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Monday, December 20, 2010
Five things: Devils grim outlook, Kings missing pieces, Flyers extra goalie

By Scott Burnside

1. Devils most valuable asset?

You have to imagine the New Jersey Devils' embarrassing 7-1 thrashing in Atlanta on Saturday night might represent rock bottom in a season seemingly without a bottom. Thus far, president and GM Lou Lamoriello has resisted the urge to fire rookie head coach John MacLean. Not sure why this is the case, unless it is out of pure vanity. MacLean isn't the only problem -- injuries to Zach Parise and Martin Brodeur among others have been crippling -- but it seems patently clear MacLean is at a loss as to how to motivate the players who do show up.

If Lamoriello feels he's got a young Scotty Bowman in the making, he is going to let MacLean work through his growing pains. Fair enough. But the hard reality is that this season is lost. As of Monday, the Devils are 18 points out of a playoff spot and have won twice in their last 10 games. They are dead last in the league in goals scored per game and 26th in goals allowed per game. The power play is ranked 24th.

The sobering aspect of this lost season is that the future looks equally grim. The Devils are poorly constructed, and the Ilya Kovalchuk deal and all of the assets lost in that misguided pursuit of the underachieving superstar mean things aren't going to get better, unless the Devils take drastic action. There are no young stars waiting to step into prominent roles, a function of having made the playoffs in 13 straight seasons. They are already facing the prospect of being unable to bring restricted free-agent star Parise under contract after this season (would you sign a long-term deal with this team?) and needing to create space for him contractually. They put Brian Rolston on waivers, but there were no takers. They might be able to move the sullen Jason Arnott, although he has a no-movement clause, or captain Jamie Langenbrunner.

But, what is the team's most valuable asset? Is it not Brodeur? The game's greatest goaltender is back from an elbow/arm injury but has played poorly, a function perhaps of rust and the team in front of him. He has another season left at $5.2 million in salary and cap hit. Hard to imagine he would play beyond the end of his current deal with the team in such dire straits. Would Brodeur waive his no-trade clause for another shot at a Cup? Who knows, but what would Brodeur's value be to a Cup-hungry Washington team that has two promising young goaltenders and a bevy of young prospects? Or to Tampa? What was once unthinkable (Brodeur in a jersey other than the Devils) now must become part of the discussion for a team at the bottom of the well.

2. Kings puzzle not complete

Interesting days ahead for Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi. Despite lofty expectations heading into this season, the Kings began the week below the playoff bubble in the tightly packed Western Conference. Now, it would be a major shock if the up-and-coming Kings don't work their way comfortably into a playoff spot, but it's no longer just enough to sneak into the postseason for Lombardi's crew.

The Kings' GM was fortunate that he wasn't successful in his pursuit of Kovalchuk in the offseason, but he still needs to add a big-time scorer up front to keep up with the big boys in the Western Conference in Detroit, Chicago and Vancouver.

Perhaps more troubling than adding an offensive piece, though, has been the failed Willie Mitchell experiment. Lombardi was lauded when he signed the injury-plagued Mitchell in the offseason; the theory being that if the veteran defenseman stayed healthy, Mitchell represented a minute-munching presence to compliment Rob Scuderi and to work with young defensive stars Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson. But Mitchell has played in only 15 games for the Kings and is now out week-to-week with what is believed to be a knee injury (Kings refer to it as a lower body injury).

Regardless of when he returns to action, Lombardi has to accept that he cannot count on Mitchell for any length of time and must be looking to add key defensive piece to the Kings' puzzle before the Feb. 28 trade deadline.

3. Goalie conundrum in Philly

The assumption has been that once Michael Leighton gets healthy, Brian Boucher will be the odd man out in the Philadelphia Flyers' game of goaltending musical chairs. After all, Sergei Bobrovsky is putting up numbers that are garnering him rookie of the year discussion with a 2.32 GAA and .923 save percentage, so sending him back to the minors seems a non-starter. But Boucher, 33, is making things difficult for GM Paul Holmgren by actually outplaying Bobrovsky. Boucher has a sparkling 2.11 GAA, fifth best in the NHL. He was recently tabbed by head coach Peter Laviolette for big games against the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh and Boston, and he won all three, giving up just four goals. Boucher has gone 6-0-1 in his last seven starts.

Holmgren told my colleague Pierre LeBrun that he was content to carry three goaltenders now that Leighton has returned from a back injury that kept him out of NHL action all season. Carrying three netminders isn't a viable option, but the issue is finding time to get Leighton into game action with Bobrovsky and Boucher playing so well. Does Holmgren try to get Leighton some starts and then move him? Boucher's stock will never be higher than it is now, and he is affordable at $925,000. Can Holmgren get away with sending one of his veterans to the minors or would he almost certainly be nabbed by another team if Holmgren tries to bring him back up?

None of these are particularly palatable options and certainly they have been made less palatable by Boucher's inspired play.

4. The Avs' Shattenkirk making case for Calder

It appears that San Jose's Logan Couture has the edge in the race for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, and why not. The kid has been terrific for the up-and-down Sharks. But there's another first-year player that has been, in our eyes anyway, equally as impressive: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk.

Perhaps overwhelmed in training camp, Shattenkirk (14th overall pick in 2007 entry draft) was sent to the Avs' AHL farm team, the Lake Erie Monsters, in Cleveland to begin the season.

"It wasn't a great training camp for Kevin," head coach Joe Sacco told ESPN.com this week. "He didn't play the way we expected him to."

But when injuries piled up for the Avs and Shattenkirk was called up, he returned to the big league a different player.

"The biggest difference was he was moving his feet," Sacco said.

Shattenkirk, a 21-year-old native of Greenwich, Conn., was able to make smart plays and get himself out of trouble by keeping his feet moving.

And, oh yeah, he began putting up points like a demon.

In 22 games since being summoned from the AHL, Shattenkirk has 19 points, the most among all rookie defensemen, even though he's played far fewer games. In fact, as of Monday, he was tied for 14th among all NHL defensemen, most of whom have played 10 or more games than Shattenkirk. No gradual learning curve, either, for Shattenkirk, who is logging 19:56 in ice time a night and is a plus-1.

"He's really very comfortable right now," Sacco said.

Sometimes "comfortable" and "rookie" are a dangerous combination, but Sacco said he thinks Shattenkirk is skilled and mature enough not to take things for granted.

"He does a lot of things that you can't teach," Sacco said.

5. Orpik happy to avoid spotlight

If one of the reasons to open your doors to an enterprise like HBO's "24/7: Road to the Winter Classic" is to draw in the casual fan, the first episode suggests the gamble is paying off. At least that's assuming Brooks Orpik's friends are any barometer.

The Pittsburgh defenseman admitted he was a bit taken aback by the language in the first episode.

"Yeah, there was a lot of swearing," Orpik said. "That was the one thing we heard. I thought it came out really good besides the language could have been really better."

But he did say friends, who are not necessarily hockey fans, enjoyed the production.

"I got texts from a lot of people that watched it, people I hadn't heard from in awhile, people that I'm friends with but besides being friends with me really aren't hockey fans," Orpik said. "So obviously getting people to tune in that wouldn't normally tune into hockey."

Did they like the show?

"Yeah they were positive. A couple of people asked me if I was still on the team because they didn't see me on the show. That's the way I like it, so keep it that way," Orpik joked this week.