1. Weighing goaltending options
Almost a year ago, Steve Yzerman made what would be his most important move in his rookie season as Tampa Bay GM -- acquiring veteran netminder Dwayne Roloson from the New York Islanders to shore up what was a leaky goaltending duo of Dan Ellis and Mike Smith. Roloson was a rock and one of the main reasons the Lightning bested Pittsburgh and Washington in the first two rounds of the playoffs before losing in seven games against Boston in the East finals.
Roloson's play earned the 42-year-old a one-year, $3.5 million deal with the Lightning. To hedge his bets, Yzerman brought in veteran backup Mathieu Garon, but the goaltending tandem is in shambles this season. The Lightning rank 28th in goals allowed per game, and Roloson has one win in his past seven starts. He has given up at least four goals 10 times this season.
Garon has been only marginally better, and that puts Yzerman in a bit of a quandary. Does he deal for an established NHLer in the hopes of turning around a season that currently sees the Lightning sitting 13th in the East and seven points out of the playoffs (Evgeni Nabokov of the Islanders just returned from the injured reserve list)? Or does he start looking to the future and try to find a goaltending prospect who might emerge as the team's go-to guy down the road?
Would the Los Angeles Kings deal Jonathan Bernier? What about the Washington Capitals, who have goaltending woes of their own with Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth both on the rocks? Many believe that Braden Holtby may be the Caps' best goaltending prospect. Would GM George McPhee move Neuvirth to open up a spot for Holtby to give him a shot with the big club? With rookie Matt Hackett making an immediate impression in Minnesota, might Chuck Fletcher look to move Josh Harding, whose play has been stellar throughout the season backing up Niklas Backstrom? All things to ponder as the Lightning try to right their listing ship.
2. No goalie woes in St. Louis
Speaking of free-agent signings who have delivered so far, how about St. Louis netminder Brian Elliott?
Blues GM Doug Armstrong had a number of offseason options when it came to finding a backup for starter Jaroslav Halak. He could have signed a veteran NHLer or given the job to prospect Ben Bishop and find someone else to tend goal at the AHL level. Option C turned out to be Elliott, who was signed to a two-way deal after he saw his career go sideways with a bad Ottawa team, then with an even worse Colorado club last season.
But Elliott kept the faith and outdueled Bishop to join the Blues out of camp. When Halak has struggled, Elliott has been lights-out. "He hasn't looked back," Armstrong told ESPN.com.
Elliott is scheduled to start Thursday against the New York Rangers and enters the game with a 12-2-0 record. He leads the NHL in goals-against average (1.45) and save percentage (.947) and is tied for the league lead with four shutouts. He has given up more than two goals in a game just once this season.
"I wouldn't say it's been a whirlwind, but it's definitely now what you would have expected coming into the season," Elliott said in an interview. "I try not to worry too much about the numbers. I've seen both sides of the numbers."
The best players, Elliott suggested, are the ones worrying not about the stats but about the wins.
Under coach Ken Hitchcock, Elliott and Halak have provided a dynamic tandem that has won 11 of 16 games and surged into sixth place in the Western Conference. The Blues are also second in the league and first in the West in goals allowed per game.
"That's a great situation we're in right now," Armstrong said. "We're getting really good goaltending from both guys."
3. But what about St. Louis' ownership?
Multiple sources tell ESPN.com that Chicago businessman Matthew Hulsizer's bid to purchase the St. Louis Blues remains on track, although it's not yet a done deal. (One source familiar with the negotiations said simply "too many lawyers.") Still, look for this to happen early in the new year. When it does get done, don't look for any change at the top for the Blues, from president John Davidson on down to Armstrong and Hitchcock.
It sounds like a no-brainer, especially given the work in recent years in restoring the relationship with the St. Louis fan base, and the work done by Armstrong in building what looks like a playoff squad and Hitchcock in getting the team to play like a contender.
Still, new owners sometimes have new ideas about making an immediate impact. What will be interesting is, when it looked as though Hulsizer was going to take over the Phoenix Coyotes more than a year ago, he made it clear he was hoping to get the deal done in time for the trade deadline so he could give GM Don Maloney the resources he needed to make the team better. It didn't happen, and Maloney was hamstrung in improving the squad, forced to do dollar-in, dollar-out deals, and the Coyotes were swept by Detroit in the first round.
