Power Play: Laraque a hindrance?
We know Georges Laraque is a good guy who does lots of charity work, but we continue to be baffled about how he still has a job in the NHL. We watched as the Canadiens winger got caught out of position Saturday night. Then we saw him throwing a knee into Niklas Kronwall, sending one of the Detroit Red Wings' most important players to the sideline for as many as eight weeks. That prompts us to ask: To what end is Laraque's ice time at all valuable -- ever? Needless to say, Detroit coach Mike Babcock was not impressed by the knee-on-knee hit and called it dirty. He was being charitable. The NHL's Star Chamber style of discipline is on display once again; as of Monday, the league remains silent about supplementary discipline for Laraque. For the record, Laraque has one assist in 10 games and is averaging 7 minutes, 4 seconds a night in ice time. He's making $1.5 million in the first year of a two-year, $3 million deal. Money well spent, no?
We're Not Done Yet
1. Are the Kings, well, kings or mice?
With Rob Scuderi and Ryan Smyth out of the lineup with injuries, the L.A. Kings are facing their first bit of adversity in what most agree is a critical season for the beleaguered West Coast franchise. So far, things haven't looked great, as the Kings have been outscored 8-4 in two consecutive losses. This week the Kings, who have played 14 of 24 on the road already, will be in Edmonton and Vancouver trying to head in the right direction again.
2. Home cooking or cooking at home?
The San Jose Sharks, 6-1-3 in their past 10 games including Saturday's 3-2 victory over Anaheim, are one of two teams that have yet to lose a home game in regulation. (Tampa Bay is 5-0-4.) The Sharks will put their daunting 7-0-2 home record on the line against red-hot Chicago, which might have Marian Hossa back in the lineup Wednesday night.
3. Canes not out yet
I had this argument with my good friend Pierre LeBrun somewhere along the line about whether the Carolina Hurricanes were cooked. LeBrun said yes, but I wasn't so sure. Or maybe I just wanted to challenge Pierre on principle. Still, the resilient Canes have managed to collect points in five straight games and have won three of four, including a monumental comeback against Toronto last week. All this without starting netminder Cam Ward and top skater Eric Staal, who are injured. The Canes will play in Dallas and Anaheim early this week, then entertain Atlanta at home on Friday. They began the week eight points out of the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference.
4. How hard is it to move up in the standings?
Well, Nashville is 8-2-0 with five straight wins in its past 10 games but still wouldn't own a playoff spot if the season were to end today. This week, the Preds, riding the red-hot goaltending of Pekka Rinne, will host Detroit, travel to Denver and host St. Louis and suddenly hot Florida.
5. Sabres rising or falling?
Just when it looked as though the Buffalo Sabres would assert themselves as an Eastern Conference power, they've gone a bit sideways and begin the week on a three-game losing streak, including a 6-2 mauling at the hands of the previously clawless Florida Panthers. This week doesn't get any easier for the Sabres, who play in Washington and Philadelphia, then host Carolina on Saturday.
Take this to the bankThe Penguins may not have lost the most man games to injury this season -- that honor goes to the Vancouver Canucks at this point -- but they may win the award for losing more players at one position than any other team. At one point last week, it looked as though the Pens would ice a lineup that featured no defensemen who were on the ice when they won the Stanley Cup this past spring. Luckily, Sergei Gonchar returned to action that night, and Mark Eaton, bothered by back spasms, did suit up. But you get the point.
Gonchar and Orpik are back, and the Pens rebounded from a dismal 6-2 loss in Ottawa on Thursday to beat Atlanta 3-2 on the road Saturday.
But as always, Dan Bylsma seems to keep everything in perspective as he meanders through his first full season as an NHL head coach. It doesn't matter whether you win a Cup or not. Each season a team has to forge its identity, Bylsma noted.
