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5 Things: Immunity for goalies, skipping the minors and a return to Pittsburgh

11/17/2011

1. Protecting the goalies

Among the many inconsistencies in the NHL rule book -- like a hand pass in your own zone but not anywhere else on the ice -- the treatment of goaltenders remains one of the most befuddling. We understand the Buffalo Sabres blew a collective gasket when former Vezina Trophy winner Ryan Miller was crushed by a charging Milan Lucic of the Boston Bruins (not that the Sabres did anything other than whine about it after the fact). But what gives Miller or any other netminder the right to stray far from his net without fear of repercussions? The rulebook says it’s so, yes, but that doesn’t make it right. Miller’s teammate Nathan Gerbe is 5-foot-5. He doesn’t get any special dispensation when he’s chasing down the puck against 6-foot-9 Zdeno Chara.

But he does have to keep his head up. Or he should. We agree that the blue paint that signifies the goaltender's crease should be a safe haven and players venture into it at their own peril and should be penalized for making contact with a netminder, however minor. In the same way the NFL protects its quarterbacks more vigorously when they’re in the pocket, the same can be said about the NHL’s preservation of goaltenders and their unique talents in their crease. But when that safe zone is vacated, why does that cloak of immunity continue to protect netminders, who often act as third defensemen and defuse offensive chances for the opposing team?

In a league that is constantly looking at ways of generating more offense, the NHL should look at taking out the trapezoid behind the net that denotes where goalies may play the puck behind the end red line and open up the entire ice to them. Play the puck where you want, when you want. But be warned, wherever you go, you will be subject to the same rules as other players. If you’re the victim of a high stick or a crosscheck or a charge, then the call will be made. If you don’t want to risk that as a netminder, stay in your house. Seems pretty simple, no?

2. Straight to the majors

The route to success if you’re a Nashville Predator has been pretty clearly defined over the years. Get drafted. Get out a map and highlight “Milwaukee” and pack your bags. The Predators have been the poster boys for patience when it comes to developing young talent at the minor-league level. It is the only way to survive, let alone succeed when you’re not a big-money team. And almost without fail -- David Legwand back in the team’s infancy is one exception to the rule -- Predator prospects have spent some time in Milwaukee with their American Hockey League affiliate.

It’s been a rite of passage whether the stay has been long or short. Pekka Rinne, he of the sparkling new seven-year, $49 million contract, spent a season there after he was beaten out for the backup job by Dan Ellis. Didn’t hurt the Vezina Trophy finalist from last season one bit. All of which makes the ascension of rookie Craig Smith more than a little outside the Predator box. The 98th overall pick in the 2009 entry draft, Smith was coaxed out of the successful University of Wisconsin program last offseason.

The Predators felt he was one of those mature collegians that could make the jump to the pros, especially when Steve Sullivan, Matthew Lombardi and Marcel Goc, among others, left in the offseason.

Conversely, Smith knew there might be an opening for him if he could put in the work. At the time, head coach Barry Trotz told Smith the Madison, Wis., native would play in the NHL this season. “I just didn’t know if it would be two, 22, 62 or 82 games,” Trotz told ESPN.com this week.

Given that Smith is tied for best among rookies with 14 points on seven goals and seven assists, it looks like 82 might be a good bet. Smith lit it up at rookie camp -- he was one of the most dominant Predator rookies ever at the team’s annual rookie tournament, GM David Poile said. The fact Smith was selected to and played well at last year’s World Championships was also a factor in Smith’s bypassing a trip to Milwaukee.

“He came from a really good hockey school with a good coach in Mike Eaves. He was pro-ready,” Poile said.

With the recent injury to top point producer David Legwand, Trotz has relied on Smith even more heavily, using him with Colin Wilson and Patric Hornqvist.

“I use him like any regular player. I’m not coddling him,” Trotz said.

Sometimes he’ll try and find a better matchup for him when at home, and if the matchup isn’t to his liking on the road, sometimes Trotz will match Smith’s line with his top defensive pairing of Ryan Suter and Shea Weber.

All in all, a pretty good start, even if Smith has no idea where Milwaukee is.

3. Coming full circle

Sometimes a hockey player’s career is a series of jagged lines; other times it’s a straight shot, and others still find the arc of their hockey lives taking on the comforting curvature of a circle.

