Cross Checks: Ondrej Pavelec
If the Western Conference remains a place of high anxiety for teams such as the Minnesota Wild, Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets, who are wrestling for the final two playoff berths in the final days of the regular season, there is at last some clarity in the Eastern Conference.
Overtime victories by the Ottawa Senators and New York Rangers on Thursday night made the outcome of the Winnipeg Jets-Montreal Canadiens game moot. Still, as if to emphasize the finality or even futility of the exercise, the Jets were downed at home 4-2 by the Habs and again will finish outside the playoff tournament.
Credit coach Claude Noel for guiding the Jets on a late-season surge toward the postseason, but after two seasons in Winnipeg since the team was relocated from Atlanta, it's hard to see that much has changed.
This is a franchise that has qualified for the playoffs only once in its history and has never won a playoff game, having been swept by the Rangers in its only appearance while in Atlanta in 2007.
As of Friday morning, the Jets were tied for 22nd overall in goals allowed per game, and if there is any solace it's that the teams with whom they were tied (the Buffalo Sabres, Philadelphia Flyers and Dallas Stars) aren't going anywhere but to the cottage next week, either.
The Jets rank 23rd on the penalty kill, and when you combine that with the team's ongoing struggle to keep the puck out of its own net, it tells a story that has been told and retold since the Thrashers joined the NHL in 1999.
Is netminder Ondrej Pavelec the man? His 2.80 GAA ranks 38th in the NHL and his .905 save percentage is 33rd, but Pavelec ranks first in minutes played.
In some ways Pavelec reflects the team's ongoing identity, whether in Atlanta or in Winnipeg, and that is one of startling mediocrity.
The late-season run at a playoff berth, while no doubt exciting for Jets fans though certainly impeded by injuries to key personnel such as Zach Bogosian, does little to help move the team forward. Not quite good enough -- indeed almost never quite good enough -- to be a playoff team but rarely bad enough to reap the true rewards of poor play with a franchise draft pick.
It is, as has always been the case, a lineup with too much dead wood, and at this stage there is little optimism for a quick turnaround. Management has preached patience. That's a storyline that is familiar to anyone who has followed this franchise for any length of time.
There are more than a few parallels between the Jets and Blue Jackets, who joined the NHL a year after the Thrashers and have the same miserable playoff record: one appearance, that a sweep of the hands of the Red Wings in 2009. But on Thursday night, the Cinderella Blue Jackets kept their playoff dreams alive by crushing the Stars' hopes with a 3-1 victory in Dallas.
With Detroit also winning, the pressure, at least in the short term, turns to eighth-place Minnesota, which is tied with Columbus at 53 points (the Blue Jackets are ninth, having played one more game), one point behind Detroit. The Wild have two games left, one of which will be played Friday night at home against the Edmonton Oilers.
Like Detroit, the Wild control their destiny; keep winning and they're in. Columbus has to hope one if not both teams falter and it can win its final game, against the Nashville Predators on Saturday.
Still, even if Columbus falls short, is there anyone in the game who wouldn't take the Blue Jackets and their chances of both immediate and long-term revival over those of the Jets? Anyone?
We’re talking about a team that last season was so hard to beat at home in front of their boisterous fans, going 23-13-5. But talk about night and day, once they left the MTS Centre, they were just 14-22-5 on the road -- 27th in the NHL -- a major reason they failed to make the playoffs.
According the research done by Dirk Hoag on his blog Jan. 13, the Jets as expected will travel the most in the Eastern Conference this season at 27,431 miles, which is also eighth overall in the NHL. So it's pretty obvious how important a decent road record will be.
It was talked about in exit meetings and in preseason chats. The Jets needed to elevate their play on the road in order to have any chance at making the postseason.
A hard-fought, 2-1 shootout loss in Boston on Monday and an impressive 4-2 win in Washington on Tuesday night is just what the Jets needed to it going this season.
"There’s been so much emphasis on it," Jets head coach Claude Noel told ESPN.com Wednesday. "What really pleases me is that our players obviously gave it some thought over the summer. We talked about it at the end of the year, we talked about it before, and I can see with the way they’re playing they’re way more conscientious of how we play. A lot of players told me after we came back [after the lockout] when I asked them for their thoughts on our road play, some of them thought it was between the ears. Which was good because to me that’s a focus factor, a managing details factor, and getting prepared. So it’s something that’s attainable."
