Cross Checks: Dany Heatley
After a lackluster 4-1 loss Sunday night to the lowly Calgary Flames, the Wild woke up Monday to find that they'd sunk into a tie with the Columbus Blue Jackets for the final two playoff berths in the Western Conference, with the Detroit Red Wings just three points back with a game in hand.
Now, credit Joey MacDonald, who was stellar for the Flames, stopping 34 of 35 shots. But, come on, these are the Flames -- a team long banished from playoff contention. The Wild's offense, never the team's strong suit and less so with Dany Heatley out with injury, continues to sputter. Minnesota has only three wins in its past 11 games and has gone from battling the Vancouver Canucks for the top spot in the Northwest Division to fighting for its playoff life, a fall that is mindful of the Wild's great descent from the top of the standings midway through last season to a 12th-place finish in the conference.
During this 11-game span, the Wild have been outscored 33-19. Sorry, that won't cut it.
Even though Zach Parise and linemate Mikko Koivu combined for 15 shots Sunday, the Wild are going to need more finish or this season is going to end quickly, whether they make the playoffs or not.
The Wild still control their destiny in the race against the surging Blue Jackets (who came up with a huge 4-3 road win Sunday against the San Jose Sharks) and with the Red Wings, Dallas Stars and Phoenix Coyotes lurking in the weeds. The fact that the Wild play the Edmonton Oilers and Colorado Avalanche down the stretch (along with the Los Angeles Kings) should help pave the way to their first postseason berth in five years.
Of course, we would have thought that heading into Sunday's game, too.
Unlike most people, I’m not singling out the refs. The game is faster than ever. Trying to identify illegal checks to the head at that speed isn’t going to be an exact science.
Let’s also be fair to say that the refs are trying to protect the players -- hits to the head have been a huge topic over the past five years -- so they have been perhaps a little too aggressive this season, but the intent is the right one.
Yes, David Backes' match penalty Friday in Detroit was bogus, and so was Andrew Desjardins' penalty Tuesday night. Neither hit was to the head. Both match penalties were ultimately rescinded by the NHL after the fact, but little good that did for St. Louis and San Jose, respectively.
So there’s a lot at stake in a league where the standings are so tight.
But you’re always going to have human error at play because of the speed of the game.
Solution? Here’s an idea I’ve heard that has some merit: Why not have a third ref who watches the game from the press box with access to HD replay, etc.? He could review, on the spot, all the controversial calls and help reverse them in obvious cases like Backes and Desjardins, communicating directly to the refs just like the war room does on goal reviews.
The downside? It further slows down the game, which goal reviews already do.
But it’s something worth thinking about.
Another idea that’s already finding new life after being bandied about in years past is the merit of a coach’s challenge, where a coach could ask for a penalty to be reviewed. Two NHL head coaches reached out to me this week and suggested it’s time to renew that debate.
I don’t mind it but prefer the first idea. My fear with the coach’s challenge is that coaches would want to challenge anything near the end of a game out of desperation. The first idea involves a neutral person.
Caps looking?So what do you do if you’re the 2-7-1 Washington Capitals?
Well, you start working the phones.
Sources around the league indicate that indeed Caps GM George McPhee has begun to do just that.
That doesn’t mean anything will materialize -- the trade market hasn’t really got buzzing yet with teams too eager to move parts -- but at the very least, the word on the street is that McPhee is inquiring to see what’s out there.
If he does do anything, I’m guessing he deals from his blue-line depth to pick up a forward who can help bolster a sagging offense that is producing just 2.3 goals per game (24th in the NHL as of Wednesday morning).
There was lots of buzz over the weekend when Vancouver’s one-two front-office punch of Mike Gillis and Laurence Gilman showed up in Washington for a game against Pittsburgh. But my understanding is that the Caps aren’t interested in Roberto Luongo, as his contract is too much to take on.
I think the hope in Washington is that Caps netminders Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby can snap out of it on their own. Given how well Holtby played last season, that’s not an unfounded desire.
Three things need to happen for the Caps to get going:
1. Get more saves from their goalies.
2. Get Alex Ovechkin to wake up.
3. Get Brooks Laich back in the lineup.
Laich was at practice again Wednesday. Although it’s not clear when he’ll be back, it shouldn’t be too much longer. He’s one of those glue guys in this lineup, and his return should have a nice impact.
Wild changesOne of the NHL’s top lines early in the season has been altered, with Dany Heatley removed from Minnesota’s No. 1 unit Wednesday in practice.
Heatley skated on the second line with Matt Cullen and Pierre-Marc Bouchard, while rookie Charlie Coyle got the big promotion with the big dogs Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise.
I applaud the move by coach Mike Yeo because his team has been way too reliant on the top unit early in this season. Yeo cautioned to local media Wednesday that these moves weren’t written in stone, but I’m betting come Thursday’s game against the Vancouver Canucks he goes with these changes.
The Wild need to get production from other lines, so this might balance out the scoring a little. Of course, the move is also happening because Heatley has struggled. Perhaps new linemates will get him going again.
Winger Devin Setoguchi (zero goals in nine games) and highly touted rookie Mikael Granlund (one goal in nine games) both began the season on the second line but struggled mightily.
Since scoring a career-high 31 goals in 2008-09 in San Jose, the 26-year-old Setoguchi hasn’t been able to get back to that plateau, putting up 20 goals in 2009-10, 22 goals in 2010-11 in his final season in San Jose and 19 goals last season with the Wild.
It makes you wonder if the Wild wouldn’t be willing to move him. But I was told Wednesday that the team isn’t ready to do that yet. They need to score goals and view him as part of that solution whenever he gets his game back on track.
- Wild winger Dany Heatley is suing his former agent and his former agent's parents, alleging that his funds were mismanaged and that unauthorized withdrawals were made from his bank accounts, according to Canada's Globe and Mail. “It’s a sad tale of mismanagement,” J.P. Barry, Heatley's agent since 2004, told the Globe.
- New Islander Lubomir Visnovsky was not seriously injured in a car accident in his native Slovakia, according to TSN.
