Cross Checks: NHL
It is often the case, indeed almost inevitable, that whenever someone in the public eye -- whether it’s a professional athlete, celebrity or politician -- is charged with a crime, and that charge ultimately ends up disappearing, there is never a balancing of the scales in terms of media attention.
In the wake of the initial charges, which included lurid reports of a drunken Varlamov battering his 24-year-old girlfriend, we wondered aloud at how the Avalanche could allow Varlamov to return immediately to work. He not only traveled with the team in the days after first appearing in court -- he played.
To us it seemed insensitive, too dismissive of the serious nature of the charges.
Varlamov’s agent, Paul Theofanous, told us at the time that he was privy to many things the public and the media weren’t, and he insisted his client was completely innocent of all the charges.
At the time, it seemed the kind of empty commentary that merely clouds a complicated situation -- the kind of comment that seems more designed to placate a client rather than provide any kind of meaningful context.
As it turns out, Theofanous was right, as were the Avalanche, at least insofar as the criminal matters were concerned.
The case against Varlamov turned to dust when the local district attorney’s office admitted in public statements late last week that at the end of the day, it did not believe the claims against Varlamov could be proved in court.
The district attorney's office insisted that the dropping of the final charge of third-degree assault (prosecutors had earlier declined to proceed with a kidnapping charge) didn’t necessarily mean it didn’t believe the alleged victim’s story, but rather that the supporting evidence that could have -- should have? -- supported investigators’ initial claims had in fact thrown doubt on the entire situation.
No one knows the truth of what happened between Varlamov and his girlfriend but the two of them. Whatever that truth is, both will have to live with it, just as they’ll have to live with what was said in the wake of whatever transpired between the two and what the motivation might have been for how it all unfolded.
But as we had wondered at the rush to see Varlamov back in goal -- a course of action seemingly fully explained by the meek manner in which this case fell to pieces -- we now hope that whatever machinery was at play that saw those charges first brought will be given a keen examination by the local authorities. Further, if as appears to be the case, individuals lied or recanted in follow-up examinations in regard to what took place that they, too, are pursued with the same kind of vigor with which the charges against Varlamov were first pursued.
The Avalanche and Varlamov will now get on with their daily routines, and considering the year they’re having after so many seasons to forget, this episode will likely fade.
In the face of the charges and the potentially distracting, disruptive element they represented, the Avalanche soldiered on, and in the end, they were rewarded for their support with the dropping of the charges.
And maybe that’s as it should be for Varlamov, a man now emerged from what must have been a heavy shadow, who can now turn his full attention to preparing for what will likely be a starting role for Russia at the Sochi Olympic Games in February and a possible playoff berth in the spring.
But here’s hoping those whose job it is to seek out the truth in these matters do not stop the pursuit in this case.
At the very least it’s something both Varlamov and the Avalanche deserve.
CHICAGO -- Although the salary cap will go down next season to $64.3 million, the league looks to be positioning itself well for a return to pre-lockout revenue totals.
The 48-game, lockout-shortened season played to 97 percent capacity during the regular season, and more than 100 percent capacity during the playoffs, Bettman said.
As for revenues, the NHL is projecting higher than a straight percentage of the games played during the truncated season that began Jan. 19.
“We played 58 percent of our season but we did better than 58 percent of our revenues, we believe," Bettman said. "It’s not done yet, and there’s still some more revenues to be generated over the next couple of weeks. But we believe we did better than a strict percentage would have you think."
Bettman defended his officials, whose standards for calling fouls in the playoffs have come under attack from different quarters this spring.
“The officials in this league are the best in the world, I believe, not just in hockey but in any sport," Bettman said. "I believe they have the most difficult job, and it always seems to undergo even more intense scrutiny this time of year.
“This is a game of errors. Coaches make them. Players make them. And occasionally the officials make them. We constantly critique, supervise and coach them. They’re held accountable for their performance.
“The officiating has been consistent. Whether or not I am pleased with it isn’t the point. We’re constantly trying to make it better but it involves a human element.”
The NHL and the players’ union continue their discussion with the International Olympic Committee and international ice hockey bodies regarding the NHL’s participation in the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, next winter. And while it has taken longer than anyone had imagined, it is moving forward.
Bettman said the players’ association likely has more “open issues than we do” but that “until it’s all done, it isn’t done.”
The slow pace of those discussions has delayed the release of the NHL’s 2013-14 schedule, and it has also delayed other discussions regarding the NHL’s international schedule -- including a return of the World Cup of Hockey, something both the league and the NHLPA are hoping to see return to a regular rotation. (This likely would be every four years, giving us a World Cup or Olympics every two years.)
The NHL and players’ association will also discuss whether to return to the Premiere Games series of regular-season games played in Europe, along with exhibition games with European clubs, once the Olympic issue is resolved.
The NHL will reveal the names it has chosen for its new four-division realignment that will go into effect next season likely some time before the schedule for next season is released and the schedule is likely to be released in July. Of course, the process of realignment could need some tinkering pending what happens with the Coyotes’ sale.
