Cross Checks: James Reimer


TORONTO -- Phil Kessel slammed his stick on the ice Tuesday morning and muttered words that began with the letters "W," "T" and "F" loud enough for most of us to hear in the stands at Air Canada Centre.

A simple drill went awry when Tyler Bozak's pass didn't get to him, and Kessel was displaying his frustration.

There's been a lot of that lately in these parts.

The Toronto Maple Leafs, in case you haven't heard, have lost five straight games in regulation and put their playoff aspirations in danger, all the while fueling downright panic and anger among a legion of fans who have had decades of torture to deal with.

Not to mention last spring's Game 7 collapse against the Boston Bruins, thank you very much.

Well, perhaps there's help on the way, with Jonathan Bernier taking shots in the starter's net Tuesday morning and looking very much agile and loose in doing so, his injured groin seemingly healed. Or close enough to it? He also was first off the ice, the traditional telltale sign he's starting Tuesday night.

Mind you, head coach Randy Carlyle stopped short of declaring Bernier back.

"I haven't gotten that yet from the medical staff," Carlyle said of getting the green light. "When I do, we'll make a decision."

On a team that has been abysmal defensively, Bernier has been a savior on many nights, and his presence back in the Leafs' net would undoubtedly be a boost to his teammates, who are dealing with fragile confidence and are just one point away from the danger zone in the playoff race.

"Bernie, if in fact he is back, I don't know, but he's been great for us all year, there's no question," checking center Jay McClement said after the morning skate. "He's a calm presence back there. Obviously, it'll be a boost for us. No disrespect to Reims, Reims has played great for the most part of the year, but we're going through a tough stretch right now and any jump or any bit of bump in our mood in here will help."

James Reimer has been the scapegoat for Toronto's five-game slide, and while he undoubtedly has struggled, it's only been part of the problem, not all of it, as some would have you believe. The defensive coverage over this stretch has reached a new low. Odd-man rushes, lack of back pressure from the forwards, defensemen being caught up ice -- you name it and it's been happening.

So, yes, while Bernier has been the better goalie all season and would provide an upgrade Tuesday night versus the powerhouse St. Louis Blues, his teammates tightening things up and making better decisions with the puck would also be of great help.

Especially on this night, when the Leafs are facing a Blues team that protects the puck as well as any club and makes you pay for turnovers.

"We're playing a team that forces you to earn your space on the ice," Carlyle said. "The key for us to be effective is that we have to execute in transition from our own zone to the neutral zone to get a forecheck going. They have a system that they play to try to impede your progress through the neutral ice. I don't think it's any secret that they're a hard-trapping team, they like to play in your face and make you earn your space."

In other words, the kind of team Carlyle had in Anaheim in 2007 when he was winning a Cup, and the kind of team he wishes he had now, no doubt.

Jealous of what he sees in the Blues?

"'Jealous' is a bad word, 'envious' is another bad word," Carlyle said. "You get what you've earned, and you've got a hockey club that has some strengths. Again, when you look at teams that are 100-point teams, they're doing some things that I think we can do and we should do. They're doing them at a higher level than we are."

The Leafs have given up the first goal in seven straight games, so just scoring first would be a huge deal Tuesday night, especially against a Blues team that's not only third-best in the NHL in goals against, but that is 39-2-5 when scoring first this season. Mercy.

Not sure scoring first has ever meant so much in one single game as it will for the Leafs on Tuesday night. If anything, just to get the home crowd on board.

You really have to live in this city to feel what it's like right now. Leaf fans lived through a late-season collapse in 2011-12, then had the Game 7 nightmare last spring. The level of angst on radio talk shows and social media platforms is through the roof.

Which is no excuse for the morons on Twitter who went after Reimer's wife over the weekend because of Reimer's play.

"I'm very fortunate to be married to her; she's got a tough skin and she handled it fine," Reimer said Tuesday morning.

Still, it crossed the line.

"Yeah, of course," Reimer said. "If you're disappointed in the way I play, come to me, tell me; don't go to someone's wife or family. Especially hiding behind a phone, do you know what I mean? It's unfortunate, but it is what it is. If that's what you got to do to feel good about yourself, then that's what you got to do."

There wasn't Twitter when Alex Steen and Carlo Colaiacovo were members of the Maple Leafs years ago, but both Blues players definitely understand what the Leafs are going through in this passionate market right now.

"We've been here the last few days and it's all we've been hearing about," Colaiacovo said Tuesday morning. "It's tough when you're a player, it's tough when you're a coach, it's tough when you're anybody with the organization. I can understand the frustration of the fans, but there's still a lot of hockey to be played here and anything can happen. I'm glad it's something I don't deal with [anymore]. We don't want to make that a focus in our own room here, we have our own things to focus on."

Steen said it's tough but, on the other hand, you become better for it.

"It actually helped me tremendously in my career playing here for a while," the Swedish Olympic silver medalist said. "I never took it as pressure. But when you need a break, it's tough to get that little break. But at the same time, it's something you learn. I'm sure those guys are doing a good job of keeping the things they can't control out of their minds and out of their room."

A win Tuesday night would help. Big time.

The buzz just won't go away around the hockey industry when it comes to Ryan Callahan's future.

Rangers GM Glen Sather last week began calling teams around the league asking them about possible interest in case he couldn't get his captain re-signed. Once you start making calls, that information starts to leak out, which it did earlier this week.

Still, I've had a mixed response around the league on the subject.

Two Western Conference executives I traded texts with on Thursday afternoon believed Sather's priority was still to re-sign Callahan and that he was simply calling around "to give himself options for Plan B," one executive said. Perhaps, not to mention put pressure on Callahan to step down from his contract stance, believed to be in the seven-year range and around $6 million a year. A source also told ESPNNewYork.com's Katie Strang that Sather would not be opposed to trading Callahan within the Eastern Conference, either.

Callahan's veteran agent, Steve Bartlett, who would not get into any specifics in terms of contract talks, certainly is well aware of what's going on.

"Right now, we only have one team we can negotiate with and we're trying to do that in good faith," Bartlett told ESPN.com on Friday. "I always retain hope that something can get done. But if it doesn't, that's the business. I never tell a GM if he's right or wrong, I just present what I believe is right for my client."

What Callahan is believed to be asking for is not too far from the type of deals Dustin Brown and David Clarkson have signed.

Clearly, though, the Rangers are concerned about Callahan's durability and insist they won't sign for that long. Therefore, the Rangers are telling teams they will move Callahan by March 5 if he isn't re-signed.

My TSN colleague Darren Dreger on Friday morning tweeted that the Rangers were getting "intel" on Blues winger Chris Stewart, suggesting obviously that the Blues and Rangers had touched base on Callahan. Who knows if there's even a chance this happens but for one, the math on the cap would work: Stewart at a $4.15 million cap hit, Callahan at $4.275 million.

A Blues source I traded texts with refused to comment whatsoever on any possible interest in Callahan.

But let's face it, if the Rangers do indeed step up their trade plans on Callahan, many of the obvious contenders would at least inquire further.

Don't judge Seguin deal just yet
Tyler Seguin is having a monster season in Dallas and that has put a bit of pressure on the Boston front office for its decision to trade him last summer.

But I think it's unfair to already be calling this a bad deal. I don't think that's true.

Yes, Loui Eriksson has struggled this season but he's had two concussions. Name me a player who wouldn't be affected by that. Let's judge him come playoff time or next season, after he's fully recovered. I think we'll see the Eriksson of old before too long.

Further, let's also remember one of the other players Boston got in the deal: Reilly Smith. You know, the 22-year-old winger who leads the Bruins with 18 goals and is second on the team with 40 points? His production might be surprising to many, given his three goals and six assists last season in Dallas, but the Bruins had identified him last summer as a player they wanted in that trade.

"He was one of their top prospects and we knew he'd be a good NHL player," Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli told ESPN.com this week. "We needed more than one piece."

Smith put up strong offensive numbers in college but the question was whether he was a good enough skater to bring that production up to the NHL level.

"He's a very crafty player," Chiarelli said. "He's very skilled and smart. His pace in college was enough to really succeed. We knew he'd be a good player, he's somebody that would need to get a little stronger and faster, but his skill was unquestionable. He was just feeling his way his first year in Dallas."

