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Tuesday, February 20, 2007
Teams receive 'hide' warning; Panthers taking calls

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

NAPLES, Fla. -- The NHL will be doing a lot of investigative work in the coming weeks to make sure teams aren't trying to hide players on their injured reserve list heading into the playoffs.

Under the collective bargaining agreement, if a player goes on the long-term injury list, his team can go over the cap by the amount of his salary. But once a player is healthy enough to play, the team has to have enough cap room for that player to return. The tricky part comes in the playoffs, when no salary cap is in play. Hence, a team could keep a player on the injured list until the playoffs start and not have to worry about the cap hit.

Tim Connolly
GM Darcy Regier says the Sabres want Tim Connolly back in the lineup as soon as he can return.

"You can acquire a player to fill that spot because the salary cap disappears at playoff time," Buffalo GM Darcy Regier said Tuesday. "But that's where the league has to come in, and will come in, and is going to make sure that there's integrity to the process."

In general, no team is going to try to hide a healthy player on the long-term injury list so it can acquire another. But the issue becomes trickier when a player such as Buffalo's Tim Connolly, who is recovering from a concussion and a stress fracture in his foot, might not be set to return to the lineup until close to the end of the regular season. If that's the case, it might help the Sabres, who are looking to add depth before the Feb. 27 trade deadline and are close to the $44 million cap, to keep Connolly on the injury list until the end of the regular season.

"I don't know any player that is legitimately hurt can go from zero to 100 on Day 1 of the playoffs and hasn't played all year. So, you want games. You want to get that player up to speed. But it's a gray area," Regier conceded.

Toronto is another team with players who are expected to return to the lineup from long-term injuries shortly before the end of the regular season. Kyle Wellwood and Michael Peca are among those who would help the Leafs by their return. But the team also is looking to add a veteran forward before the deadline, and the cap will be an issue.

"There is a competitive balance here, and the league is on top of that," Toronto GM John Ferguson said. "I'm not sure how much of an advantage it is to have a player out for 20-plus games and then have him come back and play in a playoff game. That's exactly how you'd be trying to strategize.

"But there's certainly no dispute about the significance of some of the injuries we have. And the rules were made clear today. If you're going to activate a player during the season, which everyone's known for some time, you've got have cap space cleared to accommodate that contract into your payroll."

Part of the process to ensure the integrity of the system might be bringing in independent medical experts to verify a player's status, deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN.com on Tuesday.

"We intend to insure that the long-term injury exception is not used in such a way as to circumvent the cap," Daly said. Although the situation isn't new, he added, "We simply have more situations this year that could potentially lend themselves to abuse."

Reality check on Aisle 12

Florida Panthers coach and GM Jacques Martin has a handful of assets he's shopping around before the deadline, but he still took time to offer this distorted interpretation of his team's situation.

"Our priority is to get into the playoffs," Martin said. "I think, probably depending on how we do, this week is probably crucial. But in the meantime, there is interest in some of our people and we're investigating. If we can get something that's going to help our organization, we will. If not, we like the people that we have."

Ed Belfour
Will Ed Belfour be trade bait for the Panthers? GM and coach Jacques Martin wouldn't be that specific.

Whatever.

Heading into Tuesday's game in Tampa Bay, the Panthers were nine points out of the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference and needed to jump over five teams to get there. The bottom line is they're done like dinner.

Martin's asking price for veterans Martin Gelinas, Gary Roberts, Jozef Stumpel, Todd Bertuzzi, Ville Peltonen and Ed Belfour, all of whom can become unrestricted free agents this summer, is high.

"I think we're in a kind of a unique situation," Martin said. "When you have certain players that bring a certain dimension for a team that's knocking on the door of winning a Cup, I feel it's not draft picks, it's somebody else. Maybe a younger player that will be able to help our organization for many years."

He has spoken to Roberts and Gelinas about waiving their no-trade deals and, according to Martin, everyone's on the same page.

The line between buying and selling is a fine one for many teams.

The New York Islanders looked to be sellers a month ago, but as of Tuesday morning, they were tied for the final playoff berth in the East. Ditto, Toronto.

