Right now, West trumps East in NHL
1. East versus WestOK, so just how bad is the Eastern Conference? Well, at one point last week, the last-place team in the Western Conference would have been on the bubble to make the playoffs in the East. As of Monday morning, the 11th-place Minnesota Wild and their 37 points would have been sitting comfortably in eighth in the East. Six of the eight bottom teams in the NHL in terms of point production hail from the East: the Carolina Hurricanes, the Philadelphia Flyers, the New York Islanders, the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens.
Philadelphia, the Islanders and Tampa have combined for a 5-20-5 record in their past 10 games and remain no more than five points out of a playoff berth as of Monday morning. In terms of putrid play, only the West's Columbus Blue Jackets, who have just two wins in their past 16 outings, approach the woeful level of play by the East's sad-sack legion.
In the past 10 games, eight of 15 Eastern Conference teams failed to win more games than they lost. In that same stretch in the West, however, just three teams lost more than they won.
Head-to-head, the West holds a slight margin of victory, but if you take away the Buffalo Sabres and the Washington Capitals, which are a combined 11-2-1 against their Western cousins, the other 13 teams in the East are a desultory 47-60-15 when playing across the conferences.
What does it mean? Well, it means at least three, maybe four, junk teams in the East will make the playoffs essentially by default and, in theory, provide cannon fodder for the elite teams such as the New Jersey Devils, the Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
By contrast, the dogfight for the final three or four playoff spots in the West will ensure there are no free passes for the teams at the top. Before the Chicago Blackhawks beat the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday night, dropping the Wings out of the playoff bubble on win-loss record, the two would have paired off in a rematch of last season's Western Conference finals in the first round. Cakewalk? Hardly.
The problem for West teams is that, although the conference is clearly dominant in terms of depth of talent, the playoff road is going to be demonstrably tougher, which suggests we could be looking at a back-to-back Cup champ from the lesser conference.
2. Here's the experience Team USA needsTime continues to tick down toward the announcement of Olympic rosters, some of which will begin this week. If the buzz around those decisions is any indication of what awaits players in Vancouver in February, this truly will be a tournament for the ages.
With each passing day, it appears one of the biggest issues facing Team USA GM Brian Burke and his gaggle of advisers is who will constitute the leadership core of the team. We often mistake leadership with age, and although experience is important to team success, the two aren't synonymous. Which is why we maintain our position that veteran Dallas Stars center and likely Hall of Famer Mike Modano has no place on the U.S. team.
The argument that Modano, who was invited to the U.S. orientation camp in August, will somehow stabilize what is expected to be a very young dressing room simply doesn't hold water. Modano was stripped of his captaincy in Dallas when it became apparent Brenden Morrow was the de facto captain of that team. Then, there was Modano's temper tantrum after the 2006 Torino Games, when he complained that USA Hockey didn't treat the U.S. players with enough deference, this after "leading" the Americans to an embarrassing eighth-place finish with two goals and zero assists.
The fact Modano was hurt early in the season and has just five goals and 13 points in 22 games has done little to suggest he deserves a spot among the 20 skaters who will wear the red, white and blue in Vancouver. Instead, we offer two suggestions if Burke is looking for a player around whom the younger Americans can rally (neither was invited to the orientation camp).
The first is Bill Guerin, who remains a vital part of a Pittsburgh squad that is well-positioned to repeat as Stanley Cup champion. Guerin has nine goals and 22 points and is plus-7 after being a key part of the Pens' Cup run this past spring. The other player who should be considered for Team USA is Mike Knuble, who has been hampered by injury this season, but has six goals and 17 points in 24 games for the Capitals and is likewise a plus-7.
There was one reason GM George McPhee went out and got Knuble, and that is because he believed his team needed a key veteran presence in the dressing room and on the ice to help Washington take that next step toward a championship. It's worth noting that, as of Sunday, the Pens and Caps were within a point of each other at the top of the Eastern Conference standings. The Stars, by comparison, were tied with Detroit for the last playoff berth in the West.
If Burke is looking for a key veteran piece for his 2010 team, he could do a lot worse than turning to Guerin or Knuble. A lot worse.
3. The outdoor argument, revisitedWe have been pretty vocal about protecting the sanctity of the Winter Classic, and that has meant not cluttering up the NHL landscape with other outdoor games despite the incessant whining from Canadian fans about being shut out of the process. (I repeat: boo-hoo, Canada.)
