Tocchet's tough message; big names on bench
1. Tough message from Tocchet
According to our friends who cover the Lightning for a living, the Bolts coach made his team watch some tape of their grisly 7-1 loss to Buffalo on Saturday and then skated their, um, pucks off in a 75-minute torture session that included almost nonstop skating drills for much of the outing.
Good on Tocchet.
Some will suggest this is the act of a coach who knows the sand is running out in his hourglass in Tampa and he's got nothing left to lose. Maybe.
There is new ownership in town with Jeff Vinik now running things, and the team has pretty much played itself out of the playoff hunt in the Eastern Conference thanks to performances like the debacle against Buffalo. Many believe both GM Brian Lawton and Tocchet will be gone shortly after the regular season ends in less than two weeks.
It certainly hasn't gone particularly well on a number of fronts in Tampa this season and it's clear Tocchet and captain Vincent Lecavalier aren't on the same page. But under Tocchet's watch, Steven Stamkos has elevated his play to a point where he has become one of the most dangerous players in the game.
Is that enough to give Tocchet another shot given this is his first full season as coach? If it was us, we'd show Lawton the door and give Tocchet a chance to make things right with Lecavalier and get the team out of the blocks in a reasonable fashion next season.
2. We're not Martin fans, but ...Now, we have never been overly positive about the work done by Montreal coach Jacques Martin.
We thought he was overrated in Ottawa, where the Senators always seemed to find a way to blow a tire (usually against a less talented Toronto team), and didn't like how things went down in Florida, where he was part of the coup in which Mike Keenan was fired, and pushed himself into a coaching/GM role. And we didn't particularly like how Martin jumped ship before the draft last year to take on the Habs job. And we didn't really think Martin was an inspired coaching choice by former GM Bob Gainey in Montreal to boot.
In short, we're not fans.
That said, you've got to give Martin some credit for navigating the Habs through a bevy of critical injuries and the ongoing goaltending dilemma. (Carey Price or Jaroslav Halak? Discuss among yourselves.)
Although the Habs have stumbled over the last week or so, they should still be among the top eight in the Eastern Conference when the dust clears on April 11. They boast the second-best power play in the NHL and are especially potent on the road. Martin has also been able to get valuable production from up and down his forward lineup.
All Martin has to do now is somehow coax his Habs to a playoff-series victory and we'll be standing in line to buy the "Jacques Rules" T-shirts we're sure will be popular in Montreal if the Habs can pull off such an upset.
3. True test for Luongo
These final days of the regular season are always a bit difficult to handicap, especially for teams like Chicago, San Jose and Vancouver, which are locked into playoff spots.
Things sometimes look worse than they are because the urgency to win simply isn't there. It's human nature. Of course, if you're Chicago, and you're talking goaltending, well, that's a problem that isn't necessarily overstated regardless of how meaningless the games are at this stage of the season.
Which brings us to Vancouver netminder Roberto Luongo, who took a rare home game off this week after looking shaky in a loss to Edmonton and talked to reporters about how he needs to be more consistent and how mentally and physically draining the past few months have been. Fair enough.
But these past few days have to make Vancouver fans more than a little nervous. Even though Luongo did manage to come on and help lead Canada to an Olympic gold medal in Vancouver last month, there remains a niggling doubt about the mental toughness of the Canucks' franchise netminder.
The Canucks are as good a team as there is in the Western Conference when Luongo is on. Would it surprise anyone if they marched to a conference final or beyond? No. But as good as the Canucks might be, unless Luongo's head is in the right space, they aren't good enough to beat a team like Detroit or Nashville, one of whom they'll likely draw in the first round, or frankly anyone else. Whether he finds that space will make for some interesting discussion between now and when the playoffs start.
Bottom line? Forget the Olympics; the first 10 days of this postseason will tell the real story of Luongo's mental toughness and may in fact go a long way in defining his career.
4. Big money on the bench
Speaking of netminders, there's an awful lot of money and hardware sitting on the pine in some top-notch NHL cities these days.
Defending Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas has been relegated to spot duty behind Tuukka Rask in Boston despite his $6 million price tag this season (his cap hit is $5 million). Chris Osgood, who has won 29 postseason games over the past two years in leading Detroit to a Stanley Cup in 2008 and Game 7 of last season's Cup finals, has watched rookie Jimmy Howard play 22 straight games for the streaking Wings.
Semyon Varlamov was supposed to be "the guy" for the Stanley Cup hopeful Washington Capitals this season after taking over for Jose Theodore one game into last season's playoffs, but it is Theodore who is making headlines. The Ottawa Senators are paying Pascal Leclaire $3.6 million this season and $4.8 million next year to essentially pat starting netminder Brian Elliott on the butt. (It's worth noting both Howard and Elliott were among the NHL's Stars of the Week on Monday.)
Price, once considered "the future" in Montreal, has taken a backseat to Halak as the Habs are driving to what would be a surprise playoff berth. And then there's the granddaddy of all expensive bench ornaments, Chicago's Huet, who was last seen getting torched for seven goals by the Columbus Blue Jackets.
But here's the thing. Of all the goaltenders who came into the season as their team's starter and are now an afterthought, does anyone truly believe their respective coaches wouldn't make a move come playoff time at the smallest sign of a wobble? We don't think so, either.
