pittsburgh fans earned the right to be critical of Lemieux, however, I doubt the level of supposedly unrest amongst those fans is as high as the Pittsburgh area media is making it out to be.
Penguins fans are jittery during the '01-'02 season, and for good reason, given the uncertainty of their post-season hopes. But they're not about to burn in effigy the one man who saved NHL hockey in Pittsburgh not once, not twice, but three times since 1984. They're grateful for all Lemieux has done, and will continue to be so.
Even if the worst case scenario were to happen and Lemieux suffered an injury in the Olympics that would take him out of the lineup for the remainder of this season, thus crushing the Pens lingering playoff hopes, all would be forgiven and forgotten when Lemieux returned the following season and led the Penguins back into the playoffs.
(POSTSCRIPT: Lemieux's ailing hip would ultimately take him out of the Penguins lineup following the 2002 Olympics, but by the time Lemieux scratched himself from the roster, his club's playoff hopes were already dead. In the following season, whilst he had a marked improvement in both his health and performance, his financially-struggling club was forced to sell off Lemieux's linemate, Alexei Kovalev, as well as looking at paring down it's already talent-weakened roster to cut costs. The Penguins missed the playoffs for the second straight season in 2002-03, and to make matters worse, Lemieux was unable to convince the city of Pittsburgh to build him a new arena. In frustration, he stated he would consider either selling or moving the team by the end of the 2006-07 season, when the club's lease at the Mellon Arena expired. Obviously, the Penguins problems were much deeper than Lemieux's decision to put the Olympics ahead of his team's fading playoff hopes in 2002.)
In the wake of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, a rash of injuries struck several players from Team Canada and Team USA.
Colorado's top two defencemen, Rob Blake and Adam Foote, were sidelined, as was New Jersey Devils blueliner Scott Niedermayer. St. Louis Blues forwards and Teams USA teammates Keith Tkachuk and Doug Weight were both out with leg injuries. Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Curtis Joseph broke his hand, and Detroit Red Wings forward Brendan Shanahan played with a broken thumb.
Then there were the injuries suffered by Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux and Detroit's Steve Yzerman. Both re-aggravated previous injuries during Team Canada's Gold Medal drive; Lemieux his hip, Yzerman his knee.
Unlike the others, however, both players took some heat from their respective fans.
Lemieux's was the most notable,
ever since he stated prior to the start of the Salt Lake City
games that his focus on the Olympics had been his priority for
this season, rather than helping the Penguins make the playoffs.
However, the news that his participation in the Olympics re-aggravated his hip and ultimately forced him to the sidelines for the rest of the 2001-02 didn't go down well with some Penguins fans. On team message boards, he was vilified for selfishly putting his health at risk to achieve Olympic glory at the expense of the Penguins.
While Lemieux's Olympic participation was an ongoing debate for Penguins fans for months, a report in the Detroit News regarding the venom being launched at Yzerman came as a surprise. While the then-league leading Wings weren't in danger of missing the playoffs without Yzerman, there were Red Wings fans who believed he shouldn't have competed in the Olympics so soon after having knee surgery, and attacked him for letting down the Detroit club to chase Olympic gold.
Yzerman's nomination to Team Canada came before his knee injury and subsequent surgery. While his knee became inflamed and swollen playing in the Olympics, thus forcing him to the sidelines, it wouldn't end the Detroit captain's season, nor jeopardize the Wings playoff hopes. Detroit was comfortably esconced atop the NHL standings for months, in no danger of missing the post-season. Indeed, so deep were the Wings in talent, they wanted Yzerman to take his time returning, so that he would be at 100 percent for the playoffs.
Was it selfish of Lemieux and Yzerman to risk worsening their injuries for Olympic gold? Perhaps it was, but both felt the desire to compete with the very best against the very best for a prize that they knew would mean so much to not only fans of their native country, but to themselves as well. Yzerman had to watch in frustration as Team Canada blew it's chance to win gold in 1998. Lemieux had never competed at the Olympic level and it was the one prize that remained to be had in a Hall of Fame career where he'd won the Stanley Cup and just about every individual accolade an NHL forward could win.
Something obviously motivated these two great players to risk worsening their injuries for Olympic Gold. Some American commentators, however, didn't buy into the concept that Yzerman and Lemieux wanted to win it for their country. They noted the two haven't lived in Canada in years, and live in America with US citizenship, with nothing except their parents to tie them to their former country.
So why did they play for Team Canada? Some may say it was greed for personal glory, others claim it was a chance for them to play on a winner one last time. If that's the case, then why didn't they play for their adopted country?
The American team had as great a chance as Canada, or Russia, or Sweden, or the Czech Republic, to win it all. Indeed, they subsequently proved it by getting to the Gold Medal Game. Surely the chance to play with future Hall-of-Famers like Modano, Hull, Richter, Leetch and Chelios would've been enough to convince Lemieux and Yzerman to play for Team USA and win gold. What good would it be to play for Canada, whose style of play was derided in America and Europe as stupid, boring, unimaginative and lacking in skill?
Perhaps it was something more than a personal quest for glory. Perhaps, deep down, underneath those American exteriors, still beat the hearts of proud Canadians. They weren't going to return to Canada to experience the thrill of ending a fifty-year drought in Olympic hockey competition. They wouldn't see first-hand the throngs that poured into the streets in every Canadian town and city, cheering Team Canada's victory. How else to explain risking injury, and in Lemieux's case, the Penguins playoff hopes, to win a medal that meant so much to a country they'd both left behind?
And that raised another interesting question. If Lemieux and Yzerman had aggravated their injuries helping Team USA win gold, rather than Team Canada, would their critics in Pittsburgh and Detroit still throw darts at them? Or would they be laud them for their gritty patriotism for the Red, White and Blue, playing through pain to win it all for the good old USA? Methinks if the latter were the case, there wouldn't have been as much bitching from the American media.
I sympathize with Penguins fans and understand their disappointment. But what I don't understand is the level of bitterness and anger levelled at Lemieux. The possibility of missing the playoffs for the first time in twelve years is annoying and frustrating, as well as adversely affecting the club's revenue, but it's not worth raking over the coals the man who has saved the Penguins franchise three times in 18 years.
Penguins fans have the right to be disappointed, and they have the right to question Mario's decision. But to heap angry abuse upon him, to demand an apology from him, to claim he'd insulted them by putting Team Canada first, after everything he's done for hockey in Pittsburgh, is selfish and stupid and wrong.
Without Lemieux, Pittsburgh hockey fans would have no NHL franchise to worry about. Without Lemieux, the Penguins would've waddled out of Pittsburgh sometime in the 1980s at the earliest, or in 1999 at the latest, supposedly to Oregon where, the hockey media believed, Microsoft co-founder and billionaire Paul Allen waited for an NHL franchise to go belly-up so he could snap it up and move it to Portland.
Without Lemieux, there would be no Cup parades in Steeltown, no Ron Francis, no Jaromir Jagr, and no twelve year consecutive playoff streak. There certainly wouldn't have been a berth in the Eastern Conference finals in 2001. Question him all you want, but stow the empty anger and threats about cancelling your season tickets and burning your Penguins jerseys.
Fans at least had a somewhat justifiable basis to question Lemieux's participation in the Olympics. Those Red Wings fans questioning Yzerman's participation had nothing to base their anger upon.
For those who screamed that Yzerman was "sitting on his butt collecting $8 million rather than helping the Red Wings", they should heed this little history lesson before they shove both feet in their collective mouths.
When "Stevie Y" was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings in 1983, the franchise, which had been a powerhouse in the days of the "Original Six", had fallen on hard times, thanks to decades of mismanagement. They were, like the Penguins prior to Lemieux's arrival in 1984, a joke, one of the league doormats, a club that was considered an "easy two points" by opponents.
