- Scott Burnside, NHL
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1. Rangers off to strong start
Most people will point to Marian Gaborik or the kids on the blue line as the catalysts for the New York Rangers' superlative 7-1-0 start to the season. We point to a visit veteran winger Vaclav Prospal had with coach John Tortorella this past summer.
Prospal, who played for Tortorella in Tampa before chasing the money to Anaheim the season the Lightning won the Stanley Cup in 2003-04, was out of work when he dropped by a backyard cookout at the Tortorella spread. The coach thought there would be a fit for Prospal with his Rangers, but they didn't have a lot of money to throw around. He asked Prospal if he was ready to play for something other than money.
What's On Our Radar ...
1. Olympic duels
We still have a long way to go before the Olympic rosters are finalized (two months, give or take), but it's hard to imagine that Colorado netminder Craig Anderson isn't giving GM Brian Burke and the U.S. Olympic management team reason to pause.
Not invited to the U.S. orientation camp in August, Anderson has nonetheless been sensational for a Colorado team most picked to finish dead last in the NHL. Anderson is 6-1-1 with a .935 save percentage and 2.09 goals-against average. The issue becomes even more pronounced with the ragged start from defending Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas, who is 2-3-0 with an .896 save percentage and 3.20 GAA. Thomas, along with Buffalo's Ryan Miller, who is off to a solid start for the Sabres, figured to be the two goalies shouldering the weight for the red, white and blue in Vancouver with youngster Jonathan Quick of Los Angeles holding down the third spot. Anderson is looking to change that equation.
Meanwhile, the Canadian goaltending issue remains murky, as Roberto Luongo (3-4-0, .870 save percentage, 3.41 GAA) still isn't on track, which, in theory, opens the door for Marc-Andre Fleury and Cam Ward to jump up the depth charts. While Martin Brodeur still looks to have a stranglehold on one of the top two spots, Fleury continues to make a case for himself (he is 7-0-0 with a 2.09 GAA and .922 save percentage). Canada could do a lot worse than hit home ice with Brodeur and Fleury minding the fort in February.
2. Scheduling quirks
Hey, we were never much for math. Just ask Mr. Pindera, our Grade 13 algebra teacher. But there are some wacky things about this early NHL schedule.
Like the Atlanta Thrashers, who haven't played a game at home since their season opener on Oct. 3 (they return to Atlanta on Thursday against Washington). The fact the Thrashers have managed a 4-1-0 record leading up to that long-awaited second home date may drum up some local interest, but that's pretty much the only good thing about the three-week break between home dates.
Then, there's the up-and-down Flyers, who are in a stretch in which they play just one game in 11 days, not the kind of schedule you want when you're trying to rebound from losing three in a row. The Leafs, meanwhile, continue to search for their first win of the season, but will have a week between games to stew over their historically wretched start (they play next on Saturday night in Vancouver). Hard to generate sustained fan interest with these kinds of gaps -- and this an Olympic year. Boo.
3. Oh, those "experts"
Just goes to show you how much so-called hockey experts know. Most preseason prognosticators, including this one, had the Avs, Coyotes and Thrashers at the very bottom of their respective conferences. In fact, I would wager that most would have considered all three draft lottery prospects. Throw in the Ottawa Senators, a team many "experts" had missing the playoffs, and you've got four teams that have a combined 20-6-1 record.
We'll see if these teams are any closer to where many of us thought they'd be in a month or so, but their starts are evidence once again of why they play the games instead of just reading from the scripts provided by the so-called experts, yours truly included.
4. Lightning strikes
Look for a shakeup of lines in Tampa Bay as the Lightning try to shake off a two-game losing streak. They were blasted by Ottawa and Pittsburgh, incurring the wrath of GM Brian Lawton, who verbally assaulted his squad after the loss to Pittsburgh. It looks like Martin St. Louis will rejoin captain Vincent Lecavalier on the team's top line with rookie James Wright, who is expected to provide some physical presence for his two skilled linemates. Steve Downie will join Steven Stamkos and Ryan Malone, while free-agent signee Alex Tanguay, off to a dismal start with just one assist in seven games, will drop to the third line.
5. A weird stat
When Columbus visits Calgary on Tuesday night, the Blue Jackets will be bringing with them a franchise-best 5-1-0 record. And an impressive statistical anomaly the Flames will hope to take care of: The Blue Jackets have scored more short-handed goals (two) than the power-play goals (one) they've allowed in 24 attempts. The Flames, by the by, have the second-best power-play unit, scoring eight times on 23 attempts. Talk about a clash of the special-teams titans.
"I've known him for a long time. We've battled. We've had our ups and downs," Tortorella told ESPN.com last week.
Both are stubborn, he said. Both are emotional. "It's a weird relationship," Tortorella said.
Weird or not, Prospal has fit like a foot in a skate with Gaborik and the Rangers. The skilled winger has 11 points and is a plus-7, and he, Gaborik and Brandon Dubinsky have formed one of the league's most productive forward units so far this season.
"It just seems to work with him and me," Tortorella said. "He has been a huge part to our start."
2. Does anyone care about this union mess?
We recall being at the NHL Players' Association meetings in Las Vegas after the NHL awards and being shocked when it was revealed the players couldn't actually vote on anything, whether it was a new drug-testing policy, or to raise the salary cap or to wear blue or white to their golf tournament. Why? Because they didn't have a quorum.
