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5 Things: Island of goalies, cold, hard(ing) facts and back(strom) in form

11/10/2011

1. Goalies galore causing confusion for Islanders

New York Islanders fans are quick to point out the goaltending isn’t the prime reason the Isles are once again ensconced at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. And we agree -- but only to a point.

Yes, the talented collection of young forwards hasn’t gelled as expected or hoped. Calder Trophy nominee Michael Grabner has been slow off the mark with four goals, and Kyle Okposo has yet to notch a single goal. But for us, this is a team without an identity in large part because the Isles continue to wrestle with the three-headed goalie monster. From training camp, this loomed as a potential distraction, a detractor from the good things that were going on for the Islanders.

Until the team sheds one of the heads, it will continue to stutter step through the season and take yet another step toward irrelevance. Take Al Montoya, the young netminder who played so well down the stretch last season for the Islanders and earned a one-way, one-year deal for his efforts: Montoya was rewarded with the first three starts of the season and went 2-1 and allowed just four goals.

After a win by Evgeni Nabokov, Montoya lost 4-1 to Tampa on Oct. 20 and then disappeared. In the seven games since Montoya’s last start, the Islanders have won one game. We understand the desire to see what veteran netminder Nabokov has got and the practical nature of getting him games so his trade value might be enhanced. But throw in the human albatross, Rick DiPietro, and the goaltending situation is untenable.

DiPietro is 1-1-2 with a 2.67 GAA and .904 save percentage. He is what those numbers suggest, an average goaltender who is prone to injury and who has a contract that extends until the day after forever (actually the end of the 2021 season). Look around the NHL this season and teams have identified their best goalie and ridden him, even if their best goalie at the time happens to be the back-up. It has been so in Minnesota, St. Louis, Tampa, even Buffalo.

The Isles, meanwhile, sputter around trying to find room for three goalies, which is at least one and more likely two too many. Until that gets rectified, don’t expect much more than what we’ve seen from the Isles, which is more of the same, which is to say, more junk.

2. Hard work pays off for Harding

Among the many refreshing stories this season has been the return to not just NHL action but NHL stardom for Minnesota Wild netminder Josh Harding. The Regina, Saskatchewan native missed the last part of the 2009-10 season with a hip injury and then returned to action last season only to blow out his knee in the Wild’s first preseason game.

He acknowledged in an interview this week he had no idea where his NHL career might resume, if at all. Yet the Wild gave him another chance in part because they were impressed with his dedication to rehabilitating from the knee injury. That faith has been rewarded in spades early in this season as Harding has gone 4-0-1 and was named the NHL’s first star of the week. His .965 save percentage is tops in the league and his 1.18 GAA is second. “It was a long road but I’m happy with where I’m at right now,” Harding told ESPN.com. “Definitely I had my doubts.

I wasn’t sure where I’d have to go to get back,” he said, admitting that the American Hockey League and Europe were options he thought he might have to consider. “Now my job is to make sure that they made the right decision,” Harding said. So far, no complaints from GM Chuck Fletcher. He thinks the adversity Harding faced in coming back from two significant injuries suffered in succession, really a battle for his career, has made the 27-year-old mentally stronger. “This is really a remarkable story,” Fletcher told ESPN.com. “There’s been no hesitation in his game.”

Harding was a rare bystander Tuesday, when the Wild blanked Calgary, but it’s hard to imagine he won’t get the call when the Wild take on San Jose Thursday. It has been an interesting start for the Wild, whose power play and special teams play need to be better (the Wild PP was tied for 26th heading into action Wednesday), while the team’s even-strength scoring has been in the top 10 in the NHL. That balanced production from the top two lines and the play of unlikely goaltending hero Harding have given the Wild lots to be optimistic about as they continue on an early but crucial five-game road trip. As for any friction between Harding and the team’s perennial starter Niklas Backstrom, Fletcher said that’s a non-issue. “Both of our goalies are uniformly liked and respected by their teammates,” he said.

