5 Things: Trade plans for Hawks, Wild; why are GMs immune to midseason firings?
1. No big moves in Chicago
We had a chance to chat with Chicago GM Stan Bowman before Sunday's big shootout win over Pittsburgh. He has little cap room to work with and won't be looking to make a big trade-deadline move that would involve bringing in salary or shipping salary out to bring salary back.
One area he'd like to address is acquiring a defensive forward to help the team's penalty killing. The Hawks' penalty kill hasn't been as strong as Bowman would like because his top players are doing a lot of that work, and it may be stretching them too thin.
Even with their win Sunday, the Hawks shockingly remain outside the playoff bubble in 11th place, although they're just two points behind the four teams tied with 68 points (Los Angeles, Dallas, Minnesota and Anaheim, respectively).
Bowman was also quick to defend defending Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith, whose offense has dropped off, drawing criticism in some quarters. Bowman takes issue with the perception that Keith's game has dropped off. He pointed out that Keith was logging big minutes against opposing teams' top lines from the start of the season. Bowman said Keith remains the team's "rock-solid" anchor along the blue line.
2. None in Minnesota, either
Don't expect GM Chuck Fletcher and the Wild to be too active between now and the Feb. 28 trade deadline, even with Mikko Koivu's injury. When it comes to draft picks and prospects, Fletcher inherited a pretty bare cupboard, so trying to obtain the asset he needs (top-end scoring) would set the team back developmentally, so he will likely stand pat.
The good thing is, Fletcher has done a nice job of assembling what many teams want at the deadline: depth scoring, veteran experience and capable if not flashy defenders. This is a hard-working team that scores just enough (the Wild have eight players with 10 or more goals), plays terrific defense and gets good goaltending. They are 10-4-1 in their past 15 games and sit seventh in the West, but that's hardly security in the conference as three other teams also have 68 points.
Does Fletcher find himself scoreboard-watching? Yes.
"People say they don't, but I don't believe them," Fletcher said. "It's exhilarating but it's stressful."
The Wild's strong play is in stark contrast to the team's sluggish start to the season, one that prompted whispers that coach Todd Richards was on thin ice.
"I don't think we had any alternative but to be patient and stay the course," Fletcher said.
With only one successful playoff run in team history, a trip to the 2003 Western Conference finals, the Wild are desperate to return to the playoffs.
"It's been a process," Fletcher said. "I think that the character of these guys has been underrated. We're a good team."
3. Why are GMs immune to midseason dismissals?
Why don't more GMs get fired in the middle of a lousy season? Coaches getting the ax if their teams don't perform up to expectations is a given. Just ask Scott Gordon or John MacLean. And sometimes that's what it takes to turn a team around.
The New Jersey Devils are a completely different team under Jacques Lemaire and are flirting with one of the most dramatic turnarounds in recent memory. But it's been interesting to see the renaissance the Calgary Flames have enjoyed since the departure of GM Darryl Sutter. The dynamics were unique in Calgary since Darryl was the brother of coach Brent Sutter, and that relationship had gone south.
The Flames are the same, the coach is the same; but with Jay Feaster in as interim GM (surely that tag will be taken off in a hurry), Calgary is a playoff team. The Flames are 7-1-2 in their past 10 games and were tied for fifth in the conference with 70 points as of Monday.
Further, doesn't it seem counterintuitive to allow a GM of an underachieving team to make trade-deadline moves that have a direct impact on the future if he doesn't have a role with the team beyond the season?
We're not suggesting Bryan Murray should be fired, but Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk has said he will reassess the entire organization at the end of what has been a ghastly season. Yet it's Murray who has been steadily tearing apart the Sens' lineup and building for the future even if it's a future that may not include him. If Melnyk doesn't know now what he's going to do with team management, that's a pretty sad indictment of his business acumen. And if he is going to make a change, shouldn't he make that move by bringing in a GM he thinks will take the team forward?
We understand it is sometimes hard to hire a guy midseason if he's working with another team, but it still seems strange GMs are essentially immune to midseason replacements. One wonders if the Calgary situation will give owners pause in the future.
4. Don't dilute the great outdoors!
First, there was the Winter Classic in Buffalo, and no one knew what to expect. But it turned out to be the equivalent of a top-end steakhouse -- hip, distinctive, a success.
This season, the NHL decided to throw the CBC and Canadian fans a bone and added the Heritage Classic to the schedule. (The event's name borrowed from the near-disastrous outdoor game held in Edmonton before the lockout.)
And while the ice was terrible and it was bitterly cold (hey, who knew it was going to be chilly in Calgary in late February?), it turned out OK. Sponsors loved it. Fans bought up tickets. Highlights turned up on CNN on Monday morning. Think of it as a limited franchise trading on the good name the Winter Classic had built.
Our colleague Pierre LeBrun writes that the NHL is contemplating three or four of these events every season. You know what we instantly think? McDonald's. 7-Eleven. Not that there is anything wrong with McDonald's or 7-Eleven stores. Goodness knows if you need to find one you don't have to look too hard. But you hardly think "hip" or "distinctive" when you think of those establishments.
That is what the NHL is flirting with.
Yes, fans and sponsors and owners love the idea of these games and everyone wants to host one. Does that mean they should get one?
We have long insisted the Heritage Classic shouldn't even be a yearly event. Once every two or three years would be enough for us. If the NHL moves forward with this notion of flooding the marketplace with outdoor games, it will have done the nearly impossible -- sucking the pizzazz out of the Winter Classic and rendering it, dare we say, ordinary.
Because no matter how these other outdoor franchises might be marketed, no matter what kind of funky names they might be given, they will all have a certain sameness and they will all become regional events.
The Calgary/Montreal game Sunday, coming on the final day of Hockey Weekend Across America, barely registered as an event in the United States. There was no build-up like there was for the Winter Classic over the past three years. It was a regional game between two Canadian teams. Nothing wrong with that, but the league better be careful what it wishes for.
Put three or four of these games on the calendar every year and people will start to ask, "Where's the beef?"
5. OK, we've changed our minds about Minnesota
We have, in this space, regularly suggested the Winter Classic has to remain the crème de la crème of the NHL. Lots of Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, Philadelphia Flyers on New Year's Day. And when fans from Minnesota complained to us that the State of Hockey should get some consideration, I think I suggested they might want to play in a playoff game first.
A bit harsh, perhaps, but after spending a couple of days talking to hockey folks at all levels of the game in Minnesota, I think maybe the Minnesotans have a point.
It's true the Wild have virtually no profile outside the state, and making the playoffs would improve that profile nationally and justify them hosting a Winter Classic. But there is something absolutely unique about the state's fascination and connection to the game. Whether it's high school or college, men's or women's hockey, it is a big deal and it matters, and a Winter Classic there would be a magical event.
The beauty of having an NHL outdoor game in Minnesota is the league, USA Hockey and the NCAA would be able to put on a grand show that transcends the game itself. It's what we saw in Boston, and it's what should be part of every Winter Classic event.
Even if the Wild aren't the sexiest team around, the NHL can get around that by inviting Detroit or Chicago or another higher-profile team to be the visitors. Assuming HBO will still be playing a role in this event, the Wild may also benefit from that kind of exposure.