- Ducks GM Bob Murray on Friday disputed claims by a Michigan woman that he assaulted her with a chair in the press box during a Stanley Cup playoff game in Detroit in 2009, according to the Detroit Free Press. Closing arguments in the civil suit were scheduled for Monday.
- A recent trip to Haiti brought forth perspective for a few Penguins players and their wives, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports. "Nothing prepares you for what you witness," Penguins center Joe Vitale told the Post-Gazette on Friday, a day after their three-day mission trip.
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- It shouldn’t be any kind of a shock at this point in the proceedings. Still, it always seems just a little incongruous to see Ilya Kovalchuk on the ice in the waning moments of a game in which the New Jersey Devils are protecting a lead.
In the old days, of course, if Kovalchuk was on the ice in that situation, it meant he’d slipped over the boards while Bob Hartley or any of the other NHL coaches he has played under happened to be looking the other way.
That Pete DeBoer has for a long time shown no hesitation in using Kovalchuk thusly, that he trusts him to do the right thing, get the puck out of danger, not get caught behind the play, is merely a reflection of his significant maturation as a player and a person.
It was so again in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals, when Kovalchuk and linemates Zach Parise and Travis Zajac enjoyed their best game of the series as the Devils squeaked out a 2-1 victory to set up a sixth game in Los Angeles on Monday night.
We had a chance to chat with Kovalchuk’s longtime pal from their shared days in Atlanta, Dany Heatley, not long ago, and DeBoer’s confidence in Kovalchuk was not lost on Heatley.
Neither was he surprised by any of it.
Heatley recalled a visit with Kovalchuk before Kovalchuk was traded to the New Jersey Devils at the 2010 trade deadline. Usually it was the two friends hanging out having dinner. But on this night, Kovalchuk had his wife and children in tow.
"It kind of hit me that he’s grown up," Heatley said. "I think you see that [maturity] in his game, too.
"The guy’s had such a great career."
Perhaps because he played on teams that weren’t high profile or Cup contenders, as was the case first in Atlanta and then when he first arrived in New Jersey, his accomplishments have been underappreciated, Heatley suggested.
Now a member of the Minnesota Wild, Heatley will always remember with great fondness breaking into the NHL with Kovalchuk in Atlanta.
Kovalchuk was the first overall pick in the 2001 draft, a year after Heatley was the second overall pick. They roomed together, and it was Heatley who would regularly order food -- either in restaurants or via room service -- for Kovalchuk, whose English still needed some work.
Former GM Don Waddell likewise has memories about Kovalchuk and his evolution from a shy Russian teen to the family man he has become today.
Even from the moment he met Kovalchuk before drafting him, Waddell said he was impressed with Kovalchuk’s knowledge of the NHL game.
"He’d done his homework and followed the NHL. To me that just showed his whole passion, not just for his game, but to play in the NHL," Waddell said.
Although Kovalchuk might not have been a defensive stalwart, Waddell said he never once had to sit Kovalchuk down to ask him to work harder. Sometimes people misconstrue a lack of defensive responsibility with a lack of effort, Waddell said. They are separate qualities.
Off the ice, Waddell recalled that when tailors would come by the practice rink to offer specially-made suits to the players, Kovalchuk made sure that the training staff would also get suits made and that he would pick up the tab.
"Kovy’s a very generous person," Waddell said. "I’m proud of him. I’m proud of him as a person."
Humble Henrique in the middle of it all
There were a couple of mighty scrums in the third period of Game 5. One involved veteran forwards Jeff Carter and 40-year-old New Jersey netminder Martin Brodeur.
The other occurred at the other end of the ice and involved Kings netminder Jonathan Quick and Devils rookie Adam Henrique.
Now, in the middle of the Stanley Cup finals, the last place you might expect to find many NHL rookies will be under a pile of opposing players with his nose in the opposing team’s crease.
But in many ways Henrique isn’t like most NHL rookies.
The Calder Trophy nominee as rookie of the year was, of course, the hero in Game 4, scoring on a delightful play late in the third period to give the Devils a 3-1 victory.
We talked to Henrique’s old Windsor Spitfires teammate Ryan Ellis in the wake of that goal and he said what struck him about Henrique’s play was the matter-of-fact nature of the aftermath.
He didn’t launch himself into the glass. He didn’t ride his stick like a pony a la Tiger Williams but merely skated back toward the bench with his arms stretched in the air.
"It was typical Henrique," Ellis, now with the Nashville Predators, told ESPN.com. "I can’t say I’m really too surprised."
While in Windsor, Henrique might not have had the highest profile on a team chock full of top-end players such as Taylor Hall, who went first overall to the Oilers in the 2010 draft, or Ellis, who was the 11th overall pick in the 2009 draft.
Henrique wasn’t selected until the 82nd pick in the 2008 draft and started this season in the minors before assuming significant responsibilities with the Devils.
"That’s how he plays," Ellis said. "He kind of leads by example. He’s always calm and cool."
And if there wasn’t much attention paid to him while in junior hockey, "he sure deserves it now," Ellis said.
If there’s a GM who knows what Columbus' Scott Howson is going through right now, it’s certainly Bryan Murray.
The veteran GM of the Ottawa Senators was faced with an all-too-familiar plight when two-time 50-goal scorer Dany Heatley sprung a trade demand on him at the end of the 2008-09 season.
So when the Rick Nash situation came to light a couple of weeks ago in Columbus, Murray could certainly relate.
"The first thing that came to mind is that [Heatley and agent J.P. Barry] didn’t ask for a trade until the year was over," Murray told ESPN.com. "And the reason they gave their reason is that the coach [then Cory Clouston] didn’t treat Dany right, there was a specific person they had an issue with. At least they gave me a legitimate reason. I don’t know what Rick gave Scott other than, 'The team’s no good, I want out of here.' I don’t know that. But it’s tough to live it. It’s tough to be put on the spot like that. It puts a lot of pressure on management to filter through the demands, the offers, or whatever it may be."
Frankly, when it comes to the Columbus situation, I believe it’s more of a mutual understanding. Yes, Nash wants out. But let’s be honest here and realize the team also wants to move Nash to kick-start the rebuilding process.