Even now, after their organization fired their boss in the middle of the night and became the subject of ridicule around the sporting world, players still can't get it right. During a conference call Sunday night, players were expected to vote on the formation of a committee to investigate the events surrounding the dismissal of former executive director Paul Kelly and other matters, including the curious five-year contract extension given to interim director and general counsel Ian Penny. Yet, it ended up being a mere discussion as not enough of the 30 player reps were on the call to make a quorum (they needed 25).
Plus, the call was on a night when there were no NHL games scheduled. Inexcusable. The fact veteran players like Nicklas Lidstrom, Mark Recchi, Chris Chelios and Rob Blake are being co-opted to help bring stability back to the beleaguered union is a good sign, as is the fact that top players like Sidney Crosby were involved in Sunday's call.
We understand the players' constitution allows for a 72-hour window to collect votes. Still, not getting enough players on a call for a vote suggests there are still too many guys who can't see beyond the end of their respective noses. This is a story that doesn't resonate for many fans. Sadly, it doesn't seem to resonate with enough players, either.
3. A book is just a book
You can hardly turn around these days without running into some sort of interview, story or column dedicated to the life and times of troubled former NHLer Theo Fleury. It is a compelling story, a cautionary tale of abuse and excess and, if Fleury is to be believed, redemption.
But his story is just that: his story. And just because Fleury has put pen to paper does not necessarily mean the words are to be taken as gospel. For instance, there is Fleury's assertion he tested positive 13 times when Fleury was with the New York Rangers, but was never suspended by the NHL. Fleury's implication is he was either too big a star to suspend or the league's substance-abuse program was so full of holes, he simply fell through the cracks.
"There are inaccuracies in Mr. Fleury's recollection of his treatment in the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program, but we're not at liberty to go into greater detail," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN.com this week. "We remain supportive of Mr. Fleury and wish him every success as he moves forward."
4. Salary cap in motion
There can hardly be a more graphic illustration of the ever-present specter of the NHL's salary cap than Chicago Blackhawks forward Jack Skille. He showers up in the team's state-of-the-art locker room at the United Center, then heads down the road to Rockford, Ill., where the Hawks' AHL affiliate is based and Skille is dispatched after every Chicago home game.
With the Blackhawks up against the salary cap and currently paying three injured players (Adam Burish, Ben Eager and Marian Hossa), GM Stan Bowman is trying to save every dime he can. And by sending Skille to the minors after every Hawks game (he doesn't have to pass through waivers -- just the toll booths along the way to Rockford), he is giving himself at least a little break.
Each day Skille is not on the Blackhawks' books, it saves the team $6,606.22. By the time the March 3 trade deadline rolls around, Bowman may have created enough room to make a player addition. "Every little bit helps," he told us this week.
The rookie GM acknowledged the situation isn't perfect for Skille, the seventh overall pick in 2005. Instead of practicing with the Blackhawks, Skille ends up skating with the Ice Hogs down the road. He is getting NHL experience, just not the full experience. Skille has appeared in five games and has two points while skating between five and 10 minutes a night.
"He's going to be a good player for us for a lot of years," Bowman said. "It's a pretty good compromise."
As for Skille, he knows the highway markers pretty well. And even though he really doesn't have a home now (he has been staying in a Chicago hotel and commuting back and forth), Skille is happy to be getting the chance to show his wares at the NHL level, even if he's spending a lot of time in his 2008 Tahoe in between.
5. Laviolette, MacTavish slowly returning to bench
Ever wonder what unemployed Stanley Cup-winning coaches do with their spare time? Well, when we caught up with Peter Laviolette, he was on a dock in Florida fishing with one of his sons.
If you can't be in a rink, then that is a pretty good alternative, Laviolette conceded during our recent chat. Not that Laviolette will be out of the rink for long.
The coach who guided the Carolina Hurricanes to their first Stanley Cup back in 2006 signed on to coach the U.S. entry in the Deutschland Cup in Munich, from Nov. 6-8. It's the second time Laviolette has coached at the tournament, having led the team after he was fired as coach of the New York Islanders. Laviolette was also the coach of the U.S. team at the 2006 Olympics in Torino.
"[When USA Hockey calls] there's nothing that's too big, there's nothing that's too small," said Laviolette. "I just don't think you should say no."
It's worth noting the other coach from that 2006 Cup finals, former Edmonton coach Craig MacTavish, will also be getting back to business. He'll coach the Canadian entry at the Spengler Cup in Davos, Switzerland, between Christmas and New Year's.
MacTavish told ESPN.com he's actually enjoyed recharging his batteries after his eight-year run as Edmonton coach ended this past offseason.
"Last year was a pretty trying year for a lot of people, myself included," MacTavish said. "Right now, I'm enjoying being out of the pressure-cooker."
Both coaches are hoping to return to the NHL, and taking on these short-term coaching roles may help pave the way to another gig. Pat Quinn took on the Spengler tournament a couple of years ago and then went on to coach Canada's World Junior team last year before landing MacTavish's old job in Edmonton.
While Laviolette said there may be a bit of the rust factor being away from the game for awhile (he was dismissed as Carolina's coach on Dec. 3, 2008), he doesn't think it'll take long to get back into the groove.
He isn't completely away from the game, either, as he has been helping out with his oldest son's hockey team in Florida. He admits he occasionally has to fight the urge to point out that he is a Stanley Cup winner when his son gives him a bit of grief over some instruction. "Yes, I want to sometimes," he said with a laugh.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
The Rangers' and Jackets' surprising play. The latest on the mess within the union. Scott Burnside rants on these topics and more, including his "what to watch" list for this week.