Over in the West, no one is facing a bigger predicament than St. Louis GM Larry Pleau, who has seen his Blues jump into at least the shadows of the playoff race. Before Tuesday's game against Columbus, the Blues were in 11th place, 10 points back of eighth-place Minnesota. The team's dramatic turnaround under coach Andy Murray has helped revive some of the buzz around the Blues, who finished dead last in the league a season ago and missed the playoffs for the first time in 25 years. Now, Pleau must decide how to manage assets such as forwards Bill Guerin and Keith Tkachuk, plus defenseman Eric Brewer, without destroying the good faith that's been built up over the past few months.

Pleau is expected to sign Brewer to a contract extension but likely will move the two forwards, who can become unrestricted free agents in July. The asking price will be high for both, at least a first-round pick and a prospect.

"I guess the fair market value, when it comes right down to it, is what somebody is going to pay," Pleau said. "And it's also what you really need in return and whether you think you got enough. There's so many factors that go into it. With us, we're still in a race. I know it's 10 points, but we've all seen weirder things happen in sports."

A tough call for Sabres

Over in Buffalo, the Sabres suddenly have been beset by injuries to key players, including Paul Gaustad, Maxim Afinogenov, Jaroslav Spacek, Ales Kotalik, Jiri Novotny and Connolly, perhaps forcing Regier to rethink his position on backup netminder Martin Biron.

It was believed Regier was content to keep Biron as insurance behind starter Ryan Miller, even though Biron is expected to leave the Sabres this summer as a free agent and seek out a No. 1 job. Now, however, Regier might be more open to moving Biron before Tuesday to shore up his depleted ranks.

"Our [cap space] flexibility is so limited, it's really depth choices," Regier said. "Where do you want to buy your insurance? Do you want to have two goalies? Do you want to have an extra defenseman? Do you want to have an extra forward? You can't have all three. Under the old system, you could have all three."

Five for instigating

As expected, GMs voted to expand the threshold on suspensions for instigator penalties from three to five. That means players will now have to be penalized five times for instigating a fight before incurring a two-game suspension.

Some will view this as the league going soft on fighting, but there are so few instigator penalties called that it should have only a nominal effect on the game. As of Feb. 15, there had been 47 instigator penalties called this season in relation to 351 fights. Only Ben Eager of the Philadelphia Flyers has been suspended as a result of the rule.

If two players appear to consent to fight, no instigator penalty is called, director of officiating Stephen Walkom said. If, however, a player appears to be goaded into a fight or the fight appears to be some sort of payback for a previous incident, that's when the penalty is enforced.

Some GMs believed it was important to increase the threshold because players were believed to be afraid to come to the defense of a teammate if they had two instigator penalties.

The bottom line on the ice

Standards of enforcement topics discussed Tuesday included more stringent calling of penalties on goalies who freeze the puck outside their crease. There have been only six called this season, and Walkom acknowledged that referees haven't called it as diligently as they might.

"We just want to be more consistent," he said.

Officials also are looking more closely at what some call the "soft" call or "soft hook," wherein a player uses his stick to tap an opposing player's stick near his hands. There is some debate about whether it should be called a penalty or is merely a stick check.

"The corkscrew in the legs has turned into the corkscrew in the hands," explained NHL senior executive vice president and director of hockey operations Colin Campbell.

GMs were shown video of a number of calls from this season and, when seeing the incidents in live action, most agreed they were penalties. But when the calls were shown in slow motion, there was more debate.

One of the great fears is if players are allowed to get away with that kind of checking, it represents a step back toward the previous era, when obstruction ruled the game.

Campbell said that he talked to three members of the competition committee and that "they were all adamant, don't let it go back."

On tap for next season ...

• The video replay system will undergo some tinkering next season. A phone line will be added, allowing on-ice officials to talk directly to officials watching replays at the NHL's communication center in Toronto. Also, officials will have the benefit of a video monitor at ice level so they can more closely track what's being examined in Toronto.

• The concept of a one-minute penalty in overtime instead of the standard two-minute minor will get a look next season, either in the AHL or during the NHL's rookie camps.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.