He's found a niche on a line with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. And Smith has played like he belongs.

"He really competes and that's where he's been really good for us," the Bruins GM said. "I told him in the summer, 'If you compete here with your skill, then you'll be fine. Doesn't mean you have to crash and bang, just means you have to battle for pucks.' And that's what he's done."

Listen, I don't think there's any question Stars GM Jim Nill made the perfect decision in getting Seguin to Dallas, where he could flourish under less expectation and develop at center as a true star. But at the end of the day, there's a chance this deal worked out fairly for both teams when you look at all the components involved.

Don't kid yourself, Bernier is Leafs' No. 1
Leafs coach Randy Carlyle might have to be held over hot coals to ever admit it publicly, but we'll let his actions speak for him: Jonathan Bernier has officially taken the No. 1 goalie job in Toronto.

The first half of the season saw a healthy competition between Bernier and incumbent James Reimer, but with Bernier having started 14 of the past 18 games, and looked terrific in doing so, it's clear that battle in the Toronto net is over.

Bernier wanted a trade out of Los Angeles so he could escape Jonathan Quick's stranglehold on the No. 1 job and have a chance elsewhere at such a position. It took a while, but he's finally got it for the first time in his career.

He's the man.

"When I got traded, I knew that was my chance to prove what I can do in this league," Bernier told a group of us media types Wednesday after practice. "My main focus was always to be a No. 1 guy and I've still got a lot to learn, but I think I'm moving towards that."

Bernier's .926 save percentage is among the league leaders, but what he's also shown to his coach over the past month is that he can handle a heavy workload like a No. 1 is supposed to.

"I knew Randy, the type of coach he was," Bernier said. "I knew I had to really battle to earn [the job], which is the good way. You don't want anything for free in life. [But] I didn't really focus on how many games I was playing, I think I was just focusing on getting better every day and every game, and it just worked out that I started playing good and he kept me in."


TORONTO -- Isn't it sweet when a summer plan comes together as originally drawn up?

When the Maple Leafs acquired Jonathan Bernier in June, it was with the hope that the competition with James Reimer would give Toronto the kind of one-two punch in net it hasn't had in years.

The NHL statistics Thursday morning listed Reimer sitting fourth among goalies with a .942 save percentage, Bernier just behind at .939, good for sixth overall.

Not bad.

"This is how we had envisioned it, that both guys would fight for the net, that they would get along, they'd be good teammates, they'd push themselves to different levels. So far, that's all occurred," Leafs GM Dave Nonis told ESPN.com on Thursday morning. "So we've been fortunate."

To have that kind of goaltending on a team that ranks 30th in shots against per game (35.9 per game), well, it tells you where the Leafs would be if not for the stellar netminding they've gotten.

"They both instill confidence in the whole team," Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk said Thursday after the morning skate. "There have been games where we have been pretty badly outshot, and they've kept us in it until we got our game going. They've bailed us out quite a few times this year."

But just as important is that what had been billed as a potential goalie controversy before the season really hasn't played out that way in terms of any noticeable tension. It's been a battle without incident.

"They've been pushing each other," said van Riemsdyk. "You can take a relationship like that and it can go two ways. Sometimes it can be bitter, or you can work with it and go from there, and I think they've done a great job of supporting each other, and when their number has been called, they've gone in and done a really amazing job for us."

Don't confuse that with both goalies being happy that they're sharing the net. Both would much rather be carrying the load and playing a string of games. But they understand the situation.

Bernier doesn't talk on the morning of game days and was slated to start Thursday night, but in the conversations I've had with him this season, he's been thrilled with the opportunity in Toronto after years of backing up Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles. He's eager to be the No. 1 guy.

Both netminders deserve credit for how they've handled things. Bernier has come into a big hockey market with pressure on him to deliver as the new guy and has been sensational, living up to the billing. Reimer, meanwhile, has responded to the challenge by standing his turf as well as can be. Let's face it, after helping the Leafs get into the playoffs last spring for the first time in eight years, seeing his team trade for another starting-caliber goalie wasn't exactly what Reimer was expecting. But instead of moping around about it and letting it affect his play, he's responded well.

"Obviously, it hurts a little," Reimer said Thursday when asked about the offseason trade. "But it's the business. It's a challenge. My whole life, nothing has ever been given to me. [I've] always had to work for it. So this is a great opportunity. It's like playing the best teams in the league. You want that opportunity, you want that challenge. Now having a great goalie beside me, it's a great challenge for me to get better. It's been fun."

It's a one-two punch that's as good as almost any team's right now.

"You have two goalies that are the same age, went in the same draft and both have athletic ability," a Western Conference goalie coach said when asked about Toronto's goalkeeping. "Guaranteed they are competing against each other every day to see who is better, and neither wants to let the door open even a crack for the other to take the starting role. They're maybe teammates and friends, but don't kid yourself, these guys are going head-to-head every day, and it's making each of them get better and play well night after night. Internal competition makes guys accountable, and these two push each other. Someday, both will be starters playing 50-60 games each in the NHL."

"We're fortunate we have two guys that can play that our guys are remarkably comfortable playing in front of," said Nonis. "Both goalies are also at dollar amounts that makes that effective. At some point, that may change. If they both continue to play well, their salaries will go up. But both have bought into the program."

Bernier is in the first season of a two-year deal, which pays him $2.9 million per; Reimer is in the last year of his deal, which carries a $1.8 million cap hit.

With Reimer's deal up, it will force Toronto to likely make a decision in the offseason depending on his contract demands. When Edmonton was looking for a goalie earlier this season, it had been speculated by some that the Leafs should move Reimer, but that doesn't sound like an idea that appeals to Nonis for this season.

"It's possible, but unlikely," Nonis said. "They're both contributing. And you still don’t know if either one can play 60 games because they haven't been put in that situation. As this year plays out, it's a distinct possibility they'll both play a career-high number of games. That's a good opportunity for us to evaluate them as well. Never say never if ever something falls in your lap you'd have to say yes to, but it's something that I really don’t see happening at all."

Why not ride out the one-two punch as long as possible, while it's still feasible under the cap?

"What we try to do is create where you have a 1A and 1B," Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said Thursday morning. "Done it before. To say that we are the only coaching staff that's ever done it is crazy. Terry Sawchuk and Johnny Bower played together, didn't they? Right? ... Grant Fuhr and Andy Moog played pretty well, pretty good tandem in Edmonton in their dynasty years. So there are examples that you can go back to where there has been two goaltenders that have went in and played very well for their hockey club. I think it's a sign of strength, and it's a great sign for the organization."
 

It didn’t take long for the week’s high-profile tilt between the unbeaten San Jose Sharks and unbeaten St. Louis Blues to turn ugly Tuesday. Early in the first period, Blues forward Max Lapierre sent veteran Sharks defensemen Dan Boyle head-first into the boards with a hit from behind. The hit left Boyle unconscious, and he was removed from the ice in St. Louis on a stretcher. Lapierre was ejected for the hit and will almost certainly be suspended for the dangerous play. Early reports indicate that Boyle’s injuries aren't too severe, which, needless to say, represents the best outcome.

"I'm doing OK, thank you for your concern and support," Boyle said in a message directed at fans via ESPN.com’s Pierre LeBrun from the St. Louis hospital where he spent the night. "Means a lot to me. I've never once taken this game or any of my fans for granted. Hope to be back soon."

We didn't like the hit by Sharks forward Brent Burns on Brenden Morrow later in the game that also could have produced a serious injury, and it was a bit of a disappointment to see Burns assessed only a minor penalty (Morrow did return to the game). In the end, the greatest statement was made by the Sharks, who used their skill to avenge Boyle’s injury as they humbled the Blues 6-2, scoring three times with the man advantage. The Sharks also chased Blues goaltender Jaroslav Halak, who has been a key factor in the Blues’ hot start, out after the second period. The game marked the first in a stretch that will see the Sharks play seven of eight on the road.