Although it was the off-ice improvement in management and scouting that rebuilt the Wings in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the club was built around Yzerman, who became Detroit's franchise player and the key ingredient in turning the Red Wings around.
It was Yzerman who had to painfully learn how to change his game from offence-only to a stronger two-way style. He had to grow as a leader, and develop the mental toughness against critics who said he was an ineffective team captain.
It was thanks to Yzerman the Wings had the strong on-ice leadership needed to bring the Stanley Cup back to Detroit after 42 long years. It was Yzerman who helped bring the team together after the tragic accident that ended the playing career of Vladimir Konstantinov. It was Yzerman who led the Wings to repeat as champions in 1998. It was Yzerman who helped make Detroit "Hockeytown".
The attitude of those fans who heaped abuse on Lemieux and Yzerman was that of, "what have you done for me lately"? They don't take into account all that these players have done over their long careers. The fact neither player demanded early in their careers to be traded when the Penguins and Red Wings were doing so badly is lost on these whiners. The fact they've stayed with their teams for all these years means nothing. All the pain and doubt they had to battle through, all the growth they did to become better players and leaders and champions is being conveniently overlooked by these bandwagoneers.
Not every fan in Pittsburgh and Detroit is dumping on Lemieux and Yzerman. Indeed, the majority of Penguins and Red Wings fans are very knowledgable about the game, and while they understand these players are not perfect, they're still grateful for all they've done for their respective clubs.
The complaints probably came from a minority of fans who were "johnny-come-latelys", whose inflammatory statements were fanned by some in the local media keen to stir up trouble and sell newspapers. Those fans are either too young to remember what life was like before Lemieux and Yzerman came on the scene, or are the type who conveniently hopped aboard the Penguins and Red Wings bandwagon during the good years. Either that, or they're just plain morons who, as Lemieux said a few weeks ago, have nothing better to do than bitch.
In the end, they're guilty of committing the same sin they're accusing Lemieux and Yzerman of.
(POSTSCRIPT: Yzerman would indeed return to the Wings for the 2002 playoffs, and despite the worsening condition of his knee, led his club to capture the Stanley Cup, their third Cup in six seasons. His performance was considered one of the most inspirational moments in Stanley Cup history. Those who were critical of Yzerman now lauded him as the bravest and greatest team captain in NHL history. As for Lemieux, Penguins fans fretted that he might opt to return to retirement following the club's second straight absence from playoff competition. Indeed, some stated they would stop showing up for Penguins games if Lemieux retired, as he was "the only good thing left watching" on a team that cast aside it's best players for inexpensive minor league acquisitions.)
One of the highlights of the 2005-06 season has been the play of this season's crop of rookies. Due to the lockout, there has never before been such an explosion of rookie talent in the NHL in one season.
Many of these players are considered "the future of the NHL", but given their respective performances this season, I'd say the future has already arrived.
Here's a quick list of those players that I believe could be among the biggest names in the NHL for many years to come.
Alexander Ovechkin, Washington Capitals. The human highlight reel has given Caps fans hope where recently there was none. This kid has been described as a more physical Pavel Bure, but seeing some of the goals he's scored this season, it's clear he's in a class by himself. If he can avoid the knee injuries that shortened the Russian Rocket's career, Ovechkin could be the most exciting offensive player in the NHL for a long time.
Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins. He's been unfairly slammed in the media for his on-ice attitude, but that's borne out of his competitive desire to improve the woeful Pens. His talent, however, is not in dispute, as he's battled with Ovechkin for the rookie scoring lead and has clearly been the Penguins best player this season. Too bad most of his teammates this season are either unable or unwilling to match his competitive drive. He'll be one of the best players in the league for years to come.
Dion Phaneuf, Calgary Flames. The reincarnation of Scott Stevens, Phaneuf is already the Flames top defenceman and among the very best in the NHL. If this weren't Ovechkin and Crosby's rookie seasons, Phaneuf would easily win the Calder. Should he continue his strong performance he should merit consideration for the Norris this season, and will be considered a perennial Norris candidate in the future.
Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers. One of the big reasons for the improvement of the Blueshirts this season is the goaltending of Lundqvist, who's among the league leaders in goals-against average and save percentage, and might even get himself a Vezina trophy nomination. He's the heir to Mike Richter's legacy and should keep the Rangers a playoff club for years.
Marek Svatos, Colorado Avalanche. One of the best-kept rookie secrets in the NHL, Svatos is on pace for a 45-goal performance and is second in rookie goals only to Ovechkin and third in rookie scoring. Unlike Ovechkin and Crosby, Svatos has the benefit of playing for a much better team, but the fact he's playing well with veteran teammates like Joe Sakic and Alex Tanguay is indicative of just how talented this guy is.
Keith Ballard, Phoenix Coyotes. Another rookie who hasn't received much attention this season, Ballard has been a delightful surprise for the rebuilding Phoenix Coyotes this season. His -6 stat is reflective of the quality of his team this season, not that of his play, which has been very good. Ballard shows a lot of poise for a rookie blueliner and should blossom into one of the best defencemen in the league over time.
Andrej Meszaros, Ottawa Senators. He's had the luxury of playing on a very deep Senators club, yet the 20-year-old Meszaros has demonstrated skills and poise not normally associated with a rookie d-man. The fact he's also cracked a strong Sens blueline corps is a tribute to those attributes, and could one day become the anchor of that corps.
Petr Prucha, New York Rangers. Another reason for the Blueshirts resurgence is the play of Prucha, who after a slow start to his rookie campaign has been lighting it up. He's presently tied for third in rookie goalscoring and has the second highest goalscoring total for the Rangers. Prucha isn't afraid of the rough going near the net, but hopefully he'll bulk up a little more from his 161 lbs in the coming years if he's to withstand the physical pounding.
Ryan Miller, Buffalo Sabres. His rookie campaign was shortened by a thumb injury, but Miller has not only been one of the best rookie goaltenders this season, he's also been among the league leaders in GAA and save percentage. He's been one of the main reasons why the Sabres have been among the better teams in the Eastern Conference, and should help keep them that way for a long time.
Thomas Vanek, Buffalo Sabres. He was slow to score earlier in the season but Vanek has managed to find his scoring touch as the season progressed, becoming a key member of the surprisingly deep Sabres offense this year. He hasn't been as eyecatching as some of the above, but make no mistake, Vanek has the skills to become a big star in this league and perhaps the Sabres franchise player, and should continue to blossom over time.
Alexander Steen, Toronto Maple Leafs. It's clear that he inherited his father Thomas's hockey genes, as Steen the Younger has emerged as a promising young forward for the Maple Leafs. His strong two-way play makes him perhaps one of the better all-around rookies this season, a trait that should see him have a long, productive future in Toronto.
Kari Lehtonen, Atlanta Thrashers. So much was expected of this guy heading into this season, yet nagging groin injuries kept him out of most of the first half of the season. Since returning to action Lehtonen's been playing at an elite level and has been instrumental in the Thrashers recent surge up the Eastern Conference standings. If he can overcome the injury bug, Lehtonen has the ability to be one of the very best.
Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh Penguins. Along with Crosby he's been one of the few bright spots on a moribund Penguins team. His stats haven't been that good but that's not because of his ability, but rather the rotten defence in front of him. Perhaps most telling of his ability is the .900 save percentage he's posted. If the Penguins ever improve, or if Fleury should be traded to a better club one day, he'll be among the very best netminders in the league.
Having past the halfway point of the season, we're beginning to get a clearer picture of how the new CBA is going to affect NHL teams over the next six years.
Thus, from what I've seen thus far, here's a few basic truths:
- Player salaries aren't going to go down.