It was a shootout loss but the single point earned in Boston on Monday set the tone.
"The Boston game, we knew it would be a heavy game with a hard opponent," said Noel. "We look at their lineup, it’s quite imposing. I thought the players took a big step there and made a statement to each other about how they were going to play there. If we were going to make changes [on how they play on the road], it had to start right there. And I thought the Boston game was real good game from an effort and checking level. That team checks you into the ground. If you’re not prepared, they can hurt you. So I was really happy."
Back-to-back games, 3 games in four nights, no problem. Washington’s home opener? No problem, either. A 4-2 win Tuesday in a game that the Jets handled from start to finish.
"So these are all good signs, we just have to keep it going," Noel said.
Blue-liner Tobias Enstrom is off to a flying start with four assists in three games while averaging 26:36 minutes a game. He’s been effective at both ends of the ice.
"Enstrom’s been real good," said Noel. "We had a good conversation with him at the end of the year. He’s a guy that has to be comfortable with where he is. There was a lot of new stuff last year. I think his game was OK last year, but I thought he had more to give. He’s a passionate, quiet player. He has a real drive to win. We’re starting to see more of that 'A' game that we saw last year but didn’t see enough."
Dustin Byfuglien completes Winnipeg’s top defense pairing with Enstrom and he’s also been terrific so far, leading the team with 27:09 minutes per game adding three points (1-2) in three games.
"He’s been consistent. Buff has that gunslinger game, and he’s keeping it under wraps," said Noel. "And he has to. If it gets outside the lines, you don’t know where you’re going. It can be both great and bad. He’s been more in control. And those two guys have taken a heavy load."
The Jets are missing top-four blue-liner Zach Bogosian, who is recovering from wrist surgery. Noel said mid-February was the earliest Bogosian would be back. That puts more pressure on the Enstrom-Byfuglien pairing to log big minutes at the top; Mark Stuart has pushed up from his normal No. 5 role and is playing with Ron Hainsey on the second pairing, leaving Grant Clitsome and rookie Paul Postma as the third pair. Bogosian’s absence is significant and will really put stress on this group over the next month. This wasn’t a group that was overly deep on defense to begin with.
Which, as always, puts pressure on the last line of defense. Ondrej Pavelec is sporting a .929 save percentage in three starts and was huge in Boston and Washington.
"The play of Pavelec, he’s been getting better every game," said Noel. "He was good in Boston and was superb last night in Washington. He was in really good position last night. [Goalie coach] Wade Flaherty has done a real good job with him."
The Anaheim Ducks aren’t shopping Ryan as much as teams are calling on him, circling back to them after he was on the market for a while last November.
Ryan could be a good Plan B for the Flyers if they don’t get anywhere on Rick Nash.
Any deal with the Flyers from the Ducks’ perspective would have to center around Brayden Schenn, a source told ESPN.com Thursday, as Anaheim is desperate to find an upgrade at the No. 2 center position. My sense is that the Flyers have very little interest in moving Schenn. They view him as way too valuable to do that. Winger James van Riemsdyk is the player more likely to move out of Philadelphia if the Flyers make any splash over the next few weeks.
Whatever ends up developing with Ryan, and the Ducks don’t feel they have to necessarily move him, it certainly has ties to the Nash situation.
Whichever teams have interest in Nash can’t ignore the cheaper version available in Ryan.
Nash’s agent, Joe Resnick, met Thursday afternoon here in Pittsburgh with Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson. It’s no secret Nash would love for this to be over as soon as possible.
The debate for the Jackets is whether they take the best possible offer this week or wait until the first week of July and capitalize on the teams that struck out on UFA Zach Parise.
What will Oilers do with No. 1 pick?
No matter what the Oilers say, I think they’d love to move down from the No. 1 spot in the draft and get something tangible in return while still picking a defenseman they covet.
The Oilers, I believe, love blueliner Ryan Murray, as well as defenseman Griffin Reinhart. Either would satisfy their top need: defense.
But if they’re still picking first overall come Friday night, can they really afford not to take forward Nail Yakupov, considered by most the most dynamic player in the draft?
"They’re in a pickle, if they move down to get their defenseman, they have to make sure they get him, there’s still a risk there," said one NHL team executive. "I think they’d really have to get something good in return for moving down to make it worthwhile."
Kane not in playThe speculation that won’t go away surrounding Patrick Kane being in play is simply not true, as far I’m told.