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- It was the most valuable hockey card in 9-year-old Ben Lovejoy’s collection, so he remembers it well. A 1991-92 Upper Deck Teemu Selanne rookie card, worth $4.
“Through having that card, I became a fan of his,” Lovejoy told ESPN The Magazine following the Anaheim Ducks' 3-1 win over the Detroit Red Wings in Game 1 of their first-round series.
So, yeah, it was pretty cool to be the guy setting up Selanne on a power-play goal early in the third period that ended up being the game-winner.
Lovejoy’s job on the power play is fairly simple: shoot the puck and make sure the Ducks don’t get scored on. Moments before setting up Selanne, he had a shot blocked by Red Wings defenseman Danny DeKeyser.
When he got the puck again at the point, he now had a little more space to operate.
“I think that I got a little respect that second play. I looked [Sheldon Souray] off and passed it to the legend,” Lovejoy, who came over from the Penguins in a February trade, said. “I’ve played with some good players so far in my career. I’ve learned that you pass to people who are better than you.”
It’s a pretty solid strategy, and a moment later the Ducks had the lead. One they wouldn’t surrender.
It was playoff goal No. 42 for the 42-year-old Selanne, and those goals never get old. Not for those witnessing or for the legend himself.
“Absolutely,” he said. “When you have a passion for [scoring] goals it doesn’t matter how old you are. Maybe the celebrations go down a little, but inside it’s [the] same feeling.”
The Ducks had one of the best power plays in the league this season, finishing No. 4 overall at 21.5 percent, and scored twice with an advantage against the Red Wings; this might signal a matchup Anaheim can expose in this series. Detroit’s penalty kill struggled early on this season and dramatically improved as the season progressed, finishing at No. 12 in the league during the regular season. But the Anaheim power play was the reason the Ducks have jumped out to a 1-0 lead in this series and has the talent to continue that success moving forward.
Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau has all kinds of skill at his disposal on the two units, including a mix of talent at the point in guys like Cam Fowler and Souray, along with high-end offensive producers like Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. Nick Bonino and his puck-retrieving prowess make it all work.
And, of course, there’s the legend Selanne, who can change a game with one shot like he did when he beat Jimmy Howard short side. Like he’s been doing for years, going all the way back to that kid on the hockey card.
“This is the best time for the hockey player -- every shift, every shot, every goal matters,” Selanne said. “That’s why it’s so special.”
The Hockey Hall of Fame induction weekend gave us a nice respite from the soul-sucking reality of what’s currently plaguing the NHL.
As we wait for bargaining to resume at some point between the NHL and NHL Players’ Association, it gives us a chance to sit back and ponder where things are.
Three key areas remain a road block to a deal right now:
1) The core economic issue. The league offered $211 million in guaranteed money last week in a revised "make-whole" provision, payable via one-year deferred payments (plus interest), money that would be outside the cap system in order to try to make players whole on existing contracts. The union feels the money isn’t enough (as one union source said, try $600 million instead). Instead, the NHLPA last week told the league it wants to guarantee that players on a whole don’t earn a dime less than the $1.883 billion in total salaries earned last season plus 1.75 percent in interest on top of that.
My take: On one hand, I’m on record as saying I believe it’s more than fair for players to want to protect existing contracts as much as possible, especially given the appearance of some owners of rushing to sign contracts this summer in the veiled hope of getting a shave off those deals in the form of escrow in the new CBA. Having said that, I’m not exactly sure how NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr expects to protect that $1.883 billion salary threshold in this new CBA. I mean, that figure alone is why the league -- which claims more than half its teams lost money last year -- triggered a lockout to begin with. The point of wanting the players to go down from 57 percent of hockey-related revenue down to 50 percent is to say that $1.883 billion out of $3.3 billion was too high for its industry. That’s not to say players won’t get back up to $1.883 billion or beyond as league revenues grow in the next several years, but to try to guarantee that right out of the gates, at least to me, just won’t cut it with these owners. To me, when push comes to shove here, if I’m the NHLPA I push the league for more money on "make whole" and cut my losses once I feel the league has gone as far as possible on that front. With each passing day, 50 percent of HRR becomes a smaller and smaller target as the business becomes more damaged.
2) Player contracting rights. This has become a much bigger issue over the last week than I would have ever predicted. My understanding all along in this process is that this was a bit of a red herring, in the sense that I always believed the NHL would stand down on some of its player contracting demands once the NHLPA signed off on the core economic issues, especially "make whole." And I still believe there is some level of flexibility in this area once/if the two sides agree on "make whole." But what we have here is the chicken and the egg. The league won’t move on its player contracting rights until it has "make whole" figured out, and the NHLPA doesn’t want to give an inch either on player contracting rights, feeling its willingness to go down to 50 percent of HRR at some point in the new deal is a large enough concession on its own. Several NHL players reached out to me via text messages over the last two days saying they are through-the-roof frustrated on this issue, feeling the league is giving them a take-it-or-leave-it option on their player contracting demands. Of course, that assertion frustrates the league, which says it wants the NHLPA to come back and counter in this area but instead says the union simply says it is not interested in any of it.