Kaleta's at it again: The Lapierre hit on Boyle came just a few hours after the NHL suspended serial cheap-shot artist Patrick Kaleta of the Buffalo Sabres 10 games for his latest transgression: A dirty, head-high hit on Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson. By almost any measuring stick, 10 games is a heavy sentence -- almost any measuring stick except for a guy such as Kaleta, a player who is either too stupid to learn from his mistakes or too reckless to care. Given Kaleta’s history, one wonders what number would have been appropriate. At some point, with players such as Kaleta, who has been fined or suspended six times in the last four seasons -- the most recent being last season when he drove Brad Richards head-first into the boards -- it would seem the threat of actually being unable to play the game anymore is the only real deterrent. We saw this happen with Matt Cooke when he was in Pittsburgh; the Penguins publicly said that unless Cooke changed his ways, he wouldn't be able to play with them. This happened after Cooke’s last suspension, in the spring of 2011, after a hit on New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh. Cooke worked with the Pens’ coaching staff during his suspension, which lasted through the first round of the 2011 playoffs, watched video and dedicated himself to changing his style of play. To date, he remains a shining example of players who can learn from their mistakes. It would be nice if we heard something similar from the Sabres, although we aren't holding our breath, given that ownership/management of NHL teams historically only worry about dangerous play when it’s some other team’s player who’s playing outside the lines. We often criticize league disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan for what we've felt has been consistently lenient discipline for plays that have no place in the game. Yet the stakeholders, owners, general managers and players themselves remain, for the most part, mute on issues such as those created by guys such as Kaleta. Where is Buffalo owner Terry Pegula on Kaleta? Where is Buffalo GM Darcy Regier, a smart, thoughtful hockey man, on how his employee behaves? The Buffalo News reported that, even though the Sabres were playing Tuesday, neither Regier nor Kaleta would comment. Way to take responsibility. Shanahan could have, indeed, should have, given Kaleta 20 games and left his return open-ended, pending an end-of-suspension interview. But it would mean a lot more if the Sabres would come out and announce they will no longer employ a player such as Kaleta until he learns from his mistakes. Sadly, that’s not likely to happen, so we remain skeptical this latest brush with the NHL law will change how Kaleta plays the game.

Not so fast, Avs: An interesting experiment in fan reaction occurring in Denver where the Colorado Avalanche are the story of this young NHL season. With their 3-2 win over Dallas on Tuesday night, the Avs moved to a remarkable 6-0-0. The win marked their first home game after three impressive road wins, and yet the announced attendance at the Pepsi Center was 15,208, well below the capacity of 18,007. It reminded us of a conversation with Carolina GM Jim Rutherford during the ‘Canes superlative 2005-06 season. The Hurricanes would go on to win their first Stanley Cup in June 2006, but during that regular season, the ‘Canes’ crowds remained soft in spite of the fact the team was one of the most entertaining in the league. Rutherford explained that on-ice success does not translate instantly into fan support. A kind of elasticity is at play; a team has to prove they have turned a corner before fans will consistently return to support them. In short, you don’t repair a badly damaged fan base in the first month of a season even if the Avs appear to be on the track to redemption.

Giroux's Olympic goal is toast: It’s never too early for players to make a case for their respective Olympic teams. Likewise, it’s never too early to start playing yourself right off the map. One has to wonder about the early-season struggles of the Philadelphia Flyers and how it might affect captain Claude Giroux and his bid to be named to the Canadian Olympic squad for the Sochi Games in February. A lock to make the team heading into the season, even though he missed the Canadian orientation camp with a golf-related hand injury, Giroux and the Flyers have been stuck in neutral since the season started. OK, that’s being charitable. After blowing a third-period lead and losing 3-2 to Vancouver on Tuesday, the Flyers dropped to a woeful 1-6-0. Even the firing of head coach Peter Laviolette three games into the season hasn't helped, as the Flyers have managed only 10 goals. Giroux has yet to score and has just two assists, and with Canadian executive director Steve Yzerman and the Canadian selection committee already facing the onerous task of narrowing the talented Canadian forward contingent down, Giroux’s tepid play further muddies the waters. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s hard to believe there is any way Giroux makes this squad unless he mounts a significant renaissance in the next two months.

Reimer ain't backing down: Nice statement game for netminder James Reimer, who appeared to have been frozen out of the Maple Leafs' goaltending equation after an early bad game combined with the strong play by newcomer Jonathan Bernier. Not so fast. Reimer was outstanding in stopping 36 of 37 shots as the red-hot Leafs moved to 6-1-0 with a 4-1 win over Minnesota on Tuesday. Those are exactly the kind of goaltending “issues” Toronto head coach Randy Carlyle likes to have.

Bruins are looking mediocre: It’s been interesting to watch the Boston Bruins through the first couple of weeks. There’s something solid and reliable about the team GM Peter Chiarelli has built, and which for a number of years now has stolidly reflected the personality of head coach Claude Julien. That doesn't mean there haven’t been hiccups early on, and maybe we didn't appreciate the transition that would be required after the Bruins lost Jaromir Jagr, Nathan Horton and Tyler Seguin through trades and free agency. Although the team continues to play well defensively, allowing just eight goals through their first five games, they've managed just 12 going the other way. The struggles continued Monday when the Bruins could not solve Detroit backup goalie Jonas Gustavsson during the matinee, losing 3-2 in spite of a long 5-on-3 and the fact the Red Wings did not have a single power play. Specifically, winger Jarome Iginla is struggling to find his place with the B's and has just one assist. If he hadn't struggled during the playoffs for Pittsburgh last spring, there wouldn't be much cause for concern, but in spite of prime ice time and a ton of power-play time, he’s not hitting the mark, which has to be worrying for Julien et al. Not that Iginla is alone. Patrice Bergeron (one goal, one assist) and Brad Marchand (one goal) are also off to slow starts.


MONTREAL -- Before the Maple Leafs were going to throw numbers out at his agents, GM Dave Nonis needed to first hear from Phil Kessel that he wanted to stay in Toronto for a long time.

Nonis wanted that commitment, face-to-face, before he was going to get serious in contract talks with Newport Sports. He got the answer he wanted from the Team USA Olympic winger in a meeting last week, which gave the Leafs' GM the trigger he needed to get the ball rolling with agent Wade Arnott.

"I said this before camp, we weren't about to throw any money at any player, Phil included, until we were sure, I was comfortable, that he wanted to stay in Toronto," Nonis said at a noon-hour news conference at the Bell Centre. "He brought up to me last week how important it was to stay. And that’s when we started negotiations."

"I want to finish my career here," Kessel said at the same news conference. "It would be a great city to win in, and we're going to do whatever we can to make that happen."

Don't underestimate Toronto’s ability to re-sign center Tyler Bozak on July 5 as a major factor in Kessel staying put. The two linemates are very close friends off the ice; heck, they live together. Had Bozak walked, and he did test free agency before circling back to the Leafs, it might have hampered Toronto’s ability to re-sign Kessel.

Having said that, talks didn’t get going with Kessel for real until last week after the Nonis-Kessel meeting.

With Kessel’s self-imposed deadline of opening night acting as the pressure point because the star player didn't want to discuss an extension during the season, both sides came together Tuesday morning on a $64 million, eight-year contract.

For one, the Leafs shared Kessel’s desire not to have this drag into the season. There was concern that it would affect his production on the ice as his contractual future hung over him.

So there was mutual interest in seeing this done.

Many will believe it's too much money for Kessel, but the numbers, at least, suggest otherwise:

• Only Kessel and Steven Stamkos were among the top 10 scorers in the NHL each of the past two seasons.

• Only Stamkos, Evgeni Malkin and Claude Giroux have more points than Kessel over the past two seasons.

• And only Stamkos, Alex Ovechkin and Corey Perry have more goals than Kessel over the past three years.

Kessel’s $8 million cap hit in the new deal is still less than Giroux's new deal ($8.275M), Perry's ($8.625M) and Ryan Getzlaf's ($8.25M), the three contracts brought up the most in negotiations by Kessel’s camp.

"He’s had several great years, that’s something some people overlook," Nonis said. "If you look at his goal totals and his point totals over the past few years, he’s up there with some pretty elite players."

But perhaps most importantly for the Leafs was Kessel’s playoff performance last season, when he proved he could step up in the clutch and was terrific against Boston in a seven-game first-round loss.

That erased any concern that the Leafs' front office might have had about building a team around Kessel.

"It certainly opened some eyes," Nonis said of that series.