"You don't get an envelope and everyone opens it up, and it's a Christmas gift that you get on the 25th of December," Bylsma said. "You have to go through the process of growing as a team and figuring that out, and part of that is adversity and part of that is tough times, part of that is dealing with injuries. It's different every year. This is the process for us. And we have to find a way as a team right now to play the way we need to play.
"As a coach, if it's perfect, you start to get antsy, too. No one likes tough times, but you do have to be tested and you do have to have adversity, and there has to be some fire to get tested in how you're going to be as a team."
So far, so good for the fire-tested Pens, as they begin the week back on top of the Atlantic Division and one point behind Eastern Conference-leading Washington.
Planes, trains and automobiles
A week ago we told you about the ambitious tour that former NHLers and NHLPA folks were taking to mark the 10th anniversary of the Goals and Dreams project. They covered 10 countries in 10 days to deliver 360 full sets of new hockey equipment worth an estimated $180,000 ($500 per set) to needy children from Russia to Sweden to Bosnia.
We had a chance to catch up last week with the program's manager, Devin Smith, who has been around the world a number of times on behalf of Goals and Dreams but never experienced anything like this whirlwind tour of hockey good faith. When Smith called, he was in Frankfurt headed for lunch with a group of kids on a double-decker bus donated by the Frankfurt Lions team.
"It's been overwhelming but in the best way possible," Smith told ESPN.com about a trip that included more than 12,000 miles of travel and ended with a celebration at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto on Sunday.
At each stop on the tour, former NHLers such as Pavel Bure, Markus Naslund and Jyrki Lumme lent their support. Naslund picked the group up at the airport in Sweden, and Peter Forsberg met up with the crew. Lumme, who lives in Finland, and others helped out with the events in their respective countries.
If there is something Smith will remember apart from the relative deliciousness of airplane food, it's the moment entering a gym in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, to the rhythmic clapping of hockey sticks on the floor and the happy cheers of children who have grown up in the shadow or war and despair but nonetheless carry the happy optimism of youth.
Although they have ice only one month a year -- the kids were shocked to learn from Smith that ice is available in Canada year-round -- they are avid ball hockey players and equally avid fans of the NHL. They were wildly excited as the Goals and Dreams group delivered 25 sets of equipment.
"To see these kids that have been through so much in their lives, things that none of us can really fathom, we were all tearing up," Smith said.
"No way I'll ever forget it," he said.
Little or none
Whether Bryan Little has a sore groin or a bruised scoring touch, the bottom line is that these have not been happy days for the promising young Thrashers forward. After notching 31 goals his breakout NHL season (after scoring six goals in 48 games in 2007-08), Little has fallen off the map.
He has missed several games, and even though the score sheet one night listed the 22-year-old as simply being scratched, Thrashers coach John Anderson insisted he hasn't gone that route with the young center -- at least not yet.
"I send a message to him when he sits in my office when I'm meeting with him," Anderson said. "That's when he gets the message.
"The guy who scores 30 goals gets a little more latitude. When I see a guy score 30 goals, it's up to me and the coaching staff to get him going again by hook or by crook. I don't think we're at that point where if you don't score tonight, you're sitting out. You really can't do that to a goal scorer. You've got to help him.
"We're doing things in practice with him afterwards; we're doing some shots and little different things and set-ups where we think he's most advantageous, and I just think it's sometimes keeping games a little simpler and doing little other things that get you in the open, and maybe going to spots that people don't like to go to. These are the things he's going to have to do to get scoring again. I don't doubt that he can do it."
Still, this season has been pretty gruesome for Little, the 12th pick in the 2006 NHL draft. After starting the season with 10 goalless games, Little scored in back-to-back outings. He followed that with six more games without a marker, including Atlanta's 4-3 overtime loss to Tampa on Sunday.
For his part, Little admitted that the first weeks of this season coupled with a dry stretch at the end of last season have taken their toll.
"It's frustrating. I'm just trying to stay positive," he told ESPN.com.
