Cross Checks: Columbus Blue Jackets

Todd Richards of the Columbus Blue JacketsMichael Martin/NHLI/Getty ImagesAfter a rough start, coach Todd Richards has his Blue Jackets pointed in the right direction.
It was some time in late February -- he can’t remember exactly when -- his team languishing with only five wins in the opening 19 or 20 games of this season, when Todd Richards phoned old pal Claude Noel.

The two had coached together at AHL Milwaukee, and at this point, Richards was at his wits’ end trying to find a way to turn things around with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

“That was hard coaching. I don’t remember coaching ever being that hard, and really not that much fun,” Richards told ESPN.com on Tuesday. “I reached out to Claude one day and talked to him for about a half-hour. I don’t even know if I was asking questions; it was just to talk, really. But it was helpful at this point. It really was.”

Six weeks later, it’s Richards who would be the one giving pep talks to his coaching buddies in the fraternity.

A March 3 win over the Colorado Avalanche began a 15-4-3 stretch for the Jackets, perhaps the unlikeliest of events anyone in the hockey world would have dreamed up this season.

“We’re still surprising people, which is always nice,” veteran Jackets defenseman Adrian Aucoin told ESPN.com on Tuesday.

It comes in a year in which the Jackets replaced the general manager in-season with the understanding that life after Rick Nash was going to be a patient, brick-by-brick approach.

And while new GM Jarmo Kekalainen is still going to build this team long term through the draft, in the short term, the cast he inherited has stunned everyone by challenging for a playoff spot.

The Jackets have won four straight games and sit tied in points with the eighth-place Detroit Red Wings in the West, heading into Wednesday night’s game at the Anaheim Ducks.

The odds remain stacked against them; the Jackets play four road games before wrapping things up at home April 27 against the Nashville Predators.

“It’s going to be a great test,” Richards said. “Anaheim, L.A., San Jose, Dallas and then home to Nashville -- there’s some great teams there, and we’re on the road for most of it. But I believe that the struggles we had early on made us stronger and better [able] to deal with what’s ahead of us now.”

What gives with these Jackets? How are they winning like this?

“Balanced attack with their top three lines,” a Western Conference head coach told ESPN.com via text message Tuesday. “Seem to have an all-in attitude and on the same page as far the style of play; defensive mindset first. Goalie is playing lights-out. And they have that belief that they can win because of that. They play hard and are on the right side of that feeling.”

[+] EnlargeSergei Bobrovsky of the Columbus Blue Jackets
Dave Reginek/NHLI/Getty ImagesSergei Bobrovsky has gone from cast-off to likely Vezina Trophy finalist -- and is leading Columbus' resurgence.
Ah yes, the goalie.

Sergei Bobrovsky, discarded by the Philadelphia Flyers, has been out of this world for the Jackets, and it will be a shock if he’s not at least nominated for the Vezina Trophy.

Aucoin has seen this movie before. Last season he was in Phoenix when Mike Smith delivered an unbelievable performance all year. It instills great confidence in the players in front of that kind of goaltending.

“You just play a better, easier game when you know that your goalie is playing the way Bob is playing,” Aucoin said. “It’s unreal right now how easy he makes it look.

“And I can tell you he’s as dedicated a player as I’ve ever played with. Which is amazing, because I played with some pretty dedicated players in my career.”

Not to oversimplify things, but what Bobrovsky is doing in net has allowed the rest of the team to grow.

“The big thing he’s done for our team is he’s just given our whole team confidence,” Richards said. “That’s what that one position can do to a team. It’s no different than in baseball when you have your ace of the pitching staff taking the mound; you go in with a different feeling that day. It gives everyone else confidence. That’s what Bobby has really done. He’s played great and he deserves all things people are talking about in terms of maybe awards at the end of the year. He’s earned that. But the big thing for our team even more than the big save here and there is the confidence that it gives everyone else to go out and play.”

(As a side note, contract negotiations are ongoing between the Jackets and Bobrovsky’s camp. He’s a restricted free agent after the season.)

This is a confident bunch. Case in point: Monday night in Denver. The Avs scored with 2:02 left in the third period to go up 3-2 on the visiting Jackets. Two months ago, that would have deflated Columbus. Instead, R.J. Umberger tied the game with 1:27 to go, and Nick Foligno scored in overtime to cap yet another thrilling night for the never-say-die Jackets -- just another example of the character that has developed on this team.

“[That] sums up the way we’ve been feeling here the last couple of months,” Aucoin said.

“It’s the perseverance, dealing with adversity, and we’ve had to deal with a lot of adversity this year,” Richards echoed. “That brings out the character in people, and I think it also makes you stronger as long as you deal with it the right way.”

Richards' role in all this also should not be overlooked. At 5-12-2 earlier this season, things easily could have gone off the rails. But the coach and his staff kept the players committed and focused when it appeared to be another lost season. Tip of the hat to Richards for that.

Their remaining schedule suggests the Jackets will probably fall short. But would you bet against them at this point?

“Well, the odds haven’t looked good for us since day one,” Aucoin said. “We’re definitely up for the task.”

What to watch for Tuesday night

February, 1, 2011
2/01/11
3:39
PM ET

Boston Bruins (28-15-7) at Carolina Hurricanes (25-19-6), 7 p.m. ET

Season series: 2-1 Boston
Starting goaltenders: Tim Thomas (24-5-6, 1.81 GAA) vs. Cam Ward (22-15-5, 2.70 GAA)
Preview: Two weeks after the Bruins finished a home-and-home sweep of the Hurricanes, Carolina tries to end the series with Boston on a high note. The Hurricanes got only two of their 76 shots past Tim Thomas in back-to-back losses to the Bruins on Jan. 17 and 18. Carolina is one point out of the eighth-seed in the East, while Boston leads the Northeast division.

Chicago Blackhawks (26-20-4) at Columbus Blue Jackets (23-21-5), 7 p.m. ET

Season series: 3-1 Chicago
Starting goaltenders: Marty Turco (10-10-2, 3.02 GAA) vs. Steve Mason (15-12-2, 3.20 GAA)
Preview: The Blackhawks begin a six-game road trip in Columbus after All-Star weekend featured four Chicago players, including game MVP Patrick Sharp. Heading into their final 32 games, the Blackhawks are tied for seventh in the West with San Jose and Colorado. Minnesota and Los Angeles are a point behind that group, and Columbus, tied for 13th, is five back.

Pittsburgh Penguins (31-15-4) at New York Rangers (29-20-3), 7:30 p.m. ET

Season series: 2-1 New York
Starting goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury (23-11-2, 2.19 GAA) vs. Henrik Lundqvist (21-16-3, 2.29 GAA)
Preview: The Rangers have lost four in a row to the Penguins at Madison Square Garden and haven't won a home game against the Penguins since Jan. 5, 2009. Pittsburgh hasn't won five straight at MSG since a streak from Dec. 31, 1989 to March 17, 1991. Neither Sidney Crosby nor Evgeni Malkin is ready to return, but the Penguins are 5-3-1 without Crosby and 2-1-0 without both Crosby and Malkin this season.

Philadelphia Flyers (33-12-5) at Tampa Bay Lightning (31-15-5), 7:30 p.m. ET

Season series: 2-0 Tampa Bay
Starting goaltenders: Sergei Bobrovsky (21-6-3, 2.42 GAA) vs. Dwayne Roloson (7-3-0, 2.25 GAA for Bolts)
Preview: The East's top two teams face off for the third time this season with the Flyers looking for their first win of the season against the Lightning. The Lightning have won five straight games and are in the midst of a 12-game home stand. The Flyers have won two straight and six of their last seven games. Philadelphia leads the Presidents' Trophy race after 50 games for the first time since the 1986-87 season.

Montreal Canadiens (27-18-5) at Washington Capitals (27-15-9), 7:30 p.m. ET

Season series: 1-0 Washington
Starting goaltenders: Carey Price (24-16-5, 2.36 GAA) vs. Semyon Varlamov (8-7-3, 2.16 GAA)
Preview: The Capitals have looked like a different team since getting stunned by the Canadiens in the postseason. They cruised through last season and won the President's Trophy, but were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round by Montreal. This season, the Capitals are 17th in the league at 2.71 goals per game, have been shut out seven times and Alex Ovechkin is on pace for career lows in goals and points.

Los Angeles Kings (27-22-1) at Minnesota Wild (25-19-5), 8 p.m. ET

Season series: 1-1
Starting goaltenders: Jonathan Bernier (5-8-0, 3.08 GAA) vs. Niklas Backstrom (15-11-3, 2.52 GAA)
Preview: After an up-and-down season, the Kings went into the All-Star break on a three-game win streak. Unfortunately for Los Angeles, the Kings now begin a 10-game road trip. The Kings are 5-8-0 in their past 13 road games. The Wild won four of five before the break and are currently tied with the Kings, but Minnesota is just 4-6-1 at home since the start of December.

Vancouver Canucks (31-10-9) at Dallas Stars (30-15-5), 8:30 p.m. ET

Season series: 2-0 Vancouver
Starting goaltenders: Cory Schneider (8-2-2, 2.35 GAA) vs. Kari Lehtonen (22-11-5, 2.57 GAA)
Preview: The Canucks and the Stars both lead their divisions, but Vancouver has dominated the series. Vancouver has outscored Dallas 11-2 in the two games. But the Canucks will now need to depend on defenseman Lee Sweatt more with an injury to Alexander Edler. Edler, who leads the Canucks with 24 minutes of ice time per game and tops the defense with 32 points, is having back surgery and will be out indefinitely.

Phoenix Coyotes (25-17-9) at San Jose Sharks (25-19-6), 10 p.m. ET

Season series: 2-0 San Jose
Starting goaltenders: Ilya Bryzgalov (19-12-6, 2.64 GAA) vs. Antti Niemi (13-13-3, 2.69 GAA)
Preview: The Coyotes will try to win their sixth straight away from home Tuesday night and end a six-game slide against the Sharks. Phoenix has limited its opponents to 1 for 17 on the power play during its run on the road. Veteran center Joe Thornton has two goals and three assists, and Antti Niemi has posted a 1.50 goals-against average in two wins over the Coyotes this season.

The NHL's trade deadline is exactly one month from today. Where did the season go?

And yet, a month is still a lot of time to determine this year's buyers and sellers.

As of today, there are many teams with legitimate playoff chances, making it a short sellers' list. In addition, some buyers need to wait until the last possible moment so their rental pickups don't count as much against the salary cap.

Factor in both those issues, and that's why there still isn't a lot going on one month out.

[More trade deadline: Hradek: Top 5 trade options Insider | Rumor Central Insider]

"There hasn't been much real talk," Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon told ESPN.com this week. "Teams are saying 'We'll talk later, we'll talk later.' But that's fine."

"Most of us have players that we would make available even right now for a trade, either because they're underperforming and/or overpaid," Buffalo Sabres GM Darcy Regier told us this week. "But it's impossible right now to get an agreement on values. We're all hoping that we're going to be able to just charge a cost without taking anything back, and that's not reality. So I think, yes, we're all sitting around to the last day or two again [before the trade deadline]."

It's been a frustrating time over the past month for several GMs who are trying to shake things up.

"There's been lots of talk going on, but it's hard to jar anything loose right now," Columbus Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson said this week.

The two clubs in Ontario have also burned up the phone lines without success. But you'd better believe the Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs will try to be busy between now and Feb. 28. The playoffs are a long shot at best.

"I'm open for business, yes, you can get that word out if you want," Sens GM Bryan Murray told us, his sense of humor still intact.

"We now know where we are," Murray added in a serious tone, referring to the team's 13th-place standing in the Eastern Conference at the All-Star break, 15 points out of the last playoff spot. "As disappointed as we may be, we have to do something to rectify it."

Prefacing a question by saying I assumed the likes of All-Star youngster Erik Karlsson and top center Jason Spezza (no-movement clause) weren't going anywhere, I asked him how many untouchables he had.

"Yes, there's a couple of guys we wouldn't move," Murray said. "Certainly Alfie [captain Daniel Alfredsson] is another one we wouldn't move. I talked to [owner] Eugene [Melnyk] about that. We're not doing anything there. But other than that, we're open to many things."