My take: If I’m the NHL, to try to get a deal done, I step down on wanting to move UFA eligibility to eight years' service or 28 years old (from the current seven/27), I step down on wanting to change the entry-level system or salary arbitration, and I give up on trying to limit terms on contracts to five years. The key areas I stick to my guns on if I’m the league: the 5 percent rule introduced in the Oct. 16 proposal, in which salaries from year to year can’t go up or down more than 5 percent (this rule essentially makes the five-year term limit needless because it foils any attempt at front-loaded/back-diving deals); the Wade Redden/stashing-players-in-the-AHL rule; the Roberto Luongo back-diving rule (even if a team trades a player, if he retires before end of his deal, the original team that signed him to that contract gets nailed with his cap hit even in retirement). To me, those are the three rules that matter the most to the league because they deal with cap circumvention and, frankly, I’m not sure why the players would even care much about any of those three.
3) The damage of the lockout. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly estimated the revenue losses at $720 million when November games were canceled, and that doesn’t include the carnage of the Winter Classic. And what remains unresolved -- and it becomes a bigger looming issue with each passing day -- is just how the NHL and NHLPA will agree to share in the pain of the damage caused by the lockout when it comes to adjusting the core economic language to a shortened season. No question the league will see this as a 50-50 proposition, since both sides in the league’s view are equally guilty of being unable to negotiate a new deal. But I suspect the NHLPA will make this an interesting issue by pointing out that it was the NHL that locked out the players and triggered this lockout. Fehr has set up the league for this moment by repeatedly suggesting since last June that the players would have been willing to play this season while CBA negotiations were ongoing. So yes, another hot potato in the offing, another hurdle to a deal.
Last week was not a total waste of time in New York City, the two sides getting closer on one key element to the deal: revenue sharing among teams. The league pushed its total money on revenue sharing to $220 million, up from $150 million in the last CBA, and while the NHLPA might still want to modify how the program is run, the money has the two sides in the same ballpark.
My take: As bleak as things look, one thing I learned after covering the last lockout in 2004-05 is that the breakthrough in talks can come completely out of nowhere with absolutely no apparent momentum leading up to it. Out of nowhere during a secret meeting between Bill Daly and Ted Saskin in Niagara Falls, N.Y., came the NHLPA’s acceptance of a salary cap, which for better or for worse was the first step in finally reaching an eventual deal seven years ago. I suspect the same will hold true here. That without any obvious hints or signs, the two sides will finally find a trigger on the core economic issues, which will provide a domino effect for the rest of the deal.
The question is, how long do we have to wait for that moment to come?
I still think there’s chance for hockey sometime in December. But don’t hold me to it.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE / JANUARY 6, 2012
NHL REALIGNMENT DELAYED; NHLPA DENIES CONSENT
NEW YORK (January 6, 2012) -- The National Hockey League announced today that it will not move forward with implementation of the Realignment Plan and modified Playoff Format recently approved by the NHL Board of Governors for the 2012-13 NHL season because the NHLPA has refused to provide its consent.
“It is unfortunate that the NHLPA has unreasonably refused to approve a Plan that an overwhelming majority of our Clubs voted to support, and that has received such widespread support from our fans and other members of the hockey community, including Players,” said NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly. “We have now spent the better part of four weeks attempting to satisfy the NHLPA’s purported concerns with the Plan with no success. Because we have already been forced to delay, and as a result are already late in beginning the process of preparing next season’s schedule, we have no choice but to abandon our intention to implement the Realignment Plan and modified Playoff Format for next season.”
“We believe the Union acted unreasonably in violation of the League’s rights. We intend to evaluate all of our available legal options and to pursue adequate remedies, as appropriate.”
As a result of the League’s decision today, the NHL will maintain its current alignment and Playoff Format for the 2012-13 season.
Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby skated Friday (again), and there is (again) still no timetable for his return. But we feel bad for the water bottle during these drills (clip courtesy of Pittsburgh Penguins):
The Nashville Predators had just won their fifth straight game, a key victory over fellow Western Conference playoff hopeful Anaheim, but Barry Trotz was in no mood to celebrate.
"I was very angry last night," the longtime Predators coach told ESPN.com on Friday morning.
It had something to do with being up 5-1 against the Ducks with half a period to play and needing to hang on for dear life for a one-goal win.
"I got to the dressing room and I scolded them," Trotz said. "I said, 'When are we going to learn?' I went right back to Chicago last year."
And that's exactly the point right now for this Predators outfit, the NHL's often-forgotten franchise which yet again is squeezing out every ounce of its roster en route to a likely playoff berth, its sixth in seven seasons. No small achievement.
Yet just making the playoffs isn't the point anymore for this organization. The Predators want to make the second round for the first time in their history.
So when you almost blow a 5-1 lead in late March, that infuriates the coach. It harkens back to 11 months ago, when the Predators had the Blackhawks holding on for dear life at the United Center, seconds away from taking a 3-2 series lead back to Nashville. But Patrick Kane scored with 13.6 seconds left, shorthanded no less, and the rest was history. The Hawks would go on to Stanley Cup glory and the Preds spent the summer wondering "what if."
