Sunday, March 30, 2008 Updated: March 31, 12:35 PM ET
Talk, races don't slow down heading into season's final week
By Scott Burnside ESPN.com
The debate over whether Alexander Ovechkin should be awarded the Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player has been long and increasingly ponderous.
Every night, Ovechkin continues to distance himself from his competition. Even if his Washington Capitals don't qualify for the playoffs (if they fall short, it will be by a point or two), Ovechkin is the game's best player and most important to his team -- by a long shot. Ovechkin has kept the Caps within three points of the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference, he has a five-point gap over countryman Evgeni Malkin in the scoring race and is ahead of countryman Ilya Kovalchuk in the goal-scoring department by a country mile.
Edmonton coach Craig MacTavish has the Oilers on a 13-4-1 run.
But while the playoff issue has become a moot point as far as Ovechkin's case for MVP goes, the playoff barrier should, and will, provide an interesting dilemma for the league's broadcasters, who decide on the Jack Adams Award.
The coach of the year award has often recognized coaches who have done more with less; but this season, there are probably half a dozen coaches who fit that category. One would imagine getting into the postseason would be a prerequisite for getting on the ballot. If that's the case, it will discount the fine work done by Wayne Gretzky (Phoenix), Ken Hitchcock (Columbus) and Denis Savard (Chicago).
And what of Bruce Boudreau? What the longtime minor-pro coach has done in bringing the Caps from the bottom of the NHL standings to the brink of a playoff berth has been dramatic. But if he can't take the Caps to that final step, it's hard to consider him for hardware -- not because he hasn't done a good job, but because not reaching the postseason represents a level of failure that cannot be overlooked.
If the Caps fail to make the playoffs, it will be because Claude Julien somehow managed to keep an injury-ravaged Bruins team among the top eight in the Eastern Conference, or because John Stevens (whose very job might depend on a playoff berth) kept the Philadelphia Flyers focused on the task at hand despite their own significant injury woes. Both men would be worthy of consideration if they make the playoffs, but it will be a surprise if they are nominated given that their squads (and personalities) aren't particularly sexy.
Over in the Western Conference, Craig MacTavish has reinforced he is the real deal behind the bench after Edmonton's late-season surge. After looking like a surefire draft lottery team for much of the first half of the schedule, the Oilers are within a point of eighth place. If they somehow sneak in, pencil in MacTavish on the final ballot.
And what about Barry Trotz in forgotten Nashville? The team was denuded of its stars in the offseason and it has played before less-than-capacity crowds all season. Yet here are the Predators, holding down the final playoff berth in the Western Conference as the final week begins. If the Preds qualify for the playoffs for the fourth straight season, Trotz deserves to be on the final ballot as well.
As for teams that will certainly be in the postseason
Ron Wilson has fought off rumors all season that his job is hanging by a thread in San Jose, but the Sharks will enter the postseason as the NHL's hottest team. Wilson surely deserves recognition for his work. There's Guy Carbonneau, who looked like a coach who had lost his grip a season ago when the Habs fell out of the playoff chase in the final week of the season and now has them on the verge of winning their first conference championship since 1988-89.
And Michel Therrien? Rarely has a coach who has had so much success been so often questioned by observers. Without his top goalie (Marc-Andre Fleury) and the game's defending MVP (Sidney Crosby), Therrien has guided the Pittsburgh Penguins to the top of the Eastern Conference.
All in all, it will be a most difficult choice picking the best coach from a slew of worthy candidates, a much more difficult choice than picking the game's most valuable player.
If you had to pick a team poised for a high dive out of playoff contention last week, it would have been the Boston Bruins. It seemed like another recipe for disaster for the B's -- a history of inept play at crucial times coupled with injuries to top players, including leading scorer Marc Savard (broken bone in his back) and Chuck Kobasew (broken shin bone). But the Bruins snapped out of a 1-3-2 spiral and are on a 3-0-2 streak, including a point salvaged in Sunday's overtime loss to Buffalo. The Bruins not only managed to hold off the hard-charging Washington Capitals by gathering eight of a possible 10 points over that period, but they also managed to tighten their defensive play, allowing just eight goals over that span.
At the risk of piling on (but let's face it, some people are just in need of a good piling on), the fallout from last week's Roy family outing in Chicoutimi, Quebec, continues. As well it should. Although most of the debate, especially in Quebec, has focused on the role of fighting in junior hockey, the bigger story is the hit Patrick Roy's reputation has taken as a result of the fracas. For those who missed it (the nasty scene of Roy's son, Jonathan, the backup netminder for Roy's Quebec Remparts, skating the length of the ice and then pummeling opposing netminder Bobby Nadeau, who offered no resistance), the incident isn't the first in which the Hall of Fame netminder has lost control. There is always a little bit of the Wild West when it comes to junior hockey (all that testosterone). But it would be nice to see the adults behave a little more responsibly, especially when they have the hockey pedigree Roy does as the NHL's winningest goaltender. But the incident reinforces what many have believed for some time: Being a great player doesn't make you a good person. Now, the question is, what kind of long-term damage will the incident have on Roy's chances of becoming an NHL coach. Whether or not Roy ever had designs on an NHL coaching job, it must be galling to know this incident may have closed the door.