We assume Hulsizer will have the same attitude toward the Blues, who have all the tools to be considered a dark horse come playoff time, and if money is freed up at the trade deadline, it could make for a special spring in St. Louis.
4. Buyer's remorse in Buffalo?
It will be a big night in Buffalo on Friday, as Tim Connolly returns to his longtime NHL home for the first time as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Sadly, his return doesn't come necessarily as a triumphant one but as a reminder of just how much a crapshoot free agency can be.
Connolly has continued his career pattern of promising much but delivering little because of ongoing injury issues. Those injury red flags didn't stop the Leafs from giving Connolly a two-year deal worth $4.75 million annually this past summer. (He had never scored more than 18 goals in any NHL season.) Heading into Friday's tilt, Connolly had played in just 18 games for the Leafs and scored six goals.
But if you think, "Gee, $4.75 million sure doesn't get you much these days," imagine the furrowed brow of Buffalo owner Terry Pegula, who shelled out $4.5 million annually for six years to former Philadelphia Flyers forward Ville Leino. The affable Finn is now injured and out for what coach Lindy Ruff described as "weeks," but how would anyone know the difference? With all due respect to Leino, he has been more than a little underwhelming with just three goals in 29 games.
He's not alone.
Christian Ehrhoff hit the Pegula jackpot with a 10-year, $40 million deal, which included a whopping $10 million this season. The defenseman has just 14 points in 30 games, well off his pace of 50 points last season with the high-flying Vancouver Canucks. We get that offense isn't necessarily an accurate barometer of a defenseman's value, but the Sabres are tied for 16th in goals allowed per game. Even worse, a team envisioned by some to be a threat to knock off Boston at the top of the Northeast Division and maybe challenge for its first Stanley Cup is tied with two other teams in the No. 7-No. 9 spots in the East.
I spoke with Leino not long ago, and he admitted he felt he had to prove himself all over again with the Sabres. He did so when he first came to Philadelphia as part of a salary dump by the Detroit Red Wings and became an integral part of the Flyers' offense during their improbable run to the 2010 Stanley Cup finals. It seems it's going to take a lot longer in Buffalo for Leino to make that transition.
Not every free agent struggles. Tomas Fleischmann is rocking in Florida, and Brad Richards is humming along with the New York Rangers, just to name a few. But Thursday's tilt in Buffalo illustrates exactly what Forrest Gump was talking about when he said free-agent signings were like a box of chocolates.
5. New Jersey's super rookies
By now, everyone knows the New Jersey Devils have a keeper in Adam Larsson, the big Swedish defenseman who was selected with the fourth overall pick in this past June's draft and who has stepped seamlessly into New Jersey's lineup. But what may be more surprising is there is another Devil who is the subject of some well-earned early Calder Trophy discussion: Adam Henrique.
Henrique appeared in one game for the Devils last season but didn't have a particularly strong training camp and began the season with the team's AHL club in Albany. But with Travis Zajac and Jacob Josefson lost to injury, the Devils were desperate for help down the middle. Re-enter Henrique.
With Patrik Elias moving to the middle on the team's top line, Henrique has moved nicely onto the second line and has been a help on the power play (23 points in 27 games, tied for second among all rookies).
"He fixed all the holes in his game," coach Peter DeBoer told ESPN.com this week after the Devils climbed back into the top eight in the Eastern Conference with a shootout win over DeBoer's former team, the Florida Panthers, on Tuesday night. "I thought he handled it [the trip to the minors] as well as you possibly could."
Larsson, meanwhile, leads all NHL rookies in average ice time per game and is third among all rookies in average power-play time per game. DeBoer said both rookies share similar traits that have made them important parts of a Devils team clearly in transition.
Larsson, especially, has had to deal with significant change, as he is living away from his native Sweden for the first time in his life. DeBoer credits Swedish teammates Henrik Tallinder and netminder Johan Hedberg for helping with that transition.
Henrique and Larsson are going to get a lot more notice from Calder Trophy voters as the season wears on.