The Chicago Blackhawks' front office has not brought up that possibility even once, a source told ESPN.com, despite rumors to the contrary ever since Kane’s well-publicized trip to Wisconsin. And they’ve not once brought up his name with other teams.
"He’s not available," a rival GM told ESPN.com Thursday.
Speaking of the Blackhawks, you can forget rumors also linking Roberto Luongo to the Windy City. The Blackhawks can’t take on that monster contract. They’re not a player in those talks.
But one player the Blackhawks are willing to move, according to rival team executives, is defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson. The 25-year-old Swede has two more years on his deal at $3.5 million per.
Ott, Ribeiro getting attentionThe Dallas Stars are getting calls from other teams on two players who garnered attention before the trade deadline: Steve Ott and Mike Ribeiro.
Ott especially got traction before the deadline, but the Stars ultimately decided to hold on to him as they were sitting in a playoff spot at the time. The rugged winger, who can pot some goals, has two more years left on his deal paying him $3.2 million a year in salary but with a $2.95 million cap hit.
He’d be a good addition for a team looking to bulk up in a second-line role.
Ribeiro, deeply talented but somewhat inconsistent, has one year left on his deal paying him $5 million.
If the Stars move one or both of these two players, it’s with the big picture in mind, which is to get their core a bit younger and build the team around Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson.
Futures of Alfredsson and Selanne cloudyThe Senators hope to know soon one way or the other about the future of captain Daniel Alfredsson.
"I’m hoping to talk with him in a couple of days," Sens GM Bryan Murray told ESPN.com Thursday. "We’ll see where he’s at when we talk. Hopefully by Saturday or Sunday, we’ll have had a chance to talk."
The Anaheim Ducks, meanwhile, expect to hear back from Teemu Selanne regarding his future around July 1.
Jagr updateJaromir Jagr’s future remains unanswered. The Flyers winger will be UFA July 1, and while his agent has kept close contact with Flyers GM Paul Holmgren, it’s not clear at this point whether he’ll stay put or fly the coup.
"I talked to Paul a couple of days, and we had a great conversation," Jagr’s agent Petr Svoboda told ESPN.com Thursday. "We’ll wait to see where the salary cap goes and then we’ll talk again. We’re planning on talking again early next week."
Jagr earned $3.3 million this past season and was productive for a 40-year-old.
"It’s not about money, it’s about the situation," Svoboda said. "He really enjoyed Philly. Nothing has changed. Both sides like each other a lot. We’ll see where it goes. We’ll see what happens between now and July 1. We’re not in any rush."
Blues' wish listThe St. Louis Blues have stabilized their ownership situation, but it doesn’t mean they’re going to spend like crazy like the Buffalo Sabres did a year ago when they got new ownership.
So forget any of those Rick Nash trade rumors. The Blues aren’t in on that.
Instead, the Blues are focused on trying to acquire a left-handed, second-pair defenseman and hope to do so before the weekend is out here in Pittsburgh. Jason Garrison of the Florida Panthers and Matt Carle of the Flyers -- both slated to be UFAs July 1 -- come to mind.
Jets talks with PavelecThe Jets met Thursday morning here in Pittsburgh with agent Allan Walsh to try and find common ground in contract talks regarding starting goalie Ondrej Pavelec.
An RFA July 1, the 24-year-old Pavelec remains unsigned, and he’s threatening to play in the KHL, where a source confirms he has an offer worth north of $5 million a year (tax-free) to play in St. Petersburg.
The Jets’ offers so far have obviously been much lower than that.
The two sides will try to iron things out this weekend in Pittsburgh.
"We’re going back and forth, and we’re hoping it’s going to get done," Jets GM Kevin Chevelldayoff said Thursday.
The Jets GM also met with Evander Kane’s camp from Newport Sports on Wednesday. Kane is also RFA July 1.
Steven Stamkos is the story of the opening quarter pole. The goal-a-game wunderkind has become an inspiring model of what hard work and dedication, combined with oodles of talent, can yield on the ice. But surprising? Not that much after last season's shared Rocket Richard honors with Sidney Crosby.
Here's a list of the 10 players that have so far surprised the hockey world (and feel free to come up with others!):
The newly named Thrashers captain is easily on pace to eclipse his career high of 49 points with Chicago two seasons ago, putting up 23 points (8-15) in 22 games as of Friday morning. Atlanta knew it was getting solid two-way game, leadership, character and toughness in Ladd, but did it count on him leading the team in scoring?