So now the attention turns to Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf, whose contract will expire after the season. But unlike Kessel, the star blueliner doesn't care if talks go into the season. As he pointed out to ESPN.com on Tuesday morning, the last contract he signed was done during the season with the Calgary Flames, so it’s not new territory.

Phaneuf said he'll leave it with his Newport Sports agents Don Meehan and Craig Oster, knowing they'll figure something out with Nonis.

"They’ll get together and talk, they’ll handle it," a totally relaxed Phaneuf said.

If anything, Phaneuf was more excited for his teammate's big signing. Which perhaps, in some ways, affects how he viewed his future with the Leafs.

"I really like what we’re doing here, what direction the team is headed in," Phaneuf said. "Phil is a huge signing for us. It’s great news. He’s one of the top forwards in the game, such an important guy for us. He’s really elevated his game the last few years. This is great."

Kessel’s deal includes $22.5 million in signing-bonus money that’s spread over the first four years of the deal and the last two years of the contract. Of interest, his last two years of his deal carry only a $1 million salary, and the rest is bonus money, protected against a possible lockout because bonus money gets paid out regardless, whereas salaries do not in the event of another lockout.

Crease conundrum
One of the hot topics all season for Toronto will be goaltending, with newly acquired Jonathan Bernier trying to unseat incumbent James Reimer as starter.

The two have stalls next to each other in the visitors dressing room at the Bell Centre, but only one of them was smiling Tuesday morning.
Reimer was thrilled to be getting the opening night nod in net, while Bernier -- while saying all the right things -- did admit he was a bit disappointed, citing that family and friends would be on hand in his hometown. He’ll very likely start Wednesday night in Philadelphia as the Leafs play back-to-back, but it’s obvious that Bernier would have loved to start in his native province on Tuesday night.
TORONTO -- The Toronto Maple Leafs are playing with house money.

There’s no harder team to finish off than a club that wasn’t picked by anyone to win a series. It has nothing to lose.

In failing to finish the Leafs off in Game 5 on Friday night, the Boston Bruins also further fueled the growing belief that is growing in the Toronto dressing room.

The win while facing elimination Friday night made a statement to many, including The Great One.

"They’re up against a really good opponent, a team that’s just two years removed from winning the Cup, but any time you can win a Game 5 in that situation against a team of that caliber, obviously you’ve got character and it builds even more character," Wayne Gretzky told ESPN.com over the phone Saturday. "They’re legit. They’re playing on high emotion right now."

Gretzky said that belief begins with Leafs coach Randy Carlyle and what he’s selling to his young team.

"It’s about believing in your system. The system starts with the head coach," Gretzky said. "He’s got tremendous credibility after winning a Stanley Cup himself [2007 in Anaheim]. It’s not a question of players saying, 'Are we sure he knows what he’s doing?' Because they’re absolutely positive he knows what he’s doing. The credibility starts right there with the coach."

There’s certainly no denying the job Carlyle and his staff have done this season in Toronto. They’ve taken a young club and given it structure. When the team has struggled, it has reverted back to that base, which in my opinion has helped limit prolonged slumps.

But to pull that off, the players have to buy what the coach is selling.

"If you’re not honest and hardworking and forthright and demanding in some ways, how can we expect our players to follow the lead?" Carlyle said Saturday. "If you’re not going to be consistent with it, why should they be consistent with it. They’re professionals, they want to win. ... So we have to convince them that the way we’re doing things, and the way our coaching staff and our management perceives it, is the right way to win."

Toronto’s two victories in Boston in the series will have an impact on this group far beyond the here and now.

After getting destroyed in Game 1, plus having two off days to get asked about it, the Leafs headed into Game 2 with nobody outside their dressing room walls believing they had any clue as to how to compete with the Bruins in a playoff series.

They won.

Coming off a heart-breaking, 4-3 overtime loss in Game 4, the universal sense was that the Leafs had taken their best swing, and, down 3-1, that they would be heading to Boston to have their season end in Game 5.

They won.

Just 11 days after not knowing anything about playoff hockey, the young Maple Leafs have grown in their understanding.

"Being able to go into Boston and getting those big wins has been a huge confidence booster," said young forward Nazem Kadri. "Our backs were against the wall in those games. We needed to win them, and we stepped up and came through. Boston’s been around the block and back, so I’m assuming they’ll be coming out a lot harder tomorrow night and ready to work. We can’t give them an opportunity to gain that confidence back on us."

A big reason for the win Friday night was goalie James Reimer, who bounced back from a so-so performance in Game 4 with a 43-save performance in Game 5.

Overall, Reimer has been outplayed by Bruins netminder Tuukka Rask. But Reimer delivered a gem Friday night, continuing what has been a statement season for a guy most believed was the weakest link on this team before the season.

"There was so much talk throughout the hockey world wondering if their goaltending was strong enough to get through the season and get into the playoffs," Gretzky said. "I think their goaltender has answered that question extremely well. It’s a hard city for anyone to play in, but it’s really tough for a goaltender. I think Reimer has been tremendous. When the players have a strong belief in their goaltender, that goes a long way. I know, as good as we were in 1993 [with the Kings], we really believed in Kelly Hrudey. He was going to make the big save whether it was 2-2 or 4-4; he wasn’t going to let the next goal in. I feel like there’s a real sense in that locker room now in Toronto."

Win or lose, Reimer is unflappable. He probably should have had David Krejci's shot in overtime Wednesday night on the 2-on-1 break, and he knows that. So his response Friday night tells you about his character.

"It feels good to play well," Reimer said Saturday. "It was tough to lose Game 4, but you can’t be too low. And after a game like last night, you can’t be too high. Things happen. I had a couple of lucky breaks yesterday and not so much the game before that. All you can really do is play as well as you can and see where it goes from there."

Odds are, the veteran Bruins will prevail. They’re a composed team. They’ve been here before. Coach Claude Julien will have these guys ready Sunday night.

But the shot at an upset is there, nonetheless.

"The first round of the playoffs, historically, has been the wildest in a lot of ways," Carlyle said. "A lot of energy, a lot of teams vying for respect, vying for a template with their young group, some veteran teams take a bit more time to get their team game in order, there’s more opportunity for upsets. ...

"We’re in a situation where we’re trying to create an identity for our organization and for our hockey club."

That identity has been enriched in the past 11 days.

"You know, they’re still young and they’re still learning," Gretzky said. "This is how you learn, by getting a chance to play in big games like this. Game 5 in Boston was probably one of the biggest games those kids have played in for a long time. From that point of view, it’s just going to help their maturity and their growth a lot quicker. That game has done a lot, I’m sure, to give that team confidence and belief they’re good enough to win Game 6 and maybe good enough to win Game 7. Problem is, they’re facing a really strong opponent with a tremendous coach themselves. That’s where it gets difficult. But it’s been really good hockey."

A win Sunday night by the Leafs and both teams would have a quick turnaround with Game 7 in Boston on Monday night.

It’s not ideal. But no one in Toronto would complain.

"That would be great, wouldn’t it?" Leafs winger Clarke MacArthur said, smiling. "That’s the plan."
TORONTO -- The New York Islanders open a five-game trip here Thursday night to close out their regular season with much still at stake.

Seventh in the East to begin the day, three points ahead of the danger zone and just one point behind the Ottawa Senators in sixth, the Isles could end up anywhere from fifth to ninth in the conference depending on how they fare on this trip.

Ending the season with five away from home would be a scary task for many teams, but it just so happens that the Isles have one of the best road records in the league at 12-5-2. This is not something they're fretting about.

"It's been great for us all year," star center John Tavares said after Thursday's morning skate. "We play with a lot of calmness and confidence on the road, just composed in a lot of situations. There's a lot of swings of momentum in a game, and we seem to handle those a lot better on the road more consistently this season. We need to rely on that and keep it going."

Besides, current form should give the Isles enough confidence. They're 9-1-2 in their past 12 games, a late-season run that has buoyed their long-suffering fan base.

"It's great," Tavares said. "We're not there yet but we're getting closer to the goal that we've been trying to accomplish for a while. I think we're proving what we're capable of, but we know we still haven't accomplished anything yet."

