- Scott Burnside, NHL
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1. Omark's shootout spin
Just asking, but what is worse, the guy who plows straight ahead on a shootout and fires high and wide or into a goalie's pads or the guy who dares convention, spins around and scores the game-winning goal? Well, sadly, if you ask Tampa netminder Dan Ellis or many other high hockey foreheads, it's apparently the latter. Only in hockey, where people always trot out "the code" and "respect" when something appears that is slightly out of the box, can the daring spin-a-rama move by Edmonton rookie Linus Omark that resulted in the game-winning shootout goal over Tampa become a national talking point. I thought this was entertainment, people?
In the aftermath of the game, Ellis immediately carped that the move (for the record Omark did his spin about a mile away from Ellis, although it clearly discombobulated the Lightning netminder) showed a lack of respect. Lack of respect for whom exactly? The fans? We're guessing they liked it. For Ellis? Well, Omark, 23, showed the same amount of respect most shooters have for Ellis, which is to say little given the netminder's bloated 3.23 GAA and pedestrian .876 save percentage.
In Canada, the birthplace of "the code" and "respect," there was condemnation of "the move" and we're told that a number of GMs didn't like it on principle. Wonder if those GMs look out on any empty seats in their respective buildings? Hope not. In a season that will see HBO shine an uncommon light on the game, isn't it time to embrace players like Omark as opposed to worrying about some long-tired hockey gobbledygook?
2. Capitals facing adversity
We agree wholeheartedly with our colleague Pierre LeBrun who suggested in Saturday's blog that perhaps there was a silver lining to the Washington Capitals' recent woes. Better to face this kind of adversity in December or January than in April, especially given how easily things came to the Caps last year during a franchise-best regular season. The Caps seemed incapable of responding to adversity in the playoffs, as they were upset by the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens in the first round. We believe this still to be true, even in the wake of Sunday's 7-0 thrashing at the hands of the New York Rangers.
The Caps are too good a team not to bounce back, even though they are winless in six straight games. The one area that may be giving GM George McPhee pause is his goaltending situation. Perhaps, like the rest of the squad, his young netminders, Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth, are just in a midseason funk. Maybe. But what if they aren't? There is no question that their level of play right now isn't good enough to support a long playoff run. Neuvirth started the season on fire but has not won in almost a month. Varlamov has shown himself to be injury-prone and has lost three straight since returning to action, including allowing all seven goals on just 20 shots in Sunday's whitewash.
McPhee has plenty of time to mull over his options, but one would think either Neuvirth or Varlamov has to put together a string of consistent starts in the coming weeks to negate the possibility that McPhee will be shopping for a veteran netminder to shore up the goaltending situation. Florida Panthers netminder Tomas Vokoun, about to become an unrestricted free agent next summer, immediately comes to mind. Or how about Dwayne Roloson on Long Island?
3. Habs' handling of Subban
Speaking of players daring to show some personality, the Montreal Canadiens' handling of outgoing rookie defenseman P.K. Subban illustrates a fascinating clash of cultures. Head coach Jacques Martin has made bland an art form while GM Pierre Gauthier is positively ghost-like in terms of his profile. Now take Subban, confident (cocky?), honest and available to the media. Now we can only hope that Martin found Subban's play wanting in making him a healthy scratch for three games and that he wasn't trying to modify his personality.
No question Subban makes mistakes. He plays a high-risk, high-reward kind of game. A miscue cost the Canadiens in an overtime loss against Edmonton after which Subban watched the game in place of the more conservative Yannick Weber, who, to his credit, has been rock-solid when given the chance to play for a Montreal team that is among the top defensive clubs in the NHL. Hard to argue with the results of Martin's moves even if we question the motives behind them.
Coincidence or not, the Canadiens were beaten by Detroit in Subban's first game back in the lineup. He was minus-3 in just 17:15 of ice time in Saturday's loss to lowly Toronto. Hmm. Maybe Martin was on to something after all.