Stuck in neutral
It is 41 years and counting for the hard-luck Toronto Maple Leafs as they were officially eliminated from the playoff picture with two midweek losses to Boston in which they were outscored 10-4. The team, which will miss the postseason for the third straight season, has also played itself out of a draft lottery position. There is already much gnashing of teeth in Leaf Nation about what captain Mats Sundin will do in the offseason. It seems to us, though, folks in Toronto have mistaken "good guy" for "leader." Since he's been in Toronto, Sundin has served dutifully, sometimes admirably; but in the end, he's led the Leafs nowhere during his tenure. The team made two trips to the Eastern Conference finals, but during one of those playoff runs in 2002, Sundin was injured for most of the heavy lifting and the Leafs imploded only when he returned to the lineup. Unless the Leafs can get Sundin to sign at a bargain price (something less than about $4.5 million) and he agrees to give up the no-movement clause that cost the Leafs a front-line player and top draft pick at the trade deadline, it's time to say sayonara to the big Swede.
Our top story lines of the week
1. It is always a bit difficult to tell just what is going on with New York Rangers captain Jaromir Jagr. Although he's endured a miserable (by his standards) offensive season, the Rangers will reach the playoffs for the third straight season and look capable of a long postseason run. At the same time, Jagr is believed by some to have already locked up a deal that would see him return to Russia next season and play with Avangard Omsk, the team he played with during the lockout. Jagr, who will become an unrestricted free agent this summer, has apparently said he would meet with representatives from the team, who are in the New York area, but insisted he hasn't decided anything. Whatever. If Jagr does end up in Russia, it would represent the first big-name star who actually left to play in Russia when he could still command top dollar in the NHL (sorry, Alexei Yashin doesn't count; he returned to his homeland because few NHL teams were interested). Jagr represents a different story line because he is still valuable and he's not Russian. Still, the upshot will be Jagr is looking for an easy way to make a few million dollars without taxing himself on the ice, as opposed to the first domino falling in a mass exodus of NHL talent drawn to the charms of a Russian winter.
2. There is no question netminder Mike Smith was the key to the Brad Richards deal for the Tampa Bay Lightning. If Smith, who is injured but came from Dallas with high praise from teammates and scouts, can challenge for the No. 1 spot in Tampa next season, Lightning GM Jay Feaster will have accomplished what he set out to do in moving the popular but expensive Richards at the trade deadline. But one surprising bonus to the deal has been the play of the two position players, Jussi Jokinen and Jeff Halpern. Jokinen has 12 points in 16 games since coming over from Big D and Halpern has been a force with 17 points in 15 games (he was injured for one game). He has scored two game winners, including one against Southeast Division leader Carolina on Saturday, and he's a plus-6. As for the Stars, it's a different story. After Richards lit it up with five assists in his first game with Dallas, the Stars have dropped to the nether regions of the Western playoff picture with a 2-7-1 record through Saturday.
3. The Montreal Canadiens have had a charmed season with unexpected production and maturity from a host of players, including Mike Komisarek, Carey Price, Alexei Kovalev and Andrei Kostitsyn. But a bit of a speed bump has appeared at the worst possible time for the Habs. With dreams of their first Stanley Cup since 1993, the Canadiens are currently playing without defenseman Mark Streit, who is pivotal to the team's top-ranked power play (he ranked third among all NHL defensemen in scoring heading into play Sunday), and captain Saku Koivu. It's not known how long the two will be out, but any amount of time after next week will be too much time for the Habs as they prepare for their first playoff appearance since 2006.
4. Interesting decision by Hockey Canada to name Pat Quinn coach of Canada's under-18 team for next month's annual tournament in Russia. Quinn, 65, is no stranger to international competition, having coached Canada in the past two Olympics (Canada won its first gold medal in 50 years at the Salt Lake City Games in 2002) and led teams to wins at the 2004 World Cup of Hockey and this year's Spengler Cup. But Quinn has been out of full-time coaching since he was fired by Toronto at the end of the 2005-06 season, and has a reputation of preferring veterans to youngsters. Well, Quinn will get a chance to dispel that notion with a bunch of fresh-faced teens. A successful run at the under-18 tournament may open some general managers' eyes to Quinn's skills as a coach and open some doors this offseason, when there may well be half a dozen openings.
5. John Tortorella will be behind the bench for Team USA at this spring's World Championship in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Quebec City, but the big question is who will be behind the bench of the host team. A year ago, Steve Yzerman, in his first big test as a GM, selected Andy Murray and the pair came away with another gold for the Canadians, who have dominated recent championships. This year, Murray would be available again. So would Ken Hitchcock, Quinn's assistant in the past two Olympics, Gretzky, who built the past two Canadian Olympic teams, Jacques Martin, Hitchcock's roomie at the past two Olympics, and likely MacTavish. But if Yzerman really wanted to think outside the box and look at someone who could be part of the Vancouver coaching staff in 2010, he'd ask Buffalo's Lindy Ruff or the Islanders' Ted Nolan. Or both. Yeah, we know Ruff took over for Nolan in Buffalo, but both men coach their brains out every night. It may be interesting to see how they do on the international stage.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.