On that (in)famous sequence, Preds winger Martin Erat sent a blind pass into the slot in the Chicago zone instead of doing the smart thing -- working the puck down low along the boards and killing the clock. Seconds later, Kane scored the tying goal at the other end of the ice after Chicago capitalized on Erat's turnover.
On Thursday night, there were Nashville players, trying to feed Sergei Kostitsyn for a hat-trick goal into an empty net only to fail.
"We tried it twice to get it to him," Trotz said. "You try once, you don't try twice."
It didn't cost them two points, but Trotz wanted his team to understand the big picture -- learn how to close out games and aspire to be more than just a team that makes the playoffs.
"Everything is about learning," Trotz said. "Let's not get too full of ourselves, because we're not that good."
The journey continues Saturday night with another big home contest against Dallas. The Stars are one point behind No. 8 Anaheim in the West and four points behind No. 6 Nashville.
"Every game is so crucial," Trotz said. "You lose a game and it's like you fall five places. We don't have any easy games, no one does. But our guys have been pretty good. I scolded them last night, but they've been real good overall."
The current five-game winning streak was well-earned with victories against Boston, Detroit, Buffalo and Anaheim, as well as Edmonton. The Preds are banged up; some players are playing through the pain, and Trotz is once again showing why he should be nominated for the Jack Adams Award this season.
"I've got one of the best goalies in the world and maybe one of the best defense pairings on the planet," Trotz said. "That's where it starts."
But where will it end this season?
In the end, every slump is a test of some kind.
Every time a team goes sideways, it is a test of its coaching staff and players.
Do they stick to the plan even though the losses mount?
Do they continue to believe in coaches, in the system, in each other?
Or do they start to go rogue, break from the pack, try something else?
The answers to those questions more often than not tell the difference between a team that is lost and a team for whom anything is possible.
These are the questions the New York Rangers were faced with not long ago with their season in the balance.
During a one-month period from Jan. 11 to Feb. 11, the Rangers managed just four wins in 14 outings. In the 10 games they did not win, the Rangers scored a total of 18 goals (for those of you struggling with your math, that's less than two goals a game).
For a young team that had impressed with its gritty, relentless play through the first half of the season, this might have been the death knell, a meandering slide out of playoff contention.
"This year, we're kind of finding an identity as a hard-working, grind-it-out group of hockey players," Rangers assistant GM Jim Schoenfeld told ESPN.com. "That is physically demanding and it is mentally demanding."
Despite the lack of productivity, the Rangers' coaching staff and management team liked what they saw. Indicators such as scoring chances, puck possession and shots on goal were positive.
"But the end result was not good," Schoenfeld said. "But the players stuck with it. They stuck with it and they stuck with it. The more you do it [execute the team's style of play], the more conditioned you get to doing it, both mentally and physically."
A test? You bet.
A test passed? You bet.
The Rangers have won seven of nine games. They scored 32 goals in those seven wins. They have nine power-play goals over their past eight games.
And yet they have not played differently, they just have had better results. It may seem like semantics, but ask teams that never get to this point after a terrible slide and they'll tell you it's more than just word play.
"We really aren't playing any differently than we have for most of the year," Schoenfeld said. "It was evidence to us that they do buy into it."
There are lots of players in the Rangers' room who epitomize the team's identity. Ryan Callahan and his team-leading 23 goals. Brandon Dubinsky and his team-best 51 points. Derek Stepan and Brian Boyle. But how about Brandon Prust? Once considered a one-dimensional scrapper, Prust came to New York last season from Calgary as part of the Olli Jokinen deal. Jokinen went back to Calgary this past offseason, while Prust has carved out a valuable niche on the roster.
Rangers coach John Tortorella has not just asked more of Prust, but demanded more. And he's gotten it. Prust is tied for the NHL lead with seven short-handed points and has five short-handed goals, one off the league lead. The London, Ontario, native still drops the gloves when needed, but he also recently had a four-game points streak.
"He plays the game with honor," Schoenfeld said. "He's an easy hockey player for the coaching staff to like and for his teammates to like."
A year ago, the Rangers were running neck and neck with the Philadelphia Flyers, lost the last game of the season in a shootout and missed the playoffs for the first time since the lockout. This season, they appear to be leaving nothing to chance.
"We all seem to be on the same page," Prust told ESPN.com. "There's a good feeling in the dressing room."
Prust talked about a swagger the team possesses, the expectation that the Rangers will win every night. During the team's January slide, that feeling was never far from their minds, he said.
"It was tough. You talk about getting that swagger back," he said. "I think we stayed positive. We knew that we were playing well and we didn't get discouraged."
On a personal note, Prust understands the two-way nature of the relationship with Tortorella. The coach took a chance on him and Prust has taken pride in rewarding that faith. In turn, his level of play has increased Tortorella's confidence in him. Funny how that happens.
"It's been great," the 27-year-old Prust said. "The trade last year was the best thing that's ever happened to me for my career. I've got a chance to play the way I've always known that I can play. It's great to finally feel at home."