Oh, sure, they dropped initially in this first year, thanks to the $39 million salary cap and the 24 percent rollback and yes, the highest paid players cannot earn more than 20 percent of their team's total payroll.
Surely the salary cap will keep all players salaries on average under control from now on, right?
Because the salary cap is tied to revenues, if revenues go up, so does the cap, which means so does the spending teams will spend on salaries.
And since next season the cap could go up anywhere between $41 -$45 million, that means some GMs are gonna have more room to spend even more.
And if revenues continue to rise in the coming years, it's entirely possible the cap could climb as high as $50 million. Or maybe even $55 million.
Meaning that the days of the $9 -$10 million per season salaries could be returning much sooner than we thought.
And the days of average players pulling in more than they deserve could also be on the rebound.
This season's average salary of $1.3 million will climb next season to over $1.6 million, which by some estimates is only $250K less than the $1.85 million it was in the final year of the last CBA.
And while the league minimum salary is $450K it's supposed to go up in the coming years to $500K and then $550K.
- There are two salary caps.
There's the one the league imposes, and then those imposed by teams themselves, based on their individual economic situations.
Sure, there's a $39 million cap, but not every team (hello there, Nashville, Florida, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Buffalo, Carolina, Washington, San Jose, Pittsburgh and Phoenix) has spent up to that level. In some cases, they're not even close to $35 million.
Think that's a fluke? Think again.
There has always been a basic truth in the NHL: most big market teams will spend as much as they can, and most small-to-mid markets will spend only what they can afford or are willing to spend.
The league wide cap will go up next season, but don't expect many of those aforementioned clubs to spend up to that amount, or to even spend much more than they already are.
Each team has their reasons. Some are fiscally prudent, looking to get the best value they can for their dollar rather than blow cash on overrated veterans. Some are struggling to keep their heads above choppy financial waters. And some, quite bluntly, are cheap, more interested in maximizing their profits at the expense of their rosters.
That's going to lead to another CBA truth:
- The gap between "haves" and "have nots" remains.
Oh sure, it won't be as wide as it was under the old CBA, but it'll still be there. And regardless of whether it's $15 million or $50 million, if it's preventing a small or mid-market team from competing against the big boys, it's going to remain a problem.
And yes, that's including the revenue sharing that's going to come to the have-not teams at season's end.
Even if it's mandated in the CBA that revenue share monies are to go directly on payrolls rather than into the owner's pocket, there's nothing to prevent an owner from slashing his payroll prior to receiving that revenue share money and using the latter to boost his club's payroll just over the league mandated cap floor, which could rise to $30 million next season.
Sure, not every team will do this, some likely won't do it at all. Some might only do it in small amounts. Perhaps none of them will do it on a large scale.
But it will happen.
Don't believe me? Watch and see, gang, watch and see...
- Escrow could be a paper tiger.
Escrow was one of the points critics of the NHLPA used to bash the players over the head in the aftermath of the ratification of the CBA. Oh, how stupid were the players, three time losers, they. Bad enough they agreed to a 24 percent rollback and a salary cap, but they also agreed to have part of their salaries put aside over the course of the season into a fund that could return to the owners if salaries exceeded revenues.
And when the first escrow deductions were 12 percent of player salaries, it made the players association look even more idiotic for agreeing to include this in the CBA.
But lo and behold, revenues are higher than anticipated, and as a result the escrow payments are going down, in this case, only 4 % was the latest deduction, and projections suggest that at season's end the players will get all that escrow money back for this season, plus interest.
Yeah, the players were really stupid for agreeing to escrow, weren't they?
As long as revenues increase each season, the lower the escrow payments and the continued possibility of the players getting their money back at season's end.
And since the NHL appears to be working very hard to pump up their popularity, that means revenues could continue to increase over the next six years. Even modest gains over projections for each season will blunt the affects of escrow.
- You can't legislate against stupidity.
Remember how the salary cap was supposed to prevent general managers from making bad signings?
As this summer clearly indicated, you can't legislate against stupidity, in this case general manager stupidity.
Hence the reason, for example, Nikolai Khabibulin is pulling in over $6.7 million per season over the next four years with Chicago, or Alexei Zhamnov bringing in $4.1 million per season in Boston, or Sergei Gonchar's $3.5 million in Pittsburgh.
Think this is just a one-year trend, that general managers will become smarter as the CBA progresses?
Some will. Some already were. But some, bless their hearts, never will. And that only goes for those already sitting as general managers. We'll find the same trend amongst those to be hired in the future.
- Short term contracts for older veterans.
As we've seen with Dave Andreychuk in Tampa Bay and Vladimir Malakhov and Alexander Mogilny in New Jersey, it can really make life difficult for a general manager to sign veteran players to long-term (two or more seasons) contracts only to find that they're no longer capable of playing up to expectations as in the past.
That creates the awkward scenario of trying to either waive the veteran or forcing them into retirement in order to free themselves from their contracts.
Under the old CBA, this wouldn't have been a big deal. You absorbed the contract or bought it out or tried to trade that player to another team and "ate" a portion of their salary just to get rid of them. No worries then, because there was no salary cap for that salary to be counted against.
Different story this time around.
As players get closer to their mid-thirties, expect to see general managers paying closer attention to these veterans for any sign that their play may be dropping off.
That'll spur them to either dump those players in the off-season or only sign them to inexpensive, one-year deals that will be easy to get out of if the player is no longer capable of contributing as expected.
- The more some things change the more they stay the same.
Some media folks are pointing out that the new CBA leaves GMs few options for upgrading struggling rosters, leading to fewer trades in the first half of the season and more coach firings.
We rarely saw a lot of trade activity in the first half of the season. Instead, we also saw movement - and trade speculation - increase significantly in the second half of the season leading up to the trade deadline. Just like this season.
Trust me on this, I've been following trades and rumours since 1998 and that trend has never changed.
Indeed, this season saw two "name" players in Joe Thornton and Sergei Fedorov dealt early in the season, something that in my recollection is a rarity.
As for coach firings, let's take a good look at the latest two: Steve Stirling on Long Island and Claude Julien in Montreal.
Stirling was axed because of the mistakes made by his GM, Mike Milbury. He built this club, including saddling the team with Alexei Yashin's ten year, $90 million contract, which was virtually unmoveable even under the old CBA.
Julien was fired because the Canadiens players were no longer listening to him. That was apparent when the club slid from first overall in early November to 10th in the East two months later.
Trades wouldn't have helped either team. Whoever takes over full time on Long Island is going to have a difficult job getting that moribund bunch to improve their game, but it probably can be done with the right coach.
Bob Gainey and Guy Carbonneau seem to have an easier job of it in Montreal, given how well the team responded to their replacing Julien.
I'm battling a bad cold so this won't be my usual long-winded pearls of wit and whimsy. Just the facts, ma'am.
- MESSIER RETIRES. As every hockey fan knows by now, former New York Rangers captain Mark Messier officially announced his retirement earlier this past week and was feted by the Rangers on Thursday night with the retirement of his famous number 11.
Messier spent ten of his 26 year NHL career with the Rangers, and it's safe to say that the first six seasons are best remembered rather than the final four.
Indeed, it's probably best to say that Messier probably should've retired in the late 1990s when it was obvious he could no longer play up to the level that made him a legend.
It's also notable that Messier's best years were those he spent with the Edmonton Oilers, where he won five Stanley Cups and established his reputation as a talented, hardnosed leader.
But no matter. At the end of the day, Rangers fans will remember Messier will be remembered for leading the Rangers to the Stanley Cup in 1994 and ending one of the longest droughts in NHL history.
I would write more about Messier's great career but what can I add that hasn't already been said?