The most obvious movable name is veteran blueliner Chris Phillips, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent July 1. He's a perfect rental for a contender, a smart player who would help any good team. There are so many clubs looking for help along the blue line, including San Jose, Chicago, Montreal and Boston, among others.

The Maple Leafs had been hoping to pull off some sort of trade to bring in a big center, or at least a big forward, but it hasn't happened. So now what?

"We've been trying to add since well before Christmas without any success," Leafs GM Brian Burke told ESPN.com this week. "We have cap room and budget room, but we haven't been able to get anything done to upgrade our team. So now we're going to look at whatever opportunities present themselves leading up to the deadline, including younger players."

I'm reading between the lines here, but my guess is the Leafs are now finally ready to accept draft picks or prospects in trades after trying so hard to make a more traditional hockey deal. Still, it's not a bad thing for Toronto to clear out some cap space ahead of July 1. They'll need to outbid the New York Rangers, among other teams, for the services of Brad Richards (if he hasn't re-signed with Dallas before then).

Toronto's most coveted rental player would be veteran defenseman Tomas Kaberle, who is a UFA on July 1. At some point soon, the Kaberle camp will likely have to make a decision. They'll need to inform the Leafs whether they'd be willing to waive the defenseman's no-trade clause and, if so, provide the Leafs with a list of teams. In the end, they may choose not to waive it and just ride out the final weeks of his career in Toronto. Burke, always respectful of players with no-trade clauses, will not ask Kaberle to waive it.

Expect Francois Beauchemin (one more season at $3.8 million) and Kris Versteeg (one more season at $3.08 million) to continue to draw attention from other teams, along with veteran goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere (UFA July 1) if he can show he's healthy and can help a team. (Giguere recently told local reporters he would "contemplate" waiving his no-trade clause if Burke approached him about it.)

And what of Sheldon Souray? He has one more year left on his contract next season at $4.5 million ($5.4 million cap hit). He's been buried in the AHL all season and has also battled injuries down there. Will he move before Feb. 28?

"It's pretty clear there's two options: either someone is interested on a re-entry situation or someone is interested in a hockey deal near the [June] draft," Oilers GM Steve Tambellini told ESPN.com this week.

Should the Oilers put Souray on re-entry waivers, teams would be on the hook for half of his contract with the Oilers picking up the other half. Meanwhile, the Oilers are the only team that's clearly out of the race in the West. They don't have any high-end UFAs to sell off, but a forward like Dustin Penner (one more year on his deal at $4.25 million) might draw interest from other clubs.

While the Oilers know where they stand ahead of the trade deadline, plenty of other teams do not. The Blue Jackets are still in it at this point, and their Feb. 28 fate will be decided by their play over the next few weeks. They are five points out at the All-Star break, sitting 13th in the West.

"Yes, we're in no mood to be selling off right now; we feel we still have a chance," Howson said. "It's so tight and it's going to be hard, obviously, coming from behind over a group like this. But if you put together a really strong two weeks together, you get right back close to eighth. It's going to take a real good 10-game run for us to get back into it."

The Panthers are eight points out at the break. Buy or sell a month from now?

"Regardless, we're going to do what's right for the future," Tallon said. "If we can stay competitive this year, that's great, and we'll deal with the cards that are dealt. But we're still keeping an eye on what's best for the future. That's the most important part of this, regardless of what happens in the next month. We're not going to change our philosophy."

Will veteran goalie Tomas Vokoun, UFA July 1, survive the trade deadline? The Panthers have begun preliminary contract talks with his camp, but that doesn't mean anything will get done. Tallon said he spoke to Vokoun's agent again Tuesday.

"It's got to be the right term and the right amount," Tallon said. "I think there are a lot of possibilities when it comes to this. We'll keep hammering away on this and see what happens."

The Sabres, six points out in the East, have a number of UFAs-to-be on their roster, including Tim Connolly, Mike Grier, Rob Niedermayer, Craig Rivet and Steve Montador. Will those UFAs all survive the trade deadline?

"We're getting a lot of pop out of our young kids," Regier said. "Older players that we all believed in when we signed them aren't performing at the levels that they're capable of, or maybe we misjudged it. In some part, I think we could be selling veterans if we can sell them because we like what we see in our youth. I think it's going to be really interesting."

VANCOUVER -- Greetings from the Left Coast. I see there's plenty of angry puck heads this week. Love it. Let's get at 'er:

gatorsandtitansfan44: The Nashville Predators are not getting enough notice. They have won 10 of 12, getting some of the best goaltending in the league from Pekka Rinne and look at their injury list! Two of their top scorers are on IR, their big offseason signing has played 1 1/2 games, a top four D-man (Boullion) and a filler they picked up to help with scoring since two of their top point guys are out (Svatos). Guess what, not only are the Predators quite arguably the hottest team in the league, but they are doing it while dealing with tons of injuries. Not to mention that they had to go nearly a month without starting goalie Pekka Rinne. The fact of the matter is the NHL season is a little over halfway done and the Nashville Predators with a rag tag group of guys and several key injuries are on fire and now sit just four points out of first in the division (second in the West) behind Detroit, four points ahead of the defending SC champion Blackhawks (who they have beaten in three out of five this year), and they are two points ahead of the Ducks (fifth in the West), who have played three more games than Nashville so far. Why can’t the fact that they have no "superstar scorer" be set aside and the fact that this is a good young hockey team with a solid foundation be brought out? The bottom line is this team has very good potential, and if they can keep playing the way they are this season who knows? Maybe a trip to the conference semis is finally within their grasp.

My take: Hey, I've done my best, writing a Preds story two weeks ago. But generally, you are indeed correct that this team just doesn't get the kind of national attention it deserves. Playing in a small and non-traditional market obviously doesn't help. What would also help is a deep playoff run, which they've never had. That would cultivate more of a respect factor around the league. Is this the year?

Kavashaforlife: Dear Mr. Nabokov:

Hey, it is me, Logic; I think we need to have a talk. I understand, the Islanders are not the ideal place to resume your NHL career, but are you not tired of the cold nights in Russia? Report to the Islanders, take the next week (including workouts over the All-Star break) to earn the starting goaltending job on despondent Long Island; play a week or so on the Island, show the rest of the NHL that you still have it (I see the headlines now: "Nabokov's 40 save night (again) sparks the resurgent Isles") and eventually get traded to Detroit (or another playoff contender) for a draft pick and mid-level player. Unlike at Burger King, you cannot always "have it your way;" take what the Islanders are offering you, it has to be better than what Russia's offering you.

Sincerely,

Logic (Hopeful Islanders Fan)

My take: Problem is, my friend, the Isles can't trade him unless they put him on waivers first and it's unlikely he would clear. Hence, a trade is not a realistic option. By now, most hockey fans know I interviewed Nabokov on Sunday. He sounded genuinely surprised over the phone that the Islanders would claim him. And quite frankly, I'm with him on that. I mean, why aren't the Isles just focusing on losing games and getting another high lottery pick to join John Tavares and company on a young club that will be better over the next few years? Having said that, I also think Nabokov should report to Long Island. He needs to show the other 29 GMs that he can still stop pucks so that once July 1 rolls around, he'll get some interest.

phillyisbetterthanpitt: Stop protecting the players from headshots. This is a joke, they get paid all this money to play the sport the same way they have been playing it their entire lives. The NHL is getting more and more soft with each passing year Bettman remains the head. Stop letting GMs protect their money interests and let the players play the game the way it was intended to be played.

My take: Marc Savard has another concussion. David Perron hasn't played since his November hit to the head. Matthew Lombardi has played two games this season, still out with a concussion. The best player on the planet won't be showcased in the All-Star Game as he continues to recover from a concussion. Yup, you're right. No issue here whatsoever. All is well. I have no idea why we're even talking about it.

StLbluesfan314: I am so frustrated about the Blues this season! I feel like we are the Chicago Cubs of hockey. Every time the season begins, we all have the hopes of a Cup in STL. But year after year no such luck. DON'T GET ME WRONG, I enjoy getting to the playoffs but yet we can't make anything happen! Is it time to talk of trading some of those "cornerstone" pieces to get some real talent in here to make a playoff run? Any news on the talk of getting a sniper who can put pucks into the net with consistency? The addition of Oshie back from injury is nice but we still can't put up points. Is it inconsistency that is killing this team? GET US SOME HELP J.D.!

My take: Um, the Cubs of hockey are a team you may have heard of in Toronto. The Maple Leafs and Cubs have brought suffering to a new level for their fans.

LynchBages: Kings vs. Mike Murphy. Unfortunately Murphy has all of the leverage. However, the goal that was allowed to stand against Phoenix the other night from the high stick up around the head (never mind that Hanzal is 6'5"!) was ridiculous, especially when the feeds in the arena even showed it was almost two feet over the crossbar. The explanation from the "war room" was feeble, at best, and even though Lombardi's comment was out of line, the league should be embarrassed to ask him to pay that fine. With all of that in mind, it's painfully obvious that the Kings are frustrated because their plan to have the kids grow up fast makes them too thin -- they do have steaks where their talent is evident, but no consistency. REALISTICALLY, do you see any movement coming this season via trade? I'm thinking they're going have to look to the Eastern Conference ... more consistent scoring and a top-four D-man, but who??

My take: Hanzal's goal should not have stood. Bad call from the war room in Toronto. But Lombardi was out of line to say that publicly. Totally out of line. And when I spoke with the Kings GM on Friday, he felt brutal about it. Good on Lombardi to call Murphy on Friday morning and apologize. Classy move by Lombardi.

mrcheesenacho7: I'm tired of hearing everyone call out Sidney as a baby and a poor leader because he isn't able to play or participate in the All-Star Game. You have to realize that the guy would be on the ice in a second if he could help out his team, yet he hasn't skated in almost three weeks and does nothing but catch hell from haters for something he can't even help. The Sid haters have reached a new low.

My take: Anyone who thinks Crosby is not injured and skipping the All-Star Game on purpose it a moron. He's injured. He's got a concussion. He's doing the right thing by taking the week off to recover. Enough said.

cbjgatorhead: I'm not going to bash Scott Howson/Scott Arniel at all ... but I'm beginning to question some of their tactics lately. I don't understand why we sent down Kyle Wilson when we have Huselius floating around like a worthless bag of garbage. Also additional garbage, Anton Stralman, but thankfully we have Grant Clitsome! And obviously it's not because of money. We just sent our highest paid D-man down to the AHL. Why do we continue to keep Huselius around?!

My take: I feel terrible for Jackets fans. I love the city of Columbus, I've always thought it was an excellent choice for an NHL franchise. But it's been nothing but heartache and frustration for a decade plus. There are no easy solutions moving forward. The Predators model is the one to try to copy: patient drafting and developing and no quick fixes.

colt135: I will rant about Nabokov. I hope Islanders fans like what Snow did. The idea is to make your team better, and for them Nabokov is an upgrade. With over 30 games left in the season, if he caught lightning in a bottle and went 20-10 (he won 44 last year), they could grab the eight spot.

My take: Whatever you're taking, I want some of that.

raquelm5: Hi, I am a hockey fan, I love hockey, I play hockey and I live in Miami so I have Panthers season tickets. My hubby HATES hockey so I am always trying to find someone to go to the games with me and no one wants to go and the ticket is free. Their reasons are either: a) they don't care about hockey, or b) the Panthers are so bad. I play in a women's rec league and it seems that the Panthers make the same mistakes we do. It is sad to watch and when they seem to be winning for once, they manage to loose. We always say that they "snatch defeat from the jaws of victory" like the game vs. the Hurricanes when they were up 3-0 and lost 5-3. Should I bother renewing my season tickets so I go through the trouble of finding who to go with or fighting with my hubby to go with me? Oh, BTW, Bank Atlantic Center is 50 miles from where we live.

