Stock Up, Stock Down
Stock Up: So it's not exactly a news flash that Patrick Kane and the Chicago Blackhawks are soaring, but their current streak deserves special mention: a franchise-record nine straight wins after a 4-1 victory over the Minnesota Wild on Sunday. More interestingly, it moved the Blackhawks within four points of the Detroit Red Wings, whom they play in a back-to-back set this week -- including the much-anticipated Outdoor Classic at Wrigley Field on Jan. 1. The Red Wings have won the Central Division for seven straight years, but Chicago has served notice it won't simply concede the title to Detroit, as has been the case for many years. For the record, the Hawks have outscored opponents 40-12 during their current streak.
Stock Down: Looking to make a statement announcing their arrival among the elite teams in the Eastern Conference, the Philadelphia Flyers have stumbled through their past six games (2-3-1), including back-to-back losses to Chicago and the Columbus Blue Jackets in which they were outscored 8-1. No coincidence, but the Flyers are starting to break down because of injuries to key personnel. Already missing point-producing center Daniel Briere, the Flyers now are without their best defenseman, Kimmo Timonen (who broke a bone in his ankle while blocking a shot), for at least a week. Scott Hartnell is listed as day-to-day after breaking his big toe in the same Dec. 26 game against the Blackhawks. Defenseman Matt Carle and forward Scottie Upshall also are sidelined.
-- Scott Burnside
1. Is this the end for Paul Kariya in St. Louis?
The one-time world-class forward will undergo surgery to repair torn muscles in his hip, a procedure that almost certainly will end Kariya's season with the Blues. But if some expect team president John Davidson to end the team's relationship with Kariya by buying him out in the offseason (he has one year at $6 million left on his contract), they're wrong. In fact, Davidson told ESPN.com on Sunday that he thinks this might actually benefit both Kariya and the Blues.
"I'm looking the other way [from a buyout]," he said. "I think this is going to be a blessing. I think he'll be better."
After a disappointing second half last season, Kariya, 34, bulked up and committed himself to playing in traffic this season. He started with 15 points in 11 games before being shelved by the injury.
"He was back to being Paul," Davidson said. "He started the season like Paul Kariya."
The Blues, of course, have been the poster children for that old country-western lament: If it weren't for bad luck, we'd have no luck at all. Star defenseman Erik Johnson was lost for the season before it had even started. Tough guy D.J. King went down after one game. Eric Brewer and Jay McKee have been hurt. Forwards T.J. Oshie, Andy McDonald and Kariya have been lost for considerable stretches, losses that have blunted the Blues' attack.
Still, Davidson sees a silver lining.
Although last in the Western Conference, the Blues are just six points out of the eighth and final playoff spot. They split games this weekend, beating San Jose -- the NHL's best team -- in a shootout before losing 4-3 to Anaheim on Sunday. Young players such as rookie forward Patrik Berglund, sophomore David Perron and defenseman Roman Polak are gaining experience they might not have gotten without the slew of injuries.
Of the 22-year-old Polak, Davidson said, "He's really showing he can play at this level."
With six players taking part in the World Junior Championship, Davidson said there are lots of reasons to be optimistic about the future, despite the dark clouds that have cast their shadows over the team throughout the season.
2. Can Pat Quinn pave the way back to an NHL bench by leading Canada's juniors to a fifth straight gold medal at the World Junior Championship?
Nothing is guaranteed, of course, but it should. The knock on Quinn, especially in the Toronto media -- he coached the Maple Leafs from 1998-99 through 2005-06 -- was that he was a veterans' coach and couldn't relate to young players. Having won gold with the Canadian Under-18 team last year and having won the job with the country's Under-20 team at the high-profile tournament this year, Quinn has been recast as a tutor of young talent. If he can coax a fifth straight gold medal out of his current charges in Ottawa, Quinn's attractiveness to NHL GMs seeking a well-rounded coaching candidate should be high.
The bottom line: Quinn is a top-notch NHL coach. Look at the rosters he had in Toronto and the fact that he made the playoffs in all but one season, winning at least one round in five of those six seasons. With the hiring of Craig Hartsburg in Ottawa looking more and more like a mistake, and with a handful of other openings bound to pop up between now and the start of next season, we figure Quinn is a pretty good bet to get back in the pro game as long as things don't go awry at the WJC.