The Jackets have had a lot of surprising performances but I keyed on this lad, who is playing top-four minutes while posting the second-best plus-minus on the team. Jackets GM Scott Howson also singled him out a few weeks ago to ESPN.com as a player who has delivered more than expected.
It's safe to say no one had the 30-year-old leading all NHL blueliners in scoring at the quarter pole; combined with a plus-11 rating, he's been dynamite. Not bad for a guy seemingly always involved in trade rumors every season.
OK, of all the choices at hand before the season, would any Kings fan have predicted Williams would be leading the team in scoring at Thanksgiving? Three straight injury-riddled seasons made you wonder if the former 76-point scorer could ever get it together again, but this season he's been the Williams of old. Here's hoping he stays healthy.
6. Ondrej Pavelec, Atlanta Thrashers
We're happy he's playing again after that scary early-season collapse, and he's been out of this world since his return. As of Friday morning, the goalie's .942 save percentage and 1.84 GAA are both third in the league (he never had a GAA under 3.00 before in his NHL career).
The 25-year-old had 12 goals combined in three previous NHL seasons. He had 10 as of Friday morning. What the heck is going on? For starters, he worked on his skating with former world pairs figure skating champion Barb Underhill in the offseason, as recounted in a nice "Hockey Night in Canada" feature by my pal Elliotte Friedman in October.
That a former Vezina Trophy winner is having a great season is hardly a surprise on its own. But let's be honest -- when Tuukka Rask earned the No. 1 job last season, few people thought he'd ever relinquish it, especially with Thomas on the north side of 35. But surprise, surprise, indeed. Thomas told ESPN.com earlier this season that offseason hip surgery, along with a mental recharge, helped him get reenergized for this season. At 11-1-1 with a league-leading .955 save percentage, what else can you say?
Look back to most season previews in September and click on Montreal. Not too many people figured Price could fill Jaroslav Halak's skates after the Slovak's sensational (some would say miraculous) playoff performance last season. The pressure on Price this fall in one of hockey's biggest fishbowls was out of this world. And what does he do? Exceed anyone's expectations, except perhaps his own. Leading the NHL in wins at Thanksgiving? Raise your hand if you honestly predicted that would happen.
2. Dustin Byfuglien, Atlanta Thrashers
The naysayers were aplenty when the Thrashers announced before camp that Byfuglien would play defense this season. Why move this past spring's clutch power forward to defense? Made no sense, the critics said. Well, Byfuglien isn't going to turn into Rod Langway anytime soon in the defensive zone, but ranking second in the league among blueliners in scoring while playing quality minutes and not being a minus easily qualifies him as a nice surprise (unless, of course, you are GM Rick Dudley, coach Craig Ramsay or Byfuglien himself).
Flyers center Danny Briere remembers first seeing the Russian at a skate with Flyers teammates before camp.
"At first I had no clue who that goalie was. Then we started taking penalty shots at the end of the practice. We couldn't score on him," Briere said with a laugh. "I was like, 'Who's this junior kid?' Then we realized who he was and that he'd likely start the season in [AHL] Adirondack."
With Michael Leighton out due to injury, Bob the Goalie made his North American debut to open the NHL season. And with a 12-3-1 record at Thanksgiving, that is a surprise!
Here are 5 things to ponder to start your hockey week:
1. Goalie questionsLess than a week into the NHL season, interesting goaltending issues are already cropping up around the league. The Atlanta Thrashers insist they aren't in the market for another goaltender after Ondrej Pavelec collapsed from what the team said Monday was a "neurocardiogenic syncope episode" and subsequent mild concussion in the Thrashers' first game of the season. A battery of tests indicated there are no long-term medical issues, and the team expects him back at some point, negating the need to find another experienced netminder. The Thrashers called up Drew MacIntyre to back up Chris Mason and will take Peter Mannino, another minor league netminder, on their West Coast trip this week.
Meanwhile, the Nashville Predators don't expect netminder Pekka Rinne to miss much, if any, time after being replaced in their season-opening win over Anaheim. Rookie Anders Lindback, 22, will get his first NHL start if Rinne isn't ready to go, but things don't look that serious, which is good for Predators fans.
