Power Play: A mess for Gretzky, NHL

11/2/2009 - NHL

1. The Gretzky conundrum

It is a vivid illustration of the depth of the Phoenix mess that the NHL has to choose between the financial cost of guaranteeing former coach Wayne Gretzky $8.2 million in deferred salary and the optics of looking as though it is trying to stiff the greatest player and ambassador the game has ever known.

Like most things, the truth is somewhere in the middle; not that it makes it any better for a league now pitted against a much-beloved icon.

NHL officials have spoken to Gretzky's representatives and explained they will do their best to ensure he gets as much, if not all, of the money he deferred over the past couple of years in Phoenix. There will be monies available to creditors after the sale of the team to the league is finalized Monday in Phoenix, about $11 million, and that money may take care of Gretzky. But the league can't guarantee that will happen and won't guarantee paying him.

We're Not Done Yet ...

What to watch for this week

1. Ranger Nation breathed a heavy sigh of relief when it saw star forward Marian Gaborik back in the lineup for Sunday's Original Six tilt with the Boston Bruins. The fans got positively giddy when Gaborik scored the only goal the Rangers would need en route to a 1-0 victory. He has played in 12 of the Rangers' 15 games and collected 18 points and is a plus-6. The Rangers lost the two games he missed earlier last week when he was out with an injury the team insisted was not connected to his long-standing groin/core body issues, injuries that made him such a risk when the Rangers signed him as an unrestricted free agent in the offseason.

Now, the question is whether those two games were merely a blip on the radar or the start of something the Minnesota Wild were all too familiar with the past few seasons as the Rangers head west for dates in Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary this week. One thing is clear: With Gaborik in the lineup, the 9-5-1 Rangers are a contender; without him, that's another story.

2. You will find the Colorado Avalanche near the top of our Power Rankings once again this week. Hey, they're 10-3-2 and tied with Pittsburgh for the most points in the league. But (and you knew that was coming didn't you?) the Avs have lost two straight, and you have to wonder if they'll start to settle back into a level of play that reflects their talent (the Avs have scored once in the past two games). You also have to wonder about the fatigue factor for netminder Craig Anderson, who has been the early-season surprise and has started every game for the Avs. Backup Peter Budaj is out with the swine flu, but at some point the Avs will have to give Anderson some rest or risk burning him out completely. This week, the Avs will host Phoenix, Chicago and Edmonton, and this will be a good indication of whether they can hold fast or sink like a stone.

3. We're not much on the fighting end of the game, especially when it's the cartoonish fights between so-called heavyweights that so often dot the NHL landscape. But we do become intrigued when a true fight, one born of frustration and emotion, erupts on the ice, like the one between Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby and Minnesota's Marek Zidlicky this past Saturday. Not sure we'd put that in the heavyweight class, but it was still a pretty good scrap, and there's a sheer fascination factor that comes from watching one of the NHL's finest players duke it up. All we can say is that Saku Koivu better watch out when Crosby and the Pens visit Anaheim on Tuesday.

4. Remember how Steve Mason was the talk of the league last season? He jumped straight from major junior hockey to lead the Columbus Blue Jackets to their first playoff berth and won a well-deserved NHL Rookie of the Year award. Well, Columbus fans are wondering where that Mason went, as the sophomore netminder has struggled mightily. After collecting a league-best 10 shutouts and turning in a .916 save percentage in 2008-09, Mason has been average at best with zero shutouts and an .881 save percentage. After starting the season by winning four of five, he's now lost four of six and given up three or more goals in each of those games. Coach Ken Hitchcock told ESPN.com before the season he thought it was critical the team relied less on Mason this season. Perhaps the odds are simply catching up to the Blue Jackets, who are allowing 30.5 shots a game, tied for 21st in the league.

5. A couple of years back, the Dallas Stars were the kings of the shootout with Jussi Jokinen plying his magic in the one-on-one competition. Jokinen is long gone, and the Stars have already given away four points in shootout losses this season, including a game against Florida in which they spotted the Panthers a 3-0 lead. That's five points left on the ice. Come April, those are the points that can be the difference between missing and making the postseason. Other teams who may end up bemoaning the loss of those extra points include the New York Islanders (five overtime/shootout losses), Tampa Bay (four) and Toronto (four).

