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Monday, November 21, 2005
Bigger NHL players becoming expendable

Todd Marchant
Amid the buzz of the trade of Sergei Fedorov to Columbus and the subsequent uncertainty over the future of popular Blue Jackets forward Todd Marchant (above), Michael Rupp's move received little notice.

In fact, the news that Rupp had been sent down to the Blue Jackets' AHL affiliate in Syracuse was an addendum to the notice that Marchant had cleared waivers.

Does Rupp's name ring a bell?

It might if you remember Game 7 of the 2003 Stanley Cup finals, when Rupp scored the game-winning goal and added two assists in the New Jersey Devils' decisive 3-0 win.

At the time, the native of Cleveland, who filled in for an injured Joe Nieuwendyk, appeared to be the prototypical player of the future. Listed at 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, he is a mountain of a man, and a young man at that.

Rupp, 25, played 51 games the following season for the Devils, but had minimal impact before being traded to the Coyotes, who then dealt the right winger to Columbus early this season. He played 11 games for the lowly Blue Jackets, registering zero points and posting a minus-4 before being dispatched to the AHL.

The move illustrates the kinds of decisions being made all around the NHL, decisions that are going to have to be made in the coming weeks and months.

While physically imposing, Rupp simply didn't have the skill set for the new NHL, not even on a team as thin as the Blue Jackets.

Toronto Maple Leafs senior scout Craig Button, the former GM of the Calgary Flames, said this week he thinks there are 100 players currently in the NHL who cannot play in the league. Some of these players have big contracts that make it difficult to weed them out in the short term, although they may see their ice time dwindling. Those without the big contracts are more apt to find themselves being pushed unceremoniously from the game.

Atlanta recently sent enforcer Francis Lessard, inexplicably given a one-way, $450,000 deal, to the minors after playing in just six games and registering no points. The Wild, likewise, dispatched tough guy Andrei Nazarov to their AHL team.

"That's the first blush of players falling out and I think it will increase over time," Button said.

Who will take the place of the slow-footed 100?

Some will come from the AHL or junior ranks, where suddenly smaller, skilled players will be getting a closer look. But some teams are trying to adjust their thought process on the fly. Teams are revisiting late-round draft picks they might have otherwise dismissed because they didn't fit into the traditional mold of being either a smaller, skilled player able play on the first two lines or a physical role player able to fill in on the third and fourth lines.

Button, for instance, was in Europe revisiting some of the Leafs' prospects, as well as looking at some other teams' prospects that might someday fall through the cracks.

"You can't close the book on them," Button said.

-- Scott Burnside

The Mighty Ducks continue to struggle as they dropped their eighth straight game Sunday. Worse news from that game was goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere aggravating his left hamstring in his first game back. If Anaheim wants to get back in the hunt, it needs consistency in net. Giguere says he's day-to-day. Believe it or not, the Predators' first of eight matchups against the Red Wings comes Monday in Detroit. The last time the two teams faced one another was the 2003-04 playoffs, when Detroit ousted Nashville in the Preds' first playoff berth. Nashville could take advantage, as the Wings have lost four straight. So, everyone seems to be in agreement that the Senators are one of the teams to beat in the NHL. One of the reasons: Ray Emery. Who is that, you might ask? He's the backup to the Dominator. Emery is 5-0 with a .907 save percentage and just came off an exciting win vs. Martin Brodeur. Emery said the win even surprised him.

One player that some might have assumed would fall into that "Horrible 100" list is Ottawa's Chris Neil, but he has remade himself into a valuable part of the NHL's best team. After scoring just 24 goals in 222 NHL games prior to this season, the Senators' seventh-round pick has scored eight times and has 14 points through 18 games. After a strong training camp, Neil has also earned time on the power play and takes a regular shift on the team's third line.

Enforcers need to do more than drop the gloves? According to a report sent out by the NHL, the answer is yes. Through Nov. 15, fighting has dropped 42 percent since the 2003-04 season. Through 264 games this season, the league says there have been 227 major penalties. In 2003-04, there were 393. Some critics believe fighting should never be completely eliminated from the game. Others, like commissioner Gary Bettman, think it's made the game more exciting.


Barry Melrose
Despite a rough 1-3 skid in their last four games, I'll be watching the Flyers this week. Peter Forsberg, the league leader in scoring with 36 points, has been unstoppable, and Simon Gagne is resurfacing as one of the league's best. With games this week against the Lightning, the Bruins and the Islanders, I see them staying on the winning track.
E.J. Hradek
What a week! The Predators-Red Wings, Sidney Crosby vs. Alexander Ovechkin and then another meeting between the Hurricanes and Senators. The 'Canes have won the first two meetings between the clubs behind some strong puck stopping by Martin Gerber. No doubt, the Sens will be looking to make a stronger impression on Carolina. Also, the battle for the most draft lottery balls continues Saturday, when the Blue Jackets face the Blues. The Jackets are 0-3 since acquiring Sergei Fedorov. The Blues, meanwhile, bring a rare two-game winning streak into the week.
Scott Burnside
Tuesday night marks the first NHL clash between rookies Alexander Ovechkin of the suddenly hot Washington Capitals and the Penguins' Sidney Crosby. But there's another interesting tilt Tuesday evening, when Chicago visits Vancouver. The Blackhawks, off to a dreadful start, are looking for an improbable road sweep after knocking off red-hot Calgary and streaking Edmonton. If the 'Hawks, who won Saturday's game behind little-used backup Craig Anderson, can upend the Canucks, they would move to within a game of .500 at 10-11.
Who to pick up: Rene Bourque has picked up some steam along with his Chicago Blackhawks. He has two goals and two assists in his last two games.
Who to drop: Patrice Bergeron has been disappointing the past week for the Boston Bruins, and fantasy teams. He has just one point in his last five games.
There are many Pixies songs to choose from when it comes to the pucks. Our favorite: Debaser from the classic album Doolittle. Frank Black's mad "ha-ha-ha-ho" laugh is perfect for hockey.
"Everybody keeps saying this is great. It's not great. It's not hockey."
-- Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman, telling the Detroit Free Press how he doesn't like the new league.