Still, because Nash has a no-movement clause, just like Heatley did, the player has tremendous control over the proceedings. A trade will only happen if the player accepts the team he’s going to.
"We got a list as well, it narrows the field and it puts a lot of pressure on the franchise," Murray said.
San Jose was Heatley’s top preference, and Sharks GM Doug Wilson played it brilliantly because of that knowledge. He had all the leverage.
"There was a real preference on their part of where to go," Murray said. "Doug Wilson knew that in the end. He didn’t want to do it before July 1 when the money [a $4 million bonus] kicked in. No. 2, it limited me in what I could demand because of a lack of options. If Scott [Howson] is put in that spot, it does make it really difficult on the organization."
Murray even tried to make a trade with Edmonton but Heatley shot it down, as was his right within the realm of the no-movement clause. I don’t recommend Howson trying that with Nash.
In the end, Murray had to accept an offer from the Sharks he wasn’t overly thrilled with at the time (Milan Michalek, Jonathan Cheechoo and a second-round pick) because the whole saga dragged into September. As it turns out, Michalek has been a terrific player for the Senators and is having a career year. But at the time, it felt like Ottawa was being dictated to. Murray could have let it drag on into the 2009-10 season to perhaps have Heatley give him more options, but once he saw the disgruntled star show up to camp, Murray felt he had to cut bait.
"I just felt we couldn’t go through any further," Murray said. "It would poison the situation. It wouldn’t help us. That’s what I told ownership, that keeping him around and having a sour person hurts you and hurts what you’re trying to do. Again, I don’t know the Columbus situation enough but I would think if he went back to camp next year, it’s an awfully tough way to start a season."
Murray said he agrees with Howson's decision to not deal Nash before Monday’s trade deadline because he didn’t get the price he was asking for (I disagree. I think Howson should have just grabbed the best deal and got it over with instead of letting this drag on.)
"I would say that the more opportunity Howson has to talk to other teams, the better chance both parties have of getting a deal done," Murray said.
"The friendly advice is, get together with the agent and the player. Work with them. Allow the manager to extend the field of teams. That will allow him to complete a trade that on some level is satisfactory to the franchise as well. [Nash and his agent] at least owe him that."
I’m not sure Nash owes anything to the Jackets. He’s played his tail off for them for a decade and hasn’t gotten much support in the form of proper talent surrounding him in return. Having said that, it might behoove Nash, as Murray suggested, to extend his list just a little come June to facilitate his exit. After all, that’s what Nash wants: to get out.
He might as well have been speaking for the entire Minnesota Wild organization.
With two wins in their past 16 games (2-10-4), the once NHL-leading Wild are hanging on for their playoff lives while trying to preserve their wits.
"The only way to get out of this is to believe in the guys in the room and believe in yourself,” a composed Setoguchi told ESPN.com after practice. "You have to get that confidence in you. Right now we’re a group with injuries, which is never an excuse, but everyone needs to step up and be better. And that includes myself, the guys that are looked at for scoring -- that’s a big piece of the puzzle we’re looking for right now.’’
There’s certainly extra pressure on a sniper such as Setoguchi. The Wild have scored more than two goals only three times during this 16-game free-fall, massive injuries depleting their ranks, including dropping three of their top six forwards (Mikko Koivu, Guillaume Latendresse and Pierre-Marc Bouchard).
Setoguchi has two goals in his past 11 games. Linemate Dany Heatley has four goals in his past 16 games. There’s almost no secondary scoring behind them -- the Wild are 29th in the NHL in offense -- which puts even more pressure on the two first-line wingers.
Hence, when Setoguchi missed the net on a drill at the Maple Leafs’ suburban practice facility Wednesday, he flashed some anger.
"We’re having a tough time scoring goals right now,’’ Setoguchi said. "If you want to score in games, you have to try and score in practice. When they’re not going in, in practice, you’re like ... well, you try not to get frustrated.’’
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Warren Peters, he of the 62 career NHL games, was centering the top line Wednesday between Heatley and Setoguchi.
"We’re ready to experiment; we’re ready to try some things,’’ coach Mike Yeo explained after practice. "The status quo is not what we’re looking for right now.’’
Fresh off a 5-1 pasting Tuesday night in Philadelphia, the Wild held a team meeting before practice Wednesday. Right now, the psychological battle is as daunting as the X’s and O’s.
"It’s huge,’’ said Yeo, a terrific hire by the Wild last summer. "That’s what we talked about today before practice. I wanted to get the players to talk about it as well. Right now, if something bad happens, the wheels fall off. We get away from what it is we’re supposed to do. The thing is, I know everybody cares and everybody really wants to do the right thing. But we have to channel that the right way. We can’t have guys having individual efforts and trying to compensate for personnel being out or something bad happening in the game -- because that’s when things spiral out of control for you.’’
This is the biggest challenge yet in Yeo’s rookie head-coaching season. He told ESPN.com on Wednesday that he’s exchanged text messages with his former coaching partner Dan Bylsma in Pittsburgh. After all, both coaches can draw parallels with their challenges that come with trying to overcome injuries.
The Wild hook up with the Maple Leafs here in Toronto on Thursday night in a game that pits two anxious teams, the local squad having lost three games in a row to sit outside a playoff spot in the East. The first goal will be huge. The Leafs are facing the most pressure they’ve felt all season after falling out of a playoff spot. The Wild, meanwhile, are a fragile bunch, to say the least.
"It’s tough right now,” Heatley said Wednesday. "We said it when things were going good: Teams go through good and bad stretches. We’re in the midst of a real bad one. Obviously we’re pretty banged up, but we need to find a way to win some games.’’
The GM is doing his best to try to lend a helping hand. Chuck Fletcher said Wednesday he already was planning on trying to add offense via trade back when his team was healthy, let alone with the ensuing injuries. Now with the Wild's top player, Koivu, going down, Fletcher has ramped up those efforts. But finding a top-six forward is a challenge.