3. Speaking of the WJC, some early scores have given it the look of a Little League tournament. What gives?
Therein lies the problem for a tournament that has developed a cult following in Canada but is treated with everything from disdain to disinterest throughout most of the rest of the hockey world. Early on, the tournament is reminiscent of the women's international slate, which features a small group of teams that are committed to the sport (and thus to producing competitive squads) along with a bunch of others that show up simply because the International Ice Hockey Federation tells them they must. Witness Germany's 9-0 dismantling of Kazakhstan after its own 8-2 mauling at the hands of the Americans. Or Canada's 8-1 defeat of the Czech Republic in its opener and 15-0 crushing of the Kazakhs (which featured eight power-play goals).
Boy, some fun, huh? No wonder you can't sell this tournament anywhere but Canada. As much as the U.S. and Canada have reigned as the alpha clubs in women's competition, the World Junior Championship has only two or three teams capable of challenging Canada. The U.S. is one, although the Americans tend to find ways to self-destruct at these tournaments. The Russians are another, but they don't always show up. Strangely, the dynamic is completely opposite at the Olympic level, where, at least until the NHL players exit the scene after the Vancouver Games, there are at least five legitimate gold-medal contenders: Canada, Sweden, Russia, Czech Republic and Finland (with the U.S. and Slovakia showing dark-horse potential).
Unless the junior dynamic changes, however, the possibility of expanding the tournament's audience beyond Canadian borders will diminish dramatically.
4. What's the frequency, Vesa?
Not exactly sure what the plan is in Toronto, but once again the Leafs seem determined to follow the path of least reason. Witness the goaltending situation. Is goalie Vesa Toskala trade bait? Given his play in net the past few games, they might attract better offers with a half-eaten puck. Which brings us to the curious case of Justin Pogge: Yes, he was only ordinary in the AHL, but the Leafs want to know what kind of NHL prospect he is, not what kind of minor-league netminder he is. And he played well enough to earn a victory in his first and, strangely, only start to date. So what gives? If the Leafs are to find out just what they have between the pipes long term, isn't it time Pogge got a legitimate shot to show his wares instead of languishing with the Marlies, to whom he returned after the NHL's roster freeze ended Saturday at midnight?
As for Toskala, though he hails from Finland and has NHL roots in San Jose, he's no Miikka Kiprusoff. He might, however, become a useful tool if new GM Brian Burke decides to deal him before the March 4 deadline. Such a deal would give Pogge time to show his stuff. And, frankly, it wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing for Pogge to struggle and for the Leafs to slip to the bottom five in the standings. The closer they get to a shot at the first overall pick in next June's draft, the better off the Leafs will be in the long term as they look forward to the 42nd year of the franchise's rebuilding project. As it stands, Toskala and Curtis Joseph, who have allowed 16 goals during a three-game losing streak, are doing their part to contribute.
5. So, when does a meltdown occur in Ottawa?
Not sure about the exact timing, but the clock is surely ticking. Not only are the Ottawa Senators looking less and less like a playoff team, they're looking more and more like a draft lottery team. A squad that is just 18 months removed from appearing in the Stanley Cup finals woke up Sunday morning tied for the third-fewest points in the NHL following a 6-3 throttling in Calgary on Saturday. During that game, the Senators led 2-0 at the midway point and then surrendered five goals in the next 23 minutes of play.
GM Bryan Murray keeps talking about changes, but the Sens have put themselves in a position where deconstruction makes more sense than upgrading. After making the playoffs for 11 straight years, Ottawa has come full circle. The time for a rebuild is at hand. That means making hard decisions about players like Jason Spezza. Does Murray believe the talented (if inconsistent) center is the key to the team's future renaissance? If the answer is no -- and the view from the outside is that this is the case -- then Spezza should be moved before March 4, provided a buyer can be found for his whopper contract.
The challenge for Murray is that he is practically bereft of attractive assets to move, beyond rock-solid defenseman Anton Volchenkov, who must stand as one of the team's very few untouchables (along with captain Daniel Alfredsson). No one is going to be interested in Jason Smith at $2.6 million this year and next. Dany Heatley? With a $35 million price tag, plus what's left of a $10 million tab this year, he's hardly going to fit into most teams' budgets. In other words: Yikes.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.