Flames' latest slide, Coyotes' bid, Oil's stock up
1. Center of attention
Every time you want to anoint the Calgary Flames a contender, they hit the skids for a week or so. The Flames have lost three of four and four of six and fallen into second place in the Northwest Division behind the never-say-die Colorado Avalanche.
Calgary has just 10 goals in that six-game stretch, and despite the many positives (top-notch goaltending and as good a blue line as there is in the game), there just seems to be something missing.
In our humble opinion, what is missing is depth down the middle -- specifically a big, talented pivot to drive the offense. Oh, wait the Flames have that or they would if Olli Jokinen turned out to be the player they thought he'd be when they acquired him at last season's trade deadline.
Jokinen has two points in his past six games and is on pace to finish the season with 56 points, which would be his lowest total since 2001-02, when he was in Florida. That production won't cut it for the Flames if they want to avoid yet another early playoff exit.
Look at teams that aspire to be Cup contenders, and focus on their depth down the middle. There's Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau in San Jose and Anze Kopitar in Los Angeles. The Red Wings, although struggling, still have Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. And, of course, there's the gold standard for domination down the middle in Pittsburgh, where Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal make life unbearable for playoff opponents.
The Flames simply are not good enough down the middle to be a Cup contender, not unless Jokinen starts producing like a topflight pivot. For a player heading into free agency during the summer, this season looks to be a litmus test as to whether he is an elite player. So far, the jury is very much out on that debate.
2. Taking ownership
My colleague Pierre LeBrun and I had a chance to chat with Daryl Jones, the front man for the Ice Edge group, which hopes to become the new owner of the Phoenix Coyotes.
No ownership group comes into the proceedings admitting it has no cash, although sadly, many NHL owners end up having much shorter pockets than the league was led to believe. But Jones' confidence about both Ice Edge's financial plan and its commitment to making the team work in Phoenix is impressive even in the face of significant skepticism.
Jones said the Ice Edge group includes deep-pocketed partners in the Phoenix area and will have 90 percent equity and 10 percent debt on an original purchase price believed to be between $140 million and 150 million. Jones predicted the NHL's governors will come to admire the group's financial wherewithal once they get to understand it a bit more. "Financing the deal is the least of our worries," Jones told ESPN.com.
Further, the group will not ask for an out clause when it reworks the lease with the City of Glendale (Ariz., home of Jobing.com Arena), which should make that process more palatable for the local government. Although having an out might be attractive down the road, Jones said the group analyzed the issue "10 ways to Sunday" and came to the conclusion it would be impossible to attract fans and sponsors if there was a feeling the new ownership group had one foot out the door.
So, the group will stay even though Jones said he knows it won't be an easy process to reverse the fortunes of the moribund team in the desert. As for playing some games in Saskatoon, an idea put forward by the group during the bankruptcy proceedings some months ago, Jones said it will pursue that strategy only if the group is confident it won't alienate fans or sponsors in Phoenix. It's hopeful it can make it happen.
And then, there's the Wayne Gretzky factor. Jones said Ice Edge was planning to reach out to Gretzky as early as this past weekend to gauge his interest in returning in some capacity with the team. Jones suggested a Mario Lemieux-like relationship that has worked well in Pittsburgh. If only it were that easy to save a team. Still, you have to admire the gusto with which Jones et al took to enter this process. Of course, it's not the entrance that is of interest to the league and fans in Phoenix, but the exit. If Jones and his friends have it their way, there won't be one.
3. Oilers fighting back
Welcome back. The Edmonton Oilers, decimated by injury and the flu and left for dead a month ago, have clawed their way back into the playoff race in the Western Conference with an improbable five-game winning streak, all on the road. They are now just four points out of the eighth and final playoff berth.
With the Oilers' next four games at home, their challenge will be not to backslide, as sometimes happens when struggling teams show a spasm of life. But GM Steve Tambellini pointed out Sunday that the good thing for the Oilers is that coach Pat Quinn now has a full complement of defensemen at his disposal for the first time since very early in the regular season.
Denis Grebeshkov is expected to rejoin the troops this week -- he could have played last week, but the team opted to give him a few extra days of rest -- and that means the team's strength, its blue line, should be operating at peak efficiency. Tambellini also pointed to a more balanced look to the lineup with Jean-Francois Jacques, Ryan Stone and Zack Stortini providing some sand and timely production.
"That's kind of changed the look of our team," Tambellini said. "If we play with intelligence, we're going to have a chance to win on most nights."
It's not all roses for the Oilers, of course, as top netminder Nikolai Khabibulin remains sidelined indefinitely with a back injury and top scorer Ales Hemsky is out long-term. But Tambellini praised the work of young netminder Jeff Deslauriers, who has earned the confidence of his teammates in recent days.
"I've seen our team relax a little bit more," Tambellini said.
4. Life in Minnesota!
Speaking of being back from the dead, Minnesota coach Todd Richards said the defining moment for the revitalized Wild wasn't a goal or save but rather a practice that suggested his struggling Wild were finally getting the rookie bench boss's message. He recalled coming off the ice after practice five or six weeks ago, and the members of the coaching staff looked at each other and said, "This finally looks like a hockey team." Before then, the coach said practices often lagged, as players seemed unable to understand Richards' drills and system.
