Crease dilemmas, CuJo's last stand
1. Long Island drama
Never mind the dilemma of Martin Biron being the odd man out on Long Island now that prodigal netminder Rick DiPietro is back. That was a given. (At some point, Biron will find a landing place, although with Michael Leighton's strong play in Philadelphia and Jimmy Howard's stellar work in Detroit, the market for Biron may not exactly be robust.)
The real story on Long Island is what happens to Dwayne Roloson. The veteran has provided the kind of consistency in goal the young Islanders lacked last season and is one of the main reasons the Isles were shockingly two points out of the final playoff spot in the East with a game in hand (through Sunday's games).
If DiPietro is handed starts because he signed the world's wackiest contract, we wonder what will happen to what appears to be good dressing-room chemistry. It is a difficult challenge for Islanders coach Scott Gordon, who must expect a certain amount of rust from DiPietro (he started his first game in more than a year last week). But at what cost? A playoff spot?
We must admit, we have never been overly impressed with DiPietro, even when healthy. Roloson, on the other hand, is doing here what he did in Edmonton before signing with the Isles as a free agent in the offseason: keep his overmatched team in most every game. Stay tuned.
2. More net dilemmas
Very interesting situation shaping up in net for the Washington Capitals, especially come playoff time.
Neuvirth was the MVP of the AHL playoffs last season with a .932 save percentage and 1.92 goals-against average. He is 5-2-0 in his past seven appearances for the Caps and has given up more than two goals just once over that stretch.
Against Atlanta on Saturday night, an important test according to coach Bruce Boudreau, Neuvirth turned aside 18 first-period shots to help the Caps built a 3-0 lead en route to an 8-1 pounding of the Thrashers.
Let's say Varlamov (12-1-2, .924 save percentage, 2.21 GAA) recovers from his injury and returns to form, what does GM George McPhee do with veteran Jose Theodore? Theodore has endured an up-and-down season (more down than up, actually), and given the fact he was yanked after the first game of last season's first-round series against the New York Rangers, it's fair to say the confidence level is not high with Theodore between the pipes.
This is a Caps team that has all the tools to make a long playoff run, but it does not appear Theodore figures into the equation, short term or long term (he will be an unrestricted free agent this summer and will almost certainly not be re-signed by the Caps).
"We know [Neuvirth] can stand the pressure because he was the MVP of the playoffs in the American League last year and they won and he played in seven-game series and all, so I'm not worried about the pressure," Boudreau said. "But it's too early for me to comment on that [Neuvirth's potential playoff participation] because he's probably going to get probably another five to 10 games in, and maybe even more before that situation has to happen or before the trade deadline has to happen, where you have to make a decision -- can we use him, or is Theo back where we want him to be where we can use him? So we'll see."
Does McPhee try to trade Theodore or send him to the minors and go with two 21-year-old kids who have played a total of 13 NHL postseason games between them (all played by Varlamov)? Or does McPhee look to a veteran like Marty Turco or Martin Biron to provide some insurance in net? Interesting times ahead, to be sure.
3. "I'm not that kind of guy"
Speaking of the Caps, were you wondering if Alex Ovechkin was honing up on his "Win one for the Gipper" speeches now that he's wearing the captain's "C"? Uh, no.
Since being made captain by the Caps after Chris Clark was dealt to Columbus, Ovechkin said he hasn't been providing any emotional talks in his new role. If something happens, "You just do something," he told reporters recently.
Has he given any speeches so far?
"No, I'm not the kind of guy that gives lots of speeches or something like that," Ovechkin said.
He insisted he's not shy (you don't say?) and will speak up if the situation requires.
"If I need something to say, I'm going to say it," said Ovechkin, who was previously the captain of Team Russia at the World Junior Championship. "If something happens, if we [are] going to have a losing streak or something like that, if we're going to have a bad game, of course I'm going to say something.
"But it's not going to be like a long speech or something like a 25-minute meeting with my teammates."
Boudreau said he's seen no change in his star scorer since he was named captain.