In or out
GMs often talk about using the standings as of Thanksgiving, or just past the quarter pole, as a real barometer of where teams could be come playoff time. Is that fair? Yes. A look at the standings at this time last season shows that the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference one-quarter of the way through last season were the eight teams that qualified for the postseason in April. Not one team outside the bubble in the East at this point a year ago managed to make the playoffs.
There was lots of shuffling within the top eight between Thanksgiving and early April. The Rangers were the top seed last season at this time, in part because they'd played more games, but they dropped to the seventh seed. Montreal was fifth and backed into the playoffs in the eighth and final position. New Jersey moved up from sixth in the conference to finish atop the Atlantic Division. But the fact that none of the teams outside the bubble could force its way in illustrates the importance of a good start.
Over in the Western Conference, there was a bit more fluctuation but still not much between the end of the first quarter and the final playoff bracket. Two teams, Columbus and St. Louis, rode red-hot finishes to qualify for this past spring's playoff tournament, even though they ranked 10th and 11th in the Western Conference at the quarter pole.
The two teams they dislodged turned out to be Central Division foe Nashville and the Minnesota Wild.
Mathematically, then, 14 of 16 teams that were in line to earn a playoff berth a year ago at this time held on to those positions. If that holds true this season, look for playoff regulars New York Rangers, Montreal, Carolina, Anaheim and Vancouver to be on the outside looking in.
It is rather startling that as we head into the second quarter of the NHL season, the same 30 men who began the season patrolling their respective teams' benches remain ensconced in those positions. Remember last season? Poor Denis Savard didn't reach Game 5 in Chicago before he was axed in favor of Joel Quenneville. The Barry Melrose experiment didn't last until Thanksgiving in Tampa. So what's the deal this season?
Our good friends at Elias Sports Bureau report that this is the latest we've gone without a coaching change since the first season after the lockout, when the Pens axed Ed Olczyk on Dec. 16, 2005, and replaced him with Michel Therrien.
Is it possible we could see an entire season go by without a coach falling on the proverbial sword? Unlikely. Our Elias sources tell us the last time the NHL went an entire season without seeing a coach thrown under the bus was the last season before expansion in 1966-67. That happened to be the last season the Leafs won the Cup. Hmmm.
So who's on the hot seat now?
In Anaheim, the Ducks are underachieving, although GM Bob Murray insists coach Randy Carlyle -- remember him from the Stanley Cup parade at the Honda Center in 2007? -- isn't the problem.
Blues coach Andy Murray acknowledged he's heard that his name has come up in hot seat discussion because St. Louis has struggled offensively. But it remains one of the top defensive clubs in the league and is starting to resemble the team that charged into the playoffs last season.
And, of course, there is Ron Wilson, whose Toronto Maple Leafs are nestled at the very bottom of the NHL pack and blew a big lead to lose to woeful Carolina on Thursday before rebounding with a shootout win over Washington on Saturday. The feeling is that because GM Brian Burke picked Wilson to coach the U.S. Olympic team, he won't or can't fire him even though Wilson was already in place when Burke took over the team. But don't look for Burke to make that kind of move until after the season, if he'll do it at all.
Who knows? Maybe this will be the season every coach stands tall, at least until the offseason.
Stock up, stock down
Stephane Robidas, Dallas Stars: Nice night for Robidas on Saturday, as he collected four points for the surprising 10-6-6 Stars. He has six points in his past four games and is tied for 10th among all defensemen with 14 points.
Dany Heatley, San Jose Sharks: We have been hard on Heatley, but the controversial winger seems to have found a real comfort zone in San Jose. He has taken over the scoring lead with 18 goals, including seven in his past six games, helping the Sharks distance themselves from the pack in the Western Conference.
New York Rangers: The Rangers' experiment in free fall continues, as they were beaten 3-2 by Florida on Saturday. They have lost seven of 10 and as of Monday were outside the playoff bubble. Losing Chris Drury and Brandon Dubinsky to injuries reveals the Rangers as woefully thin down the middle, and the youthful defensive corps is hitting some bumps in the road.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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