The confusion had translated into an ugly 3-9-0 start, including eight straight road losses. But Richards said the leadership group, which includes captain Mikko Koivu, Andrew Brunette, Owen Nolan, Kim Johnsson, Martin Havlat and others, has bought in. The Wild have won seven of nine, including a big 2-1 overtime victory over division foe Calgary on Friday.
Richards pointed to that win as being an important reward for all the hard work.
"This is why you coach. This is why you get in sports," he said of that game.
Were there moments when Richards wondered whether he could do the job? Absolutely. "Early on you're saying, 'What are we doing? Is this the job for me?'"
The last question has been answered in the affirmative, but the next question is whether the Wild can keep themselves pointed toward a badly needed playoff berth.
5. The hot seat
Rumors always start to fly when a team underachieves as the St. Louis Blues have for much of this season. Rumors about a possible coaching change always take on more urgency when a team suffers an embarrassing loss or collapse, as the Blues did last week when they gave up a 3-0 lead at home in a 5-3 loss to Edmonton.
But Blues president John Davidson is anything but rash. Although he is no doubt unhappy with his team's struggles -- the Blues are 5-10-2 at home and last in the league in power-play efficiency -- don't expect Davidson to make a coaching change. At least not yet.
With the Blues starting the week in 14th place in the West, we're guessing Davidson and the management team of Doug Armstrong and Larry Pleau will be beating the bushes for a possible trade. But as with all teams, finding a trading partner is difficult.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
5 Things To Watch This Week
1. The Nashville Predators have been one of the surprise stories of the first half of the NHL season; they've overcome injuries and a lack of offensive depth up front to stay within reach of the top spot in the Central Division. (They are seventh in the West and four points behind Chicago on Monday.) But between now and the end of December, the Predators will play seven of nine on the road. They'll host Tampa Bay on Tuesday, then will return to Nashville just once before 2010 (a home date with Chicago on Dec. 26). This stretch will be crucial to staying in the playoff hunt.
2. San Jose has hit a rough patch, losing five straight games (although it has points in three of those games), including Saturday's loss to Phoenix, a game in which defenseman Dan Boyle was lost to injury. Boyle may not miss significant time because the Sharks play just one game this week, a home date against Anaheim on Thursday. Still, the Sharks woke up Monday morning in an unusual position out of first place in the Pacific Division; the Los Angeles Kings passed the Sharks and moved into the top spot in the division and the conference. More puzzling, perhaps, is that the Sharks' vaunted power play has managed just two goals on 22 attempts during the five-game skid.
3. Guess it wasn't all John Stevens' fault after all. The Philadelphia Flyers have struggled under new coach Peter Laviolette and are 1-4-0 since Stevens was fired, and their offense continues to struggle with just four goals during that span. Their power play also continues to be a mystery; the Flyers have managed just one goal on 28 attempts in their past seven losses, which have come in their past eight outings. Things won't get any easier this week. They travel to Boston on Monday to play a re-energized Bruins team, head to Pittsburgh on Tuesday for the first of a home-and-home set with the Pens and finish by entertaining the New York Rangers on Saturday afternoon at Wachovia Center.
4. Speaking of the Rangers, the Blueshirts hope to get Brandon Dubinsky back in the lineup this week, perhaps as early as Monday's tilt against Atlanta. The gritty center has not played since breaking his hand against Calgary on Nov. 7 and failed to score in 10 straight games before getting hurt. Still, for a team that is woefully thin down the middle, Dubinsky's return will give coach John Tortorella more options and presumably make the Rangers more difficult to play against. They need something. They start the week in 12th place in the East and have dates this week against Atlanta, the New York Islanders (home-and-home) and Philadelphia, all teams they will have to fend off if they hope to make the playoffs for the fifth straight season since the lockout.
5. After going 13 games without a goal, Anze Kopitar has two goals in his past three games. The Kings have surged to the top of the Western Conference standings and began the week just one point behind Washington for the league lead. They will need Kopitar to keep his offensive game going, as their next four games are all on the road (at Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Phoenix).
Take This To The Bank
Attracting participants for the world championships in an Olympic year is always a tough sell, but Hockey Canada will make it hard for Canadian players to say no with Mark Messier tabbed to be the team's GM. If, as many people believe, he will reach out to old friend and longtime teammate Wayne Gretzky to coach the squad, that will make it doubly hard for players to decline an invitation.
As for the profile of the wannabe tournament back in North America, it sure wouldn't hurt to have two of the greatest players of all time leading the Canadian effort in Germany, even if the annual event takes place during the heart of the NHL playoffs.
Stock Up, Stock Down
Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals: The Caps are at the top of the Eastern Conference standings, and Backstrom has been doing his part with six goals and seven assists in his past seven games, including a five-point effort in an 8-2 win over Philadelphia on Dec. 5.
Rod Brind'Amour, Carolina Hurricanes: These are tough times for the venerable Carolina captain. The man who almost single-handedly willed the team to its first Stanley Cup in 2006 was a healthy scratch last week and has just two goals and is a miserable minus-19 this season.
Jeff Carter, Philadelphia Flyers: The former sniper has managed to score in just two of his past 14 games. The fact that he scored twice in each of those games does not mitigate Carter's struggles. He likely has played himself off the 2010 Canadian Olympic team.