Instead, I'll point to my favourite Messier moment, when he guaranteed to the media that his Rangers, down three games to two to the New Jersey Devils in the 1994 Eastern Conference finals, would rally to win Game Six, then went out and led the way with three goals to tie the series and send it back to MSG, where the Blueshirts clinched it and went on to win the Stanley Cup.
That folks, was leadership personified, perhaps the best example I've ever seen in team sports, not just NHL hockey. He made the statement, inspired his team and went out and led by example.
Perhaps the best tribute that can be made of Messier is that he ranks up there with Gordie Howe as perhaps one of the most complete forwards the game has ever seen.
- MILBURY STEPS DOWN. The New York Islanders made news this past week with the announcement that GM Mike Milbury would be stepping down from that role to become a vice president of team owner Charles Wang's sports properties.
In the midst of Isles fans either rejoicing ("Ding dong, the witch is dead") or simply heaving a huge sigh of relief (Whhh-e-e-e-e--e-e-w-w-w-w-!) came numerous reports on Milbury's dubious legacy.
Nice, but I beat you guys to it, mainstream media, by more than two years!
Here, then is a reprint of a portion of a "What If" article I wrote way back in November 2003 on the moves made by Mad Mike:
"(W)hat might the roster of the NY Islanders look like today if they could've kept most of the draft picks who went on to become stars on other clubs?
Only a handful of teams have drafted better than the Islanders since the early 1990s, and while chalking that up to years of missing the playoffs is a valid point, they've also shown a knack for drafting well regardless of where they were picking.
Were it not for a series of owners who skimped on payroll and some outright dumb trades by GM Mike Milbury, there might be a second dynasty on Long Island today. Consider the following roster:
Goal: Roberto Luongo, Tommy Salo. Defence: Bryan McCabe, Wade Redden, Zdeno Chara and Eric Brewer. Forwards: Travis Green, Zigmund Palffy, JP Dumont, Todd Bertuzzi."
I can also include Olli Jokinen, Tim Connolly and Raffi Torres into the mix at forward, plus the fact that he dealt away Roberto Luongo for the rights to the first overall pick with which he used to draft Rick DiPietro when he could've selected Dany Heatley or Marian Gaborik.
If that's not enough, the 10 year, $90 million contract he negotiated for underachieving Alexei Yashin will seriously hamper the future plans of the new general manager for the next several years.
I think that legacy speaks for itself.
Here's hoping the Islanders hire someone who can not only draft well, which Milbury always could, but unlike Milbury can make shrewd trades and free agent signings. He also must be allowed to make those moves, because if he has to answer to Milbury, rather than Wang, things aren't likely to change on Long Island.
And that would be a shame because Islanders fans have suffered long enough.
GAINEY TAKES OVER AS HABS COACH. Quite a shocker out of Montreal on Saturday, when Canadiens GM Bob Gainey announced he fired head coach Claude Julien and assistant coach Rick Green and was taking over as head coach for the remainder of the season.
Another shocker: he announced hiring away another former Habs great, Guy Carbonneau, away from his job as assistant GM of the Dallas Stars as his associate (not assistant) coach, with the intent of taking over as head coach for next season.
While some critics might see this as a panic move by Gainey, whose club was in the midst of a free fall down the standings for the past two months after sitting in first place overall in the East back in mid-November.
However, in the press conference announcing the move Gainey admitted he'd been in talks with Carbonneau about joining him in Montreal for a week leading up to Saturday's announcement.
That means Gainey, rather than thinking trade to shake up his roster, had been thinking instead of replacing Julien for some time.
Julien was a good, likeable coach, but as was evident over the past two months, he'd lost his players. Being likeable is one thing, but if the players don't respect you, they won't play for you, and that, unfortunately for Julien, was probably the problem.
With Gainey and Carbonneau, two men who've commanded respect for years in the NHL , behind the Habs bench, the Canadiens players are probably going to find that they're going to be held accountable far more than they were under Julien.
This move is also likely to put to rest the trade rumours swirling about the Habs for the past couple of weeks, at least for a while. If the team doesn't show marked improvement in the coming weeks, don't be surprised if they resurface.
As for Gainey's and Carbonneau's coaching abilities, the initial reviews were positive, as in their first game with the two in the coaching roles, the Canadiens had their best game of the season, cruising to a 6-2 victory over the San Jose Sharks on Saturday.
Whether this is a portent of things to come for the Habs or if they'll return to their poor play of the past two months remains to be seen, but the betting here is the Canadiens are going to be a better team the rest of the season than the one they were since mid-November.
-MARCHMENT INJURED. Calgary Flames defenceman Bryan Marchment, who garnered a reputation throughout his career for inflicting serious knee injuries upon opponent, suffered a potentially season-ending knee himself when he missed a check and slammed into the boards in a recent game.
In the words of the immortal John Lennon: "Instant karma's gonna get you!"
- Finally, on a sad note, my condolensces to the family of former NHL player Mark Potvin, who passed away this past week.
ANAHEIM MIGHTY DUCKS: They've been struggling along in year one of GM Brian Burke's tenure, but they're not out of the post-season picture yet. Trading away Sergei Fedorov and Petr Sykora freed up over $5 million in cap space, allowing Burke to call up youngsters Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, and he's not ruling out bringing in more depth as the season progresses. The next twenty games will determine what direction Burke takes for the remainder of the season.
ATLANTA THRASHERS: What a difference a healthy starting goaltender and a superstar scorer can make. Thanks to yeoman work by callup netminder Michael Garnett, the long-awaited return of Kari Lehtonen and the dominant play of forward Ilya Kovalchuk, the once-struggling Thrashers have thrashed their way into a playoff berth. Now comes the hard part, keeping up that momentum to hang onto that berth. If they can do so over the next 20 games, they could be set to make their first post-season appearance.
BOSTON BRUINS: Things just go from bad to worse for the Bruins. Their shocking trade of team captain Joe Thornton to San Jose did little to improve their fortunes, several key players have been sidelined with injuries, and they've made up very little ground in the standings. If the Bruins are to have any hope of making the post-season, they'll need a better team effort over the next 20 games or they can kiss the playoffs goodbye.
BUFFALO SABRES: After surviving a shaky start and the subsequent loss of Ryan Miller, Daniel Briere and JP Dumont to injury, the Sabres are one of the hottest teams in the NHL at the halfway point and could challenge for top spot in their division and the conference. It's been a strong team effort by the speedy young Sabres, one that should continue throughout the second half, buoyed by the return of Miller, which could spell a trade for netminder Martin Biron.
CALGARY FLAMES: Team captain Jarome Iginla may be struggling at times with his scoring touch, and the club still lacks a true number one centre, but the defending Western Conference Champions have found their legs after a stumbling start to lead their division and challenge for first overall in the Conference. Once again credit a strong team game as coached by Darryl Sutter (plus some shrewd players moves as GM) for the Flames continued success, and the emergence of rookie blueliner Dion Phaneuf, who's already establishing himself as a premiere NHL defenceman.
CAROLINA HURRICANES: The surprise club of the first quarter of the season have shown no signs of running out of gas at the halfway mark, leading their division and challenging for the Conference crown. GM Jim Rutherford and head coach Peter Laviolette deserve kudos for building and molding this team, highlighted by the resurgence of Rod Brind'amour and the emergence of forward Eric Staal as a scoring star. At this point, the only thing that can beat the Hurricanes out of the Southeast Division crown is themselves.
CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: This may be the new NHL but it's the same old Blackhawks, mired once again near the bottom of the Western Conference standings. Threats of changes by general manager Dale Tallon last month did nothing to improve their record, and they've now reeled off ten straight losses. There's plenty of good young talent and veterans on this team, and injuries have taken their toll to a degree, but getting this club to mesh into a cohesive unit simply hasn't happened. The playoffs are now all but out of reach for the 'Hawks which could mean changes in the front office, behind the bench, or on the roster.