As Detroit GM Ken Holland told us this week, if the playoffs started tomorrow, Howard would be their starter. "But the playoffs don't start tomorrow," he said.
5. Resolution in Phoenix?
It is possible the ownership picture in Phoenix will become clearer in the next couple of days. Sources tell ESPN.com that Glendale officials could examine a proposal for a revamped lease with potential owners Ice Edge Holdings in an in-camera session Tuesday evening. Former Arizona attorney general Grant Woods has also joined the Ice Edge Holdings group to assist in the discussions with the city of Glendale.
If the proposed changes, designed to improve revenue streams for both the team and the municipality, are approved by the committee, the proposal would then be taken to the full council for approval.
Sources told ESPN.com that once a new lease is approved, financing should quickly follow. There have been repeated reports the Ice Edge financing is on shaky ground, but officials with the ownership group have repeatedly told ESPN.com their financing is solid.
As for competing bids, including one from Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, it's unclear whether those proposals for a new lease would also be discussed Tuesday. Reinsdorf, who publicly opposed a tax proposal that would have helped the Chicago Cubs build a new facility in Mesa, is believed to be championing to establish a special tax district in the Glendale area to help fund his bid. Such tax proposals have received little support by state legislators in the past.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
What To Watch This Week
1. The Los Angeles Kings have gone from fighting for home-ice advantage in the first round to trying not to fall out of the playoffs altogether. Top goaltending prospect Jonathan Bernier was called up Monday by the Kings, who play in Minnesota on Monday and Nashville on Tuesday before hosting Vancouver and Anaheim. Starting netminder Jonathan Quick is just 4-6 since the Olympic break and has given up at least three goals in nine of his past 11 starts. Look for Bernier, the 11th pick in 2006, to get a look this week, if for no other reason than to try to shake the Kings out of their late-season funk. Bernier's been terrific for the Kings' AHL team, turning in a 2.06 goals-against average and a .936 save percentage in 56 games.
2. Was Calgary's desperate win in Washington on Sunday a last spasm of life from a sinking team, or a defining moment for a squad that still has at least an outside shot at saving what has become a lost season? The Flames host Phoenix on Wednesday and then travel to Colorado for a crucial tilt Friday. The Flames started the week four points back of the likewise plummeting Avs with one fewer game to play. You have to figure the Flames will have to win at least four of six to get in. The deathwatch has already begun in Calgary for GM Darryl Sutter and brother/coach Brent Sutter if the Flames don't right the ship in the next 10 days.
3. So, what of the Avs then? Along with hosting Calgary on Friday, the struggling young Avalanche will also play host to Anaheim on Wednesday and San Jose on Sunday. The Avs have won just once in their past six games and one wonders if the youthful squad is simply running out of gas or perhaps letting the pressure of wrapping up an unexpected postseason berth get into their heads. Paul Stastny, the team's top offensive player, has just one goal and three points in his past five games. This week is character time, and the Avs will have to prove they've got enough to stay within the top eight.
4>Maybe a little time on the road together will help cure what ails the stumbling Chicago Blackhawks. After dropping a home-and-home to Columbus this past week, including an embarrassing 8-3 loss that may have spelled the end for netminder Cristobal Huet, Chicago travels to St. Louis on Tuesday, Minnesota the next night and New Jersey on Friday. The Blackhawks have managed to win back-to-back games just once since the Olympic break and fallen off the pace in their quest for the top seed in the Western Conference.
5. Most of the attention has been on the battle between Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos for the goal-scoring lead. But the more compelling race may well be the race for the Art Ross Trophy as the top point-producer, with Henrik Sedin edging in front of Ovechkin by a point as the week began. The Canucks are at home against Phoenix and then travel to Los Angeles and Anaheim, while the Capitals host Ottawa and Atlanta before traveling to Columbus on Saturday. Sedin is in line to become only the second Swede to capture an NHL scoring title after Peter Forsberg did it in 2003.
Take This To The Bank
As we reported as far back as January, it looks like next year's Winter Classic will feature Ovechkin and the Capitals facing Crosby and the Penguins in Pittsburgh. No doubt many teams and lots of hockey fans will complain this will mark the second time in four years Crosby and the Pens will be featured on the Classic's grand stage.
Kudos to the NHL for understanding the Winter Classic is about showcasing the sport, not being fair. The league stumbled a bit this year by buckling under outside interests in having Philadelphia, not Washington, in Boston. But Caps versus Pens is as good as it gets in the NHL right now, and next year's Classic should be dynamite, regardless of whether it's fair or not.
Stock Up, Stock Down
Jason Pominville, Buffalo Sabres: Pominville has 15 points in his past 10 games for the surging Sabres. On a team that will need balanced scoring for a deep playoff run, Pominville appears to be peaking at about the right time.
Brad Richards, Dallas Stars: The Stars have only the slimmest of chances to make the playoffs, but it hasn't deterred the classy Richards, who has 13 points in his past eight games and 19 in 14 outings for the Stars.
Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers: The pride of Hearst, Ontario, has gone 11 games without a goal as the Flyers have struggled to stay afloat in the Eastern Conference playoff race. The talented Giroux, counted on to take a step forward this season, has just one goal in his past 15 games.