As I reported in my weekend notebook last week, Vaclav Prospal of the Blue Jackets, a UFA on July 1, could be a target for Minnesota since Fletcher has a history with him. Other forwards who generally could be on the move before Feb. 27 include Ales Hemsky in Edmonton, Kristian Huselius and Antoine Vermette in Columbus, Brad Boyes in Buffalo and Tuomo Ruutu in Carolina, just to name a few.
"It’s not easy just to go out and get an impact player in January,’’ Fletcher said. "There’s a lot of teams [and] people competing for similar assets, too. We’ll see what happens. I’ll try to do something if it makes sense. If it’s not there, I’m not going to force it.’’
For the Wild, the hope is that this dark period will strengthen them in the long run. Coming out of this rut, they hope, will make them a stronger group.
"We believe in each other,’’ Heatley said. "We know we can win games together. It’s another opportunity tomorrow night.’’
And you try to find motivation wherever you can find it.
"Everyone who wrote about us at the start of the year, saying we’d be in last place, they’re smiling, I’m sure, right now,’’ Setoguchi said. "We can use that as motivation. We were first overall [in mid-December]; we know what we need to do. We’re in a funk, but we believe in here.
"We’re still in a playoff spot, which is hard to believe after the last 16-17 games,’’ Setoguchi added. "Right now it’s playoff hockey for us. It starts now.’’
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
Craig Custance and Pierre LeBrun debate the Kings, Sharks and the rest of the Pacific Division:
Custance: Good morning, Pierre. Hope you didn't stay up too late watching the Sharks play the Kings, but I know you never miss a San Jose game. So let's start there. I don't think it's a stretch at all to call that the biggest win of the season so far for the Kings. Until last night, they struggled against some of the Western Conference elite. They were already 0-1-0 against their rival Sharks. They have losses to Vancouver, Detroit and Chicago this season and scored a total of seven goals in those four games leading up to last night. So they needed this one.
Jonathan Quick outplayed Antti Niemi, who probably would like Ethan Moreau's bad-angle goal back, one that gave the Kings an early 1-0 lead. Sharks coach Todd McLellan didn't think his team tested Quick nearly enough, especially early in the game, and that's a credit to the Kings' team defense, not to mention a penalty kill that was perfect against five Sharks power plays. Had Dustin Brown's goal been allowed, it would have been a three-goal night for the Kings' struggling offense, and that's plenty for Quick. The statement win by the Kings takes them from outside the top eight to No. 6 in the West, passing San Jose. Suddenly, the Kings are just one point behind the Stars in the Pacific.
LeBrun: I did stay up and watch because Pacific Division hockey is tough to beat in this league. It was a big victory in many ways for the Kings; I agree with you there, Craig. The Kings entered that game only 6-6-1 at home this season, and I know that concerned management. The cream of the crop in this league excels at home. That has to happen in Los Angeles for the Kings to remain with the big boys for the rest of the season.
For the Sharks, it's the first time they've lost two in a row since dropping three straight in the second week of the season. I don't see any real reason to worry. They deserved a better fate Saturday night against Vancouver but got stoned by Cory Schneider and outdueled by Quick on Monday. One concern I do have is with one of my favorite players in the league, Dan Boyle. The veteran defenseman has gone seven games without earning a point. It's not often you see that from the dependable Boyle.
Custance: I thought Sharks beat writer David Pollak did a fantastic job analyzing Boyle's struggles this season in a Sunday story in the San Jose Mercury News. Boyle, as always, was very candid and talked about how the game has changed, and that has forced him to adapt. He said he can no longer generate offense in the neutral zone, which has long been a part of his game, because of the way teams play now. It was interesting to read about a 35-year-old accomplished veteran admitting to struggles with confidence and probably overanalyzing his own game.
Now, let's overanalyze the game of someone else. The Wild won last night in an impressive bounce-back victory against the Lightning. They won despite another underwhelming effort from Dany Heatley. The official box score had him down for two giveaways, but that total was much kinder than my unofficial scoring at home. One Heatley turnover led directly to a Steven Stamkos goal. Late in the game, Heatley had trouble scoring on an open net, a moment that highlighted his offensive struggles. If Heatley maintains his current pace, he'll finish with just 21 goals. The bright side is the Wild keep winning, but can you imagine how they would perform if he could return to All-Star form?
LeBrun: If Heatley was the same All-Star scorer of the past, the Sharks wouldn't have traded him. The thing is, the Wild had to get Martin Havlat out of Minnesota, plain and simple. He wanted out, and a few Wild players wanted him out, so it was a trade that pleased everyone. It's important to remember that from GM Chuck Fletcher's perspective. Still, the Wild are 28th in the NHL in goals per game. At some point, that's going to drag this team back down the standings. When I spoke with Fletcher earlier this month, his belief was that once Heatley grew more comfortable in his new settings, he would take off. But so far, there's no evidence of that.
Speaking of teams that can't score, how about the reeling Anaheim Ducks? They're 29th in the league in goals and just a point out of the basement in the overall standings. From what I have been hearing in the past 24 hours, big changes could be coming, whether that's in the form of a trade or coaching change. One way or another, I think GM Bob Murray is poised to try to do something significant as early as this week.
Custance: Interesting to hear Bobby Ryan's name appear in the trade rumors. Kevin Paul Dupont of the Boston Globe floated the idea of a trade between the Ducks and Bruins that would send David Krejci to Anaheim in return for Ryan. You have to assume Toronto GM Brian Burke, who knows Ryan well, would at least kick the tires. Not sure trading Ryan is a good solution to boost scoring, but it's fascinating to hear that one of Anaheim's big three could be in play.
Let's not forget, it was Murray who got a huge return for Chris Pronger, so no one is untouchable. It'll be interesting to see whether Murray goes the trade route rather than a coaching change to shake things up. Washington and Carolina made big moves behind the bench Monday, and we get to see new coaches Dale Hunter and Kirk Muller in action tonight for the first time. Hunter takes on the Blues, where Ken Hitchcock is proving that a new voice can make a big difference.
I asked Florida coach Kevin Dineen what has impressed him the most about Hitch's Blues after they played the Panthers, and he said it was the consistency from line to line.