After Thursday’s 2-1 shootout loss against Ottawa, the Rangers were seven points ahead of ninth-placed Carolina with seven games to play. Comfortable? Hardly.
Someone tried recently to ask Tortorella about resting players for the playoffs, and the coach would have none of that discussion.
"We don't even allow ourselves to go there," Schoenfeld said. "We still have a lot of points on the table. There's a lot that can happen. We tell our players, 'You can't exhale.'"
The words "good morning" were barely spoken Wednesday, as Marc Crawford couldn't contain himself at the other end of the phone line.
"Huge, huge game," the Dallas Stars' coach told ESPN.com, matchups and game-day strategy no doubt racing through his mind. "This is a big one tonight. You want to win and you want to win in regulation."
No doubt Vancouver-Detroit is the marquee game of the evening, but Anaheim-Dallas is the dogfight matchup of the night. Both clubs are tied at 85 points, but the Ducks delicately hold the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference by virtue of the ROW (regulation plus overtime wins) tiebreaker.
The playoffs before the playoffs tonight at American Airlines Center?
"Oh, absolutely," Crawford said. "Just watching all the games lately, you just see the intensity. You know when you see it? When people score. There's no small goals at this point. Every goal is like, 'wow.' The celebrations after, you see it reflected in peoples' faces. That's been the case here, too."
Two months ago, you would have never thought the Stars would even sweat out a March 23 game. But that longtime lead atop the NHL's best division vaporized with a 2-10-1 run from Jan. 21-Feb. 22, which opened up the Pacific to hard-charging San Jose, not to mention Phoenix, Los Angeles and Anaheim.
The Stars have since rebounded from that nightmarish stretch. They've gone 7-2-3 in their past 12 games to keep pace in the crazy Western race.
"We've played a great clip here," Crawford said. "We're over .700 [winning percentage] for the last 12 games, but we're not even in the playoffs. It really has been a terrific race."
As if Wednesday night's game didn't mean enough, the rub is the Stars next head off on a grueling five-game road trip with stops in Nashville, Phoenix, San Jose, Los Angeles and Anaheim.
"Our next games are all teams that we're chasing," Crawford said. "We've played really well on the road. All year we've played well on the road. Sometimes I think it's easier to play on the road because you're not trying to do too much."
The task got tougher with the injuries to blueliners Nicklas Grossman (sprained knee) and Karlis Skrastins (cut to the leg). Grossman played the fourth-most minutes per game among the Dallas defenders.
"It's not as bad as first forecast, but it's going to keep him out a week to 10 days. Hopefully he heals quick," Crawford said.
"Lukowich coming back into the NHL, that's almost exactly why you sign him, just in case we get into [injury] trouble," Crawford said. "He has veteran depth, and we desperately need him here tonight, and boy, he's excited to be here."
Crawford also said All-Star winger Loui Eriksson is expected to play tonight after missing two games with concussion-like symptoms.
The Stars need all the help they can get to hold off the red-hot Ducks, who despite the absence of All-Star goalie Jonas Hiller, have gone 8-2-0 in their past 10 games. Dark horse Hart Trophy candidate Corey Perry and Norris Trophy contender Lubomir Visnovsky have led the way.
"Randy's teams are always real hard to play against,'' Crawford said of Ducks coach Randy Carlyle. "They pursue the puck real well. They're a team that covers above the puck extremely well, and therefore there's not going to be a lot of open ice. They try to control the game in front of both nets and you have to be prepared to pay a price when you play against them."
Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun debate the fate of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who are 2-4-4 in their past 10 games:
Burnside: Well, my friend, three weeks from today, the playoffs will be under way. Still a ton of uncertainty in both conferences. Who will survive to play in the big tournament? Where will everyone end up when the dust clears? I was watching the play of the Tampa Bay Lightning last night with interest as they lost 5-2 to the New York Islanders on home ice. Ugly.
After scoring first, the Lightning allowed the improving Islanders to score four unanswered goals, spoiling goalie Dwayne Roloson's night against his former teammates. The Bolts have managed to win just twice in their past 11 outings, and Martin St. Louis told local reporters last night the team has "hit a wall."
We've seen other good teams go a little sideways of late (Detroit, Philadelphia and Boston, for example), but you have to wonder about the Lightning and whether they are one of those teams that can find terra firma again when it counts. Getting Steve Downie (maybe Friday) and U.S. Olympian Ryan Malone (perhaps next week) back will help, but I think the question is whether they've hit a wall or run out of gas.
LeBrun: I think St. Louis nailed it by saying the team appears to have hit a wall; the Bolts also look like they've lost a lot of confidence in themselves. This is a big test, too, for rookie NHL coach Guy Boucher. This is new territory for him at this level. He needs to keep his composure, because the players will smell any sign of panic. This is what you'll hear about the Lightning over the next few days: They need to get back to basics and focus on what made them successful this season. It's cliché, but it's exactly what they need to do.
Their power play is ranked sixth in the league, the penalty kill is 10th; they're fifth in shots on goal, sixth in shots against and eighth in goals per game. Those are all healthy numbers. The one that still haunts them, however, is being ranked 24th in goals against per game, which was actually a lot worse before Roloson came along and provided steadier netminding.