My take: Raquel, don't give up on them yet. Dale Tallon showed in Chicago that he knows how to rebuild a team. It's just going to take time, which I know is tough to take given the long drought of non-playoff years in South Florida. But give Tallon a chance. He knows what he's doing.

fbullock: Pierre, We find ourselves with another annual useless hockey game this Saturday night. No it's not an Isles vs. Devils game. Although it would be a lot better if it was. But sadly it's the NHL All-Star Game. It's just plan useless not just for the fans but for those having to cover it. I feel for you having to trek down there to RBC but make sure you shake enough corporate hands to make it worth it. Only person that will be happy this weekend will be the wife since I will have no pucks on this weekend. I wish the hockey gods could help me with the work I will have to do in the garage. Anyway, I feel there is no need in bashing this hand-holding corporate event unless I have a solution and I do. Why can't we take the weekend and have an awesome round-robin tourney? How about the All-Stars from: NHL vs. KHL vs. SEL vs. EHL. After three days the top two points teams play for a stack of cash. I don't believe any of the above leagues lose because of the monster TV deal it would bring as well as international sponsors. It’s a no brainer. Not to mention the side games of the above leagues. They could include an all-amateur game as well as high stakes skills comp. Oh what a weekend. Puck heads would be on full puck tilt for three or four days. As well, I believe the media would have a much better time with the storylines. Well, just throwing out one fan's dream, instead me and my dog Hosehead are going to grab us some Elsinore and clean the garage.

My take: Well, the game is actually on Sunday, but yes, I'm with you. I've wanted the All-Star Game canceled for years. The addition of the Friday fantasy draft is a neat touch. But I suspect Sunday's game will be a dud once again. Solution? Just blow it up. The NHL schedule is brutal on the players. Adding back those three days from the break wouldn't hurt.

What to watch for Wednesday night

January, 19, 2011
1/19/11
3:15
PM ET

Toronto Maple Leafs (18-21-5) at New York Rangers (26-18-3), 7 p.m. ET

Season series: 2-1 New York
Starting goaltenders: Jonas Gustavsson (6-12-2, 3.13 GAA) vs. Henrik Lundqvist (19-14-3, 2.27 GAA)
Preview: The Maple Leafs seemed to have ignited their offense during a four-game winning streak where they scored 21 goals, but have since struggled to score. And, the Rangers have not had much more luck. After averaging more than 3.0 goals per game at the end of 2010, the Rangers have been held to two goals or less in all nine games in January, giving them the lowest goals per game rate this month (1.44). These teams haven't met since playing three times in October, but the Rangers are 3-0-2 in their past five home games against the Leafs.

Columbus Blue Jackets (21-20-5) at Florida Panthers (21-20-3), 7:30 p.m. ET

Starting goaltenders: Mathieu Garon (8-9-3, 2.66 GAA) vs. Tomas Vokoun (16-15-1, 2.56 GAA)
Preview: The Blue Jackets look to avoid their second seven-game road skid in less than two months in their first meeting of the season against the Panthers. Florida has earned points in four straight games (3-0-1) largely in part to its power play, which is 7-for-18 in that span. But, the Panthers have not beaten the Jackets at home since Jan. 3, 2004.

Minnesota Wild (23-18-5) at Calgary Flames (20-20-6), 9:30 p.m. ET

Season series: 3-2 Minnesota
Starting goaltenders: Niklas Backstrom (13-10-3, 2.58 GAA) vs. Miikka Kiprusoff (17-17-2, 2.75 GAA)
Preview: Niklas Backstrom is expected to make his first start since missing nine games with a hip injury, but rookie Anton Khudobin has been playing very well in Backstrom’s absence. Minnesota is within three points of the Western Conference’s final playoff spot, and Backstrom is 3-0-1 with a 1.22 GAA against the Flames this season. The Flames have had their own goaltending issues as Miikka Kiprusoff was pulled from two of his past three starts. Kiprusoff has not had much luck against the Wild, going 1-7-2 with a 2.48 GAA in his past 10 games, but is expected to get the start. Watch for Flames teammates Jarome Iginla and Alex Tanguay to find the net as Iginla has more goals and points against the Wild than any other active player with 31 goals and 58 points. Tanguay is fourth on the list with career 42 points against the Wild.

Call this the anti-Vezina list.

Next week, we at ESPN.com will hand out our midseason awards. Today, we bring you what we believe are the five most disappointing goaltenders at the halfway point given their pedigree and expectations. In no particular order:

Steve Mason, Columbus Blue Jackets

It seems like years ago when he put up 33 wins and a 2.29 goals-against average and won the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year. Well, it was just two seasons ago. Since then, the sophomore slump has extended into a Year 3 malaise. As of Thursday morning, his 3.20 GAA was 40th among NHL goalies, and his .902 save percentage was 32nd. He's played better of late, which is good, because the Jackets need him to turn things around. He's only 22, so I suspect everything will be fine. It had better be after the Jackets extended his contract, a two-year, $5.8 million deal that kicks in next season.

Chris Mason, Atlanta Thrashers

When the Thrashers signed him to a two-year, $3.7 million deal this past summer, it was with the idea that he would be their starter or at least compete with young Ondrej Pavelec for starts. Neither has happened. His .896 save percentage is 39th in the league, and his 3.66 GAA is dead last in the NHL. Luckily for the Thrashers, it hasn't mattered because Pavelec is having a Vezina-worthy season.

Mike Smith, Tampa Bay Lightning

No wonder Lightning GM Steve Yzerman felt compelled to bring in Dwayne Roloson via trade. Smith's .883 save percentage is second-to-last in the NHL, and his 3.20 GAA is 41st. Dan Ellis hasn't been much better, but Smith is the guy long viewed as a possible starter after his trade from Dallas. The consistency has never come. He'll be an unrestricted free agent July 1 and won't be in Tampa next season.

Craig Anderson, Colorado Avalanche

How the mighty have fallen. Nominated for the Vezina last season after a sensational campaign, Anderson has the 38th-ranked GAA (3.13) and 33rd-ranked save percentage (.901) in the NHL. Granted, the Avs' blue line isn't Detroit's, so there's plenty of rubber coming his way, but it was the same when he stood on his head last season. Talk about bad timing, especially with Anderson set to be a UFA on July 1. There is plenty of time to turn things around, but if he doesn't, it will be a costly season for him.

Martin Brodeur, New Jersey Devils

It's safe to say we never thought the day would come when we would put his name on this list. We tremble just doing it. But the numbers don't lie -- a .882 save percentage (44th and dead last among all goalies) and 3.15 GAA (39th). Nothing from this season will take anything away from what is arguably the greatest goaltending career in NHL history. And to be fair, it's not as though the team in front of him has been any help. (Still, a bit surprising to see the Devils actually ranked first in the NHL in fewest shots allowed per game as of Thursday morning.) Brodeur has one more year left on his deal at $5.2 million. Let's hope next season is a bounce-back one and he can go out in style.

(Dis)honorable mentions: Pascal Leclaire, Ottawa; Rick DiPietro, N.Y. Islanders; Nikolai Khabibulin, Edmonton; Jonas Gustavsson, Toronto.

No warm and fuzzy feelings with this crew! You guys were cranky ahead of Christmas. Let’s look at some rants and thanks for the effort everyone!

moriler: Pierre, when will someone in the American media tell the real story about the Thrashers -- how ownership cares first and foremost about basketball, put an inferior product on the ice for nearly 10 years due to indifference, and only at the start of this season realized that they'll only draw fans if they make an effort to win games. The game against the Devils drew 17,000-plus -- not from fans who wanted to see Kovalchuk (they didn't show up when he was there on those horrible losing teams), but from fans who are starting to realize that this team is what good hockey looks like, and the team is actually worth coming to see now. Years of obvious owner indifference led directly to fan indifference, as it has in so many other cities (NY Isles, Pittsburgh, Edmonton, Chicago, even Detroit pre-Yzerman -- remember the Dead Wings?) -- and yet, because we happen to be in the Sun Belt, everyone clamors for our move despite there having been no actual effort made by ownership to allow hockey to succeed. Even this year we have barely made it to the salary cap floor -- and the fans know it. But this team rolled the dice on chemistry and got boxcars.

I understand that the Canadian media will never give the Sun Belt teams a fair shake, because the constant rumors of relocation are what sells in their world. But I do wish that the major American outlets would step up: Thrashers attendance has been directly due to consistent ownership indifference. It takes time to overcome that.

My take: One thing is clear my friend, it should be worrisome to any Thrashers fan to continually see NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly quoted in various media reports warning Atlanta about the future. While Daly has been very clear in saying the NHL's priority is to keep the team in Atlanta, he also has hinted at the repercussions of the market place not supporting the team. People in Atlanta should not ignore those hints. The league rarely takes that stance with any of its teams. This is a fun and exciting team to watch, they're battling Washington for the division lead and yet the club is 28th in attendance. Not good enough. Traditionally, the Thrashers have had better crowds in the second half. Hopefully that’s the case again.

Ljwinter85: Is there a reason Laviolette isn't being talked about for the Jack Adams? He's turned this team around completely and has the Flyers in prime position to make another run at the Cup. I don't want to hear about how stacked the Flyers are because that shouldn't matter. If Phil Jackson can win coach of the year awards, why can't Lavy? You can have all the talent in the world but if you can't get them to mesh and work together (HEAT) it doesn't matter. Lavy has done a terrific job with this team and putting together balanced lines. I think he deserves some consideration.

My take: Absolutely Laviolette deserves consideration. No argument here. And so does Mike Babcock in Detroit. But this is what happens when the voting comes: Coaches who get less talented rosters to overachieve almost always get more love. Pretty hard to disagree with Dave Tippett's choice last season. That's why Barry Trotz should always be in contention for the miracles he performs in Nashville. How about Joe Sacco and what he's doing with the kids and the injuries in Colorado? Craig Ramsay and the surprising Atlanta Thrashers? How about Marc Crawford in Dallas? Jacques Martin coaching his butt off with Montreal? The list goes on and on ... . Sixteen teams make the playoffs every year and I’d say a dozen coaches have legitimate Jack Adams cases. To me, it’s the hardest award in the sport to figure out.

Deffenbeard: Pierre, it's tough being a Blues fan. The beginning of the season gave us a peak at how dominating this team could be, especially on defense. It wasn't long until the hockey gods turned their back on us. Bobby Orr's first flight in hockey must have cursed the Blues. David Perron has been out for almost two months, Roman Polak is finally coming back after two months, nobody knows when Andy McDonald will return, and T.J. Oshie hopes to return before the end of the season. I hope that we will look back and say "the season really turned around when we found out that Erik Johnson didn’t destroy his knee against Detroit." We even have a rookie that isn't even considered a rookie in Alex Pietrangelo. It must be because he looks more like a 10-year veteran than a rookie. With that said, I'd like to include two positives at the end of this negativity: The Blues still sell out every game, and I still have a chance to see the first championship banner being raised to the rafters.

My take: It really is too bad how the injuries have derailed the Blues' season. They were going so good for a while. I remember putting them first overall in the Power Rankings one week. A lot of teams have injuries but the Blues were ravaged by key injuries to their very top players. That's tough to overcome. The season is far from over but either way, feel good knowing this team is building in the right direction.

jkline19@hotmail.com: As a Blue Jackets fan my wish list and complaint list is long -- but I will whittle it down to two items:

1. No. 1 D-man. CBJ have never had one, and while there guys down in Springfield who maybe can step up eventually, it is a need now.

2. No. 1 center. Help may be on the way in a year or two (with Johansen) -- but again, CBJ have never had a true No. 1 centerman. And no, Cassels and Fedorov were way past their primes when they played for CBJ.

The Maclean years are long gone yet his traces are still here. It kills me to see all the All-Stars playing for other teams that CBJ passed over in many previous drafts for guys who busted.

grrr ... OK -- happy holidays all

My take: Believe me when I say that Jackets GM Scott Howson tried all offseason to upgrade at both those positions, my friend. Easier said than done. Not sure if you've noticed but UFAs are not clamoring to play in Columbus. Which is too bad because I've been to Jackets games and I think it's a terrific NHL market, one that has been underserved by a decade of (mostly) futility. The fans deserve better there. I like Howson and I think he’s got a good plan but it won't come overnight.

fluxzito: All I want for Christmas is for the Minnesota Wild to finally realize that their plan just is not working. Their top scorer is 21st, not in the league, in the Western Conference, in scoring, and they only have two guys in the West Top 40. I thought this offense was supposed to be run and gun. It looks like the typical Wild to me. I would rather see the team rebuild like Edmonton is doing, and what Pitt did for years, (Stall, Fleurry, Crosby, Malkin). What do the Wild have to show for it? Nick Leddy (traded), Tyler Cuma (still in minors), Colton Gillies (bust), James Sheppard (bust), Benoit Pouliot (bust), A.J. Thelen (bust). I prefer watching the Minnesota Golden Gophers than the Wild. Mikael Granlund, please hurry.

