Five things: Bolts' goaltending change, incidental contact, future of Winter Classic

January, 3, 2011
1/03/11
11:54
AM ET

1. Roloson acquisition bad news for Smith

We're not sure that anything has really been settled in Tampa Bay with the acquisition of veteran netminder Dwayne Roloson this past weekend, but the move has a number of implications.

First, this is bad news for Mike Smith.

We must admit to having a soft spot for Smith, who was likable and wildly competitive when he arrived in Tampa from Dallas in the Brad Richards trade a couple of years ago. We thought he might emerge as a bona fide NHL starter, yet injury and inconsistency have combined to block that path. Smith has been injured of late, and Dan Ellis played pretty well in his place, having inherited the starting job by default. Minor leaguer Cedrick Desjardins got in a couple of starts and won both, but clearly GM Steve Yzerman did not like the looks of an Ellis-Desjardins or Ellis-Smith tandem moving forward, even though the Bolts continue to vie with Washington for the top spot in the Southeast Division and their goals-against average has improved in the past month or so.

With the acquisition of Roloson, look for Smith to be waived and sent to the minors, as Yzerman likely will want to avoid carrying three netminders.

Roloson remains a bit of a wild card.

Heck, even we were gushing over him a week or two ago, as he has delivered mostly superlative work playing in front of a ghastly New York Islanders team. But he is five seasons removed from his starring playoff role for the Edmonton Oilers when the eighth-seeded wonders came within a game of winning the 2006 Stanley Cup, dropping Game 7 in Raleigh to the Carolina Hurricanes. Roloson had been injured in Game 1 of that final, but his play down the stretch after coming over from Minnesota and through the first three rounds gave the Oilers their finest hockey moments since Mark Messier, Wayne Gretzky et al.

This Bolts team is a lot better than any team he's played on since, but to assume Roloson automatically reprises his Cinderella role instead of pumpkin is a bit premature.

Finally, this move is bad news for Evgeni Nabokov, who is currently unemployed, and Tomas Vokoun of Florida, who will be an unrestricted free agent come July and on the market before the Feb. 28 trade deadline. The Lightning were the NHL team most likely to look for goaltending help. As of now, they hope they've found it.

2. Moving the Winter Classic

ESPN colleague E.J. Hradek brought up the topic during a podcast in Pittsburgh leading up to the Winter Classic that next year, Jan. 1 will fall on a Sunday. The NHL has rightfully been pleased with the niche it has carved out on the crowded Jan. 1 sports calendar the past four years. But there is also little appetite to go head-to-head with the NFL on a late-season Sunday. It's a dynamic that will present itself periodically, and sources tell ESPN.com that there is already preliminary discussion about moving the game to a New Year's Eve time slot or pushing it to Jan. 2.

We assume that a Saturday slot, perhaps early to midafternoon, might work, as it shouldn't push into NBC's New Year's Eve programming. That's assuming, of course, that NBC renews its contract with the NHL at the end of this season and that it doesn't rain cats and dogs wherever the game ends up being played, throwing the whole thing into flux again.

3. Incidental contact rule

Twice during the Winter Classic, goals were waved off because there was incidental contact between a player and a goalie preceding the puck crossing the line. This reignited (at least in our minds) an ongoing debate over how the game's rules are interpreted. If part of the NHL's goal is to make the game more appealing to a broader American audience, it might do well to simplify one of the most ridiculous rules in the book: the cop-out rule that allows referees to wave off a goal after such contact but not necessarily call a penalty.

First, the Pens were denied a tying goal when Mike Rupp skated/was directed through the Washington crease. Replays showed that Rupp and the puck arrived in front of netminder Semyon Varlamov at exactly the same time. Isn't that the idea of a screen? Yes, there was some contact, and it likely prohibited Varlamov from stopping the puck.

Later, Alex Ovechkin was denied a late goal after "embracing" Pittsburgh netminder Marc-Andre Fleury behind the Pens' net. Replays seemed to show Fleury putting more of a grab on Ovechkin than vice versa.

I didn't like either call. It should be a simple thing.

If Rupp prohibited Varlamov from playing the puck of his own volition, wave off the goal and send Rupp to the box. If he was pushed by a defenseman or didn't bother Varlamov, ring up a Penguins goal. Same goes for the Ovechkin goal.

Having this wishy-washy "no harm, no foul" option for the officials simply muddies waters that should be crystal-clear.

4. Splitting fans' loyalty

A final word for the time being on the future of the Winter Classic. Regardless of whether it's being played on Jan. 1 (but especially if that's the case moving forward), why clutter the schedule with other NHL games, especially those involving American teams? If the theory is to open as many U.S. eyes as possible to the spectacle, don't have eight other American-based teams in action, as was the case on Saturday. We're not suggesting that the moratorium on competition should extend to Canada, but why force fans in New Jersey or Boston or Buffalo to choose between supporting their own teams and watching the Classic? In fact, à la the Super Bowl, if we were the NHL (and we rarely pretend to be), we would be promoting Winter Classic parties around the U.S. If they want to make this a special day for hockey, make it special. Just a thought.

5. Pietrangelo's award-worthy season

It's a bit of a shame that the NHL regulations are what they are and emerging young St. Louis defenseman Alex Pietrangelo isn't eligible for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.

Pietrangelo, who's just 20 years old, was the fourth overall pick in the 2008 draft. He played in eight games the season after he was drafted and nine games last season before being sent back to junior in both seasons. In both cases, he did not play enough games to start the clock ticking on his entry-level contract, but his appearance in NHL games in back-to-back seasons were enough to preclude him from consideration in this year's Calder Trophy race. Too bad, because the 6-foot-3, 206-pound Pietrangelo certainly would warrant discussion given his level of play.

Although he missed a couple of games thanks to injury, Pietrangelo has 18 points in 35 games and has become a mainstay on the Blues' power play. He is a plus-4 and is one of the reasons the Blues have persevered through a spate of injuries to key personnel up front to stay in the playoff hunt in the Western Conference. As of Monday, the Blues were sixth in the Western Conference tied with Los Angeles and Colorado with 45 points having won five of their past six games.

Were he eligible, Pietrangelo's point total would be one off the pace among rookie defensemen, and his 20:20 average ice time per night is third in the league.

"He has been a solid player right from the beginning of the season and looks to have a tremendous future ahead of him," Blues GM Doug Armstrong told ESPN.com on Monday.

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