After Toronto, the Isles jet off to Winnipeg, Carolina and Philadelphia before wrapping it up next Friday night in Buffalo.

A win in regulation Thursday would lift the Isles to two points behind the fifth-place Toronto Maple Leafs, and the players in the visitors dressing room Thursday morning were very much aware of that juicy possibility.

"We're aware of the circumstances at this time of year," Tavares said. "The teams are real tight in the standings and there's a lot of battling for positioning for the playoffs. There's a lot up for grabs for both sides tonight."

The Leafs have a shot at home ice for the first round of the playoffs, thanks to the stumbling Montreal Canadiens. Toronto -- 7-2-1 in its past 10 games -- enters Thursday four points back of the Habs.

The Leafs wrap up the regular season against their rivals at home April 27. Fourth place is very much a possibility for Toronto, and the players know it.

"Definitely," Leafs goalie James Reimer said. "Anytime you can catch the team in front of you, whether it's from eighth to seventh or from second to first, that's what you're focused on. They [the Canadiens] have had a couple of unfortunate games; that's good for us and hopefully we can catch them. If we win tonight, maybe we close the gap. We hope to keep rolling."

Thing is, the Leafs -- who can clinch a playoff spot Thursday night depending on what also happens in Winnipeg -- have to start playing better than they have over the past week. They were downright lucky to beat New Jersey on Monday, Reimer stealing them those two points after the Leafs were outshot 32-13, and they got their just rewards a night later in Washington, when the red-hot Caps drubbed Toronto 5-1.

"We need to play a better brand of hockey than we did in the last six periods," Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said. "It's as simple as that. Or we're not going anywhere. Our focus is getting our team back to where we're capable of playing, because the last six periods for us is not something we'd say we're proud of.

"We have a group of players that have performed fairly well for us [this season] in the situations they've been presented, and now the next one is the most important one: That's tonight against the Islanders."

The Leafs have been outshot in eight straight games, not a trend that would seem to indicate long-term success. Then again, they've been outshot in 32 games this season and sport a sparkling 19-8-5 record in those games.

"We chart where the shots are coming from," Carlyle said. "And that's the most important thing to us. Yeah, we would like to keep our shots [against] down below 30, as every team would. And we'd like to get over 30 [on the opponent]. There's areas where we can improve on, for sure."

Lineup notes: Islanders coach Jack Capuano said veteran blueliner Matt Carkner would be inserted into the lineup for Radek Martinek. … Casey Cizikas, who left the Islanders' last game with an upper-body injury, said he was ready to go for Thursday. Josh Bailey, who also appeared to be banged-up in the last game, also said he's good for Thursday. … Toronto forwards Matt Frattin and Clarke MacArthur will likely be back in the lineup after being healthy scratches Tuesday at Washington. … Carl Gunnarsson will miss his third straight game with a lower-body injury. Carlyle said the defenseman might return Saturday in Ottawa.

Photos: Weekend rewind

March, 17, 2013
3/17/13
10:20
PM ET
Eric BoultonEliot J. Schechter/NHLI/Getty ImagesThe Panthers' George Parros left the game with an upper body injury after getting slammed to the ice by the Isles' Eric Boulton.
Sergei BobrovskyKirk Irwin/Getty ImagesSergei Bobrovsky's 39 saves through overtime extended the Jackets' point streak to 10 games.
Johan HedbergBruce Bennett/Getty ImagesThe Devils' Johan Hedberg can't stop the game-winning goal by the Habs' Tomas Plekanec.
Jets/LeafsGraig Abel/Getty ImagesZach Bogosian beat James Reimer in the 10th round of the shootout. This was the 21st shootout to last 10 rounds, but he first since Feb. 15, 2011.
Shawn ThorntonBrian Babineau/NHLI via Getty ImagesShawn Thornton and Boston's big guys took every opportunity to intimidate the Capitals.
Chris StewartAP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Chris LeeChris Stewart has scored five goals in his past three games to help the Blues top the Pacific-leading Ducks.
Roberto LuongoAnne-Marie Sorvin/USA TODAY SportsThe Red Wings handed Roberto Luongo his first loss at home in regulation this season.
BlackhawksGlenn James/NHLI/Getty ImagesThe Hawks' eight goals against the Stars are the most in a regular-season game since Dec. 16, 2008.
BruinsAP Photo/Gene J. PuskarThe Penguins got their ninth straight win on Sunday to move to the top of the East.
From the Toronto Maple Leafs' official release:

The Toronto Maple Leafs announced Tuesday that goaltender James Reimer sustained a mild medial collateral ligament (MCL) knee strain during the second period of last night’s home win versus Philadelphia. Reimer is expected to be out for a minimum of one week.

Five things you need to know about Monday’s games:

1. The Maple Leafs got a scare when starting goalie James Reimer left Monday’s game early against the Flyers with a lower-body injury. Ben Scrivens was strong in relief, making 32 saves in Toronto’s 5-2 win over the Flyers. The better news for Leafs fans came after the game, when Randy Carlyle told reporters that the injury to Reimer wasn’t believed to be serious. Might not hurt for Canucks GM Mike Gillis to make an exploratory phone call to Leafs GM Dave Nonis anyway.

2. The Sharks have completely wiped out their fast start. The Sharks didn’t lose a game in January and have been just as streaky in February, losing every game this month. Monday night might have been the worst; they lost 6-2 to the Blue Jackets to drop them to 0-3-2 in February. Brandon Dubinsky scored his first goal as a member of the Blue Jackets. The players acquired from New York in the Rick Nash trade have now combined for 15 points this season.

3. If the Islanders want to make the playoffs, they might actually need Tim Thomas to be more than just a contract that keeps them above the salary floor because their goaltending isn’t cutting it. Rick DiPietro allowed five goals on 30 shots in the Islanders' 6-4 loss to the Hurricanes. Neither Evgeni Nabokov nor DiPietro has a save percentage above .900 this season. Former Leafs prospect Jiri Tlusty scored twice for the Hurricanes and has seven points in his last five games. Four of those points came in the third period Monday night.

4. Shane Doan can still will his team to a win. He scored twice against the Avalanche, his second goal coming in the final minute of overtime after a clearing attempt hit a referee; the puck went to Kyle Chipchura, who found Doan for the winner. After a slow start, Mike Smith is heating up, finishing with 41 saves in the win. He has won four of his last five starts.

5. Goaltending is an issue for the Blues, but not for the Wild. Jaroslav Halak’s triumphant return didn’t make it out of warm-ups. He was activated from the injured reserve but a groin strain meant Brian Elliott was thrust into starting against the Kings. Elliott allowed four goals on 23 shots, including a pair to Jeff Carter, dropping his save percentage to .849 on the season. Niklas Backstrom was strong for the Wild, leading Minnesota to their first road win by allowing one goal on 24 shots against the Flames. The Blues and Flames are in the group of four teams (Oilers and Stars) sitting at 13 points, tied for the No. 8 spot in the West.


TORONTO -- This should have just been an exciting night in these burgeoning times for the Maple Leafs, Randy Carlyle’s young Toronto team showing signs of progress not seen in these parts for a long while.

With youngsters such as Matt Frattin and Nazem Kadri again leading the way Monday night in a convincing 5-2 win over the visiting Philadelphia Flyers, the Leafs ran their win streak to four games and further buoyed a fan base craving any tangible sign of progress.

Need I remind anyone there hasn’t been a playoff game played here since April 2004?

Oh, there’s progress happening here, folks. Whether they make the playoffs or not this season, Carlyle’s impact is being felt, the Leafs displaying the kind of work ethic and system structure that leads to success in this league.

It was on display here again early in the second period Monday night, the Leafs’ effective forecheck creating three goals in the opening 6:15 minutes to break open a 1-1 tie and essentially decide the game.

A perfect night, however, it wasn’t for the fast-improving Leafs (8-5-0). Four minutes into the second period, James Reimer went down to the ice in obvious pain, leaving the ice with assistance with what the team called a lower-body injury.

Funny how a month ago before the season started nary a Leafs fan would have batted an eye at this news. After all, Reimer struggled so badly last season, the Leafs and Canucks held on-again, off-again flirtation sessions regarding Roberto Luongo and the Leafs didn’t hide their desire to upgrade in goal if the right trade could be had.

