- Scott Burnside, NHL
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We're opening up a new week in the 2009-10 season. Here's what is on my radar:
1. Locking up Kovy
The Atlanta Thrashers suffered their first defeat of this young season on Saturday, losing 4-2 in Ottawa to fall to 2-1-0. Still, optimism runs high for the young team, and not just in the standings. The team will travel to the New York area later this week, and Ilya Kovalchuk is expected to meet with agent Jay Grossman to discuss whether the star winger's future plans include a stay in Atlanta.
Thrashers GM Don Waddell told ESPN.com this week that he sees nothing to suggest a deal can't get done with the talented Kovalchuk (who has five goals through three games) before he would become an unrestricted free agent in July. Grossman, likewise, said there is reason for optimism, but it's a question of timing. The longer Kovalchuk goes without signing an extension, the greater the dilemma will become for Waddell. He can't afford to follow the Florida Panthers' plan from last season, when they let stud defenseman Jay Bouwmeester walk away essentially for free.
Waddell certainly wants to avoid the situation he faced two seasons ago, when Marian Hossa refused the team's contract extension offers and ended up being dealt to Pittsburgh at the 2008 trade deadline. As for the Thrashers' future -- and proving to Kovalchuk that a future in Atlanta could be rosy -- Waddell told ESPN.com he thinks the team's blue-line corps is the best it has had in a decade of play.
That may be damning with faint praise, but Ron Hainsey and Pavel Kubina have established a nice chemistry as the team's top shutdown pair, while sophomore Zach Bogosian and former all-rookie team member Tobias Enstrom are holding their own to give the team four guys who easily can log more than 21 or 22 minutes a night.
2. Good news and bad news in Sunrise
First, the good news. Sources tell ESPN.com that within weeks the Florida Panthers, the subject of much ownership discussion this past offseason, will be off the market and the search for outside money will end thanks to a plan to restructure the team's ownership group.
Although sources wouldn't elaborate, look for majority owner Alan Cohen to take a much lower role, if he even remains with the franchise. An indication of Cohen's fading interest in the team was his absence at both Panthers games in Helsinki and his failure to show up for the team's home opener in Florida on Saturday night. The sooner the NHL sees yet another owner without a clue leaving the league the better for this moribund franchise.
Now, the bad news. We made special note of the Panthers' annual preseason trip across North America as a way to avoid playing in front of empty seats at home (goodness knows they get enough of that during the regular season) and how that seems to lead to a poor start every season. Panthers coach Peter DeBoer told us he was especially cognizant of that issue. Yet, here we are, watching the Panthers sputter and stumble out of the gate again.
After beating Chicago in a shootout in Helsinki to start the season, the Panthers have lost three straight without generating much offense. Last season's leading scorer, Stephen Weiss, scored his first goal of the season Saturday, while the Panthers were outshot 41-21 in a 3-2 loss to New Jersey. The previous night, Carolina humbled them 7-2. Winger Nathan Horton has zero points through Florida's first four games. For a team with legitimate playoff aspirations, the Panthers had better get the Sunrise Express back on track in a hurry.
3. A bad partnership
Anyone else a bit creeped out by news that St. Louis Blues owner Dave Checketts is looking to buy the NFL's St. Louis Rams with political shock talker Rush Limbaugh? We get that Limbaugh is from Missouri and has lots of money. And there's no denying Checketts' work in helping turn the Blues around, both on the ice and in the community, since buying the team the season after the lockout.
But anyone who has followed Limbaugh's career, and especially his views on politics and race, understands it's not something that would sit well with many hockey fans, let alone those who work with the NHL's diversity committee in trying to make the game as accessible as possible. Wonder how Jarome Iginla, Ray Emery, Evander Kane and other visible minority NHLers would feel about one of the league's owners partnering with someone whose recent comments included a suggestion that the U.S. needs to return to segregated busing. Checketts, for the record, declined to discuss this issue, citing confidentiality issues surrounding the NFL bid.
It happens periodically, mostly in hockey markets where fans seem to smell blood in the water: fans savagely turning on one solitary player. It is neither rational nor pretty.
Patrice Brisebois was run out of Montreal (he did return before retiring), Edmonton fans got a hate on for Mike Comrie and Larry Murphy (yeah, the Hall of Famer) received the boobird treatment in Toronto before going on to win two more Cups in Detroit. Bryan McCabe probably was the last to endure the endless heckling in Toronto (see above) and ended up as captain of the Florida Panthers.
Now, the Leafs faithful are on netminder Vesa Toskala, and it's hard to imagine how this could end other than badly for the Finnish netminder. True, Toskala's play hasn't imbued Leaf Nation with much confidence these past eight or nine months. Like the rest of the team, he is off to a grisly start (.824 save percentage, 4.97 goals-against average). But Toskala is booed mercilessly whenever the puck hits him. Maybe a string of wins will change the fans' perspective. Maybe not. Nobody likes to kick a man when he's down like Leafs fans.
In the final year of his contract, Toskala could be attractive to someone. (The Flames don't have much of a Plan B beyond Miikka Kiprusoff, and GM Darryl Sutter knows Toskala from their time in San Jose.) But the goalie's stock could hardly be lower, putting Leafs GM Brian Burke in a bit of a predicament, especially with Jonas Gustavsson on the gimp with a groin injury. Regardless of Toskala's future, it doesn't look as if it will be in blue and white.
5. Woof, mon ami
Oh, those wacky Canadians; they're so Pavlovian. Just mention returning an NHL team to Canadian soil (doesn't matter where, really, from Frobisher Bay to Freelton), and they start to salivate.
Last week, it was revealed in headlines across the nation that Quebec City mayor Régis Labeaume and former Quebec Nordiques owner Marcel Aubut met with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. Break out all those old Nords pennants! Where's your Michel Goulet jersey?
But a little reality check here. This is the same city that shuffled its collective feet and looked at the sidewalk as its team slid into economic decline before moving in 1995 to Colorado, where it became a multiple-Cup champion. No one was willing to step forward to buy the team and build a new building needed to improve revenue streams. True, the Canadian dollar was worth about a plug nickel at the time, but is there really enough dough in Quebec City to float an NHL team now?
There is talk of a new arena, the first major hurdle; then, there would have to be an existing team that's transportable (and don't even think of Atlanta, which is stuck in the South for the next four or five years barring massive buyout costs). Still, you need enough paying customers, and there's nothing to suggest there are any more now than there were in the past. It's nice headline fodder, but as with most Canadian relocation talk, it's just that -- talk.
Stock up, stock down
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
The latest on Ilya Kovalchuk's contract talks, Toronto's boobirds and the NHL's recent talks with Quebec City ... it's all in Scott Burnside's Power Play.