COLORADO AVALANCHE: The Avs are in an unaccustomed spot, trying to hang onto one of the last playoff spots in the Western Conference. Goaltending and their team defence have been issues this season, spurring rumours that GM Pierre Lacroix might pull another rabbit out of his hat and trade for a big name netminder. Anything's possible, but the salary cap limits Lacroix's bargaining power, and he may be stuck with the goalies he's got the rest of the season and hope they improve.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS: Another season, another mid-season write-off of the playoffs for the Jackets. Too many problems plagued them from the outset, chief of which was the lengthy absence of superstar forward Rick Nash to a knee injury. GM Doug MacLean could be feeling the heat from ownership for yet another miserable season.
DALLAS STARS: Bounced back nicely from their lousy 2003-04 campaign and the lockout to take their usual spot atop their division and challenging for the Conference lead. A big reason for this is the return to form of regulars Mike Modano, Jere Lehtinen, Marty Turco and Sergei Zubov. The Stars have stumbled a bit of late, particularly Turco, but barring the unforeseen should continue to remain in the top four the rest of the way.
DETROIT RED WINGS: So much for being too old and lacking a quality starting netminder. The Wings have continued to remain atop the Western Conference standings, although they're still being challenged by the Stars and Nashville Predators. A strong all -round team game and a good mix of youth and veterans continue to power the Wings, which could once again make them serious Cup contenders heading into the playoffs.
EDMONTON OILERS: After a shaky start, the Oilers have turned it on over the past couple of months, and are now jockeying for one of the lower playoff berths in the Western Conference. Part of the reason is the play of young forwards like Shawn Horcoff, Ales Hemsky and Jarrett Stoll, who're leading the club in scoring. Still, the Oilers lack of a quality starting goaltender could be a real problem for them either down the stretch or into the post-season.
FLORIDA PANTHERS: After a terrible November where victories were scarcer than hen's teeth and threatened to torpedo their season, the Panthers have gone on a bit of a roll of late, thanks in no small part to the leadership of veteran Joe Nieuwendyk. It also doesn't hurt that captain Olli Jokinen has recovered from a nagging early season injury to post up points consistently whilstnetminder Roberto Luongo continues to dazzle. They're only five points out of the playoff picture but they can't afford any letdowns between now and season's end.
LOS ANGELES KINGS: Amazing what good health and young legs can do for a hockey club. For the most part the Kings have avoided the injury bug that in years past hamstrung their efforts. While veterans Luc Robitaille and Jeremy Roenick (prior to his injury) struggled and lost ice time this season, other like Pavol Demitra and Craig Conroy have played very well. But the performance of young players like Alexander Frolov, Mike Cammalleri, Mathieu Garon and Tim Gleason are what's giving the Kings that extra boost this season, one that should put them into the post-season.
MINNESOTA WILD: Who said the trap was dead? Not in Minnesota, where the Wild continue to play their high-tempo defensive game to perfection. Still, their prime weakness remains lack of offensive depth, and while having star forward Marian Gaborik back healthy has helped, it may not be enough to push the Wild into the postseason. Management has identified this as a problem area and could go shopping by the deadline if the Wild are out of the playoff picture by then.
MONTREAL CANADIENS: How the mighty have fallen! A combination of inconsistent goaltending by Jose Theodore and overall sloppy team defence resulted in the Habs tumbling from first overall in the Eastern Conference in early November to tenth overall by mid-January. It's also sparking trade rumours, and if the club doesn't pull itself out of its funk soon, management could be forced into attempting a potentially season-saving trade.
NASHVILLE PREDATORS: Yep, the Predators are for real, for even though they've struggled recently due in no small part to injuries to some key players, they haven't allowed this to seriously hamper their game. The Preds remain among the top teams in the West and if they can overcome this recent tough patch should continue to remain there. They'll need goalie Tomas Vokoun to stay healthy and on top of his game, and for Paul Kariya and Steve Sullivan to continue leading the way.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS: The once-stable Devils have been rocked by problems this season. Underachieving veterans were let go, their head coach quit and management still hasn't found a replacement coach. Yet with the return to action of forward Patrik Elias, the Devils have seemingly rediscovered their game and have found themselves back in playoff contention. If this trend can continue, it could be bad news for some of their rivals who are battling for one of the lower postseason berths in the conference.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS: After an uneven start the Isles are sinking fast in the Eastern Conference. Their high paid captain, Alexei Yashin, has been invisible at times. Their defensive game has been terrible. There've been calls for head coach Steve Stirling's head and questions about the management of Mike Milbury. After spinning their wheels over the last two NHL seasons, the Isles are now sinking back into the malaise that hampered them prior to acquiring Yashin and Michael Peca back in 2001.
NEW YORK RANGERS: The Rangers wobbled a little bit from their strong start to their season, but not enough to put any playoff hopes in jeopardy. Rookie goalie Henrik Lundqvist and forward Peter Prucha continue to lead the youth movement that is a big part of the Blueshirts improvement, and of course the strong play of the rejuvenated Jaromir Jagr has been another major factor in their success. With their recent acquisition of forward Petr Sykora, another key veteran scorer has been added to provide more depth to their potent offensive attack. That could see the Rangers rise to challenge for top spot in the Conference and their division again.
OTTAWA SENATORS: After getting off to the best start in franchise history, in recent weeks the high-flying, high-scoring Senators have shown themselves to be mortal after all. Injuries to key players like Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, Martin Havlat and Wade Redden have blunted the Sens once-potent attack in recent weeks. The good news, however, is that all three will soon be back in action, which is bad news for their opposition in the coming weeks.
PHILADELPHIA FLYERS: Despite a slew of injuries to key players at almost every position, and with the salary cap hindering any attempts to trade for additional depth, the Flyers have charged upward to challenge the Ottawa Senators for the Eastern Conference lead. Credit forwards Peter Forsberg and Simon Gagne and goalie Antero Niittymaki for stepping up, and for their youngsters for doing the same, but the main accolades belong to head coach Ken Hitchcock for getting the most out of a depleted roster.
PHOENIX COYOTES: I gotta admit, I was wrong about Wayne Gretzky not being able to be the kind of coach the Coyotes needed. In fact, the 'Yote until a couple of weeks ago had done very well, moving to within sight of a playoff berth before injuries to some key players, a recent slump in the play of goalie Curtis Joseph and Gretzky's distractions with the death of his mother and following the WJC set them 8 points out of the race. Getting the Coyotes back into the playoff picture will be the toughest test of Gretzky's rookie coaching career.
PITTSBURGH PENGUINS: Apart from the play of rookie sensation Sidney Crosby and the promise of young goalie Marc-Andre Fleury there's been little to cheer about in Steeltown. The club has all but fallen out of playoff contention and there's continued concern that they won't get a gaming license with which to fund the building of a new arena. Thankfully fan support has remained strong, in no small part to "Sid the Kid", but it now appears that GM Craig Patrick will soon be getting ready for his seemingly annual pre-trade deadline salary dump.
ST. LOUIS BLUES: The Blues have been down so long this season that it looks like up to them. The team continues to wallow in the cellar of the Western Conference, lacking quality goaltending, defensive depth and offence. Post-season hopes were written off in December, as the only real concern now is when there will be a new buyer for the club and in which direction that owner will want to take the team ( and hopefully, not out of St. Louis).