Take this to the bank
All eyes (OK, at least eyes in the Toronto area) will be on the expected debut of Phil Kessel in a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey on Tuesday. The Leafs are at home against Tampa Bay that night, in Carolina on Friday and then back home for Saturday's Hall of Fame game against Detroit, giving Kessel some time to adapt to his new surroundings. The Leafs, of course, are off to a rugged start and Kessel will face considerable pressure (right now, the Leafs look as though they will send the No. 1 overall pick to Boston for his services). It says here Kessel starts off with a flourish and the Leafs continue their improved play.

It has set up an ugly scenario where Gretzky is seen as having acquiesced to league wishes, only to see those favors not returned. It was Gretzky who graciously stepped aside when the team decided to go with Dave Tippett as coach with the bankruptcy proceedings still looming during training camp. The Great One also declined to file paperwork in court in an effort to track down his erstwhile $8.2 million, paperwork that could have slowed the process even further ("could" being the operative word). He didn't, and now likely feels as though the league has taken advantage of his good intentions.

The league, on the other hand, is spending the owners' money every day trying to keep the Coyotes afloat and will continue to do so until it finds someone to take the team off its hands. Given that, the belief is the league can't justify guaranteeing Gretzky will be taken care of, regardless of how it appears. It is an indication of just how deep-rooted the problems are in Phoenix -- the NHL can't do right by Gretzky even if that's what it would most like to do.

The fact that there is some dispute about who actually owes Gretzky the money -- is it former owner Jerry Moyes, with whom Gretzky had a personal services contract, or the team? -- further muddies the shark-infested waters surrounding the Coyotes and their future.

It says here Gretzky will ultimately get his money. The question remains what the cost will be in terms of his relationship to the league and the game, which owes him a debt that seemingly cannot be quantified in cold, hard cash.

2. The return of Jose Theodore

While most eyes have been glued to the superlative play of Colorado Avalanche netminder Craig Anderson, and with good reason, another interesting goaltending story is unfolding in Washington involving the oft-criticized Jose Theodore.

You've heard the jokes in recent years ("Theodore or Three or Four"). But Theodore has quietly silenced many of his critics with one of his strongest starts in recent years despite a 5-4 overtime loss against Columbus on Sunday, a game in which a freak bounce and two power-play goals, including the overtime winner, eluded him.

The former Hart and Vezina Trophy winner, whose career seemed to be in a slow decline, dropped 10 pounds during the offseason and credits that with making him faster and stronger.

"It just felt like I had more power in my legs," an upbeat Theodore told ESPN.com this week. "I've just felt the best I've felt for at least the last four or five years."

No one is more keenly aware of his own statistical place in the game than Theodore, and he points out that his numbers during the second half of the past couple of seasons have been terrific. "Sometimes I look from the outside and people kind of forget what's going on," he said.

But Theodore also acknowledged he has historically taken time to get on track. Not so this season, as he has appeared in nine games for the Cup-hopeful Caps. Coach Bruce Boudreau said it's fair to say Theodore is giving the Caps the best goaltending since his arrival in Washington before the start of the 2008-09 season (he signed a two-year deal worth $9 million).

"It's really fair," Boudreau said. "I mean, he's giving us maybe the best goaltending he's given any team in the last five years. And his confidence is way up there and he's playing strong."

He will give up one or two goals, "but there's, touch wood, very rarely the soft ones are going in," the coach said.

Although the assumption was that the starter's job in Washington was youngster Semyon Varlamov's to lose -- and maybe it was -- Theodore has wrestled the job away from the young Russian, who replaced Theodore one game into last season's playoffs.

Theodore acknowledged that Varlamov is the future of the Caps' goaltending, but he believes he is in a position to be among the top netminders in the game.

"I'm happy," he said. "I feel I do get into a good rhythm. This year, I feel my focus is dead on."

3. And the meek shall inherit ... what?

An interesting week in the NHL makes you wonder what's next, as a number of the NHL's bottom-feeders started to make some noise. Consider that Toronto won its first game of the season before collecting points in four straight games; the New York Islanders won three straight against quality opponents (the Rangers, Washington and Buffalo) and finished the week tied in points for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference; and the goal-starved Nashville Predators reeled off three straight victories and have won four of five to move into the thick of the Western Conference pack.

