This week, we're bursting a few bubbles
Stock Up, Stock Down
Matt Cullen, Carolina Hurricanes: As Carolina struggles to keep pace in the Eastern Conference playoff race (it occupied the final playoff spot Monday morning), Matt Cullen is doing his part with nine points in his past five games and 13 points in his past 10 contests. Production like that will go a long way in ending the Hurricanes' two-season playoff drought.
Wade Redden, New York Rangers: Redden has just one point in his past 14 games and is minus-5 over that period as the Rangers appear determined to misplay themselves right out of the playoff mix in the Eastern Conference.
-- Scott Burnside
1. How are things working out for Brendan Shanahan now that he's back with New Jersey?Well, for one thing, people have stopped offering Shanahan work. The veteran forward told ESPN.com that not playing the first half of this season has given him a bird's-eye view of life after hockey. It also confused some folks.
"I don't know if I'd say I had one foot into the door of retirement, but I certainly peeked around the corner," Shanahan said. "To get that sort of peek, to bump into people on the street who think you are retired and to get phone calls from friends offering you jobs that aren't that of a professional hockey player, [it's] nobody's fault, but I think what it does is, it's just another reminder of how precious the time is you have to do this.
"But I really felt in my stomach, I really had a gut feel that I could still play."
What jobs has he been offered? Surely not driving a taxi in Manhattan?
"I won't go into that just in case the offers are still on the table," the 40-year-old joked.
Shanahan has four points in eight games with the Devils, and coach Brent Sutter, with whom Shanahan played in Canada Cup competitions, said he is looking to the three-time Stanley Cup winner to bring more than just points to the Devils' table.
"I think, first and foremost, leadership and experience, someone that can still play the game," Sutter said. "Can he handle the minutes he maybe handled 10 years ago? Probably not. But the minutes he does play, they're effective minutes, they're solid minutes. He knows how to play the game. He can play in different situations. He brings a little bit of everything to the table for us."
As for adjusting to jumping midstream into an NHL season, Shanahan said he looks at the time away from hockey as a bonus.
"I thought so long as I played this year that it was going to be fine, and I thought if I took a whole year off then it wouldn't work," he said. "I thought it would definitely be a challenge, especially in the beginning, but I thought the time off was going to be more of a benefit than a hindrance."
2. How do you really feel about how the league handles its on-ice discipline?Well, let's start with an off-ice issue. We never had any problem with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman suspending Sean Avery of the Dallas Stars for six games for his premeditated slurs about Dion Phaneuf and his girlfriend/actress Elisha Cuthbert. That was a suspension based on cumulative bad behavior and it was well-earned.
At the time, we insisted that drawing a line between the Avery suspension and what happens on the ice was the proverbial apple/orange debate. But having watched Denis Gauthier's dangerous flying elbow to the head of Montreal's Josh Georges late last week, and then seeing the NHL hand down a five-game suspension for the hit that left Georges wobbling around the ice, we continue to shake our heads at how often the league opens itself up to ridicule.
The GMs will be debating fighting at their meetings next month in Naples, Fla., amid concerns there will be a tragedy on NHL ice unless modifications are made to that element of the game. Too bad no one seems serious about dealing with issues which are imminently more dangerous, such as hits to the head, like the one Gauthier delivered and somehow drew a suspension one game less than Avery's tactless comments. Anyone who thinks this makes sense raise your hand. Sorry, Colin Campbell, this doesn't mean you.
3. Speaking of Avery, what happens next?Talk about the potential for a prodigal-bad-boy-returns-home-and-makes-good story. But there are lots of issues before Vogue can dispatch its top writer to cover the Sean Avery redemption story.
First, Avery has missed 2½ months of action as he tried to get his act together (or rather, modify his act), so it will be like a player returning from injury in terms of getting timing back and reintegrating into an NHL locker room. More importantly, can Avery show he will at least temper his selfishness to fit into a dressing-room dynamic, first at the AHL level and then at the NHL level, assuming a team (hello, New York Rangers) will take a chance on him when he is available on re-entry waivers perhaps as early as Tuesday?