"His personality is that nothing bothers him, nothing fazes him," Boudreau said. "This is not a situation, 'Oh my god, I've got to do a lot of things different.' I've told him I just want him to be him. He's our leader on the ice; we've got other guys to take care of stuff off the ice. Like Chris Clark, his wife was in charge of the wives and he was in charge in any gatherings. Alex is not doing that stuff, not doing it because we've appointed somebody else to do it.
"All he has to do is lead by example on the ice. We're not asking anything out of the ordinary."
4. You won't trade Carter? Really?
Fair enough for GM Paul Holmgren to tell our good friend Pierre LeBrun he will not be trading forward Jeff Carter.
But how in good conscience can he say that if he has a shot at landing Ilya Kovalchuk if the Atlanta sniper cannot come to terms on a long-term extension with the Thrashers?
Holmgren tipped his hand by selling off a significant chunk of the team's future in acquiring Chris Pronger at this past June's draft to anchor the blue line in the hopes of vanquishing the Pittsburgh Penguins at some point this spring. It is damn the torpedoes for the Flyers, even though they spun their wheels for much of the first half of the season.
Why stop halfway? The Flyers are going to be a playoff team, and if it costs Carter, a first-round pick and a prospect to acquire Kovalchuk, even as a rental, why would Holmgren hesitate? We're not saying it's a fait accompli that Holmgren could swing such a deal (Atlanta GM Don Waddell is going to ask for the moon, as he should), but Kovalchuk is a rare talent, and the Flyers have already indicated this is a go-for-broke season.
In announcing Carter will not be traded, Holmgren sets himself up to miss out on Kovalchuk or prove his word to be meaningless. Either way, it's not a great situation for the Flyers.
5. CuJo calling it quits
One of the NHL's good guys will formally hang 'em up Tuesday, as Curtis Joseph is set to announce his retirement in Toronto. We recall the first year after the lockout, when Joseph signed in Phoenix to play for Wayne Gretzky and had played well enough to earn consideration for a berth on the 2006 Canadian Olympic team.
But with all due respect to Joseph and Mr. LeBrun, who wrote that he believes Joseph is a Hall of Famer, the problem with Joseph is he teased you with long bursts of superlative play but never quite got the job done in the crunch over the course of his career.
He helped St. Louis and Edmonton win playoff series they had no business winning back in the day, but never once played in a Stanley Cup finals series. He had the starting job for Canada at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City and was replaced one game in by Martin Brodeur, who led Canada to gold. Joseph was the man twice in Toronto when the Leafs advanced to Eastern Conference finals in 1999 and 2002, but couldn't lead his team over Buffalo and Carolina (two teams that were there for the taking).
One of the true gentlemen of the game, Joseph will finish with the fourth-highest wins total (454) in NHL history behind only Ed Belfour, Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy. Those are incredible numbers that speak to a great career, just not a Hall of Fame career.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
What To Watch This Week
1. Colorado, Vancouver and Calgary start the week within a point of each other, with the Flames holding down the top spot in the Northwest Division and important home-ice advantage that comes with a division crown. But that's likely to change on a daily basis moving forward, starting with the Avs' showdown in Calgary on Monday. The Avs may be without captain and defensive anchor Adam Foote, who missed Saturday's game against Buffalo after taking a shot in the ankle. Vancouver avoids its two division foes this week, but is at home against Nashville on Monday, in Minnesota on Wednesday and entertains Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday.
2. Had a chance to talk to Todd Bertuzzi, who has been an integral part of helping the Detroit Red Wings stay afloat during an almost criminal string of injuries to top players. Bertuzzi is second on the team with 12 goals and third with 25 points. He has delivered key goals in recent weeks, as the Wings have struggled without offensive stalwarts like Henrik Zetterberg, Valtteri Filppula, Johan Franzen, Daniel Cleary and now Tomas Holmstrom.
"Everyone on this team knows their role," Bertuzzi told ESPN.com.
