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Thursday, February 16, 2012
5 Things: Nash trade talks, Thomas’ politics

By Scott Burnside

1. More questions in Columbus

The Columbus Blue Jackets have set the hockey world buzzing by their sudden decision to reverse their plan and listen to offers for captain Rick Nash. But like many things connected to this franchise, not sure of the logic involved. Obviously, no discussion of a possible move for the franchise player comes without Nash’s significant involvement. He has reportedly provided a list of teams to which he would agree to waive his no-movement clause and be traded.

But if I’m ownership, is this the best path for a franchise that has consistently taken the road to ruin? More specifically, is GM Scott Howson, the architect of by far the worst team in the NHL, the guy you want making what would be the most significant move in franchise history?

Wasn’t it Howson who set this franchise on its current course? Wasn’t it Howson who signed defenseman James Wisniewski to a lavish six-year deal with an annual cap hit of $5.5 million? Winsiewski was suspended through the start of the season, has been hurt and in general is a bust with four goals and 21 points. Wasn’t it Howson who had his pocket picked by Philadelphia GM Paul Holmgren, who somehow unloaded Jeff Carter and Carter’s 11-year, $58 million contract on Columbus for former top-10 draft pick Jakub Voracek, a first-round pick who the Flyers turned into rookie of the year candidate Sean Couturier and a third-round pick?

Howson needed to do a better job of determining how Carter might react to this deal. He clearly underestimated the impact on Carter of moving from a contender in Philadelphia to a perpetual bottom-feeder, and the deal has turned out to be a disaster, so much so that Howson is now trying desperately to trade Carter.

This brings us back to Nash. Clearly Nash sees what most people see, a team that is light-years away from being anything approaching a contender. Who could blame him if he decides this is a good time to part company?

What remains puzzling is ownership allowing Howson to continue to have his hand on the tiller of this sudden rebuild, a rebuild necessitated, in large part, by Howson’s own failings. If, as some have suggested, a potential Nash deal means Howson will remain as GM, it is clear the problems are indeed from the top on down in Columbus. If ownership takes what would be a logical course and looks for someone else to try to salvage this woebegone franchise, why wouldn’t ownership insist that the new GM handle the trading of Nash -- something that now seems inevitable whether it’s by the trade deadline or at the June draft in Pittsburgh? As always, more questions than answers from a team that has yet to win its first postseason game.

2. Thomas' political statements

Just wondering when exactly Boston netminder Tim Thomas went from being an inspiring rags-to-riches story to being an insufferable megalomaniac?

We’re all about free speech, but Thomas’s interpretation of it leaves a lot to be desired, and you have to wonder about the toll it is and will continue to take on the tightly knit Bruins locker room.

We didn’t like Thomas’ snub of the White House shortly before the All-Star break, not because he’s not entitled to his own political viewpoints -- he is -- but because of how it reflected on him as a teammate. Thomas’ refusal to attend stole the spotlight away from what has long been a pretty apolitical ritual for many professional sports teams. Fair enough. But then to refuse to answer virtually any questions about it was off-putting.

Then Thomas made reference to Catholicism on his Facebook page, presumably in reference to new laws being proposed by the Barack Obama administration regarding health care payments and birth control. But he refuses to discuss those comments, insisting that his private life is separate from his hockey life and never the twain shall meet.

Nice sentiment, perhaps, but hardly one based in reality.

We have always found Thomas to be thoughtful, and he represents an inspiring story of never giving up on your dreams. But the notion that he refuses to acknowledge that his actions and statements delivered on the public stage about issues beyond hockey are news and are part of the story of the Boston Bruins can’t be chalked up to naiveté.

Rather one can only surmise this stems from some sort of grand conceit that Thomas makes up his rules about freedom of speech and how they’re going to be enforced. When anyone asks about his postings, actions off the ice or political beliefs, Thomas shuts down the interview, as he did recently with a smug, "peace out."

That’s not freedom of speech, that’s arrogance, the kind of conceit born of having proven people wrong by winning a Stanley Cup, a playoff MVP award and a Vezina Trophy within the last eight months.

One of the things that impressed us about the Bruins’ march last spring to their first Stanley Cup championship since 1972 was the closeness in that dressing room, the absolute lack of ego from Thomas on out. This is a team that has been battle-tested by significant adversity: the loss of Marc Savard, the seminal loss to Philadelphia in the second round in 2010 and the rebound from a 2-0 series deficit against Montreal in the first round in 2011.

So maybe this is a storm that blows over, a tempest in a Tea Party if you will. But maybe not. The Bruins have been pretty ordinary since the White House fiasco and are just 4-5-0 in their past nine games. They have been rocked by an ordinary Buffalo team and humbled by the conference-leading New York Rangers and have fallen out of the hunt for the top seed in the conference. Wednesday, they blew a 3-1 lead against Montreal, although they did win in a shootout.