"There's not a whole lot of deception out there. He has them playing the way that team has to play," Dineen said. "I would describe it as straightened and very team-oriented, meaning that they come at you and if there's one guy on the puck, there's always someone else in that area code to try and help him out. It's very reliant on players helping each other more than the individual."
Washington and Carolina could use some of that.
LeBrun: Also of interest to me tonight is Vancouver hosting Columbus with Schneider making his sixth straight start in goal for the Canucks. Coach Alain Vigneault insisted Monday that Roberto Luongo remains the No. 1 goalie, but he's just riding the hot hand right now as his team needs wins. It's a fascinating tale, to be sure, given how Luongo's season ended against Boston in June. It also continues to boost Schneider's trade value if the Canucks decide to move him. That's no sure thing, either.
Three trades involving big names between the two clubs from June to August seem to be helping. The Wild and Sharks were a combined 16-7-4 heading into Thursday night's meeting between the two teams at HP Pavilion.
"This is the way deals should work," Sharks GM Doug Wilson told ESPN.com on Thursday.
"I truly believed both teams could benefit from these trades, and certainly early on it appears both teams have," Wild GM Chuck Fletcher told us.
Let's review the moves:
• On June 24 before the first round of the NHL draft in Minnesota, the Wild sent star blueliner Brent Burns to San Jose in exchange for winger Devin Setoguchi, prospect Charlie Coyle and a key piece: a first-round pick that night (which became center Zach Phillips from Saint John of the QMJHL).
• On Aug. 7, Minnesota traded injured forward James Sheppard to San Jose in exchange for a third-round pick in 2013.
From San Jose's perspective, the moves were meant to inch the Sharks closer to a Stanley Cup after back-to-back conference finals appearances. In Burns, they acquired the marquee top-four blueliner they craved (one that's going to be around for a long time). In Havlat, they got a winger with more speed than Heatley, an element that was lacking last season. And although Havlat missed the first four games of the season with a shoulder injury, he is easing his way back into form.
"To get that type of defenseman at 26 is very rare, so that's why we felt we had to be aggressive," said Wilson.
So far, so good; the Sharks look locked and loaded for another spring run.
"You can't underestimate the roles of Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture in all this, and our belief that they could take on bigger roles this season," said Wilson. "Plus, we added Michal Handzus for the third line, which was important."
The trades were a little trickier from Minnesota's perspective. The Wild were coming off another disappointing season, the third straight without a trip to the playoffs. Something big had to be done. The intent was to get better now, but also for the future. That was a more difficult challenge, but Fletcher pulled it off.
"I thought we were treading water, at best," Fletcher said of his frame of mind late last season. "In order to compete, both in the short and long term, we needed to make moves."
The Burns deal netted him a lot of future assets, plus an immediate impact winger in Setoguchi.
"By trading Brent Burns, who was clearly our most marketable commodity, and a great player, we got the opportunity to get three young, quality assets for one player, and we felt in our position we had no choice to make that deal," said Fletcher.
It surprised no one that the Wild traded Havlat; it was a move both the player and team were happy to support. The Czech winger just never fit in well in Minnesota, and after his agent publicly complained about his ice time under former coach Todd Richards last season, you knew his future with the Wild was in doubt. Heatley didn't have a strong postseason with the Sharks, so they were willing to move him if it meant upgrading their speed on the wings.
"It's not often you trade a 30-year-old All-Star, left shot, right-winger for a 30-year-old, left shot, right-winger," Fletcher said with a chuckle. "It was purely a hockey trade."
Heatley had balked at a trade to Edmonton a few years ago after asking for a trade out of Ottawa, but Fletcher knew the winger was OK with Minnesota.
"I had discussions with [Senators GM] Bryan Murray a few years ago about Heatley and there was never any suggestion at that point that it would be an issue if there were a trade with Minnesota,'' said Fletcher.
In the end, both clubs addressed their needs; and in a salary-cap era when trades are more difficult to pull off, hats off to both GMs for finding a way.
"I have great respect for Chuck," said Wilson. "He shared his position with us and what he was trying to accomplish. He was very open about it. These deals helped both organizations."
Heatley leads the Wild in scoring with 10 points (5-5) in 14 games.
"He's worked hard, he's a plus player, we're seeing a player that's getting more and more comfortable with each game and he's starting to get more and more scoring chances and starting to get more and more chemistry and cohesion with his linemates, which now are Mikko Koivu and Guillaume Latendresse," said Fletcher. "I fully expect once we get to the 20-25 game mark, he'll be an even more comfortable player than he is now.'"
Overall, however, the Wild still only rank 26th in the NHL in goals per game. Their winnings ways are largely from their second-best defensive record.
"We expect more and we need more from out top two lines on a consistent basis," said Fletcher. "The biggest issue so far has been the power play [ranked 25th]. I liked what I saw Tuesday night in Calgary, but our power play overall has been below average. We're going to need to score more goals to continue to compete with the best teams in the West. No question."
1. Surprising Stars? Maybe we shouldn't be surprised
Maybe it was the loss of former playoff MVP Brad Richards to free agency, or the uncertainty surrounding the team's ownership, or the way the Dallas Stars collapsed down the stretch last season. But it was somehow easy to dismiss the team as the 2011-12 season approached.
Well, the Stars have roared to a 5-1-0 record and a share of top spot in the Western Conference in the early stages of the new season.
GM Joe Nieuwendyk pointed out that the Stars weren't exactly chopped liver with 95 points in 2010-11 (tied for the most points recorded by a team that failed to make the playoffs).
Yes, Richards signed as a free agent with the New York Rangers, but the Stars added Stanley Cup winner Michael Ryder and reclamation project Sheldon Souray, who was banished by Edmonton and spent last season in the American Hockey League. Souray has been terrific early on, and his five points tie him for the team lead with Mike Ribeiro, Steve Ott and Jamie Benn.
"You don't lose that big shot even if you've been out of the league for a year," Nieuwendyk told ESPN.com.