As for his own production, the rugged forward said it was just a matter of staying positive through an early dry spell. "I knew if I just stuck with it, things like that turn," said Bertuzzi, who has spent considerable time on the team's top line with Pavel Datsyuk and, until his injury, Holmstrom.
The Wings, who began the week one point out of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, close out a five-game road trip against the Islanders on Tuesday, host Carolina on Thursday and head to Dallas on Saturday before entertaining Central Division foe Chicago on Sunday afternoon. Whew.
3. Goaltending dilemmas abound around the NHL right now as the Islanders wrestle with integrating Rick DiPietro back into the lineup and the Capitals wonder about their future down the road (see our Five Things to left). In Philadelphia, coach Peter Laviolette now has to juggle three healthy goaltenders with the return of starter Ray Emery from an abdominal injury.
The problem for Laviolette is Michael Leighton has been lights-out for the Flyers since being acquired following the Emery injury. The Flyers have crawled back to the edge of the playoff bracket in the East and Leighton has led the way with seven wins in his past eight starts. Look for Brian Boucher to be the odd man out in the Philly goal; the Flyers entertain Dallas on Tuesday, then travel to Toronto and Washington later in the week.
4. The Los Angeles Kings have lost two in a row and seven of 11 and start the week in the uncomfortable position of sitting eighth in the Western Conference with Detroit just one point back with a game in hand. The Kings have their hands full this week; they entertain San Jose on Tuesday, Anaheim on Thursday and Boston on Saturday afternoon. The Kings beat San Jose to start the new year and will need to put more points in the bank to keep the wolves from the door.
5. So are the Anaheim Ducks starting to make good on the expectations that they carried into the regular season, or is this just a blip on the radar? The Ducks have won four in a row and started the week tied for 11th in the West, six points out of the last playoff berth. They host Boston on Wednesday and travel to Los Angeles on Thursday for a monster game against the eighth-place Kings.
Take This To The Bank
It looks like the NHL and the NHL Players' Association are on the same page with mandating that players wear shoulder pads with extra cushion starting next season. That's good. Every little bit helps in terms of trying to reduce injuries, especially concussions.
But if anyone thinks this will significantly reduce the danger quotient in the game, they are living in dreamland.
Watch for the players to push for a new review of the glass systems employed in NHL rinks. Players regularly complain to the union that one of the biggest issues is glass doesn't have enough give, and they believe there is a direct relationship between unyielding glass and concussions. The NHL and players' union agreed to revamp the types of glass employed in the 30 NHL cities before the lockout, but the fact the issue remains a significant concern to the players suggests it will be brought up again in the coming months with the joint player/league health committee and/or the competition committee.
The league won't like it, of course, as they will argue the costly process of changing to a more forgiving Plexiglas system or altering seamless glass systems to provide more give when players crash into them. But if the league is serious about making the workplace safer and keeping more of its players on the ice and out of the infirmary, it will give this a serious look because foam shoulder pads just aren't going to cut it on their own.
Stock Up, Stock Down
Jonas Hiller, Anaheim Ducks: Hiller has won four straight and allowed just six goals over that period as the Ducks try and claw their way back into the playoff mix in the Western Conference.
Jamie Langenbrunner, New Jersey Devils: Langenbrunner was named captain of the 2010 U.S. Olympic team Monday afternoon and that honor coincides with a seven-game points streak for Langenbrunner (he collected 11 points over that span for the Eastern Conference-leading Devils).
Paul Stastny, Colorado Avalanche: Stastny, the de facto first-line center on the U.S. Olympic team, has managed just one goal in his past 14 games and has just nine goals on the season. True, Stastny is more of a playmaking center than a goal scorer, but he is still on pace for his lowest full-season total since entering the league.
Ilya Kovalchuk, Atlanta Thrashers: You have to wonder if the state of contract talks with the Thrashers -- stalled would be a good way to describe them -- is getting to the Russian sniper. Kovalchuk has no points in his past three games and is minus-7 over that period as the Thrashers have fallen out of the playoff bracket in the Eastern Conference.