Board may vote on new schedule, but it won't be a cure-all answer
If the hockey world is a just place, we will have heard the last of the moaning over the NHL's schedule by the end of this week.
The NHL's board of governors, who will meet in posh Pebble Beach, Calif., on Thursday and Friday, will almost certainly come up with a new plan to replace the much-battered current schedule that emphasizes divisional play. But the schedule has been the subject of so much debate the past two years that it has taken on a life of its own. And anyone who thinks that by cutting down on divisional games from eight to six (the likely outcome this week), the NHL will solve all of its ills, well, they're the same ones who think the Maple Leafs' defense is a bargain.
First, the good news.
For all those Tampa fans who thought they were seeing the Atlanta Thrashers every other week or Anaheim fans who believed the Phoenix Coyotes actually shared the Honda Center with their Ducks, those days are about to end.
What began as a cry from mostly Western teams and fans over the inability to see stars like Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin (both based in the East) more than once every three years has become a leaguewide complaint. In less than a year, rising stars such as Anze Kopitar, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews have appeared in the West. Now, it's time for the entire NHL community to share in this wealth of young talent. And it will.
By reducing the number of divisional games, NHL teams will play every club at least once a season. It doesn't guarantee a home date with Sidney or Alex and the boys every season, but it does assure there won't be the three-season drought the current schedule imposes.
There is a possibility that the board of governors could adopt a schedule that included a home-and-home with every nonconference team, but that would mean going to an 84-game slate, and that will be a tough sell unless the owners and union could agree to cut the preseason schedule dramatically.
The move will, in theory, help teams in the Southeast Division, where history is short and division opponents (who come in four times a season) don't draw fans like Detroit, Colorado, Edmonton and Calgary do.
This season, for instance, will mark the first time Calgary has been to Tampa Bay since the seventh game of the 2004 Stanley Cup finals. That's a shame.
Assuming the NHL sticks with an 82-game schedule, the new format would include six games against divisional foes (for a total of 24), four games against remaining conference teams (two home, two away, for a total of 40) and one game each against the 15 nonconference teams. So the problem becomes the three "wild-card games" that would round out the schedule. How will those games be determined?
For the Canadian teams, those three extra games work out peachy, ensuring that the three teams in the East (Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal) play the three Western teams (Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton) to complete a home-and-home slate every season. That's a good thing.
But what about the other teams?
Anaheim GM Brian Burke, for instance, is less than thrilled that his "wild-card games" might include a trip to the Southeast Division, which will add cost and wear and tear, and will provide almost nothing in the way of a draw for his team.
Burke told ESPN.com that management went to Ducks season-ticket holders to see what changes they wanted in the schedule, and he was surprised to find they liked the divisional games and would have preferred to see the number decline only slightly.
"We shouldn't speculate on what our best customers want," Burke warned. "The flap over the schedule has been way more than it's worth."
Don't expect it to stop by the end of the week.
Gee, that Brett Hull is good, eh? The Stars have won five straight times since Hull and Les Jackson became co-interim GMs of the Dallas Stars following the firing of former GM Doug Armstrong. The Stars outscored Colorado, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Toronto and the New York Rangers 17-5 since the move and are firmly ensconced in second place overall in the West and atop the Pacific Division. And all this without the services of Mattias Norstrom and Jere Lehtinen. Of course, this has nothing to do with Hull and/or Jackson, although the shake-up has obviously created some sort of new karma in the dressing room.
It was a bad week for good guys as Washington coach Glen Hanlon took the high dive after the Caps stumbled to their worst start in franchise history. Bruce Boudreau, a former NHLer and successful minor league coach, won his first two starts as interim coach, which is good for GM George McPhee, who will get a bit of breathing room before deciding his next move. No doubt McPhee and Boudreau would like to replicate what happened in Atlanta, where the Thrashers turned their ship around after Bob Hartley was fired following an 0-6-0 start. Here's a thought: If Hanlon was seen as too nice, maybe McPhee should be looking up Hartley's number. A Stanley Cup winner with a history of success wherever he's been, Hartley may just be the tonic the Caps need to get back in the thick of the Eastern Conference. The next move had better be the right one. McPhee, like Waddell, is out of mulligans as GM.