The Stars GM, a Hall of Fame player, knows firsthand Souray has a bit of a mean streak, and that mean streak has been on display for the Stars, who have allowed just 13 goals in six games. Perhaps most important, Souray doesn't have to be all things to all people, a burden he carried in his last two stops in Montreal and Edmonton (where he signed big-dollar contracts).
Ryder, too, has been a pleasant surprise, Stars rookie coach Glen Gulutzan told ESPN.com. Ryder had scored in two straight games but was also on the ice in the waning moments of Tuesday's 3-2 road win in Columbus.
"He's another guy that doesn't have the weight of the world on his shoulders," Gulutzan said. "His two-way game has surprised me, too."
Even with the early success, the Stars have struggled to attract crowds (the fall remains the domain of the Dallas Cowboys, college football and the World Series-bound Texas Rangers). But if, as expected, ownership is stabilized in the near future and the Stars keep playing as they have, they're going to be hard to ignore in Dallas and around the NHL.
"Hopefully our story will get out there," Nieuwendyk said.
2. Buffalo's latest rookie sensation
After just one American Hockey League game last season, he was asked by reporters if he had it in him to follow in the path of two Sabres prospects, Nathan Gerbe and Tyler Ennis, who had earned top rookie honors the previous two seasons.
"That was after my first professional hockey game," Adam recalled with a laugh in an interview this week. Now, after going on to win top rookie honors in the AHL, the easy-going forward is answering similar questions about his ability to follow up Tyler Myers' rookie exploits in 2010 and take home the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie.
"The guys have given me a little rookie razzing. It's cool," Adam said after posting three goals and three assists in his first five games for the 4-1-0 Buffalo Sabres.
It may appear as though the 21-year-old Adam has fallen out of nowhere to assume a share of the rookie scoring lead ahead of more high-profile first-year players such as No. 1 overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of Edmonton and Gabriel Landeskog of the Avs, but his production probably shouldn't come as a surprise. Adam was tied for the AHL rookie lead in goals, points and plus-minus, despite playing in just 57 games for Portland. Adam also got a taste of NHL life. He was called up six times last season, and his stays in Buffalo ranged from one day to one month.
The big winger's father, Russ Adam, was a Windsor native who played eight NHL games with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the early 1980s. He moved to Newfoundland to play senior hockey, and there he met and married Adam's mother, who owns a hair salon.
"He went there for two weeks, and 25 years later, he's still there," Adam said of his father.
Adam said he understands it's early for any talk of trophies. "There's lots of work to be done," he said.
Still, he wouldn't mind following in the steps of fellow Newfoundlanders Dan Cleary, who became the first Newfoundlander to bring home the Cup in 2008, and Ryder, who won a Cup with Boston last season.
3. The importance of Ryan Kesler
You don't have to go too far into the stats to figure out that Ryan Kesler is not just a key piece of the Vancouver Canucks' machinery, but maybe the key piece.
Take a look at the Canucks' penalty-killing unit.
Last season, the Canucks had the best penalty-killing squad in the Western Conference and were tied for second in the league with Washington (Pittsburgh was No. 1). The Canucks have stutter-stepped out of the gate with a 2-3-1 record following a 4-0 home loss to the Rangers on Tuesday. It was Kesler's first game back after nursing a sore hip from offseason surgery, and the defending Frank J. Selke Trophy winner played 19:02.
Without Kesler in the lineup, the Canucks' penalty kill had struggled, allowing six goals on 25 attempts and giving them the 26th-ranked unit in the NHL heading into action Tuesday night.
Although the Canucks somehow managed to give up four goals on 19 shots, they didn't give up a power-play marker Tuesday, and it will be a shock if Kesler's return doesn't spark a move up the standings for last season's Presidents' Trophy winners.
Big picture, no matter how often coaches try to talk around the issue, the biggest challenge in sports is to turn a long Stanley Cup playoffs run into a strong start the following season. The teams that reached the conference finals this past spring -- Boston, Tampa, Vancouver and San Jose -- have a combined 6-13-3 record and have allowed 70 goals so far.
No one is suggesting these teams can't right the ship; it would still be a major shock if all four didn't return to the playoffs. But it does help put the feat that Detroit and Pittsburgh accomplished -- reaching back-to-back Stanley Cup finals in 2008 and 2009 -- into perspective.
4. No payoff yet in Minnesota
Having spent some time with the Minnesota Wild during training camp, we got a sense of the anticipation for this season. We can also understand the angst Wild fans may be feeling because this new season is suddenly looking much like many other previous seasons in the State of Hockey.
Despite the addition of offensive sparkplugs Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi, the Wild are 2-2-2, including a disappointing 4-2 home loss Tuesday against a Pittsburgh Penguins team that was without Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Tyler Kennedy, Kris Letang and Brooks Orpik.
Perhaps most disappointing for the Wild and rookie coach Mike Yeo is that the team's big line of Mikko Koivu, Heatley and Setoguchi has fizzled. The three have combined for three goals, one by Heatley and two by Setoguchi.
Part of the rationale for trading Martin Havlat to San Jose (he is out with a shoulder injury, by the way) for Heatley was to try to jumpstart Koivu's offensive production. It hasn't worked out. The big line was broken up during Tuesday's loss, with Setoguchi playing a bit with Matt Cullen and Guillaume Latendresse. Setoguchi leads the team with 20 shots, and Heatley has 17, but the pair needs to be doing more as front-line players.
The Wild have scored just 14 times and the power play ranks 18th with three goals. The unit was 0-for-5 against the Pens on Tuesday.
Without better production from the Wild's big three -- whether they play together or not -- Wild fans can once again kiss the playoffs goodbye.
5. The Turris-Coyotes stalemate continues ...
League sources told ESPN.com that Turris, the third overall pick in the 2007 draft, is looking for a three-year deal worth an average of slightly more than $4 million annually or a two-year deal worth slightly more than $3 million.
Those numbers would put Turris in the same high-rent district as James van Riemsdyk, who signed a six-year extension worth an average of $4.25 million with the Philadelphia Flyers before training camp. Another young player from that draft class who recently signed a new deal is Logan Couture, who signed a two-year extension at $2.875 million annually, a price tag that is generally considered a bargain for the San Jose Sharks.