My take: What, two wins in a row over Calgary doesn’t turn your crank? Hate to say it, but I pretty much saw this frustrating season coming. Didn’t think this was a playoff team and got lots of heat from Wild fans for saying so in September. Look for GM Chuck Fletcher to try to be aggressive in January and February on the trade front.

BaseballHockeyFan63: Pierre, what is it with you media types and the continued fawning over Crosby? EVERYONE gets it. He's a really good player -- top 3 in the league (currently No. 1, but we all know streaks and trends go in waves). We know he almost single-handedly led the Penguins to a 12-game winning streak. The point streak is impressive.

BUT HE IS NOT THE ONLY PLAYER IN THE LEAGUE. The day after the Flyers stopped the Penguins' streak, basically shut Crosby down (only two power-play points -- EXTREMELY quiet 5-on-5), and regained the top spot in the NHL (in just one game after the Penguins had won 12 in a row) and the headline is Crosby Continues the Streak?! RIDICULOUS. How about "Boucher Continues Hot Streak, Flyers Regain Top Spot?" Or "Struggling Power Play Delivers Late, Flyers Win?" How about focusing on something that is NOT Crosby? How about focusing on how the Flyers are something like plus-37 in goal differential on 5-on-5, more than double the second-best ratio?

Die-hard hockey fans of teams outside Pittsburgh are SICK and TIRED of the Crosby-centric NHL. I know you dismiss this notion, but I can tell you there WILL be many, many fans boycotting the Winter Classic because we are absolutely SICK of the Crosby (and, to a lesser extent, Ovechkin) coverage being shoved down our throats.

It's an old argument, but it is not going to go away until the league starts promoting other players. I understand the business aspect, but this does not help the image of the NHL, or the hockey media, being a joke.

My take: Personally, I haven't written a Crosby column this season. So I guess you weren’t referring to me. But dude, he’s the best player in the world. He deserves the attention. When you have the two greatest players ever in the history of the game, Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr, bringing up Crosby to me in recent conversations and both being incredibly impressed, that says it all. He’s got 10 more points than the second-leading scorer in the league. The guy’s unreal.

anblis: Pierre, I know it's "easy" to bash the refs sometimes but at times you just have to wonder what they are thinking. During the Bruins-Sabres game last week the officiating was awful on both sides. A phantom "boarding call" on Lucic led to one Sabres goal and other poor calls and "non-calls" disrupted the entire game. After Lucic is boarded himself with 2 minutes to go and no call comes, Dan O'Rouke (who was getting most of the grief all night) conveniently positions himself right in front of the Boston bench with a minute to go and calls an unsportsmanlike on the Boston bench because someone says the officiating has been a "joke."

My question/rant is this ... what purpose does that serve? No one directed profanity towards him (and I see that a lot on the ice during the game), and he had to know he wasn't having a "strong game" based on the actions of the players throughout. So with a minute to go he calls a penalty based on a comment only he could hear thus ending any chance of a Bruins comeback? Let's face it: If that occurred during a playoff game or on a HNIC broadcast to a Canadian team, Don Cherry and others would be calling for his head on a platter. Why can't the NHL office acknowledge screwups like this (by fining the ref, etc.) like they do when players cross the line? Julien rarely complains about the officiating but he said "complaining about poor calls and performances rarely changes it." What does that say about the league's office's handling of the refs?

My take: I honestly believe NHL refs are the best in pro sports. Yes they make mistakes, of course they do. They’re human. The game is 100 miles an hour. But when you compare the Big Four in North American sports, I’d take NHL officiating over the other three any day.

KooLeafs23: Pierre, my biggest problem in the NHL these days is the moronic need for players to respond to a clean hit a teammate receives by trying to fight, my point being the recent Subban hit on Brad Marchand. A clean hockey hit that for some reason Gregory Campbell felt he had to protect Marchand so he takes a penalty by trying to get Subban to fight him and then Montreal scores just 2 seconds after the PP is over. While technically not a PP goal, the PP gave the Habs’ offensive zone possession and the Bruins lost by one. What happened to the days where you go out and try to get a hit back? It happens every game now and it makes me sick how it's almost second nature by now in the NHL to respond this way. Does the NHL have any plans to try to do something about this ridiculous way the players act these days?! So frustrating!

My take: Totally, completely and whole-heartedly agree with you. Drives me crazy that players today are like that. It's become part of the culture over the last decade and it’s a real annoyance. If it's a clean hit, take your lumps and move on. And tell your teammates to also move on.

royalsgold1818: I don't understand what is taking so long for the Sutter brothers in Calgary to be fired. An obvious shakeup is needed. For starters, since Brent Sutter arrived, the Flames have been unable to play consistent hockey. A three-game winning streak is unheard of, and he has never been able to get the best out the players he is given to work with. I don't know why people think he's a good coach. All he has done is win a few world juniors, and then take a very talented New Jersey Devils team to two first-round playoff exits. Not to mention he comes to Calgary and we miss the playoffs for the first time since before the lockout. As for Daryl, the fact that he would spend all that money signing Jay Bouwmeester is ridiculous. Do you really want your top defenseman to be so soft that other players aren't scared to play against him? I guarantee other teams are happy to play Calgary, because they have no issues entering our zone because they know Bouwmeester isn't about to take their head off. Finally, we have the worst farm system in the entire NHL, and that is entirely the GM's fault. We have no young talent, and without Kiprusoff we would be the worst team in the NHL (maybe not worse than the Islanders or the Devils, but they are in a league of their own). I think it only makes sense to clean house of the Sutter brothers, let Iginla leave when he wants to go to a contender (don't ask him if they can trade him, let him bring it up, he's earned that) and rebuild for the very distant future.

My take: Could not agree more with you, pal. And I wish I had an answer for you, but I don’t. But I’d be shocked if the Sutters survive into next season if they miss the playoffs again this year. The Dion Phaneuf trade last January was a disaster. Signing Matt Stajan to that ridiculous extension made it even worse. Then flipping Ian White to Carolina this year and for what? Yikes.

SHIMS112001: How in the world is John Maclean still head coach of the Devils?? Lou fires coaches after 100-point seasons (Claude Julien 2006) and with eight games left in the season when the team is in first (Robbie Ftorek 2000). And let's face it: After last season, Jaques Lemaire was fired, he didn’t retire. This is a disgrace to Devils fans! MACLEAN MUST BE FIRED!!!!

My take: I spoke with Lamoriello last weekend. The pain in his voice said it all. This season is killing him. I am surprised Maclean has lasted. But I suspect what Lamoriello is perhaps saying is that the team on the ice is more at fault than the coach. The players that the GM signed and traded for, that is. But whether it’s this season or next summer, Lamoriello needs to find a coach that can get the best out of Ilya Kovalchuk. That must be the priority now.

LesHabs25: I have written to you before concerning my Habs but I have to take you and Scott to task after being part of that chat a few hours ago. Why do you not think this is a team that cannot keep its position atop the Northeast? First off, they don't rely on just a guy or two for all the offensive production. They get it from all four lines. Heck, Jeff Halpern has six goals already! I understand and agree with your comment that Jacques Martin is "coaching his butt off” as evidenced by the fact they have bought into his system. Allowing 72 goals has a lot to do with the goaltender coming into his own but it has to do with defensive responsibilities and their No. 1 rated PK. They have the goalie (or so it seems) for the long run. They have scoring. Maybe not as much as the big boys in the Pens, Caps or Flyers, but as proved last spring they have enough to get by (especially blocking all those shots). The defense may have taken a hit with the loss of Markov, but they now have over $5 million in cap room to go get another guy on the blue line or even a top-6 forward. Langenbrunner? Arnott? Richards? Dare I say it, Kovalev? I am a realistic Habs fan. I don't think they are as good as Pittsburgh, Washington or Philadelphia, but I think they are better than the Bruins and I do NOT see them at any point this season in danger of falling on the brink of missing the playoffs. Thoughts, mon ami? -- Robbie in NY

My take: You could very well be right, my friend. My two main concerns with the Habs are these: 1) Andrei Markov’s absence will be felt more as the season goes on. They’ve done a terrific job playing through it, as they did in last season’s playoffs, but over the course of an entire year they will miss his puck-moving abilities and PP/QB skills; 2) Scott Gomez is the team’s No. 2 center but has only 14 points (four goals) in 31 games, which is eighth on the team, even behind defenseman Roman Hamrlik. That’s not the kind of production you need from a No. 2 center on a Cup contender. The good news is his $7.35 million cap hit only carries through the 2013-14 season. Gulp.

Still, overall, all of your points are valid and it wouldn’t shock me at all if the Habs were able to hold off Boston. And keep in mind the Canadiens can use the cap savings from Markov’s injury and add some help before Feb. 28.

fbullock: Dear SantaBrun, while all teams are wanting a delivery of a shiny metallic object about 90 centimeters tall and weighing 16 kilos this Xmas, I wanted to ask on behalf of all hockey fans for a few items in this weeks rants:

1. Peace for Caps fans as the team got off the snide. See it's not 2003-04.

2. Joy for Flyers and Penguins fans, someday we'll find out who the top PA team is.

3. Good will for Fehr and Bettman. Please, for our sanity, play nicely.

4. Hope that Lou Lamoriello can figure out the cap. Maybe pay the players in pesos?

5. Wish for all fans to remember the passion of the game. No matter if your team is in Atlanta, Phoenix, etc., remember hoping for relocation only gets you so far, you still need passion from a fan base for it to survive. I believe hockey fans live everywhere, not just in cold climates.

So with that I wish all on the rant board and Mr. LeBrun a Merry X-mas and I look forward to talking up the New Year’s rants next week. To all a good night!!!

My take: What a great way to end it before Christmas. Well said!

Donald Fehr was finally introduced as the new executive director of the NHL Players' Association on Saturday, aka the worst-kept secret in hockey.

Pretty much the only thing the average hockey fan cares about in all this is whether the NHL can avoid another work stoppage when the CBA expires in September 2012 and what role Fehr, the longtime leader of the baseball players' union, will have in that.

"We treat a work stoppage -- a strike -- as a last resort," Fehr told us media folk on a call Saturday. "It's something you consider only when you believe that all alternatives have failed. We certainly hope, and I certainly believe, that the owners will treat it as a last resort.

"So if you were to ask me, 'Do I anticipate a stoppage?' The answer is 'no.' And I certainly don't hope that we have one."

No one is going to tip his hand in labor talks this far out, anyway, so this doesn't mean he's not going to be just as tough of a negotiator as he was in baseball. Having said that, I think Fehr knows this isn't America's pastime he's dealing with and genuinely doesn't believe a work stoppage is any way to go for this sport.

The more I talk to people around the industry, the more complaints I hear about the current system from the ownership side of things. Some owners have been in the ear of commissioner Gary Bettman about fixing certain things. As one NHL executive told ESPN.com Saturday, "My owner told me in no uncertain terms that if certain things aren't fixed, he's out. He'll sell the team."

So while the Fehr/Bettman dynamic will be one to watch in the next round of CBA talks, I think the potential in-fighting among team owners who have vastly different agendas will be just as important a factor.

Fehr was asked on the media call Saturday about a timeline for the beginning of CBA talks with the league.

"If I had to throw a target date out, I would probably say sometime a year from this spring," Fehr said. "Maybe a little sooner than that, but that's only a target date. Down the road a few months, I expect to have a much better idea of when it might make sense."

I also asked him about the possible staff hiring of former player Mathieu Schneider, who has been a long-time, staunch union guy and was part of the search committee that recommended the hiring of Fehr. Rumblings persist that Schneider will be one of Fehr's first hirings.

