If Sydor works out, Khabibulin may stay

The acquisition of Darryl Sydor may have bought Nikolai Khabibulin more time in Tampa.

Updated: January 30, 2004, 4:35 PM ET
By Jim Kelley | ESPN.com

It would appear Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Doug MacLean is taking a very big risk in trading veteran defenseman Darryl Sydor to Tampa Bay for the talented, but somewhat troubled, Alexander Svitov and an exchange of draft picks (a 2004 fourth-rounder to Tampa, a third-rounder to the Jackets).

And if all goes according to plan, acquiring Sydor could keep goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin with the Lightning.

Sydor, a defenseman with Stanley Cup experience (Dallas Stars, 1999), makes the Lightning even better than the very good team they were. Factor in that Svitov wasn't in coach John Tortorella's plans and rarely in his lineup, the Lightning have improved themselves without taking a useful player off their roster -- an ideal situation for every GM.

But for Tampa, the risk isn't about the player; it's about the money. If the Lightning go beyond the first round of the playoffs, they'll make enough money to handle Sydor's $3.2 million salary for 2004-05. If they go really far, say through the second round, they may be able to afford keeping Khabibulin as well.

Tampa GM Jay Feaster said this week that Khabibulin wouldn't be traded this season and that his option for next year would be picked up. That's fine. If there is a work stoppage, the Lightning won't have to actually pay the $6.5 million option right away. Besides, picking it up, or even saying so, maintains Khabibulin's value should Feaster eventually opt to trade him.

Roberto Luongo "To me, I think this guy is MVP of the league. Luongo is a guy who can steal games, get points maybe when they don't deserve them and he's approaching where at times he's intimidating. He's big and mobile and seems to anticipate the play before it even happens."
-- Philadelphia Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock after Florida goaltender Roberto Luongo stopped 46 of 49 shots in a win and 44 of 47 in the Florida Panthers last two games against the Flyers. Dare we suggest a little goalie envy there, Mr. Hitchcock?

Stephane Matteau "Because they're being coached."
-- retired Florida Panther Stephane Matteau on why the Panthers appear to have improved their play under Rick Dudley. It's a stinging comment regarding former coach Mike Keenan whom Matteau now says tried to force him into retirement.
Senators seeking a goalie?
Don't be shocked if Ottawa Senators general manger John Muckler looks to upgrade his team in goal. Muckler knows the impact great goaltending had on those many Edmonton teams that won five Stanley Cups, one while he was head coach (four more as an assistant). It's not that he doesn't like Patrick Lalime; it's just that when Lalime had to win a crucial Game 7 against Martin Brodeur and the New Jersey Devils last spring, he didn't. That same matchup could be on the horizon, hence the rumors that the Sens are looking to make a deal.

Martin's extension: Early indications are that Senators coach Jacques Martin got a contract extension patterned after Vancouver Canucks coach Marc Crawford's new pact. The deal is said to be for one year at $1 million, with a $1 million option, and has a provision to accommodate a work stoppage if there is one.
Slegr: The Bruins' salvation?
The Boston Bruins picked up veteran defenseman Jiri Slegr largely because 23-year-old Jeff Jillson still hasn't convinced management he's ready to be the No. 1 puck mover on the blue line. Slegr, who was acquired from Vancouver for future considerations, hasn't disappointed. In his first six games with the Bruins, he collected six points (two goals, four assists) including a play that set up the game-tying goal against the New York Islanders earlier this week. He also acquitted himself well in a fight.

FYI: The Bruins had four sets of home-and-home games in January, and they netted 15 of a possible 16 points. They swept the Red Wings, the Rangers and the Sabres. The only point they lost was in Tuesday's tie with the Islanders.
But there's a big difference between opting to trade a top-caliber netminder and having to trade him. The perception around the league is that Feaster will have to do it. It's no coincidence that he said he wouldn't trade Khabibulin or backup John Grahame on the same day he acquired Sydor. And it shouldn't be overlooked that Feaster's comment didn't address beyond this season, as those types of commitments are often retracted when the right deal comes along.

But in putting it on the record, Feaster accomplishes a great deal. He puts his team at ease about the goaltending situation. He puts his goaltenders at ease about the upcoming March 9 deadline. He improves his team's mental state -- confidence, stability, what have you -- down the stretch when it's most important. If acquiring Sydor and keeping Khabibulin for the rest of the season doesn't work out, Feaster may still have a problem, but it won't affect this edition of the Lightning.

It's different in Columbus.

Svitov may have carved a poor reputation with the Lightning, but he doesn't have one with MacLean.

"Our amateur scouts loved this guy," MacLean told ESPN.com. "He was the third player taken after Ilya Kovalchuk (Atlanta) and Jason Spezza (Ottawa)."

There's no question that Svitov is talented. He also has size, which is something the Blue Jackets need, and he is a gifted center who could quickly make winger Nikolai Zherdev an All-Star (which might end up not being such a huge feat, considering Zherdev is already a YoungStar, but you get the idea). He could also be the next Alexei Yashin, supremely talented yet not quite the dominant team player he was projected to be.

Svitov had been banished to the minors after a run of uninspired play for Tortorella, who said Svitov could "rot" in the minors for all he cared.

That's a stinging indictment of a No. 1 draft pick, but MacLean knows young players aren't always what they seem. Svitov doesn't appear to have the type of commitment to physical fitness that's necessary in the NHL, and he may well be a reclamation project, but there's enough talent there to take the chance.

