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Wednesday, December 14, 2005
Updated: December 15, 5:02 PM ET
Schneider, Thornton making most of opportunity

By Barry Melrose
Special to ESPN.com

We've reached that time of year where injuries are more frequent and more relevant to teams in the NHL.

Players have played a lot of games and the body starts to feel the effects. Another wave of injuries seems to hit in late February, and with it being an Olympic year, it might be worse. Some teams persevere, while others don't.

Let's take a look:

The good

The Detroit Red Wings were dealt a terrible situation when defenseman Jiri Fischer collapsed during a game about three weeks ago. While their teammate is in their thoughts, the Wings also had to play on without him.

Mathieu Schneider
Mathieu Schneider has 10 goals and 11 assists in 31 games for the Red Wings.

One player that has stepped up for Detroit is Mathieu Schneider. He is getting more ice time and he's playing as good as I've seen him in his career. Schneider is also tied with Toronto's Bryan McCabe for the league lead in goals among defensemen. Chris Chelios and Nicklas Lidstrom have also played well.

Look for Schneider to make the U.S. Olympic team when the roster is announced Monday.

Joe Thornton and the San Jose Sharks continue to impress me. Since the Nov. 30 trade, Thornton has been unbelievable. People are seeing just how good Big Joe can be, and if he played like this in Boston, he never would have been traded.

I think Thornton needed this kick in the butt. He was comfortable in Boston and the town loved him; he thought he'd play there as long as he wanted. Then, the unexpected hit, and Thornton has responded. He's moved on to an up-tempo offensive team, and into a new, fresh, exciting situation. All of these things are motivation for Joe.

Thornton is also making the team around him better. The Sharks had scorers before the deal, but the trade sparked something in the rest of the team, particularly Patrick Marleau. I think Thornton and Marleau are the best 1-2 center tandem since Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg from the Colorado days. Since the trade, Marleau has had two goals and 11 assists in five games, all wins for the Sharks, who are now over .500.

There are also a few goaltenders that have helped their respective teams right the ship after a slow start. Martin Biron, who had lost out on the Sabres' starting job to Ryan Miller, has won eight of his last nine starts in place of the injured Miller; John Grahame, who had to step into Nikolai Khabibulin's shoes in Tampa Bay, just set a franchise record with his ninth straight win; and Marty Turco, after a sluggish start with the Stars, is now 16-6 on the season.

The bad

The New Jersey Devils have had salary cap troubles from Day 1. They've also had trouble with the new NHL from the get-go. No one on the team can score consistently outside of the gritty Brian Gionta. No one is great on defense anymore. They don't play fast.

Hockey Night

The Devils need to either open up their game to try and create more offense, or shut it down and be a conservative, defensive team. Right now, they're in flux and they are average. If you're average at everything, you're not making the playoffs.

I was also disappointed to read Jeremy Roenick's comments about the U.S. Olympic team. He is not having a good season -- the Los Angeles Kings are winning in spite of him, not because of him.

Here's what he told the Los Angeles Times: "It would be a travesty if I'm not [on the Olympic team]. I know they want a youth movement, and they need to have one, but it'd be disrespectful of the guys who have gotten Team USA to this point internationally. [Team USA] better hope that I don't get a job as a commentator on NBC for [the Games], or it'd be 'Go Canada' all the way, and I don't want that."

Now, compare that to what the Oilers' Ryan Smyth said about his chances of making the Canadian Olympic team: "I'd love to be a part of it again, but I'm not taking anything for granted. There's always tough competition for a spot and that's a good thing. I've been fortunate in the past."

There's a difference there. What Roenick said is not the way to be in a situation like this. I wish he would have been more gracious. And the bottom line is Team USA needs some press heading into Turin.

The ugly

The Pittsburgh Penguins' recent shutout loss to the St. Louis Blues is the low point of the season for the club. It's ridiculous and it's my biggest disappointment of the season, so far.

The Pens are just getting worse and they are still giving up the most goals in the league (123 goals in 31 games). And the chances of Pittsburgh breaking ground on a new building are getting slimmer. Theoretically, that would mean the team would move in 2007 and some cities the NHL might look at are Houston, Kansas City and Portland.

Some might say that the threat of a move and Mario Lemieux's health issues might be distractions, but stuff like that can't bother you on the ice. Whether it's raining or snowing or your teammate is hurt, you're expected to be there and play.

Another ugly off-ice battle is the one within the NHL Players Association. I don't agree that Ted Saskin should have been made the successor as president since he was part of the old regime under Bob Goodenow. But the bottom line is the majority of the players chose him and the union needs to move on. That's how a union works, the majority wins.

It doesn't send a good message to anyone except the owners, who see a divided opponent. It's time for this small group of dissident players to grow up a little bit. You've lost, now make the most of the situation, and work on continuing to make our great game better.

Barry Melrose, a former NHL defenseman and coach, is a hockey analyst for ESPN.