1. Visor controversy: Why aren't players stepping up?
Anyone who’s spent any time around National Hockey League rinks understands that hockey players are for the most part considerate, thoughtful people. There are many forward-thinking, articulate players who can expound on any number of topics. Which makes it all the more mystifying when we see something as ghastly as Philadelphia Flyers captain Chris Pronger taking a stick to the eye and learn that he will miss two to three weeks with an injury that could have been significantly worse, and those same players continue to debate such an important issue.
Worse, how could a group of professional athletes go back and forth on this same health and safety issue for so long? Players have resisted efforts to impose a mandatory introduction of visors. Remember Bryan Berard? The first overall pick in the 1995 draft and former rookie of the year was clipped by Marian Hossa’s stick on March 11, 2000, in a game between Berard’s Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa. Berard returned to action but with only partial vision in one eye. Who knows what his career might have amounted to had he been wearing a visor?
More than a decade later, the most important person to the Flyers’ dreams of a Stanley Cup was involved in an eerily similar play. The NHL has been clear in its position that it wants all players to wear visors. That position has been articulated for many years. But the league has been rebuffed at every turn. Isn’t it time new NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr and his right-hand man, Mathieu Schneider, drag the union’s membership out of the dark by insisting that language be written into the new collective bargaining agreement next summer to introduce mandatory use of visors?
Isn’t it time that the players, who benefit from all hockey-related revenues, take a proactive role in protecting not only their membership but their livelihood as well? We would go so far as to suggest that the new language be all-encompassing and not allow for grandfathering, as was the case when players were forced to start wearing helmets in the late 1970s. Some in the league chose not to don a hat and could continue to do so, à la Craig MacTavish. It’s only common sense. Sadly, it was just common sense more than a decade ago.
2. Khabibulin's netminding making all the noise
A tip of the old blocker to veteran netminder Nikolai Khabibulin, whose career looked to be in shambles both physically and emotionally after last season. The veteran netminder was hampered by ongoing back issues, then was arrested for extreme drunken driving in the Phoenix area while rehabbing in February 2010.
Khabibulin ultimately was sentenced to 30 days in Arizona’s famous "Tent City" jail. (He was released after spending two weeks there.) At the time, we suggested the league should have stepped in and added its own penalty to Khabibulin for having endangered the lives of not just himself but also anyone who happened to be on the streets at the time he was driving with a blood-alcohol level twice the legal maximum in Arizona. The league chose not to go that route, and those close to Khabibulin told us we had been unfair in our criticism; he paid his penance, and the worst penalty was the shame of having his teenage daughter read about the incident and the fallout. Khabibulin said as much to reporters when he reported for training camp in Edmonton.
Was there a better way for Khabibulin to show he is rehabilitated than by producing the kind of goaltending he had showed in Tampa Bay, where he became the first Russian-trained netminder to win a Stanley Cup in 2004, or in Chicago, where he helped a young Hawks team to a surprise berth in the Western Conference finals in 2009? So far, so good for Khabibulin and the youthful Oilers, who are trying to accelerate a painful rebuild process.
The Bulin Wall was on display again Tuesday, as the Oilers chased Roberto Luongo with three early goals, then hung on for a 3-2 victory over Vancouver with Khabibulin making 35 saves. He is now 3-0-2 with a .963 save percentage and a minuscule 0.97 goals-against average. At age 38, Khabibulin has given himself and the Oilers a new, unexpected boost early on this season.
3. Old-man Arnott still has game
I have to admit that of the many offseason shufflings, we expected the addition of veteran forward Jason Arnott by the St. Louis Blues to have little impact. Arnott, who recently turned 37, has bounced from Nashville, where he was captain, to New Jersey to Washington and now to St. Louis -- all since the 2009-10 season.
Although he had moments in Washington this past spring when his veteran savvy was expected to help the Caps get over the playoff hump, his brief tenure there was ultimately unsatisfying, as the Caps were swept in the second round of the 2011 playoffs. Still, the man who scored the Cup-winning goal with the Devils back in 2000 has fit in nicely with a young St. Louis team that entered this season with high expectations.
Playing mostly with versatile forward Alex Steen, Arnott leads the 4-4 Blues with three goals and four assists. Those numbers have been a pleasant surprise for GM Doug Armstrong. But what hasn’t been a surprise has been the calming influence that Arnott and other veteran additions Jamie Langenbrunner and Kent Huskins have represented for the Blues.
Those veterans “have really stabilized the start of the season that’s had some turbulence to it,” Armstrong told ESPN.com on Wednesday in advance of a big game in Vancouver against the defending Western Conference champs.