Burnside: I still think the Lightning are an interesting team when you project to the postseason. They look like they'll end up facing Pittsburgh or perhaps Montreal. Both will provide significant challenges and interesting storylines (Steven Stamkos getting his first taste of NHL playoff life; whether Roloson, 41, can still deliver the goods in the postseason, given his last playoff game was in 2006).
For me, though, you can't underestimate the importance of Downie and Malone. Both play with a ton of sand and have the ability to provide offense. If they come back healthy from significant injuries, it will be like dropping two top-six forwards into the mix to give the Lightning the kind of balance up front that few teams in the Eastern Conference can match. That's a pretty big "if," though.
LeBrun: The thing is, it's important to step back for a second and examine the big picture. A year ago, the Lightning finished 25th out of 30 NHL teams. Had anyone told them then they'd now be sitting fifth in the East with just over two weeks to go in the regular season, they'd take it in a heartbeat, slump or no slump.
Perspective is everything. So what you have to ask yourself now, remembering how far they've come in 12 months after GM Steve Yzerman and Boucher came on board, is whether the Southeast Division lead and a top-three seed in the East was a bit of a stretch, that jumping from non-playoff team to playoff team was the realistic goal all along. To me, that's exactly the reality of the situation. This team has come a long way in 12 months.
Burnside: Agreed. But this is also a team that has a ton of leadership and experience when you consider former Hart Trophy winner St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, Malone (a big part of the Pens' run to the 2008 Cup finals), Simon Gagne (who may finally be getting his legs under him after a difficult transition from Philadelphia) and Roloson. They look like they have the ingredients to give pretty much anyone in the conference a test come playoff time.
But I think what Boucher and Yzerman have to reinforce over the next three weeks is the Bolts can't be one of those teams that becomes satisfied with just taking a giant step forward. Maybe it's inevitable. The Kings seemed to hit a wall against Vancouver last postseason after making significant strides during the regular season. Likewise for the Coyotes. Maybe that will also be the Lightning's fate, but you know Yzerman, et al, are working like crazy to keep that from being the team's epitaph, whenever their season comes to an end.
LeBrun: The Bolts have a home-and-home with the ninth-place Carolina Hurricanes on Friday and Saturday, and they need to match their divisional rival's desperation level. Look for Stamkos, who has gone three games without a point, to have a big weekend, as the Lightning begin to turn things around. Until tomorrow, my friend.
Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun debate the fate of Sidney Crosby and draw comparisons between Pittsburgh and Phoenix:
Burnside: Good day, my friend. I was emailing with a colleague last night during the Pittsburgh/Detroit game. When the Pens had built a 4-0 lead, he wondered whether the Red Wings could get out of the first round of the playoffs.
About 10 minutes later, when the Wings rallied to tie the score at 4, he said not to bother with that previous message; the Wings were Cup-bound. It was that kind of hockey game (won by the Pens in a shootout) and a nice reminder of those two great Stanley Cup finals between the two clubs in 2008 and 2009.
But it brings into focus the issue of what the Penguins might look like come playoff time. With Sidney Crosby (concussion) now regularly skating but his timetable for return still a mystery, it has added to the drama as we head into the final weeks of the regular season. I had communication yesterday with a person who is familiar with Crosby's situation and even he couldn't shed any light on whether we will see the game's best player in action come playoff time.
LeBrun: Even without Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk -- three of the top players in the world -- that was still a thrill-a-minute game last night at Joe Louis Arena. With so much focus on concussions, head shots, suspensions and possible relocation of teams, sometimes you forget just how sensational the games can be. And it would be a better league if the game's top player could return this season. It's obviously encouraging to see Crosby skating now for more than a week, and yet, as you said, impossible to know what it really means.
"This is just part of his rehab, part of that is getting back on the ice," Penguins GM Ray Shero told me this morning. "But in terms of getting everybody's hopes up, I don't want to do that. There's no expectations as to whether he's coming back or not. It's just part of his rehab and I feel better for him that as a world-class athlete he can get on the ice. It's been difficult for him for two months not to be able to do anything, so this is a good step. But what does that mean [for this season]? I can't even guess."
Just the slightest symptom and Crosby would need to pause. The Penguins, meanwhile, continue to survive without their top two centers and you can only tip your hat to coach Dan Bylsma.
Burnside: I will say out loud that I think Crosby will be back for the playoffs. No other reason to say that than my gut and the fact it would be a great story (in the end, it's really all about we in the media, anyway!) So that's my prediction and I'm sticking to it!
Without Crosby in the mix, it becomes a lot more difficult to handicap the Pens. They remind me a bit of the Phoenix Coyotes in that they work like crazy and rely on scoring by committee to get the job done (three different Pens players scored in regulation before James Neal added the shootout winner Monday). They have the top penalty-killing unit in the league, although losing Matt Cooke through the first round will be felt, perhaps mightily.
