1. Time not on Kings' side
My good friend and colleague Chris Johnston, hockey writer for The Canadian Press and analyst for the NHL Network, joined our podcast this week and joked that he wakes up every day wondering how that phantom point awarded to the Los Angeles Kings a few weeks ago will influence the playoff situation. (A glitch in the Staples Center clock caused it to stop long enough to allow the Kings to score and beat Columbus at the last second.) I wonder if league officials wake up in a cold sweat thinking about that, too. As of Thursday morning, that nefarious point looms large, as the Kings occupy eighth place in the Western Conference with 66 points. Right behind them -- you guessed it, just one point behind -- are the Calgary Flames, with the Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars just two points back of the Kings. It no longer appears to be a question of whether that extra point will be a factor, but rather just how significant the damage will be. Yes, the Kings could have gone on to win in overtime or in a shootout, but they also could have fallen short, and the league, to its credit, acknowledged that the regulation win shouldn’t have happened. It is an error that could mean a swing in millions of dollars in playoff revenues if the Kings do happen to sneak into the postseason by one point, denying Calgary, Colorado, Dallas or Anaheim. The point also will come to bear not just in actual points but in the tiebreaking process, which rewards teams with the most regulation or overtime victories. As of Thursday, the Kings’ 23 regulation or overtime wins matched the Avs’ total and was two short of Calgary's and three short of Dallas'. Given how poorly the Kings are playing, this might be a moot point by mid-April, but like our friend Chris Johnston, we’re going to be keeping a close eye on how this potentially embarrassing situation unfolds.
2. Coyotes able to step it up
At the All-Star Game in Ottawa, we were apparently the only ones up in arms that the Phoenix Coyotes were being held to a different trade-deadline standard, as they continue to labor under the stewardship of the NHL. A year ago, for instance, the Coyotes had to balance the books in terms of player movement, which resulted in deals like the one that saw them acquire Michal Rozsival for Wojtek Wolski in January 2011, then had to give up another offensive piece in Scottie Upshall to acquire Rostislav Klesla at the deadline. In short, dollar in, dollar out, which makes it difficult to improve your team. But in spite of our sputterings, lo and behold, there was GM Don Maloney not only adding a player with existing salary in the form of Antoine Vermette this week but doing so without shipping out everyday players. The league had to approve the deal, but ostensibly, Vermette’s addition didn’t put the current budget out of whack. It also was believed the asset would continue to benefit the club long-term, even though Vermette is owed $3.75 million for the next three seasons.
The whole thing is still a mess, of course, the idea of a league having to determine whether a team can make itself more competitive, when essentially those giving the OK include the owners of the Calgary Flames, Los Angeles Kings, Colorado Avalanche and any other team that might otherwise benefit from the Coyotes’ stumbling. But good on the NHL for maintaining the competitive integrity of this playoff race by allowing the deal to go through. The Coyotes are playing well, and good teams often improve themselves at the trade deadline. It shouldn’t matter whether they’re owned by the league.
Still, this isn’t a case where the league is trying to spruce up the Yotes for a potential sale. The two issues are mutually exclusive. No one woke up Thursday morning and said, "Oh, my gosh, the Coyotes have Antoine Vermette. Honey, get that $170 million out of the coffee tin; we’re buying the Yotes." Now, just wondering: Which of the 29 other owners subsidizing the beleaguered franchise will hop onto the ice at Jobing.com Arena in June to hoist the Stanley Cup if the Yotes go on an improbable run behind Vermette?
3. Vrbata having a great season
This time of the year, with players swapping teams willy-nilly, always puts us in mind of players who just seem destined to play in one place regardless of where they actually end up. You could argue that Ryan Smyth is that type of player, simply meant to be in Edmonton. You could make the same argument for Radim Vrbata, who is quietly having a breakout season for the Coyotes. Back in the summer of 2008, after scoring 27 goals for Phoenix, Vrbata signed a three-year, $9 million with Tampa. It was a disaster. After 18 miserable games with the Lightning, Vrbata returned (was banished?) to his native Czech Republic. The next summer, he was traded back to Phoenix for David Hale and Todd Fedoruk and promptly scored 24 goals. Facing another encounter with free agency last July 1, Vrbata inked a three-year deal with Coyotes.
After scoring just once in his first nine games this season, he has 30 goals in 60 games, tops among Western Conference players. His 10 game-winning goals are tied for the NHL lead with Johan Franzen of Detroit. Vrbata leads the NHL with 19 road goals and continues to be a go-to guy for coach Dave Tippett, with four shootout goals.
"When I had a chance to come back to Phoenix, I was very thankful for that," Vrbata told ESPN.com a day after he had helped spearhead an improbable comeback win against Los Angeles with two goals and an assist, a game in which the Coyotes trailed 3-0 after the first period.