SAN JOSE SHARKS: Nothing like trading for a superstar to turn around a moribund season. By late November, the Sharks were wallowing, having lost 7 straight games and in serious danger of falling out of the playoff race early. With the acqusition of Joe Thornton, the Sharks have found their game and are fighting back to respectability. Even with Thornton their odds of making the playoffs are long, but they now have a chance. Even if they don't make it this season, they'll have Thornton to build around for next season, meaning a bright future for the Sharks.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING: The defending Stanley Cup champs look anything but. They're struggling to retain the last playoff spot in the East, hampered by inconsistent goaltending and lack of blueline depth. It's led to the waiving of team captain Dave Andreychuk to free up some payroll to perhaps bring in some depth, but it's still not going to be easy. Some Bolts fans have pointed out their club was in roughly the same mess back in 2003-04 and rallied to win the Cup, but it may be asking too much this time around to expect Lightning to strike twice.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: Despite a rash of injuries to key players, the Leafs have battled through to find themselves esconced in sixth overall in the Eastern Conference. Credit goalie Ed Belfour and d-man Bryan McCabe for their strong performances to date, but also give credit to youngsters like Alexander Steen, Mikael Tellqvuist and Kyle Wellwood. With the salary cap tying the Leafs hands, the kids who normally would be buried in the roster have made the most of the opportunities this season to play, and the Leafs are a better team for it.
VANCOUVER CANUCKS: The Canucks have found themselves sliding in the standings thanks to poor team defence and sloppy goaltending (kinda like another aforementioned Canadian franchise). For the Canucks, however, that's much worse, and if things don't pick up soon, changes of some sort could be in order in the coming weeks.Their fans are begging management to trade for a goaltender and perhaps another defenceman, but the salary cap makes that possibility almost impossible to pull off.
WASHINGTON CAPITALS: They're right where everyone expected them to be, in the basement of the Eastern Conference, but these Caps aren't as bad as many thought they might be. They're obviously bolstered by superstar rookie Alexander Ovechkin, but there's also been some promise shown by other young players in their lineup like Matt Pettinger and Steve Eminger, plus they've had some suprisingly good performances by little-known veterans like Jamie Heward and Bryan Muir. Veteran goalie Olaf Kolzig is talking about staying with the club to be part of their rebuilding process. This season, apart from Ovechkin's dazzling debut, won't be fondly remembered by Caps fans, but it's been a promising one in the team's rebuilding process.
Thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement, NHL teams as of January 1 could now negotiate with their impending Group II (RFA) and III (UFA)free agents in hopes of perhaps re-signing them prior to July 1, the date of eligibility for free agency.
Cory Brolund has posted the latest list of 2006 free agents, so using this as a reference point, here's the first of a two part look at the key free agents of all 30 NHL clubs and which ones could be retained or lost to the UFA market in July.
I reviewed the first 15 NHL clubs on Thursday, today I'll conclude with the remainding 15:
MONTREAL CANADIENS: If the Canadiens current tailspin in the standings ends up costing them a playoff berth GM Bob Gainey could make some major changes in the off-season, and some will involve his free agent players.
Gainey will try to retain Saku Koivu, workhorse Steve Begin, checkers Jan Bulis and Niklas Sundstrom and defenceman Mark Streit. Of this group, the toughest to retain could be Koivu, although the Little Captain says he wants to stay a Hab for life. As for RFAs, Michael Ryder, Chris Higgins, Mike Komisarek, Mike Ribeiro and Alexander Perezhogin should be easily retained.
NASHVILLE PREDATORS: Predators management shouldn't have too much trouble figuring out who to keep and who to cast aside. Fortunately, most of their key players are under contract beyond next season.
The Preds UFA list includes Marek Zidlicky, David Legwand, and Danny Markov, and of the three, Zidlicky could be tough to re-sign as his offensive skills would make him an attractive UFA commodity. Legwand might end up passed over in favour of retaining other players, including RFAs Martin Erat, Dan Hamhuis and Scott Hartnell.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS: GM Lou Lamoriello's nightmares likely won't end after this season, as he'll have some key personnel decisions to make regarding his free agents.
Patrik Elias, Jamie Langenbrunner, Jay Pandolfo and Colin White are up for UFA status, whilst his RFAs include Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez, who are on pace for career years and will likely seek significant raises for next season. If he plays hardball with those two, he could be setting the stage for an early future exit via the UFA market.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS: Seemingly every off-season has the potential for adventure for the Isles when Mike Milbury is the general manager and that's not likely to change this summer with their free agents.
Of his UFAs Milbury will likely be keen to retain Mike York but the jury's out on the disappointing Oleg Kvasha and winger Mark Parrish, who hinted several weeks ago he wouldn't mind signing with the Minnesota Wild in the off-season. RFAs Rick DiPietro, Chris Campoli and Trent Hunter are locks to be retained.
NEW YORK RANGERS: The Rangers used to be renowned for their expensive UFA signings in the past, but given how well the team is playing this season, they may rather focus on retaining their own this summer.
UFAs Martin Rucinsky and Martin Straka should be retained, but it's doubtful Steve Rucchin will be back, while there will be questions about Tom Poti and Ville Nieminen returning. Key RFAs like Jed Ortmayer, Fedor Tyutin and Michal Roszival should be re-signed, but others including Marcel Hossa and Jeff Taffe may not return.
OTTAWA SENATORS: Regardless of whether or not the Sens win the Stanley Cup this season, management will have their hands full retaining some important players.
Among the key UFAs are Zdeno Chara and Wade Redden and RFAs Martin Havlat and Jason Spezza, leading some observers to wonder how the Sens will retain them. That could mean sacrificing lesser free agents on their roster, or perhaps deciding to trade one of their big name free agents to free up enough money to retain the others.
PHILADELPHIA FLYERS: They made headlines with their 2005 off-season free agent signings, but even with the increase in the salary cap for next season they may turn their focus to retaining their 2006 free agents.
Chief among these are UFAs Eric Desjardins and Kim Johnsson and RFAs Simon Gagne, Joni Pitkanen and Antero Nittymaki. Desjardins is getting long in the tooth and hampered by injuries so it's possible he might not return, let go to free up money to re-sign Gagne or perhaps another player from the UFA market.
PHOENIX COYOTES: GM Michael Barnett had a relatively quiet off-season with free agents in 2005 as he had almost all of his roster under contract prior to the settlement of the lockout. The summer of 2006, however, will keep Barnett very busy.
Key UFA Coyotes include Curtis Joseph (who'll likely seek a big raise over the $900K he signed for this season), Paul Mara, Derek Morris, Denis Gauthier and Mike Leclerc. Expect priority to also be given to RFAs Ladislav Nagy and Mike Comrie. Those who could be released include Mike Ricci, Brian Boucher and Geoff Sanderson.
PITTSBURGH PENGUINS: After raising eyebrows with an unprecedented 2005 spending spree, the struggling Pens are likely to look at chopping salary and starting over once again in 2006.
Among those free agents who could be left go include Eric Boguniecki, Ric Jackman, Lyle Odelein and Rico Fata, and don't be surprised if owner/captain Mario Lemieux mulls over retirement if it'll free up the bucks to bring in better players. RFA Ryan Malone could be given his walking papers if he's not traded by the deadline. Mark Recchi will likely remain to continue tutoring Sidney Crosby, and as for Dick Tarnstrom, hme may opt to test the UFA market.
ST. LOUIS BLUES: Having struggled through perhaps the worst season in team history, pressure will be on GM Larry Pleau to commence rebuilding, and that'll include deciding which free agents to retain and which to cast off.
The most notable UFA is Doug Weight but it's a real longshot if he'll return as he'll have a lot of value in this summer's market. Pleau will likely try to retain Dallas Drake, Mike Sillinger, Petr Cajanek, and RFA Christian Backman. It remains to be seen just how active Pleau will be in this summer's UFA market as it depends on what new ownership allows him to spend.