Langenbrunner and Arnott weren’t brought in to necessarily take on pivotal offensive roles, Armstrong said, but to augment a top-nine group of forwards whose success is based on scoring by committee. It’s working out nicely for the Blues, who have won two in a row and now embark on a three-game western Canadian road trip.
4. Johnson living up to his billing
It’s not unusual to see the pros and cons of big trades shift and evolve over time. For instance, with Phil Kessel scoring goals like a maniac and the Toronto Maple Leafs at the top of the Northeast Division as the regular season heads toward the one-month mark, the deal with Boston that cost the Leafs two first-round picks and a second-rounder looks at least a little less dubious.
Last season, at least early on, it looked as though the Blues had skinned Colorado in the blockbuster deal that saw former No. 1 overall pick defenseman Erik Johnson and two-way forward Jay McClement dealt to Colorado in exchange for big winger Chris Stewart and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk.
The Avs also received a first-round pick while sending a second-round pick back to the Blues. But with Stewart tearing it up as a Blue, scoring 15 times in 26 games for his second straight 28-goal campaign while the Avs were sinking like a stone to the bottom of the NHL standings, this deal looked pretty lopsided.
Early this season, though, you’d be hard-pressed to find any regrets on either side of the deal.
Stewart has only two goals thus far, but Armstrong said the winger is being asked to turn in a more complete game, and that may mean a slight downturn in goal production, a decline that will be worth it if the Blues become a better overall team. Shattenkirk, who led all rookie defensemen with 43 points last season, has three points this season and has terrific upside.
The big righting of the scales on this deal has been in Colorado, where Johnson has been a key component of an Avs team that has surprised most observers by getting off to a 6-2 start. Johnson is leading all Avs with an average of 23:26 in ice time every night, playing mostly with veteran shutdown defender Jan Hejda. Johnson has five assists in eight games, and although he is minus-6, he seems more comfortable in his role as the Avs’ go-to guy on the blue line, where he is called on in all key situations of the game.
“That’s how we imagined him when we acquired him,” GM Greg Sherman told ESPN.com this week.
We spoke to a leaner Johnson before training camp, and he said he was dedicated to being quicker this season. Sherman said the 6-foot-4 defenseman’s preparation has been “outstanding."
Now all we need is a Blues-Avs playoff series to really bring this debate into focus.
5. Risk and reward of trades
Another trade that will get more than a few good, hard looks as the season goes on -- and beyond -- will be the Florida Panthers’ dealing of onetime 31-goal man David Booth to Vancouver for veteran forwards Marco Sturm and Mikael Samuelsson. As with most trades, there’s a significant amount of risk for both teams and similarly significant potential upside. In the end, though, the old chestnut is that the team that ends up with the best player is ultimately the team that wins.
The trade is a lot more difficult to discern in this situation: First of all, there seems to be little debate that the Booth acquired by the Canucks is a vastly different player than the one who scored 31 times in 2008-09. That, of course, was before Booth was decimated by a blindside hit courtesy of Mike Richards, then with Philadelphia.
Last season, his first full season after the hit that cost Booth a certain spot on the 2010 U.S. Olympic team, Booth’s goal production dropped to 23, and he was a minus-31. He was without a goal and was minus-6 in six games this season with the Panthers. Booth had three shots and no points in his debut with Vancouver on Tuesday a 3-2 loss to Edmonton.
Florida GM Dale Tallon, in the midst of a monster makeover of the moribund Panthers, didn’t think he had enough NHL talent on his lineup and so decided Booth was expendable. Booth is owed an annual salary of $4.25 million for three more years after this season, and that’s where it gets dicey for the Canucks.
If Booth gets back to the 30-goal level -- and playing with talent like Ryan Kesler, etc., who’s to say he won’t? -- the risk will have been worth it to the Cup-hopeful Canucks. But if he can’t -- and recent history suggests it will be a major coup if he does get back to that level -- the Canucks will find themselves with yet another burdensome contract courtesy of the Panthers for the foreseeable future.
The issue with Booth is that he is a goal scorer. He doesn’t kill penalties, and he’s not likely to evolve into a top setup man. If he can’t score, he'll join defenseman Keith Ballard, who was in and out of the Canucks' lineup last season, as players who could stifle the team’s evolution. Ballard also has three more years after this season at a $4.2 million cap hit. That’s a lot of money committed to two guys whose long-term usefulness is in question.
As for the Panthers, Sturm and Samuelsson can add some offense and, in Sturm’s case, play a variety of roles up front. But their chief value is that they'll disappear from the Panthers’ books as unrestricted free agents at the end of the season. With a handful of key prospects like Jonathan Huberdeau, Nick Bjugstad, among others who are expected to challenge for roster spots, that’s not a bad thing.