Sabres' rise, and the playoff picture
Stock Up, Stock Down
Michael Ryder, Boston Bruins: Ryder spent much of last season languishing in a doghouse constructed by Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau. When Boston GM Peter Chiarelli tendered Ryder a three-year, $12 million deal during the offseason, there were more than a few arched eyebrows around the hockey world. Now, it's Chiarelli who looks like a genius, as Ryder is on pace for 30-plus goals and is tied for the NHL's lead in game-winning goals (seven). Playing with David Krejci and Blake Wheeler, Ryder has been an important part of the conference-leading Bruins' impressive offensive depth.
Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks are once again the runaway leaders in playing short-handed, which speaks to the team's toughness. It also speaks to their lack of discipline. Two of their top players, center Ryan Getzlaf and right wing Corey Perry, rank first and third, respectively, among all forwards in minor penalties, and second and sixth among all NHL players. You expect defensemen to take penalties. It's the nature of the beast. But when a forward is taking more minor penalties than most of the other players in the league, it suggests a lack of positioning and discipline.
-- Scott Burnside
1. What's up with the Buffalo Sabres?Do you mean up, as in up in the standings? Ha, ha. A little joke there. But seriously, the Sabres are emerging as one of the surprise teams in the Eastern Conference. After being a dominant team in the first two postlockout seasons, the Sabres seemed to lose their identity as well as key personnel like Jay McKee, Mike Grier, J.P. Dumont, Martin Biron, Brian Campbell and, of course, Chris Drury and Daniel Briere.
Well, that identity seems to be returning. The Sabres are on a 6-2-0 roll and have moved into seventh place in the Eastern Conference standings after being a bubble team for most of the first half of the season. Five of those six wins have come against conference competition, while both losses were to West teams (Chicago and Detroit). Most impressive has been the emergence of Derek Roy as the team's on-ice leader, stepping into the vacuum created by the departure of the aforementioned veteran players. Roy leads the team with 42 points and six game-winning goals (second-most in the NHL).
But there are interesting days ahead for Buffalo GM Darcy Regier, who found out this past weekend that veteran defenseman Teppo Numminen is gone, perhaps for the remainder of the season, with a fractured facial bone. After missing the playoffs last season, watch for Regier to try to shore up the blue line before the March 4 trade deadline.
2. Who is cooked as far as the playoffs are concerned?We took a look at last season's standings at this time, and if history is any indication, the second half will provide perilously little movement in the standings. Only one team in the Eastern Conference that was out of the playoff picture on this date a year ago made the jump into the postseason (Washington). The Caps made a dramatic jump from fourth place in the Southeast Division to the division lead on the final weekend of the regular season at the expense of the Carolina Hurricanes.
In the Western Conference, it's the same. Just one team made a move during the latter half of the season (Nashville). The Predators sat in 12th in the conference but sneaked into eighth place late in the regular season, pushing aside Vancouver, which had occupied the seventh seed a year ago.
The bottom line is, if you dig a hole in the first half, the second half looks like a mountain. In the East, you can kiss the postseason goodbye if you're the Tampa Bay Lightning, Ottawa Senators, Atlanta Thrashers or New York Islanders. The Leafs are barely a bubble team, as they sit nine points behind eighth-place Pittsburgh with two games in hand. Expect the Leafs to join the ranks of the cooked by All-Star weekend or shortly thereafter.
In the West, things are a lot tighter. The ready-for-roasting list is shorter, but we'll start with Nashville, which just can't score and is in the process of handing the starting goaltending reins over to rookie Pekka Rinne, given the uneven play of last season's playoff hero Dan Ellis. Los Angeles and St. Louis are also well done at this point. Dallas remains an interesting team, as it began the week in 12th in the conference, just four points back of eighth place with two games in hand. But many games, such as last week's disaster in which the Stars blew a 3-0 lead at home to Buffalo and lost in a shootout, will banish them to the toaster oven.
3. What kind of impact will Brendan Shanahan have on the Devils?Well, if the Devils are lucky, it won't be anything like what has happened in Vancouver, where the arrival of Mats Sundin has coincided with a precipitous fall in the standings. We're not suggesting it is Sundin's fault that the Canucks are winless in their past seven home games after Sunday's messy 6-5 shootout loss to Columbus and have sunk to seventh in the West. The absence of netminder Roberto Luongo and his subsequent rustiness upon his return has been a problem, too.
But bring in a top-six forward who hasn't played in eight or nine months, and there are bound to be issues with fitting in. The Canucks were firmly in a playoff position when Sundin arrived, so it's not as if they needed him to save their season -- they just needed him to help it. So far, the helping part hasn't kicked in.
The Devils, who signed veteran goal machine Shanahan last week, are in much the same position. They are in fifth place in the East and just a point out of the Atlantic Division lead. Shanahan is expected to complement a Devils attack that has proven surprisingly productive, ranking 10th in goals per game and 15th on the power play. But Shanahan will turn 40 years old this week and hasn't played since the New York Rangers were ousted by Pittsburgh in Game 5 of the second round of the playoffs on May 4.
Never blessed with blinding speed, expect Shanahan to be slow to get into a groove. The question, based on the Sundin experiment across the continent, is whether there will be any side effects of Shanahan's arrival as the team waits for him to get there.
4. What do you make of the Mathieu Garon deal for the Penguins?Like it. Like it a lot. Remember when the Edmonton Oilers made their spirited, if ill-fated, charge for a playoff berth down the stretch last season? It was Garon who backstopped the Oilers to within three points of the postseason when they looked to be dead and buried. The former Montreal Canadiens prospect had a miserable start to this season and was part of the three-headed goalie monster in Edmonton until this past weekend's deal.
One of the reasons the Penguins have been so disappointing this season has been inconsistent goaltending from starter Marc-Andre Fleury and backup Dany Sabourin, who was shuffled off to Edmonton as part of the Garon deal. Last season, Ty Conklin was brilliant when Fleury was injured and pushed him when Fleury came back. Garon has the potential to be that pushing force in Pittsburgh.
As for the notion that coach Michel Therrien favored Sabourin and hence the trade was a shot across the coach's bow, it just makes no sense. If the coach was favoring Sabourin, the netminder presumably would have made more starts than the 24 he made last season as Therrien rode Conklin like a wet mule while Fleury was hurt.
5. How are things over at USA Hockey?We hear from some sources there may be a shake-up in the next month or so in the structure of the American hockey body after the dismal showing at the IIHF World Junior Championship.
On a positive note, though, the NHL is about to up the ante significantly in terms of its support of USA Hockey with a potential eightfold increase in funding to support programs, sources told ESPN.com this past weekend.
Coming out of the 2004-05 lockout, the NHL agreed to a four-year deal with USA Hockey, allocating $900,000, $1 million, $1.1 million and $1.2 million, respectively, to the national body. Now, that support could grow to $8 million annually to fund the National Team Development Program, USA Hockey's program to seek out and develop top young talent in the U.S., as well as a new long-term athlete development program started by USA Hockey. Details were sketchy at this point, but an NHL source said the program will benefit all levels of hockey.
"Not just elite, grassroots. It's an impressive program they are putting together," the source said.
The league's increased support was recommended by the NHL's hockey oversight committee, whose members include Carolina owner Peter Karmanos, Buffalo managing partner Larry Quinn, New Jersey head honcho Lou Lamoriello, Hall of Famer and Boston Bruins vice president Cam Neely, Vancouver Canucks president and CEO Chris Zimmerman and Chicago Blackhawks president John McDonough, along with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, deputy commissioner Bill Daly and CFO Craig Harnett.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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