Vrbata said he considered what had happened to him the first time he was an unrestricted free agent, and even though he might have secured more than the $3 million he’ll be paid annually until the end of the 2013-14 season, the father of a soon-to-be 3-year-old son found it an easy decision to enjoy the grass on this side of the fence.
“I just felt like Phoenix was the best place for me and for my family and for my career,” he said.
Tippett certainly is pleased that Vrbata has found a fit in Phoenix.
“I think he did learn that, and kudos to him for having the smarts to say, 'I want to play as well as I can, and this is a situation where I think I can do that,'” Tippett told ESPN.com. The former Jack Adams Award winner as coach of the year said Vrbata has matured as a quiet leader on a team that is forever being underestimated. "He’s got a great shot, great release," Tippett said. "But the other thing is that it’s at critical times in the game he wants to have an effect on the game."
4. Boudreau's run beating Caps' slide
It would be simple to chart the course of the surging Anaheim Ducks over the past two months juxtaposed against that of the meandering, slumping Washington Capitals and draw the conclusion that the Caps made an egregious error in firing Bruce Boudreau back in late November. Perhaps owner Ted Leonsis and GM George McPhee were too hasty, but the Capitals weren’t performing the way they needed to, so management/ownership made the hard call and replaced Boudreau with longtime Caps favorite Dale Hunter. That Boudreau was almost immediately scooped up by an Anaheim team that had been struggling even more mightily than the Caps put Boudreau back in the spotlight and provided an immediate forum for answering the hard question: Had Boudreau lost it? It was a question that even Boudreau was asking himself.
“I guess if something happens that’s negative like in Washington, you always begin to doubt yourself,” Boudreau told ESPN.com as the Ducks prepared to conclude their season-high eight-game road trip in Carolina. The answer to that question, as it turns out, is a resounding "No." The Ducks have secured points in 19 of their past 22 games and have closed the gap on a playoff spot from 20 points out to their current six-point deficit since Jan. 6.
"It’s nice to see 20 guys bond together and realize they can win, and that makes you feel good," Boudreau said. "It feels good to be behind the bench when you’re winning." The Ducks still face a mighty uphill climb to reach the postseason. They have five teams to jump over to get to a spot in the big dance, but in some ways, their strong play has made them masters of their own destiny -- keep winning and they’re in.
"It looks like we’re close, but we’re still a long way away,” Boudreau said. “But these guys are loose. They know what they’re up against.” The inverse could be said of the Caps, who are just two points out of both eighth place and the top spot in the Southeast Division, but around whom an aura of defeat hangs, as they've lost three straight and five of six. The goaltending has gone sideways (Tomas Vokoun was yanked in his past two starts after giving up six goals on 18 shots), and questions linger about the team’s character and whether Hunter has the wherewithal to get this talented squad turned around.
5. Karlsson has Norris chops
In a few weeks, the ballots will go out to the Professional Hockey Writers Association for many of the NHL’s top awards. There are rarely easy picks and always lots of discussion before the votes are cast, which is as it should be. But this year’s Norris Trophy decision promises to severely test voters’ acumen, as Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson is having a season for the ages -- or certainly a season that will rival some of the great offensive contributions by a defenseman in many a year -- a season that will reignite the debate over just what the James Norris Trophy represents.
The exact wording suggests the award should go the defenseman who displays the “greatest all-around ability in the position.” Is that Karlsson? Certainly he is a key component of a surprising Ottawa team that looks like a lock to make the playoffs and is now shockingly challenging Boston for the top spot in the Northeast Division. As of this writing, Karlsson’s 60 points put him a whopping 20 points ahead of Brian Campbell of the Florida Panthers in the point race among rearguards. 20 points. Karlsson’s 47 assists have him tied for second among all NHL players, his 52 takeaways lead all defensemen, and he is ninth overall in scoring. When Mike Green was posting back-to-back 70-point seasons (76 and 73, to be exact) for the Washington Capitals, he was a finalist for the Norris but did not win. Could Karlsson be in the same boat? With Nashville’s twin towers Shea Weber and Ryan Suter both enjoying Norris-worthy seasons and Zdeno Chara another strong candidate, Karlsson’s inclusion as a Norris finalist might come down to a battle against stay-at-home defenseman (and fellow All-Star Game participant) Daniel Girardi of the New York Rangers. Talk about yin and yang. While Karlsson is explosive offensively but more prone to mistakes in his own zone (he is still a respectable plus-15, a marked improvement over last season's minus-30), Girardi leads the NHL in average ice time per game and has been an anchor on a team that leads the Eastern Conference in goals allowed per game and is second in the league in that category. Flashy? Not really, but worthy of Norris Trophy consideration? Definitely. In short, tough times ahead for voters.