Reimer didn’t even get the opening night nod. That went to Ben Scrivens.

But Reimer eventually reclaimed the net and boy did he ever make it his again, to the tune of the seventh-best save percentage in the NHL at .929.

Suddenly, the James Reimer who came on strong in 2010-11 was back. And the Leafs were winning games.

Then came Monday night’s injury and we will see what impact, if any, it will have on Toronto’s season.

"We don’t think it’s that serious at this point," Carlyle said after the victory. "He shouldn’t miss any extended period of time."

Well, we’ll see. More tests will be conducted on Reimer on Tuesday.

Scrivens, it should be noted, delivered 36 minutes of solid relief Monday night, allowing one goal on 33 shots, and now he gets his shot for the foreseeable future.

The injury comes at a time when the Leafs are playing their best hockey under Carlyle.

The young players on this team are beginning to realize if they stick to the game plan set out by Carlyle and his staff, they have a shot. They are believers.

"That’s where it starts, before we worry about anybody else, it starts in the room," Kadri said after a two-assist night. "We had one plan, one vision at the beginning of the season and we’ve tried to stick to that.

"Obviously, some nights aren’t going to be our best, but I think for the most part we’ve come together as a team and really found ways to win."

What you’re seeing of late is a Leafs team that’s reacting instinctively to what Carlyle has drilled into them; it’s becoming second nature. They are quick on loose pucks, make smarter decisions with and without it, and force the opposition into mistakes. They finish their checks and drop the gloves to protect teammates.

In short, the compete level on this team is higher than it’s been in ages.

"What we’ve tried to talk about -- and this is since last April -- that we had to become more competitive in all three zones," said Carlyle. "That’s been a mandate that we’ve put in front of our players. If players don’t want to be competitive, then their chances of playing for our hockey club diminish."

(Let’s give some credit too, to AHL head coach Dallas Eakins, who has groomed several of the Leafs now playing sizeable parts on the NHL squad. If I’m an NHL GM looking for the next coaching star, look no further than the Marlies head coach.)

Carlyle has doled out ice time based on merit. Nobody’s pedigree matters. And what it’s doing is shattering the culture of entitlement that’s plagued this losing team for several years.

"This is a hockey club that is trying to find its way and earn its stripes," said Carlyle. "We’re trying to earn our respect back because we felt that that was part of our mandate coming off of last year and through the summer months that we talked about -- that we weren’t going to be able to continue along the path that this group had gone before and that we were going to have to change some things. You can credit the players with that.

"The coaching staff can try to put something in place, but it’s the people that are out there on the ice performing night in, night out that have to grasp it and live it."

Former Leafs GM Brian Burke was in the building on this night, sitting with visiting scouts in the press box. Let’s not forget his little role in all this. I’m sure he was smiling inside when James van Riemsdyk skated around Luke Schenn and beat Brian Boucher to make it 5-1 Leafs early in the third period. Burke, of course, traded Schenn to Philly for JVR last June -- his last trade as Leafs GM some seven months before getting fired. Make it eight goals on the season now for JVR -- three more than any Flyers player.

We’re not here to revisit the merit in Burke’s firing as Leafs GM last month, but let’s also not pretend the veteran hockey man also shouldn't get an ounce of credit for what’s happening here of late.

For starters, he hired Carlyle last March. That might have been his best move of all.
Another week full of terrific rants. Let’s take a look:

strummerdood: LeBrun, can Ilya Bryzgalov finally get some respect? Everyone from fans to the media have been relentless with their attacks against the eccentric goaltender, going so far as prophesying that Holmgren would actually try to trade away Ilya's contract before the deadline. Yes, he's been inconsistent this season, but half a season shouldn't erase a Vezina nomination, along with a handful of statistically-great seasons. Since January, he's been more on point, and during Philly's recent road trip, he's kept the team alive despite a bad break here and there. He's showing why Holmgren signed him long-term, but with everyone scrutinizing every single goal he lets up, I don't think he's getting the respect he deserves.

My take: I take it you mean his Vezina nomination from a few years ago in Phoenix, not that you believe he should be nominated this year. If that was the case, I’d be very concerned for you. I do think Bryz has settled down in the second half and I think he’ll be fine in the long run. The adjustment period was always going to be tricky for him. He’d never played in a big NHL market.

hawkzfan19: My rant begins and ends with the current point system in the NHL. All of these three-point games that bunch up the standings are hurting the league when it comes toward the end of the season. Look at the trade deadline. There were what, four maybe five teams that were "sellers" and the rest all were holding on to players because there was just no way to definitely say that they were out of the race. When is it that the NHL will wise up and change the point system to allow the better teams to rise to the top and create some separation from the weaker teams in the league and make the trade deadline not only fun again but also the vital time of year to allow contenders to fill out their rosters?

And ...

vipeviper: I would rather the trade deadline be the most boring day of the season than get rid of the parity that exists now. It is better for the league to have more teams with a chance to make the playoffs than not. I don't understand why everyone thinks a slow deadline day hurts the league. It doesn't!! It is better when everyone IS a contender.

My take: Well, those are the two viewpoints on this issue. Some GMs I talk to would like to re-visit the idea of three points for a 60-minute win (the GMs discussed it at the 2004 meetings in Henderson, Nev.). But other GMs and the league head office points to the tight and dramatic playoff races in March/April. I suspect the league won’t change its mind on this. Parity is healthy in its mind.

stunard2000: Another year, another non-trade by the Wings. Are you kidding me? Don't they know the spark it provides to sign a big name to the roster? Don't they know it gives the guys a feeling that 'Hey, our management is doing all it can to get us deep into the playoffs?' Don't they know that it's just in time for the playoff push? And don't they know that, historically, the Wings have exited the playoffs early because they didn't make a move to shore up some part of the team? Where's the Shanny deals? The Brett Hull, Larionov, Dino C trades? Give the team a spark. Give them something they're missing (um, how about an enforcer, which has been missing since the middle ages?).

My take: Boy, some of you Wings fans are hard to please. You’ve got the best GM in the NHL and you’ve been the model franchise for 20-plus years and it’s not good enough? Yes, the Wings were quiet on deadline day, but they acquired Kyle Quincey prior to it, a solid addition on the blue line. Yes, I would have like to see them add some size/grit to their bottom six forward group. But the price for Paul Gaustad was a first-round pick, which the Wings didn’t have. Pittsburgh, Washington, Toronto and Philadelphia also didn’t do much on deadline day. It was that kind of year. Not many sellers. I wouldn’t sweat it if I were you. The Wings are still big-time contenders.

maxjunge: Dear San Jose, Who are you? That's all I really want to know. Every year you raise my hopes with aspirations that maybe, just maybe this is the year. You send your coach to the All-Star Game, had the best point percentage in the NHL and at one point were at the top of the power rankings. You had everyone wide-eyed because this was going to be the year. Veterans in place, prime-aged players peaking, young guns improving, it all lined up until ... well, until a nine-game road trip that sent you skidding almost out of the playoff race, that let Phoenix take the Pacific Division lead, and that once again has all of us here in the Bay wondering, will this be another overhyped year? Will we again be the punchline of the hockey world? To that, I don't know, but all I can say, is San Jose, please figure yourselves out, for all of us. Love, A teal-bleeding fan

My take: Well, at least you were treated to back-to-back trips to the Western Conference finals, including back-to-back playoff eliminations of the Detroit Red Wings. I can think of a lot of fans of other teams that would take that. But I do share your concern with the team right now. Before Tuesday night’s 1-0 win over Philadelphia, I felt the Sharks had really loosened up defensively over the past month. Some of that was because Antti Niemi had struggled in net, but the overall team defensive play was also not up to par. I’ll be curious to see how the team looks once Martin Havlat and Douglas Murray return. They really haven’t had their full team all season. I still think they can make it fun, but I feel less confident of that now than I did in October.

clownbaby006: Why are the Coyotes only No. 11 in the power rankings? 11-0-1 in February (10-0-1 at the time the latest rankings posted) and they aren't even in the top 10? Every win during this streak, except for the Oilers, has been against contending teams, including taking the top team in the league to a shootout twice. They might not be the most talented or have the best overall record, but right now they are playing just as well as anybody, and that's what the power ranking should show. It's not another version of the standings, it's how teams are playing recently, and you can't convince me the Yotes aren't one of the best teams going into March.