SAN JOSE SHARKS: Given their struggles this season after a promising 2003-04 season, whatever moves GM Doug Wilson makes will depend on how his team performs the rest of the way in 2005-06.
Wilson has a lot of key players to consider retaining, including UFAs Evgeny Nabokov, Vesa Toskala, Alyn McCauley and Scott Thornton, but should re-sign RFA Jonathan Cheechoo, Rob Davison, Jim Fahey and Nikos Dimitrakos
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING: They all but maxed out on the salary cap last summer to retain most of their key free agents but the headache continues into the summer of 2006.
Among the key UFAs are Cory Sarich, John Grahame and Pavel Kubina and RFAs Brad Richards, Ruslan Fedotenko and Dimitri Afanesankov. It's quite possible we could see a repeat of last summer, where the Bolts allowed one key player (Khabibulin) to depart via free agency in order to re-sign others. Richards, Kubina and Sarich are the must signees so that could mean some of the others could be cut loose.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: The salary cap hampered the Leafs in last summer's UFA market, forcing them into signing cheaper players, and even with the anticipated increase next season, they'll have to decide which of their free agents they can afford to retain.
Among the important UFAs are Ed Belfour, Bryan McCabe, Eric Lindros, Jason Allison and Tomas Kaberle, while the key RFAs include youngsters Kyle Wellwood, Matt Stajan, Nik Antropov and Carlo Colaiacovo. The big question could be if they decide to try their luck again with an aging Belfour, shop around next summer for a younger replacement or promote Mikael Tellqvist.
VANCOUVER CANUCKS: Another club that bumped up against the salary cap this season, management may have to look toward cutting elsewhere to retain his key free agents.
Expect GM Dave Nonis to do his best to retain UFAs Ed Jovanovski and Anson Carter and RFAs the Sedin Twins. It's possible one of those who could be cut to retain those four include Mr. Canuck himself, Trevor Linden.
WASHINGTON CAPITALS: Ownership has the money to spend but opted this season to go with their youth and more affordable veterans. That's not likely to change heading into next season even with the increase in the cap.
Every effort will be made to retain longtime Caps Olaf Kolzig and Jeff Halpern but if Brendan Witt hasn't been dealt by the deadline he'll likely depart via free agency. Expect Steve Eminger, Shoane Morrisson and Brian Sutherby to be retained, and it's possible holdout Alexander Semin could see his rights traded.
Thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement, NHL teams as of January 1 could now negotiate with their impending Group II (RFA) and III (UFA)free agents in hopes of perhaps re-signing them prior to July 1, the date of eligibility for free agency.
Cory Brolund has posted the latest list of 2006 free agents, so using this as a reference point, here's the first of a two part look at the key free agents of all 30 NHL clubs and which ones could be retained or lost to the UFA market in July.
I'll start with the first 15 NHL teams today and conclude on Sunday with the remainder.
ANAHEIM: The most notable UFAs include forward Teemu Selanne and defencemen Ruslan Salei and Keith Carney. Selanne leads the Ducks in scoring so he'll likely be retained, especially since he obviously loves playing in Anaheim.
Salei and Carney were both mentioned in trade talks earlier this season but they too could be re-signed if the price is right. If not, at least one of them could end up playing elsewhere. If Petr Sykora isn't traded by the March 9th deadline, he'll be a goner in the UFA market. As for RFAs, expect Joffrey Lupul, Vitali Vishnevsky and Ilya Bryzgalov to be retained.
ATLANTA: The Thrashers could find salary space space tight even with the anticipated rise in the salary cap for next season, making it difficult to retain their key free agents. Still, expect them to do all they can to retain centre Marc Savard and Slava Kozlov, and perhaps even Peter Bondra, who was having a wonderful comeback season until sidelined by an injury.
As for their RFAs, Kari Lehtonen will be re-signed, as should backup Michael Garnett, but this could be the end of the line for 1999 first overall pick Patrik Stefan.
BOSTON: Another major housecleaning could be in order for the struggling Bruins both at the trade deadline and prior to July 1. The Bruins claim they'll try to re-sign Sergei Samsonov, the best of their impending UFA players, but he might be inclined to test the UFA market.
I'd expect the B's to put more of an effort into retaining key RFA players like Patrice Bergeron, Brad Boyes, Nick Boynton, David Tanabe and Hannu Toivonen, who are clearly the future of the franchise, but there may be some question as to whether or not they'll hang onto 2004 Calder winner Andrew Raycroft, whose struggles this season mirror those of his team.
BUFFALO: The highflying Sabres have a large number of key players eligible for UFA status (Maxim Afinogenov, Martin Biron, Daniel Briere, Tim Connolly,Jean-Pierre Dumont, Mike Grier, Jochen Hecht, Toni Lydman,Jay McKee, Teppo Numminen) and RFA status ( Ryan Miller, Brian Campbell, Dmitri Kalinin, Mika Noronen, Ales Kotalik, and Henrik Tallinder).
For Sabres GM Darcy Regier, the headache will be trying to retain as many of these players as possible, which may not be easy given the tight financial constraints imposed by ownership. Barring a lengthy playoff run, Regier could have his work cut out for him.
CALGARY: Flames GM Darryl Sutter isn't going to be as busy as he was last summer when he was trying to re-sign key players like Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff. Of his UFAs, the most notable are Marcus Nilson, Chris Simon and Steve Reinprecht, while his top RFAs consist of Andrew Ference, Kristian Huselius, Chuck Kobesaw and Matt Lombardi.
The key here is how many of these players will want to return to the Flames next season. That desire to remain with the Flames was a key factor in Sutter re-signing his key free agents last summer, and if they continue to have post-season success, it could be a strong incentive again. One thing for sure, it won't be as costly as it was last summer.
CAROLINA: Another team with a tight payroll, their success thus far this season could translate into more money for salaries, particularly if it be translated into post-season success.
Of the UFAs the most notable are Martin Gerber, Matt Cullen, and Craig Adams. Gerber is obviously a no-brainer to be retained by the 'Canes. As for the RFAs, we can expect Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford to make every effort to quickly re-sign Eric Staal, Erik Cole, and Justin Williams.
CHICAGO: They made a lot of news with their UFA signings last summer, but those signings could have an impact on re-signing their key free agents this summer.
Kyle Calder is the notable UFA, as Eric Daze likely won't be re-signed due to his history of back injuries. It'll be their key RFAs - Tyler Arnason, Mark Bell, Pavel Vorobiev, and Tuomo Ruutu - that could be the hardest to re-sign.
COLORADO: It's been a tough season for the Avs as they struggle to hang onto a playoff berth in the West. How well the club does the rest of this season could determine which players GM Pierre Lacroix tries to retain.
The most notable UFAs are Joe Sakic, Rob Blake and David Aebischer. Of these three, Aebischer seems the most likely to go, and Lacroix will try to convince Sakic and Blake to accept pay cuts. As for Lacroix's RFA players, expect Alex Tanguay, John-Michael Liles and Ossi Vaananen to be retained.
COLUMBUS: It's been another rough season for GM Doug MacLean, and if he still has his job by this summer, it's not going to get any easier as he's got a number of key players he must decide on retaining or cutting loose.
Of the UFAs MacLean will probably try to retain David Vyborny, Marc Denis, and Manny Malholtra, and of course he'll re-sign RFAs Nikolai Zherdev and Rostislav Klesla. The RFAs are easy to retain, but of his UFAs, Vyborny and Denis might want to move on to better clubs via the UFA market.
DALLAS: There are no big name RFA players for Stars GM Doug Armstrong to re-sign, which will make it easier for him to focus on re-signing his key UFA players.