And then there's Marc-Andre Fleury, who, after a miserable start, has turned in a Vezina-worthy performance through the last three quarters of the season. His 2.38 goals-against average matches Carey Price's numbers in Montreal; but you never hear Fleury's name in connection to the trophy, while Price is earning Vezina and Hart Trophy buzz. Just saying. Still, it's hard to imagine the Pens embarking on any kind of playoff roll without No. 87 in the lineup.
LeBrun: The comparison to Phoenix is an interesting one, Scotty. I've got a Coyotes story coming out today, on how they've been able to tune out the ongoing ownership saga and keep winning games. Without Crosby and Malkin, the Penguins are built similar to the Coyotes up front in a lot of ways -- a lunch-bucket crew. The Coyotes have no real first line, no real third line, just four lines who all get a chance to play.
"It gives you a real team chemistry that guys realize any given night they can be the hero for our team," Coyotes coach Dave Tippett told me yesterday. "You've got Shane Doan and Martin Hanzal that are pretty consistent contributors. But we've had a cast of other guys where one guy gets hot for eight or 10 games, then he'll drop off and another guy will get hot. It's led to a real good team atmosphere."
Sound familiar? I think you're seeing that right now with the Penguins. It's like the healthy forwards have taken it to heart that everyone is saying they can't win without Crosby and Malkin. They're now getting contributions from different players. Sure, Jordan Staal is the workhorse, but there's different players stepping up every night. Just like the Coyotes.
Burnside: I guess what separates the Pens from the Coyotes is the Pittsburgh blue line is deep and multi-faceted with Kris Letang shouldering a lot more offensive weight this season with Sergei Gonchar gone. He played 28:39 last night and, while he seems to have fallen out of the Norris Trophy discussion, has really emerged as a blue-chip NHL defenseman this season.
With Brooks Orpik (broken finger) due back before the playoffs, the Pens are as deep along the blue line as any team in the Eastern Conference, including Philadelphia. Is that enough for a deep playoff run? Time will tell, but it's sure going to be one of the more compelling playoff storylines regardless of how the Crosby plotline plays out.
LeBrun: I disagree with you regarding the Pens-Coyotes blue-line comparison. I believe they're pretty comparable. I'll give you a Keith Yandle from the Coyotes to your Kris Letang. I'll give you GM Don Maloney adding Michal Rozsival and Rostislav Klesla to a blue-line corps that also includes veterans Adrian Aucoin and Derek Morris. That's a deep blue line, and a big reason the Coyotes are sitting fourth in the West.
The Penguins need Fleury to continue his excellence and need to outwork their opponents in low-scoring games. That's going to be the key for Pittsburgh's survival. Sound familiar?
At the end of the night, just like Detroit on Monday, the opposing team will wonder how it lost to a Penguins team missing Crosby and Malkin. It will have been outworked, that's how.
"If I had a dollar for every game where the other team said they should have won the night before, I'd be a rich man," Tippett said of his own team.
The Pittsburgh Coyotes? For now, that's going to be the recipe to both teams' survivals.
First, let us give credit where credit is due.
After staggering around the discipline forest much like the proverbial blind squirrel, the league finally found something approaching an answer Monday afternoon.
By suspending Pittsburgh's serial headhunter Matt Cooke for the rest of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs for his nasty elbow to the head of New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh on Sunday, the league set the gold standard for punishing blows to the head.
The incident in question wasn't as bad as other hits we've recently seen (for our money, the Pavel Kubina elbow on Dave Bolland two weeks ago and Brad Marchand hit on R.J. Umberger last week were more egregious), but this was about Cooke's body of work, not just one incident.
And for failing to alter his behavior, he was rewarded with a big-time suspension.
Last week, the NHL's GMs asked for this kind of suspension when they met in Florida. The implication was the GMs were looking for this kind of discipline to kick in next season. Then, in a matter of days, the league suspended three players for elbows to the head, including Cooke.
At the risk of giving the league a rash in the middle of its collective back with relentless praise, we will stop. This was as easy as it gets in terms of hammering the message home. It was almost as easy as suspending Chris Simon for his stick attack on Ryan Hollweg four seasons ago.
Remember the blind squirrel? Well, this would have taken some bumbling not to get it right given Cooke's history and the timing of the hit on McDonagh. And this really counts as getting it right only if it becomes something else: a benchmark, a standard against which others will be punished.
Still, it was an inspired decision to keep Cooke out of the playoffs when a player with his skill set (let's not forget the man owns a Stanley Cup ring and is one of the top penalty killers on the NHL's top penalty-killing team) truly earns his keep. Cooke's selfish hit will punish his pocketbook (he will forfeit $219,512.20 to the players' emergency assistance fund) and his teammates, players he loves and who, in general, love him. That is the deepest cut of all.
Which brings us to the Pittsburgh Penguins and their role in this.
Everyone knows the backstory here. Owner Mario Lemieux publicly slammed the league for not handling the New York Islanders/Penguins dustup to his liking several months ago. The letter was ill-planned and earned Lemieux as much scorn as praise in large part because he did not acknowledge that his own team might be part of the larger problem facing the league.