And while it may seem that MacLean gave up a lot in Sydor, a talented offensive-minded defenseman (difficult to come by in the NHL), well, there's a money issue for him as well. Sydor is under contract for $8.8 million over the next three seasons -- not the type of contract most teams want heading into a possible work stoppage. The Lightning are playoff contenders, so the risk for them is more palatable. But for a team like the Blue Jackets, which won't have any playoff revenue this season, the focus has to be on building for the future.

"It's hard to get big (players) when you're a young team and it's hard to get talent anytime," MacLean said. "This kid is big and he's skilled. I told people I wouldn't trade Sydor unless it was a remarkable deal and this is. This is a great trade, believe me."

Planning alternate escape routes
The recent altercation between Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis and fan Jason Hammer, which resulted in Leonsis being suspended and fined, has caused many a hockey personality to rethink their exposure to the masses during games.

For instance, Edmonton Oilers general manger Kevin Lowe routinely takes a certain stairway from his box high atop the Rexall Center to the locker room after a game. The stairwell is routinely filled with fans, many of whom have purchased and consumed alcohol through the night. On most nights interaction is cordial, but there have been moments of give and take on "issues" and Lowe, who had a fiery disposition as a player and occasionally still shows one as a GM, has given it some thought.

"As long as the fans are diplomatic, I'm fine with it," Lowe said. "If a fan steps over the line and they resort to a taunting mode, well, they know my character. You have to defend your territory, but you can't strike at them first."

Spoken like a true hockey man. And for the record, we're certain that Lowe used the term "strike" in a verbal sense.

Don't wait for Dom
If you're expecting Dominik Hasek to return to action for the Detroit Red Wings anytime soon, don't hold your breath. The recently reported 7-10 days is a time frame when the oft-injured netminder might step back onto the ice for workouts, not to play a game, and even that time frame is speculative at best.

Sources tell ESPN.com that a projected return date involves weeks, not days and even that is iffy at best. Hasek, who has been plagued with groin problems in the later stages of his career, has played only 14 games this season.

Meanwhile, defenseman Derian Hatcher, who underwent reconstructive knee surgery after tearing his right ACL during the third game of the season, skated for the first time on Wednesday and is projected to return to the lineup in March.

St. Louis singing an old song
Previously positioned to be contenders for the Central Division crown and perhaps the Western Conference, the St. Louis Blues have gone into free fall.

The Blues were 5-11-5-0 in their last 21 games through Thursday, the worst stretch in coach Joel Quenneville's career. A recent 4-2 loss to Vancouver ran their winless streak to five games for the first time this season. They have just three wins in their last 14 games -- and those came against Chicago, Columbus and Florida.

The consensus is that the Blues have hit a patch that afflicts most good teams at one point or another during a long season. Toronto had a lengthy stumble shortly after a 16-game point streak, and the Philadelphia Flyers won only once during a 10-game swoon. While it's darn near impossible for an NHL team to play at the top of its game 82 times in six months, St. Louis hasn't been able to stop the skid, which is symptomatic of a more serious problem.

The fear in St. Louis is that a self-imposed budget freeze has left the team stale -- the same players doing the same thing, even in different line combinations, is no longer working. But the problems don't stop there: There isn't a quality backup who can challenge Chris Osgood, most of the scoring is coming from one line (regardless of the aforementioned combinations), and the defense is woefully thin without Al MacInnis and Barrett Jackman, who are both injured and out for the season.

GM Larry Pleau plucked former Blues center Pascal Rheaume over the waiver wire this week, but one source has told ESPN.com that was a depth move and that the Blues are out scouting with the hopes of making a shakeup trade.

Stars in realignment
Conversely, the Dallas Stars, left for semi-dead after a rough start, moved to a season-high four games over .500 with their 5-3 win over the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday. The win capped a 3-0-1-0 stretch in "big" games against the Blues (twice), the Red Wings and the Sens. The Stars are now unbeaten in 16 of their last 20 and 19 of their last 24, serving notice that they are still a force to be reckoned with in the West.

Also, keep an eye on David Oliver. Since being recalled on Jan. 2, Oliver has made an impression. He has four goals in his last five games and has created some energy on a line with Steve Ott and Jason Arnott. He's also been a positive force in the locker room. Sources tell ESPN.com that coach Dave Tippett wanted Oliver on the roster out of training camp, but given the bloated budget, there simply wasn't room. He's now playing at a level that may force veteran Pierre Turgeon to the press box.

And they rhyme, too
So just who is the next Mario Lemieux? Well Florida Panthers coach Rick Dudley doesn't want to put that kind of pressure on anyone, but he thinks Colorado's Milan Hejduk is very Lemieux-like.

"If you take something away (on the ice), he's going to take something else," Dudley said. "Mario Lemieux was like that. People used to say he beat goaltenders on the glove side, so why wouldn't the goaltenders try to take that away. Because if they did, he'd just deke them on the other side and tuck it in the backside. This kid's got the same magic. He's just got magical hands. His hands are just amazingly quick. "You watch him, and he knows exactly what he's doing and the goaltender sure in hell doesn't. I think he's one of the most underrated players the game's seen in years. He's just very special. Every time I watch him, I say, 'Oh my goodness.' But you're on a team with the people he's on, you do get lost in the shuffle a little bit."

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.