Those include goalie Marty Turco, centre Jason Arnott and defenceman Phillipe Boucher. Armstrong has said he'd like to bolster his blueline before the trade deadline but not if it'll interfere with re-signing these three, meaning he'll make every effort to keep them. Of the three, Turco could be the toughest to re-sign, as he stands to be one of the most coveted players in this summer's UFA market.
DETROIT: Another Western Conference club that doesn't have many RFA players to focus on, the sole expection being Jason Williams, and Ken Holland won't face any problems re-signing him as he did Datsyuk and Zetterberg last summer.
The UFAs, however, are another matter. Brendan Shanahan is having a resurgence and will likely want to stay in Motown, but is Chris Chelios worth bringing back another season? Will Steve Yzerman retire? Most importantly, will Niklas Lidstrom stay or will he depart for good to Sweden? It's shaping up to be an interesting off-season for the Wings.
EDMONTON: The Oilers won't be facing many tough decisions in terms of who they'll retain, other than deciding if it's worthwhile to give Mike Peca another chance. Most of their UFA players, except Fernando Pisani and perhaps the popular Georges Laraque, may not be back.
The focus instead will be on RFAs Jarrett Stoll, Ales Hemsky and Shawn Horcoff. The question isn't if they'll be re-signed, but when and for how much?
FLORIDA: All eyes will be on two contract negotiations, those of Roberto Luongo and Olli Jokinen. Luongo's will garner the most attention but he's a restricted free agent, meaning the only way he could leave is to try to force a trade. Jokinen however is due for UFA status but thus far has said he wants to remain with the Panthers.
The key RFAs besides Luongo include Jay Bouwmeester, Nathan Horton, Mike Van Ryn, Branislav Mezei and Stephen Weiss. All should be re-signed, although there may still be some question as to Weiss's future with the club, as Keenan isn't believed keen on him.
LOS ANGELES: The Kings have a number of players eligible for UFA status, but given their performance this season, probably only Eric Belanger, Joe Corvo and Derek Armstrong will be retained. Luc Robitaille is probably headed for retirement, while the Jeremy Roenick experience hasn't played out well in LA.
The Kings notable RFAs include Sean Avery, Mike Cammalleri, Mathieu Garon and Tim Gleason, and all of them should be re-signed. The youth of this club has played a major part this season in the Kings improvement and management will continue to develop them.
MINNESOTA: The Wild have a number of players eligible for UFA status but of these the most likely to be re-signed include Filip Kuba, Marc Chouinard, Willie Mitchell and Randy Robitaille. Both Manny Fernandez and Dwayne Roloson are eligible for UFA status and it'll be interesting to see which one the Wild decide to retain.
The NHL's Christmas trade freeze has now past and the league is now moving into what is traditionally the busiest time of the hockey season for trades.
From New Years Day until the March trade deadline (March 9th this season), trade rumours are going to intensify, which will only be slowed by the two-week Olympic break.
It's during this time of the season that the most trade action take place. Teams that are playoff bound and those looking to bolster their chances of making the post season will be shopping for help, whilst those with no chance of making the playoffs seek to dump salary and rebuild for next season
There was some talk earlier this season that the salary cap might have an adverse affect on trade and rumours, but with the cap anticipated to rise from anywhere between $1.5 million - $4 million next season, the possibility of player movement by March 9th is only going to increase.
So who are the likely candidates to be dealt by the deadline?
Some names (Petr Sykora, Jason Wiemer, Bob Boughner, Sergei Samsonov, Olli Jokinen and Brendan Witt) have been frequently mentioned in trade rumours since October.
Some, like David Tanabe, Andy Delmore and Jamie Lundmark, were moved as predicted. And some for various reasons, like Carolina's Rod Brind'amour, Montreal's Craig Rivet, Vancouver's Dan Cloutier, LA's Valeri Bure, Edmonton's Jason Smith and the aforementioned Jokinen aren't likely to move at all.
Here, then, is sort of an updated list (in no particular order) of players I consider most likely to be moved by the March trade deadline:
Petr Sykora: Ducks GM Brian Burke apparently had a deal in place back in early December but it apparently fell through at the last minute. With over half of his $3 million salary now absorbed by the Ducks, he'll be more affordable to teams seeking offensive depth.
Doug Weight: He's got a no-trade clause and hasn't given any indication he wants to abandon the woeful Blues, but his contract is up after this season and most of his $5.7 million salary will be paid out by the deadline. That'll make him very attractive to other clubs by the deadline, and if the Blues get a good offer, it wouldn't be surprising if he were dealt.
Sergei Samsonov: He's eligible for UFA status next season and not likely to re-sign with the Boston Bruins. His injury history, however, could hamper his trade value but he's still likely to attract considerable interest by the trade deadline.
Brendan Witt: He requested a trade back in August but the Caps haven't been in any hurry to move him, undoubtedly hoping to get as much out of him as possible whilst hoping the trade deadline pushes up his value. This hasn't been one of his better seasons but there's bound to be interest in him by the deadline.
Martin Biron: His trade value has skyrocketed as there's several teams out there desperately seeking improvement in goal. While there's also been some talk of Mika Noronen being dealt, Biron's carrying a bigger contract, which for the cost-conscious Sabres could be the biggest incentive in moving him by the deadline.
Dwayne Roloson: He and Manny Fernandez are eligible for UFA status next summer but I think the Wild will stick with the young Fernandez and put Roloson on the block by the deadline when his value will be highest.
Vaclav Varada: The Senators aren't likely to move him now, given the injuries that have plagued their roster of late, but once the injured return, it wouldn't be surprising if Varada gets shopped. He's struggled under Sens head coach Bryan Murray and should have value for teams seeking checking line grit going into the postseason.
Janne Niinimaa: Islanders GM Mike Milbury isn't happy with the direction of his team this season leading to increased speculation he'll pull the trigger on a deal. While the Isles need help in several areas, Niinimaa has been the one most dogged by trade rumours. He's been scouted earlier this season and already had a blow-up with head coach Steve Stirling.
And now here's a list of players who won't be traded by the deadline:
Roberto Luongo: Unless Panthers GM Mike Keenan gets a mind-blowing offer, which would include a comparable goalie, he's not going to trade Luongo this season.
Olli Jokinen: After playing through a minor injury early this season, Jokinen is now healthy and starting to ramp up his point production. He's a Keenan player so I doubt very much Jokinen will be traded.
Jose Theodore: Canadiens GM Bob Gainey would need a very good reason to move Theodore, and then he'd have to get a good goaltender in return. Sorry, Avs fans, but there is no way Jose is going to Colorado this season.
Scott Gomez: Unless Lou Lamoriello gets an offer of a big scoring centre, he's not going to move Gomez, his first line centre, who's had good chemistry with winger Brian Gionta this season. If Patrik Elias returns to form, he'll likely be reunited with "Gomer".
Tom Poti: He's been plagued by Rangers boo-birds all season but he's the only real puckmoving blueliner the Blueshirts have. They'd need to get one of equal or greater value before moving Poti out.
Patrick Marleau: There was some talk following the Sharks acquisition of Joe Thornton that they would ship out Marleau, but I just don't see that happening. He and Thornton provide the kind of depth at centre that most teams only dream of having.
Todd Bertuzzi and Ed Jovanovski: No way, no how. Big Bert remains an important part of the Vancouver Canucks offensive attack and in recent weeks has given signs of regaining his high-scoring form. Besides, his salary is far too rich for most teams to absorb. As for Jovocop, ask yourself this question: would you trade him if you were the Canucks GM? Didn't think so...
Wade Redden and Zdeno Chara: The Senators will do everything they can to re-sign them both in the off-season, but until then they'll use both blueliners to bolster their run for the Stanley Cup this season.