Stuck in Neutral
Hard to figure out the Colorado Avalanche. We know they're junk on the road and they reinforced that notion with a 1-3 road trip that carried through most of last week. Then, they offered up an even worse stinker at home Saturday night against division foe Calgary, losing 5-2. The game featured a cheap-shot crosscheck by Scott Parker on Flames defenseman Dion Phaneuf. Just wondering, but we thought tough guys were supposed to fight -- not stick -- guys. Parker apparently missed that class in "Tough Guy 101." The Avs' nine home victories still rank second in the NHL, but they are 29th with a 3-7-0 road record.
Our top story lines of the week
So, what happens if Lehtonen comes back and stinks out the joint again? As of Monday morning, the Thrashers sat 10th in the Eastern Conference, having gone 11-6-0 under GM Don Waddell. Can they afford to wait a month or so to see whether Lehtonen comes around? As bad as the Eastern Conference has been, probably not. They also can't send Lehtonen to the minors; he'd never clear waivers. Does Waddell keep three goalies around? Does he try to move Lehtonen? For a team that has had a woeful record of developing its own players, Waddell will be loathe to deal another first-round draft pick after last season's disastrous trade of Braydon Coburn to Philadelphia for Alexei Zhitnik. All of this will be a moot point if Lehtonen comes back and becomes the player the Thrashers imagined he would be. Of course, if he'd been that player from the start, Bob Hartley would still be coaching.
2. We understand that things in Toronto always operate in the red zone, just one notch below utter panic. Yet the Leafs' play of late (if you can call it that) suggests things are about to reach a breaking point in the center of the hockey universe. The question that remains unanswered is whether the breaking point means the end of the line for GM John Ferguson or coach Paul Maurice or both. Pat Burns, a former Leafs coach, has denied he's been contacted about Maurice's job and everyone from Toe Blake (deceased) to Punch Imlach (also deceased) has been linked to the Leafs' GM job. The Leafs were embarrassed 5-1 in Phoenix on Saturday night and have won just once in their past seven games. They are just four points out of the conference basement and look like a team without a clue. What's that they say about hitting rock bottom?
3. We have been critical of the Vancouver Canucks and their status-quo approach to this season, but GM Dave Nonis and coach Alain Vigneault have been rewarded of late with stellar play from a player whose time seemed long past: captain Markus Naslund. Playing mostly with the Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel (dubbed Pinky and the Brain by Minnesota bruiser Derek Boogaard), the classy Swede has six goals and three assists in his last six games. The Canucks, meanwhile, have rolled to a 7-2-2 record in their last 11 games and lead the Northwest Division with 26 points.
4. Interesting situation developing in Detroit, where the Red Wings remain perched atop the Western Conference standings despite the fact they've won just twice in their last seven contests. One of the surprising reasons for this has been the uneven play of goalie Dominik Hasek, who has lost three straight starts and allowed 11 goals on just 57 shots over that span. On the other hand, Chris Osgood, the perpetual backup, leads the NHL with a 1.66 GAA and is tied for fourth with a .930 save percentage in 13 appearances. When Hasek was nursing a sore hip, Osgood's play was a welcome relief. Now that Hasek is healthy, the pressure will be on coach Mike Babcock to stick handle through this potential minefield.
5. Maybe Ilya Bryzgalov is too flaky to be a No. 1 NHL netminder. Just don't tell him or the Phoenix Coyotes that. After being picked up on waivers by the Coyotes -- a nod to GM Brian Burke, who told the goalie he would find him a place to compete for a starting job -- Bryzgalov has won four straight contests for Phoenix, which began the season with the NHL's worst goaltending tandem. Bryzgalov's arrival came on the heels of a three-game losing streak that saw the desert dogs outscored 15-1. But Bryzgalov's arrival coincided with defenseman Ed Jovanovski's seeming to rediscover his jump and the team's receiving scoring from up and down the lineup. The Coyotes have outscored their opponents 14-5 during this stretch, which has them back over the .500 mark.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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