As we rush into the second quarter of this no-longer-young NHL season, a number of burning questions present themselves. Well, five, to be exact:
1. What will happen to the big boys: Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and Zach Parise?
No three players will dominate discussion of player movement between now and the Feb. 27 trade deadline the way these three franchise players will. Suter and Weber, of course, represent the final two players of the Nashville Predators' triangle of hope. (That's our term, not GM David Poile's, by the way.)
Poile moved decisively earlier this season to lock up the third member, netminder Pekka Rinne, and signed him to a seven-year, $49 million deal. Ownership has given Poile leave to pursue signing his two big defensemen at market value, which means around $7 million or so for Suter and closer to $8 million for Weber, depending on term.
Complicating an already complicated issue is Suter can become an unrestricted free agent July 1, while Weber, who went to arbitration at the club's behest this past summer, again will be a restricted free agent. Poile recently met with Suter's people but told ESPN.com this week there's no news on a new deal.
The issue for Poile is he would be loath to watch Suter walk away without getting anything in return on July 1, especially after watching Dan Hamhuis go that route a couple of years back. That could mean Suter will be in play before the deadline if no deal is in the offing.
The same issue exists for the New Jersey Devils and franchise forward Parise, who will also be an unrestricted free agent in July if he doesn't re-up with the Devils.
Technically, Parise cannot sign a deal until Jan. 1, but president and GM Lou Lamoriello should have a pretty good idea in early January whether he wants to stay or not. If the answer is no, Lamoriello has to decide whether to move a player who would yield a veritable king's ransom on the trade market. Worth noting is that Parise does not have a no-trade or no-movement clause, so he can be dealt with as Lamoriello sees fit.
The fates of these three players will have a major impact on their respective clubs, those clubs' futures and other teams that may covet these players. Our guess? Suter signs, but Parise does not.
2. Since the start of training camp, has there been a bigger ongoing story than the work of the new discipline czar Brendan Shanahan?
In a few short months, Shanahan has taken the NHL's disciplinary process out of the dark ages by posting informative videos after most fines and suspensions. French versions of Shanahan's renderings are also available. Further, Shanahan has come out to explain on occasion why incidents did not merit supplemental discipline in the view of the league's department of player safety.
The league's player-assistance fund has grown significantly as a result, up from $680,639 in fines and forfeited salary through Nov. 28 last season to just shy of $1 million this season. Not long ago, Shanahan said the number of reported concussions this season was down 50 percent compared to a year ago. That's a pretty small sample, and Shanahan acknowledged that, but it would seem to suggest the process of getting players to stop taking one another's heads off is working.
We have applauded Shanahan's work for the most part. The recent three-game suspension handed to Montreal's Max Pacioretty was among his most difficult, as Shanahan acknowledged that Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang had entered a dangerous area crossing the blue line with his head down. Still, the principal point of contact by Pacioretty was the head, and that was good enough for a three-game ban.
The decision created more than your usual buzz given that Pacioretty avoided what could have been a career-ending injury last season when Boston captain Zdeno Chara rode the Montreal forward into a stanchion at the Bell Centre. Chara was not subject to supplemental discipline (although the Montreal police saw fit to investigate the incident. Huh?), and the league moved to install safer, curved apparatuses in NHL rinks to lessen the risk of similar incidents.
So, as the second quarter moves along, the question is whether Shanahan's voice is being heard. Or, more to the point, are lessons being learned? For us, the issue is relatively simple. Do you want to get rid of blows to the head? Nod your head if you think "yes," and if so, we'd like to see Shanahan wield a heavier hand. For instance, the recent cheap shot delivered by Andre Deveaux of the New York Rangers on Florida's Tomas Fleischmann easily could have yielded a seven- or 10-game suspension given the cowardly nature of the blindside hit to the head. Deveaux received three.
3. At what point does Sidney Crosby's name become part of the Hart Trophy discussion?
On the night Sidney Crosby returned to action on Nov. 21 and delivered a virtuoso four-point performance in his first game since Jan. 5, it was almost said in jest. How long until he's hot on the tail of Phil Kessel and the Sedin twins at the top of the scoring chart? Ha, ha. Well, Crosby has collected 11 points in his first five games back.
So, let's ask again, at what point does Crosby insinuate himself into the NHL scoring race? Well, if he assumed a pace similar to last season, when he averaged 1.6 points per game over the first 41 games, he would be around the 75-point mark after the next 41 games. That would more than put Crosby in the hunt, assuming the Art Ross Trophy will be awarded to a player somewhere in the 110-point range. In short, you can expect to see Crosby's name in the top 10 within this quarter.
4. Where are players like Ovechkin, Parise, Kovalchuk or Getzlaf on the NHL score sheets?
At least Crosby had an excuse for not showing up on the score
sheets for the first quarter.
A glance down -- and we do mean down -- the NHL scoring list shows a number of top-end players who aren't exactly producing top-end performances.
Alex Ovechkin tops the list in part because the Washington Capitals' dramatic fall in the past month cost coach Bruce Boudreau his job this week. Ovechkin's ice time is down, and his points total (18 points in 23 games and just one goal at home) is pedestrian. In Detroit, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg have started to come around, but they have just 11 goals between them.
Ryan Getzlaf has just four goals and is a minus-13 in Anaheim, where the Ducks are floundering. Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk have combined for just 10 goals for New Jersey, while Eric Staal has five goals and is a minus-17 in Carolina, where a slow start cost Paul Maurice his coaching job.
The slow starts aren't limited to skaters. Roberto Luongo has been watching as Cory Schneider has helped the Canucks climb up the Western Conference standings after a slow start following last season's disappointing loss to Boston in the Stanley Cup finals. One wonders how this stint on the bench will impact the mental state of a netminder who has never been known as a tower of power emotionally.
Dwayne Roloson, one of the compelling stories last season as he helped lead Tampa Bay to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, has struggled mightily with a 3.46 goals-against average and .887 save percentage.
So, who will rebound? We know Roloson is made of pretty stern stuff and should turn things around. But having watched Ovechkin of late, we're less confident we'll see a return to form for the two-time Hart Trophy winner. As for Luongo? That's a pretty expensive bench-door opener for the Canucks, but this may be Schneider's time.
5. Which teams are the interlopers or legitimate tenants?
With a nod to the "Occupy" compounds around North America, there were a great number of unusual squads that "occupied" spots in the top eight of both conferences through the first quarter.
We've seen some, Edmonton and Colorado among them, fall back beneath the playoff barrier, but as of Wednesday morning, three Western Conference teams that failed to make the playoffs last season maintained residency within the top eight (Minnesota, Dallas and St. Louis). Throw in Phoenix if you like given that almost no one (us included) figured it for a playoff team. In the East, two more teams, Toronto and Florida, were comfortably in the top eight after long playoff absences.
But the second quarter will be a true test of where these teams are.
So, who stays and who goes? By the time the third quarter rolls around, we wouldn't be surprised to see the Stars falling back, along with the Leafs. But we have been true believers in the reversal of fortunes in Minnesota and Florida from the start; rookie coaches Mike Yeo (Wild) and Kevin Dineen (Panthers) deserve kudos for defying the skeptics. Likewise, we believed St. Louis was playoff-bound from the outset; we just didn't know it would be Ken Hitchcock working his magic behind the Blues' bench.