Still, even though it now looks as if the NHL is committed to having a second outdoor tilt next season, we've softened our stance provided the league doesn't try and shoehorn it into the Jan. 1 schedule. New Year's Day is Winter Classic day, and the league has worked too hard to create a stage that is synonymous with the event to stuff another one onto the docket, even if it is in Calgary.
If the league is determined to placate Canadian markets with an outdoor game of their own, the game has to be on "Hockey Day in Canada." It is the only time that makes sense. It is far enough away from the Winter Classic (Jan. 30, 2010, in the Olympic year, but usually later in February) so as not to detract from the Jan. 1 buzz and is a perfect showcase for the CBC on what is traditionally one of its finest days of hockey broadcasting.
One warning: Given the near disaster that was the Heritage Classic outdoor game in Edmonton before the lockout, the game must be played during the day to reduce the potential for frostbite and the brutal subzero conditions that marred that clash between the Edmonton Oilers and the Canadiens. Here's hoping the NHL Players' Association can get its act together to step in and ensure the players' interests are served, and not just ratings and merchandise sales.
4. Bourque rebounding in CalgaryIf there's one Calgary Flames player who would be familiar with donning the blades for an outdoor shindig, it would be unheralded Rene Bourque, who hails from the little town of Lac La Biche, Alberta.
The small lakeside town of about 3,000 inhabitants is about 140 miles northeast of Edmonton. And if you've headed north of Edmonton for any distance, you know that means serious winters.
A week ago, we suggested that one of the failings of the Flames, big picture, might be their lack of depth down the middle. But Bourque, a winger, might be one of the reasons the Flames should still be considered Cup contenders, given the offensive depth he has brought since arriving in Calgary from Chicago for "future considerations" on July 1, 2008.
Bourque acknowledged that a series of injuries in Chicago robbed the coaching staff there of confidence in him and frustrated his own ambitions.
"Definitely, at times, I thought I had the worst luck," Bourque said. "I needed a change, and it was nice to get to Calgary and get a fresh start. Since then, I haven't looked back."
Since arriving in Calgary, though, Bourque has played top-six minutes and has been a veritable point machine (21 goals in 58 games in 2008-09). This season, Bourque was sidelined for six games with injury, but he is still a point-a-game guy with 28 points in 29 games playing mostly with Daymond Langkow, with whom he has developed some considerable chemistry over the past two seasons.
Bourque, who just turned 28, admitted it has been a struggle to not get down when injury strikes, but he said he never worried about his ability to succeed if given the chance -- and good health.
"It was something I knew I'd be able to do," said Bourque, who spent four years at the University of Wisconsin but was undrafted. "I was a bit of a late bloomer."
5. Let's not change historyWe know it's just at the kick-it-around stage, but is there anything more ludicrous than the discussion about renaming the NHL's major trophies to make a stronger connection with a new generation of fans and to honor newer legends such as Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr?
Uh, it's called history, folks, and the link to the league's storied past is a crucial drawing card for fans young and old.
You want to make some significant changes to your awards situation? Then the first thing the NHL should do is distance itself from the sham award that is the Mark Messier Leadership Award. That it is listed in the NHL's official record and guide book, along with the Scotiabank/NHL Fan Fav Award, is embarrassing enough. But what is the NHL doing aligning itself with an award that is essentially unilaterally awarded by a person who is an executive with an NHL team?
We're sure Messier's intentions are pure, but, in the award's first year, Messier anointed Chris Chelios as the inaugural winner, then followed that by picking Mats Sundin, whose leadership skills saw the Leafs fail to make the playoffs for the third straight season after the lockout. It is a joke, just like those suggestions that the league needs to rename its trophies to become more relevant.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
5 Things To Watch This Week
1. Things have reached a critical juncture in the negotiations between Ilya Kovalchuk and the Atlanta Thrashers. Kovalchuk's agent, Jay Grossman, met with Atlanta GM Don Waddell this past weekend, and it's believed the two sides are no closer to signing a long-term contract extension, although more talks are expected to take place later this week. Waddell told ESPN.com last month that he can't afford to see Kovalchuk walk away as an unrestricted free agent in July without getting any assets in return, so that would mean shopping him in advance of the March 3 trade deadline to maximize Atlanta's return on the blue-chip asset if both sides can't reach a new deal. Kovalchuk has 19 goals and 36 points in 28 games for the Thrashers.
2. The Boston Bruins have hit another rough patch. They've lost four straight games, dropping from first to third in the Northeast Division and seventh in the Eastern Conference as of Monday morning. One of the problems is the offense (again), and the team desperately needs Marc Savard to get going. Savard, the owner of a brand-new long-term contract, has zero points in his past five games and is a minus-4. Boston plays at Ottawa on Monday, then hosts Atlanta on Wednesday.