3. Backstrom back to fine form

The Washington Capitals continue to be an interesting study what with the continued lack of Alexander Ovechkin-like production from the Caps’ captain. But one player who seems to have bounced back from an offseason production-wise is top center Nicklas Backstrom. After signing a whopper 10-year contract extension, Backstrom saw his point totals drop from 101 in 2009-10 to 65 last season. The playoffs were likewise a disappointment for the slick center as he seemed to be pressing too hard and accomplished little, failing to score and adding just two assists in nine postseason games.

We spoke with Backstrom during training camp and he acknowledged he had something to prove this season. So far, so good as he leads the Caps with 19 points in 13 games. Head coach Bruce Boudreau said he’s never had an issue with Backstrom’s effort and thinks people get too wrapped up in the stats as a true measure of a player’s worth. “He’s a good player. Last year, things didn’t go in for him,” Boudreau told us this week. And they didn’t go in for his linemates, either. That said, the Caps power play is cooking (they rank third in the NHL), which is good news given the power outage the unit has suffered at times over the past couple of years. Backstrom is a huge part of that success as he essentially quarterbacks the top man-advantage unit.

“He’s the focal point of our power play as he’s always been,” Boudreau said. Now, in classic chicken-egg fashion, you may ask whether the power play is more effective because Backstrom is handling the puck with more maturity and confidence (his 14 assists lead the league), or are Backstrom’s points totals back at a more comfortable level because the power play is working. Certainly Boudreau has adjusted the team’s approach to the power play, but it only works because Backstrom is more like Backstrom.

4. Laraque know all, apparently

Is there a player who has a more self-inflated view of his self-worth than Georges Laraque? After accomplishing next to nothing during his NHL career beyond literally beating opposing players, Laraque has become ubiquitous, pontificating on an endless string of topics -- some related to the game, some not. He has even penned a book about his inspiring life. But what is unappetizing about the book is Laraque’s assertion that many NHL players are taking drugs of various kinds.

Laraque was in a position to know after playing in 695 NHL games. We can't say with 100-percent certainty that the NHL is a 100-percent clean league -- and, at some point, it would be nice to get some clarity on the subject if the players’ association would institute a drug-testing policy that would take all guesswork out of its claim that hockey is the cleanest of the pro sports. Until then, though, what Laraque does by insisting there is a problem and then refusing to name names is to paint all players with the same brush.

We’ve read pandering interviews where Laraque proudly distanced himself from former Major League Baseball star Jose Canseco, who actually admitted he used PEDs and identified other players who also juiced. But not Laraque. No, he holds fast to the ill-defined "code" that precludes him from being honest. Of course, Laraque insisted he never used those performance-enhancers.

We’re all for free speech, Georges. But if he is truly interested in changing the culture, as he insists he is, then he should name names. Tell us who was/is cheating; tell us which players are tainting the game. If Laraque doesn't do at least that, then he should at least tell the league and the union, so they can take action to clean up the mess he insists exists. That’s assuming Laraque knows.

5. The price of Pekka

A lot of debate about whether the Nashville Predators paid too much, not enough or just right when they inked netminder Pekka Rinne to a seven-year, $49-million contract extension. No one disputes Rinne’s skills. He was a Vezina Trophy nominee last year, and his numbers thus far this season suggest he could well be in for another trip to Las Vegas next June for the NHL Awards. But does the deal make sense for the Preds, who hope to sign twin defensive pillars Ryan Suter and Shea Weber to long-term deals as well.

A quick scan of the top 10 goaltenders in terms of dollars paid out this season, suggests that only three, Cam Ward, Marc-Andre Fleury and Tim Thomas, have won Stanley Cups. (Actually Thomas is 11th on the list according to Capgeek.com, but we’re not counting Cristobal Huet who has not won a Cup and is playing in Switzerland). Of the remaining seven top-dollar earners, only Roberto Luongo has taken his team to a Stanley Cup final since the lockout.

The others, Ilya Bryzgalov, Henrik Lundqvist, Ryan Miller, Miikka Kiprusoff, Niklas Backstrom and Martin Brodeur have all failed to deliver meaningful playoff performances on a consistent basis in recent years. Does this preclude the Predators, who have won only one playoff round in franchise history (last spring) from having success with Rinne between the pipes? No. Of course not.

But history suggests paying whopper salaries for top goaltenders is not a proven path to the Promised Land, either.