My take: I totally agree with you, sir. Can’t believe the Yotes were only 11th in the rankings. Oh wait, I did the rankings. Can I get a mulligan? No question I should have had them higher. Takes a man to admit he’s wrong! Honestly, though, once again you have to tip your hat at GM Don Maloney and head coach Dave Tippett. The ongoing ownership saga hasn’t dulled their focus and effort. It’s truly a remarkable story.

winpro: Oh, my Leafs. It's so hard being a Leafs fan. Knowing that the owners don't care about winning because they make money no matter what, but on the other hand still wanting just to make the playoffs so badly and watching it slip away every year. Burke and Wilson need to go. Nobody wants to do deals with Burke. Wilson is a failure as a coach. He had so much talent in San Jose and did nothing. The media, Burke and the coaching staff put so much pressure on the goalies that they have no confidence playing in Toronto. Go with Reimer or The Monster and get them some veteran backup help and put some confidence into the starter instead of this teeter toter of starters. They have the speed and good young players but they lack the toughness and leadership of a true No. 1 star. Or else it will be another 50 years before they win a Cup.

My take: All my pals are Leafs fans, which makes sense since I live in Toronto. It’s just unreal to see what’s happening yet again. The season had looked pretty promising. I like a lot of the moves Burke has made in rebuilding this team, particularly getting Jake Gardiner out of Anaheim, but his mistake last offseason was trusting the James Reimer-Jonas Gustavsson combination in goal as good enough to make the playoffs. The Leafs should have added a veteran netminder in order to help Reimer shoulder the load, or as insurance in case he didn’t live up to the standard he set last season as a rookie. If the Leafs do indeed miss the playoffs, that’s where the downfall was.

the1manparty: What was with the lack of action at the trade deadline? I find it hilarious that the NHL was promoting the day with #bebold, and teams were anything but. There are so many teams that needed help going into the playoff push, and no one took initiative. The teams that needed to sell or at least mix up the locker room seemed to be the worst. Do the Capitals really think they are in any position to succeed over the coming months? Why not move someone to wake the locker room up? Their leadership obviously isn't doing it. The only team that could be said to have done anything is Nashville, and for that reason I hope they are rewarded.

My take: The No. 1 reason for it is parity. The standings are so close that not enough teams would all-out declare themselves sellers. That created a market where the rentals cost too much (see first-round pick for Paul Gaustad). Leafs GM Brian Burke for a years now has pushed the idea of bringing back the ability to retain salary in trades. Right now, that’s against the rules in the CBA. But Burke believes if teams could eat some of the salary of a player it is trading (as was the case pre-2004 in the NHL), that it would loosen up the trade market. More and more GMs are agreeing with Burke on this and I can tell you the NHL will give it some thought in the next round of CBA talks. Not only would you get more trades on deadline day, but you’d get more trades year-round.

NyMets5721575: I'm tired of people bashing the Rangers because they did not acquire Rick Nash or another scorer out there during the deadline. The prices for these players like Gaustad and Nash were outrageous. First off, Gaustad isn't even that great of a scorer and no way is he worth a first-round pick and as for Nash, if you look at who they were giving up, Scott Howson is a moron for not taking it. The Rangers were giving him the core of their farm system plus Dubinsky and a first-round pick. C'mon, how do you not move him? He's going to be miserable in Columbus for the rest of his tenure there. The Rangers were smart in not giving up the house for him as well and not breaking up their chemistry; that's why they will have a deep run in the playoffs.

My take: Agreed. The Rangers were wise to keep their wits on this. They were willing to pay a certain price but not lose their minds. They’ve got a tight team, tremendous chemistry, and it wasn’t worth blowing it up for Nash. For Brandon Dubinsky and top prospects? Yes, you do it. But not more than that.

Debate: Who are the Leafs going after?

February, 23, 2012
2/23/12
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Brian Burke has shown time and time again in his GM career that he’s not afraid to act, and the man who runs the Toronto Maple Leafs has decided to add more drama before Monday’s 3 p.m. ET trade deadline.

Burke broke the news on TSN 1050 Radio in Toronto on Wednesday evening -- later confirming it with ESPN.com during a phone call -- that the club has decided to explore what’s out there on the goalie market in the wake of recent netminding struggles of Jonas Gustavsson and James Reimer.

It doesn’t mean for sure they’ll get a goalie, but they are going to see what’s out there and judge the price tags. Burke said the front office discussed it for the first time Wednesday. It had not looked at outside goaltending until this point, just a few days removed from the trade deadline.

That doesn’t allow for much time to get something done, and the prices are usually high at this time of year, but let’s look at the possibilities for the Leafs:

Evgeni Nabokov, New York Islanders: At 36, Nabokov has had a bounce-back season as proved by his .925 save percentage. He’s slated for unrestricted free agency July 1, so he’s the ideal rental player. My understanding is that he would gladly waive his no-trade clause for a move to Toronto. And don’t forget he played for Leafs coach Ron Wilson during their San Jose days. Here’s the catch, however: The Isles are in negotiations with Nabokov agent Don Meehan regarding an extension. And even if Nabokov doesn’t sign, Isles GM Garth Snow has shown in the past he doesn’t just give away rental players, so it’s no sure thing he will move him, even if he can’t sign him over the next few days. Still, this would be the most obvious target for Toronto.

Josh Harding, Minnesota Wild: Like Nabokov, Harding is a UFA July 1, so he’s a rental. Thing is, like the Isles, the Wild haven’t quite decided what to do ahead of Monday’s trade deadline. It’s really going to depend, I think, on the quality of the trade offers and where Minnesota sits in the standings. But the club is certainly open to listening.

Anders Lindback, Nashville Predators: I believe there’s interest here on the part of the Leafs, but there’s also the realization that the Predators aren’t about to give away a 23-year-old goalie who holds lots of promise. It’s not that he’s unavailable; the Preds would move him, but only in the right deal. Translation: high price.

Curtis Sanford, Columbus Blue Jackets: Sanford is another rental, and frankly he’s played reasonably well for the league’s doormats this season. The question you have to ask yourself if you’re Toronto is, how much of an upgrade is he on what you have?

J.S. Giguere, Colorado Avalanche: The former Leafs netminder is healthier now than he was last season in Toronto but he’s not a rental player, having another year left on his contract, at $1.25 million. He’s played well for Colorado this season, he’s been a good tonic for Semyon Varlamov, and I’m not sure how interested the Avs would be to change that.

Antero Niittymaki, San Jose Sharks: You can bet your bottom dollar that Sharks GM Doug Wilson would love to dump his discarded No. 3 netminder on the Leafs. Niittymaki has an .891 save percentage in nine AHL games this season. He’s fully recovered from a surgically repaired hip, but teams are obviously wary. He’s been a very effective netminder in the past, but I doubt the Leafs would go here unless it was a last resort.

Scott Clemmensen, Florida Panthers: He’s a UFA July 1 and a former Leafs farmhand, in 2007-08. He’s played decently in Florida this season, with a .908 save percentage, but I think the Panthers would move him if a team called. Two questions here: 1) Would Florida move him to a team it is battling with in the East playoff race? and 2) Is this really an upgrade for Toronto?

Ben Bishop, St. Louis Blues: Total wild-card entry. It would be a big-time gamble for the Leafs to hand the keys to another young and inexperienced netminder, one with only 13 NHL games under his belt -- none this season. But some people around the league are high on the 25-year-old’s abilities.

Rick Nash not for sale

November, 17, 2011
11/17/11
3:32
PM ET
Although the Columbus Blue Jackets continue to work the phones looking for a netminder, one name that is not involved in their talks is that of captain Rick Nash.

“Not once have I ever brought up his name,” Jackets GM Scott Howson told ESPN.com Thursday.

Sure, other teams have obviously inquired about Nash, but Howson has quickly closed that down.

For his part, Nash hasn’t asked to get out, either.

“Rick has never asked for a trade, contrary to what has been reported,” his agent Joe Resnick told ESPN.com on Thursday. “Rick is focused on trying to turn things around in Columbus and help the team get some wins.”