The key part of the equation is that those have been Turris' demands of the Coyotes. Would he sign for less somewhere else? Almost certainly he would. A source familiar with the situation said money isn't the issue and Turris would sign a deal moments after being traded, if the Coyotes decided to move the young center. We have also been told at least half a dozen teams have made inquiries about Turris' availability.
But what is Turris' value? He has managed to score just 19 goals in 131 NHL games spread mostly over two seasons and has shown little to suggest he could become a player like van Riemsdyk or Couture, let alone Patrick Kane, who was the top pick in that 2007 draft year.
If Coyotes GM Don Maloney could add a young NHL-ready player to the roster (and we are told NHL teams are prepared to part with NHL-ready prospects), does he owe it to the Coyotes to move an unproductive asset in Turris for someone that will actually appear in the team's lineup? Or does Maloney stick to his guns and keep the top prospect and hope Turris signs before Dec. 1 and proves himself?
If Turris isn't signed somewhere by Dec. 1, he cannot play this season. That would be a terrible waste for the team and Turris if that's how it plays out.
It is always exciting when your team signs a big free agent or makes a notable trade. But it is not as much fun when your team loses a player in free agency or your star player demands a trade.
There were a lot of big moves this offseason, which means a lot of players will face the wrath of angry fans when they return to the city they used to call home wearing the opponents' sweater.
Dany Heatley can now add San Jose to the list of cities (Ottawa, Edmonton and Winnipeg) where fans will be happy to see him struggle.
Jaromir Jagr waited so long to give the Penguins an answer to their contract offer this offseason that the team pulled the offer. Then, Jagr signed with the rival Flyers, so it is unlikely he will have a happy homecoming in Pittsburgh. And I'm sure Capitals' and Rangers' fans are also anxious to greet him.
But now it is time for you to tell us: Which transplanted player will get the worst welcome when he returns to his former rink?
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Not So Welcome ...
It is hard to imagine Jaromir Jagr will feel at home when he plays his first game in Pittsburgh with the Flyers.
Some players will face comparisons to each other for their entire careers. See Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. Whether it is goals scored, trophies received or games won, you can't mention one without the statistics for the other guy quickly following. And most people have a strong opinion about who is better.
Other comparisons are brought on by playoff battles, trades or whether or not one goalie remembers to pump the other guy's tires.
But now is time for you to make the call. We picked the matchups, now you tell us: Which player will have a better season?
Which player will have a better season?
That discussion about Winnipeg being destined for a revamped Central Division for the 2012-13 season? Better cool your, er, Jets.
Despite Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold's assertions to a local radio station earlier this week that the realignment question has been all squared away and the Winnipeg Jets would join the Wild in a new Central Division, the relocation issue is far from being resolved.
An NHL source told ESPN.com on Wednesday it was premature to suggest any decisions have been made on how the NHL will look a year from now. Multiple sources have also told us the relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg will give the NHL an opportunity to rethink its entire structure, so the realignment question will not be resolved until all parties have had their say.
Our colleague Pierre LeBrun previously reported the NHL will take advantage of the Thrashers' relocation and consider paring down from six divisions to a four-division, two-conference set-up that would make it easier to install a balanced schedule.
Regardless of where teams land, the realignment decision promises to be an emotional one.
Detroit and Columbus are both itching to move to the Eastern Conference, while Nashville would also welcome a move from the West given its onerous travel schedule and the difficulty in garnering fans for late-night games on the West Coast.
It's hard to imagine the Wings moving to the East given how strong a draw they are throughout the Western Conference; there is also the issue of competitive balance given that the Jets will almost certainly continue to be a marginal team for the foreseeable future.
Most Eastern Conference teams would be opposed to a Jets-for-Wings swap since the Wings are a perennial powerhouse and would make the road to a playoff spot even more difficult.
While the Phoenix Coyotes' ownership situation remains status quo (that is to say, it remains a mess with no end in sight), their former suitor is definitely moving on.
Matt Hulsizer has visited with St. Louis Blues principal owner and chairman Dave Checketts about purchasing the Blues, a source confirmed to ESPN.com.
Nothing is imminent regarding a sale of the Blues, whose ownership situation has been in limbo for some time.
According to a report from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Hulsizer isn't the only party interested in buying the team. The chairman of Game Plan LLC, the group handling the sale of the Blues, told the newspaper that there are "five very interested parties."
But with Hulsizer moving on and exploring other NHL opportunities, one wonders if there isn't a lot of second-guessing going on in Glendale. Hulsizer's last proposal to local leaders was to purchase the controversial municipal bonds that were key to a new lease agreement between him and the City of Glendale. That proposal would have put an additional $5 million in the city coffers, a source confirmed to ESPN.com.
But city officials weren't interested -- or, at least, key city officials weren't interested -- and Hulsizer and his more than $100 million in cash may now be headed to St. Louis.
The Blues are in a vastly superior place in terms of the marketplace after rebuilding their relationship with the fan base but are not quite there yet in terms of the on-ice product. It is pretty much the opposite of what Hulsizer was looking at with the Coyotes.
The surprising Heatley-Havlat deal
This is no question a risk for both teams as both players carry significant baggage.
Havlat has battled injury and never quite lived up to the significant talent he possesses. The big winger had just 22 goals this past season, although the drop from the 29 he scored in 2008-09 might be attributed to a decline in ice time and power-play opportunities. (Of course, these are all chicken-and-egg issues; did Havlat see less ice time because he was less productive, etc.?) Regardless, Havlat will be given top-six ice time in San Jose. It will be a major disappointment to GM Doug Wilson if Havlat doesn't get back to the 30-goal vicinity given the talented cast surrounding him. This is all assuming he stays healthy, of course.
Heatley is likewise hoping to rebound after a season that saw his goal production drop to 26 from 39. That was followed by another mediocre playoff performance as the Sharks bowed out in the Western Conference finals for the second straight postseason. While Heatley's health may have been a contributing factor in his playoff performance, he was essentially a third-line winger for the talented Sharks. He will now see his profile jump considerably in goal-starved Minnesota, where his 26 goals would have led the team in the past few seasons.
