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Monday, October 25, 2010
5 Things: Kovy benched, Niemi disappoints

By Scott Burnside

1. Devils' struggles more than Kovalchuk

No one is saying much about the actual reason $100 million man Ilya Kovalchuk watched from the press box during Saturday's 6-1 throttling at the hands of the Buffalo Sabres, but the writing is on the wall early in the season for this once-proud franchise. And what those words say is this: We stink.



Crippled by salary-cap woes directly related to Kovalchuk's 15-year, $100 million deal, the Devils have had to play with less than a full complement of players and have been forced to use players that clearly aren't ready for NHL play to fill in for injured regulars. Injuries and salary-cap mismanagement have conspired to produce a 2-6-1 record, a 26th-ranked power play, an offense that ranks 30th in goals per game and a defense that ranks 25th in goals allowed per game.

But if you think this all falls at Kovalchuk's feet, you're wrong. Kovalchuk is tied for the team lead in goals (3) and points (6). If you're looking for folks to share the blame for the team's miserable start, there are lots available. Patrik Elias has one goal. Captain Jamie Langenbrunner has zero goals and just four assists. Travis Zajac has one goal.

Which brings us back to Kovalchuk's benching. All concerned say it was an internal matter and everyone is moving on. Kovalchuk scored the team’s only goal in Sunday's 3-1 loss to the Rangers and logged 22:41 in ice time, the most of all Devils forwards.

Perhaps the Devils will right the ship and the benching by rookie head coach John MacLean will be seen as a defining moment for both the coach and his team. Or maybe this move will merely hasten the first coaching change of this young NHL season, a signal of far-reaching dysfunction within a once-solid organization.

Big picture: The chaos in Newark cannot be appetizing for young star Zach Parise, who can become a restricted free agent at the end of this season and may already be examining the grass on the other side of the Devils’ broken-down fence.

2. Niemi disappoints in San Jose

So, still think Chicago GM Stan Bowman made the wrong call in walking away from an arbitrator's decision on a $2.75 million contract for netminder Antti Niemi? The San Jose Sharks quickly swooped in to pick up the Stanley Cup-winning goalie who became an unrestricted free agent when the Hawks declined to pay Niemi the awarded amount.



At the time of the signing, GM Doug Wilson cited Niemi as a key reason the Sharks were swept by Chicago in the Western Conference final. Would lightning strike twice for the long-suffering Sharks, who have never advanced to a Cup final let alone won a Stanley Cup, with Niemi in the fold? Well, so far it's been more charred rubble than lightning as Niemi has been a major disappointment through the first couple of weeks of the season.

Niemi has lost three straight and lasted just 8:36 on Sunday as the Calgary Flames poured three past him in less than half a period. Overall, Niemi’s numbers look like this: 1-3 record, .854 save percentage and 4.49 GAA. In short, it looks like Antero Niittymaki may end up winning the starting job in San Jose by default.

3. Shootout whining

Not quite sure we understand all the boo-hooing about the shootout. All of a sudden people realize it's a gimmick to decide a tie game? We like the new rule that gives more weight to games won in regulation and overtime when it comes to tie-breaking at the end of the season. But not sure about adding another layer of overtime as Detroit GM Ken Holland has suggested (four minutes of 3-on-3 following four minutes of 4-on-4). How is that not just a different kind of gimmick to get a result?



Interesting to note, however, that in spite of the complaint that teams somehow play for a shootout once a game gets to overtime, shootouts are way down this season and overtime goals way up. So much for that theory.

Through Sunday's games, there were just seven shootouts in the 26 games that went beyond regulation, meaning 19 overtime goals were scored. A year ago there were virtually the same number of games going to extra time (25) at this stage of the season but 18 of those games went to the hated (by some at least) shootout. Back in 2005-06, the first year the shootout was introduced, when you might have expected a plethora of shootouts, there were only 11 shootout games at this point in the season. Go figure.

4. Playoff teams troubled by power play

Interesting to note that among the five worst teams when it comes to power-play success (or lack thereof) this season, three of those squads were teams that qualified for the playoffs last year. Montreal ranks dead last this season with just one power-play goal on 24 opportunities, a surprise given how the Canadiens rode a hot power play to upsets of Washington and Pittsburgh in the playoffs after finishing with the second-ranked power-play unit during the regular season.



Problem-plagued New Jersey is 28th so far this season, and Phoenix is 27th. Both teams made their living off tight defensive play, so perhaps their poor power-play ranking isn't all that surprising. Florida and Dallas, both off to a great start, round out the bottom five when it comes to converting power-play opportunities thus far. Overall, those five teams have managed just five goals on 114 opportunities.

Of the five worst power-play teams at the end of last season, only Phoenix (28th overall) managed to qualify for the playoffs, which underscores the need to take pressure off team defense and goaltending by chipping in the odd power-play marker. At the other end of the spectrum, seven of the top 10 power-play units a year ago got invites to the playoff dance.

5. Hudler's readjustment period

One of the players we were interested in watching this season was Jiri Hudler, the skilled forward who was set to return from what head coach Mike Babcock jokingly referred to as his "European vacation" having played in the Kontinental Hockey League last season.



Both Babcock and GM Ken Holland told us they had high hopes for Hudler following his season in Russia, where he was asked to shoulder a more significant leadership and offensive role for Moscow Dynamo. So far, though, the readjustment to North American hockey has been a difficult one for Hudler. Playing mostly with Dan Cleary and Mike Modano, Hudler has yet to score and has just two assists. The line has combined for two goals and three assists and the three are a combined minus-16. Last week, Babcock told local reporters they had anticipated some adjustment period for Hudler but he needs the forward to compete harder for pucks.