Toronto’s Goalie Search



With James Reimer still out and not clear exactly when he’ll be able to return, the Toronto Maple Leafs are scouring the market to see what’s out there in terms of a goalie.

“We’re seeing what’s available and seeing what the price tag is,” GM Brian Burke told ESPN.com on Thursday afternoon. “Obviously nothing has tickled our fancy yet.”

Reimer remains saddled with concussion-like symptoms.

“He’s been day-to-day for three weeks, so at some point we have to get a goaltender in here to bridge the gap until he’s healthy,” Burke said.

Stars’ Injuries



Suddenly, the surprising Dallas Stars are getting stung by injuries. Gritty winger Adam Burish is expected to be out four to six weeks with a broken hand and top defenseman Alex Goligoski is expected to be out at least four weeks after suffering a broken thumb in last Friday’s 3-1 loss at Pittsburgh.

Now we see about that depth the Stars addressed in the offseason when they added six players on July 1. The hope and belief was that the newfound depth would help the team survive when the injury bug came unlike last season.

“Exactly,” Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk told ESPN.com Thursday. “That’s why we got those guys. We’ll have to weather the storm. Goligoski is a tough one, and Burish is a real character guy for us. But teams have injuries have to find a way to deal with it.”

In the meantime, Nieuwendyk is keeping an ear out on the trade market just in case anything appealing comes his way.

“We’re always looking what’s out there,” Nieuwendyk said.

Ovechkin’s Production

Alex Ovechkin entered Thursday night’s game at Winnipeg with 14 points (7-7) in 16 games -- which was good for 46th in league scoring.

Not exactly where we’re is accustomed to seeing the Russian superstar.

Could he be playing a bit better? Yes. But the Washington Capitals will tell you they’re not concerned because this is the most balanced attack they’ve had in years. They’ve rolled four forward lines all season long -- and that certainly wasn’t the case in years past. Gone are the days where they had to rely only on Ovechkin to do it all and to play ridiculous minutes.

His production is down also because the team is playing a more structured, disciplined game. He can’t play rover anymore in this system. It’s about winning hockey games.

“There’s nothing wrong with him,” Caps head coach Bruce Boudreau told ESPN.com on Thursday. “The most important thing to him is winning. He’s won the Hart Trophy; he’s won the Rocket Richard Trophy; he’s won a lot of trophies. Now he just wants to win, and if that means playing four lines to be a better team, he’s OK with that.”

Interesting to note, actually, that there wasn’t a single Russian hockey player in the top 30 NHL scoring as of Thursday afternoon. In part that’s because Evgeni Malkin (14 points) has only played 11 games.

We’re counting on Ovechkin catching fire at some point soon, but his fans must also realize the Caps are a different team now. They’re hoping to be better built for the playoffs by relying less on one player or one line.

We’ll know next spring is that’s finally true.

Suter’s Contract Talks



Contract talks between Ryan Suter’s agent, Neil Sheehy, and the Nashville Predators took place Wednesday and Thursday but there is still work to be done.


“It’s ongoing; there won’t be a deal while I’m here in town,” Sheehy told ESPN.com Thursday afternoon. “We’re continuing to talk, and that’s about all I can say at this point.”


Sheehy was slated to return home Friday morning. Suter is slated to be an unrestricted free agent July 1.


There was speculation a deal could be signed this week with Sheehy in town, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.


“We both have things to talk about so we’ll continue to work on it,” Sheehy said. “No deal is imminent right now.”

The most critical week in the history of the Phoenix Coyotes franchise is potentially upon us.

I say potentially because, if there's one thing we've learned during this soap opera over the past 20 months, it's never to speak in definite terms when sizing up the situation in Glendale, Ariz.

Just three Saturdays ago, everyone involved in the process believed the sale would close without a hitch. That was before the Goldwater Institute finally made its impact. Now, the whole thing is hanging on by a thread.

After my colleague Scott Burnside did a bang-up job in his column examining the Coyotes situation this past week, I made a few phones calls Friday and Saturday to update things for my "Hockey Night In Canada" Hot Stove segment.

Here are the latest developments, via several sources involved in the process:

• The next 7-10 days may possibly decide the fate of the franchise -- either the bonds will finally be sold and the sale could finally close to keep the team in Phoenix, or the bonds won't be sold and the league will be forced to make a difficult decision on whether to relocate the team to Winnipeg for the 2011-12 season. There is still no official deadline for this to be resolved, but the belief is the process is already living on borrowed time. It doesn't seem this can drag on past the end of March/early April.

• Right now, the team's future in Phoenix seems ominous, but it's not over yet.

"I don't think this is dead by any means," said a source involved in the situation regarding the Coyotes. Said another source, "It could still be salvaged, but my gut feeling is that it's toast."

• The Goldwater Institute believes the terms of the sale to Matthew Hulsizer are a bad deal for local taxpayers, and it won't budge from that stance. The issue now is whether the NHL and the City of Glendale can find investors for the bonds despite Goldwater's legal threats.

• Meanwhile, multiple sources told Burnside the City of Glendale is expected to file suit Monday against Goldwater and specific members of the public watchdog's board.

• Instead of a broad-based bond sale to numerous investors, the effort now is to find two or three big wheels to buy the bonds.

• On the Atlanta front, if there is enough of a grassroots effort to try to find local ownership, it may buy the Thrashers at least one more season in Atlanta. Having said that, one source told us Saturday: "If the Coyotes stay in Phoenix, then the Thrashers may very likely head to Winnipeg unless they can find local ownership in a huge hurry."

• If the Coyotes move to Winnipeg and Thrashers also need to relocate a year from now, Quebec City is not guaranteed to be in line the way Winnipeg is now. Quebec City will have competition from Kansas City, Houston, Seattle and Portland.

• If the NHL decides to pull the plug on Phoenix, it still has to complete a franchise sale with the True North ownership group in Winnipeg. There have been suggestions the NHL and True North already have a "deal in the drawer," but that's not accurate. Still, it's not expected the deal would take long to work out.

• People will ask why Winnipeg may succeed in its bid to land either the Coyotes or Thrashers. The prospective ownership group there has been patient; it played by the rules and kept a low profile. Those are all keys in gaining entry to the NHL's private club.

• Conference realignment is not needed if the Coyotes move back to the Winnipeg. Both cities are in the West. If Atlanta moved to Winnipeg, Detroit and Columbus would be the two clubs hoping to move to the Eastern Conference.

• Finally, the ownership uncertainty has truly affected the Coyotes' on-ice planning. First, the club couldn't add payroll at the trade deadline, which Hulsizer would have allowed had he officially been in charge. Second, contract talks still haven't begun with UFA-to-be Ilya Bryzgalov, and the team risks losing him come July 1 with every passing day.

This and that ...

• The Bruins and Rick Curran, the agent for Tomas Kaberle, recently had a short chat to say: Let's talk again at some point in the future regarding a possible extension. No exact time frame is in place.

• Lightning GM Steve Yzerman and veteran agent Don Meehan, who represents RFA-to-be Steven Stamkos, spoke again last weekend in New York. It doesn't sound like they're close at this point.

• Leafs rookie goalie James Reimer has been the toast of the town during the team's surprising run after the All-Star break. It just so happens he needs a new contract after the season since he'll be a restricted free agent July 1. Both sides have communicated, but it sounds like real negotiations will wait for the offseason.

"I think so," Reimer's agent, Ray Petkau, told ESPN.com Saturday. "They're not in a hurry and we're not in a hurry. Reims is an easy-going kid."

• Speaking of free-agent goalies, Craig Anderson has been gold since going to Ottawa from Colorado. He's an unrestricted free agent July 1. The team and the player's agent, Justin Duberman, have had a few conversations but no real contract talks yet. That's expected to happen over the next few weeks.

• There are big plans in the works for the lead-up to the Toronto Maple Leafs' 100-year anniversary season in 2016-17. There have been preliminary discussions between the Leafs and the NHL that would possibly see the team host an All-Star weekend and an NHL draft leading up to the anniversary. But the Leafs are hoping to make it a trifecta of events by hosting an outdoor game. For that to happen, BMO Field (home of the MLS' Toronto FC) would need to be expanded, something that is tentatively planned to happen at some point over the next five years.

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