Although the personalities are completely different, the Subban benching brought to mind Jordan Staal's rookie year in Pittsburgh. The rookie had just turned 18 and there were some who thought he should have been returned to junior hockey. Staal played modest minutes early in the season and then head coach Michel Therrien made Staal a healthy scratch (just one game, mind you), prompting further criticism of the team's handling of the young player. As it turned out, Therrien and GM Ray Shero knew what they were doing as Staal remained with the club the entire season, finished with 29 goals and was a rookie of the year finalist.
4. Kovalev's complaining
It was interesting listening to Ottawa Senators forward Alexei Kovalev talk about the mountains of disrespect that have been heaped on his undeserving shoulders throughout his career. Made us think of the old cartoon character, Richie Rich, poor little rich boy. Boo hoo. Kovalev, as everyone knows, has the ability to be a game-breaker, a difference-maker. And as anyone who's watched him for more than 10 minutes the last four or five years knows, that ability reveals itself only sporadically.
The Senators' decision to sign him away from Montreal in the summer of 2009, giving him $10 million over two years, may be one of the most significant personnel gaffes this side of Ilya Kovalchuk. Kovalev has split time being injured and playing like he doesn't care. Kovalev believes he's once again being made a scapegoat by embattled head coach Cory Clouston, who bumped him for a short time to the Sens' fourth line. Clouston, who has been unflinching in his assessment of Kovalev's lack of production, would like to see Kovalev work up a sweat doing something other than depositing his check in the bank.
But here's the interesting part of the equation: The Senators do not look at all like a playoff team, sitting seven points out of a playoff spot Monday morning with no games in hand and just three wins in their last 10 games. Even though Kovalev's cap hit of $5 million will be a stumbling block, we're guessing he will draw attention as we near the Feb. 28 trade deadline. The longer the Dallas Stars stay in the playoff mix and thus limiting the chances Brad Richards will be on the market in February, the more attractive the often unattractive Kovalev is going to look. Pittsburgh, where Kovalev once scored 44 goals, will undoubtedly be looking to add some offensive jump to the wings as they have the last three trade deadlines. Los Angeles has cap room and assets and will likewise need more offensive juice to keep up with San Jose, Detroit and Chicago in the West.
For all his personality quirks ("why is everybody always picking on me?" seems to be Kovalev's personal mantra), Kovalev has a knack for delivering in the postseason. In 22 post-lockout playoff games, Kovalev has scored 11 times and added 10 assists. That's not chump change, my friends. Think he might look OK playing alongside Anze Kopitar or Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin come mid-April? We're guessing that some GM is going to answer "yes" to that question.
5. Evolution of Letang
Lots of nostalgia buffs are ready to hand over the Norris Trophy to Mr. Norris Nicklas Lidstrom, as the Red Wings great is having an age-defying season with 22 points in 28 games and averaging 23:48 a night in ice time for the top-ranked Wings. But this year's Norris race is shaping up to be the most interesting one in a long time. Shea Weber and Drew Doughty, players thought to be heir apparent to the defensive hardware, have endured injury and/or slow starts to the season. Meanwhile, players like Dustin Byfuglien in Atlanta, John-Michael Liles in Colorado and Lubomir Visnovsky in Anaheim are making a case for consideration.
But we are most interested in the evolution of Kris Letang in Pittsburgh. With the departure of Sergei Gonchar to Ottawa and the acquisition of Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek in the offseason, one wondered if Letang would get lost in the shuffle. The answer has been an emphatic no. Playing mostly with Brooks Orpik, Letang, 23, has helped fill the void left by Gonchar offensively while impressing with his defensive game as well. As of Monday, Letang was tied for second among defensemen with 26 points. He is averaging 23:01 a night in ice time and the Pens rank a surprising third in the league in goals allowed per game.
After a recent game in which Letang skated more than 26 minutes, he jokingly told GM Ray Shero he could have gone for 40 or more.
"The guy can probably play 40 minutes. He's such an incredible skater," Shero told ESPN.com.
Although not physically imposing, Letang's agility and strength, which allow him to dig out pucks and make smart passes out of the Penguins' zone, have been impressive.
"Most important, he's got great, great hands," Shero said. "He's just a really confident player right now. He's playing an all-around game now. He's really stepped up."