"I know Mathieu reasonably well at this point, I've talked to him any number of times and he seems to me to be a first-rate and extraordinary individual," Fehr said. "He certainly has an enormous amount of experience in the game and as far as I can tell has the respect of the players. He's the kind of individual that makes sense for that kind of a role. I'm not in a position today to discuss any specific hires or roles that any given individual might fill."

Other Fehr nuggets:

  • Fehr, I'm told, phoned Bettman on Friday to give him a heads up on his announcement. Classy thing to do and perhaps a sign that the two can get along? Well, let's not hold our breath.
  • Also, I was told that Fehr last Monday took in a meeting with Bettman and NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly to discuss the future of the NHL's Premiere Games in Europe. The league and players haven't yet confirmed their participation for next year in Europe. The league has held regular-season games overseas in London, Prague, Helsinki and Stockholm over the past four seasons.
  • Fehr was the runaway favorite to get the job all along, but a union source did tell ESPN.com Saturday that "a bunch’" of candidates were interviewed for the job.

Nabokov's next stop


Veteran goalie Evgeni Nabokov touched down Friday in San Jose, where he's kept a home. Now what? Several NHL teams have called about him, I was told Saturday, although Tampa is the only one I've been able to confirm. I'm told Washington is not in the mix.

It's not clear at this point whether the Lightning are totally sold on the idea of signing Nabokov. I have the feeling this could go either way at this point. For starters, the team is on a budget and doesn't have a lot of cash to dole out. Also, remember that Nabokov must clear waivers with whatever team he joins.

Here's the dilemma if you're Tampa GM Steve Yzerman: you don't have a lot of money to spend, so if you sign Nabokov to a cheap contract, you risk losing him to another team on waivers that sees him as a good backup at that price. That's the risk for any team that signs him. It's possible some teams haven't even bothered calling Nabokov's agent, Don Meehan, about their interest because they're lying in the weeds waiting to snap him up on waivers.

I also think Tampa is hesitant right now because its two goalies, Dan Ellis and Mike Smith, are popular teammates. You don't want to rock the room. On the flip side, the Bolts are dead last in the league in goals against, and Nabokov is an upgrade. I think Yzerman is hoping the decision is made for him in the short term by Ellis and Smith playing better. But he may be eventually forced into looking hard at Nabokov if things don't change.

Rumors of Salo's return to Canucks


There have been rumblings recently that Sami Salo is getting close to returning from injury, but a team source told ESPN.com Saturday that is not true. He's still a ways away, the source said.

The reason that's incredibly important is that once Salo returns, the Canucks will be under a cap crunch. Other NHL teams are waiting to pounce on Vancouver. But when Salo does return, the Canucks feel they're dealing from a position of strength -- lots of teams want a D-man -- so they don't think they'll be forced into a bad deal. I think they're right. Judging from the other teams I talk to, there's a demand for defensemen. Vancouver can exploit that when the time is right.

Spotlight on Capitals


Interesting story I heard from a source in Washington: Some Caps players were reticent to wear the HBO mics heading into last Sunday's game at New York. GM George McPhee apparently got involved and told them to wear the mics. Basically, he told his players to man up. It reminds me of when Pat Burns was in Toronto during my first year covering the NHL in 1995-96, and the Leafs coach used to pull the players out of the showers after a bad game and force them to come and talk to us, to face the music. So kudos to McPhee for taking that stance with his players.

Thrashers want to move Bergfors


Atlanta recently sent a memo to other teams saying to give it a call if they wanted a forward. I was told Saturday that Niclas Bergfors is the guy the Thrashers would really like to move. He was part of the Ilya Kovalchuk deal last February but has fallen out of favor.

Devils' Lamoriello searching for answers


Chatted with Devils GM Lou Lamoriello on Saturday. It gets to a point where it's like, what can you say?

"This is new territory, certainly, for us," Lamoriello told said. "It's very simplistic: Your best players have to be your best players. When you look at the people that have goals and you look at the history is of goals; and then our role players, who usually always chip in different types of goals and different times -- they haven't been able to do that. So you're pressing every night. And then you get injuries to key people. These are not excuses, you just look at it because you look at the variables prior to making a decision. You have to ask the question why and quite frankly, those answers haven't come yet."

Lamoriello put veteran forward Brian Rolston on waivers this week, but there were no takers. He's earning $5 million this year and next, and he's 37 years old.

"I just wanted to see if there was anybody interested in him," Lamoriello said. "Maybe it's the beginning for something, we'll see."

Some teams have told Lamoriello that they have some level of interest but more so if they don't have to take the full brunt of Rolston's salary. In other words, re-entry waivers (half the price) or the Devils take a player back in a trade.

"This is a fantastic individual and the part of the business where your heart and the head gets in the way," Lamoriello said. "He's not the reason [they're losing]. But I made the decision to sign him and I take the responsibility. But the unfortunate part about it is that it is money."

So what now?

"He has cleared waivers, he's still with our team," Lamoriello said. "Not saying what the next step is but there are different steps and processes. We'll see how things transpire."

Jackets' Mason struggling

Steve Mason had dinner with Blue Jackets goalie coach Dave Rook on Friday night, and the Columbus netminder is in dire need of counsel these days.

The third-year NHL goalie, the league's Calder Tropher winner in 2008-09, has been pulled a league-high 12 times this season and his numbers reflect it: a 3.29 goals-against average (44th in league) and .901 save percentage (36th in league).

Veteran Mathieu Garon got the start Saturday night and will likely continue to do so until Mason can shake it off.

"We're lucky we have Garon playing as well as he has," Jackets GM Scott Howson told ESPN.com Saturday. "But Steve will work his way through this. We're confident of that."

The Jackets had hoped that Mason had left his struggles behind last season in his sophomore year. But they've come back. Right now, he's lost his confidence.

Maybe it's just me, but I think this is an example of a guy that should have gotten at least one year of seasoning in the AHL before making the jump. I know he was spectacular in his NHL rookie season, but now I think you're seeing that lack of development come to the forefront.

Kings lose Mitchell

The Kings have lost top blueliner Willie Mitchell, yet again. This time, he's out two-to-three weeks with a lower body injury.

The gamble on Mitchell in the offseason was that he could stay healthy and partner with Drew Doughty on the team's top unit. Now, he's gone down twice. All the Kings care about, however, is to have him healthy for the playoffs.


Stock up

Matt Duchene, Colorado Avalanche

The Avalanche continue to lose key personnel at an alarming rate yet continue to score goals by the bushel (they lead the NHL in goals per game). As of Friday morning, the hard-luck Avs were riding a four-game winning streak, including back-to-back wins over the defending Stanley Cup champs from Chicago this week. Sophomore Matt Duchene has been doing yeoman work in the face of an injury-depleted forward corps with 15 points in his past 11 games. He has eight goals over that stretch.

Sergei Kostitsyn, Nashville Predators

The Preds are streaking once again with points in nine straight games (7-0-2). Surprisingly, it's the forgotten Kostitsyn who has picked up his game over this period. After being essentially ridden out of Montreal at the end of last season, the younger of the two Kostitsyns (brother Andrei is still with the Habs) is starting to find a comfort zone with the Preds, playing mostly with Martin Erat and Marcel Goc. Kostitsyn has points in seven straight games (nine points over that period), and the Predators have jumped back into the Western Conference playoff fray thanks in large part to the trio's play.


Stock down

Steve Mason, Columbus Blue Jackets

Once again, the bottom has fallen out on the former rookie of the year and Vezina Trophy nominee. Mason was shelled by Edmonton on Thursday night, allowing six goals on 27 shots through two periods. He was then yanked for the third time in four games. Mason has just one win in his past seven outings, and the Blue Jackets have fallen like a stone through the Western Conference standings as a result.

Patrick Marleau, San Jose Sharks

Wonder why the talent-laden Sharks are such a befuddling team, flirting with the lower end of the West playoff bracket? Well, take a look at former captain Patrick Marleau, who has somehow managed to amass a minus-17 rating. Yes, plus/minus is a sometimes misleading (if not meaningless) stat, but the fact Marleau has one assist in his past eight games isn't. It's just plain shocking. So is the fact he's managed to score just once in his past 12 games.

The passion is so evident in these rants this week. You puck heads love the game and love your teams. But with that comes heartache and frustration. Let's take a look:

nintendogg516: Pierre, Trading Brad Richards away is nothing short of suicide for the Stars, right? I mean, aside from King Henrik, who do the Rangers have that could possibly put us in a better position to compete for the rest of the year? Marinjury Gaborik? I don't think so. I'll concede that we're pretty solid at the center position, but I don't think Ribiero can handle first line responsibilities and continue to produce at his current level. Please call our front office and convince Newy to disconnect the line to the Rangers front office. Sincerely, A Hopelessly Hopeful Stars Fan

My take: I know from talking to a Stars front-office source that should they decide to move Richards before this season's Feb. 28 trade deadline, it's only because (1) they weren't able to sign him to an extension and (2) they're offered the kind of deal that sets them up "for the next five years." That was the way the Stars source described a possible Richards deal. If the Stars move Richards, and there remains the chance that they won't, it'll be for a package that helps the team long term. So whether it's the Kings or Rangers or any other team ponying up for Richards, young assets will be the key component.

justplayinj21: Pierre, what in the world is going on with the Wild? I know everyone says they are the most unpredictable team in the NHL but seriously what is going on! PMB is back, he looks great, but the rest of our offense is horrible, besides Havlat, he is playing a ton better. I just want to know is the problem our coach? I know we brought in the New D coach and well I think its helped, I just don't understand how do we get back into being a playoff quality team??? So angry, I don't want to give up on the Wild, but its looking bad.

My take: Another week, another Wild rant. Very passionate fans in one of the league's best hockey markets. I picked the Wild to miss the playoffs before the season because I just felt there wasn't enough top-six offensive talent to compete in the tougher Western Conference. I've certainly been proved right so far. What's more amazing is that the power play is in the top 10 in the league, but even that can't rank the Wild higher than 24th in goals per game. That's because the team is 27th in five-on-five goals. Brutal. I suspect changes are coming. I think Wild GM Chuck Fletcher has seen enough and over the next month will attempt to make a move or two.

jhaefner12: Sidney Crosby. Best player in the league and the world right now. And if you would like to dispute that good luck.

My take: You will get zero argument from me. He's taken his game to yet another level this season. And he's doing it without star linemates. Steven Stamkos has Martin St. Louis, Alex Ovechkin has Nicklas Backstrom, the Sedins have each other, but Crosby? Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis -- not chump change by any means, but not All-Stars. Sid The Kid is having his best season ever right now. I was talking to Bobby Orr on Monday about a different story, but before hanging up, he wanted to mention how impressed he was with Crosby, particularly how much work the Pittsburgh center put into his craft. You know you're doing something right when you're impressing Bobby Orr.

csoula5: Struggling to understand my San Jose Sharks this time around, its more than frustrating at this point. There have been some bright spots (i.e. Logan), but for the most part it's reasonable to say that we suck most nights. If you go back and look at the last few games you'll see Justin Braun and Mike Moore get turned inside out on every goal, true both have offensive upside but on the defensive end they are not ready for this. I understand that we have three starting defenders laid up right now, but we should still be able to compete in our own zone. Not to mention when our D is healthy it ain't nothing respectable this year anyway, and I am not speaking of Danny Boyle (who is exhausted). I know DW is patiently waiting to make a move that's good for our team but while he calmly tries to work the system, we keep slipping into NHL obscurity... Pierre, it comes down to this, we are beginning to not believe anymore. We are frustrated, we have some of the most dynamic forwards in the game, we want to win, we need to win. Maybe its time for DW to do something, we have had DW's back for years, its time he has ours.