As self-absorbed as Avery has been, it shouldn't be that difficult, especially if he is committed to salvaging what's left of his career, as his agent Pat Morris suggested was the case to our ESPN.com colleague Pierre LeBrun on Friday.
But here's the rub. Was his self-absorption crucial to his successes when he was at the top of his game in New York? Sources tell ESPN.com his behavior with the Rangers wasn't that much different than it was in Dallas. He was a loner, aloof from the rest of his teammates, but was tolerated because what he brought to the ice made the collective better. A necessary evil, if you will.
The Rangers could certainly use that kind of evil as their season slips away, but can Avery bring that if he really has changed his stripes and become less volatile? Or is being all about Sean what made him a valuable part of the Rangers' mix? Time will tell.
4. Which of the bubble teams trying to make the postseason would be best for the NHL?Excellent question. (Uh, you don't need to say that given you're the one writing them. Right.)
Well, outside of Detroit, San Jose and Chicago, they're all pretty much bubble teams in the Western Conference. For a long time, it looked like Phoenix was going to sneak in, which would have been a boast for the financially troubled franchise and reinforce that it is a viable hockey market, or, at least, the team itself was viable.
Unfortunately for the desert dogs, they've lost six in a row and are in a free fall that will almost certainly see them miss the playoffs for the sixth straight season. Columbus was one point out of the final playoff berth as the week began and is desperate to make the playoffs for the first time to stop the bleeding of what has been a remarkably tolerant fan base. But with netminder Steve Mason out of action as he tries to fight off the effects of mononucleosis, it may be too big a mountain for the Blue Jackets to climb.
For our money, seeing the youthful Los Angeles Kings sneak in would probably be the biggest boon for the league. Having Los Angeles back in the playoff picture after a five-season absence would do wonders for the West Coast market (especially if Anaheim continues to flounder its way out of the playoffs). And it just might happen given the inability of any of the teams in the bottom half of the bracket to separate themselves from the pack.
The Kings have won three straight and six of seven, including wins over playoff-bound New Jersey, Washington and Chicago, and begin the week just three points out of eighth place.
5. Bet players can't wait to get out of places like Long Island, Atlanta and St. Louis with the trade deadline coming?Not exactly. We had a chance to chat with Mathieu Schneider in Atlanta the other day. The veteran defenseman will almost certainly be on the move again by March 4 to what will be his ninth NHL team (or possibly a return to Montreal or Detroit), but he explained there are a range of emotions involved.
"A big part of the reason I'm here is to work with [rookie] Zach Bogosian, and that's been an awful lot of fun for me," Schneider said. "He's just a tremendous kid, and I've really enjoyed it and I would certainly miss him if I was traded. But, at the same time, [Atlanta GM Don Waddell has] got to do what's best for the club."
Does the 39-year-old Schneider find himself glancing at the standings and wondering perhaps where he might fit in?
"Obviously being on eight teams throughout my career, I'm no stranger to moving. But things that are out of my hands, I don't worry about," he said. "It's a funny thing. The more experience you get, you just seem to block all that stuff out and you go day by day, next game, next practice. Especially the way our season's gone here, this year we're trying to get better every day. Obviously, the playoffs are a long, long, long shot for us."
Twice in his career, Schneider has packed up and moved at the deadline, going to Toronto from the New York Islanders in 1996 and then from Los Angeles to Detroit in 2003.
"When you're a player on a team, you need to be focused on that 100 percent," Schneider said. "The second you start thinking about all those things, it affects your performance on the ice and that's certainly something I have really learned to block out throughout my career and I continue to do.
"All the speculation is fun. Honestly, I don't read any of it, to tell you the truth. Everything I hear is pretty much from my father-in-law in Toronto."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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