Whether there is a line to be drawn from the team’s ordinary play and the actions of Thomas is certainly open to debate. Coach Claude Julien and Thomas’ teammates have had to answer questions about the issues and the perception that Thomas’ behavior has an impact on team chemistry. And fair or not, those questions will linger until the team’s play proves that it’s not an issue -- whenever that might be.

3. Divisions not made equally

One of the reasons to pine for realignment of some form is the situation that is developing in both conferences in which a team is going to end up winning the division and "earning" home-ice advantage in the first round when a handful of other teams with more points than those division winners will finish with a lower seed or possibly miss the playoffs altogether.

The situation with the Southeast and Pacific Divisions sets up the rather awkward dynamic in which finishing sixth is actually preferable to finishing in fifth place or even in fourth place, given the toughness of those matchups in both conferences.

If you’re the Chicago Blackhawks, for instance, maybe sliding out of the fray in the Central Division will actually be a bonus come playoff time. Who would you rather play in the first round? St. Louis, Nashville and Detroit represent three of the top four teams in the conference in terms of point totals (Vancouver is the other). Two of the top four teams in the Central seem destined to play each other in the first round, with the fourth and fifth seeds (right now it would be Nashville and St. Louis). The Blackhawks, by virtue of going winless in nine straight games (0-8-1), have fallen out of that pack. But if they finish sixth, which is where they sit on Thursday, a first-round matchup against San Jose or Los Angeles, if the Kings could ever score enough goals to overtake the Sharks at the top of the Pacific Division, is much preferred, with all due respect to the Sharks and Kings.

In the East it’s even more pronounced with the surprising Florida Panthers still holding onto the Southeast Division lead despite being pounded 6-2 by Ottawa in South Florida Wednesday night. Right now, the Panthers would be the only Southeast Division team to make the playoffs and, in terms of points, they actually have the seventh-highest points total in the conference.

Like the Central, the Atlantic Division looks to send four teams to the postseason. With the Rangers comfortably in first, it looks like two of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and New Jersey will face off in the first round, as the three teams are currently separated by one point. Now, with all due respect to the Panthers, who have not been to the postseason since 2000 and are one of the feel-good stories of the season, if you’re Philadelphia, Pittsburgh or New Jersey, dropping to sixth and playing the Cats in the first round looks like a much better way to start off the playoff tournament than in a grueling Atlantic Division grudge-fest.

4. Caps' Knuble deserves better

This season may not have produced many highlight moments for veteran forward Mike Knuble, but it sure is sad to see the hard-as-nails winger as a regular healthy scratch for the slumping Washington Capitals. It also raises significant issues about just what is going on in Washington with a team that has fallen quickly out of the NHL limelight and is flirting with missing the playoffs for the first time since 2007.

We don’t presume to second-guess rookie NHL head coach Dale Hunter, although it sure was a curious situation Monday, when he misled local writers by suggesting that the team wasn’t going to call up a goaltender even though Tomas Vokoun was laid low with the flu. Then Braden Holtby was secreted into town and given a start ahead of Michal Neuvirth. Hunter’s explanation made little sense, citing Neuvirth’s lack of experience in playing back-to-back games (he’d played in the Caps’ 3-2 loss to New York the previous afternoon). But not only had Holtby played the night before for the Caps’ AHL affiliate, he had to make the trip from Hershey, Pa., to Washington and still got the start. The move blew up in Hunter’s face as Holtby whiffed on a long, bouncing shot late in the first period and the Caps lost 5-3 to San Jose.

Like Knuble, Neuvirth has not produced the kind of numbers he’d like, but that’s the kind of coaching move that does little for a young netminder’s confidence. As for Knuble, he has just three goals and is minus-14 in 53 games but is expected to return to the lineup Friday. Still, if Hunter’s plans to coax the Caps into the postseason continue to include guys like Jay Beagle (zero goals in 16 games) or Keith Aucoin (zero goals in five games) or Joel Rechlicz (zero goals in three games) instead of Knuble, then GM George McPhee owes the classy Knuble an opportunity to play somewhere else. While McPhee told reporters Thursday he has no intention of moving Knuble, in all good conscience he should try to deal Knuble before the trade deadline. Surely there’s a playoff-bound team that could use Knuble’s presence in the corners and in front of the net, even if it’s not the Capitals.

5. Penner turns laughs into charity

We must admit we have made sport of Dustin Penner over the past few years as we have seen him respond to a big contract by, well, getting bigger and bigger. And we don’t mean in terms of his game. But kudos to the 6-foot-4, 245-pound Penner -- who has just five goals and 13 points -- for turning an embarrassing incident involving back spasms incurred while tucking into a plate of pancakes made by Penner’s wife into something positive. The Manitoba native was ridiculed after revealing how he’d managed to injure himself. But instead of becoming defensive about it, Penner hooked up with a Los Angeles area IHOP restaurant and created a charity event this week in which he served pancakes and mingled with about 75 Kings fans, raising about $3,000 for the Kings' foundation. Good on Penner. Now, if he could only find a way to impress coach Darryl Sutter, who has made the big winger a healthy scratch in recent days.