My take: Rob Blake's departure left a giant hole on defense, one that was never filled. Not that the Sharks didn't try, having signed Niklas Hjalmarsson to an offer sheet this past summer (only to see Chicago match it) and having tried to sign Willie Mitchell (although he chose Los Angeles). A source told me last week that the Sharks' priority is to nab a top-four blueliner before the Feb. 28 trade deadline. No surprise there. In the meantime, Sharks coach Todd McLellan is trying to snap his team out of its maddening inconsistency, although Monday night's convincing 5-2 win at powerhouse Detroit might just be what the Sharks need to turn their season around. I spoke with McLellan on Thursday in Ottawa about their inconsistent season. "Our frustration, the coaching staff and management, probably matches that of the players, and that's a good thing when that's happening," McLellan told ESPN.com. "We do have some pieces that have proven they can play when they put it all together and they're focused and going in the right direction. When it's not happening that way, we can be scrambling around and be very unproductive."

The slow start to the season is "something we're not pleased with, something we're trying to turn around," the coach told me. "But we have a large group that returned that had that experience from last year and played the right way, that did the little things you need to do to have a chance for success; right now, we're struggling to get that consistency from everybody on a given night. We'll get it from four to five guys or a line or a pair of D-men, but not everybody at the same time."

CammieBuckeye: I was at the Penguins-Blue Jackets game in Columbus on Saturday. I am a fan of both teams. I grew up a Pens fan but went to Ohio State for five years and have a soft spot for the Jackets. The crowd at the game Saturday was seriously split like 75-25 in favor of Pens fans IN COLUMBUS!!! The Pens fans were more rowdy, way louder, and overall it felt like a Pens home game. Mason was getting taunted in his own building for crying out loud. I did a summer internship with the Jackets, so I know how hard they work to promote hockey in Ohio State football country. The Crew (MLS) draw pretty well but they have won and are generally a successful team. What changes do the Jackets need to make to get better on the ice so opposing teams like the Penguins won't turn their games in C-bus into de facto home games?

My take: Cammie, despite a recent slide, the opening quarter of the season had been a splendid success for the Jackets, and I think it starts with a clever hiring behind the bench of Scott Arniel as coach. So kudos to GM Scott Howson on that one. But developing a passionate and loyal fan base needs something the Jackets have never accomplished: winning playoff rounds. The team has been to the playoffs only once and lost in the first round. That's a long decade-plus of futility and rebuilding, and rebuilding, and rebuilding ... The Penguins have legions of fans from being in the league since 1967, but more importantly since winning two Cups under Super Mario in the early 1990s and another Cup under Sid The Kid two years ago. That's how you breed the most passionate fans. Until the Jackets do anything in the playoffs, it's going to be hard to win over that market.

JanneyShanny: Pierre, is it within your power to pull some strings and get Detroit sent to another division? The city of St. Louis would appreciate any efforts made.

My take: Sorry, out of my control. But wouldn't you miss hating them?

al8hockey: Inconsistency really has bitten the Bruins lately, I really don't get it. Earlier last week, they were on fire, especially Timmy, shutout the Flyers then rolled over the Lightning without a scratch on them. Then they go up to Toronto, where they should have added motivation to win, not only because of Kessel, but because of the lottery pick. Toronto was all over them and they let up a goal with 42 left. Is this a defensive problem? Or is it just the grind of an NHL schedule? The B's are too talented to have these moments where they seem like they are a JV team vs. a real NHL team.

My take: You can't be at the top of your game for 82 nights. I wouldn't worry too much about the B's. They're going to pass Montreal and win the Northeast Division. Once Marc Savard gets his legs under him and produces like the old Marc Savard, that'll give the Bruins better balance up front and they'll be a much tougher team to shut down. Be patient!

jlabelle120586: The New Jersey Devils have been my favorite team in all sports since I was four years old. In the 20 years since, I have never been so frustrated than watching them the past two weeks. In that time, they have a respectable (relative to the rest of the season) record of 3-3 with impressive wins over the Caps and Flyers. In the same span, I watched them sleepwalk through tilts with the Islanders and Habs. Those two games aside, you can see flashes of how good this team can be (see the win against Washington on the 22nd). In the words of an Orbitz gum commercial... WHAT THE FRENCH TOAST?

My take: I can't believe how old you just made me feel. Another week, another Devils rant. It's too late now for this team to make the playoffs; I think that's pretty obvious to anyone. But the priority at this point should be getting Ilya Kovalchuk (five goals in 26 games) going so that next season isn't another flop. He's a Devil for life, so they need to find a way to make the team successful around him and with the Russian star playing a central part. To me, that's the only thing that matters at this point. And if John MacLean can't figure it out, the Devils have to find a coach who can.

nyiballs: For the past few years, when I would tell people I'm an Islanders fan, I'd get laughed at and chided mercilessly. I'd have to explain to them that we have good young talent, that we were rebuilding a depleted farm system, and that by 2012, we'd be a force in the league. I would look past the DP contract, and try to justify it by saying a No. 1 goalie at $4.5 million was a good deal. I'd look past dropping a respected GM in favor of the backup goalie by saying that Snow actually made some shrewd moves and good picks in his first few years. I'd look past Wang's lunacy by saying how he saved the franchise from the likes of Spano and the Gang of Four... I just can't do it anymore though. The sideshow has gotten so out of control, that all hope is lost. Islanders fans are probably the fewest in numbers, but conversely, could be the most passionate in hockey. To survive these past 20 years, it takes a special type of devotion. But Wang has fallen into the same pattern as all of the other owners -- buying the team because of the lucrative possibilities surrounding the land around the arena, getting stonewalled at every attempt to develop the land, and consequently, gutting the team (players, staff, etc) in order to mitigate their massive losses. It is all too apparent that a new arena will never get built. Save us all of the trouble and move the team somewhere where the ownership and local economy will support them. I'd rather watch them succeed somewhere else at this point.

My take: Honestly, I feel for Islanders fans. This once-proud franchise was the model for all franchises in the early 1980s. The fan base was incredibly loyal and true. Charles Wang has completely destroyed this team. GM Garth Snow is a smart man and knows the game, but his hands are tied working for this owner. I wish I could say the future is bright and all that stuff, but I can't. At this point, I can't guarantee John Tavares will want to stick around past his entry-level deal if things continue like this. Yikes. It's ugly.

swaggaz39: As a long time Caps fan, I am [glad] that the Caps are out of the dark ages (2003-07), but I would like to nominate the Caps for the most inconsistent play over the last 12 or 15 games, when they have lost games and been shutout. Anyways, if the Caps can ever balance our unstoppable-ish offense and sound defense with good goaltending. I think they could make a long playoff run. Agree? Disagree?

My take: Monday night's meltdown to Toronto, coughing up a 4-1 lead with two late goals in the third period, is just another example of why people are concerned when it comes to Washington's playoff mettle. The team has to learn how to close out a victory. The Caps sat back way too much Monday, and allowed the Maple Leafs to establish a forecheck and get back into the game. Scott Hannan was a solid pickup, but this team still has to prove it can play good enough defense to win a championship.

1. Board of governors meetings

We are in West Palm Beach, Fla., for the NHL board of governors meetings Monday and Tuesday, and while you can't necessarily expect any hard news to break out at the posh resort where the governors are ensconced, there will be lots of discussion on the ownership front.

Of particular interest will be Matthew Hulsizer's first appearance before the board of governors' executive committee. The Chicago businessman is in the final stages of working up a new lease agreement with the City of Glendale, Ariz., and a final purchase price with the NHL to buy the long-troubled Phoenix Coyotes.

Sources continue to tell ESPN.com that everything is on track for both sides of the deal -- new lease and purchase price -- to be settled by Christmas, but the league will be in position after Dec. 31 to begin negotiations to relocate the team if a deal isn't in place, so there is some urgency to get everything squared away before the end of the calendar year. The time line on a final deal, along with how he plans to right the long-listing franchise, is sure to come up during Hulsizer's meeting with the executive committee on Monday.

As my colleague Pierre LeBrun reported over the weekend, commissioner Gary Bettman is expected to tell the owners that the salary cap will likely go up again next year, thanks in large part to the continued strength of the Canadian dollar, which has seen revenues continue to rise even though there are attendance problems in places such as Atlanta, Dallas, Long Island and Phoenix.

We are told the cap could go up about $3 million from the current $59.4 million.

USA Hockey officials are expected to discuss initiatives, and the governors will be brought up to speed on negotiations on national television contracts in the U.S., which come up at the end of this season.

2. Callahan's lack of suspension

Guess we really don't understand the NHL's blindside hits rule. We still don't understand how New York Rangers forward Ryan Callahan wasn't suspended for his elbow/forearm to the head of an unsuspecting New York Islanders forward, Frans Nielsen, on Friday night.

Callahan was whistled for an elbowing penalty, and Nielsen did not miss any time during the game between the Islanders and Rangers. But we thought the whole point of introducing sanctions against blows to the head against unsuspecting players was, well, to stop it. Nielsen did not see Callahan coming, and he sure didn't see the elbow/forearm as it connected with the side of his head, a hit that immediately dropped Nielsen to the ice.

Oh well, maybe next time. Or not. Funny how it was the Rangers, specifically Brandon Dubinsky, who accused Sidney Crosby of slew-footing Callahan during a recent game. Wonder what Dubinsky thought of Callahan's hit on Nielsen.

3. Flyers whirlwind year

A couple of anniversaries of note in the NHL this past week that illustrate positive change can be both swift and glacial.

In Philadelphia, Peter Laviolette celebrated his one-year anniversary as head coach of the Flyers. He took over a Flyers team that had underachieved early on for former head coach John Stevens. Although it took some time, Laviolette got the Flyers into the playoffs, after which they enjoyed one of the more remarkable playoff runs in franchise history, coming back from a 3-0 series deficit against Boston in the second round and advancing to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1997, losing in six games to Chicago. The Flyers this year look even more formidable under Laviolette and are considered, along with Pittsburgh and Washington, to be among the top teams in the Eastern Conference.

The other anniversary was the arrival of Brian Burke in Toronto two years ago. Burke's tenure has been significantly rockier than that of fellow American Laviolette. Burke's Leafs have not made the playoffs since the lockout, and there is every indication they'll miss again this year. Burke acknowledged last week that the team isn't where he envisioned it would be when he took the job after overseeing a Stanley Cup win in Anaheim.

Although he continues to be flayed for trading what looks to be two lottery picks for Phil Kessel (the Boston Bruins picked Tyler Seguin second overall with the Leafs pick last June and own the Leafs first-round pick in the 2011 entry draft), Burke's biggest challenge may lie ahead of him. Burke has steadfastly refused, at least publicly, to consider replacing head coach Ron Wilson, who is a close friend. And while he may not do so before the end of the season, another year without playoff revenues and no appreciable improvement in key areas like penalty-killing and the power play and Burke may have no choice next summer but to look for a coach who can move his Leafs forward.

4. Jackets weaknesses showing

When the season started, there weren't many folks who considered the Columbus Blue Jackets to be a playoff-worthy team. But their play under rookie head coach Scott Arniel through much of the first quarter of the season was one of the surprise stories early on in this campaign.

Now it's crunch time for Arniel and the Blue Jackets, who have started to look a lot like the team that sputtered through most of last season. Columbus has lost five straight games and has been outscored 22-8 over that period, highlighting two significant problems Arniel must deal with. The squad's defense hasn't been good enough through this stretch, and the widely-held belief that the Blue Jackets' blue line isn't mobile enough has been born out through this skid. The team's balanced scoring, a big part of the team's success early on, has dried up, too. Derick Brassard, for instance, has one goal in his last 13 games and one assist through the team's five-game slide. Jakub Voracek, likewise, has one assist in his last five games. And so on.

As of Monday morning, the Blue Jackets were still in playoff position, tied for the eighth spot with Nashville but technically ahead of the Preds based on their number of wins. So it's not too late for Columbus to get back on track. But this is the time in the season when water reaches its own level and the Blue Jackets will have to work hard to ensure they don't end up where many believed they would reside -- under the surface.

5. East's defense shifts balance of power

It's generally accepted that the balance of power continues to lie in the Western Conference, but it's interesting to note that the top four defensive teams in the NHL all reside in the Eastern Conference. Boston, Montreal, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, in that order, are allowing the fewest goals per game this season. Boston and Montreal are allowing fewer than two goals a game (Boston 1.88 per game and Montreal 1.96). Last year, those four teams finished second, 13th, 20th and 15th, respectively, which is a credit to the coaching staffs on all four of those teams. If it's true that defense wins championships, maybe observers shouldn't be so quick to dismiss the Eastern Conference, even if it is home to some of the worst teams in the NHL.