3. The bottom has fallen out on the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have lost 10 of 12 and sunk to next-to-last in the Southeast Division and 11th in the East. The Bolts have been shut out four times in that stretch. It was interesting to see coach Rick Tocchet practice what many coaches only preach, sitting players who don't play well regardless of their salary and status. Last week, veterans Jeff Halpern and Alex Tanguay were on the pine as Tocchet struggled to right the listing Bolts' ship.
After being signed him late in the free-agency period to a manageable one-year deal worth $2.5 million, Tanguay has been a monster disappointment (four goals in 34 games). Now, barring a dramatic reversal of fortune, it looks as if Tanguay will be offered as trade bait come March. The Lightning will get a chance to get back into the hunt against two likewise reeling teams when they visit the New York Islanders on Monday and host Philadelphia on Wednesday.
4. The San Jose Sharks remain an enigma wrapped up in a riddle, or something like that. After going 1-2-2 in their previous five games, the Sharks stopped the slide with a home victory over Anaheim last week. This week, the Sharks get a double test, as they travel to Dallas on Monday and Chicago on Tuesday to close out their pre-holiday schedule. The Sharks, curiously, are one of the NHL's worst teams in one-goal games with a 6-3-7 record; but they remain one of the most resilient teams, leading the West and tied for second in the NHL with 10 wins in games in which they allow the first goal. Go figure.
5. The Montreal Canadiens lost five in a row before stopping that skid with a 3-0 win over the Islanders on Saturday. That win was thanks in large part to the return of defenseman Andrei Markov, who scored twice in his first game since Oct. 1. The win also marked the start of a titanic seven-game road trip that will carry the Habs through the holiday break and into 2010 with visits to Atlanta, Carolina, Toronto, Ottawa, Tampa and Florida. The Habs began the week tied for ninth in the East, two points out of the final playoff spot. This trip will say a lot about the character of a team that's been up and down this season.
Take This To The Bank
You have to imagine Florida GM Randy Sexton snickers every time he hears or reads about his supposed earlier efforts to trade forward Nathan Horton. At the time the rumors were in full flight in the offseason, sources told ESPN.com that Sexton wasn't trying to move Horton, the third overall pick in 2003. Whether or not he was on the block, Horton has finally started to make good on the enormous promise that came with him as a top draft pick, as has Stephen Weiss.
Horton has 10 points in his past six games and leads the Panthers with 35 points; Weiss leads the team with 17 goals and is poised to eclipse his career-best goal production of 20. Between the two top prospects, they have 68 points. As of Monday morning, the Panthers held the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference after a grisly start to the season.
We recall the rumors of Philadelphia GM Paul Holmgren shopping young Jeff Carter for defensive help a couple of years ago. A potential deal with the Leafs fell through, and Carter went on to be a huge part of the Flyers' run to the 2008 Eastern Conference finals. We're not suggesting the Panthers have that kind of potential, but just making the playoffs will be a significant achievement for a team that hasn't been to the postseason since 2000. If the Panthers do make it, chances are it was the phantom deal involving Horton that will be a catalyst to success.
Stock Up, Stock Down
Todd Bertuzzi, Detroit Red Wings: Kudos to the oft-maligned forward for picking up the slack in a big way for a Red Wings team that has been decimated by injuries. Bertuzzi has eight points in his past six games, including six goals. He chipped in back-to-back game winners last week, and his continued production will be crucial to Detroit's playoff hopes.
Dan Sexton, Anaheim Ducks: Two weeks ago, Sexton was toiling for the Bakersfield Condors of the ECHL. Now, he's collecting points on the Ducks' second line. With injuries to Joffrey Lupul and Teemu Selanne, the Ducks once again turn to an undrafted collegian to help carry the freight. So far, Sexton, who spent two years at Bowling Green State University, has done an exemplary job with seven points in eight games, including a stretch when he recorded points in four straight contests, to help the Ducks jump out of the West cellar and back into the playoff hunt.
Edmonton Oilers: After winning five straight road games to jump back into the West mix, the Oilers looked to use a four-game homestand to further establish themselves as a playoff team. Not happening, though, as the Oil have dropped the first three games and been outscored 13-7 along the way.
Thomas Vanek, Buffalo Sabres: The Sabres began the week in first place in the Northeast Division, but they won't be there long (and won't be much of a factor come playoff time) unless top offensive threat Vanek gets his game in order. The talented Austrian has just three goals in his past 13 games and a modest 21 points in 31 games.