But Lemieux redeemed himself when he sent a letter to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman last week, proposing a series of fines to clubs based on players' reckless behavior. In the letter to Bettman, obtained by ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun, Lemieux noted his own club would have been fined $600,000 under his plan of accountability -- and that was before Cooke's latest escapade.
Then, in the wake of Cooke's suspension Monday, the Penguins answered the bell again, publicly agreeing with the decision.
"The suspension is warranted because that's exactly the kind of hit we're trying to get out of the game. Head shots have no place in hockey," GM Ray Shero said in a statement. "We've told Matt in no uncertain terms that this kind of action on the ice is unacceptable and cannot happen. Head shots must be dealt with severely, and the Pittsburgh Penguins support the NHL in sending this very strong message."
If the Cooke suspension is to be the gold standard for how the league deals with repeat offenders in the head shot category -- or frankly in any kind of repeat offense -- the Penguins set the gold standard in how to respond.
The tried and true response, sadly, is just the opposite: to circle the wagons.
Look back at how teams like the San Jose Sharks, Calgary Flames, New York Islanders and even the Boston Bruins (who lost top center Marc Savard's services for the balance of this season in large part because of Cooke's blindside hit last season) responded to far lighter suspensions to players like Joe Thornton, Curtis Glencross, Daniel Paille and Trevor Gillies. They whined. They rationalized. They whined some more.
In trying to support their own players, those teams did a disservice to every one of their players that has ever been the victim of a dirty or questionable hit. In the name of loyalty, they undermined the entire process of trying to clean up the league.
Even when some players like Boston's Andrew Ference had the temerity to suggest his teammate Paille deserved to be suspended, he was thrown under the bus in some quarters for not blindly supporting players on his own team.
We have habitually hammered the league's dean of discipline, Colin Campbell, for how he has handled his job. We suggested last week he should step down if the league is serious about establishing a new mindset about discipline and on-ice behavior. We still think it's the right call. But the GMs around the league defy those efforts every time they complain.
On Monday, the Pittsburgh Penguins didn't take the well-worn path. They did what was right. They were honest. And don't think for a minute it was easy.
The Penguins will presumably welcome Cooke back to their dressing room if they survive the first round and will need to be on the same page if they want to move on in the playoffs. Unless they buy him out or trade him or send him to the minors next season, he'll be back in the dressing room chasing another Stanley Cup.
"[Cooke] takes full responsibility. He sent Ryan McDonagh a text," Shero told local reporters before Monday's game against the Red Wings. "The words are great, but it's going to be your actions when you come back as a player and still be a productive player in the league. That's going to be up to Matt Cooke."
There may be hard feelings, the kind of hard feelings teams work hard to ensure don't exist within their own dressing rooms. But if people are truly interested in making the game safer, then everyone has to be accountable, including the players in your own room wearing your jersey.
So, here's hoping the NHL will continue to send strong messages when it comes to head shots.
And here's hoping the Pittsburgh Penguins become the rule not the exception when it comes to acknowledging that everyone has to be part of the solution ... everyone, even one of your own.
The Vancouver Canucks can still win the Stanley Cup, but they're going to have to do it without their top penalty-killing forward and best faceoff man.
Last July, the Canucks made Malhotra one of their top free-agent targets and privately believed his signing was just as significant as top defenseman Dan Hamhuis.
GM Mike Gillis desperately wanted to upgrade his third line after seeing his team lose to Chicago for a second straight postseason, most notably by acquiring a checking center who could add more grit, win more faceoffs and improve the team's penalty killing.
Done, done and done after Malhotra arrived.
Malhotra is second in the NHL behind only Jonathan Toews with 778 faceoff wins and leads his team among forwards in shorthanded ice time. He might have won the Selke Trophy as best defensive forward and may still get some votes despite missing the last month of the regular season. So while Malhotra's name may not resonate around the rest of the league outside of Vancouver, the Canucks know what they've lost.
So, what now?
Give Gillis credit for picking up forward depth at the trade deadline in Maxim Lapierre and Christopher Higgins. Some people wondered why the GM bothered. Well, now you know why: injuries can happen. Lapierre played most of his career in Montreal as a third- or fourth-line center and is a solid penalty killer, so he'll be the obvious replacement, at least for now. Cody Hodgson could be another option (he's got more offensive touch), but Lapierre should get the first crack at it.
On a final note, Malhotra's injury also reignites the decades-old debate on visors. There should no longer be any debate. The NHL Players' Association must allow the league to go to mandatory visors. No more arguing.
We all agree the game is faster than ever; players don't have as much time to react to pucks and sticks. Players already in the NHL can choose whether to wear a visor, but any new player starting next season and beyond should be required to wear one. Case closed.
UPDATE: The Penguins posted new video of Sidney Crosby's rehab workout from Monday (courtesy Penguins/NHL.com):
Sidney Crosby skated again before Sunday's game between the Penguins and Rangers (New York won 5-2), but there is still no timetable for his return.
The video below (courtesy of NHL.com) shows the Pittsburgh captain participating in skating and puck drills Sunday morning. Crosby (concussion) has been out since Jan. 6.