Burnside: This week's games to watch

November, 29, 2010
11/29/10
2:42
PM ET

Monday: Los Angeles Kings at Anaheim Ducks (10 p.m. ET)

The Kings have floundered of late, winning just once in their past seven outings and woke up Monday in ninth place in the Western Conference. They are just 5-7-0 on the road and face a Ducks team coming off a big win over red-hot Phoenix.
Prediction: Ducks keep Kings off balance at home.

Tuesday: Detroit Red Wings at San Jose Sharks (10:30 p.m. ET)

The Red Wings are coming off a big home-and-home sweep of upstart Columbus and opened the week on top of the conference standings. They will visit a Sharks team that has lost only two regulation games in its past 11 yet finds itself outside the playoff bubble in 10th place as the week begins.
Prediction: Sharks take bite out of Red Wings.

Wednesday: Boston Bruins at Philadelphia Flyers (7 p.m. ET)

The Bruins have just one win in their past five games but still boast one of the best road records (8-3-0) in the conference. The Flyers are rocking, though, with points in five straight games (3-0-2).
Prediction: Look for extra time in this one, but the Bruins will prevail.

Thursday: Atlanta Thrashers at Pittsburgh Penguins (7 p.m. ET)

The Thrashers hit the road for three straight this week, riding a five-game win streak that has vaulted them into the middle of the playoff mix in the conference. Pittsburgh, led by NHL scoring leader Sidney Crosby, has won six straight and is 8-1-1 in its past 10. Marc-Andre Fleury appears to have found his mojo once again.
Prediction: Should be a good one, but the Pens keep it rolling.

Friday: Columbus Blue Jackets at Buffalo Sabres (7:30 p.m. ET)

A sort of homecoming for Columbus coach Scott Arniel, who was an assistant in Buffalo for three years as well as playing for the Sabres. He'll be trying to keep his Blue Jackets from going off the rails after twin beatings at the hands of the Red Wings this past weekend. Meanwhile, the Sabres will be well rested, having been off since Saturday's 3-1 loss in Montreal. The Sabres are a woeful 4-8-1 at home this season.
Prediction: Sabres come up with a rare home W.

Last Week: 3-2

1. Model for stopping staged fights

Funny how sometimes it's the kids that get it right while the NHL dawdles. And once again it is major junior hockey that provided what should be a model for the NHL by moving to eliminate so-called staged fights. The Ontario Hockey League has introduced a midseason rule change to punish fights at the start of a period or before the start of a game that calls for offending players to be tossed out of the game in question and be suspended automatically for the next game. Teams are also subject to a $500 fine with increased sanctions for repeat offenders. The Western Hockey League has had a similar rule for the past two seasons and has practically eliminated the so-called staged bouts.

The NHL's GMs tried to stamp out this nonsense that regularly drags out NHL games and has zero impact on the outcome of contests. But the NHLPA, after impassioned pleas from thugs like Georges Laraque (now out of the game and deputy leader of the Green Party in Canada), balked at the change and the competition committee squashed the idea. How forward-thinking. No wonder NHL GMs in general believe the competition committee is irrelevant. Speaking of fighting, wonder how the Colorado Avalanche like the age-old manner of resolving a dispute now that star forward Chris Stewart is out indefinitely with a fractured hand thanks to a pointless fight in Saturday's 7-4 rout of Minnesota.

2. Howard still providing quality starts

Not so fast for those who were prepared to anoint the Columbus Blue Jackets this year's dark horse contender a la last year's Phoenix Coyotes. The Blue Jackets have been impressive, no doubt, but the Detroit Red Wings served notice that the old dogs can still hunt by sweeping a home-and-home affair from Columbus over the weekend.

It was an interesting clash given some of the parallels between the two teams.

Two years ago, Columbus netminder Steve Mason jumped from junior hockey to NHL stardom, winning the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year and adding a Vezina Trophy nomination to his youthful resume. Last season, Mason imploded and the Blue Jackets faded back into obscurity.

Last season, Detroit netminder Jimmy Howard emerged from a four-year apprenticeship in the AHL and shocked many by leading the injury-plagued Red Wings from deep in the standings into the playoffs for the 19th straight season. Howard was nominated for the Calder Trophy and received our top vote, although he was bested by Buffalo defenseman Tyler Myers (by the way, how's that sophomore season going, Tyler?).

Unlike Mason, though, Howard has continued to provide both consistency and quality between the Detroit pipes in his sophomore campaign.

Although peers Carey Price, Michal Neuvirth, Tim Thomas and Sergei Bobrovsky have received most of the goaltending attention through the first quarter of the season, Howard has quietly compiled a sparkling 13-2-2 record and the Wings are considered by most to be the best team in the Western Conference at the quarter pole (and among the top two or three teams in the league).

"He's earned the right to feel confident about himself," head coach Mike Babcock said recently.

Now, there is a fine line between confident and cocky, something Mason learned the hard way last season.

Howard, perhaps because he is older at 26, is quick to deflect praise for his play and just as quick to accept responsibility when he doesn't play well.

Babcock said that when he meets with the media after a game, "if he [Howard] hasn't played well he's already told the press he wasn't very good."

"He's accountable," the coach said.

For his part, Howard said it's easy not to become complacent in a dressing room with guys like Nicklas Lidstrom, having a Hart Trophy kind of season at age 40, and hard-working stars like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.

But here's the dilemma for the Wings: With Chris Osgood trying to rehab a lingering groin issue and not having played well when he was healthy, there are issues about the team's goaltending depth.

"He can't play every night," Babcock said of Howard.

With the Wings hard against the salary cap, it's going to present a dilemma for GM Ken Holland moving forward. That's to say nothing of the fact that Howard can become an unrestricted free agent at season's end. Stay tuned.

3. West remains the best

It is generally accepted that once again the Western Conference boasts the greatest concentration of talent in the NHL. While teams like Pittsburgh, Washington and Philadelphia have established themselves as the crème de la crème in the Eastern Conference, it's fair to ask whether their records are skewed by regularly beating up on some of the worst teams in the league like the New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils and Toronto Maple Leafs.

In the Western Conference, there are far fewer patsies as just nine points separated first-place Detroit and 13th place Nashville as of Monday morning.

The Western Conference is dominating inter-conference play, as well, with a 150-127-37 record as of Monday. Only Edmonton and Calgary have managed to compile a losing record against the 15 Eastern Conference teams.

Meanwhile, almost half of Eastern Conference teams (seven) had a losing record or were .500 when playing their western confreres.

What does it mean?

In general, it means teams in the West can expect to pay more dearly for losing streaks and inconsistent play.

As of Monday, the San Jose Sharks, considered by most a Cup contender at the start of the season, were in 10th place even though they were 5-2-3 through their past 10 games.

Disappointing? Yes. But the Sharks were also just one point out of the Pacific Division lead heading into play Monday.

4. Top eight tough to crack

The first quarter of the NHL season is in the books and the consensus among many hockey folk is that cracking the top eight in either conference becomes increasingly difficult through the balance of the season with the number of three-point games going up as the season moves along. Interesting to compare the standings on Dec. 1 last year to how things looked when the dust cleared last April 11 at the end of the regular season.

Over that period of time, just two teams per conference shuffled out of the top eight over the last 4½ months of the regular season.

In the Eastern Conference, the Atlanta Thrashers (fifth place as of Dec. 1) and the Tampa Bay Lightning (eighth) were the two interlopers who could not hang onto a postseason berth through the final three-quarters of the schedule. Atlanta and Tampa were replaced by the Montreal Canadiens, mired in 12th place in the conference at the start of December, and the Philadelphia Flyers, who were on the verge of making a coaching change (Peter Laviolette was named to the post on Dec. 4).

Of course, the Canadiens and the Flyers didn't just qualify for the playoffs, they ended up facing off in the Eastern Conference final.

In the Western Conference, the Calgary Flames were actually leading the Northwest Division on Dec. 1 before free-falling out of the playoff picture altogether. And the Columbus Blue Jackets were holding onto the eighth and final playoff spot at the start of December 2009. Detroit, which hit December in 10th place in the conference, and Vancouver (11th) supplanted those two teams.

What of this season?

Given the tightness of the standings (see above) it's not hard to imagine even more fluidity in the Western Conference standings between now and April. It would be shocking if the Sharks don't right the ship and make the playoffs. Likewise, the Los Angeles Kings, surprisingly in ninth place as of Monday, should be a playoff team given their talent.

Who would fall out?

We'll fall back on our preseason predictions and suggest that Dallas and Columbus may have the most difficulty sticking with the top eight in spite of impressive first-quarter starts.

In the Eastern Conference, we're not sure there will be any movement whatsoever given the inconsistency that has plagued New Jersey, Ottawa and Buffalo, three playoff teams from last season. Boston is currently in eighth place but has played fewer games than any other team in the conference, so that skews its current placing. In the end, it will come as little surprise if the current eight are the final eight come April in the East.

5. Hawks hope to rewind last season

Fans of the Chicago Blackhawks are hoping there is a sequel in the making as far as the team's goaltending situation goes.

After an up-and-down start to the season, the defending Stanley Cup champs are starting to round into form, but they are doing so with rookie netminder Corey Crawford backstopping the club instead of veteran free-agent acquisition Marty Turco.

Crawford was riding a four-game winning streak as the week began and has played in three of the past four games for the Hawks, including back-to-back victories over Los Angeles and Anaheim last week. Crawford, who started the season 1-4, has allowed just five goals in his past four starts and has stopped 98 of the past 103 shots he's faced.

Turco, meanwhile, has failed to find a groove since coming over from Dallas in the offseason. The veteran netminder has just one win in his past five starts and overall has a pedestrian 2.90 GAA and .904 save percentage.

Of course, Blackhawk fans have seen this movie before, and everything certainly turned out OK in the final reel last season.

Last season, Antti Niemi nudged Crawford out of the backup role during training camp and then supplanted veteran starter Cristobal Huet as the go-to guy for the Hawks midway through the season. Niemi and the Hawks, of course, ended up carting off Stanley Cup rings. Niemi signed with San Jose when the Blackhawks wouldn't agree to an arbitrator's ruling on salary, and Crawford, a 25-year-old Montreal native, was handed what was expected to be a supporting role behind Turco.

Our top 10 surprises so far this season

November, 26, 2010
11/26/10
11:27
AM ET

Steven Stamkos is the story of the opening quarter pole. The goal-a-game wunderkind has become an inspiring model of what hard work and dedication, combined with oodles of talent, can yield on the ice. But surprising? Not that much after last season's shared Rocket Richard honors with Sidney Crosby.

Here's a list of the 10 players that have so far surprised the hockey world (and feel free to come up with others!):

10. Andrew Ladd, Atlanta Thrashers

The newly named Thrashers captain is easily on pace to eclipse his career high of 49 points with Chicago two seasons ago, putting up 23 points (8-15) in 22 games as of Friday morning. Atlanta knew it was getting solid two-way game, leadership, character and toughness in Ladd, but did it count on him leading the team in scoring?

9. Marc Methot, Columbus Blue Jackets

The Jackets have had a lot of surprising performances but I keyed on this lad, who is playing top-four minutes while posting the second-best plus-minus on the team. Jackets GM Scott Howson also singled him out a few weeks ago to ESPN.com as a player who has delivered more than expected.

8. John-Michael Liles, Colorado Avalanche

It's safe to say no one had the 30-year-old leading all NHL blueliners in scoring at the quarter pole; combined with a plus-11 rating, he's been dynamite. Not bad for a guy seemingly always involved in trade rumors every season.


7. Justin Williams, Los Angeles Kings

OK, of all the choices at hand before the season, would any Kings fan have predicted Williams would be leading the team in scoring at Thanksgiving? Three straight injury-riddled seasons made you wonder if the former 76-point scorer could ever get it together again, but this season he's been the Williams of old. Here's hoping he stays healthy.