Flyers coach Peter Laviolette has a nice dilemma in Philadelphia with both rookie Sergei Bobrovsky and veteran Brian Boucher turning in solid outings in the team's 1-0-1 start to the season. Bobrovsky got the win on the night the Penguins opened their new building, but kudos to Laviolette for going back to Boucher, who was a bit miffed at not getting the opening night start. Who goes next? Who knows. But with Michael Leighton needing back surgery, the Flyers couldn't have hoped for a better start in net.
2. Ah, the kidsSomehow, we think we'll be revisiting this issue throughout the season, but it is interesting to see the immediate impact of fresh-faced youngsters around the NHL.
Carolina's Jeff Skinner was terrific in the Canes' twin wins in Helsinki last week. (He scored the shootout winner in the second game and added an assist.) Barring a major change in the team's mindset, Skinner will remain with the big club for the entire season instead of returning to junior before he plays his 10th game (the demarcation point for using up a year of a player's entry-level contract and starting the clock ticking toward free agency).
In Edmonton, Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle have combined for a goal and two assists in the Oilers' opening two wins, while fellow rookie also Magnus Paajarvi impressed. Meanwhile, the Rangers got a boost from center Derek Stepan in his first NHL game as the rookie notched three goals in a 6-3 win over Buffalo. The Rangers' depth down the middle has been a talking point throughout training camp, and Stepan's performance bodes well for New York going forward.
Finally, the Chicago Blackhawks will be looking to youngsters to fill the void after jettisoning a significant number of regulars from last season's Cup-winning roster. So far, rookie Bryan Bickell (two goals) is doing his part to help the Hawks' attack, even if Chicago is off to an 0-1-1 start.
3. Khabibulin's uncertain futureGot to hand it to Edmonton netminder Nikolai Khabibulin, who has somehow managed to put aside the thought of potentially spending time in an Arizona jail to deliver back-to-back virtuoso performances and turning aside 63 of 65 shots for the 2-0-0 Oilers.
But Khabibulin's uncertain future is likely unsettling to both the goalie and the Oilers. When Khabibulin's appeal of his sentence for drunken-driving charges in the Phoenix area is finally heard (the process could take months), the 37-year-old could spend some time in jail (up to 30 days). Following his conviction on a number of alcohol-related charges, the initial sentence was 30 days. Khabibulin immediately appealed, a strategy that seemed to catch the Oilers off guard in the offseason. Now, he's back playing the way he did at the start of last season before a back injury shelved him for most of the campaign.
There may also be a supplementary suspension handed down by the league once the legal proceedings are settled. Given the level of drunkenness involved -- Khabibulin's blood-alcohol content was more than twice the legal limit -- it wouldn't be surprising if the league tacked on a game or two after the netminder's legal penalty is completed.
4. Staal-ed?No doubt Pittsburgh fans are pining for a return to crumbling Mellon Arena after the Penguins dropped two straight in their brand-new barn, Consol Energy Center. But the wins will come. The team is too good for them not to. Still, the double 3-2 losses to Philadelphia and Montreal highlight one basic truth about the Penguins: With Jordan Staal in the lineup, they are a legitimate Stanley Cup contender; without him, they are, well, something less.
Staal is continuing to rehab a severed tendon in his foot, an injury he suffered early in the Penguins' second-round playoff series against Montreal during the spring. There is essentially no timetable for his return, which means the Penguins will be looking for someone to step into the breach when it comes to things like penalty killing. But the bottom line is, when Staal, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby are healthy, regardless of how coach Bylsma lines them up, the three big centers represent a unique and formidable cast of characters who are difficult, if not impossible, to shut down entirely.
In the 2009 Stanley Cup finals, Staal was the best player on the ice as the series wound down. The Pens floundered when he was not at the top of his game against Montreal this past spring. Coincidence? Not when you consider how the Pens have started this season without the big man from Thunder Bay, Ontario.
5. Stars' startLast season, we consistently hammered the Dallas Stars for their, well, lack of consistency. At no point during their 82 regular-season games did they win three straight times, which contributed mightily to the team missing the playoffs for the second straight season. This season, however, with veterans Mike Modano in Detroit and Marty Turco in Chicago and Jere Lehtinen in limbo, the Stars are off to a 2-0-0 start and could hit that magic "three in a row" mark Thursday, when they entertain Detroit for their home opener.
Now, the wins over New Jersey and the New York Islanders weren't necessarily pretty, but goalie Kari Lehtonen shook off a couple of soft goals against the Devils to help the Stars overcome some sloppy play and keep the ship pointed in the right direction.