Even the moribund Florida Panthers came alive with two straight wins to break a four-game losing streak. More impressive, they scored 10 times in those road wins over Dallas and St. Louis.

So what does this mean? All teams, even the worst in the league, will go through spasms when they look like they get it, and that may be the case for the aforementioned teams. But it may also be a sign of teams actually getting on track. The Panthers are traditionally slow starters, so perhaps this is the beginning of their annual rebound. The Islanders' slow start may have been a function of youth; perhaps the past week is an indication they're getting it under coach Scott Gordon. Dwayne Roloson's emergence as the go-to guy between the pipes (Martin Biron did record a shutout in the third of the three straight wins) is also an interesting development. If these teams keep up their strong play, it will only add to the drama of the annual playoff races.

4. Trade update

It wasn't all that long ago that the Ottawa Senators didn't look so bad in the wake of the Dany Heatley trade with San Jose before the start of the season. But the tables have turned a bit, as Jonathan Cheechoo has continued to struggle with the Sens with only two assists and a minus-3 rating.

Milan Michalek leads the Sens with six goals, but three of them came in one game and he has not produced a point in the past four contests as the offensively challenged Senators have lost two in a row and four of five. Michalek has also chipped in just one power-play goal this season, one of the reasons the Sens rank 26th on the man advantage.

Heatley, meanwhile, has 17 points for the red-hot Sharks and has collected seven points in the past seven games, including a game winner against Colorado. The Sharks have jumped into first place in the Pacific Division thanks to a five-game winning streak and victories in seven of their past eight games. As we thought.

Don't you think Sens GM Bryan Murray wishes Heatley had accepted that deal to Edmonton? The Senators would now be the benefactors of a re-energized Dustin Penner.

5. Down on the farm?

You see the transactions every day: "So-and-so is called up from the AHL" and "So-and-so is sent down to the AHL." But what if you have no farm team in which to dispatch players? Now you can feel Anaheim GM Bob Murray's pain.

Murray is the only GM in the NHL without a dedicated AHL farm team where prospects are learning the game, and the Ducks' system. There is no place to stow away valuable veteran players like Kyle Calder, whom Murray signed last week and sent to Bakersfield of the East Coast Hockey League. Bakersfield?

"It's not a healthy situation," Murray told ESPN.com. "I hate it, I hate the feeling of it."

The Ducks did have an AHL affiliate in Des Moines, Iowa, but that team ran afoul of AHL financial rules and was kicked out of the league, leaving the Ducks scrambling to find a place for their young players to play. Some are in San Antonio with the Coyotes' affiliate, although that's a stop-gap answer. A couple are in Manitoba with the Canucks' farm team and others are in the ECHL, which isn't great given that it's a big step down in terms of competition from the AHL.

It is, of course, cheaper not to have an AHL franchise, but Murray noted that historically it almost never works out for the minority partner in those kinds of relationships.

"You don't have control over developing your own people," he said.

Anaheim ownership is fully behind the team finding a new AHL partner, and AHL commissioner Dave Andrews is likewise involved in trying to find a new match for the Ducks. But it doesn't make life any easier in the short term for Murray or the Ducks.

Stock up, stock down

Matt Moulson, New York Islanders: Moulson, the 263rd player taken in the 2003 draft, leads the surging New York Islanders in goals (six) and points (10).

Chris Kunitz, Pittsburgh Penguins: Kunitz is often maligned by Pittsburgh fans for not scoring enough while, for the most part, playing alongside captain Sidney Crosby. But Kunitz has come alive with two goals and four assists in his last three games.

Eric Staal, Carolina Hurricanes: Staal, the heart and soul of Carolina's offense, has only three goals and five points and left Sunday's loss to San Jose with an upper-body injury after playing 14:40. He has gone five straight games without a goal and the Hurricanes have lost nine straight.

Edmonton Oilers: The Oilers are just 1-4-0 on the road, including three straight losses away from home. They have managed only one win in their past five games and have scored just twice in those four losses.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.