6. Ondrej Pavelec, Atlanta Thrashers

We're happy he's playing again after that scary early-season collapse, and he's been out of this world since his return. As of Friday morning, the goalie's .942 save percentage and 1.84 GAA are both third in the league (he never had a GAA under 3.00 before in his NHL career).

5. Brian Boyle, New York Rangers

The 25-year-old had 12 goals combined in three previous NHL seasons. He had 10 as of Friday morning. What the heck is going on? For starters, he worked on his skating with former world pairs figure skating champion Barb Underhill in the offseason, as recounted in a nice "Hockey Night in Canada" feature by my pal Elliotte Friedman in October.

4. Tim Thomas, Boston Bruins

That a former Vezina Trophy winner is having a great season is hardly a surprise on its own. But let's be honest -- when Tuukka Rask earned the No. 1 job last season, few people thought he'd ever relinquish it, especially with Thomas on the north side of 35. But surprise, surprise, indeed. Thomas told ESPN.com earlier this season that offseason hip surgery, along with a mental recharge, helped him get reenergized for this season. At 11-1-1 with a league-leading .955 save percentage, what else can you say?

3. Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens

Look back to most season previews in September and click on Montreal. Not too many people figured Price could fill Jaroslav Halak's skates after the Slovak's sensational (some would say miraculous) playoff performance last season. The pressure on Price this fall in one of hockey's biggest fishbowls was out of this world. And what does he do? Exceed anyone's expectations, except perhaps his own. Leading the NHL in wins at Thanksgiving? Raise your hand if you honestly predicted that would happen.

2. Dustin Byfuglien, Atlanta Thrashers

The naysayers were aplenty when the Thrashers announced before camp that Byfuglien would play defense this season. Why move this past spring's clutch power forward to defense? Made no sense, the critics said. Well, Byfuglien isn't going to turn into Rod Langway anytime soon in the defensive zone, but ranking second in the league among blueliners in scoring while playing quality minutes and not being a minus easily qualifies him as a nice surprise (unless, of course, you are GM Rick Dudley, coach Craig Ramsay or Byfuglien himself).

1. Sergei Bobrovsky, Philadelphia Flyers

Flyers center Danny Briere remembers first seeing the Russian at a skate with Flyers teammates before camp.

"At first I had no clue who that goalie was. Then we started taking penalty shots at the end of the practice. We couldn't score on him," Briere said with a laugh. "I was like, 'Who's this junior kid?' Then we realized who he was and that he'd likely start the season in [AHL] Adirondack."

With Michael Leighton out due to injury, Bob the Goalie made his North American debut to open the NHL season. And with a 12-3-1 record at Thanksgiving, that is a surprise!

Another week, another collection of excellent rants by our ESPN.com puck heads. Let's take a look:

Ivesty: Lebrun, When is Stamkos finally going to get the love like Ovi and Crosby? The kid ties Crosby for most goals last year, and is putting up better numbers than both Ovi and Crosby this year, with a weaker supporting cast. Yet, you barely hear boo about him... When are the NHL analysts going to finally give him his due? I am starting to lose all respect for all hockey analysts. Why can't they focus more attention on the other stars on the ice outside of DC and Pittsburgh? There are some very exciting players on teams all over the league, lets showcase all the NHL stars not just two.

My take: Oh my, what timing Ivesty! Check out the tremendous Stamkos feature from my colleague Scott Burnside. The best reporting on Stamkos since he's entered the league. Make sure to read it all.

Claven5577: I think the Islanders mess needs to be addressed in an unprecedented show of force by the league. The latest circus moments are the attempted circumvention of the SALARY FLOOR, increase of prices, dismissal of Billy Jaffe, 12-game losing streak, press credential pulling of Chris Botta, the complete and seemingly intentional destruction of this team by the ownership since they didn't get their Lighthouse Project approved, and the firing of Scott Gordon (coach #?) as a scapegoat for the incompetence and contempt this management crew seems to have for the fan base. Couple that with the endless amount of things over the LAST 20 YEARS (Milbury antics, other ownership issues including a con man buying the team, fishermen, NYLES, Yashin, yadda, yadda, yadda), and many people not even realizing this team still exists, the league has to say enough is enough. They are hurting the rich heritage of this once great team, the fans and the brand that is the NHL. League needs to expel Wang from ownership until a proper ownership group who will responsibly operate this franchise like a professional sports team is found. If that means picking them up and moving them to Quebec or Winnipeg so be it. I'd rather this team not exist than continue down this path of insanity.

My take: It is utterly sad, is it not? A rink that's half empty for every game, a team that's last overall in the league and the bizarre off-ice distractions like the Jaffe and Botta situations. First, let's be fair: not that many teams would survive the long-term injury losses of Mark Streit and Kyle Okposo, not to mention the other injuries. Those two guys were arguably the best two players on the team last season. Still, it's ugly. My biggest concern if I were an Islanders fan is what John Tavares and his powerful agent Pat Brisson (Crosby, Toews, Kane) will think once the star forward's entry-level contract is up in July 2012. Your top priority right now must be to make sure you don't lose his enthusiasm for wanting to stay in Long Island.

sjmarky: San Jose Sharks: Slow defense, mediocre goaltending, no chemistry, no intensity. Every other game they appear to be just going through the motions. Wilson chose McLellan to install a Detroit-style system, and then dealt away all the players who could play that system. This team is weaker than either of the last two, who couldn't win in the playoffs. Before the season, I figured the Sharks to finish third in the Pacific, sixth or seventh seed, and a first-round exit. I may be wrong -- they're not even that good. What do they need, other than three defensemen, a different coach and a captain who feels like playing once in a while?

My take: I wrote before the season that I thought they were a top-four blueliner short, having not replaced Rob Blake, and I think that's more clear than ever. My bet is that GM Doug Wilson will try to address that between now and Feb. 28. Also glaring is that outside of star defenseman Dan Boyle, they've only got two goals from the rest of the blue line corps combined. Jason Demers has been disappointing. I'm not as concerned with the goaltending, they'll be fine. The Sharks are right in the middle of the 30 teams averaging 2.74 goals against per game; it's not that bad, although it is off from the 2.55 they averaged last season, good for eighth in the league. Hang in there Sharks fan, way too early to give up on this talented team.

spiritfan8: Can we skip the team love, or lack thereof, for a minute and ask how it is remotely possible that not one single NHL exec has a problem with the fact that their head disciplinarian has just shown himself to have a big problem with impartiality? I really don't care how all the head guys are marching in lockstep and proclaiming in unison what a great guy Colin is, and how honorable he is. He effed up, pure and simple. ANY other business in the world, and he'd be out on his #### by now. Even for the NHL, this is absolutely breathtaking.

My take: The league's GMs and owners have indeed been solidly behind Campbell in the aftermath of this e-mail controversy. Even Marc Savard has! But I did have one NHL GM tell me last week that while he fully supports Campbell, he wonders if the episode doesn't at least warrant the discussion of whether or not it's time to change how the process for league discipline is performed. Whether or not this particular GM would bring that up internally with the league? Who knows.

rubyhawk204: Okay, last week's game between the Canes and the Pens had a goal that made no sense. The puck was under Peters, he got pushed by his own D-man and the puck ended up in the net. But that was after the whistle blew. After a lengthy review, the goal was called a "good" goal. How did the no-goal call on the ice get overturned with no concrete evidence either way? And even if the puck crossed the line slightly before the whistle, there's that whole "intent to blow" rule. Please explain this to me, I feel like I'm taking crazy pills!

My take: Actually that's an easy one. I checked on that with the league and the ref in question totally screwed up on that play. He should have stuck with his no-goal call and said that he was in the process of bringing the whistle to his mouth before the puck went in, which means it wasn't a reviewable play. That's why you saw Hurricanes head coach Paul Maurice gesturing like he had a whistle going to his mouth, that's what he was also arguing. And he was right.

rjs162: can i complain about all the same complaining every week?

My take: But that's the point! The weekly rant!

metaljunkie003: I'm sick of the stinkin' Red Wings fans always thinking their team gets no love! The team is good -- everyone understands they are one of the top Cup contenders. Everyone that's a real hockey fan -- in Detroit or not -- knows that Datsyuk is one of the best, if not THE best player in the league. Just because every time someone talks about hockey it is not necessarily about the Wings does NOT mean they get no love. I mean, Wings fans are basically saying "Our team is so good that everyone should just agree that we should stop playing right now and hand Lord Stanley's Cup over to them for infinite possession." I'm sick of it. Face it: there are other good teams in the league. They are going to be talked about sometimes. Get over it. Your precious Wings will be in the top five (most likely top three) of the Power Rankings most of the year, and they will be one of the favorites for the Cup. NOW STOP GRIPING ABOUT THE ATTENTION THEY SUPPOSEDLY DON'T GET!

My take: It is strange to see how many Red Wings complain to me about their team coverage. I've written so much about them in my career I can't even count how many stories. And I'm headed to Detroit soon to do another story on them. I mean, what else do you want Hockeytown fans!

StarZoneX: Pierre, I have read numerous comments that if a hockey fan plans to avoid watching the Winter Classic (and subsequent Crosby-Ovi hype) then they are not a true hockey fan. Somehow the media in Washington and Pittsburgh (as well as some national media) think we are not hockey fans because both the excessive Crosby-Ovi hype as well as the NHL's failure to recognize other stars (dare I say Western Conference stars) actually turns some of us lifelong fans off to this Winter Classic matchup. Must I really "bow down" to the Crosby-Ovi hype to be a "true" fan? Frankly, there is a good chance my alma mater will likely be playing on Jan 1 at the same time -- am I at least excused from watching this overhyped matchup?

My take: You can skip the game and you'll still be a good hockey fan, no worries pal. You may miss a thrilling affair, yes, between two teams that don't like each other, two superstars that don't like each other, and enough talent on an outdoor ice to make your head explode. Having said that, this will be my fourth Winter Classic and despite the electric matchup, I must admit they are beginning to look the same to me. But you know us jaded media types, we're like that.

MUTiger0834: When are the Columbus Blue Jackets gonna get some love and earn some respect that they deserve? You'd have to say that they are one of the best smaller market teams (and top NHL teams overall) so far in the early season (12-6-0 through November 21). And shockers of all shockers, they are 7-1 on the road, and coming off a three-game West road trip sweep. If this team can pick up their play at home and continue to "be greedy," as Coach Scott Arniel wants them to be, they could be a scary foe in the Western Conference. Even though it is early on, this franchise may have finally turned the corner...

My take: It hurts my feelings that you don't read our Cross Checks Blog. There on Nov. 4 you would have seen major "love" from yours truly on the surprising Blue Jackets. I also posed the question on twitter a few weeks ago, whether these Jackets were this year's Coyotes, the surprise team that comes out of nowhere. Got a mixed response from users but it's a question worth pondering.

justplayinj21: Pierre, I have wrote in every Monday. I am a diehard MN Wild fan. I can't seem to figure this team out. We win games that it doesn't look like we deserve but we keep taking some key games down. I am not so much venting, but how do we beat Detroit in Joe Louis then come home and get throttled by the Rangers?! Is it because it was the second game in two days? Also what do we need to do to get our five-on-five scoring up??? Do you believe once we get PMB and the Tenderness back we can start generating a lil more? Also remember you said the Wild will not make the playoffs... Sir you are wrong, and I continue to say I will wager anything you want on it!

My take: I spoke with Wild GM Cliff Fletcher last week and yes, five-on-five scoring is a major concern (29th in the league). Some of that comes from slow starts to the season from several regulars (who lack confidence right now, Fletcher said), including Havlat. But I also think Havlat has played his best hockey of the season over the past 10 days or so. Still, doesn't seem to be enough offensive jam on this team for them to make the playoffs.

jbowcott1414: Hi Toronto.

Let's meet up some time.

Sincerely,

The Back of the Net

My take: Haha, that's the best of the week. Well put. So you're saying being ranked 28th in the NHL in offense bothers you? Can't blame you. But it's also not surprising. Read any writer's preview on the Leafs from September and it'll say the team needed to win a lot of 2-1 games this year. That was the framework for this season. But what has killed the Leafs again this year on the other end of things has been the PK, ranked 28th in the league. When you can't score goals, you need your PK to stop the other team from doing so.

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