It is so with Richard Park, who finds himself back in Pittsburgh 17 years after the Seoul, South Korea, native was selected by the Pens with the 50th overall pick in the 1994 entry draft.

Park played 58 regular-season games for the Pens before moving on to play for Anaheim, Philadelphia, Minnesota, Vancouver and the New York Islanders. There were stints along the way in the American Hockey League, International Hockey League (which no longer exists), a nine-game run with Malmo of the Swedish Elite League and two stints in Switzerland, where the 35-year-old played last year.

In all his time in the NHL, Park never scored more than 14 goals in a season. But there was something comforting about his return to the franchise that drafted him after all this time. No one, including Park, knew exactly how this was going to turn out.

So far, though, Park’s circle isn’t yet complete as he has appeared in 16 games for the Pens this season and done just about everything asked of him by head coach Dan Bylsma.

“I don’t think surprised is what we are,” Bylsma said. “He’s a hard-working, smart, intelligent player. Diligent in the way he plays the game both from his work ethic and the smarts that he plays with.

"Yes, he took a year off and went to Europe, but after talking to him this summer I was pretty confident he was going to come in ready to go and in shape and ready to make a difference in the way that he plays,” he said.

The coach acknowledged that he wasn’t sure how Park’s return to the NHL and to the Pens would work out.

“It wasn’t necessarily set in stone. There was a battle there and there was some competition and he’s been able to come in and add in the faceoff circle, add in the penalty kill. He’s been able to play up and down our lineup in different spots mostly center but a little bit of wing. He’s been on the power play,” Bylsma said. “It’s been a nice addition. I’m not sure a surprise addition, but a nice addition to our lineup.”

Park isn’t in the reflection business just yet, but he is certainly at ease being back where his NHL career began.

“Not only in this game, but I think as you get older you just learn to live day by day and really enjoy that day because at the end of the day, that’s all you really have control over,” Park told ESPN.com.

“You can’t change the past; you can’t predict the future. No point in celebrating or sulking whatever you may be doing of the two. That kind of holds true with the mood of the team here. Everyone kind of knows what the big picture is here, and we’re just painting the picture,” he said.

4. Good times for Richards the Ranger

You might imagine the New York Rangers’ league-best seven-game winning streak is the product of some sort of magical switch being thrown -- or the simple inclusion of super pest Sean Avery into the lineup -- but Brad Richards has a different take. Although the Rangers didn’t look completely right during the start of the season when they opened in Europe and then went to Western Canada, Richards said head coach John Tortorella kept hammering the team about the details of the game, as he has since he got to the NHL. Through that rough patch, it wasn’t the work ethic but rather the team’s offensive talents not being on, Richards said.

The small details, like blocking shots, etc., were always there and that helped them turn the corner once they got home. Over this stretch, the Rangers have outscored opponents 27-11. Even with the win streak, Richards said this team hasn’t reached its potential.

“I don’t think we’re firing on all cylinders but I don’t want to sound stupid,” he told ESPN.com this week.

As for his own evolution as a Ranger, Richards said he knew it was going to take time after signing a nine-year deal worth $60 million in early July. And though much was made of Richards’ ability to get Marian Gaborik going, Richards has bounced around with different wingers.

Even though he’s recorded six goals and seven assists, including two game-winners, Richards figures he, like the Rangers, can take it to the next level.

“I’d like my game to be better, for sure,” he said.

5. Feeling special

Do we make too much of special teams play? Maybe. But we know if you’re proficient on special teams, your chances of making the playoffs go up exponentially. Last season, for instance, the top five power play and top five penalty-killing teams all made the playoffs. But what if you stink? Well, that’s a whole other proposition. Last season, of the bottom five teams on the power play, only Nashville at No. 26 qualified for the postseason.

On the penalty-killing side of the ledger, only Phoenix, also 26th, made it into the postseason tournament.

This season the bottom five teams on the penalty kill are Toronto, Columbus, San Jose, Colorado and Chicago. Strangely, three of those teams, Chicago, San Jose and Toronto, currently occupy playoff spots.

On the power play, the last five teams are St. Louis, Carolina, Columbus, New Jersey and Minnesota. Again, three of those teams, New Jersey, Minnesota and St. Louis (the Blues are tied in points) are in a playoff spot.

Our guess is that if any of these teams ends up in the bottom five of either special teams category at the end of the season, they can kiss the playoffs goodbye.