Heatley is now on his fourth NHL team in less than 10 years of NHL play. Along with former Sharks teammate Devin Setoguchi (he was sent to Minnesota in a separate deal), Heatley will be expected to invigorate a moribund power play and re-energize a fan base that has grown weary of mediocrity.
Setoguchi and Heatley donned their Wild jerseys for the first time this week, and GM Chuck Fletcher said he has no concerns about Heatley's declining production or about his past issues in asking to be traded from Atlanta and later from the Senators. We said this three summers ago when Heatley forced his way out of Ottawa to San Jose, but maybe this is where the talented winger finally gets it right (the Wild are certainly banking big time that it is).
What about McCabe?
Let's be fair, the free-agent pickings left on the table are, well, pretty slim. But the one name that jumps out at us is defenseman Bryan McCabe.
He may never approach his high-water mark as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2005-06 when he was a late add to the Canadian Olympic team; but he is a big body with a big shot and we still can't quite figure out why he hasn't been signed by someone like, say, the New York Islanders.
No team has as far to go to get to the salary cap floor of $48.3 million as the Islanders ($10.45 million according to CapGeek.com as of Tuesday).
The Islanders are an interesting group given their emerging young talent that includes rookie of the year nominee Michael Grabner and former No. 1 overall pick John Tavares. With Mark Streit returning from a season-ending injury, McCabe might be an interesting complement on a back end that needs to improve if the Isles are going to jump back into the playoffs for just the second time since the lockout.
"I always liked to play the Wild for some reason," Setoguchi said Monday, according to the Wild's website. "I seemed to always be able to score."
Now he looks to replicate that scoring touch for the Wild, and he will have former San Jose Sharks teammate Dany Heatley there to help him.
The Wild acquired Setoguchi on the first day of the NHL draft in a trade that sent Brent Burns to the Sharks. A little more than a week later, the Wild sent Martin Havlat to San Jose for Heatley.
"It's a sense of a fresh start," Heatley said. "You get a little excitement, and I know Seto's excited as well."
Setoguchi was especially looking forward to the chance to play in a state that cares so much about hockey.
"We were talking the last couple days about how excited we are to be here to be a part of such a big hockey state," Setoguchi said. "It feels like I'm back in Canada playing junior hockey. [Minnesota's] like the 14th province of Canada."
The two forwards have one focus going into the 2011-12 season: scoring goals.
"I think I can score goals," Heatley said. "I've always been a goal scorer, and I think that's what I'm expected to do here. I think we both bring that to this team."
"You're going to find that I'm just going to shoot the puck," Setoguchi said, agreeing with his teammate. "I get the puck, I shoot it. I don't hold on to it. I don't make sweet plays with it. I just shoot it."
The Wild are scheduled to open the season Oct. 8 against the Columbus Blue Jackets. They'll face the Sharks on Nov. 10 in San Jose.
Video courtesy of NHL.com
"I think it'll fire the guys up a little bit," Sharks blueliner Douglas Murray said after this morning's skate at Scotiabank Place. "I know I'm a little extra excited to win the game for him. He's a great teammate. He's very well-liked in this dressing room."
It's been Heatley 24/7 in this market the past few days, as he returns to Ottawa for the first time since forcing a trade 15 months ago. It's the game of the year for some Senators fans.
"We dealt with this a long time ago," Sens captain Daniel Alfredsson said. "This is the fans' chance to deal with it."
Heatley faced the Ottawa media horde this morning, and if the role of villain he's been cast in locally has affected him, he wasn't showing it.
"I'm not nervous," Heatley said. "I think I've been through this before, and once the puck drops, it'll just be another game."
Asked whether the game was being a little overplayed in Ottawa, Heatley said it depended who you asked.
"For a lot of people it's not, but for me, I've moved on," Heatley said. "I'm happy in San Jose and I want to win the game tonight."
Heatley's good friend, Jason Spezza of the Senators, hopes to feed off the crowd's buzz tonight but also hopes fans won't go too far with his pal.
"I hope the signs don't cross the line. Have fun, but be respectful," said Spezza. "We know it means a lot to fans. We want to win for a lot of reasons. It sells tickets. The team is probably happy."
Sitting in the stands watching his team practice Thursday, Sens GM Bryan Murray was asked by ESPN.com how much Heatley's trade in September 2009 set back the franchise.
"It was a tough trade to have to make," Murray said. "Obviously, we wanted Dany to be here. Our long-term plan was to have him, Alfie and Spezza here. We basically were forced into making a trade that we knew, at the time, would be unlikely to [get us] equal value. You could get numbers [of players], but you couldn't do much more than that."
The Sens acquired Milan Michalek, Jonathan Cheechoo and a swap of draft picks. It wasn't a great trade, but one can hardly blame Murray. He was squeezed. Among the five teams Heatley (with no-movement clause) gave Murray, San Jose made the only real offer (the Los Angeles Kings only kicked the tires).
"I talked to a number of teams, but I can't say there were any other teams that where close," said Murray. "There was nothing really concrete from any other team."
As much as Heatley is missed by the Senators, the move that really set this franchise back was losing Zdeno Chara to Boston via free agency, Murray said Thursday. Murray was only coach at the time, while John Muckler was GM. But choosing Wade Redden over Chara (the Sens couldn't afford to sign both) was really the move that changed a perennial contender into a team that now must scratch and claw to get into the playoffs.
Lost in the Heatley drama is Ottawa native Dan Boyle playing in his 700th NHL game tonight. That he gets to play it in his hometown, in front of 70 family members and close friends attending the game, is truly special for him.
"And Bryan Murray was my first GM," Boyle said Thursday. "So it's kind of a cool little thing. My first GM and playing in my hometown. I'm definitely pretty proud."
It goes without saying that the undrafted Boyle's journey to 700 games is nothing short of inspirational.
"I still have that chip on my shoulder. I'll always have it," said Boyle. "It's not as much about proving people wrong anymore as much as proving people right. [San Jose GM] Doug Wilson is one of those people because he got me here to the Sharks."